"About me . . ."   Don Roberson
This little autobiography is structured by decades:
1950s
I was born in 1952 in Lakeport, Lake Co., California, of middle class parents. My father, B.B. Roberson, met my mother Eleanor in 1948, just after World War II. My dad was just starting his medical practice and my mom was a singer in Hollywood. My mom, known as "Sally," sang with her three sisters in a group called The Lyttle Sisters. All four sisters married before 1950 (three of them married musicians) and started families. This photo (right) is of my dad and mom in about 1950, somewhere in the snowy mountains. My father was an avid snow skier and water skier; he loved to travel; and he always had a fast sports car. Both had been raised Seventh-day Adventists, and planned to raise their family in that religion (my mom's other three sisters did not stay in the church).
In 1950, my father took a position as the only doctor in a little town at the south end of Clear Lake, then-known as Clearlake Highlands [today it has been renamed Clearlake]. We moved to a home on the lakeshore when I was 2 years old and my sister was born. The home was on 1.5 acres and had a pier; this view (left) is from the pier and looks north at Mt. Konocti. My home town had about 5000 people in a very rural county. I went to a tiny, private Seventh-day Adventist school (I was raised in that religion but I no longer practice it). I had the same teacher, Mrs. Howland, for all 8 elementary grades in a classic "little red schoolhouse."

We had a bird feeder right outside the window where we ate breakfast, and I knew all the local birds by the time I was 8 years old. My dad had a Peterson Field Guide to Western  Birds, and I was a user of it very early on. As a child I liked making model airplanes and battleships, but also model birds of the same genre. I would paint them the correct colors and glue them together, and sometimes place them outside in 'realistic' settings. So I was always very comfortable with our backyard birds.

We also went to Yosemite Nat'l Park every summer, and I knew the common birds there also. Here's a picture my father took (right) of me at 9 years old at the lone Jeffrey Pine on Sentinel Dome. This was a favorite and oft photographed tree back then; it has since been struck by lightning and killed, with only the stubs remaining. I also knew all the features of Yosemite at any early age. The photo (below) of my sister Cheryl and me is from about 1959.
1960s
Sticking with the Yosemite theme for a moment, here (left) is one of my first photographs with a Kodak Brownie print camera. It shows Yosemite Falls in 1962 with my sister in the foreground. My dad taught me about photography and lighting and format. My dad always wanted people in the photo to provide perspective or balance. As I grew older, I preferred photos of scenic wonders, or of historic places, without people. Even as a kid I had the patience to wait until the people left to take my preferred photograph.

The 1960s were my teenage years. Growing up in such a rural area, in such a small town and going to such a tiny school, surely had a major influence on me. I really didn't have any close friends my own age, so I very much learned to entertain myself. I loved reading. And I really got interested in baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants. I'd listen to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons on the radio, describing the exploits of Mays, McCovey, and Marichal. I also did a lot of 'playing baseball' by myself by throwing a tennis ball against a rocky wall and then trying to field the line drive or ground ball or whatever came back at me. Here (below) are a couple of prints of my boyhood backyard.

A very rare snowfall in the backyard, seen from our pier. This photo must be about 1963.
A little backyard baseball in about 1965. My sister is pitching to me; a rare event. Note we are adding a new family room to the house.
The Giants have always remained "my" team but in 1968 the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland, and by pure luck I got to meet a couple of the Oakland As. During the July All-Star Break, three of the As vacationed at Clear Lake with their families, and one of their kids cut a foot and had to have stitches. They went to my dad, the doctor in town, who sewed up the kid and invited them out on my dad's speedboat. My dad had to work but the neighbor boy from the summer cabin next door and I took Mike Hershberger and Paul Lindblad out water skiing for a day (the 3rd ballplayer, Danny Cater, had already gotten a bad case of sunburn). I'm in the plaid shirt (right) with the two ballplayers in our boat in this autographed snap shot. We all had a barbecue at the neighbor's summer home that evening, and Lindblad showed me how to throw a few pitches, although he was a lefty and I was not.
In 1965 or 1966, I read a story in Reader's Digest about the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Counts. Of course, my hometown was much too small to have an Audubon Society or even any birdwatchers. But I decided to do my own on Christmas Day. I got up a dawn, peddled my bicycle around town, and counted birds. It was my first day of real "birding" and I still have vivid memories of some of the species identified with my Peterson field guide that day, including a lovely male Bufflehead (below left; I took this photo many years later:). In May 1967, a visiting fire-and-brimstone preacher happened to be a birdwatcher, and arranged a walk in Anderson Marsh at the south end of Clear Lake. I was then 15 years old, and my dad and my good friend and neighbor, Jeanne Spalding, came along (photo left). The highlight was finding the nest of a Virginia Rail (below right). My dad took this photo of the eggs; I took an identical photo (and another that shows the bird itself) with my print-film camera. Those were my first bird photos. Later that summer my dad, sister and I visited Europe and I saw my first "life birds" outside North America.
At the end of the decade I went to a boarding high-school in Healdsburg, and met the first birders my own age: Wally Sumner and Ken Knittle. They were seniors in high school while I was a freshman, so I only had one year with other birders before they graduated. We would take a bird walk around campus every Saturday morning before breakfast.

Rio Lindo Academy was a Seventh-day Adventist coed school of perhaps 300-400 students. Adventists are very conservative and strict in many ways: no popular music, no T.V., no drinking, no cards, no radios, and, although we were allowed 'dates' on certain 'date' nights at the cafeteria, no hand-holding or kissing. I was raised vegetarian and Rio Lindo served vegetarian meals. So my teenage years were very different than most Americans. Adventists also tend to be very conservative in politics, and my parents were Republicans. But Rio Lindo was a great awakening for me because of the interaction with other students, and because of the philosophical influence of my classmate Jim McCluskey. He taught me that it was okay to think for myself. So while I went to Rio with very conservative ideas, but the time I graduated four years later, I had become a liberal in politics; I was strongly against the Vietnam War; and I was worried about the draft. I had very good grades but was also considered somewhat of a radical leader by my senior year when Jim McCluskey [purple dot in photo below] and I [orange-red dot below] edited an "alternative' school newspaper called St. Elmo's Fire.  The paper was a big hit with the students but when the more conservative faculty figured out we were lampooning them and their ideas, they forced a recall of our current issue. So the photo below, published in my high school yearbook, is of the student staff of St. Elmo's Fire burning our teacher adviser, Mr. Loveless, 'at the stake' with the recalled issues of St. Elmo's Fire.

1970s
In May 1970 I turned 18 years old. As it happened, I had a mid-level draft number and they did not reach my number that year, so I never had to face the Vietnam conundrum. On my 18th birthday my parents gave me my first car, a little red VW beetle (right). As soon as school was out in June, I spent a month traveling by myself to National Park and Monuments throughout Arizona and New Mexico. It was very much a trip 'on the cheap,' camping out every night and eating canned food cooked over a fire, if not just 'straight from the can' cold. I have a photo of my campsites (right), a cozy little spot nestled up against a tiny Indian ruin in Chaco Canyon National Monument. 

The rest of the decade was mostly spent in school: graduated from Rio Lindo Academy in 1971; went to Pacific Union College, Angwin, and then Cal. State Hayward (B.A. in history & poly sci., 1975); and then to law school at Hastings Law School, San Francisco (graduated 1978). I did well in school and enjoyed many of the classes, but I did switch from a biology major to a history major when I hit chemistry class they wanted way too much homework! I had better things to do. And that was to go birding.

I re-united with my high school friend, Wally Sumner, at college in 1971. That November I packed the VW with Wally, my girlfriend, and others to drive all the way to the Salton Sea to chase Blue-footed Boobies. We had learned dozens had appeared there. We found one of them on 6 Nov 1971: my photo (below) shows it standing on rocks at the edge of the Salton Sea. We also found two dead Blue-footed Boobies and brought them back to Pacific Union College where I prepared them as study skins for the little museum there over the next month... an odoriferous experience for all involved.

My girlfriend Jolee (we married and divorced later in this decade) and I decided we'd had enough of religious school, and we moved to Berkeley in 1973. We immediately fell into the birding scene there. My mentors were great birders like Laurence C. Binford , curator of birds at Calif. Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and Van Remsen , then a grad-student at U.C. Berkeley. Other regular members of the Bay Area birding crowd in those days were Steve Bailey, Dick Erickson, John & Suzanne Luther, Joe Morlan, Mike Parmeter, and Rich Stallcup, and later in the decade Donna Dittmann, Jeri Langham, and many others.

In 1975, Van Remsen put together a trip for local birders to Colombia, where he was doing his PhD research. This was my first major foreign birding trip it was also the first time that I ever drank alcohol, the first time I ever tasted coffee, and the first time I ever danced, but those are all different stories....

I also did an "around-the-world" trip with my dad and sister in 1978, visiting (among other places) India, where I spent a day birding Bharatpur with Raj Singh (left; that's me to the right; this is a "self-portrait" with a timer). I got very into the California birding scene and chased vagrants throughout the state rapaciously. In 1975 and in 1977 I attempted serious California Big Years, and ended up second to Guy McCaskie in 1977 (with 444 birds NIB [=no introduced birds]) and wrote a booklet about it called Birders' California, published by the American Birding Ass'n in 1978 (it was only their 2nd book ever). The last years of the decade were spent researching and writing Rare Birds of the West Coast (published 1980).

Beginning in the late 1970s, and continuing into the early 1980s, I did a series of SCUBA diving trips with my father, visiting the Caribbean, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Red Sea. I learned underwater photography with a Nikonas (below left on dive boat; me underwater photo by my dad. below center), and I have a wide selection of underwater shots (below right is a Squirrelfish and wrasses).
1980s
This was the decade in which I learned Monterey County. While working on Rare Birds, I decided to move to Pacific Grove because it was my favorite birding spot in California. I got an apartment just blocks from Pt. Pinos in 1979. In May 1982 (with my dad's help) I bought the house where I still live, at a time before Monterey Peninsula housing prices skyrocketed beyond most everyone's means. I birded throughout the county while working at part-time jobs, and wrote Monterey Birds (published 1985). I continued to search for vagrant throughout California, and served as Secretary for the California Bird Records Committee for five years. I also did an Attu Island trip in 1980 for my ABA list; someone took this print (right) of Guy McCaskie and me on Attu, discussing of all things photography.
I also put together two "airplane Big Days" for National Audubon as fund-raisers. In 1983, our team included Roger Tory Peterson and, therefore, was Big News... we had three media airplanes following us throughout the day (leading to articles in Sports Illustrated, Discover magazine, and the L.A. Times, and a feature on National Public Radio). We tied the Texas record in 1983, but shattered all records (243 species during the day) in 1984 with the team shown (left): Jeri M. Langham, me, John Parmeter, B. D. "Mike" Parmeter, and L. C. Binford. By the end of the decade, our local Monterey Co. Breeding Bird Atlas project was underway (published in 1993) and I was a very active atlaser.
After a brief job as a tax attorney at Bank of America, I found my career niche as a research attorney for several local Monterey attorneys. This, and refinancing the house as rates steadily dropped throughout the decade, allowed me to travel to Kenya, Papua New Guinea/Australia, Panama, Venezuela, Peru, and the Greater Sundas (Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Bali). The photo (right) is from Sumatra. In 1989, I had the unique opportunity to spend four months at sea on the NOAA research vessel McArthur as a seabird surveyor on a tuna/porpoise research cruise, searching for seabirds dawn to dusk daily. The photo below is taken from the McArthur of our sister ship David Starr Jordan out in the eastern tropical Pacific. The ship made port calls once a month, permitting short visits to Hawaii, Galapagos, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. I also married and divorced again during the decade.
 
1990s
Alas, this decade a mid-life period was spent too much at work. By now I had a full-time job as a research lawyer on retainer to several firms. But life was pretty good. I had my house and, with the publication of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Monterey County in 1993, my books (below left). Good intentions to revise and republish Monterey Birds were slowed when I became "landbirds editor" for the northern California region in Field Notes (formerly American Birds), with quarterly deadline commitments, but I did manage to have major identification papers appear, all based in part on the eastern tropical Pacific research cruise: on Cookilaria petrels, on small black-and-white shearwaters, and on Masked/Nazca boobies (details on Publications page). Yet something very important was missing, and that was remedied when I met Rita Carratello in 1991 (the photo, below right, is from Yosemite in 1993). We would get married ten years later, but basically life has been great since 1991. I've never wanted children just a good relationship, our house and its library, and enough time and money to travel and write.
World travel continued to intrigue me, with visits to such remote destinations as Irian Jaya, New Guinea. The photo (left) shows three bachelors in Wamena, Baliem Valley, Irian Jaya, out on the town: me, a local, and Steve Bailey. I also enjoyed the Philippines, Ecuador, Madagascar (along with the Seychelles, Mauritius & Réunion; photo right shows Rita with Ring-tailed Lemurs at Berenty, Madagascar), Australia again, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Gabon, Sao Tomé e Príncipe, South Africa, and Brazil.
We've also traveled quite a bit throughout California, trying to learn something about all 58 counties in the state. In 1996 I participated in another competitive Big Year this time limited to Monterey County and recorded 352 species which, at the time, were the most birds for any single county anywhere, anytime. We remodeled the house and started collecting "field guide" art (Dale Zimmerman, Doug Pratt, R.T. Peterson). We also continued to travel in North America, looking for birds and exploring historic places, especially Civil War battlefields (photo right: with famed historian Edwin C. Bearss at Grand Gulf battlefield in Mississippi, in March 1997). 
2000s
More foreign travel highlights the first decade of the new century. Here (right) are Rita and I in India in 2001; our birding friends Steve Bailey and Dan Singer are the white guys in the back row. More and more often, Rita and I preferred to organize our own trip with local guides and drivers then to join tours. India was great on an itinerary we created to meet our priorities. Also fabulous were trips to Uganda and Borneo (just Rita and me) and to Tanzania (with two friends). Many of our trips have on-line trip reports [see trip chronology]. Sometimes, though, when Rita was doing theatre or had work commitments (she is a teacher), I joined tours: e.g., to Lesser Antilles (2000) or northern China (2004). By the middle of the decade I reached the 5000 species mark on my world list considered to be half of the birds of the world and was very near to having seen all the bird families of the world.
On 4 May 2002, Rita and I got married, just a couple days before my 50th birthday. It was a fun outdoor wedding at our favorite local birding spot next to the Carmel River followed by an outdoor reception at an Indian restaurant [more photos here]. We love our Pacific Grove home and yard, and Rita adopted an SPCA declawed cat who lives in the house and only looks at the birds in the backyard (below). He is named General Grant.
These pages are mostly about change over time and I find something to think about in the photo (above) of General Grant looking out the window. See the trunk of the pine tree just off the deck and the hot tub? About 1990, it was clear that this dead tree was a clear and present danger of falling in a big windstorm and hitting the house, so we had it topped, leaving a 30 foot stub. In spring 2002, a pair of Nuttall's Woodpeckers nested in that stump (male shown above right), the first confirmed nest in Pacific Grove. A couple years later, Hairy Woodpeckers nested there. But the day before New Year's in Dec 2004, even this stump fell in a big storm, hitting the deck but stopping short of the house. Now the General's view of this part of the yard is much more open . . .   Here's a view (below) of our house from the back yard.
This page is updated in early 2005, so here (right) are recent photos of me and of Rita (and her artist friend Greg Harris), both taken in New Mexico on a day with gorgeous skies. We hope for continuing good times in the future . . .
TOP
TO HOME PAGE

TO LIST OF BIRD FAMILIES OF THE WORLD

Page originally created 4 Apr 1999, substantially revised 10 Jan 2005