Tuesday, February 12, 2013

R.I.P. Jeff Wilson, Tennessee's Ol' Coot

Sad news out of west Tennessee today that Jeff Wilson, the Ol' Coot of Tennessee birding, has passed.  I only lived in north Mississippi for a year, and only birded with Jeff a handful of times, but that was all I needed to recognize that he was one of the best birders I've ever known.

First and foremost, Jeff had a master eye.  Where others scanned Tunica county goose flocks for hours and couldn't pick out a thing, he'd find the Thayer's and a second-cycle California Gull.  Where Zac and I would sit blinking into the heat shimmer at an Ensley Bottoms mudflat, Jeff would roll up in his pick-up truck and pick out the Baird's Sandpiper in an instant.  "You can tell because he walks like a tank," he'd say. 

He could do it because, like all master birders, he was ready for any bird at any time.  You're not going to find a California gull on a frozen field in west Mississippi unless you're prepared to find one there, and Jeff was.  He was relentless - giddy - in his love and dedication to birding.  Not for the social "fame" of birding (though he could rattle off his various state firsts at the slightest provocation), but for the challenge of identification and the excitement and curiosity of exploration. 

My favorite Jeff Wilson moment was at a Big Sit I organized at north Mississippi's Sardis Lake in the fall of 2010.  I was new to the area and wasn't sure if anyone would show up, but Gene Knight (that other titan of Mid-South birding) said he would let Jeff know.  Well, both Gene and Jeff showed up and just birded the HECK out of that count circle.  They were finding birds that Jason and I never would have found (we ended up at 76 species, a top 10 total nationwide, though I just checked and it doesn't show up on the Bird Watcher's Digest site).  But more importantly, they were having fun.  When I left in the late afternoon, bleary and blinkering from a pre-dawn start, Jeff and Gene were still going strong, sitting among the low trees sharing stories and slapping knees between blasts of screech-owl tapes. 

Mid-South birding will very much miss Jeff Wilson.  I bet he's already got a few first Heaven records under his belt. 

Here's a link to his photo page, and here's a link to an information page about Ensley Bottoms, southwest of Memphis, an incredible birding site and Jeff's favorite stomping grounds.


Clearly Claire said...

My birding buddy Don Pendleton contacted Mr Wilson back in May 2010 because we planned a birding trip to TN/AR/LA. The 'old Coot' met with us and took us on a one-of-a-kind birding tour, as you wrote in this post, pointing out birds for us that we couldn't find if we stared out at the muddy plains of peeps for a month. He impressed the heck out of us, telling us how to tell an American Crow from a Fishing Crow by feather sheen, how to spot those tricky Baird's Sandpipers by their posture and the difference between Western & Eastern Meadowlarks by their flight (does it fly like it just had a double shot of espresso or a shot of Jack Daniels?). Neither Don nor myself will ever forget the skill & kindness of 'the Old Coot'. He was one of a kind and had birding skills beyond my wildest dreams for such.


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