Goodbye, Big Frank.
I have always believed in the goodness of people – that everyone has a purpose, no matter how insignificant they may think their lives are. Today, with great sadness, I write about the perfect example of such a person.
Frank Bert Butson, known to most as ‘Big Frank’, was born 48 years ago at Toronto East General Hospital. He grew up in the Kingston Road and Victoria Park area, attending Blantyre Public School as a playful kid.
Big Frank spent his high school years at Birchmount Collegiate Institute, where he developed strong friendships, and played rugby and football. His nickname hints that he was not the quarterback or wide receiver.
As some of his past teammates recall, Frank even had a play named after him in the playbook for when a yard or two was needed for a first down – the ‘Give It To Frank’ play.
He remained in the East End after graduation, and in the early 2000s he made a decision to travel to South Africa to explore and learn about the exciting wildlife that cannot be found in Canada.
This trip would change Big Frank forever, as his good friend Lyn told me. Frank gained a deep and great appreciation for wildlife after two trips to Africa. His desire to learn more (and not having lions to look for in Birchcliff) led him to search for and learn about birds of prey.
Frank started commuting to High Park to join the hawk watch that takes place during fall migration. He would spend two hours on public transit to join a group of avid birders in identifying and counting the “big 15” – the number of species regularly seen during migration, from American kestrels to golden eagles.
It was at High Park that Big Frank met Colin Horstead, an expert in birds of prey. It wasn’t long before he became Colin’s prodigy. Frank’s ability to learn quickly, his passion for the birds and his terrific eyesight made him an incredible birder.
The two became good friends, and in 2006 Big Frank made a discovery that amazed Colin and other hawk enthusiasts. During a cool fall day, Frank went for a stroll at Rosetta McClain Gardens, just blocks from where he lived on Kingston Road. He noticed a few raptors flying by the park, but didn’t think too much of it. He called Colin to come by and observe what he had seen. Colin was amazed to see multiple peregrine falcons fly past.
Other raptors, such as bald eagles and ospreys were seen flying over (and sometimes under) the hawks. They quickly realized they were standing in a migratory path, and the Rosetta Hawkwatch was born, with Big Frank at the helm.
The number of watchers started to increase. One trait distinguishing Big Frank from other birders was his passion to teach. He would always take the time to explain to passers-by what he was looking at and how to identify the birds. This would trigger the interest in many, and more often than not they would become ‘hooked’ – yours truly included.
In the fall of 2011 as I headed down to Rosetta McClain to take photos for Beach Metro, I noticed a group of people by the edge of the bluffs staring at the sky. I asked the obvious question: “whatcha lookin’ at?”
“Eagles and hawks,” said Big Frank’s good friend Walter Fisher. Walter was leading the hawk watch that year, but he and the rest of the group always talked about this Big Frank guy. I started dropping by at lunch time and on weekends to catch photos of the birds that were flying right above our heads. One day, I noticed a big guy who I hadn’t seen before. “Is that Frank?,” I asked someone.
It was. I must have asked him every dumb question in the book about birds. Why do they migrate? Where are they going? Where are they coming from? What do they eat? He must have thought I was the most annoying person in the group, but he answered every question, explaining everything in detail. He educated me, as he did to anyone willing to listen.
He was willing to miss a couple of hawks going by to explain to a kid how fascinating the birds were, as he once did with my son. That was his goodness. That was his purpose.
Frank was also involved with the Canadian Peregrine Foundation (CPF) and spent many hours at fledge watches, ensuring peregrine chicks would survive falls, predators and other hazards. He also participated in fairs, showing the birds of prey and educating visitors. On May 29, the CPF banded a peregrine at one of its nest locations and named it ‘Big Frank’.
The last time I saw Big Frank was March 10. I picked him up at his place and we headed up to Georgina to look for a great gray owl. We discussed many things on the way up including his friends. He told me how grateful he was to have people like Cori taking him to places all the time and looking for birds; Walter, to walk down to the park and look for birds; and Lyn, who he could talk to any time about anything. We talked about his health, and how he was looking forward to warmer weather so he could go out more often for walks. We missed the owl, drove back and I told him I’d see him later.
Big Frank passed away May 22. His mother Dianne, sister Kim, friends and colleagues in the birding community miss him dearly.
As our friend Walter wrote in a memorial webpage, “Please let us know what those high-flying hawks are, you’ve got a much better view of them now.”
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I enjoyed your article on Frank very much. He was a dear friend to me and my husband and even though he was only in our lives a few years, he touched it greatly and will be forever missed.
I only spoke to Frank once & he taught me how to identify the impossible-to-identify sharp-shinned hawk. I know the gang at Rosetta McLain gardens will keep his memory and mission alive. Frank was an important symbol to me of dedication and fellowship, even though I was not part of the group.
We met Frank and joined the group in September of 2009 as we strolled through Rosetta the day our sheltie passed away. Frank and the watch welcomed us with warmth and made ux feel better despite our loss and we were smitten by this special guy and the warmth from the keen group of hawk watchers. A recent stroke set me back somewhat but the prospect of getting back to Rosetta and the great group of people we met there keeps me going still. Thanks to Big Frank and Rosetta I am on the path to recovery and many more successful years of hawkwatching.
I just stumbled on this link. So sad. I never personally met Frank but we talked online in regard to an article I was writing about his mentor ( and mine) Colin Horstead. He spoke highly of Colin and I know Colin felt the same way about him. At Hawk Cliff, he is imortallized by a landmark named by Colin.
There is now a peregrine named Rosetta from Rochester, NY. May she soar in honor of Big Frank & everything he represented. He will never be forgotten.
Wonderful article Phil. Big Frank knowledge and love of birds, animals has touched many people. He opened the door to Birds of Prey for me, hawk, falcons, and owls. Plus every other bird that has soared over the park. I will miss him. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute to Big Frank.
Frank was an inspiration to all! He helped so many of us when we were stumped on an ID of a bird. He was a walking Sibley book. I will miss him and may Rosetta and Big Frank live on in his name! <3 Thank you for such a great tribute to Frank and I'm sure he knows too! <3
Great tribute! I do not believe that I had ever met him. If I had I am sure we would have been good birding friends. I learned most of my birding and butterfly skills from Jim Fairchild – an enthusiastic birder that was eager to share his knowledge with others – like Big Frank.
Thank you Phil for such a wonderful and touching article about our friend Big Frank. Rosetta, a female Peregrine Falcon named in his honor, is flying high above Rochester (NY). Frank will be missed and never forgotten.
I met frank online in 2000. I am a caregiver for a sick hubby. Frank invited me to go to Africa with him and I was unable to at that time. I later drove to Toronto where we spent a day and a night with Frank and another friend in Ajax. He gave me a wonderful elephant photo he’d taken in africa. We spent many hours online together discussing birds and africa. He also shared about the wonderful lady he’d met who made his life richer. Frank was a dear friend and we continued to email occasionally but care for my disabled husband and a mother who was ill took up my time and we lost touch. I just learned today of Franks death. He was a truly amazing person and loved the birds he knew so much about.
My life and many others were richer for knowing Frank. You were special Frank! Linda R