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For the Birds: Original group of Tuesday birders now down to one
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For the Birds: Original group of Tuesday birders now down to one

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Birds, among the other things they can affect, stir the human emotions. The memory of birds and good birding friends is something birders hold close.

It’s never a good feeling to realize one is the last man standing.

Larry McDaniel made a Facebook post on Saturday, April 10, to share with friends the news of his father-in-law’s death.

“Janet’s dad, Gil, passed away late this afternoon. He had been very ill, and we knew it was coming but it’s still hard,” Larry wrote in his post.

“I had to go home to put up the chickens this evening,” Larry added. “When I got there, there was a beautiful rainbow followed by a beautiful sunset. Then I saw a great horned owl perched in the top of a nearby tree. It dropped and flew right over my truck and toward the barn.

“I thought, ‘see you Gil,’” he wrote at the post’s conclusion.

I know many of Gil’s other birding friends were really touched by Larry’s sweet post.

I got acquainted with Gil Derouen, Larry’s father-in-law, back in the late 1990s. I realize now, trying to think back, that I cannot even remember the origins of a weekly birding group that went out almost every Tuesday afternoon to look for birds.

I do know that the group’s founders consisted of myself, Gil, and two other good friends, Howard P. Langridge and Reece Jamerson.

Birders often prefer to get started with field trips in the mornings. The afternoon timing of the weekly excursion was a kind concession to my work schedule that made Tuesday afternoons my one opportunity to bird with Gil and our fellow birders, Howard and Reece.

We visited various hotspots around eastern Tennessee looking for birds every Tuesday. We would visit Rock Creek Park in Erwin; Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, Holston Mountain and Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton; Winged Deer Park, as well as the fields and shoreline at Austin Springs, in Johnson City near Boone Lake; Musick’s Campground and Osceola Island Recreation Area in Bristol near South Holston Lake; and Shady Valley’s Orchard and Quarry Bogs in Johnson County.

These were only a few favorite places. We saw some fantastic birds over the years. We were like the four musketeers of our birding group.

Howard passed away on Nov. 14, 2004, at age 81, during an already difficult time in my life. The unexpected loss of this great birder with tons of birding tales who also loved to play tennis and crack jokes really affected me deeply.

I remember a birding trip I made with Howard a couple of months before his death to Holston Lake. We timed the trip to coincide with the passage of Hurricane Frances. Sometimes such ventures are rewarded, and this was one of those times. I added a life bird and Howard increased his list of birds seen in Tennessee when the storm blew in a sooty tern, a bird more often found in the Caribbean.

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Then as we prepared to depart for home, we discovered Howard’s car had gotten stuck in the mud. With me pushing, we got the car out of the mud. I ruined a pair of jeans in the process. Northeast Tennessee clay does not come out of denim.

Weekly birding trips continued after Howard’s passing, but my work schedule became less flexible as the years progressed and I eventually had to drop out. I did make some sporadic attempts to join some of the weekly rambles, which almost always drew the participation of Gil and Reece.

Reece died at age 83 on Aug. 1, 2017. Again, I had some memories of some wonderful years to reflect on.

One bird-related memory of Reece involved us standing on the bridge that spans Wilbur Lake when an unexpected gust of air blew his fisherman’s hat off his head. I made an unsuccessful grab for the hat, which fluttered down onto the water’s surface and was swiftly carried off by a current that I didn’t even realized existed in what looks deceptively like a placid little mountain lake.

The next week Reece had a new hat and was ready for another birding adventure.

Gilbert Derouen was 90 years old when he passed away last month. I didn’t realize he’d reached that milestone. I do know that he lived a good life and had a great family. He and his wife, Marinel, moved to Northeast Tennessee from Louisiana. Gil often entertained us while we were driving between birding spots with tales of his life in Louisiana.

He surprised me once when during a rambling discussion of television shows he informed us he was a fan of “The Big Bang Theory.” The long-running CBS comedy about a group of highly-educated nerds was one of my favorites. Even with a generation’s difference in our ages, we had that much in common. Gil even laughed while admitting that he, too, liked to follow the antics of Sheldon Cooper and his friends.

Gil and his wife also hosted the annual Christmas party for the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. They had a wonderful home with a cozy basement perfect for hosting small parties. They were impeccable hosts, and I’ll always cherish the memories of those parties. We always compiled the results of the chapter’s two Christmas Bird Counts after everyone finished snacking and socializing.

At some point, the baton got passed. There’s still a weekly birding excursion every Tuesday afternoon. Another great birder, Roy Knispel, is the organizing force behind this weekly excursion. I’ve joined them on a few occasions, but as I’ve mentioned, my work schedule hasn’t allowed me to do that too often.

I saw Gil last at a meeting of the Herndon Chapter on the campus of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. I think it was in the fall of 2019. Again, my memory’s a bit hazy.

Now, thanks to Larry’s post, which is such a fantastic tribute to his father-in-law, I’ll think of Gil every time I hear a great horned owl breaking the stillness of a dark night with its loud hoots.

I have great horned owls, as well as Eastern screech-owls, living in the woodlands around my home. My yard and the surrounding woods are my favorite birding locations, but I still enjoy getting “out in the field” when an opportunity arises. It’s been more than a year since I’ve really traveled anywhere to bird. I hope that changes sooner rather than later.

I’ve become more solitary in my birding, but that’s all right, too. I enjoyed the time I got to spend with Howard, Reece and Gil every Tuesday afternoon while it lasted.

Nothing lasts forever. On the other hand, nothing can take away fun memories.

I’ll focus more on the birds next week.

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