Man on a Mission
Extraordinary journey and discoveryMan on a MissionDavid Redfield’s Retirement Years are a Never-Ending Journey of Discovery
By Tony Bridges
When images of a Laotian rock rat appeared in the news media earlier this year, the whole world took an interest. After all, the rodent belonged to an animal family thought extinct for 11 million years. No Westerner had ever seen one alive.
Video footage showed the rock rat – very much alive and in apparent good health. The animal looked something like a squirrel, but with a large head and more of a waddle than a scamper.
The discovery was extraordinary. And as it turns out, so is the man who made it.
David Redfield, a Tallahassee retiree with no formal training in zoology, has spent the past 14 years traveling the globe in a personal quest to see all of the world’s known families of birds and mammals.
His journey has taken him to nearly 100 countries, sometimes at his own peril, and led to thousands of encounters with captive and wild critters, including the Laotian rock rat that made him famous.
Redfield said he does all of it for the love of animals and learning.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “There’s just something about animals, a ‘gee whiz’ value to them.”
His home in the Westminster Oaks retirement community reflects his passion.
Paintings of birds and African art from his travels adorn the walls, and small animal figurines dot the flat surfaces. A wall clock lets out bird calls every hour on the hour, and his small, lush backyard sports at least five bird feeders.
It’s certainly the home of a man enamored of nature.
Redfield is intellectually curious by nature, and an educator by training.
As a boy, he delighted in hunting for snakes and other creatures in the woods at summer camp. Later, as a student at the University of Virginia, Redfield studied electrical and nuclear engineering before earning graduate degrees in education.
He taught for 24 years at Florida State University, specializing in the design of science curricula for middle- and high-schools. He retired from FSU in 1988 to spend time with his ailing wife. She died not long after.
In 1992, when Redfield was 62, he began seeing Patricia Darrow. She and her husband had been friends with Redfield and his wife. When their spouses both passed away around the same time, they naturally fell together.
The two decided to take a bird-watching course being taught by Jim Cox, then a state ornithologist. It was an awakening for Redfield.
“I had no idea of the diversity of birds, the contribution they make to life on earth, the incredible design of their biological structures, or their fragile dependency on the specifics of their environment,” he later wrote in his travel journals. “I soon found that there is so much to learn, and so much benefit from having done it.”
Over a series of four weekend field trips with the class, he saw 118 different birds – about one-quarter of all the types in Florida.
“I was hooked,” he wrote. “But shame, I could still look at a dead pine tree and see numerous ‘birds,’ only to be gently told they were pinecones.”
During a break in the course, Redfield and Darrow got married. When the class ended, they celebrated their nuptials with a honeymoon birding trip to Costa Rica. They traveled the world for the next 10 years looking for birds, until Pat’s death in 2002.
Early on, Redfield decided he didn’t want to see some birds. He wanted to see them all.
He set a goal for himself of observing at least one representative of all 204 taxonomic families of birds.
Redfield booked tours with birding groups around the globe and signed up to receive special alerts of rare bird sightings, staying ready to travel at a moment’s notice should a watcher spot one of the birds on his list. The hunt took him from the relative comfort of his own Florida backyard to some of the most extreme locations in the world.
He paddled a Zodiac (an inflatable watercraft) through the icy waters of the Bering Straits to see whiskered auklets. The relatively rare northern water birds are believed to live in only 10 colonies in the world, but Redfield and his guide eased through a fog bank to find themselves in the middle of several thousand.
Redfield was birding in China in 1999 when NATO forces backed by the United States accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Kosovo. A nervous Redfield found himself surrounded by an angry crowd on the streets of Beijing, but kept his mouth shut while another member of his group explained that they were French. He avoided trouble and went on to see dozens of new birds, including jungle nightjars and golden-spectacled warblers.
When a watcher reported the sighting of two rare emperor geese in an Oregon field, he was on a flight out of Tallahassee within 12 hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of them before they moved on. He made it, and the geese were just as reported, nestled into the snow near a cheese factory.
Not all of the trips were as dicey, or as spur of the moment. Many included visits with newfound friends and tours of beautiful cities. One “Birds and Music” trip to Eastern Europe had the Redfields out birding by day and in the symphony halls of Prague by night.
“Birding had become not an end in itself but a splendid opportunity for cultural pursuits, travel among vastly different cultures, and seeing our Earth from quite a different perspective,” Redfield wrote in one of the frequent trip reports he e-mailed to friends.
In 2004, two years after his wife’s death, Redfield finally reached his goal. He had seen birds from all 204 families – nearly 5,000 different species altogether.
“He’s taken a hobby to a whole new level,” said Frank Stephenson, editor of the Research in Review magazine at FSU. “He’s an inspiration to retirees.”
Redfield had kept copious field notes during his global quest – and once it was complete, he realized something exciting. Not only had he seen thousands of birds, but he also had seen nearly 80 percent of the world’s mammal families. He decided to keep going.
It turned out to be more difficult than the bird search. The mammals Redfield needed to see were more scattered and more difficult to find, and there were fewer guided tours of the sort that birders organized.
He would be able to track down some mammals in their natural habitats. Others, however, he could see only in zoos, because they were so rare and reclusive.
This quest would require detective work.
Redfield began his search with two American animals: the mountain beaver and the pallid bat. To find them, he turned to the Internet.
He found a reference to a 6-year-old report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed to track down a copy. It detailed the range of the beavers in Washington state, Oregon and California.
That led Redfield to a park ranger in Washington, and she recommended a state park where beaver burrows had been spotted.
The Web offered few clues about the bats, other than that they inhabited desert regions in the United States.
He booked a trip to the West Coast with plans to search for the beavers, then visit zoos in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.
At Manchester State Park in Washington’s Puget Sound, Redfield tracked down the campground manager, who told him that there were beaver burrows near several of the campsites. The bad news, however, was that the beavers rarely emerged from their burrows, and the manager had seen them only a few times in 12 years of working at the park. Since it was nearing sunset, when the beavers were most likely to be out, Redfield decided to give it a try.
He drove to Campsite No. 23, parked and got out of his car.
“Not 20 feet in front of me, an adult mountain beaver scooted back into the brush,” he later wrote to friends. “I had seen a mountain beaver up close in broad daylight, not having been on site five minutes.”
Mission accomplished, Redfield left Washington and drove 400 miles south to Fresno, Calif. He visited the zoo there and asked a naturalist he met what she knew about pallid bats.
It turned out that she was a bat rehabilitator. She gave Redfield a quick lesson in the bats. They have a bad smell, white bellies and red furry backs, she said. And, while they liked to feed on crickets and grasshoppers, they didn’t like the bugs’ heads and usually spat them out.
Did she know where he might find some?
The answer was a definitive “maybe.” The rector of a church north of town had called her about 10 years earlier with a bat problem in his steeple. She had urged the rector to leave the bats as they were.
Redfield drove to the church. The roof and parking lot were stained with bat droppings. On closer inspection, he found that the parking lot also was littered with grasshopper and cricket heads.
He left and returned at sunset. A California Highway Patrol officer stopped to see why Redfield was hanging around the church, and he explained. The patrolman was intrigued and stayed to watch. They waited until after 11 p.m., but the bats never showed.
Redfield counted it as a marginal sighting and continued on with the trip.
With the West Coast excursion at least a partial success, Redfield turned to foreign destinations, visiting Australia in 2004 to see moles and opossums and to Egypt and southern Africa for more rare rodents.
But it was a trip in May of this year that made Redfield famous around the world.
It started with an e-mail from a friend in Africa, alerting Redfield that he may have another animal to add to his to-do list.
In the late 1990s, scientists had found remains of a previously unseen rodent at food markets in Laos. After studying the remains of the animal – what Redfield describes as a cross between a squirrel, a chinchilla and a guinea pig – they concluded that it was the only species of a new mammal family.
In the spring of 2006, however, researchers at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh reported that the remains matched fossils of a rodent family thought extinct for 11 million years. Scientists had uncovered the fossils in China, Thailand and other Asian counties.
Redfield wanted to see for himself.
He booked a trip to Thailand first, in search of the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat. That search was a success, and a guide he met was able to help him arrange a further expedition to central Laos, near the Thai border.
They stayed in a small Laotian village, where a handful of families lived in a cluster of wooden homes, and slept on grass mats covered with mosquito nets.
Meals came from the land – whatever they could catch or pick. Redfield said they ate fish and tadpoles from a nearby river, and rice and bamboo shoots from the villagers’ fields. Dessert one day was a handful of red ant eggs snatched from a swarming nest. (They were sweet and tasty and preferable to fish eggs, Redfield said.)
Every night, they climbed into the rock hills and set traps for the rats. Four nights went by without success.
But on the fifth day, the shiny steel trap held a captive. It was a female, about the size of a large squirrel, with dark fur and an oversized head. It walked with a splay-footed waddle.
Uthai Treesucon, Redfield’s guide, opened the trap and took the rock rat out. It was unafraid in his hands, and climbed gently up his arms.
Redfield stood nearby, videotaping the rodent. After holding it for several minutes – it bit only once, and not hard, when Redfield tried to turn it over to photograph its belly – they decided to return it to the hills.
The rock rat, called Kha-nyou by the locals, waddled away into the rocks from which it gets its name.
Once back home in Tallahassee, Redfield knew he needed to show the video footage to someone. A friend suggested he contact Stephenson at Research in Review.
Stephenson said he was professionally skeptical at first, but after checking with scientific sources, realized what a major discovery Redfield had made.
“This was unquestionably a one-of-a-kind discovery, and I felt privileged to be part of it,” Stephenson said.
He alerted FSU officials, and the school’s press office put out a news release. Stephenson posted the story to the Research in Review Web page. In the first three days, there were 28,000 hits, he said.
Redfield began getting interview requests from news outlets around the world. Stories about his discovery appeared on the BBC, on the National Geographic Web site and in The Miami Herald, among others.
After nearly 15 years of searching the world for birds and animals, Redfield had become famous for his work.
So what did he think of his time in the spotlight?
“To me, what I’ve been doing is a self-fulfilling thing,” he said. “It’s been an experience, all this publicity, but for me the reward was holding the critter.”
Redfield already has gotten back to exploring the world for animals on his list. He has been to the American Southwest to observe bats and trap rodents, and left in late July for a trip to Uganda to see mountain gorillas, among other creatures.
There still are six animals on his list that he suspects he will never see because there are so few in the world. But Redfield doesn’t plan to give up – not while the list is incomplete.
“There’s always hope,” he said.