Reed Bowman, Ph.D.
Dr. Reed Bowman (1958-2023), beloved bird biologist at Archbold Biological Station, passed away unexpectedly on Monday 18th September in Sebring, Florida. After completing a master’s degree in wildlife at McGill University in 1985, Reed held various wildlife positions in Florida before he joined Archbold in 1991 while finishing up his PhD at University of South Florida in 1992. At Archbold he rose from postdoctoral biologist to be honored as the first endowed John W. Fitzpatrick Program Director of Avian Ecology. Reed retired in February 2023 and was enjoying his new, active status as Emeritus Research Biologist of Avian Ecology. His passing has left an enormous void at Archbold among staff, Board, visitors, scores of his past mentees, and has generated a tsunami of sorrow around the world across the vast networks of those who knew and loved him within and beyond the ornithological community.
Reed was a quintessential Archbold Scientist, Conservationist, and Educator. For more than 30 years he focused his research on Florida Scrub-Jays in the scrub systems of Archbold Biological Station, along the Lake Wales Ridge, and throughout Florida. Over that same timeframe he took on the challenges of conserving the ‘big three’—Florida Scrub-Jays, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and Florida Grasshopper Sparrows—at Avon Park Air Force Range for the US Department of Defense. His research was rooted in multiple scientific disciplines including ornithology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary ecology, ecological genetics, landscape ecology, endocrinology, and conservation biology, resulting in nearly 100 scientific publications with more in the pipeline.
(left) Dr. Reed Bowman. 4/6/2014. Photo by Dustin Angell
What distinguished Reed from most other academics conducting similar high caliber research, was that his science was driven by his overriding purpose, conserving the birds and habitats he committed his life to saving. Science for him was about far more than his resume: he steered his research into conservation action. He listened to the questions asked by land managers and conservationists. His science-based solutions were implemented by many state and federal wildlife agencies, the US Department of Defense, and conservation organizations. He served on numerous conservation advisory boards and committees including the Board of Trustees of the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (2001-2013). Without Reed there would be far less known about the requirements for prescribed fire to sustain Florida Scrub-Jays, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and Florida Grasshopper Sparrows. Without Reed the understanding of how to conserve and protect populations of these three species from regional, to state, to Southeastern US scales would be greatly diminished. He was one of the first proponents of captive breeding to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow and lived to see the early successes of that strategy. His passion informed, persuaded, drove, and sustained the commitment of others.
And what of the touching qualities and protracted innocence of those individual scrub-jays, woodpeckers, and sparrows woven so tightly into his life? To them Reed was probably a bothersome, interfering, tiresome nuisance, observing, banding, and checking nests, a person sometimes to be checked out, and other times to be avoided. They learned from old discouragements and awaited the new, never knowing the likely diminution in the trajectories of their lives without him, nor how he stemmed further decline in the survival of their species.
In recent years Reed gave presentations to conservation and scientific gatherings summarizing his three-decade perspective. He left audiences stunned by the sheer body of knowledge he had accumulated, and its impact. He was recognized and awarded: the Guy Bradley Award from Florida Audubon (2021) for lifetime contributions to bird conservation; the Regional Director’s Honor Award from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (2021) for Outstanding Performance for At Risk Species Conservation; and the Margaret M. Nice Medal (2018) for lifetime contributions to ornithology by the Wilson Ornithological Society.
Although Reed was primarily known for his work on birds, he was one of the finest naturalists at Archbold, deeply familiar with all of Florida’s flora and fauna. An accomplished writer with an undergraduate degree from SUNY in English Literature, he conveyed his knowledge of nature with wonderfully crafted words. Beyond his gift to narrate nature’s stories, was his talent to capture its beauty through photography. In search of beauty, he probably tramped over more square feet of Archbold Station than any other individual. His deep love and respect for nature meant he could envisage the right location, anticipate the light, frame the shot, capture the moment, and process the image as well as any professional. How many have dismissed the Florida scrub as a straggly, shrubby ecosystem until they stood in awe in front of one of his stunning landscape photographs. His famous photo, ‘Predawn Light over the Rosemary Scrub’, was a clarion call for the beauty of the scrub ecosystem and a Second Place Winner in the 2011 US Department of the Interior National Natural Landmarks Photo Contest.
‘Predawn Light over the Rosemary Scrub’, Archbold Station. Photo by Reed Bowman, 1/29/2010
Reed’s legacy will live on in many ways. It is infused in every corner and facet of Archbold. It will be embedded in the continued use of the Archbold jay dataset, now more than 9,000 individual jays spanning 14 generations, heralded as one the greatest bird studies in the world. It is instilled in the worldwide diaspora—110 interns, 22 graduate students, and (since 2005) 164 seasonal and full-time research assistants and post-doctoral fellows—that he trained at Archbold. It is linked to the hundreds of scientists who were his coauthors, colleagues, and friends. It is forged in the fabric of scientific societies, in both Florida and nationally, that he led and prepared for the decades ahead, especially as President of the Association of Field Ornithologists and President of Florida Ornithological Society. It is emblazoned on his amazing photographic portfolio and the legion of photographers he mentored. It is forever intertwined in the memories of innumerable visitors to Archbold who left inspired and changed by experiencing nature, and the jays, though his eyes. Finally, he lives on in the lives of his two children, of whom he was inordinately proud.
The overwhelming sentiments first expressed when hearing of Reed’s untimely passing were not only for him as Scientist, Conservationist, and Educator. They were also that Reed was the nicest, kindest, friendliest, most decent, fun, helpful person one could ever hope to meet and know. He was generous with his many talents including accomplished cook and ‘foodie’, writer and raconteur, fisherman, hiker, and woodworker. As well as impacts at work he helped the community, assisting wife Charlotte in myriad ways to elevate educational opportunities throughout Highlands County. He will be terribly missed. Our hearts go out to Reed’s family, wife Charlotte, son Seth, and daughter Mei. Condolences can be shared with the family here.
Archbold and our region is a far lesser place because Reed Bowman is no longer here, and a far greater place because he was.
Archbold Biological Station, 10/3/2023