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David S. Lee 1943 - 2014

Fern Davies

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Noted seabird biologist, naturalist, and conservationist David S. Lee has passed away. Dave was equally devoted to birds and tortoises. In recent years, he worked working with NOAA and USFWS on marine bird by-catch issues related to North Atlantic pelagic fisheries while also serving as the Executive Director of the Tortoise Reserve, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping with the recovery of stressed and endangered populations through enhanced public awareness, the development of regional conservation strategies, support of successful existing programs, and conservation-oriented research. Prior to this he taught elective biology programs in Maryland, was a research associate of the Florida State Museum, and Curator of Birds at the North Carolina State Museum (retired). Lee also served as director of the North Carolina Biological Survey and has authored over 400 scientific and popular contributions. He has been the recipient of numerous grants and contracts from federal and state agencies and non-profit conservation organizations and works closely with the private sector on various conservation issues. Lee has been involved in local, national, and global conservation programs for the last four decades. He was a member of Maryland’s Governors Task Force on diamondback terrapins, and a founding member of the Chesapeake Terrapin Alliance. As a result of his numerous conservation efforts the Governor of North Carolina recognized him in 2004 as the State’s Conservationists of the Year. In 2008 Reptile Magazine featured him in Who’s Who in herpetology. For the last three years he has been working with NOAA and USFWS on marine bird by-catch issues related to North Atlantic pelagic fisheries. He was also working on programs establishing conservation easements on extensive tracks of private lands in SE North Carolina and SE Arizona. 


The remembrance by Will Mackin, below, says it all.





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 (tortoisereserve.org), 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: wicbirds.net), 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 monthwww.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Learning/documents/WINC/Sample_14/July-Aug-Poison-Ivy.pdf)  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
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I and, if I had to guess, countless others have lost a unique professional resource and friend. I express my sincerest gratitude for the privilege of being a very modest part of Dave's life and he being an important part of mine. Selfishly I lament loosing the rewards of his company, only to be consoled by the memory of his candor, humor, talent, and wisdom that he practiced independently or collectively. An admiring colleague, Dan (D. Klem, Jr.) 

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With John Gerwin's permission, I am posting John's remembrance of Dave:


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). 


Dave 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…….”


John Gerwin

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David Stephen Lee grew up in Baltimore and Towson, Maryland. He spent his formative years in Florida and received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from schools in Florida. His entire life was spend learning about the natural world, investigating various aspects of the biology of plants, invertebrates and vertebrates, and teaching what he knew to others. He applied his skills and knowledge to conserving and protecting natural resources. Dave excelled at many things — but first and foremost — he was a loving son, husband and friend.

Dave taught in high school in Maryland and Florida in his early years and noted that teaching had been his favorite job. His teaching style and methods, and especially his class field trips, are legendary. Many of his students from those few years stayed in touch all his life and some went on to careers in biology. He worked in the curatorial and research sections of the state natural history museums in Florida and in Raleigh, N.C. While at the natural history museum in Raleigh, he served with distinction on many graduate committees. A man of action, he organized and implemented a number of programs to answer questions that were critical to the preservation of a species or group and to protect ecosystems and habitat.

His work as a professional biologist spanned the globe and was varied in scope. It included work on North American fish, salamanders, snakes, lizards, turtles, warblers and other songbirds and seabirds. His concern for the decline of turtles around the world, and especially in Asia, let him to develop a nonprofit organization, The Tortoise Reserve (tortoisereserve.org). As executive director of The Tortoise Reserve, he worked with others in North America, South America and Asia to develop programs such as the Asian Turtle Consortium, that brings awareness and promotes action to help turtles survive against many societal pressures, such as over-collecting for the pet trade and their exploitation as a food item in Asia.

He had lots of stories to tell from his adventures, and for the most part, the most outlandish parts of those stories was true. Dave held court around many campfires, and living rooms, regaling friends with accounts of his more unusual encounters with people, animals, plants and his unique take on people, places and events. He enjoyed public speaking and was a sought-after speaker, always entertaining and enlightening while teaching. He gave countless talks to conservation groups as well as to his peers at professional meetings. 

Dave was well-known for his great sense of humor — his clever, quick, wry, irreverent humor permeated his talks, writing and everyday life. Throughout his life, he created cartoons and wrote elaborate ruses that appeared in college papers and satirical journals. He loved a good April Fool's prank and was adept at using humor to topple a grand ego.

Writing was one of his greatest passions and he was prolific, always having several projects, big and small, in progress. He published more than 400 professional papers and popular articles and had several papers in progress and in press at the time of his death. Dave had a great talent for describing complex concepts in a way that they could be understood by nonprofessionals. He was a regular contributor to the state magazine, Wildlife in North Carolina. He also wrote countless short opinion and education articles for trade and hobby publications and opinion pieces for newspapers. Some of his best writing appeared in emails, memos and notes for family and friends. His most beloved project, a book about his work in the Gulf Stream is due out later this year or early in 2015 (UNC press). 

Dave was a founding member of several conservation groups, including the Society of Caribbean Ornithologists (now BirdsCaribbean). In the Caribbean and Bahamas he pushed for work to document and protect seabird colonies and to create a database to track populations (wicbirds.net), though he also contributed to projects to protect Kirtland's Warbler and other Bahamian and Caribbean animals including turtles and bats. He was recognized as a leader in conservation issues in the Caribbean and Bahamas.

During his career at the natural history museum in Raleigh he spent thousands of hours in offshore waters of North Carolina, and in other Gulf Stream waters, documenting the fantastic diversity of seabirds that can be found there. In the late 1970s and early 80s, many of the observations by Dave were doubted by skeptical scientists. It is now well-known that rare tropical and South Atlantic birds including Black-capped Petrels, Trinidad Petrels, Band-rumped Storm Petrels, Audubon's Shearwaters, Bridled Terns, Masked Boobies, and White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds are dependent on that area and are regularly observed. Others now regularly make pilgrimages to these waters in the Gulf Stream off the Outer Banks for study and recreational birding due to his pioneering work. Dave's work in the Gulf Stream led to a decades-long effort to prevent the exploitation of the state's inshore and offshore waters for oil exploration. Protecting the biologically rich waters of the area known as The Point was of the utmost importance to him and he worked tirelessly to educate and advocate about these resources. 

Dave had a great number of friends and they were widespread geographically. The late Elmer Worthley and his wife Jean were especially important to him from the time he met them in early adulthood to his death. Dave was a founding member of an ongoing botany class that they held at their home in Maryland and a contributor to Miss Jean's public television program, Hodge Podge Lodge. Dave's hero was his friend David Wingate of Bermuda who singlehandedly saved the Bermuda petrel from extinction. Dick Franz, Chris Haney, Herb Hendrickson, Wayne Irvin, Will Mackin and Mike McCrea were special partners in work and fun. His college professor, John Funderburg (deceased), helped to shape his career and Dave was loyal to him throughout hard times. He was like that, he wouldn't let you down in a time of need, even when others were turning their backs.

His mother, June Bash of Pinehurst, N.C., encouraged his love of nature and writing. Dave was a born naturalist and she indulged his interest, including allowing him to keep snakes in the basement and presenting him with a skunk for a birthday present. In 1982, Dave married a North Carolina girl with a "dumb, two-part Southern name," Mary Kay Clark. With this action he unwittingly became a member of two southern clans with big extended family ties and the classic large gatherings that they enjoy. He coped well, usually by avoiding the family gatherings, or by making a short appearance at the event where he commiserated in the corner with other in-laws. He leaves behind a large extended family of Mitchells from Kelly, N.C. and Clarks from Elizabethton, N.C. 

A private celebration of his life will take place in the early fall. 

Condolences to the family may be sent to Mary Kay Clark at PO Box 7082, White Lake, NC 28337; or through Bladen-Gaskins Funeral Home in Elizabethtown, N.C. The family is especially grateful for support from Lower Cape Fear Hospice. 
Memorial contributions can be made to The Tortoise Reserve, PO Box 7082, White Lake, NC 28337. The charitable conservation fund supports small, onetime grants for projects that make an immediate difference for populations of native fauna and flora. You can also honor Dave by actively conserving and protecting natural resources. Dave was all about the power of the individual to make a difference. Remember that you, alone, can make a difference, and give it all you've got. He did.

​"They (turtles) have no worries, have no cares, ...yet has not the great world existed for them as much as for you."; 
Henry David Thoreau 1856

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