Low key but larger than life. Quiet but never short of strong opinions. As kind a man as anyone would wish to encounter, but also a self-professed curmudgeon. Anyone familiar with Jackson Hole’s most famous observer of the valley’s avian life, the shades of its seasons and the peculiarities of human affairs both locally and globally will by now recognize that we are writing about Bert Raynes — longtime “Far Afield” columnist for the Jackson Hole News&Guide, champion of citizen science, Teton County’s own Lorax who spoke not only for the trees, but for the birds and beasts, and the natural, healthy functions and rhythms of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Raynes died New Year’s Day morning at the age of 96. Though preceded by his beloved wife Meg, whom he credited for introducing him to the natural world, he was at the time of his death surrounded, physically and in spirit, by a vast and wide-ranging community of like-minded, ornithologically inclined friends, fans and fellow observers, many of whom checked in with him regularly to pass along their own sightings for Raynes to include in his weekly column.
Some of this large circle share their thoughts and recollections of Bert Raynes below.
Wes and Shirley Timmerman: We are so glad to have been a small part of a larger-than-life man. Bert will always be on the dais of the finest citizens of Jackson Hole. Bert’s presence has been profound in our community. His voice, expressed in person and in his weekly column, reminded us continually of issues and our responsibility to act in ways to support our enviable diversity of wildlife. Ever keen-eyed and quick minded, he was a meaningful example and mentor to those who were privileged to know him, and especially if you were one of his many friends. Bert’s passing, like other longtime notables, will have an effect on the character of the valley.
Bernie McHugh: I’d met Bert once years before on a visit to the valley when he was leading a bird ID trip to Bert’s Bench. But Frances and I were pretty much newcomers on the scene when we moved to Wilson in May 2011. That October there was the “Pika Party” at Ignight, celebrating an ongoing pika research project. I sat down next to Bert and we started to talk. Toward the end of the evening, he looked at me and said, “You’re a wise ass. Come to lunch.” During one of our early conversations I asked him what I could do to help protect the birds and wildlife of Jackson Hole. He said, “Fix the bird club.” So, along with Susan Patla, Susan Marsh, Mary Lohuis and Frances Clark, Jackson Hole Bird Club meetings were moved to the newly remodeled Teton County Library in December 2012 and have been rolling along ever since.
Susan Marsh: How can I summarize Bert (and Meg) in one short paragraph? His sharp mind and curiosity kept him going for so long. Even when it was too much effort to speak he would save his strength to ask a penetrating question or offer a smart remark, usually about politics. I will miss his humor and love for the wild things in our valley so sweet.
Kay Modi: On my visits to see Bert, we would talk about each bird’s feather length, the dramatization of flight feathers and the amazing colors of the raven when one looks closely. Our visits covered recent bird sightings but also art and the work at the Teton Raptor Center. He was a wonderful teacher for the novice birder to Jackson Hole.
Ron Jen and Kai Gessler-Hoffman: Jen and I met Bert on a Teton Science Schools bird walk/ride close to 20 years ago. We were seated just behind Bert on the bus. As we drove about, others called out what they were seeing. I too had noticed a bird, but I said, “It’s just a raven.” Bert turned to look at me and with raised eyebrow and asked, “Just a raven?” Today our birds in Hoback are unfazed by the passing of our great friend. The nuthatches, house finches and chickadees are their usual happy selves. Bert always reminded us: If you venture out, please obey the speed limit as there are usually deer, fox and pedestrians using the road. Bert will be greatly missed by all.
Deb Patla: Bert’s enormous empathy constantly delighted me, from when I first started reading his Jackson Hole News column in the 1980s through years of field trips and bird club meetings and discussions to the last time I spoke with him, not long ago. I treasure his basic premise that there is a lot more going on in the lives of wild animals than we can measure ... do not fear to imagine, laugh and cry. “After all, birds are only human.” Love and embrace what you encounter near or far afield. As Bert promised, in these cold days since the solstice the chickadees are already whistling their spring notes.
Tammy Christel: He came to each day with new curiosity, new love, new joy in nature, taking care of us all with his love. His community was everything to him. He was a giant, and we have few left.
Frances Clark: Bert thrived on visitors, perking up, ready for fresh conversation. His mind was so sharp, always. You could ask a question about any bird, and he would recount the last time Meg and he saw it, add a bit of natural history, and then query about your interest. When we came across a question he couldn’t answer, he would tell exactly where to find the book or paper among his shelves, or nod at the iPad to find the most up-to-date answer. Bert’s warmth, wit and love were always present. After a visit I felt I had received more than I could ever give.
Vance Carruth: I will miss him, yet I know it was his time to migrate elsewhere in our universe of infinite space and time. I will always remember what a good, thoughtful and kind man he was, but most of all I will cherish my own personal memories of the times I spent with him, just the two of us, having lunch together at his kitchen table.
Lori Cahn: I met Bert 20 years ago when he visited me at the [Idaho National Laboratory] public information office that I had opened in Jackson. He was a chemical engineer and ever curious. He was always kind, a thinker, engaging, and just had so much enthusiasm for anything science- or engineering-related. Whether we talked about natural history or something else, I always felt so uplifted after a visit with Bert.
Dick Collister: Bert played an important part in our lives. I have a hole in my heart and the community has a hole its soul. We will all miss him and have wonderful memories of him. My guess is we will hear breaking news in the near future that he has announced he is running for president of Heaven. He never lost his sense of humor to the very end.
Bev Boynton: Some time ago I signed up for a Teton Science Schools all-day bird walk and had my first encounter with both many birds and with Bert. The insatiable, ambulatory Bert had us walk so many places in the valley that I was glad when we finally called a halt and finished with a glass of wine. A favorite memory is lugging my computer to Bert’s house to chat with him about a seabird research station in Haida Guaii, British Columbia, that I had volunteered at. One focus of the station was monitoring ancient Murrelet productivity. I had a clip of the little fuzzy chicks tumbling and bouncing down a steep wooded hill to plop into the ocean where their parents were calling. We couldn’t stop laughing and exclaiming over these fearless, amazing chicks and their extraordinary lifestyle. Of course, Bert often said no bird is “just a ___”, in addition to many other wry, philosophical comments. A life well-lived, sharp to the end.
Franz Camenzind: Bert Raynes was far more than Jackson Hole’s “bird man.” As his News&Guide column “Far Afield” suggested, Bert’s interests extended far beyond the valley. His “Save the Hubble” bumper sticker attested to that. He was as fascinated with the images from the edge of time captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s cameras as he was by the delicate feathers of a calliope hummingbird. His breadth of interests and depth of knowledge impressed me always. He would not lecture or ramble on. His soft voice and word precision did not sacrifice clarity. His sense of humor required no explanation or translation, just an appreciation of the deadpan with a touch of dryness. Bert has embarked on the ultimate Far Afield adventure. May he forever soar with the eagles and find eternal peace and joy. I love you, man!