Last week Maine’s birding and conservation community lost one of its biggest advocates and proponents. Peter Vickery passed away on February 28th following an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer.
Peter had a long and storied history with Maine Audubon that spanned decades. From leading teams during our annual Bird-a-thon, to guiding field trips like the popular Matinicus Rock and Fall Pelagic boat trips, he was always happy to volunteer his expertise and offer assistance. Jan Pierson, who co-led many of these trips with Peter, shared a bit of their history in this tribute on the Maine-birds listserv: groups.google.com/d/msg/maine-birds/PqpGHqemkyk/2mBH9c2dCgAJ
I first met Peter nearly a decade ago aboard the Hardy III en route to Matinicus Rock. I was just out of high school, fairly new to birding, and didn’t know anyone onboard. I had a copy of “A Birder’s Guide to Maine” in my backpack that I hoped to get signed. I spent most of the trip on the top deck but staying near the rear, keeping within earshot to catch all the birds Peter was calling out. There were so many new species for me. Peter could describe them, their behavior, and their precise location so eloquently that it was easy to spot these small, indistinct birds over the vast ocean.
I’ll always remember during the long motor back to harbor when Peter came around the boat and took time to talk to me about birding (I was apparently too awestruck to remember to ask him to sign my book). We talked about identifying young Lesser Black-backed Gulls — specifically, distinguishing them from young Herring Gulls. He went into great detail, using nearby birds to point out key field marks. I must have looked overwhelmed because I remember his tone becoming lighter as he pointed out a Herring Gull flying away from us, shrinking into the distance. “See that one?” he said. “If you wait until…now, then no one can tell those apart.” I’ll always admire Peter’s ability to be as knowledgeable as an encyclopedia, but as entertaining as a comic strip.
Peter’s expert skill level, his willingness to contribute to studies, and his eagerness to help novices was a rare combination. It made him likeable and admired. He always had a big role in Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) in Maine. For example, he took the daunting task of doing the ‘seawatch’ from East Point Sanctuary during the Kennebunk/Biddeford CBC. In the last decade that I’ve been doing the count, one highlight was during the compilation when he would call in and read his numbers from the seawatch over a speakerphone. Peter’s dedication would turn up species like Thick-billed Murre and Black-legged Kittiwake, often the only to be reported on those counts, and the cheers and thanks from the room was a testament to his effort.
More recently, I took over as compiler of the Monhegan CBC from Peter, a count that he started in 1978. The list he and others have amassed during that count is impressive, with vagrants including: Ivory Gull, Black-backed Woodpecker, Sedge Wren, Western Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak. Peter’s last Monhegan count was in 2013 when he and I, with three others, took the long cold cruise out to the remote island. I put in my notes that it was 12ºF but I don’t recall wind-chill values ever above 0. The cold couldn’t stop Peter from trekking out to east-facing Black Head at sunrise, where he spotted a Pomarine Jaeger approaching the island, a rare find in Maine’s winter and the first record for the count. Thirty-five years since his first CBC out there, and Peter still had ‘it’.
My last correspondence with Peter was a week before his passing. I was checking in to see if he and Jan would be willing to lead our Matinicus Rock trip again this spring. Of course Peter was quick to respond: “I’d be thrilled to be on the boat.” He also included a note that I can’t stop reflecting on: “It would be prudent to invite a pair of younger eyes.”
I look forward to another great trip season, dedicated to our lost friend, and working to get more young eyes onboard. We’ll miss you, Peter.
Many of you may be aware of Peter’s immense effort to write an update to Ralph Palmer’s 1949 “Maine Birds,” documenting the changes in Maine’s bird life over the past 60 years. Memorial donations to assist with book design and artwork costs can be made to: Birds of Maine Book Fund, Camden National Bank, 111 Main St., Richmond, ME 04357
Peter’s full obituary can be read here.