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Peter Vickery, 1949 - 2017

Fern Davies

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Peter Douglas Vickery
1949 - 2017


Obituary in The Auk

Peter Douglas Vickery, 67, of Richmond, died at his home on the morning of Feb. 28, 2017, after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was born on Nov. 18, 1949, in Oxford, England, to Walter Neef Vickery and Eugenia Belikoff Vickery.

Peter's lifelong passion was birds. He was known throughout Maine and farther afield for his knowledge of Maine's avifauna, past and present, and his unparalleled skills in field identification. He was also known for his love of sharing his knowledge and inspiring appreciation of birds in others, often inviting curious strangers to have a look through his telescope and explaining what he was looking at. And he was known and loved for his wide open heart, ready smile, warm hugs and enjoyment of all the wonders in the natural world.
Peter was educated at George School, a Quaker school in Bucks County, Pa., and earned his B.A. in literature from Connecticut College in 1972.
He later went on to develop his avocation into a lifetime profession.

He completed an M.S. and a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology at the University of Maine, earning the award of Outstanding Graduate Student in 1994. His research in avian ecology, most often focused on grassland birds in Maine, the northeast, Florida and Argentina, led to the publication of over 30 scholarly articles and books with colleagues and his graduate students. The mentoring of graduate students while adjunct faculty at U Mass. Amherst was one of his greatest joys. He was co-author, with Jan and Liz Pierson, of the popular "Birder's Guide to Maine."

Peter worked for Massachusetts Audubon Society for 23 years until 2001, first as natural history travel leader, leading trips to all seven continents, and then as avian ecologist for their Center for Biological Conservation. Since then, he had divided his time between biological consulting, serving as instructor in avian ecology at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Bremen, and working on writing "Birds of Maine," intended as the first systematic and thorough study of Maine's birdlife since the classic and widely admired "Maine Birds" by Ralph Palmer in 1949. Covering 450 species of birds that have occurred in Maine and documenting the many changes that have occurred since the middle of the last century, this is truly the culmination of Peter's life's work. When he learned that he was unlikely to be able to complete this work because of his cancer diagnosis, he gathered a distinguished team of co-authors to see it through to publication.
While Peter was, famously, always looking at birds, he also loved sports, both as an observer and participant, playing soccer in adult leagues until he was 50, when he took up biking and yoga as safer forms of exercise. He found time to coach his two sons' PeeWee soccer teams, and later to root them on at every athletic event he could.
He enjoyed exploring and savoring the natural areas of Maine in all seasons, from fall shorebird migration on Lubec's tidal flats or warblers on Monhegan Island, boat trips to see the seabirds and whales of the Gulf of Maine, to Christmas Bird Counts in Biddeford and Phippsburg. But his heart's center was always Morse Mountain in Phippsburg, to which he was first introduced by his wife Barbara when he was 15. Peter and Barbara spent as much time as possible there in the last 18 months of his life.
Peter's passing leaves a giant hole in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. His boundless love, humor and zest for life will be most deeply missed by his wife of 47 years, Barbara St. John Vickery; his sons Gabriel and Simon; his brother Ian Vickery, of El Dorado, Ark.; his sister Barbara Skapa, of Mt Vernon; his aunt Anne Vickery, of London, England; and his half siblings Carl, Eileen, Helen and Tina Vickery. He also will be greatly missed by the extended families of both Vickery and St. John families; a wide circle of friends; and one very special Great Pyrenees, Bhalu.
Friends and neighbors in the Richmond area are invited to gather to remember Peter on Friday, March 3, from 4-6 p.m. at Dinsmore Hall, 164 South Pleasant St., Richmond. A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 1, at 2 p.m. at the Phippsburg Congregational Church on the Kennebec.

]In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made, for book design and art work costs, to 

Birds of Maine Book Fund
Camden National Bank
111 Main Street
Richmond, ME 04357 

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It was my privilege to work with Peter as an instructor at Audubon's Hog Island camp for the past 15 years or more, and my memories of him are inextricably bound together with the sights, sounds and smells of mid-coast Maine -- including a wee dram of a good single malt after the sun was down and the loons were calling on Muscongus Bay.


Some of my richest memories are of our annual fall migration sessions on Monhegan Island, a place Peter knew intimately -- so much so that even when the birding was poor, you could count on his group to pull some wonderful rarity out of the thickets at the Ice Pond or the meadow at Lobster Cove, even though the rest of us had thrashed those places thoroughly and barely stirred a feather. On such trips he was always Field Marshall Vickery, dividing and deploying the troops where the birds would be best -- and barking orders when necessary. (Returning from one excursion, everyone dozing on the boat, he spotted an odd gull loafing on the water with a zillion others. With a quarterdeck bellow that could be heard by lobster boats a mile away, he roared, "Sabine's gull! Turn this gawdamn boat around NOW!" And by heavens, we did.)


Peter rarely tolerated fools and could deflate the pompous and self-important with a well-deserved verbal slice, but he was wonderful teacher, whose genuine enthusiasm for all things avian was disarming and infectious, especially to beginners. Hog Island will not be the same without him.


It was while we were leading a Hog Island group at Pemaquid Point in September 2015 that Peter received a call from his dear wife Barbara, in which she had to break the news that what the doctors initially thought was a precancerous mass was in fact stage IV esophageal cancer. Yet he soldiered on for the rest of the morning -- and the rest of the week -- and no one except his closest friends would have realized anything was amiss.


It is a great grief to me that he did not live to see the completion of his magnum opus, "The Birds of Maine," on which he worked until literally his final days. I am honored to be part of the team of friends and colleagues who, with his "sweetie" (always that) Barbara, are seeing the project through to completion -- a team he assembled when it was clear his time was limited.


Though we spoke by phone many times in recent months about book matters, my last day with Peter in the field -- and a memory that I will cherish -- was after our final camp session had wrapped up last September, and we joined the annual Maine Audubon pelagic out of Bar Harbor with a number of mutual friends. The birds were good, and Peter was in both his element and his glory -- up at the bow of the fast whalewatching boat skimming over the waves at 35 knots, Peter's white hair whipping in the wind and a fierce grin on his face as we chased down a mystery skua. A few days later, when his doctor cautioned him against overexertion, Peter told him, "That's the tonic I need."


For many of us, Peter was a bracing tonic, too, and the world is poorer place without him.


Scott Weidensaul

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