Thursday, August 16, 2018

Dave Stirling, Naturalist Extraordinaire, 1920-2018

David Stirling, the walking embodiment of what the word naturalist is all about, has departed this world. David died at Victoria August 11, nine months into his 98th year.

The initial glue in my friendship with Dave was birds and birding; in time the friendship grew to encompass much more, but birds provided a very good start to a friendship that endured forty years. We met in the late 1970s. I was a fairly recent arrival in British Columbia and had noticed soon enough that the birds of south Vancouver Island were in many cases very different from the ones I’d grown used to in my native Nova Scotia. I fell for birding, and fell hard. To the extent I could I devoted every daylight hour on the weekend to discovering the birds of the Island. I made three great friends—Harold Hosford, Ron Satterfield and Dave Stirling—every one of them a serious birder of long standing, and sought to learn all I could from these three wise men. All three would remain my friends ever after.

Before long I fell victim to a peculiar kind of madness, the birding Big Day, an event in which three or four otherwise sensible people embark on a crazed rush to find as many kinds of birds as can be squeezed into a 24-hour period. It was in early May, about 1980, that Dave and I teamed up for our first-ever Big Day. We managed to list a hundred species in the inaugural try. Dave thought a hundred was a pretty good result. I thought we could do better.  Before the next effort I told the late Peggy Goodwill—operator of the Rare Bird Alert at the time—that Stirling, Bruce Whittington and I would mount another Big Day effort the next day. I also told Peggy that we would get 120 species. Dave was appalled, both at my brazenness and at the difficulty we would have in reaching that number. We got 121.

The next time, Stirling and Hosford joined me for another three-man effort. It was a glorious start: by about 1 p.m. in the afternoon we were already at 126 species, with nearly nine hours of daylight left. Visions of 135 species, 140—maybe even more—danced in my head. Then an insurrection erupted: Dave and Harold demanded we stop for lunch. I was horrified—and resisted. To no avail. We stopped for lunch. They each ordered a beer, then another. After the second beer the Big Day went right off the rails. They decided that half a Big Day was plenty enough: they quit on me. Great as my regard was for them both, I fired them on the spot. In future years Ron Satterfield and Bruce Whittington took their place and that trio eventually pushed the Big Day tally to the mid-130s. But to this day I remain convinced that had Harold and Dave persevered we would have set a south Island mark for the ages.

As time passed the parameters of my friendship with Dave expanded greatly. We had more than birds in common: we both liked travel, books, history and politics. Not everyone does, but Dave and I also liked to argue, especially about politics. We would meet a few times a year—often at Swan’s pub—to talk about our favourite things. Dave would call me a pinko, a leftie I would call him something else. I like to think that over the years each of us forced the other to sharpen his arguments but I doubt that any of our many political rows resulted in either of us changing the other’s mind. Happily, we remained friends.

Dave grew up in the wilds of the Athabaska country of northern Alberta. He lived his boyhood in a log cabin with his parents, brother and sisters. The family survived on what they could gather, grow, trap and hunt. Young Dave spent most of his days outdoors, summer and winter. It was in those days in the wild of the Athabaska that he became a lifelong naturalist.

While still a teenager, in 1939, a war broke out. Dave enlisted in the Canadian Army. With three square meals a day, a comfortable mattress, and a roof over his head that did not leak, he decided he must be about as lucky as anyone could possibly be. He liked his time in the Army, and the officers liked what they saw of Private Stirling: he was offered a chance to take officer training. He graduated from Sandhurst and earned his lieutenant’s commission. Best of all, he survived the war and returned to Canada unscathed.

In the mid-1950s he embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, crossing Australia by motorcycle with his wife Ruth. After that he arrived in Vancouver Island and played a key role in establishing B.C. Parks interpretation programs. He gave any number of young people an opportunity to learn about the natural world and to pass on what they’d learned to park users. For many of these young folks, their experience under Dave Stirling was life-altering: their summers as park interpreters would set them on a life course in natural history and science.

Dave eventually retired but his love of nature, adventure and travel never diminished. Even into his 90s Stirling traveled the world in search of beautiful wild places—and new birds. He continued to build his life list.

I made a point of seeing Dave just a day or two before departing in June for my summer place in Cape Breton. He had failed a good deal but I was struck that his love of nature remained as strong as ever. We spent an hour in the shade of his front deck, looking skyward for birds and other things that pass more slowly: clouds. Among all the other facets of nature that fascinated and absorbed him Dave left ample time for studying and contemplating clouds.

A core bias of mine is that whether we’re aware of it or not, we all feel a duty to make something of our human possibilities. In my life I have known only a few people who have done as worthy a job of meeting that duty as did David Stirling.    

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