WHO WAS WHO  IN CALIFORNIA BIRDING
1965-1989
VAN REMSEN   [J. Van Remsen, Jr.]
Van Remsen's time in California was rather short just the years he went to college at Stanford and then grad school in ornithology at U.C. Berkeley, less than a ten year period but his influence was phenomenal. Van was an outstanding birder of high energy and endless enthusiasm. He was interested in most everything having to do with birds, and was eager to share that knowledge with an entire community of birders. During his years at Berkeley, he organized weekly visits to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, where many local birders systematically studied the entire collection as they jointly worked on identification problems. Many of today's best birders, including several on our "top 40" in this project, credit Van as being one of their primary mentors in the bird world of the 1970s.

Van was already a top birder before he came to California. He grew up near Denver, Colorado, and had associated with the best birders in that state. After two years at Andover, he swore never to go school again in the northeast, and turned down Princeton to go to Stanford where he began to meet California's better observers, such as Dave DeSante. He first appears in the fall 1969 issue of Audubon Field Notes, chasing vagrants (going with Ted Chandik & Mike Parmeter to see a Tropical Kingbird) and gathering data (cited for several specific counts of local shorebirds). In less than 3 years, he was a Regional Editor for northern California (he served for six seasons). He was perhaps most active in Statewide birding during his PhD program at Berkeley, rounding up groups of fellow enthusiasts to drive the length and breadth of California, chasing State birds and searching for vagrants. Van was lively, opinionated, and personable attributes that (excepting perhaps "opinionated") did not characterize many other California birders. These attributes made Van a leader.

In the photo (left or above), Van Remsen provides a perch for a Least Bittern found lost in Death Valley, as (L to R) Guy McCaskie, Jon Dunn, John Luther (with camera), Lee Jones (almost hidden), and Steve Summers look on. We'd stopped at the gas station at Stovepipe Wells and the attendant, seeing our binoculars, asked if we were looking for birds. Hearing the affirmative, the attendant told us that there was a bird from Australia right beyond the station. "Why Australia," we asked. "Because its beak is pointing straight up to heaven," he said. Okay, that made sense. Walking behind the station we found this Least Bittern doing its best to "freeze" among the desert rocks. It was exhausted and Van picked it up. We transported the bittern in David Luther's playpen to Furnace Creek, and released the bird into a reedy pond there. 1 June 1974 © Don Roberson
 

Van's birding expertise, enthusiasm, and ability to imitate bird calls ("you should hear his Spotted Owl," wrote Terry Clark in the August 1976 issue of Western Tanager), made him a natural for several important Big Day efforts, including an April 1976 run from the Salton Sea to the coast with Jon Dunn, Kimball Garrett, and Paul Lehman, setting a then-record 206 species in a day in California. Van personally recorded every bird on the day, and the record would have been 207 but "Van struggles with his conscience momentarily. By claiming 207, he could set a new individual record for the most species seen in a single day. But he doesn't feel completely comfortable about a Hermit Warbler he counted back at Cuyamaca. Deciding against it, he came down to 206, a record he'll have to share with Paul." (from the Western Tanager article). This is a good example of the type of leadership Van attempted to pass on to others: self-discipline, integrity, and getting your birds right. He was always a critic of sloppy birding and, instead, promoted the importance of documentation and taking good daily field notes (e.g., Remsen 1977). Two years later, on 29 Apr 1978, Van was a member of the team (with J.L. Dunn, K.L. Garrett, and R.E. Webster) that set the still current non-airplane State Big Record record of 231 species. And Van was the moving force in the ABA's adoption of the 95% rule for Big Day teams (i.e., 95% of all species reported must be confirmed by all members of the ream) after a thorough analysis of 'good' and 'bad' prior Big Day efforts.

Despite the seriousness with which he approaches bird identification, Van has a great sense of humor. Some of that humor is displayed in the brilliant little parody on finding the Ringed Turtle-Dove (Remsen & Garrett 1976), published just in time for an ABA convention in southern California. He also published, under the pen name Vanzio Remsenetti, a little piece on how to pronounce "Craveri's" in Craveri's Murrelet (it's Italian, like "spaghetti").

By the mid-1970s, Van had already begun field work on the Amazon River in Colombia for his doctoral dissertation. There he lived at the research station on "Monkey Island" and studied five species of kingfishers in nearby channels (in the photo, right, Van hold up a glass of water straight out of the Amazon River at Leticia, Colombia). Van set himself up to become one of the world's leading experts on the Neotropics during that field work [to simplify slightly, his PhD work showed that big kingfishers eat big fish and little kingfishers eat little fish; Remsen 1981.]. In the summer of 1975, Van invited a group of Bay Area birders to join him in a personally guided tour of Colombia, with everyone just splitting the costs. Several of our "top 40" California observers took him up on the offer (e.g., Alan Baldridge, Ted Chandik, John Luther, Don Roberson).
 

When in California, Van was very much a part of the social scene (photo right from a birding party in July 1976; more on that party on the Jon Dunn page).

Among Van's significant contributions to California ornithology were his two-part article (with L.C. Binford) on the status and identification of Yellow-billed Loon (Binford & Remsen 1974, Remsen & Binford 1975), his surveys of remote mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert (with Steve Cardiff), and his preparation of the first government-sponsored "Bird Species of Special Concern" (Remsen 1978).

After leaving California in the late '70s, Van began a career as a professional ornithologist at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. LSU already had a strong neotropical emphasis, and Van's participation would lead it to new heights. Today he is the Curator of Birds at LSU, as well as a member of the A.O.U. Checklist Committee, and chair of the South American Checklist Committee. He has published extensively on the ecology, distribution, and taxonomy of South American birds, and other topics of interest (e.g., his paper on the importance to bird conservation of collecting birds is recommended to all birders; Remsen 1995). Van was also among the scientific advisors on the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and co-author of the paper on the species' rediscovery 

Finally, if you want to be jealous about something, try this: Van has a bird named after him Chestnut-bellied Cotinga Doliornis remseni. It is known only from the páramo of the central Andes of Colombia and the eastern Andes of Ecuador [Robbins, M.B., Rosenberg, G.H., and Sornoza, F. 1994. A new species of cotinga (Cotingidae: Doliornis) from the Ecuadorian Andes, with comments on plumage sequences in Doliornis and Ampelion. Auk 111: 1-7.]


Official Bird Name: Golden Tanager
 
Significant bird records: Many records of local interest, but those of statewide importance include
  • Grace's Warbler  21 May 1977 Clark Mt. SBE 4th CA record [co-finder]
  • Golden-winged Warbler  20 May 1973  Deep Springs INY 5th CA record
  • Golden-winged Warbler  31 May 1977 Oasis MNO by then the 15th CA rec
  • Yellow-billed Loon  mid-summer 1973  Princeton SM first summer record in CA [co-finder]

Selected publications on California topics 1974-1989:

  • Binford, L. C., and Remsen, J. V., Jr. 1974. Identification of the Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii). West. Birds 5:111-126.
  • Remsen, J. V., Jr., and Binford, L. C. 1975. Status of the Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii) in the western United States and Mexico. West. Birds 6:7-20.
  • Remsen, J. V., Jr. 1976. Identification of Purple and Cassin's Finches. Colorado Field Ornithol. Journal, No. 25, reprinted in Birding 8: 231-234.
  • Remsen, V., and Garrett, K. 1976. In search of the Ringed Turtle Dove. Birding 8: 149-151.
  • Remsen, J. V., Jr. 1977. On taking field notes. Amer. Birds 31: 946-953.
  • Remsen, J. V., Jr. 1978. Bird species of special concern in California. Calif. Dept. Fish & Game, Wildlife Mgt. Branch Admin. Rpt. 78-1.
  • Remsen, J. V., Garrett, K. L., and Erickson, R. A. 1982. Vocal copying in Lawrence's and Lesser Goldfinches. W. Birds 13: 29-33.
Short selection of other publications (there are many, many more):
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr., J. S. Luther, and Roberson, D.1976  A Ringed Woodpecker Celeus torquatus in Colombia. Bull. Brit. Ornith. Club 96: 40.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr. 1981. Community ecology of Neotropical kingfishers. Univ. Calif. Publ. Zool. 124: 1-128.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr. 1982. A new subspecies of Schizoeaca harterti with notes on taxonomy and natural history of Schizoeaca (Aves: Furnariidae). Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 94: 1068-1075.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr., and Parker, T.A., III 1983. Contribution of river-created habitats to bird species richness in Amazonia. Biotropica 15: 223-231.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr., Parker, T.A., III. 1984. Arboreal dead-leaf-searching birds of the neotropics. Condor 86: 36-41.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr. 1985. Community organization and ecology of birds of high elevation humid forest of the Bolivian Andes," pp. 733-756 in Neotropical Ornithology (M.S. Foster, ed.). Ornithol. Monograph 36, A.O.U., Washington, D.C.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr., and Traylor, M.A., Jr. 1989. An Annotated List of the Birds of Bolivia. Buteo Books, Vermillion, S.D.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr. 1994. Use and misuse of bird lists in community ecology and conservation. Auk 111: 225-227.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr. 1995. The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation. Bird Conserv. International 5: 145-180.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr., ed. 1997. Studies in Neotropical Ornithology Honoring Ted Parker. Ornithol. Monograph 48, A.O.U., Washington, D.C.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr. 2003. Family Furnaridae (Ovenbirds), pp. 162-357 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Christie, D.A., eds). Vol. 8. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Recent photo 22 Sep 2003 Monterey

All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights reserved.
Small photo of Golden Tanager is from John Dunning's (1970) Portraits of Tropical Birds, Livingston Publishing, Wynnewood, PA.
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

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