|In Memoriam - Dr. Martin Edwards
By Dr. John Cartwright
From the time he arrived in Kingston in 1954 as a young professor of physics at RMC, he plunged into the activities of the KFN (or Kingston Nature Club as it was then), taking part in all manner of activities, with birding above all. The first trip I took with him, along with a few other keen birders was to Cape May during spring migration in 1957. Martin’s sharp eyes picked off our first look at the Cattle Egrets which had just spread that far north, as well as smaller gems such as Lawrence’s Warbler. A few years later, when I had just begun to appreciate neo-tropical birds by visiting Trinidad, he called me in March 1975: "John, Bird Bonanzas is running a trip to Costa Rice - are you interested?" I hesitated for almost 0.5 seconds before replying "When?" Fortunately it was in the gap after my classes ended and my students wrote their exam, and thus we began a binge of tropical birding trips - Peru, Columbia, and Brazil among other places.
By this time Martin was deeply hooked on world listing, and a few years later found himself in a close race with another birder to see who would be the first in the world to see species from all the world’s bird families.
Martin went to the corners of the earth enjoying spotting birds. For example to spot the elusive Kagu species, Martin made two trips to New Caledonia. On the first trip, he played a tape he had been given of a Kagu calling, but had no response. When he returned to Canada he learned that the call which had been taped was a warning to other Kagus that there was danger and that they should keep away. Martin thereupon made a second trip, this time with recordings of Kagus conversing in the wild. When he drove into the reserve where the birds were to be found, planning to sleep overnight in his car, the warden assured him that in the morning the gate would be open so that he could catch his flight home. At dawn, Martin heard the Kagus calling and managed to entice one near the car for an excellent view. However, when he went to leave the reserve, he discovered that the warden had gone into town for the day, leaving the gate locked behind him. Fortunately the gate-posts were made of wood, and Martin remembered seeing a saw in a shed by the warden’s house, so he cut down the post, left a note and some money to pay for a new post, and managed to catch his flight. This is one of many of birding adventures which I was fortunate to hear and be a part of through the years of our friendship.
His efforts were not in vain; he and the other birder finished in a virtual tie for who was first to see all the bird families, and this placed him in the Guinness Book of Records from 1988 to 1992, when the book decided to discontinue this particular type of record.
He also gave himself the far more demanding task of seeing at least one member of every genus, and by the time of his death had seen more than 90% of all the world’s bird genera, as well as a total list of 8456 species, the highest life list of anyone not just in Canada but in all of North America. His last life bird, seen the day before his final illness struck, was a Black-bellied Gnateater, a striking little black-and-rufous bird that skulks in dense undergrowth in a limited area of Amazonia, and has been seen by very few birders.
Lest anyone think that Martin was too obsessed by listing to find time for anything else, it should be noted and celebrated that he served as president of the Kingston Field Naturalists, and played an important role in securing the Helen Quilliam Sanctuary, but also at different times was President of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature). President of the Canadian Nature Federation (now Nature Canada), and Canada’s representative on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He also served as a one-man Royal Commission set up by the Ontario government to investigate a mass die-off of ducks on Toronto Island, a study which called attention to the hazards of industrial pollution before this had become a matter of widespread concern. His leadership and volunteer efforts helped the conservation community immensely during his lifetime. He was also a generous supporter of conservation overall.
When I think of Martin and his passion for birds across his lifetime, it reminds me of the power of birds to inspire our love of nature. It was an honour to know Martin and to bird with him. I will miss Martin’s enthusiasm, his humour, his good will and his wealth of knowledge about birds which he was always ready to share with others. It was evident that many others felt the same way; the memorial service held May 5th had more than 200 people in attendance. His contribution to the community - locally to nationally was well respected and admired.
In the words of his son David, his father’s love of birdwatching was the “combination of the chance to see something new, the chance to be outdoors and the curiosity of different beautiful birds… once you start on that, it becomes a great passion”.
It seems so fitting to remember Martin this month as his beloved birds are migrating back through our country as they do each spring.