Richard J. Koeppel

Birder Extraordinaire

    When Dr. Richard J. Koeppel, a longtime resident of Springs, died of cancer-related causes at Southampton Hospital on Aug. 2, the world lost one of only 10 birdwatchers who can claim to have seen over 7,000 different avian species. He was 76. 
    Growing up in Queens, Dr. Koeppel was drawn to ornithology. Over his lifetime he visited over 60 countries in an attempt to spot all of the 9,600 known species, until, about 10 years ago, cancer affected his mobility and forced him to start watching butterflies instead. He then traveled primarily in the Northeast, sighting several thousand butterflies, and helped to write the local butterfly list provided to visitors at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center.
    Richard J. Koeppel was born on Aug. 13, 1935. His parents, Morris Koeppel and the former Rose Porper, came to the United States from Austria and raised their only son in Kew Gardens, Queens. After graduating from Forest Hills High School in 1952, Dr. Koeppel attended Cornell University, majoring in philosophy and graduating in 1956. He went to medical school at New York University and completed his residency in San Diego.
    In 1960, he married Rosalind Joan Brenner. Dr. Koeppel was drafted ­into the Army in 1966, and the couple and their two children lived briefly in San Antonio, Tex., before relocating to Heidelberg, Germany.
    Dr. Koeppel was discharged in 1969 and the family moved back to the New York Ciy area. The Koeppels were divorced a year later.
    A new Manhattan resident, he served as medical director of Phoenix House, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, until 1973. In the mid-’70s he practiced medicine on several American Indian reservations — exactly which, depended on where he could accrue the most bird-sightings.
    After renting for awhile in Amagansett, he bought a house on Three Mile Harbor Road, where he would live year-round for the rest of his life. Dr. Koeppel was the director of the emergency department at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport until 1995, when he retired to watch birds full time.
    He spent much of the year abroad. In the summer, though, he could often be found recumbent near his pool, binoculars in hand. He predicted that he would sight 200 birds from his yard, a number he recently reached.
    “But he was at 199 for a long time,” said his son Jim Koeppel. “Even though he topped out at 200, he didn’t move, because there was no place he would rather live than Springs.”
    Dr. Koeppel’s other son, Dan Koeppel of Los Angeles, wrote a best-selling book about his father’s passion, called “To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession.”
    When not looking up, Dr. Koeppel was a insatiable reader. He collected and read nearly every book shortlisted for or winning the Booker and Whitbread literary prizes, said Jim, who lives in Tarrytown, N.Y. He also had a passion for jazz, so much so that he would celebrate the birthdays of his favorite musicians, among them Jim Koeppel himself.
    Dioramas — scenes built from found objects — further occupied Dr. Koeppel’s time. He insisted that they were not art.
    In addition to his sons, Dr. Koeppel leaves two grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held at his house on Aug. 25 at 1 p.m. Dr. Koeppel had an impressive collection of back-scratchers, and guests will be welcome to take one in his remembrance. The family has suggested donations in his name to the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center, P.O. Box 455, Bridgehampton 11932.