Consider everything you know about the past half-century of birdwatching in Vermont. Long before your field guides and checklists, before bird apps and atlases, before nature centers and eBird, before VINS and VCE, there was Bob Spear.
On the long, green path of Vermont’s conservation movement you will find authors and intellectuals, farmers and environmentalists, men with outsized legacies that remain with us in the wild even though the conservationists themselves are now gone: George Perkins Marsh, Zadock Thompson, James P. Taylor, and Hub Vogelmann, to name a few.
Now another great conservationist has passed. Bob Spear, bird carver, educator, and soft-spoken field naturalist, died yesterday, October 19, 2014, in the company of his friends, family and, although we weren’t there with him, the community of people whose lives he touched and changed.
Rarely do we think of artists as conservationists. But as sure as John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson could paint, so too could they be anointed conservationists. Without them we would not know what flies across our paths. And we cannot protect that which we cannot name and understand. Bob walks among them.
Bob’s life of art and nature began during the Great Depression when a stray parakeet flew into the family shed in Colchester. That odd encounter helped spark in Bob, at age 18, a passion for coaxing vivid birds from blocks of wood.
A farmer, navy veteran, technical specialist at General Electric, and a self-educated naturalist, Bob in the 1960s (with the environmental movement on its way) began to document the status and distribution of Vermont’s bird species. But Bob did not dwell only in the comfortable landscape of birdwatching. He went on to establish Vermont’s first Audubon nature center, Green Mountain Audubon, in Huntington, which he directed for seven years. And in 1969 he published, with support from the Vermont Department of Fish and Game, the first of three editions of Birds of Vermont, at the time the most comprehensive account of the state’s migrating and nesting bird species ever assembled. My own worn copy of Bob’s book laid the foundation for a similar book, Birding in Vermont, which I co-authored with Ted Murin.
Bob went on to establish the Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington, which to this day delights and educates accomplished and novice birdwatchers from around the world. The word unique is too often overused and misappropriated in writing and in conversation, yet Bob’s museum is unique – a tribute in wood to the vibrance of birds.
With elegance, care and attention to detail, Bob presents Vermont’s nesting species in their natural habitats. You want to know where a Nashville Warbler nests? Find it in Bob’s diorama featuring the warbler and an actual nest he collected from a bog mat in Vermont. Want to learn other warblers? Bob carved them all and built an automated “Lazy Susan” on which they spin while you stand back and watch through binoculars to learn the field marks of the birds in motion. Bob even carved a display of rare, endangered and extinct birds. Oh, he also carved a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.
The museum’s bird-feeding station, with microphones bringing bird sounds indoors, is arguably the best view of feeding birds I have seen on the planet. On one blustery spring day a long time ago, I guided a group of blind and visually impaired Vermonters on a birding trip at the museum and its preserve. From behind the huge plate-glass window these folks could see and hear and sense the birds outside. There among us, Bob enjoyed the people as much as he did his birds.
What you need to know about the Birds of Vermont Museum is what you need to know about Bob: Everything there is presented with care and quality, even the hawks in flight hanging from the ceiling over your head. This was no easy task. A museum of bird carvings on a small preserve demands constant attention, marketing, money, sweat and, most of all, love. Bob loved birds. He loved life. He loved his partner in life and nature, Gale Lawrence. And he loved the museum.
Late in his life, and too early in mine, as we walked one day in the woods around his home, where he still split firewood into his 80s, Bob worried about the museum’s future. Who would inspire others to watch and listen to birds here in Huntington and beyond? He asked whether I myself would move to Huntington to run the place. Few other times have I felt so honored and humbled. But it wasn’t to be. Perhaps that was a mistake on my part – but not as much of a mistake as my not visiting more with Bob in recent years.
Bob did find his replacement. Well, actually, he found replacements. No one person can replace this guy. The Birds of Vermont Museum now features the work Ingrid Rhind, a carver Bob trained, as well as other carvings from Dick Allen. The museum marches forward under the wise leadership of Executive Director Erin Talmage, who has guided the place through many challenges. Along with Erin is her talented staff and an active board of directors including Bob’s daughter, Kari Jo, and President Shirley Johnson.
In an interview nearly a year ago for a newspaper article about his life and work, Bob, at age 93, expressed the desire to keep carving even as he lacked the dexterity he once had to replicate beaks and talons and feathers.
“I started in the 1930s when a parakeet flew into the woodshed on our farm in Colchester,” he said. “I still have more birds to carve.”
No you don’t, Bob. Not then. Not now. Your work is done. Your life is complete. In our own lives, the rest of us should achieve as much.