An Eye for Magnificence: Remembering Tom Johnson

two pink-tinged gulls stand on snow
Most birders dream of seeing one Ross’s Gull at a time. Tom Johnson’s adventurous spirit and impeccable digicam expertise captured this stunning photograph from Alaska’s North Slope. Photograph by Tom Johnson / Macaulay Library.

From the Winter 2024 problem of Residing Hen journal. Subscribe now.

In July 2023, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology neighborhood misplaced a pricey pal and colleague when Tom Johnson handed away unexpectedly on the age of 35.

Tom’s extraordinary expertise in images, hen identification, and as a birding tour information had been pushed by how a lot he beloved being out in nature. Johnson generously contributed greater than 10,000 pictures, audio, and video recordings to the Cornell Lab over twenty years, from his highschool years by his 2010 commencement from Cornell College and past.

“Past his formidable expertise 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 pal 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 venture chief and shut pal of Johnson’s. “He had the form 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 beloved a lot, the wonder that by no means escaped his eyes.” 

All pictures are by Tom Johnson. Faucet/click on hyperlinks to view bigger pictures by way of their Macaulay Library archive web page.

Warblers in Flight

From an early age, Tom appeared to own a pure present for taking hen pictures. By the point he was an undergraduate at Cornell, within the late 2000s, he was already capturing split-second flight pictures of tiny birds on the transfer towards a limitless sky. None had been extra spectacular than his warbler pictures, a lot of them taken at daybreak from the commentary platform at Higbee Seashore 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 pictures of nicely over 20 warbler species, together with seldom-seen treasures like Cerulean, Connecticut, and Golden-winged Warblers.

A mostly yellow bird in flight against a black sky.
Prothonotary Warbler, Atlantic Ocean.

Maybe the only greatest illustration of Tom’s persona, expertise, and dedication is a photograph of a Prothonotary Warbler he discovered in the course of the evening on a ship south of Nantucket, Massachusetts. As famous on an eBird guidelines from the day, Tom heard the hen’s chip be aware in his sleep and awakened at 2:30 a.m. Taking his digicam 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 expertise with a number of the hen 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 sleek creatures is evident from the pictures he introduced residence. A hen like a Southern Royal Albatross could seem massive, however towards the limitless sweep of a grey ocean even this large seabird is a problem to seize in a digicam body.

Frontiers of Identification

Birding is about noticing particulars—it’s what brings a way of discovery and risk to each journey exterior. 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 may 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 seaside in Nome, Alaska, and choosing by 100 White-winged Scoters to seek out 5 practically similar Stejneger’s Scoters. Tom’s eBird guidelines illustrates that finely tuned eye, noting the Stejneger’s totally different head form, eye blaze, and flank colour. (Whereas additionally noting, with attribute enthusiasm, that the sighting was “extremely superior.”)

A World of Capacity

Tom spent practically 10 years guiding birding excursions for Subject Guides, touring to a minimum of 15 international locations on some 120 journeys (learn a remembrance from Subject Guides). In his 35 years, he amassed an amazing retailer of information and expertise that he shared with anybody in his heat and inspiring manner.

“The fields of ornithology and birding mixed have suffered an enormous loss,” says Sullivan, “as Tom was one of many uncommon individuals who had the combo of expertise 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 information 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 proficient younger birders and ornithologists who come right here to check. 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 together with his household, pals, and the broader birding neighborhood in remembering his life.

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