Ornithologist Alan Wormington, affectionately known to his bird watching buddies as "The Worm," was single-minded in the pursuit of uncommon species. His vast knowledge extended to butterflies and moths, but birding was his passion. He frequently drove from his home in Ontario to Texas where, until recently, he held the record for sightings by an out-of-state resident. Once, upon arriving in Texas, he learned that a rare Brewer's sparrow had been spotted in his home province. Such was his devotion and commitment that he turned the car around and tore back home, speed limits be damned.
Once, he dropped off Bruce Mactavish and a friend, then teenaged birders, at the side of Highway 401 so they could hitchhike back to Ottawa following a birding trip in New York. It was October and the wind was blowing east, so the conditions were just right in Hamilton for watching seabirds called jaegers. Mr. Wormington wasn't about to miss a possible sighting for an unnecessary detour to the nation's capital. "Such was 'The Worm,'" Mr. Mactavish posted on his birding blog, "hard-nosed when it came to feeding his interest in birds but completely open when it came to sharing his knowledge."
Glenn Coady, a naturalist who taught a course in birding at the Royal Ontario Museum, wrote: "As a field ornithologist, many of Alan's achievements are the stuff of legend." Mr. Wormington found seven species of birds that were new to birding in Ontario, the most discoveries in the province by anyone in almost a century. "Five hundred years from now, if someone is researching the lesser night hawk, the name Alan Wormington will come up. It's a little bit of immortality," Mr. Coady said.
In 1982, Mr. Wormington became a founding member of the Ontario Bird Records Committee, a group that verifies bird sightings with strict and rigorous criteria. The official list of species seen in Ontario now stands at 494. Before he died of cancer on Sept. 3, at the age of 62, Mr. Wormington spotted 447 of them, more than any other birder. That statistic will likely be surpassed eventually, but one record that will be difficult to challenge is the number of sightings he recorded within the boundaries of Point Pelee National Park in southwestern Ontario. In 1980, Mr. Wormington moved to nearby Leamington to have easy access to the bird watching mecca. He edited a newsletter about the park and recorded 349 species of birds. "That record may never be broken. It's remarkable," Mr. Coady said.
Creatures of the air fascinated Mr. Wormington from an early age. Born on June 20, 1954, in Hamilton, Laurie Alan Wormington was the second child of Margaret and Bill Wormington. His mother, a teacher, gave him freedom to roam the parks and marshes around Hamilton, while his father, a government employee, fretted that his son would some day need to find a real job. His sister, Janne Hackl remembers her brother's intense curiosity about butterflies and the hours he spent chasing them with a net. By his early teens he'd amassed a significant collection, all meticulously preserved, mounted and pinned with correct information. His favourite book when he was 11 was A Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America, East of the Great Plains. He read every passage and species account over and over until he had them memorized and the book fell apart. On Facebook, he wrote, "I was mesmerized by the information it contained, and there is no doubt that I learned more about biology from this single book than [I did in] all the years I spent in formal education.
Young Alan did not get much formal education. Although he eventually earned a diploma in historical/natural interpretive services from Seneca College in 1979, he dropped out of Hamilton's Westdale High School after Grade 10, confident he could teach himself about his emerging passion for birds. He'd already befriended some birders and would go searching for owls late at night. Ms. Hackl recalls accompanying her brother on a birding expedition. He told her, "'If I stop, freeze. Do not say a word.' Then we'd move very slowly forward so he could see a bird. It was pretty serious stuff," she said. At the age of 16, the first of his many publications about birds and butterflies appeared in The Wood Duck, a journal of the Hamilton Naturalists Club. He wrote columns for The Globe and Mail and three books: The Birds of Point Pelee, The Butterflies of Point Pelee and The Rare Birds of Ontario. They were ongoing projects, as he kept adding new information. A group of fellow naturalists are working to complete the books – his life's work – and hope to have them published soon.
Later in life Mr. Wormington worked as an environmental consultant, often contracted to work on projects such as wind turbines, highway and bridge construction and natural area surveys. For three migration seasons, he was stationed on an oil platform offshore from Texas as part of a study by the U.S Department of the Interior on migration over the Gulf. In 2002, he was part of a team sponsored by Zeiss, a manufacturer of binoculars, to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana. They had no luck.
Mr. Wormington had no luck in love either. A sad affair of the heart with a French girl when he was in his 20s led to the life of a confirmed bachelor. "Alan wouldn't have been able to do what he did if he'd married" his friend Bill Lamond said. "I don't think too many women would've put up with it."
Although he enjoyed the company of friends, Mr. Wormington tended to keep to himself, with a reserved shyness and blunt honesty that tended to come across as gruff.
"I found his directness to be refreshing, He was a genuine, kind-hearted man who cared about those he was close with," biologist Josh Vandermeulen said. "He was well respected. All the top birders in Ontario and North America know the name Alan Wormington. He's possibly been the most influential birder in Ontario over the last 100 years."
Mr. Wormington leaves his sister, Ms. Hackl, her son and her grandchildren.
Field biologist Jeremy Bensette said Mr. Wormington's ability to identify a bird – whether from a single chirp, its profile a kilometre away, or how it moved across the water – was extraordinary. On Mr. Wormington's final outing, in Point Pelee, he and Mr. Bensette found and photographed a redknot, one of an at-risk species. "I could tell Alan was excited. A big grin spread across his face that was almost childlike."