WHO WAS WHO  IN CALIFORNIA BIRDING
1965-1989
DAVID A. GAINES
David Gaines was the most important environmentalist to come from the ranks of the hardcore California birders. Although it is probably too simplistic to say that David Gaines saved Mono Lake, it is close enough to the truth to warrant consideration. David's death in a tragic auto accident in January 1988 saddened all of the California bird world, and in some respects provides an end-point to a simpler, more carefree era.

Long before he became famous as a spokesman for the environment, David was an active California birder. He was birding the entire State by the late '60s, first appearing in the southern California pages of Audubon Field Notes in winter 1966-67, and in those for northern California in fall 1967. I believe that David grew up in the Los Angeles area, and I know that he joined by Los Angeles Audubon Society in the early 1970s where he birded locally with Keith Axelson, Gilbert King, and Arnold Small. He then went to Stanford University for college. He was very much a part of the active State birders seeking out vagrants in desert oases in the early 1970s, and also became friends with the "PRBO crowd," including Rich Stallcup. Among the projects that interested him were studies of declining bird populations, and he undertook surveys of the riparian breeders in the Sacramento Valley, leading to a significant publication (Gaines 1974)

In 1974, David inventoried the natural areas of the Mono Basin. The following year "he joined fellow students at Stanford in writing and receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct the first comprehensive ecological survey of Mono Lake. Their report was published in 1977 by the UC Davis Institute of Ecology. Among the report's main findings was the fact that water diversions from the lake's tributary streams by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) was a threat to the lake's ecosystems. The diversions had begun in 1941, and had already caused the lake to lose half of its volume and double in salinity. The diversions also caused the lake's Negit Island to become connected to the mainland, allowing predators access to an essential California Gull rookery;" [quotes from "Saving Mono Lake" by Shelly Biswell, Sierra Citizen, spring 2002 issue]. 

David would join David Winkler (the editor of the UC Davis report) and Sally Judy (whom he would later marry) to form the Mono Lake Committee (MLC) in 1978. This grassroots group was able to conduct the research and enlist public opinion to save Mono Lake. The MLC joined with National Audubon Society to bring suit to save the lake, and in 1983 the California Supreme Court agreed that the "public trust doctrine" required LADWP to limit water diversions. It was not until 1994 some 20 years after David Gaines had first become interested in Mono Lake that the State set minimum flow limits on streams running into the lake, mandated a minimum lake level, and required habitat restoration. By then, alas, David had died.


To focus entirely on Mono Lake, however, is to overlook many of David's other attributes and achievements. He was a superior field observer, and his interests in California birdlife extended well beyond the Mono Basin (e.g., co-authored paper on the decline in California of Yellow-billed Cuckoo [Gaines & Laymon 1984] and Least Bell's Vireo [Goldwasser et al. 1980]). He authored a checklist to Yolo County (Gaines & Beedy 1987). Most of all, David loved Yosemite National Park, and published two classic books on the birds of Yosemite (Gaines 1977, 1988; the latter [cover shown at right; the exceptional cover art is by Keith Hanson] also covered the Mono Basin in detail, although both texts covered both slopes of the Yosemite Sierra).

David was also a teacher, a mentor, a musician, and a poet. In an era when bird distribution texts were written in dry, scientific language (including my own), David's texts were enlivened with his spirit and appreciation for all of nature. While someone else's summary of, say, the distribution of Mountain Bluebird might begin "Mountain Bluebird is a fairly common summer breeder in dry, open meadows at high elevations,: David's text (in Gaines 1988) begins this way:

Though they lack the dulcet songs of other thrushes, I fancy Mountain Bluebirds the loveliest of all Sierran birds. As they hover over flowery meadows or glide to perches atop rocks or trees, their delicate grace lifts the heart. The sun catches their plumage, turning it bluer than the mountain sky above. They are not merely birds; they are feathered epiphanies.
The remaining text continues with all the scientific details found in any scientist's text, and all the specific dates of arrivals and departures and the like, but the book is a joy to read. Some might think this style like that of the 19th century, or Dawson's Birds of California (1923), but David, unlike some earlier writers, did not anthropomorphize birds. Rather, evocative of Ralph Hoffmann's (1927) Birds of the Pacific States, he expressed a human appreciation for them without assigned them any human characters. I consider him the best writer of bird information in our era.
Significant bird records: 
  • Golden-winged Warbler  20 May 1973  Deep Springs INY 5th CA record [co-finder]
  • Yellow-billed Loon  8 Dec 1978  Grant Lake MNO first inland rec for CA
  • Pelagic Cormorant  8 Dec 1978  Silver Lake MNO first rec in CA east of Sierran divide
  • Yellow Rail  15 July 1985  Mono Lake Co. Park MNO at that time the first summer record in CA since ~1950

Selected publications 1974-1989:

  • Gaines, D. 1974. A new look at the nesting riparian avifauna of the Sacramento Valley, California. West. Birds 5: 61-80.
  • Gaines, D. 1977. Birds of the Yosemite Sierra: a distributional survey. California Syllabus, Oakland.
  • Goldwasser, S., Gaines, D., and Wilbur, S.R. 1980. The Least Bell's Vireo in California: a de facto endangered race. Amer. Birds 33: 87-88.
  • Stine, S., Gaines, D., and Vorster, P. 1981. "Destruction of riparian habitat due to water diversions in the Mono Lake watershed," in California Riparian Ecosystems (U.C. Davis).
  • Gaines, D., and Laymon, S.A.. 1984. Decline, status and preservation of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo in California. West. Birds 15: 49-80.
  • Gaines, D., and Beedy, T. 1987. Checklist of the birds of Yolo County. Davis Audubon Soc., Davis, CA.
  • Gaines, D. 1988. Birds of Yosemite and the East Slope. Artemisia Press, Lee Vining, CA.

All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights reserved.
Photo of David Gaines courtesy of the Mono Lake Committee.
Photo of Mono Lake 1 Apr 2005 © D. Roberson
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

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Page created 22 Apr 2005