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Birdwatching naturalist Al Grass taught us all what to look for in life

Grass gained fame with his column in the North Shore News as well as his monthly guided nature walks at North Vanocuver's Maplewood Flats
Naturalist Al Grass (right) helps fellow birdwatchers capture the moment during one of his famed nature walks in 2016 at the Conservation Area at Maplewood Flats in North Vancouver. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

When I started working at the North Shore News, there was a long-running columnist who gave me and my young colleagues a chuckle.

His column was about birds.

We jokingly called it the “here are some birds you can see right now” column. And, truth be told, that was the backbone of the column. This was our impression of the writing:

“The bufflehead duck – that’s the name of a bird you can see right now. And the yellow-rumped warbler – you better believe you can see that guy right now. And don’t even get me started on the common nighthawk. It is neither common, nor a hawk, but you sure can see it right now.”

For decades naturalist Al Grass wrote the Wild About Birds column for the North Shore News, keeping birders updated on which of our feathered friends were currently visible at the Conservation Area at Maplewood Flats.

I recently took a second look at those columns, and there’s so much more in them than just a list of birds. There’s heart, there’s a voice guiding us all in a sweet, subtle way to get outside, breathe the fresh air, take stock of the stunning natural world all around us and, just maybe, do our part to protect it for future generations.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those were the words of a local folk hero. 

“He was a legend as far as naturalists go,” says Robert Lyske, a longtime friend who first met Al on the trails of North Vancouver’s Maplewood Flats.

Al and his wife Jude – they met on an owling trip and, not long after, were married, naturally, at Mount Seymour Park – were pillars of the Lower Mainland naturalist movement, working tirelessly with organizations such as the Wild Bird Trust of B.C., Wingspan Magazine and Nature Vancouver.

It was on the trails of Maplewood Flats that Al gained fame on the North Shore, guiding monthly nature walks that he’d promote in his column. His pull was so strong that there would often be 50 or 60 people following Al on his walks. He made sure the walks were fun and informative for everyone, and was particularly great at communicating with children, says Lyske.

“I recall him picking up a slug, holding this thing and telling my kids that they secrete this anesthetic-type secretion, and if you stick it to your tongue it will make your tongue go numb,” Lyske recalls.

That lesson stuck forever.

“You know kids – anything gooey and creepy and crawly, they’re all over it,” says Lyske, adding that Al was  “a walking encyclopedia on everything that creeps and crawls…. I saw my younger one picking up a snail and he had it right up to his nose, looking at it as close as he could.”

Al was, at his core, a teacher, says Lyske, a fountain of knowledge and passion who couldn’t help but share it with the world.

“He loved to teach people stuff. That was his happy place,” he says. “He loved it and he was passionate about it. Why wouldn’t he want to share it? If you get somebody started in nature, you’re building something for the future because you’re giving somebody that passion to grow into a position where you can contribute. He did that with me.”

And he did it with hundreds of others, no doubt. Maybe thousands.

Al Grass passed away earlier this month, predeceased by his son Danny, who died way too soon, but survived by Jude. He also left behind another legacy, a little army of birders and naturalists armed with his passion for the outdoors and a mission to care for the natural world, just as Al did.

He was generous, and not just with his time and knowledge. There are likely more than a few folks who are still thumbing through bird books given to them by Al. Lyske has one such bird book, but that’s not all Al gave him.

“I’ve got a picture on my desk that I look at every day,” he says. “It’s just a picture of me and my boys, we’re looking at a bird through a telescope.”

Al took the picture.

“He gave it to me,” Lyske says. “I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but to capture this moment and give it to me in a frame, I think it’s incredible. Like, I’ll have it all my life. For as long as I live, I’ll keep this photo of me and my kids. It’s such a great picture…. He took the time to get it in a frame and say, ‘this is for you.’”

Yes, Al Grass knew about which birds you could see. But he knew so much more than that. He knew about life.

Andy Prest is the editor of the North Shore News. His humour/lifestyle column runs biweekly.