WHO WAS WHO  IN CALIFORNIA BIRDING
1965-1989
JOHN STERLING  [John C. Sterling]
John Sterling is an active California birder who grew up in Napa County and then attended Humboldt State University. He is of a slightly younger generation than most of those listed among out 'top 40' birders from the 1965-1989 era. He began birding in 1971 and met Mike & John Parmeter in 1973. He was in his teens during much of the '70s, and often birded with the Parmeters, Gordon Bolander, and L.C. Binford. He first appears in American Birds with a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Oasis in 1977. He was active, especially in the northwest, during the 1980s and became more prominent in the Statewide birding world after the close of our period of review in 1989.

John's influence on the California birding scene would begin with his college days at HSU, beginning in 1979 and into the mid-1980s. Not only was he an active Humboldt County birder, but he was a leader and mentor for a wide group of other birders at that time. John encouraged and challenged a generation of new birders. Together, they called themselves "the vagrants." Among the challenges to remain in this elite set was the requirement to bird in every county in California, and preferably to search out at least 100 species in each of the 58 counties. This was essentially a new approach to State birding. Those who heavily birded the State in the 1970s thought of it as a whole, and searched primarily for new State birds and vagrants of Statewide interest. Only a very few (including Rich Stallcup, John Luther, and Dick Erickson) paid attention to county lines or compiled their own county lists for every county. Now, John Sterling would challenge all birders to do just that. In time and well after the close of our period of review this concept would catch fire and a host of new birders would take up this goal. Today, over 50 birders belong to John's 'county listing' web group, and regularly report their 58 county lists to him in exchange for multicolored personalized maps of how they are doing. It takes 100 species to fill in a county in purple, 125 species to reach a blue color, 150 species for green, and so on. This spawned a whole new lingo as well to "go green in Sierra," for example, would come to mean reaching the 150 species mark on your Sierra County list.

While these county listing goals may serve mostly as a game to the participants, the inevitable byproduct has been a huge increase in awareness of the details of status and distribution of even the most common birds in California. In addition, numerous 'first county records' are directly attributable to John's influence and his 'vagrants' that began in the '80s. John himself has contributed at least 66 first county records in his own efforts to bird every county (through 2005). He and Peter Metropulos were the first to "discover" that the Big Sur River mouth in Monterey County was a prime vagrant spot. Indeed, to date John has reached the astonishing 200 species level in 55 of California's 58 counties.

John has also been an advocate of "no introduced birds" [=NIB] in all listing endeavors. John did not start this movement (indeed, he says it was Dick Erickson who convinced him to go this direction), but all those "vagrants" and "county listers" who report via John's web pages do so NIB. Statewide, this excludes ten species that are on the official CBRC state list (now that Eurasian Collared-Dove has become the 10th non-native to be accepted as "established" under CBRC guidelines). It also avoids the many disputes that come with determining what non-native species are or are not  "established" on a county to county basis.

John now resides in Yolo County and is an environmental consultant for H.T. Harvey & Associates. He is currently (2005) active as the President of the Central Valley Bird Club (and writes a quarterly column for their newsletter), a member of the CBRC, a board member for Sacramento River Watershed Program, and is the N. CA editor for EBird.

Photo 30 May 1982 at Dyer, Nevada; John sips a Mountain Dew next to Phil Swan & Paul Lehman; © D. Roberson

Official Bird Name: Lesser Roadrunner *
    * this was not actually bestowed via the usual '70s channels, but was given to John by the Parmeters and has been approved by the Texas bird-naming group
Ticky Token: Yes

Significant bird records: numerous local records of interest, but those of statewide repute include
  • Oriental Greenfinch  5 Dec 1986  Arcata HUM first CA record; this bird wintered. The record was subjected to extensive debate, with those favoring it being a wild vagrant pointing out it was of a northeast Asian race unknown in captivity, but those opposed preferring to await a "pattern of records." The CBRC currently lists it on a 'supplemental' list.
  • Cassin's Sparrow  29 May 1984 HUM first mainland n. CA record
  • Ovenbird  18 Dec 1985-12 Jan 1986  HUM first winter record for n. CA
  • Eurasian (nominant) race of Whimbrel  29-31 Oct.1981 HUM first CA record of this taxon
  • Painted Bunting 12 Sep 1984 HUM northernmost & 4th n. CA record, only second for mainland n. CA at the time
  • Yellow-green Vireo  9-10 Oct 1984  HUM northernmost & 4th N. CA record and only the second for mainland at that time
  • Red-necked Stint 20-22 July 1984 HUM 5th CA rec [co-finder]
  • Northern Parula 4-15 Jan 1981 HUM 2d or 3d n. CA winter record
  • Prairie Warbler 1-2 June 1-2 1985 MEN first spring record for n. CA
  • Prothonotary Warbler  4 Feb 1983  Loleta bottoms HUM first to winter in n. CA [co-finder in midwinter; bird first found in Nov by J. Kelly]
  • Wood Stork  15 July 1979  Furnace Creek Ranch INY one of very few INY records
Selected publications since 1989: 
  • Sterling, J., and P. Paton. 1997. Breeding Distribution of Vaux's Swift in California. West. Birds 27: 30-40.
  • Sterling, J. 1999. "Gray Flycatcher" in the Birds of North America, No. 458 (A. Poole & F. Gill, eds). Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia.
  • Hunter, J., J. Sterling, and G. Hazard. 2003. Birds of Trinity County: an annotated list [on line]
  • Greenberg, R., V. Pravosudov, J. Sterling, A. Kozlenko and V. Kontorshchikov. 1999. Forest history and the foraging behavior of foliage-gleaning birds of the Canadian and Russian Boreal Zone. Oecologia 120: 451-462.
  • Greenberg. R., V. Pravosudov, J. Sterling, A. Kozlenko and V. Kontorshchikov. 1999. Tits, warblers, and finches: foliage-gleaning birds of Nearctic and Palearctic boreal forests. Condor 101: 299-310.
  • Greenberg. R., P. Bichier, and J. Sterling. 1997. Bird populations in rustic and planted coffee plantations in Eastern Chiapas, Mexico. Biotropica 29 (4): 501-514.
  • Greenberg, R., P. Bichier, and J. Sterling.  1997. Acacia, cattle and migratory birds in southeastern Mexico. Biological Conservation 80: 235-47.

All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights reserved.
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

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Page created 3 Apr 2005, updated 27 Nov 2005