After 30 years of wading in mud, hopping aboard questionable dinghies, and counting birds — lots and lots of birds —John Kelly has hung up his professional binoculars. In June, Kelly retired from his long-held position as director of conservation science with Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR), a local nonprofit based in Stinson Beach that’s been instrumental in studying the avian ecology of Tomales Bay in Marin County.
In 1988 Kelly started as a resident biologist at ACR’s Cypress Grove Research Center, a cluster of white Victorian cabins surrounded by Monterey cypress conspicuously perched on the edge of Tomales Bay’s eastern shore. Within his first year, he stepped up to director of conservation science and has spent the intervening three decades documenting that Tomales Bay provides essential habitat for shorebirds, waterbirds, and birds of the coastal marsh. Kelly, who has a doctorate in ecology from UC Davis, has published dozens of peer-reviewed research papers and reports and brought scientific rigor to ACR’s management of 5,000 acres of land in Sonoma, Marin, and Lake counties. “His long-term, ongoing studies of shorebirds, waterbirds, and herons and egrets have a major continuing value in addressing local and global conservation issues that involve bird population dynamics, principles of habitat conservation, and the effects of climate change,” says John Peterson, executive director of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Thanks in part to Kelly, in 2002 Tomales Bay was recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, the inter-governmental treaty that provides a framework for the conservation of wetlands.
Another colleague, Steven Albert, with the Institute for Bird Populations, adds, “[John] is one of those rare people, the kind I admire so much, who takes his job very seriously, and himself not so much.” Rumor has it that Kelly will be taking his next endeavor—surfing in Southern California—very seriously, too.