February 2016

Vol. 44, No. 1

Ronnie Donovan: The Birds Were Where He Found Them

Paul F. Fitzgerald

Ronnie once saw two Boreal Owls in the same winter. Photograph by Greg Schechter (CC BY 2.0).

On November 12, 2015, our birding community lost one of its least conspicuous and most legendary figures. Ronnie Donovan kept a low profile but he was highly regarded for his extraordinary skill as a birder, for his congenial nature, and for his preternatural gift for finding exceptional birds in unlikely places. I have no mental image of Ronnie birding in Mount Auburn Cemetery in May but I can picture him skulking for rails in the Neponset marshes during a flood tide in October, sighting pelagics from the upper deck of a fishing charter in the Gulf of Maine, canoeing out to South Monomoy Island (back when you could still get away with camping on the beach), and compiling one of the most awe-inspiring yard lists of all time from his kitchen window on East 8th Street in South Boston.

He liked to say “the birds are where you find them,” a motto he epitomized. For decades, Ronnie seemed to routinely find great birds where no one else was looking: Bar-tailed Godwit in Southie’s Joe Moakley Park, Gyrfalcon on the Boston Design Center, Black Rail (and many Yellow Rails) in the suburban marshes of the South Shore, Ash-throated Flycatcher behind the veteran’s post at Squaw Rock in Quincy, Henslow’s Sparrow at Pope John Paul Park in Dorchester, Boreal Chickadee along the Neponset River, and not one but two Boreal Owls in the same winter—one on Long Island, and the other in his own driveway! Over the course of one fall migration, Ronnie tallied thirty different species of shorebirds in the littered mud flats, parking lots, and construction sites of Squantum. Some of these highlights were collaborative efforts with his longtime—and equally low profile—birding companion, Mike McWade, but even when it came to solo sightings, Ronnie’s word and credibility were unimpeachable.

Ronnie had a superhuman capacity for tolerating discomfort; he seemed oblivious to rain, extreme cold, and waist deep marsh water. Once, decades ago, I was birding with Ronnie and a few others one October day in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester. In the failing afternoon light it began to rain, a cold, raw, miserable rain, and everybody headed for their cars—except for Ronnie. He encouraged me to stay a while longer, saying he often had good luck under such conditions. Five minutes later, he showed me my life Clay-colored Sparrow by the MBTA trolley tracks.

Ronnie infrequently chased birds reported by others, and rarely reported his own sightings to more than a select few. He had no ego and little need for validation when it came to birding. I think that was his secret; it’s as if the birds sensed it. His friend Frank Desisto recalls a time they were birding along the Neponset River: “Ronnie was the stillest birder ever, he looked like an old bent tree stump, and this Cooper’s Hawk just flew in and landed on his shoulder. Ronnie never even flinched and the bird perched there for a while before taking off again.”

For Ronnie, birding was its own reward. He loved birds and their constancy. “No matter what else is going on in my life,” he once told me, “the birds are always there, like old friends.” He was an old-school naturalist at heart, as knowledgeable about reptiles, marine biology, even Cambrian fossils, as he was about birds. Two of his heroes were paleontologist Charles Walcott and Charles Darwin. Ronnie once confessed that he didn’t really appreciate On the Origin of Species until the third time he read it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d barely managed to slug my way through the first chapter. One of his mantras when birding was, “What you don’t see can be just as interesting as what you do see.” No twitcher would ever utter such a thing.

If there’s a takeaway from Ronnie’s example, from his life as a birder, it is simply this: put the birds first, enjoy and study them without an agenda or prejudice, stick to your patch, and the birds will be where you find them.

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