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Ned Brinkley, birding tour leader and author, dies while birding in Ecuador

Ned Brinkley
Ned Brinkley birding at Cedar Island in Accomack County, Virginia, in July 2017. Photo by Roberta Kellam

The birding world lost a luminary on Sunday, November 22, when Edward S. (Ned) Brinkley died during a birding trip in southern Ecuador.

Brinkley, 55, was two-thirds of the way through a month-long trip in the South American country, according to a Facebook post from Field Guides Birding Tours. He was on a trek to “seek one of the country’s most charismatic specialties, the Jocotoco Antpitta. Early in the morning while on a trail, Ned, accompanied by a knowledgeable local person, did not feel well, and his condition apparently deteriorated rapidly. We do not yet know many of the details, but though paramedics were summoned, Ned passed away before he could be brought to a medical facility. Words cannot express our sense of loss for someone who was an integral part of Field Guides. We mourn for Ned, for his family and loved ones, and for the gaping hole this leaves in the fabric of the birding community into which he was so tightly woven.”

The Field Guides post described Brinkley as “a dear colleague and unfailing friend, sounding board, polymath, tireless team player, teacher, and fellow birder.”

Ned Brinkley

Brinkley began birding as a child in 1971, “when a luminous Prothonotary Warbler in the Great Dismal Swamp set the course of his life permanently,” according to a Field Guide biography. He worked as a birding tour guide for Field Guides from 1998 through 2011, and he returned to the company in 2019. He was slated to lead birding trips in 2021 for Field Guides to Finland and Alaska.

For 20 years, he was the editor of North American Birds, the journal of ornithological record published by the American Birding Association, and for many years, he wrote its always-insightful “Changing Seasons” column. He was the author of the National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, and he held a Ph.D. in comparative literature and film from Cornell University and was formerly a professor of literature and film at the University of Virginia. He also co-owned a birders’ bed-and-breakfast in Cape Charles, Virginia.

Since news of Brinkley’s passing arrived, several of his friends and colleagues have posted tributes about him on Facebook.

Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, wrote:

“I’m shocked and greatly saddened to learn that Ned Brinkley passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly. It’s hard to believe that a character so full of life and so ardently passionate and knowledgeable about so many things is gone. There really was nobody like him and it’s going to take a lot of us a long while to process this huge loss.”

The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory noted that Brinkley was one of its advisors and “a good friend to all Virginia birders. He spent many hours on the Hawkwatch Platform at Kiptopeke State Park over the years and was a welcoming presence to CVWO’s fall biologists. Everyone who knew him has a wonderfully warm story to tell — how generous he was with his time, knowledge, his lunch (!), and his worldly expertise — about birds and so many other topics. The birding world is grateful for all he gave. Rest in peace, Ned! We will miss you.”

George Armistead, chief network officer at Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures, said that Brinkley was one of his best friends. They met in 1988 on a Christmas Bird Count in Virginia.

“I believe Ned was at least something of a genius,” Armistead wrote. “He could compile information and present it in digestible form with an efficiency I have never seen otherwise. He was so well-read, capable in a number of languages, that he knew where to find all the info he needed, and he could quickly access and compile info on obscure birds, little-known subspecies, or scarcely known records. As an editor he had a furious hunger for completeness, and he probably ghost-wrote twice what he was charged with editing or reviewing. He would shock you with the information he could keep in his brain. He was a shocking person. He’d shock you with his wit. He’d shock you with how stubborn and opinionated he could be. The next moment he’d shock you with an amazing meal he’d prepared in just a matter of minutes. He was generous and thoughtful, and he could talk a blue streak. He was not bashful.”

Armistead concluded: “Smooth sailing amigo. Send some seabirds our way.”

Read the newspaper obituary about Ned Brinkley. 

Originally Published

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

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