Seabird research loses a pioneer

31 07 2014

On July 19th, David S. Lee died of a fast moving form of ALS. I met Dave a few times, only briefly, but he was a major force in the field, and his loss is an acute one with impacts far beyond his home turf down south. John Gerwin, Research Curator for Ornithology at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, wrote this tribute to his former boss, and I share it, in turn, with you, Seanetters.

Recently I read a Scientific American blog about another endangered species, that being “The Naturalist” – that person steeped in the many paths of natural history. On Saturday, July 19, that “species” slid closer to extinction when David S. Lee, former curator of ornithology and a consummate naturalist, passed away.

Dave came to the Museum via Florida in the mid 1970’s, joined a very small staff, and took over two small collections (birds and mammals). Under his purview, both collections grew significantly in targeted ways and with significant data that really enhanced our understanding of birds and mammals in and near North Carolina. After a few years and with new staff at the Museum, Dave was able to focus on the bird collection, but maintained his varied interests in natural history.

Dave was a very skilled, “well rounded” naturalist and conservation biologist with a deep knowledge of many aspects of zoology and botany. He made so many contributions to our understanding of natural history, it is hard to summarize. He wrote hundreds, if not thousands, of articles for the popular press, peer-reviewed scientific journals, and edited volumes on the conservation of North American fish, Caribbean and North Atlantic Seabirds, tortoises and more. He was a frequent contributor to the magazine “Wildlife in North Carolina”. If you wish to see a list of his titles, visit: .

One of his favorite projects was an Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes (amply illustrated by the Museum’s Renaldo Kuhler). This volume has been used by so many ichthyology students across the country. For years we sold many copies and used the funds to bolster the collections (a few copies are still available on Amazon).
DavidLee%20holding%20tropicbirdDave blended his fish interests with birds, and ended up spending way too much time at sea off the coast of NC from the late 1970’s into the early 90’s. This at a time when few were interested in the region. He began to report birds that no one had thought existed out there, and many detractors came out to challenge him. He did what a good naturalist does – he brought back solid specimen proof. He then obtained a very large grant to continue surveys and collections of pelagic birds. Many publications resulted, and in the end, these data became the backbone for the State of NC to refuse permits for offshore oil and gas exploration. Additional collaborations with folks at UNC-Wilmington led to a study of seabird diets, which then brought to light the problem of plastic ingestion by various species of seabirds. And for the past two decades, numerous people on the coast have made a living taking others out on seabird-watching cruises – Dave’s work showcased the amazing avian diversity just 30-50 miles offshore, which makes NC the best place to launch such a cruise if you want to see these birds. And although moderate in size, our seabird collection remains one of the most significant, data-rich series of any.

Fairly early during his Museum tenure Dave and others worked with the USFWS to do a bird/faunal survey of Prulean Farms “down east”, which later became the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

Dave was interested in Caribbean natural history as well. One of the most endangered seabirds, the Black-capped Petrel, breeds on Hispaniola and spends a significant portion of its life cycle foraging off the coast of NC. Dave’s work on this taxon remains the only such work “at sea”. One of Dave’s many project ideas was to have seabird colonies across the Caribbean documented and put into a regional database. And that project took off, and continues to this day under Will Mackin, whom Dave co-advised years ago while Will was enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill (

Dave continued to be very involved in field work, and biodiversity conservation efforts, after his retirement. He continued to work with the Caribbean Seabird Working Group on documents and reports. He was contracted to do surveys in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And he continued to write articles. The Tortoise Reserve is something he set up a few years before his retirement and was another of his favorite projects.

Dave grew up in Maryland and went to Florida for his undergraduate and graduate education. He earned a Master’s of Science from the University of Florida in Gainesville. His first job out of graduate school was teaching high school in Maryland, and many of his students from those few years remained friends for life. He taught writing and had a superb talent for writing stories that were both scientific and entertaining, but comically full of typos. He was glad when spell checkers came along, and so was I.

I came to the Museum myself at the end of 1987, as collections manager. I could say “to work under Dave”, but fairly early on, he was generous in letting me take over the collections development and revamping, and steer us into new directions. He was certainly involved but he gave me great latitude, even early on. He was also supportive and enthusiastic about my work with graduate students at NCSU and assisting with their research. But my favorite memories are the many conversations we had about our collective natural history observations, and the many project possibilities that could stem from these. He was a great dreamer and schemer that way and his huge network of friends and colleagues across the country are testament to many such ideas he put into action, one way or another.

Dave is survived by his Mother and his wife, Mary Kay Clark, former NCSM curator of mammalogy.

Just a couple weeks before he passed, Mary Kay emailed me for some information (and could I take some pictures?) about some Sandhill Cranes, from Florida, in the collection and from the 1980’s. I thought it an unusual request. After an exchange or two, Dave began to chime in. It turns out, these were some birds they had collected and skinned………. While on their honeymoon! Dave noted they were happily drinking lots of good beer. Mary Kay says it really wasn’t that good (the beer). I suppose as long as it was cold, it was good enough. He then relayed that the “skinning party” took place on a river boat they had, while floating down some Florida river. I regret that the producers of the movie “The Big Year” did not know about this………. Working with Dave was often entertaining this way.

“Big wheel keep on turning…….”

Dead (____) Quiz answers

25 07 2014

My thanks to Capt. Eagle Eyes, the sole respondent on this quiz! Let us begin. Bird A, no one had any guesses on. At first, I felt the same and hung my head in despair. Then I realized that the foot was quite visible and might be of some aid. Sure enough, the long foot and very flattened, blade like tarsus leapt out at me on closer inspection. This told me I was looking at a loon. This impression was reinforced when I looked at the white belly and breast, white underwing, but with a little glimpse of some pale flecked upper wing feathers. So, a loon. Which kind? For that, I had to rely mainly on the reported wing chord, which was small and set the this bird solidly in the Red-throated Loon range. I feel fairly confident about this one.

Bird B, how about this one? The Captain suggested scaup, and I see his point (I am merely assuming, Captain, that you are male); this bird has a dark head, dark over the breast and a fairly standard looking duckish bill that could easily make it a scaup. However, the case is complicated by decomposition. This bird is falling apart, and, looking closely, we can see that the keratin sheath has fallen off the upper bill, exposing the bone underneath. The outline of the bill (completely vertical at the base where the beak meets the feathers) and the shape of the missing sheath piece makes me suspect that this bird is a Black Scoter. The missing piece was likely the yellow knob that males develop, which would be consistent with this bird’s gradual acquisition of adult male black feathers over the breast. My guess, therefore, is that this is a subadult male. Since we are on the subject of adolescent male Black Scoters, I want to share with you this rather striking photo of a bird found by Gil Grant in North Carolina last month:

Black Scoter male showing very prominent wearing of belly feathers. (Photo by G. Grant).

Black Scoter male showing very prominent wearing of belly feathers. (Photo by G. Grant).

This bird gives us a glimpse into the process of acquiring adult male plumage. The bill has turned quite yellow, but has not entirely become the raised knob seen in full adult males. The belly is almost entirely white. This phenomenon occurs as the bird grows in strong, new, black feathers over the back and breast first, while the older, weaker, belly feathers persist for longer and tend to rub and break. This bird may have been stranded on the beach for a time before dying, and the abrasion of sand and rocks may have accelerated the wear of those feathers, exposing more of the white bases and underlying down.

Another view of the new, black feathers coming in over the back, and the yellow bill base. (Photo by G. Grant).

Another view of the new, black feathers coming in over the back, and the yellow bill base. (Photo by G. Grant).

For Bird C, the Captain suggested Surf Scoter, and I do think this is a scoter. I am trying not to be biased by the fact that we have had such a high number of Black Scoters turning up on southeast beaches this year, but I still think this may be yet another one. Not a lot to go on here, as the carcass is quite degraded, but we do have a clean skull to go on. When I am faced with nothing but bones, I like to refer to Wouter’s Skull Site. Take a look at the Black Scoter skull page. Call me crazy, but it reminds me strongly of Bird C. I also looked at Surf Scoter, and Common Eider and White-winged Scoter, but I’m sticking with my original thought on this one.

Now, we come to Extra Credit. I don’t know much of anything about non-seabird beach cast remains, but that has never stopped me from holding forth before. Looking at this bone, I noted the little peg-like projections along the long edge, and I began to suspect we had a mandible here. It looks like a marine mammal to me, and the Captain thought bottlenose dolphin, which was right along the lines I was thinking. The only problem seemed to be size. This bone is only about 4 inches long. When I started looking into it, it also seemed that the teeth of a bottlenose are quite long and slender, not peg-like as in our specimen. What else could it be? Not a seal–they have a very dog-like tooth pattern–not these regular little pegs. Could it be some kind of small porpoise? I know there are people with lots of expertise in these sorts of things who would readily identify this thing. Where are those people? Am I wrong about the length of a bottlenose’s jaw? About the tooth shape? Is Captain Eagle Eyes right? I don’t know. And it’s a beautiful day and my children are agitating downstairs with increasing ferocity, so I must leave you there, dear readers. Until next time, when I may, perchance, have learned more about that Extra Credit bone.

Dead (____) Quiz

22 07 2014

Nothing like summer to rapidly degrade and decompose things lying about on the beach. As a result, I have some remains in rather advanced states of return to the earth for you, Seanetters. Here they are:

Bird A: Found by Evie Kester in NC on June 27.

Bird A: Found by Evie Kester in NC on June 27.

Bird B: Found by Warren Mumford in MA on July 3.

Bird B: Found by Warren Mumford in MA on July 3.

Bird C: Found by Lori Wilson in SC on July 9.

Bird C: Found by Lori Wilson in SC on July 9.

Extra Credit: found on Dauphin Island (Alabama?) and submitted via the blog by Nicole.

Extra Credit: found on Dauphin Island (Alabama?) and submitted via the blog by Nicole.

Alternate view of extra credit specimen.

Alternate view of extra credit specimen.

Seabird die-offs in Iceland

15 07 2014

Though the United States stretches across a continent between two oceans, when it comes to seabirds, we here on the east coast have a great deal more in common with our neighbors in Europe, Iceland, and Greenland than we do with our Pacific compatriots. For this reason, we always keep an eye on the goings-on in our ocean nation, as well as our political nation. Right now, there is an investigation underway into die-offs of Common Eiders, cormorants, and Black-legged Kittiwakes in Iceland. Wildlife officials have collected carcasses and submitted them for examination to the National Wildlife Health Center in the U.S. and to the University of Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Research Centre and The Institute for Experimental Pathology at Keldur, as well as the West-Iceland Centre of Natural History.

The die-offs occurred on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland.

The die-offs occurred on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland.

Of course, when we here in the Northeastern United States think of eider die-offs, we immediately think of Wellfleet Bay Virus (WFBV), but other potential causes have been suggested. Avian botulism, caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, has not previously caused die-offs in Iceland, but will undoubtedly be on the list of potential diagnoses, as it always is in the face of mass bird deaths. The tally appears to be around 100 birds so far, across the multiple species. The kittiwakes were found several miles from the site where the eiders were discovered, but that does not rule out a common cause for the mortalities. There is not much common ground between eiders and kittiwakes in terms of how they make their livings, except that they both utilize fresh water pools for bathing and drinking. Freshwater ponds and lakes are generally the source of botulism outbreaks, so that may be the grounds for suggesting botulism as a potential cause. Previous eider die-offs elsewhere have been put down to infections with a kidney parasite called coccidia.

It’s always welcome news that a die-off is being investigated, and we look forward to hearing the results from this event as soon as they become available.


Now, in a nonsensical and completely unrelated department, I give you this link to coverage of “The Blob of Provincetown” in Massachusetts.

Reviewers needed for Beached Bird Field Guide!

2 07 2014

Thanks to the strenuous efforts of Beth Mellor in the Tufts Media Services department, we are approaching a full proof of the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States! Now, before we go to print, I need many willing pairs of eyes to look it over at any level of thoroughness. If you would like to have an early look at the book, and help me find errors, awkward or confusing points, or stylistic issues, please post a comment or send me an email, and when we have the complete draft, I will send it your way.

Thank you in advance for your aid in this endeavor! I am getting very excited about the imminent printing of this thing. Our dear Dr. Julie Ellis beats me out by having an actual baby this summer, but this was the best I could muster.

Sample page. Beautiful, no?

Sample page. Beautiful, no?

Tracking scoter mortalities

26 06 2014

In mid-June, our favorite duck hunter, Jack Renfrew, wrote to tell us that his son had seen about 50 dead Black Scoters on the rocks near Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This past week, we received an email passed along by Rick Keup down in South Carolina letting us know that the state wildlife authorities were looking into scoter die-offs on their shores as well. Their agency managed to get a few carcasses and have shipped them to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for diagnostics. Hopefully, we’ll have some answers for you soon, but as we’ve learned time and again in such cases, there may be no clear answers in the end.

In the meantime, we’re left wondering. Is this scoter phenomenon the same in the north versus the south? Is there a difference in age or sex between the northern and southern birds? In body condition? In a whole host of other factors?

Because I am a nerd, my birthday present last year was this informative but not very flashy volume:

In it, I have learned that Black Scoters tend to venture farther south in the winter than our other scoter species, with substantial numbers (up to 30,000 birds) found as far south as Georgia. There are reports of the birds even in Florida in eBird, though the species is comparatively rare there. The heart of their wintering terrain runs from Maine to Virginia, in any case, so South Carolina is certainly pretty far south for them. As for timing, the species breeds here in the East on lakes from Ontario to Labrador, and they mass for that northward migration in the St. Lawrence starting in mid-April. By mid-May, most of the birds have traveled to and are headed onward from the St. Lawrence. By the end of June, few birds would be expected to remain down south, and eBird records tend to reflect that:

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 11.56.38 AM

The Nisbet et al text reports that “very few (usually <10 together) oversummer in the main wintering areas off the eastern United States." Any birds still remaining in the southern states at this point in the year, then, may well be abnormal. But are these birds starving? Sick? Ill-equipped to make the migration or to attempt breeding? There has been some chatter along these lines amongst the birders and wildlife pros contemplating the problem, and factors like this winter's harsh weather and its impacts on sea ducks have been bandied about. Nathan Dias, who birds the southeastern coast, wrote,
"This is the second summer in a row that numbers of Black Scoters over-summered in SC. Some have been lethargic and spent a lot of time on the beach, while others have looked healthy and hale all summer long. John Cox, Chris Snook, I and other CRBO folks saw them in multiple locations in Cape Romain NWR last year (Key Inlet, Marsh Island, north Bulls Island) and down at Kiawah and Sullivan's Island as well. But there are definitely more of them this summer – they are all over the SC coast."

Whether we're looking at a couple aberrant years, or a new normal remains to be seen.

As we learn more, I will be certain to share it along, my dear readers.

Curiosities in Maine

23 06 2014
Ralph Eldridge, lighthouse keeper at Machias Seal Island, took this photo of the rarity.

Ralph Eldridge, lighthouse keeper at Machias Seal Island, took this photo of the rarity.

This is not unusual since Maine is full of curiosities generally, but this time, both are bird related. The first is the story of a Tufted Puffin turning up on Machias Seal Island last week. “Yes, yes,” say the uninitiated, “a puffin in Maine. This is <yawn> big news.” But those puffins we have up on the rocks off the coast are Atlantic Puffins. This Tufted variety is a Pacific bird, and the last time one was spotted anywhere on the Atlantic side of North America was in the 1830s. There was a sighting in Sweden in the late 1990s, and another in Britain in 2009. Given the long lifespans of these birds, there has been speculation that that was the same individual.

The bird seen in Maine this month has been hanging around with its Atlantic cousins. How it got here is a mystery, but we do know that to make the journey from the Pacific over to Maine would require that the bird remain near open water to feed. It could not have traveled across the continental land mass. That leaves the possibilities that it flew along the coast of South America, rounded Cape Horn and then came all the way up to Maine, or that it potentially crossed via  a Northwest Passage through the Arctic. If this is the case, scientists speculate that we may see more Pacific interlopers as those paths remain ice free more of the year due to unremitting climate change. The cascade of consequences from our activities continues to surprise.

The second curiosity is a dead bird found by Doug Hitchcox on Ogunquit Beach earlier this month. Here’s the message he posted to the Maine birds list regarding the find:


“Hey everyone:

After summarizing our spring rarities in my last email, I thought the best
birds were past us, I was wrong. (By the way, I did forget that Kristen
Lindquist had a White-eyed Vireo on Monhegan Island, Lincoln Co. on 17 May.)
While surveying for plovers along Ogunquit Beach on Tuesday (6/10), I found
a dead pterodroma petrel that I believe is a Herald (Trindade) Petrel.

I know I’ll never hear the end of it, but I do not have the specimen. After
finding this bird, I took a few photos and saved the lat/long of where the
bird was (43.255417, -70.59175) so I could finish my survey. Later in the
day, Robby Lambert and I returned to recover the bird but could not find it.
I can’t thank Robby enough for the help as we looked all over the beach with
flashlights, finally giving up a little before midnight. I, and others, have
been back in the days since, searching to no avail. The lesson here: if you
find a dead rare bird on the beach, just carry it around with you for the
rest of the day.

I look forward to hearing from some pros, or someone with more pterodroma
experience than I, but here are a few of my thoughts on the identification,
starting with a photo:”

Photo by D. Hitchcox

Photo by D. Hitchcox

What do you think, Seanetters? I know it’s not something we’re accustomed to seeing, but we do have a unique skill set for identifying dead birds, no?


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