WHO WAS WHO IN CALIFORNIA BIRDING
1965-1989
RICHARD WEBSTER  [Richard E. Webster]
Richard Webster is one of those hot-shot, young Turks that dazzled the birding world in the 1970s, but perhaps none was as sharp and as brilliant in the field. Richard built on the examples of McCaskie and Stallcup to combine an exceptional level of book knowledge (a strength of McCaskie) with as incredible field awareness for birds (a strength of Stallcup). Richard was downright rapacious in his ability to find and identify rare birds; perhaps this is how he would earn the bird name "Merlin" [although the late '70s naming committee never revealed their reasons for any name].

Richard's reputation for ability and accuracy is so great that he, alone among all California birders, had a first State record accepted by the notoriously stingy California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) based upon his single observer description (Sooty Tern flying past San Diego R. mouth on 27 Sep 1982; details in Webster et al. 1990). The CBRC has accepted very few first State records based on sight observations alone, and in all other cases either other observers were included, or there are photographs, or a single-observer record was later re-evaluated and disregarded.

Richard grew up in Santa Barabara and was actively birding at a young age. He first appears in the credits of Audubon Field Notes in fall 1967. He and Louis Bevier (then in high school) pioneered such new vagrant spots in Santa Barbara County as Atascadero Creek, Old Married Student Housing gardens, Patterson Avenue fields, Gaviota, and the Storke Road tamarisks. In time, Richard would move to Ventura County and discover a welter of other new vagrant traps. He would quickly rise to have to highest Ventura County list, a position he held until long after he had moved elsewhere. His bar-graph book on the birds of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties appeared in 1980 (Webster et al. 1980). Between these bouts of California birding, Richard managed to graduate from Harvard University in the 1970s. Whatever one might say about Richard, you had to add that he was brilliant. In due course he moved to San Diego and obtained a law degree (finishing first in his class), and even practiced as an attorney for a time in the 1980s.

Photo (above) at Furnace Creek in late May 1978 © Brad Schram


Richard served a term on the California Bird Records Committee (1982-1984) but it is my impression that he didn't much enjoy reviewing the reports from others. Richard would much rather go birding. Richard was a member of the record-setting Big Day team on 29 Apr 1978 [with J.L. Dunn, K.L. Garrett, and J.V. Remsen]; their 231 species remains the California record for a non-airplane Big Day.

Photo (right) at the Big Day celebration party in Westwood, L.A., 30 Apr 1978 © Barry Clark
 

Although Richard's abilities as a field birder are unsurpassed, perhaps even more impressive is his extensive knowledge of the literature. An inveterate reader and book collector, no where is that knowledge on better display than his classic paper on creating a birder's library (Webster 1993). By the late 1970s, Richard was traveling well beyond California in his search for birds, visiting tropical habitats around the globe, and gaining a particular affinity for South America. A recent blurb from the Field Guides' web site states: "He claims that his heart is in the American tropics, oscillating rapidly between the Andes and Amazonia, but his increasingly frequent and enthusiastic journeys to other continents betray his love for birds and birding everywhere." Indeed, after our period of review (1965-1989) had closed, Richard gave up his legal career and San Diego home to become a tour leader for the Field Guides bird tour business. He and Rose Ann Rowlett, a famous Texas birder who was a founder of Field Guides, recently moved from San Diego to Portal, Arizona. It is said that he is working on a manuscript about the birds of southern California.

Photo (right) at Pt. Loma, SD, 6 Oct 1981 © D. Roberson


Official Bird Name: Merlin
 
Significant bird records: too many to mention, with numerous vagrants and first county records (in multiple counties) to his credit. Those records of Statewide interest include:
  • Piping Plover  14 Apr 1971  Goleta first CA record
  • Hudsonian Godwit  9 Aug 1973  Arcata HUM first CA record
  • Sooty Tern  27 Sep 1982  San Diego R. mouth SD first CA record
  • Wedge-tailed Shearwater  31 Jul 1988 north end Salton Sea RIV 2nd CA record
  • White-rumped Sandpiper  16 Jun 1976  south end Salton Sea IMP 2nd CA record [co-finder]
  • Black-headed Gull  16 Jul 1972  Arcata HUM 3rd CA record [co-finder]
  • Mississippi Kite  3 Jun 1970  Santa Barbara SBA would have been 3rd CA rec if details written up
  • Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Jan-Feb 1980  Pt. Mugu VEN first wintering record for CA
  • Least Flycatcher  5 Nov 1978 into wint 1979  nr Fillmore VEN first wintering record for CA
  • Mottled Petrel  30 Dec 1981  from Pt. Mugu VEN first live MOPE to be seen in CA [prior recs had been beach corpses]
  • Gray-cheeked Thrush  1 Oct 1986  Pt. Loma SD first s. CA rec, 9th for State
  • Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher  16 Sep 1983  Pt. Loma SD 4th CA record
  • Rufous-backed Robin  5 Nov 1983  Furnace Creek Ranch INY 5th CA record
  • Pine Warbler  12 Dec 1983 & 13 Dec 1983 (different bds)  Pt. Loma SD 6th & 7th CA recs
  • Pine Warbler  31 May 1984  Furnace Creek Ranch INY singing male; first spring CA rec
  • White-eyed Vireo  7 Jun 1982  Pt. Loma SD 8th CA record
  • Red-faced Warbler  11 Sep 1982  Pt. Loma SD 8th CA record

Selected publications 1980-1989:

  • Webster, R., Lehman, P., and Bevier, L. 1980. The birds of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Santa Barbara Mus. Nat. Hist. Occas. Paper 10.
Selected publications since 1989:
  • Webster, R.E., Morlan, J., and Roberson, D. 1990. First record of the Sooty Tern in California. West. Birds 21:25-32.
  • Webster, R.E. 1993. Building a birder's library. Birding 25: 10-45.

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

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