News is now getting out of a terrible tragedy. Mike San Miguel was killed yesterday evening in a fall down a steep cliff while performing owl surveys in the San Gabriel Mountains. He was 70 years old.
This is incredibly difficult to write, because I'm writing about the loss of a good friend as well as a beloved fixture in the birding community. The very early call this morning from Jon Feenstra should have been about a really good bird, but instead it brought devastating news. And somehow it isn't any comfort to know that Mike died working hard doing one of the things he loved most - birding with a purpose.
Most of you are familiar with Mike's accomplishments in the world of field ornithology. He was a long-time bird bander with a bug for gathering good bird data. He was an extraordinary connoisseur of rare birds, finding a great many of them and enjoying trips all over California to chase them. His experience and talent earned him a place for several years on the California Bird Records Committee, and he was one of the best ambassadors the Committee ever had. He served Western Field Ornithologists in many important capacities, culminating in a several year stint as President during which the organization gained new vibrancy and scope. He had an important role in the production of the CBRC's book "Rare Birds of California" and published several papers in WFO's journal Western Birds. He embraced eBird with unbridled enthusiasm (...he did so much with unbridled enthusiasm) and has entered more eBird data from California (4245 checklists) than almost any other individual as well as editing submissions from several counties. He did a heroic amount of field work and paperwork for the Los Angeles Breeding Bird Atlas and other large-scale data gathering projects. In short, Mike was not only about the most active birder I have ever known, but he was also the most enthusiastic birder - he loved being in the field whether alone or with his many friends, and he enjoyed learning something new every outing.
But I can hardly think about Mike the birder right now, because birding was only his second passion. Mike was the consummate family man, and the love he and Gayle showed so openly and generously for each other was nothing short of inspirational. His son Michael (also one of California's most accomplished birders) and daughter Lisa were everything to Mike, and if he wasn't the world's greatest grandfather he was certainly in the running for that title. Many birders don't realize that Mike virtually stopped birding for many years to be the best possible father to his growing children, and even after he resumed birding with more zeal and passion than ever he was always talking about his children and, eventually, grandchildren.
Those who knew Mike well, and a great many who didn't, were keenly aware of Mike's tireless work for bird and wildlife habitat conservation. We all try to be good conservationists, and we're all keenly aware of the problems birds and their habitats face. On my countless wonderful trips in the field with Mike the conversation would inevitably turn, and pretty quickly, to the inexorable loss of bird habitats as urban areas continued to grow and consume the places we enjoyed going. I would gripe and curse and feel generally pessimistic about everything, but Mike had a different and much more effective approach - he got involved. If he enjoyed birding in an area, he felt it was his responsibility to work as hard as he could to make sure it was preserved or restored for birds and birders. His career working in environmental work for Southern California Edison no doubt had a positive impact on southern California habitats. His efforts for bird habitat at Piute Ponds, the San Gabriel River, and so many other areas we take for granted have been heroic. His battles with agencies that were damaging habitat were fought with fervor but also with grace - even the Army Corps of Engineers must have had great respect for Mike. When Mike had a conservation mission he was almost unstoppable, and the world is much better for that passion of his.
We've lost so many birding friends to tragic accidents over the years, but this one is almost unbearable. I knew Mike for forty years, and I've rarely enjoyed anybody's company as much as his. To Gayle, and to Michael and Lisa, and to Jake and Alex, I can't imagine the pain you're going through now and I hope these few thoughts bring you at least some comfort. To Jon Feenstra - you were such a great friend to Mike and I hope the weight of the tragedy that happened while you and Mike were doing your owl surveys is lessened slightly by knowing you were there as a friend and performed an incredible service in dealing with a horrific situation.
Mike loved so many good things in life - as well as good people - that I'll be reminded of him constantly. Watching the hummingbirds in my yard, following the annual demise of the Dodgers, hearing about that next rare bird, seeing the trees and shrubs he has nurtured in so many places mature and thrive, enjoying a meal. How could I not think of Mike. And right now, Mike's passion for really good wine seems like an appropriate way to honor him - I think I'll open a good one from Paso Robles and toast one of the most generous and enjoyable people I have ever met. I'll miss you, Mike!
Kimball L. Garrett
Section of Ornithology
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
900 Exposition Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90007
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