For the Birds Radio Program: Sam Robbins
People in the 90s and now the oughts aren’t supposed to have heroes–the ironic detachment so much in vogue today encourages us to search for the foibles and frailties of even the greatest people. But I do have a few heroes–people who live their lives the way I aspire to live mine, people who have given to this planet much more than they have taken. One of those heroes is Sam Robbins.
I knew about Sam before I ever met him. He was the author of the first edition of Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts (the guide to the best birding spots in the state), and one of the authors of Wisconsin’s bird checklist. He also wrote an article_about Le Conte’ s Sparrow for a 1969 edition of The Passenger Pigeon, which I discovered when I was studying up on this lovely bird. I didn’t connect his name with Chandler Robbins, primary author of the Golden field guide to birds, but later learned that Chandler was Sam’s brother. All I knew was that Sam Robbins had written some of the most useful publications about Wisconsin birdlife that I knew of.
I finally got to meet him on a field trip at a convention of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology in Madison. People spoke with awe about his phenomenal ears, and I got to witness first hand just how well he could hear as we birded at Picnic Point, the Madison park I visited almost every day. I knew Picnic Point intimately, but the moment we stepped out of our cars on the road by a favorite marsh, Sam instantly heard a bittern–a bird I’d never found there in two years of searching. I couldn’t hear it at all, nor could anyone else, anyone but Sam. He was patient with us–he stood wordlessly, an index finger up in the air, and pointed three or four times while I concentrated with all my might. Some birders were starting to look rather skeptical, but suddenly I caught the distant sound. Sam was watching me, and the moment I heard it, his face lit up. This new Picnic Point species for me meant confirmation for his identification.
Sam was known far and wide for his hearing and his knowledge–he was already at work on the definitive book about the birds of the state, Wisconsin Birdlife, published in 1990. But as absorbing as his ornithological career was, he was equally absorbed in his life as a minister. Sam wasn’t a proselytizer–his kind, courteous, gentle manner gave eloquent testament to his Christian beliefs.
In 1992, Sam invited me to be his partner for a “big day”-a grueling 20-hour birding marathon that was also serving as a fund raiser for Wisconsin’s Project Loon Watch. Sam Cook, the outdoor writer for the Duluth News-Tribune, tagged along for a few hours. He described Sam as “built something like an American bittern-which is to say, blunt at the ends and thick in the middle. [He] would stand in the middle of the road, hands in his pockets, staring vacantly at the asphalt. He looked like a man waiting outside a gift shop for his wife to finish making a purchase… Then one of Robbin’s arms lifted, as if being drawn up by some mystical force until it was parallel to the highway. ‘I heard a Veery out this direction,’ he said. The first arm went down, and the other arm went up in slow motion. ‘I’m hearing a Nashville Warbler off this direction.”’
Cook added, “It is said that the good hitters in baseball can see the ball better than most mere mortals, that they can see the rotation of the seams as the ball approaches home plate. Good birders must have ears of the same caliber, able to separate all the subtle variations of the white throat’s high, sweet song and still pull in the bass of the Great Gray Owl’s deep booming.”
Sam’s ears were the keenest I’ve ever witnessed, and his heart one of the largest. He worked tirelessly indoors organizing and making sense of bazillions of records of Wisconsin birds, and outdoors witnessing these birds first hand. Sam died on Saturday, February 19, 2000, at the age of 78, and there seems a gaping hole in the planet. But the bird life he so loved continues in its constant yet ever changing cycles. Sam inscribed my treasured copy of Wisconsin Birdlife, “To Laura, keep them flitting, feeding, flying!” Thanks to Sam Robbin’s life and inspiration, and the sound information and education he provided to so many, his beloved birds will be flitting, feeding, and flying for ages to come.