From the Winter 2024 difficulty of Dwelling Fowl journal. Subscribe now.
In July 2023, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology neighborhood misplaced a pricey buddy and colleague when Tom Johnson handed away unexpectedly on the age of 35.
Tom’s extraordinary abilities in images, fowl identification, and as a birding tour information have been pushed by how a lot he liked being out in nature. Johnson generously contributed more than 10,000 photos, audio, and video recordings to the Cornell Lab over twenty years, from his highschool years by way of his 2010 commencement from Cornell College and past.
“Past his formidable abilities and provoking ardour for birding, Tom was an much more excellent particular person,” wrote Ian Owens, the manager director of the Cornell Lab. “His heat, thoughtfulness, humility, and generosity of spirit made him an exemplary ambassador for birds and the pure world and a pricey buddy to many.”
An Eye for Magnificence
“Tom had a straightforward, heat manner about him, instantly making anybody he was with really feel comfy,” says Brian Sullivan, a Cornell Lab digital publications challenge chief and shut buddy of Johnson’s. “He had the type of charisma that made others really feel seen and heard. He would need us to maintain seeing all the wonder round us—the heartbeat of the planet that he liked a lot, the wonder that by no means escaped his eyes.”
All photographs are by Tom Johnson. Faucet/click on hyperlinks to view bigger photographs through their Macaulay Library archive web page.
Warblers in Flight
From an early age, Tom appeared to own a pure present for taking fowl photographs. By the point he was an undergraduate at Cornell, within the late 2000s, he was already capturing split-second flight photographs of tiny birds on the transfer towards a limitless sky. None have been extra spectacular than his warbler photographs, lots of them taken at daybreak from the remark platform at Higbee Seaside in his beloved Cape Could, New Jersey. For many of us, getting a well-lit, well-focused flight shot of any form is trigger for celebration; through the years Tom captured good flight photographs of nicely over 20 warbler species, together with seldom-seen treasures like Cerulean, Connecticut, and Golden-winged Warblers.
Maybe the one finest illustration of Tom’s persona, expertise, and dedication is a photograph of a Prothonotary Warbler he discovered in the midst of the evening on a ship south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. As famous on an eBird guidelines from the day, Tom heard the fowl’s chip observe in his sleep and awakened at 2:30 a.m. Taking his digital camera alongside to analyze, he ended up capturing this dramatic flight shot, in near-complete darkness, miles from land.
A Connection With Seabirds
For a number of years after Tom’s commencement he served as a seabird observer on NOAA analysis ships—a chance to sharpen his formidable observational abilities with a few of the fowl world’s most infamous identification challenges. Tom was nicknamed “Albatross” by his Subject Guides colleagues, and his affinity for these wide-ranging, stressed, and ineffably swish creatures is obvious from the photographs he introduced dwelling. A fowl like a Southern Royal Albatross could seem giant, however towards the infinite sweep of a grey ocean even this huge seabird is a problem to seize in a digital camera body.
Frontiers of Identification
Birding is about noticing particulars—it’s what brings a way of discovery and chance to each journey outdoors. Tom’s eye for element was unparalleled, and his skill to key in on practically invisible variations or irregularities meant he typically observed uncommon birds that others might need handed by. Think about watching a swooping swallow and realizing it was not a Cliff Swallow, nor the same Cave Swallow, however a hybrid of the 2? Or standing on a seashore in Nome, Alaska, and selecting by way of 100 White-winged Scoters to seek out 5 practically similar Stejneger’s Scoters. Tom’s eBird checklist illustrates that finely tuned eye, noting the Stejneger’s completely different head form, eye blaze, and flank colour. (Whereas additionally noting, with attribute enthusiasm, that the sighting was “extremely superior.”)
A World of Potential
Tom spent practically 10 years guiding birding excursions for Subject Guides, touring to a minimum of 15 nations on some 120 journeys (learn a remembrance from Subject Guides). In his 35 years, he amassed an amazing retailer of data and expertise that he shared with anybody in his heat and inspiring manner.
“The fields of ornithology and birding mixed have suffered a large loss,” says Sullivan, “as Tom was one of many uncommon individuals who had the combo of abilities wanted to interrupt down the boundaries between these two worlds—he deftly communicated the magic of birds and the ability of science to anybody in his path.” Tom had a breadth of data and enthusiasm that spanned from the tropics to the poles.
One of many true privileges of working on the Cornell Lab is the chance to spend time with so many gifted younger birders and ornithologists who come right here to review. Tom was one of many very brightest, and all of us assumed that we’d be studying from him for many years to return. We’re grateful for the time we had with Tom, and we be a part of along with his household, pals, and the broader birding neighborhood in remembering his life.