Tributes to Gale W. Monson
(1 August 1912 - 19 February 2012)
Though his Arizona friends bemoaned their loss, it was my good fortune that Gale Monson was transferred to the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1960s. He made a lot of new friends there, some of whom were to become friends and mentors of mine when my family moved to Northern Virginia in 1967. I never met Gale in Virginia, but our mutual friends connected us when I came to Tucson for graduate school in 1976.
Because of submitting records from Maricopa County for American Birds to Gale, and later submitting drafts of American Birds reports for him to critique, I have a wonderful file of correspondence with him from the 1970s and 80s. One of the frequent words in those letters was “skeptical” – “I’m afraid I have to be skeptical on this one” – “I think I’ll have to continue to be skeptical” – “I am naturally a rather skeptical person, but I don’t mean to intimate that anyone is at all careless with their identification. We just need more documentation.” - “However, I will continue to be of a skeptical turn of mind where field observations are concerned and I hope that _____ and others of this new breed of ‘field ornithologists’ won’t object too much if I and possibly a few others will continue to be unregenerated doubters.”
When Marian and I moved to Silver City, NM in 1957, one of my first priorities was writing to Gale Monson, then the editor of the Southwestern Region for Audubon Field Notes. At that time, no one was reporting seasonal bird observations from this vast area of southwestern New Mexico, so Gale made it known how pleased he was to have a resident ornithologist eager to submit data from there. I, in turn, welcomed his advice and counsel on species status and distribution in this region with which we were unfamiliar, though we knew the birds themselves well from our Mexican field-work. Thus, considerable correspondence flowed between us from that point forward, initiating our decades-long association.
Some time passed before we actually met; eventually, though, we converged at some ornithological society meeting, I believe in Tucson. For several years thereafter our encounters were infrequent, typically brief, --most of that time he was in southwestern Arizona -- so my early impressions of the man were gleaned largely from his correspondence. Apart from his transmission of knowledge, I was from the outset impressed by Gale’s letter writing. He was a stickler for accuracy, clarity, and economy of words. He wrote exceptionally well, reminding me not a little of George Miksch Sutton, under whom I had worked for some years – studying Mexican birds and bird illustration, and perfecting my own writing. Gale’s letters revealed something of the man himself. When I came to know him in person those same qualities were obvious: he was straightforward, erudite, professional in all that he dealt with. Birds, naturally, were the overriding topic of all correspondence and our conversations, and it was immediately clear that they were as important in Gale Monson’s life as they were in mine. Despite his missives being devoted largely to “business,” hints about the depth of his appreciation of birds crept in through his choice of words, his use of unnecessary (but appropriate) adjectives here and there, the occasional digressions into bird-plant associations and other ecological matters.
After being with Gale a few times, I learned of his deep interest in all the other forms of life. At first, I felt that he would mention some mammal or other non-avian organism almost apologetically, as if feeling he should not stray too far from birds. But once he learned that I possessed a Ph.D. in botany and taught that discipline in addition to ornithology, that I was a lepidopterist, and quite keen on mammals, he no longer hesitated in getting “off the subject.” Always birds were the principal focal point, the center of his interest and important in their own right, but also as components of an endlessly fascinating environment for whose preservation he was genuinely concerned.
Insight into the depth of his feelings about such things was adroitly revealed in his chapter on the Arizona Desert that he contributed to Sewall Pettingill’s The Bird Watcher’s America for McGraw-Hill almost a half-century ago. I knew before that time that he could be as intrigued by a Desert Bighorn as by some choice bird – perhaps even more so, but it was from those pages I first became aware of his passion for the desert wilderness itself, and for protecting it – not just for “all the interesting plants and insects and mammals – and birds” but for ensuring “that the essential feeling of space and time and distance will always be there to savor.”
So, when I began to see Gale more frequently in Tucson during the following decade, I was well aware of his universal biologic interests. By then we had the time to enjoy long conversations, as he and Sally would join us for relaxing afternoons and evenings in the pleasant garden of our dear friend Grace Gregg with whom Marian and I would regularly dwell when we were in town. Gale knew that we had been to Africa several times, and one day – not surprisingly – he confessed that he always had wanted to see something of that continent’s fabled natural wonders. Marian and I had been leading birding tours to Kenya and Tanzania, and once Gale learned that our ventures were not single-minded pursuits of birds, and that we traveled rather leisurely, spending much time with the big mammals, he asked if he might join us one year.
Thus, we had the pleasure of introducing him to our favorite portion of the planet while it was still incomparably rewarding and satisfying to the naturalist. Always soft-spoken and undemonstrative, Gale nevertheless relished the spectacular animal diversity surrounding him there. The sparkling eyes and smile always would give away his pleasure, and he’d gaze long and admiringly at everything from Agama lizards to elephants and, of course, the several hundred kinds of birds. Of these, his announced favorite was the rare and charming Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye we called down from the dark greenery of the Kakamega Forest canopy to perform invitingly in front of us. It so impressed Gale that he had me do a painting of it for him. This hung on a wall in the Monsons’ living room for years thereafter, reminding him of western Kenya.
I have felt especially favored knowing Gale as long as I did, and to have traveled a bit with him; yet I would like to have known him even better and longer. He really was the “Grand Old Man” of southwestern ornithology -- and a good deal more.
Gale Monson enriched my life as I am sure he did for so many others. I first came across his name about 1970 in the 5th grade. I was in Keams Canyon and in a copy of The Birds of Arizona I saw all the 1930s bird observations from Keams Canyon that Gale had recorded. It was a thrill when about 15 years later I got to meet him and spend time with him birding on the Rez (Navajo and Hopi tribal lands) and hear his stories of his experiences on the reservation from the 1930s. From this initial visit I had a pretty lively 20 year-long correspondence with him. I still have all of his letters in my file cabinet. Sitting here I can think of at least six trips he made up there where we were able to spend time birding. On one hike (October 1991?), I took him and Tom Huels up into my favorite place on Black Mesa near Kayenta. We went up into the head of an isolated canyon with sheer sandstone walls towering 400 feet above us. Standing in the October shadows in the canyon bottom the winds swirled loose bright golden aspen leaves up into the brilliant sunlight above. Gale said at that time that he thought that was the most beautiful place he had ever seen in Arizona.
Whenever we were in Tucson we would often stop in to see Gale and Sally. In late February 1990 he and I hiked up into Pima Canyon in the Santa Catalinas and he told me stories about his experiences in the war. Gale was always so welcoming and gracious and kind. In my daughter’s house is a copy of Mother Goose Tales that Gale gave to me for her when she was born.
Our correspondence faded beginning about 2005, but even so whenever I saw an odd bird on the reservation or saw bighorn sheep or an ancient bighorn sheep petroglyph I always thought of Gale and how fun it would be to pass these things along to him. I have sought ever since meeting Gale to model my behavior on his…not only his integrity, graciousness, even-nature, and kindness but also his keen big-picture birding perspectives and his naturalist’s record keeping. He left the world a better place than he found it. He is one of the most cherished treasures I have had in my life.
GALE MONSON: PIONEER ARIZONA ORNITHOLOGIST AND HIS ROLE IN ESTABLISHING ORNITHOLOGY AS A SCIENCE IN ARIZONA
Gale W. Monson was an Arizona ornithological pioneer. He came to southern Arizona after graduating from North Dakota State University in 1934 with a degree in biology. He had been preceded by Allan R. Phillips, who also came to southern Arizona from New York in 1931. The two would soon become life-long ornithological associates.
Gale and Allan were far from the first to work on Arizona birds. Arizona is an ornithological magnet. Birds from Mexico spill across the border into southern Arizona and people come to Arizona to see and study them. The state had been visited by a large number of ornithologists, especially, during the late 1800s and very early 1900s. So, ornithologists had been visiting Arizona for almost a century before Allan’s and Gale’s arrival. Ornithological greats such as Arthur C. Bent and Joseph Grinnell had spent periods of time here and written of their findings.
In the 1870s, Arizona’s first “resident ornithologist,” Herbert Brown, moved to Tucson. By his death in 1913, Brown had established the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona and published at least 18 avian papers (Anderson 1972). However, he was a Tucson newspaper editor and owner and, later, warden of the Yuma territorial prison, not a professional ornithologist. George Breninger, a Phoenix resident, published 16 avian papers (Anderson 1972) and collected birds professionally for various museums during the late 1800s and early 1900s; dying in 1905 from arsenic poison absorbed while preparing museum specimens (Allen 1906, Palmer and others 1954). Charles Vorhies moved to Tucson in 1915 and became a professor at the University of Arizona. Phillips studied ornithology under Vorhies, who published 15 papers on birds while at the University (Anderson 1972), but he was basically an entomologist and most of his publications were on desert rodents (Phillips 1950, Palmer and others 1954). Also, Lyndon Hargrave came to Arizona in 1919 and although publishing almost 30 avian papers, several with Allan Phillips, Lyn was primarily an archaeologist (Dick and Shroeder 1968). Thus, Allan and Gale were the first “true ornithologists” to establish residency in Arizona after a hiatus of more than 25 years.
Earlier, professional ornithologists had accompanied numerous governmental undertakings, e.g., U.S.-Mexico Boundary surveys, railroad surveys, and military expeditions during the mid to late 1800s (Fischer 2001). A dozen ornithologists that were members of the U.S. Army Medical Corps had been stationed in Arizona (Hume 1978). When not attending wounded soldiers, Elliott Coues, Edgar Mearns, and Charles Bendire had all collected and written about Arizona birds. An increasing number of out of state collectors and ornithologists visited Arizona toward the end of the 1800s and beginning 1900s (Anderson 1972). None of them stayed in Arizona.
I have always been impressed with pioneers. Grandfather ran cattle in the area now holding the Arizona Biltmore. Uncle Bert talked of watching beavers build dams along the Salt River between Phoenix and Granite Reef Dam and Mother was fascinated by the Burrowing Owls at their burrows in what is now mid-Phoenix. Little did I realize that during the 1950s I had been introduced to basically all the resident, living ornithological Arizona pioneers and inducted into a fraternity that was to establish perhaps the most important era of Arizona’s ornithological history. Two years ago my daughter, Elaine Johnson (a fourth generation Arizonan), was promoted to Complex Manager of the SW Arizona National Wildlife Refuge Complex, over-seeing Kofa, Imperial, and Cibola National Wildlife Refuges. On learning of this I paid her the highest compliment I could imagine—“Elaine that’s incredible, that’s the position Gale Monson held when I visited him in Yuma in the mid-1950s.”
I was unaware of Arizona’s rich ornithological history when I first met Gale in Parker on a Phoenix College ornithology class field trip in 1952. Our professor, Abe Margolin, had started the movement that developed into the Maricopa Audubon Society during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gale, in typical fashion, escorted the class along the Colorado River to show us birds that none of us had seen before. I remember it as clearly as if it were last week.
The following year, in 1953, I met Allan Phillips when, at Margolin’s invitation, he came from Tucson to see what the avian situation was in Phoenix and vicinity, one of the most poorly understood regions in the state, ornithologically. Then, on 15 May 1953, I collected the first Golden Plover for Arizona at a small pond north of Phoenix (with a Crossman .22 air rifle!). Gale was editing the Arizona records for “Audubon Field Notes” and in his inimitable way, made me feel like I had contributed much more to Arizona’s ornithological history than was indeed the case. The following year, Bob Dickerman took me from Phoenix to Tucson to visit Allan at his home at 113 Olive Avenue, an address etched in my memory and in the annals of Arizona ornithological history (Dickerman 1997). I shall never forget that wonderful visit. Allan and Gale were, by this time, close friends and Allan, like Gale, had a wonderful way of making ornithological neophytes feel like they were contributing to the science. Soon, during the mid-1950s, I drove from Phoenix to Yuma to conduct Christmas Bird Counts with Gale, a unique and memorable experience. Finally, in 1959, I met Lyn Hargrave in the bird range at the University of Arizona while working on a M.S. degree under Joe Marshall. The line of the science of ornithology had encircled me. I was hooked.
The years since then have passed quickly. During the late 1950s, I conducted ornithological work in the poorly known Phoenix area, between farming and spending two years in Military Intelligence. I continued to be encouraged by Gale and sent periodic information to him for inclusion in “Audubon Field Notes,” as he continued to edit Arizona records. Allan left Tucson in 1957, a year before I entered the University of Arizona, much to my sorrow. I was finishing PhD studies at the University of Kansas in 1964 when “The Birds of Arizona,” was published by the two long-time friends Allan Phillips and Gale Monson, with the “new-comer,” Joe Marshall completing the trio. Few of us could match the ornithological brilliance of either Allan Phillips or Joe Marshall. Combined with Gale’s attention to detail and life-long penchant for detecting and recording birds, as well as recording Arizona records from dozens of observers over the years, one of the most impressive state avifaunal books for the U.S. resulted.
After Lois and I moved to Tucson from Grand Canyon in 1979, Gale and Sally invited us to their home for dinner and ornithological discussions. Much of the conversation centered around the revised state checklist that Gale and Allan were finishing (Monson and Phillips 1981). Shortly after that we were invited to their home again when Allan came to Tucson for a visit—regrettably, the last time I saw him before his death in 1996.
Unlike many of you, I never had the occasion to spend nights camped out in the field with Gale, or take long expeditions to Mexico and other exotic and wonderful places. The closest I came to that was a visit with Gale, his family, and dog “Phoebe,” at their home in Virginia in 1968. Gale took me on a tour of the local birds, orchids, and other incredible natural history entities he had discovered during his years in this “new” place. Gale’s influence on me as a scientist and ornithologist has been certain and indelible. Just as the pioneer team of Monson and Phillips played a major role in establishing ornithology as a science in Arizona it played a major role in turning a Phoenix farm boy into a scientist.
Allen, J. A. 1906. Notes and news[:] George F. Breninger [Obituary]. Auk 23: 356.
Anderson, A. H. 1972. A Bibliography of Arizona Ornithology: Annotated. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Dick, H. W., and A. H. Schroeder. 1968. Lyndon Lane Hargrave[:] a brief bibliography. Pp. 1-8 in Collected Papers in Honor of Lyndon Lane Hargrave. Papers of the Archaeological Society of New Mexico:1. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.
Hume, E. E. 1978. Ornithologists of the United States Army Medical Corps. Arno Press, New York, NY.
Dickerman, R. W. 1997. Biography of Allan R. Phillips 1914-1996. Pp. 1-8 in The era of Allan R. Phillips: a festschrift (R. W. Dickerman, editor). Horizon Communications, Albuquerque, NM.
Fischer, D. L. 2001. Early Southwest Ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Monson, G. and A. R. Phillips. 1981. Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Arizona, 2nd edition. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Palmer, T. S., and others. 1954. Biographies of members of the American Ornithologists. American Ornithological Union, Washington, D.C.
Phillips, A. R. 1950. Obituaries [:] Charles Taylor Vorhies. Auk 67: 141.
“Best wishes to Dave Griffin, who is an excellent birder and a good friend”
That’s what Gale Monson wrote on the title page of my copy of “The Birds of Arizona” – the masterpiece that Gale co-authored with Allan Phillips and Joe Marshall. In 1994, copies of that book were hard to come by and fetched top dollar at used book stores. At some point I had asked Gale if he knew of anyone who was willing to sell a copy. He did not, and in few words told me, “keep looking, they come up”. It was many months later when I found a copy in Tucson and paid full price ($78) – at that time the most expensive book I had ever bought. I asked Gale to sign the book for me and I was honored that he would make such a nice comment on my skills and our friendship. I was 30 years old and Gale was 82 years old.
Although birding in Arizona since 1980, Gale and I never crossed paths in the field. Actually, he and I never personally met and I envy all those that shared field adventures with him. I did know of him however from reviewing his many articulate writings and numerous bird reports which bore his name. It was not until summer 1993, the first field season of the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, that I contacted Gale. While surveying in early June of that year along the magnificent San Pedro River near Dudleyville, I was fortunate to discover a Streak-backed Oriole pair with the female just initiating nest construction. Since this was the first known nesting activity for this oriole not only for Arizona, but the United States, I knew it was significant. I also knew its rarity status would also attract a lot of local and national attention. Thus I made the decision to keep this nesting effort fairly quiet to give the orioles the best chance of success. I contacted Gale the following day as I knew he had a keen interest in the species having observed this rare oriole in prior winters a few miles to the south at Cook’s Lake. He hesitantly asked if I would not mind him visiting the site himself and at the time I was thrilled that he felt my observation was worthy of his time. Although now thinking about it, he may also simply felt the need to first confirm that the orioles’ identity was correct! He visited the area the morning after I spoke to him and he sent me a note of his observations. This is where I soon realized how observant and meticulous Gale was in the field and how much I shamefully neglected to record.
I first met Gale Monson after a presentation he gave to the Maricopa Audubon Society not long after I arrived in Arizona in the spring of 1981 from North Dakota, Gale’s birthplace and where he first began to study birds. I knew of him, of course, from his book The Birds of Arizona. This was the very first book I read, from cover to cover, after arriving in Phoenix during my first few nights at my temporary lodging in a sketchy motel room on East Van Buren Street. I borrowed the copy from the Environmental Division of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency I worked for at the time. I was hired, along with several other biologists, to help evaluate and mitigate the environmental impacts from the massive CAP water-development project. At the Audubon meeting, Gale signed my copy of the then new 1981 edition of his book, Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Arizona. I still have my tattered copy of his ‘orange book’. I often came across his name in the ornithological literature of Arizona. I noted that it was Gale who collected the first authenticated European Starling specimen for Arizona in Yuma County in November of 1946 and, four months later, saw a flock of “about 40” European Starlings from a moving Santa Fe passenger railway train in Navajo County.
Our paths crossed at infrequent intervals over the years. Marty Jakle, Rich Glinski, Gale and I co-authored the 1985 Western Birds publication documenting the first nesting records of the White-tailed Kite in Arizona.
In 1984, Barb Larson and I were traveling by ourselves for three weeks in East Africa in a rented jeep. While staying at a lodge on Mount Kenya, we encountered a tour group of American birders on the roof of the lodge getting a better view of the treetop bird species. Barb noted that the group of birders scurried back and forth on the flat roof like so many Sanderlings on the beach as each exotic bird name was called out. Someone shouted “Green Pigeon!” but I could not locate it in the dense, green foliage. Behind me, an older gentleman wearing a safari-style pith helmet said in a soft voice “Take a look, I have it in my scope.” After seeing the pigeon, I took another look at the man. A glance at the barrel of his spotting-scope confirmed my identification. Embossed in raised letters on a piece of plastic tape adhered to the scope was the name ‘Gale Monson’. Always in awe of him, I think I fumbled for words and said something lame like “Dr. Monson, I presume?” Several days later we met up again with his birding party at the Lake Baringo lodge. It was Barb’s 35th birthday and I had written ahead and asked for a birthday cake with her name on it. Due to a mix up in communication, and much to Barb’s chagrin, on the cake it said “HAPPY BIRTHDAY THOMAS GATZ”. Barb shared ‘her’ cake with Gale and the other birders. They all wished her a happy birthday, despite my name being on the cake.
An invitation to his home in Tucson for an evening slide show (perhaps the Africa trip?) during an Audubon convention in town at the time was sadly cancelled after Gale and Sally’s home was burglarized. In written correspondence in 1988, Gale encouraged me to continue surveys to explore my speculation about the possibility of Boreal Owls hiding somewhere in the high elevations of Arizona and went so far as to tell me he made room for my rambling notes on this elusive species in the precious little space left in his burgeoning files. We never did find any.
To mitigate for wetland habitat lost when the new dam at Lake Pleasant was constructed, the Bureau of Reclamation acquired and protected Cook’s Lake, one of Gale’s regular stomping grounds. One morning at Cook’s lake I was imitating the call of the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. After a few minutes, I heard some rustling in the trees. Who emerged from the trees but Gale Monson. Neither of us admitted that we had likely both mistaken one another for pygmy-owls and, perhaps a little embarrassed, we instead diverted the conversation to other bird sightings of the morning.
I think the last time I saw Gale was at the Phoenix Zoo in 1998 during the authors’ book signing for The Raptors of Arizona. I had recently transferred back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gale’s former agency. He had impressively authored six chapters in the raptor book. My modest contribution was only one. The last time I saw Gale in the field was when we bumped into him on the way back from the Mule Shoe Ranch when Barb and I stopped to search for a reported White-rumped Sandpiper at Wilcox Playa. None of us was successful in finding the sandpiper that day but I remember being happy to see Gale again.
Counting Birds with Gale Monson
(edited by Bill Broyles and Richard L. Glinski) A tribute book to Gale has been recently published (only 200 copies) with all proceeds going to the Gale Monson Research Grants. To purchase a copy ($34.45 including shipping) please email Janet Witzeman.
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