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…….”

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.

Travels of tagged birds

31 12 2013

Kathleen Kelly, who walks Old Orchard Beach in Maine, was rather surprised, on her December 29th survey, to find a Herring Gull tagged in usual SEANET fashion (orange cable ties on wing and legs) that she’d never seen before. It appeared that a bird tagged elsewhere had turned up on Kathleen’s beach. Turns out, her beach abuts the territory of another dedicated Seanetter, Barbara Grunden. Going back into our database, it turns out that Barbara had found and tagged a Herring Gull on November 18th. More than a month later, it turned up a ways south on Kathleen’s beach.OOB

Herring Gull found on ME_54 in mid-November. (photo: B and C Grunden)

Herring Gull found on ME_54 in mid-November. (photo: B and C Grunden)

The same Herring Gull, though well-weathered now, on ME_81. (photo: K. Kelly)

The same Herring Gull, though well-weathered now, on ME_81. (photo: K. Kelly)

If we ever doubted the merits of tagging birds, here’s a case that reminds us to continue. Had this bird not been tagged, it would have been counted twice, as separate birds on two separate beaches, inflating the tallies for both. This case also shows us that one cannot rely on a carcass’ position on the beach to identify it. Many of our Seanetters make notes like, “must be the same bird from last month; is in same spot.” While it could be the same bird, this case demonstrates that whether it’s tides, waves, scavengers, or dogs doing the moving, carcasses do travel.

We had another case of following a tagged bird on its travels at least up to the point of its death this month; Nat Goddard, walking for us on Cape Cod, found a whole slew of dead Common Eiders late in October. One of these was a banded male (or parts of it anyway). Nat got this info from the banding lab when he reported the number:

Hatched in 2005 or
earlier, in Lockport, Nova Scotia, Canada (Coordinates: LAT: 43.58333; LON: 65.08333).  Bander c/o Randy Milton, Nova Scotia Dept of Natural Resources, 136 Exhibition Street, Kentville NS B4N 4E5.

What's left of a banded male Common Eider (photo: N. Goddard)

What’s left of a banded male Common Eider (photo: N. Goddard)

Banded in Nova Scotia more than seven years ago; found dead on Cape Cod in 2013. Where he went in between, no one knows.

Banded in Nova Scotia more than seven years ago; found dead on Cape Cod in 2013. Where he went in between, no one knows.

Whether the banders ever got any sightings in between this bird’s banding and his death, we don’t know, though it’s unlikely. Federal bands are small and difficult to read on live birds, and in a sea duck with its legs almost perpetually in the water, the task approaches impossibility. What various travels this bird undertook over the past several years, we’ll never know. But presumably it traversed the Gulf of Maine several times. Remarkable survivors, especially as I contemplate my own SEANET walk today; the temperature right now has yet to break 10 degrees. Of course, as the eiders know, a down coat goes a long way.

Happy New Year, Seanetters!

Happy Thanksgiving, Seanetters!

28 11 2013

You are always in my thoughts, Seanetters, and today, I am thankful for all the time, dedication, curiosity and good humor you bring to our project. Here’s a bit of that lattermost quality:

The elusive marine turkey, Turkus marinus. Thanks to Steve and Roberta Brezinski for the sighting.

The elusive marine turkey, Turkus marinus. Thanks to Steve and Roberta Brezinski for the sighting.

Enjoy your feast, and to those who celebrate, Happy Hannukah as well!

Recovering from vacation

26 08 2013

The chronology on this blog makes it look as though I wrote the 500th post and then disappeared on a two-week celebratory bender. This is not far from the truth. And since I labor under the delusion that you, my readers, would be interested in my vacation photos, here’s a pictorial tour of how I spent the past two weeks in Maine:

Hiked French's Mountain in Rome Maine.

Hiked French’s Mountain in Rome Maine.

Did some kayaking, with and without a young passenger.

Did some kayaking, with and without a young passenger.

Found a freshly dead salmon floating in the lake,

Found a freshly dead salmon floating in the lake…

...and made fish print (gyotaku) t-shirts with it.

…and made fish print (gyotaku) t-shirts with it.

Caught some bass,

Caught some bass,

and a whole slew of pumpkinseed sunfish.

and a whole slew of pumpkinseed sunfish.

Climbed up Bald Rock Mountain to look at Penobscot Bay.

Climbed up Bald Rock Mountain to look at Penobscot Bay.

and now I’m back. The blog will resume normal seabird business this week. Thank you for your patience and your indulgence.

Struggling back toward normal

17 04 2013

IMG_3582This is not the post I had planned for today, but I wanted to issue a widescale apology for any delays or lapses in my communication with you all this week. Monday, my husband ran just about all of the Boston Marathon, getting to around mile 25 before the course was closed. My kids and I were farther out along the race route, but they heard and saw things I wish they hadn’t. We’re trying to get back to normal now, but it’s slow going.

What will not surprise any Seanetter is that the first place I went yesterday morning was to my SEANET beach for my monthly walk. My younger son came along, and while we found no dead birds, we hung around listening to the harbor seals creaking and groaning out on the rocks in the river, and picking through the tidepools for periwinkles.

I am working hard to field all the emails and phone calls coming in from friends and relatives checking on us, and also trying to get my head back above water with SEANET. I have not forgotten you all, and being part of this program is one my great joys. I plead for your patience and understanding, and I promise, I’ll be back online with a Dead Bird Quiz before you know it!

19 02 2013


It’s not all that often that my personal blog aligns so perfectly with the SEANET blog, but this is one of those times. So here you go:

Originally posted on thestagecoachroad:

I suppose he just wanted to join the loons.

I suppose he just wanted to join the loons.

On Saturday we drove to Salisbury Beach State Reservation. We dropped off Christophe so he could commence his 17 mile run home, and the remaining three of us went out to walk the beach. We go outside a lot, in any weather, but our ventures to Salisbury are generally for the purpose of documenting dead birds for the SEANET program. This means a 1.5 mile round trip, and, when in the company of two young boys, about an hour and a half.

I was poking about in the piles of wrack and discarded plastic while the boys dug holes and inspected crab carapaces. Suddenly, I heard Simon howling. I turned around to see him nearly up to his knees in the water. His face was contorted with  shock and pain and he appeared paralyzed by the full force of…

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