WHO WAS WHO IN CALIFORNIA BIRDING
1965-1989
PHIL UNITT   [Philip Unit]
Phil Unitt is an active southern California birder best known for two areas of achievement: (1) for his work on the status and distribution of birds in San Diego County, and (2) as the long-time editor of Western Birds, the journal of Western Field Ornithologists. Phil is a native San Diegan, attended San Diego State University, and has spent his entire professional career in San Diego, where he is the collections manager of the birds and mammals department of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Despite this heavy emphasis within San Diego County, Phil birded widely in the southern California desert oases in the mid-1970s, and he spent some time living in the San Francisco area in the late '70s/early '80s.

His first major publication on San Diego County the Birds of San Diego County (Unitt 1984) was highly acclaimed for its research, its thorough coverage of status and distribution, and its emphasis on subspecific variation within the county. A disciple of the late Allan Phillips and Amadeo Rea, Phil also incorporated some novel taxonomic treatments. [Later, long after our period of review had closed in 1989, and after Phillips' death, Unitt and Rea would team together to name a California subspecies of Brown Creeper for Alan Phillips; Certhia americana phillipsi; Unitt & Rea 1997]. Also after our period of review here had closed, Phil would lead the San Diego Breeding Bird Atlas project (1997-2002), the results of which were published in a much revised new update on the status and distribution of San Diego birds (Unitt 2004b). This Atlas not only includes grid-based mapping of breeding birds, but similar efforts for wintering species.

Phil's field work has led to several notable findings, including the first California nest of Painted Redstart (Unitt 1974) and the fact that Gray Vireos winter in San Diego County's unique elephant trees (Unitt 2000). His interests extend beyond the San Diego borders; he co-authored the recent major avifauna on the Salton Sea (Patten, McCaskie & Unitt 2002) and has participated in over ten Baja California expeditions (e.g., Unitt et al. 1995). He also regularly conducts surveys for endangered species, and has especially worked with the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (e.g., Unitt 1987). In recent years his spectrometric studies have suggested new ways to identify specimens within the difficult Empidonax traillii/alnorum group.

Beyond his work in San Diego County, Phil has been the editor of Western Birds since 1987. Beginning with that year's volume 18, Western Birds has kept to the high standards set by the prior editor, Alan Craig. Phil's tenure as editor continued through the end of our period of review (1989) and remains to the present (2005), a run of 18 years and counting.

Photo (above) Sep 1976, probably 11 Sep 1996 aboard a boat from San Diego to San Clemente I. © Van Remsen
Photo (below) 29 May 1978, Mesquite Springs, Death Valley INY © Brad Schram

Significant bird records: many records of local interest, especially in San Diego County; those of Statewide interest include
  • Painted Redstart (pair)  summer 1974  Laguna Mts., SD first documented nesting effort in CA
  • Groove-billed Ani  25 Oct 1986  Seeley IMP 3rd CA rec
  • Laysan Albatross  5 May 1976  desert near Interstate 10, enroute to Morongo Valley, RIV one of very few interior recs in CA [co-finder]

Selected publications 1974-1989:

  • Unitt, P. 1974. Painted Redstarts attempt to breed in California. West. Birds 5:94-96.
  • Unitt, P. 1977. The Little Blue Heron in California. West. Birds 8:151-154.
  • Unitt, P. 1981. Birds of Hot Springs Mountain, San Diego County, California. West. Birds 12: 125-135.
  • Unitt, P. 1984. The Birds of San Diego County. San Diego Soc. Natl. Hist. Memoir 13.
  • Unitt, P. 1986. Another hybrid Downy x Nuttall's Woodpecker from San Diego County. West. Birds 17: 43-44.
  • Unitt, P. 1987. Empidonax traillii extimus: a endangered subspecies. West. Birds 18: 137-162.
Selected publications since 1989:
  • Unitt, P., and Rea, A.M. 1997. Taxonomy of the Brown Creeper in California, pp. 177-185 in The Era of Allan R. Phillips: A Festschrift (R.W. Dickerman, compiler), Horizon Publ., Albuquerque, N.M.
  • Unitt, P., Rea, A.M., Palacios, E., Mellink, E., Alfaro, L., and Gonzales, S. 1995. Noteworthy records of birds in northwestern Baja California. West. Birds 26: 144-154.
  • Unitt, P., Messer, K., and Théry, M. 1996. Taxonomy of the Marsh Wren in southern California. Proc. San Diego Soc. Nat. Hist. 31.
  • Pyle, P., and Unitt, P. 1998. Molt and plumage variation by age and sex in the California and Black-tailed gnatcatchers. West. Birds 29: 280-289.
  • Unitt, P. 2000. Gray Vireos wintering in California elephant trees. West. Birds 31: 258-262.
  • Patten, M.A., McCaskie, G., and Unitt, P. 2002. Birds of the Salton Sea: Status, Biogeography, and Ecology. Univ. Calif. Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles.
  • Unitt, P. 2004a. Featured photo: effect of plumage wear on the identification of female Red-winged and Tricolored Blackbirds. West. Birds 35: 228-230.
  • Unitt, P. 2004b. San Diego County Bird Atlas. Ibis Publ., Vista, CA.

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

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