Skip to content

In Memoriam: Keith Axelson

July 21, 2018

AxelsonKeithA few months ago we lost Keith Axelson. My apologies for waiting so long to write something in his memory, but it wasn’t easy.

Keith was the one of the founders of the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society. Yes, the first issue of our newsletter, “Audubon imprint”, rolled off the presses in June 1976. Keith was the designer and editor. This, you young whippersnappers, was before personal computing. It would be more than 10 years before the Apple II and what we call “layout” programs were even farther in the future. So, Keith used a typewriter (Google it). He typed all the articles, took that copy to the printer, then cut the galleys (printed copy) apart and literally pasted them onto  a template that he had designed, and sent it to a commercial printing house where they photographed it and then printed 800 or so copies for us to mail out. 10 times a year!


Sunset at Sageland Ranch.

And of course he contributed mightily to the conservation aspects of our young chapter. He and his second wife, Pam, organized The Desert Seminar that blew everyone’s minds when they saw the interest in desert conservation. This interest is behind our chapter’s connection with Butterbredt Spring – a seemingly odd place to sponsor for a chapter on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Keith started the Butterbredt Christmas Count, and when he retired from his business as a graphic artist, he bought a defunct gun club property “off the grid” a few miles from the spring and rebuilt it as his home in 1995 – Sageland Ranch. Since that time he was our Man on the Butterbredt Spring beat, keeping track of cattle rampages, off-road vehicle  damages, and leading more than 100 trips in and out of the spring.

Sometime in 1978, early on in this process, I was Shanghaied into being the treasurer and met all the smart, wise, experienced people running the chapter. That’s another story. However, as treasurer I was as involved as anyone in the Great Newsletter Expense debate of 1981. In addition to taking a great deal of time and effort, publishing a 4, 6, 8 page (and sometimes even longer) newsletter cost the chapter more than it could really afford. Keith did not want to compromise the quality and depth of the newsletter, but we had no choice. We had to cut back. Keith trained me as best he could because he resigned as editor and we muddled on. To add to our problems, our president ran off to South America (really!). Interesting times.



Keith and his Women – one of the many birding trips to Butterbredt Spring.



Butterbredt Christmas Counters trying to find a bird in the bush.

Keith the birder – where to start? He was a really good birder. For instance, every Christmas Count he would find at least one Slate-colored Junco among the Oregons. One might think he was making it up, but only if you didn’t know him. Did he know the territory? Yes – does anyone remember the Lane Guides? Before the internet the authoritative guide to finding birds was the Lane series. In my 1985 copy of A Birder’s Guide to Southern California Keith is the author of the Butterbredt Loop.

One of the things I discovered last December were the diaries Keith kept at Sageland Ranch. He wrote very detailed almost daily notes on the wildlife around him. Perhaps this explains why he was such a good birder – he was paying attention.

One thing we all knew about Keith was that he held strong views. I don’t think there was anything for which he had less than a strong view. For instance, he was against the capture of the last California Condors. Most of us were for it. We had some interesting discussions (!). But, holding a position did not mean he wouldn’t listen. The newsletter published articles for and against.

Butterbredt Spring is the long-running center of our conservation efforts. It was also the center of a cattle ranch. The cattle were regularly visiting the spring and wreaking havoc. Most of us held ‘strong views’ about cattle and conservation. Keith managed to persuade the ranch manager to help us fence off the spring, and run a pipe down the canyon to carry water to a trough for the cattle. This was no small accomplishment. Keith even lived long enough to see the spring declared an Important Bird Area (in cooperation with the ranch), see the improved BLM attitude regarding off-road vehicles staying out, and in the last few years see it become the property of California State Parks. The struggle to keep the spring viable is not over, but I think he was pleased at the progress.

Keith was also a very good, artistic photographer. He never, as far as I know, converted to digital. Again, strong views.



Keith’s Strong Views favored cats waaaaay over dogs, and when we were forced to bring our new rescue husky on the Halloween camping trip, he was a good sport about it. I noticed a certain resemblance between our new un-named dog and our host, so I said we might name him after Keith. “You wouldn’t dare!” was the response. So we named him Axel.

In 1986 Alice and I joined Keith, his daughter Lys and her husband, on a trip to New Zealand and eastern Australia. We had a great time, Keith’s strong views on food notwithstanding. In spite of being there for the first time, Keith was able to organize an excellent itinerary and we saw loads of birds. In retrospect, I am sorry that when Keith and Lys went on to Okinawa we did not accompany them, and not just because we missed the Okinawa Rail. One of the things I found out about Keith was at his funeral, when his best friend Andrew talked about Keith’s service in WW II. Keith never talked about it. But the fact is that the fighting on Okinawa was among the most destructive of the war. Keith received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. You think you know a guy.



Somewhere in Australia: Alice, Lys, and Keith.



New Zealand – Just a little kid, really.



New Zealand – Keith photographing a very tiny flower; Lys taking advantage.

And so it goes. Thank you Keith for all the things you did for our chapter, for me when I became the editor, and for doing so much for the environment in our part of the world.

Thanks to Lys Axelson for tuning up my memories in this article.

  1. robert gurfield permalink
    July 22, 2018 12:08 pm

    Chuck, How are you?

    I’m Sad to learn of the passing of Keith. He was a good teacher and a strong man. I wish I had gotten to know him better. Thanks for the memory.




  2. ethanski permalink
    July 21, 2018 12:18 pm

    Very nice article about a nice man (I did not know).

    Sent from my iPhone: No puppies or trees were harmed by this e-mail……. ….have a marvelous day!



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: