Ned Brinkley spent much of his life in search of the world's most elusive winged creatures - green-and-crimson-splashed Prince Ruspoli's turacos in the scrubby woodlands of Ethiopia, the fierce gyrfalcons of Iceland's tundra, red-billed tropicbirds soaring over the balmy Gulf Stream off North Carolina. They were among the thousands of species on Ned's life list.
Ned was on a trail in southern Ecuador in quest of another "lifer," the endangered Jocotoco antpitta, when he died Nov. 22, 2020. His life of chasing adventures, fighting the good fights and making friends in every corner of the world where he traveled came to an end far too soon, after 55 years.
Ned didn't realize that, in the eyes of the many people who admired and loved him, he was every bit as unique, charming and colorful as the birds he studied and wrote about. When he led birding tours, it was Ned who often left the most lasting impression.
Ned's warmth, wit and generosity were instant identifiers, as was his purposefulness. There seemed to be nothing he set his mind and heart to, that Ned couldn't do well. He was a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia, earned a doctorate in comparative literature and film from Cornell, wrote internationally published bird guides, managed a hotel in his adopted Eastern Shore hometown of Cape Charles, Va.; oversaw the making of exquisite mosaic tiles, and spoke or wrote in seven languages.
He was known to sing Verdi in the field and could talk a streak that left an audience doubled over in laughter. But, more importantly, Ned knew when to listen - for a warbler rustling in the brush or for the screech of a petrel over the ocean, or to a friend or a relative whose spirit was exhausted.
Ned was born on May 4, 1965, in Arlington, Va., to Carole Rae Kazokas, and Arthur Joseph Venturo. A few weeks later, he was adopted by Clifton Stanworth Brinkley and Catherine MacDonald Lee Brinkley of Norfolk, Va. They named him Edward Stanley Brinkley II, after his new father's father, and raised him in their home on Mowbray Arch. The couple later adopted Ned's sister, now Mary Seddon Brinkley Webster.
Ned was a rambunctious and endlessly curious child - a voracious reader of classic literature and a lover (like his father) of saltwater adventures. When his cousins crowded toward the sweets at Thanksgiving, young Ned danced around them to reach the raw oysters. According to his biography for Field Guides, a touring company that employed him for many years, his love of birds began as a 6-year-old when a luminous prothonotary warbler sighted in the Great Dismal Swamp "set the course of his life permanently."
After graduating as the salutatorian of Maury High School in Norfolk, Ned went on to U.Va., where, between studies, he found time for a dozen or more clubs, societies and activist groups, including the German and Italian clubs, Students Against Racial Separatism, United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War and the Lesbian-Gay Student Union.
From U.Va., he headed to Cornell for a master's and Ph.D. He'd already been leading birding field trips since 1980 and was guiding full-blown tours by 1993. Over the years, Ned would write a half-dozen books about birds, including the National Wildlife Federation's 2007 "Field Guide to the Birds of North America." His bibliography lists more than 100 other publications, from journal papers to book reviews, on subjects that sometimes ranged well beyond birds. For 16 years he edited the journal of the American Birding Association. Ned was a prolific blogger as well.
He was known to write in other languages, when called for. A letter he drafted in French to Guadeloupe government officials in 2011 was credited for helping lessen the slaughter of shorebirds on that Caribbean island, including whimbrels that migrate, on their way to Canada, through the Eastern Shore.
Ned's career pursuits included many a side trip. He was the co-owner and operator of Sterling House Bed & Breakfast and, later, general manager of the boutique Hotel Cape Charles. For a few years, he oversaw manufacturing for New Ravenna, a mosaics maker in Exmore, Va. He taught at U.Va. as well.
He easily befriended people of every political persuasion, but was progressively minded. He dedicated his best-known field guide to female mentors. He was there for the 2017 Women's March in Washington.
It was encounters in the field, among birds and people, where he made the most connections.
In a blog post in 2013, Ned described his philosophy on birders: "Most of us are looking for a refuge from negativity, a connection with what's real, what's fascinating, and what's beautiful in the world."
Hundreds of tributes to Ned have been posted on the Facebook sites of birding organizations since Ned's death. At Seabirding, a group that offers North Carolina offshore birdwatching trips. Ned was described as "an incredible friend, amazing leader and irreplaceable scholarâ€¦He took flight â€¦in Ecuador, while searching for the perfect bird. We love you."
The feeling was mutual. Ned's last word, scratched into the earth as he lay dying on a slope of the Andes, was "amor."
Ned's parents, both biological and adoptive, passed away before him. He is survived by his sister, Mary Seddon Brinkley Webster, her husband Nathan Paul Webster, nephews Daniel Patrick Webster, Paul Stanworth Webster, and beloved niece Eliza Catherine Webster, for whom Ned served as a guide and mentor. He was especially close to cousin Dorothy Raine Lee and leaves behind treasured friends Brent Harris, Steve Hairfield, and half-sister Susan Deschenes as well as dozens of cousins who adored him and hundreds of others who were proud to call him a friend.
Plans for a celebration of Ned's life coinciding with the spring bird migration through Virginia's Eastern Shore will be announced at a later time. Messages of condolence can be recorded on Legacy.com
. Contributions in Ned's name can be made to the Center for Conservation Biology, ccbbirds.org
, or your local animal shelter.