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
Selected publications 1974-1989:
All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.
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