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Quest for Bird Hall Takes Flight

March 01, 1990|R. DANIEL FOSTER | Foster is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Stalking the black-capped chickadee, commonly found in back-yard bird feeders everywhere, was not easy for ornithologist Jim Clements.

Clements had already traveled 265,000 miles in 1989, seeking to break the world record for the most bird species seen in one year. With just two weeks to go, "I damned near missed it," the Santa Monica resident said, recalling the day in December when he finally spotted the bird at a feeder outside his son's home in Seattle.

"That would have been a disaster. Birders would have said: 'How could a guy see almost 4,000 birds and miss a chickadee found in everyone's feeding station?' "

The chickadee was the 3,577th of the 3,630 birds Clements spotted on his odyssey, easily breaking the American Birding Assn. world record of 2,800 birds set in 1983 by Louisiana ornithologist Jim Vardeman.

A retired owner of a printing business, Clements, 62, undertook his adventure to raise funds for the revamped bird hall at the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park. The hall will reopen in September as the Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds, named for the museum's former curator of ornithology, who died in 1988.

Sponsors of Clements' effort pledged from one penny to $4 per species recorded, raising $50,000 toward the hall's $5-million cost. Clements, well-known in birding circles as the author of "Birds of the World," an exhaustive checklist of the world's 9,000 bird species, covered his travel expenses with $85,000 of his own money.

In a recent interview at his Santa Monica condominium, Clements recalled his travels, undertaken "by every conceivable conveyance--jeeps, camels, elephants, rickshaws, cars and boats," he said.

The yearlong quest began in Santa Barbara. Clements awoke at a hotel there on New Year's morning to the sound of an acorn woodpecker, which he soon spotted and entered on his list as Bird No. 1. He traveled to India, then on to Cameroon, where he observed more than 50% of the bird species that regularly are seen in the West African nation.

There were plenty of adventures. He shivered through a freak cold front in the Amazon jungle and was arrested in West Africa for stalking a hornbill without permission. But Clements said that compared to some earlier trips, the 1989 journeys were relatively uneventful.

In 1978, for example, Clements led the first ornithological expedition to Cuba after Fidel Castro opened the country to scientific exploration. After spending two weeks in a swamp, Clements spotted the Zapata rail and Gundlach's hawk, two birds that had been considered extinct for more than 50 years.

As with all birders, one of Clements' personal goals in the 1989 quest was to spot and identify birds he had never seen before. Clements added 550 birds to his lifetime list of species sighted, which now totals 6,130--fourth in the world, according to rankings compiled by the American Birding Assn. in Colorado Springs.

"I finally saw an ibisbill in Bhutan, a very rare bird I've spent about 20 years looking for," said Clements, whose interest in birding began while hiking Minnesota's Gun Flint Trail as a boy. He later completed degrees in ornithology and zoology. "I also saw a black-necked crane 14,000 feet up on the Tibetan Plateau. I had seen every other crane species in the world."

To attract birds, Clements used recorded bird calls, often provided by native ornithologists who traveled with him to authenticate his lists. His equipment included a pair of powerful binoculars, stacks of notebooks, a telescope and a microphone with a sound booster for recording bird calls.

Clements wrote overviews of his trips during layovers in Santa Monica. The reports are packed with vivid details of sightings in the 12 countries he visited: "mind-boggling views of toucan barbets calling in duet on Mindo Nono Road" in Ecuador; "flowering euphorbia with five species of sunbirds in perfect light" in Cameroon; "red-bellied macaws roosting (upside down) under drooping Mauritia palm fronds at La Selva" in Ecuador, and the "rufous-rumped seedeater" seen near Brazil's Das Emas National Park.

The overviews also contain detailed accounts of declining bird populations, the result of ravaged tropical forests, scorched grasslands and overgrazing by cattle.

"Birds are the most obvious, and most sensitive indicators of changes in the environment," said Clements, adding that he sighted only seven El Oro parakeets in Ecuador, where about 100 had been recorded in previous years. "I tried to increase public awareness of the current status of the world's bird populations during my journey."

"It's fantastic that Jim was willing to do this," said Elizabeth Anne Schreiber, who came to the Natural History Museum as a research associate along with her husband in 1977. "Those kinds of people really help to keep a museum going."

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