Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Farewell To A Friend & One Of NY's Finest Naturalist: Rich Kelly

Rich Kelly (center) 
It was Saturday morning, September 6th, I was up around 4:00 AM and toying with the idea of where I would go in the field. I could not make up my mind and after some faffing around, I looked at my e-mail and saw the weekly RBA (Rare Bird Alert) report had made it to my inbox. I began to read the report to see what good birds had been reported when I came across a blurb about the passing of Rich Kelly. I was immediately heavy hearted. Rich was a friend who was battling cancer and I had been calling him occasionally but not too much since I knew it took some effort for him to be on the phone. I had seen him during the 2018 Southern Nassau Christmas Bird Count, when I handed him my data and he seemed in good spirits and indicated that he was doing better with the treatment. But, Cancer is a sneaky bastard. You never know when it would raise its ugly head and apparently it returned with a vengeance, claiming one of the finest naturalist that I had the pleasure of meeting.

Rich Kelly was an unassuming man. There was nothing pretentious about him. He was a genuine chap - a 'real' kind of guy. Intelligent, skillful but humble. The kind of individual who I could spend time with in the field and we did. A few times. Teaming up on several occasions to do Birding, Insecting, Butterflying, Botany and even doing some Conservation work. He was a well rounded naturalist, skillful but never boastful. He was also known to have an extensive Seashell collection. Rumor has it that it is perhaps, the largest on Long Island. I don't know because I never had a chance to see it. Rich was also known to be good at Herpetology the one area that I regret we did not explore together. By now, you get the picture, he was skilled in many areas.

Rich was the one along with Don Riepe who encouraged me to join the NYC Butterfly Club and while it was at first intimidating with all the talent at the meetings, I began to enjoy attending, if only for the laughter. Those meetings were very Sienfeldesque, the exchanges at times between our host Guy Tudor and attendees could be hilarious. It was Rich would later call me whenever I missed those meetings to ask about my absence and to let me know that I was on the "list" - the list of delinquents. But that was Rich, always making sure that others were keyed in on what was happening.

Rich (L), Gail Benson (C) and Tom Burke (R). Note Rich's "baby blue" Tripod.
Rich was involved in several Christmas Bird Counts (CBC). It was he who convinced me to join the 2013 Bronx/Westchester CBC. That year, I was inducted into his team with the old, "rookie has to buy breakfast" which I did, despite accusing the lot of a scam - though all in good jest as I could care less about buying breakfast when the camaraderie was good. I remained a member of that team until I was asked by Michael Bochnik, to be the West Bronx area leader. Rich was my area leader on the Southern Nassau Christmas Bird Count and I only joined the Atlantic Team because of him. He was the one who I partnered up with on one of my earliest Christmas Bird Counts in Suffolk county. The 2010 Montauk Christmas Count. Little did I know then that he was grooming me to take over his territory as he expressed to me later, "It's too much of a drive for me these days."

Rich Kelly, 4th from left.
Our friendship was not one where we hung out a lot but he and I had a very good relationship. I liked him and I would like to think he liked me too. We shared many a phone calls - one of the few people who I did not mind speaking with on the phone. Those of you who know me, know that I dislike chatting on the phone as I would rather a face 2 face conversation. With Rich, it was different. He made me laugh and I made him laugh. I remember him warning me not try this "tongue" sandwich that our friend Seth Ausubel loved to eat. The way he said it made me laugh so much; I am chuckling as I write this. His sense of humor was unique. A bit of sarcasm and a tad dry but funny. It was sort of "British." If you like British humor, you would understand what I mean. Rich was altruistic, always generous with his time and knowledge. In 2009, he and I teamed up to participate in a planting project at Jones Beach. Together, we planted over 300 seedlings. Today, many of those seedlings, now trees, act as cover for migrating birds, especially Owls. I bet some of Rich's friends did not know that he participated in the replenishing of Japanese Pitch Pines at Jones Beach West End.

In 2013, I put out a call for any naturalist interested in joining me for a nature walk at Van Cortlandt Park in Bronx Co. The walk was designed to highlight the adverse effect to wildlife of a pending paving project of the Putnam Trail being planned by City Parks. Rich Kelly was the only naturalist who answered the call; he came out to Van Cortlandt Park and participated in that walk with me, further solidifying our friendship.

In 2016, he alerted me to some uprooting of plants at an area called, "Sparrow Corner" at Jacob Riis Park in Queens Co. Because of his efforts and a coordinated response, we were able to get the area replanted in short order. That very same year, he was the only one to respond to a call from National Park Service Gateway, for SME's (Subject Matter Experts) for a 2016, BioBlitz at Jamaica Bay. We teamed up to catalogue insects and we had a great time in the field on that project. Rich was also very helpful in teaching National Park Service (NPS) staff about plants during the restoration of the North and South Gardens at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in 2015 and 2016.

We worked together with NPS, Tony Luscombe,  on the Rocky Marsh, restoration project. Rich's contribution to that effort was invaluable in him being able to locate and identify important flora in the area. This was yet another one of those projects where Rich's contribution to conservation was important yet it was quietly done.

These are just some examples that I am aware of showing Rich's generosity with his time and expertise. He was a gem of a man.  He used to tell me that he had the "patience of a flea" but I disagree. Rich had the patience of a saint. He would take the time to explain and answer questions from anyone who consulted with him. I did that, more than once, mostly on insects and he always helped me out.

Rich Kelly Far Left On The East Pond At Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
We birded too. Occasionally, he would call me about the East Pond at Jamaica Bay. I would teasingly respond by, telling him that the water level was not ready for him. He was there with me in Forest Park Queens Co. in  2011 when I scored my Queens County first Yellow-throated Warbler. He, Al Lindberg and I did a birding trip in 2011 where he saw me score my NY State Western Tanager that was coming to a feeder in Montauk LI. That day, I was introduced to the legendary number 14 Pork Sandwich which was deliciously true to its reputation.

Rich Kelly Still Kneeling Even With The New Tripod.
He was self-effacing, never interested in drawing attention to himself. Some saw him as frugal, I saw him as smart in spending. He had this old "baby blue" tripod (see second photo above) that some used to rib him about. It was so shaky, that he often had to kneel to use it. When he finally sprung for a new Tripod, he still knelt. Old habits die hard.

I was very saddened to learn of Rich's passing but if it frees him from the pain he was enduring, then I take some solace in knowing that he is now pain free, at peace and in a better place. It was not easy writing this piece about a man I admired for his unassuming brilliance. I will miss you my friend and will always remember you for all good times we shared and the kindness you showed me always.

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