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: http://www.tortoisereserve.org/about/Lee_publications.html .

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 (http://wicbirds.net/).

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…….”

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2 responses

3 02 2015
Kevin Reed

David S. Lee was my Sophomore year homeroom teacher and in my senior year taught me nature photography at Towson Senior High. His former wife, the late Barbara Rothgaber, was my biology teacher whose class room was directly across the hall. I learned a lot from both of them. Especially his sense of humor.

I considered him a friend as well as my teacher. I will miss him dearly. I will at least always have the memories of the annual bat flying through Towson High’s halls and the Hell Bender Salamander incident in my biology class.

My only regret is never having made the trip down to North Carolina to visit him before his passing.

5 02 2015
scourc01

Thank you for posting, Kevin. Sorry for your loss. I also failed to visit a teacher of mine before his death, and I too still regret that, so I completely relate. You were fortunate to have him as a teacher!

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