Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dave Lee - Original creator of the West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas - RIP

It is with regret that I post that my friend David S. Lee of Raleigh and Cooterville, North Carolina, has passed away from a fast-onset form of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) on 7/19/2014. Below are my thoughts on how we can honor his legacy in working to protect nature, enjoy life, and challenge authority.

Dave Lee was first and foremost a brilliant naturalist and conservation biologist with expert knowledge of most aspects of Zoology and more Botany than anyone could guess. He grew up in Maryland in the 1940s and 50s, but he spent a great deal of time in Florida during his formative years and for his undergraduate and graduate education. His highest formal degree was a Masters of Science from the University of Florida in Gainesville, but he was widely respected by his few peers in Vertebrate Zoology. His first job out of graduate school was teaching high school in Maryland, and many of his students from those few years are still his friends. He taught writing and had an excellent talent for writing stories that were both scientific and entertaining. He later became a museum curator, and he served with distinction on many Masters and Doctoral Committees, including mine.  

He was an only-child and his parents (David is survived by his mother) encouraged his love of nature. He boasted to have captured all the salamander species in North Carolina before the age of 12. 

His conservation work spanned the globe including a lifelong dedication to the preservation of Asian Turtles, South American Tortoises (, and hundreds of projects for North American Fish, Salamanders, Snakes, Lizards, Turtles, Warblers, and Seabirds. He also was an important (founding?) member of the Society of Caribbean Ornithologists (now BirdsCaribbean), where Dave helped to push for work to document and protect seabird colonies and to create a database to track the populations (see:, though he also contributed to projects to protect Kirtland's Warbler and other Bahamian and Caribbean animals.

Dave's greatest love was his fantastic wife, the well-known mammologist Mary Kay Clark, who also survives him. Second was his love of partying in Cooterville, which is an unincorporated township in Eastern North Carolina with a population of Dave and anyone visiting him. But perhaps his third greatest love was the pelagic community associated with the Gulf Stream off the Southeastern United States. 

As Curator of Birds at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, he spent thousands of hours offshore documenting the fantastic diversity of seabirds that can be found in the waters of the state. In the late 1970s and early 80s, many of the observations by Dave and his colleagues were doubted by skeptical scientists. The doubters were only convinced by collected specimens at first, but now rare tropical and South Atlantic birds including Black-capped Petrels, Trinidade Petrels, Band-rumped Storm Petrels, Audubon's Shearwaters, Bridled Terns, Masked Boobies, and White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds are regularly observed, and other scientists and naturalists make a pilgrimage to the Outer Banks to fill their life lists with Caribbean and South Atlantic seabirds.

It seemed his most proud victory was his part in the decades-long effort to prevent the exploitation of the North Carolina Outer Banks by oil drilling companies. Dave regarded oil and gas exploration as the greatest threat to pelagic ecosystems having carefully studied the potential benefits and permanent harms that drilling operations have brought to other shorelines where operations have been permitted. After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, David volunteered many hundreds of hours as an observer on vessels documenting the damage to the Gulf of Mexico pelagic and nearshore ecosystem. He shared skepticism with other threats like Sargassum harvesting and offshore wind farming - anything that was done in ignorance or under-appreciation of the importance of wild places was targeted with unrelenting adherance to Dave's First Principle (see below).

Along the way, Dave wrote 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, Turtles, and Tortoises. He was a frequent contributor to the magazine "Wildlife in North Carolina," (including this month  a publication of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission geared for hunters and naturalists that share Dave's love for wild places and have the ability to lobby the state to protect more wild places.

David Lee was an inspiration and a shock to everyone fortunate enough to interact with him. He was a hilarious jokester, and many Fools will look less ridiculous now that he no longer propagates believable tales on April 1st. There may even be a few of us out there who believe there is a cryptic species of parasitic box turtle in China that makes its living by mimicking other box turtles to get in close. Then, these imposters quickly bite off some of the flesh of their unwitting host turtles before they can retract to the safety of their bony carapaces (If you have the document, please post in the comments section:)).

Sure, he was not perfect. Dave liked to crack racially insensitive jokes, and he definitely recruited others into drinking more than they should, handling venomous animals when ill trained or overserved, and even encouraging people to sleep in the wrong tent during the annual Cooterville camping party. 

A forgiving historian, however, would try to argue that Dave Lee never intentionally hurt anyone. He might have committed lies of omission, like the time he watched while some tourists learned that clearings created by leaf-cutter ants in the Amazon are not good places to stand and gab. Or a bunch of other times that are NSFW, but he could hardly be faulted for carefully observing and documenting exciting events in the world around him, and he was an excellent photographer most of the time.

There are as many stories about Dave Lee as there are times people hung out with him. His life was a parade of absurd anecdotes and tall tales that were mostly true. He made special violation sheets to notify Cooterville visitors of their myriad possible offenses, and he was a committed scholar of anything politically incorrect.

I have studied his philosophy and his writings for many years, and I owe it to the world to try to relate some of his most important truths. 

The first principle of what we might call the Cooterville Lifestyle is to document and protect nature. Stopping the onslaught of humanity is a constant battle. Most people do not understand, but naturalists, particularly those who have studied the diversity and beauty of life over many decades and have witnessed nature's global decline, know that we are by no means winning the war despite many rightly celebrated victories and much greenwashing by corporate, government, and non-government propaganda. 

The second principal is to have a good time and understand the scope of your powerlessness. "Life is 90% attitude and 10% aptitude" read the sign on Dave's Desk at least from 1998. He was always having fun, even when he was stuck in some hellscape with diversity only in the biting, stinging, and blood-sucking insects and only SPAM to eat for weeks at a time. 

Third, don't be afraid to hurt someone's feelings if their ego is getting in the way of the correct action. Sometimes, that someone might be you, but Dave was absolutely untrusting and suspicious of anyone's authority on any subject, and he never willingly compromised the best action to appease some fool's self-importance. Dave Lee lived by very simple principles. He wasn't always right, but he was always honest about his opinion and willing to learn something new.

I liked being around him because I like being harassed, challenged, and caught off-guard. He will be missed, but we should carry on the Cooterville Lifestyle - perhaps slightly modified to avoid lawsuits and a few unnecessary hurt feelings - as best we can.

Will Mackin

Dave Lee with his Camera and the infamous SPAM hat, at Cooterville South, which is Long Cay, Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, The Bahamas. This island, particularly the habitat in the photo, is the densest and second-largest known colony of Audubon's Shearwater in the World, and Dave and Mary Kay first documented its importance in 1991.