Global Big Day Team "Old Coots"
(Rita Schlageter, Karen McDonal and Neil McDonal)
By Tom Clay
I was asked by Red Rock Audubon Society to write a short note about our fellow birder and friend, Neil McDonal. Neil, who had been a very active member, recently passed away after a long illness. He and I had become good friends after I moved to Vegas from Massachusetts five years ago. Not knowing many birders, I posted a request on the Gambling Quails WhatsApp account to find a booklet I was missing on Birding by Ear - Western. Neil was the one who responded and, although unsuccessful, did his best to find me a copy. Three weeks later walking around Corn Creek, I ran into a volunteer ranger. As fate would have it his name was Neil. We birded together for a while and the he invited me to come see a Bell's Vireo that was nesting near his home. We lived about a mile apart and so started our friendship.
I am a Gestalt birder identifying by shape and color and what pops into my head. Neil, on the other hand, was an obsessively detailed person agonizing over every field mark. (A mental health issue I have since noticed quite common among Nevada birders.) If he couldn't see it well, he took a picture to analyze. The only time I saw him let his guard down was with the Smooth Bill Ani. After four trips, he had called what looked like a black smudge in the phragmites, the bird. I still have my doubts.
It soon became obvious to me that he was quite active in the Red Rock Audubon Society. He seemed to know every birder we met on our jaunts. Always pleasant and willing to share his knowledge, he epitomized the ideal of a true birder.
I know he posted on e-Bird. Later I learned he was a coordinator for the Henderson Christmas Bird Count, local coordinator for National Audubon's Climate Watch, a field trip leader for Red Rock Audubon Society and participated in many other of the RRAS events such as the annual Global Big Day.
When I first met Neil his illness had already begun to slow him down. I was impressed that in his healthier days he had climbed mountains. Real mountains with overnight base camps and heights greater than 22,000 feet. He and his lovely wife, Karen, did off the grid bird surveys, sleeping in tents for greater than three months at a time. He was an amateur astronomer and knew not just the birds but also the dragonflies, plants and other desert creatures. Our trips were naturalist classrooms.
As his disease progressed, our weekly trips went from long hikes to short hikes, to coffee at Starbucks or happy hour at the Grapevine to our last trip in a wheelchair to Floyd Lamb State Park. On that last trip the weather was perfect. Karen and I wheeled him down to table 40. There we had a five warbler fall out. A Northern Parula kept flying over our heads giving spectacular views. The setting was perfect, and we all agreed it was our best warbler show there in years. Two days later he passed away.
Neil was a private person and never wanted his illness publicized. These days, trips to Henderson and the Wash seem longer and there are fewer local trips now that he is no longer here, texting me to go. He was a special person and will be missed by his many friends at Red Rock Audubon, myself and, of course, his wife Karen.
Neil and Karen at the 2017 Henderson CBC
Note from the Editor:
Red Rock Audubon will forever be grateful for Neil's friendship. He will be warmly remembered for his love of birds and his dedication in support of our mission.