We write about the problems birds and the environment face. Rarely do we write about the many people working to solve those problems.
One of those people died recently, and we all are poorer for it.
His name was Bob Russell. I knew him as a member of the Minnesota birding community, and even better as the guy who twice took me to Louisiana to search for ivory-billed woodpeckers. (No, we didn’t find any.)
Bob was an optimist, a genial man who on occasion also looked for Eskimo curlew, another bird most people believe to be extinct.
He worked 34 years as a wetland and bird biologist for various government agencies. He spent 17 years in the St. Paul office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retiring in 2015. He then went into volunteer mode.
Bob grew up in Chicago. His interest in birds began early. His sister, Virginia Russell, told me of a family vacation trip to Florida. Bob had the map. When the route through Georgia turned to gravel, Bob’s mother asked why.
He told her there was a bird refuge on that road. He was 12 years old.
A nun who was his teacher in third grade had a library of bird books he could read when his assignments were done. In those books he learned of the woodpecker, the beginning of a 64-year fascination with that bird.
Bob made many trips to Louisiana’s wet woods in search of ivory-bills while working as a biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.
He also looked for the bird in Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina.
He never saw an ivory-bill, but did have what a search colleague called “a couple of auditory encounters” in Louisiana. He also had possible sightings in Louisiana and South Carolina for which he wished do-overs.
Thin reward for years of searching. Bob was a believer, though. He had faith that the bird was alive, his to be seen. Twice this year he was back in Louisiana.
Locally, he was the most active contributor to the recently completed state breeding bird survey, spending hundreds of hours in the field.
The day before his death from a probable heart attack he was in Wisconsin helping a friend with the breeding bird atlas project there.
Before arriving in Minnesota, Bob worked on habitat projects in New Jersey, New Orleans, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., Everglades National Park, and Gulf Island National Seashore in Mississippi. He worked as a warden for the Cape Clear Bird Observatory in Ireland.
Here, he assisted national wildlife refuges with conservation plans. He determined management practices for pipelines, wind turbines, power lines and communication towers. His job was to protect birds.
Undone was his plan to write in retirement a long-anticipated book on the birds of Stearns County. He first birded there while attending St. John’s University as an English major.
Bob earned a master’s degree in biogeography at the University of Arizona. He did graduate work in restoration ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He shared a unique hobby with Duluth birder Laura Erickson, collecting beer bottles with birds on the labels. She called Bob “one of the kindest, warmest people I’ve ever known, a great birder, a total optimist.”
Bob loved good food. On my trips with him in 2001 and 2003 he knew how to find fantastic barbecue and deep-fried catfish. We were skunked on the woodpecker, but we had full stomachs.
He was 73 years old when he died June 30. Funeral service will be Friday at 10:30 a.m. at St. Pascal Baylon Catholic Church in St. Paul.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.