By Ilana DeBare
Amidst all the injustice in our world, every so often there’s something that is amazingly, happily, unarguably right.
Like Bob Lewis being awarded the 2016 Chandler Robbins Education/Conservation Award by the American Birding Association.
One of three prestigious national awards announced by the ABA last week, the Chandler Robbins Award goes to someone who has made significant contributions to the education of birders or to conservation.
And Bob – a Berkeley resident and Golden Gate Audubon board member who has been at the heart of our adult education program for more than 20 years – totally fits the bill.
Bob started teaching a Birds of the Bay Area class with Rusty Scalf at the Albany Adult School in 1993. That single class grew into Audubon’s current rich array of more than 15 birding classes – everything from Beginning Birding, to Birding by Ear, North American Owls, Birds of the Sierra, Master Birding, and Migrant Treasure Hunting.
“We expanded the Birds of the Bay Area class to 40 but were still turning 15 to 20 people away each session,” Bob recalled. “So we got a few other people to start teaching. We started classes on Bird Migration and other subjects. I put together a Beginning Birding class based on a little book by Sibley on how to look at birds. I taught it the first year, then gave it to Eddie Bartley who taught it, and then passed it on to Anne Hoff who teaches it today.”
This year marks the 23rd year that Bob and Rusty have taught Birds of the Bay Area – invariably filling all 40 slots, for a total of more than 2200 students enrolled since it started!
(Data note: The number of individuals taking that class is actually slightly less than 2,200, since some people enjoy it so much they take it multiple times.)
One of Bob’s most notable innovations was creation of our Master Birding class, which is co-sponsored with California Academy of Sciences and co-taught with Eddie Bartley and Jack Dumbacher.
Bob, Eddie, and Jack launched the class in 2013 – a rigorous year-long education that includes keeping an ongoing journal of a birding “patch,” research, presentations, and community service, as well as classroom sessions and field trips.
Because of Bob’s vision, the class was designed to produce not just better birders but future leaders for the birding and conservation community.
“Teaching an advanced ornithology course for non-university students had been a goal of mine for a long time, but when I met Bob, I realized that I had a great partner with whom I could realize this goal,” said Jack Dumbacher, Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy at Cal Academy. “Bob convinced me that any Master course should be structured not just to make people good birders, but to also make them excellent environmental leaders, stewards, and next-generation teachers.”
As chair of GGAS’s Adult Education Committee, Bob helps other hard-working GGAS volunteers organize our 150+ field trips, monthly speaker series, and Travel with GGAS program of international birding trips. As co-compiler with Dave Quady of the Oakland Christmas Bird Count for the past decade, he has helped expand that count to a point where, in 2014, it had more people in the field than any other CBC.
A superb bird photographer, Bob regularly donates images to publications by GGAS and other conservation groups. His photos, knowledge, and dry wit make him a popular guest speaker at many community organizations – including as the keynote for our Annual Meeting each summer.
Since 2000, Bob has also served as Board President of the Farallon Islands Foundation, a small foundation focused on enhancing island habitats through conservation, restoration and acquisition.
Beyond those institutional roles, though, Bob brings a spirit of encouragement and inclusivity to birding instruction that makes even the most novice birder feel welcome.
“Bob is one of the best, and the most generous, birders I have ever met,” said GGAS Board President Alan Harper. “Most birders are either sharp with criticism or use praise when it really isn’t useful. Bob just helps you think through your knowledge and how to apply it to arrive at the correct answer. His ability to approach a bird from the other person’s knowledge and experience, and then use that to improve your skills, is remarkable.”
“He’s an easygoing, super-talented person with a good sense of humor,” said Jerry Daniels, who nominated Bob for the Chandler Robbins Award. “He doesn’t talk down or yell at you. He’s a super-intelligent person, but you’d never know he has a PhD unless there’s some reason that comes up.”
Bob’s interest in the natural world began as a child in upstate New York where he loved collecting things like minerals and butterflies. “I was not very interested in birds because you couldn’t collect them,” he said.
He started paying attention to birds in 1972, two years after his arrival in California, when a friend invited him to see a rare Snowy Owl in Alameda. He was intrigued by all the people standing around with scopes staring at it. His interest was further piqued when a Swedish friend visited him and his wife Hanno, and started pointing out skuas and Pomarine Jaegers along the coastline.
“He was wrong — they were gulls — but it got me thinking, ‘I have to know what these things are,’” he said.
Bob took a birding class with Joe Morlan, then joined an unofficial birding group led by Susanne Luther. His work as a chemist at Chevron took him and Hanno to Europe for eight years. Upon his return, he enrolled in Rusty Scalf’s class for a refresher on Bay Area birds… but it turned out there were more students than Rusty could accommodate, so Bob offered to co-teach, and the rest was history.
Among the hundreds of people whom Bob helped launch into birding over the past decades was GGAS’s own Executive Director, Cindy Margulis.
“Years ago I went to a lecture by Bob and Rusty on Birds of San Francisco,” recalled Cindy. “They showed some of Bob’s pictures of birds like avocets and stilts and I thought, ‘Here? In San Francisco Bay?’ I went out and got some binoculars and I was hooked.”
The ABA will present Bob with his award at GGAS’s next Annual Meeting, which coincides with our June Speaker Series on Thursday June 16.
The guest speaker that evening will be talking and sharing photographs about “Sunda – A Land of Birds, Beasts and Dragons.” Sunda is geologists’ name for the land area currently encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. And the name of the speaker?
This June, Bob will again co-teach two sessions of the Birds of the Sierra class with Eddie Bartley and Rusty Scalf. The first session runs from June 2 through 6, and the second runs from June 9 through June 12. Registration for this and other spring birding classes will open in early March: Check our Classes page on March 1st for details.