A History of the Williamsburg Bird Club: Thirty Years of Community Service

A Historical Context

by Bill Williams, 2004

“The initial meeting of the Williamsburg Bird Club drew better than thirty avian enthusiasts to the College of William and Mary’s Andrews Hall on September 21, 1977. The meeting centered around discussion of plans for the group, concerning field trips and topics of interest to which future meetings could be devoted.”

This rather unassuming statement, extracted from the first issue of the Williamsburg Bird Club Notes, summarized the initiation of what was to evolve into a vibrant and valuable organization devoted to greater Williamsburg’s diverse and dynamic birdlife. However, the precursor context for this organizational meeting and the group that subsequently coalesced had been acquiring subtle momentum for more than two decades.

During the late 1940’s Fred Scott and Charles Stevens, enthusiastic young ornithologists from Richmond and Charlottesville respectively, spent a great deal of time in the colonial historic triangle area, canoeing much of the Chickahominy River and devoting substantial amounts of quality birding time to the Yorktown and Seaford areas. Fred’s writings in the Virginia Society of Ornithology journal, the Raven, as well as his reports in Audubon Field Notes of their seasonal observations from these excursions showed that the area was potentially rich with undocumented avifauna. The earliest Christmas count for the local area was a Williamsburg count held in 1946. From 1947 through 1953 Fred was instrumental in sustaining the Yorktown Christmas Bird Count, and in 1949 he documented the presence of a Least Tern colony near Seaford and a Common Raven sighting from the same area. An April 1956 letter from Fred to J. J. Murray, the dean of Virginia’s ornithologists and Raven editor, commented about a large “blackbird roost in the Jamestown marshes”, a phenomenon that persists to this day.

It was during the 1950s that a true ornithological community became apparent in the Colonial Capital. Dr. John Grey, a Williamsburg Presbyterian minister and prominent Virginia ornithologist, attracted a contingent of devoted followers through his local area bird excursions. Among those devotees were Martha Armstrong, Dick Mahone, Robert Bruce McCartney, and Ed and Norma Katz. No doubt Dr. Grey was instrumental in the Virginia Society of Ornithology having its annual meeting in Williamsburg February 15, 1952. Meanwhile, birders Raymond Beasely and Charles Nimmo were also active locally, especially in the Toano community where Raymond completed Christmas Bird Counts in 1953 and 1954. Along with Dr. Grey these men also submitted area information to the Raven, further increasing birding attention on Williamsburg. Coincidentally, state forester Charles Steirly coordinated Christmas Bird Counts from 1952-1955 and 1960 at Surry, which included Hog Island Waterfowl Management Area. A Christmas Bird Count was even held at Jamestown in 1958.

Mitchell Byrd arrived at the College of William and Mary in 1956 and quickly distinguished himself among the Commonwealth’s leading birders and ornithologists. He and Department of Biology colleague Gus Hall spent considerable time in the field documenting the Williamsburg avifauna. Subsequently, Ty and Julie Hotchkiss, two of Williamsburg’s most ardent naturalists, became very visible through the 1960s and 1970s as Audubon lecturers, contributing their exceptional wildlife photography to many documentaries including the acclaimed story of the Colonial Naturalist, Mark Catesby.

In the spring of 1969 the Virginia Society of Ornithology and the Wilson Ornithological Society, an international organization devoted to avian research and conservation, simultaneously co-hosted their respective annual membership meetings at the College of William and Mary. This prestigious gathering of state, national, and international scientists and birders brought a great deal of ornithological fervor to the Colonial Capital. By then, Ruth Beck had taken a position in the William and Mary Biology Department, and Mitchell Byrd had begun to garner the attention of a growing number of graduate and undergraduate students through his advocacy and willingness to engage eager learners in ornithological field projects. Among such endeavors was a migratory and breeding bird banding project that he and graduate student Bob Kennedy initiated in the spring of 1970 at the college’s Population Ecology Laboratory site off South Henry Street. That field intensive effort provided an opportunity for a number of local aspiring ornithologists and birders to experience birds in a truly hands on manner.

The winter of 1972 brought yet another prestigious ornithological gathering to Williamsburg. The first ever North American Osprey Conference was held at William and Mary February 10-12 under the leadership of Mitchell Byrd and graduate student Bob Kennedy. Twenty-six scientific papers distributed among three sessions were combined with three discussion groups to shape the conference proceedings. Osprey researchers presented their findings on the effects of biological contaminants, field study techniques, and the population status and productivity of Osprey populations in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

All of this avian enthusiasm leading up to the early 1970s prompted a small cadre of Williamsburgers to attend the monthly meetings of the Hampton Roads Bird Club held at what was then the Peninsula Nature and Science Center (now the Virginia Living Museum) in Newport News. Mitchell Byrd along with Ruth and Sherwin Beck would load up their respective vehicles with friends and students interested in birds, including Bill Akers, Jerry Via, and Susan Sturm, to travel to the Science Center. Everyone loved listening to Ms. Bolken read the minutes of the last bird club meeting, and many of the Williamsburg contingent regularly participated in the Newport News Christmas and spring bird counts. Several eventually assumed leadership positions in that club over the ensuing years falling under the tutelage of Mitchell, Walter and Doris Smith, Mike and Dorothy Mitchell, and Charlie Hacker. It was a result of these formative years of working within an existing club environment that the idea for the formation of a club in Williamsburg began to take shape.

The First Four Months

Bill Williams, an erstwhile graduate student of Dr. Byrd’s, broached the subject of a local bird club with Ruth Beck in the spring of 1977, suggesting that it was time for such an organization to form for Williamsburg. Bill was the current Treasurer of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, having succeeded Ruth in that capacity, and thus had access to the names of all of the local VSO members who could serve as the nucleus for the a new club. Bill also knew from his acquaintance with Bill Sheehan, then Commanding Officer at Cheatham Annex and bird aficionado, that there was the potential for community support for such a group. It seemed only logical with the growing cadre of William and Mary ornithology students in the area, and an apparent motivating interest from Williamsburg residents that a spin off from the Hampton Roads group was in order.

Bill and Ruth agreed that an organizational meeting for September 1977 needed to be planned. Ruth took on the responsibility of securing the support of the college by having the Biology Department sponsor the club, thus enabling the group to meet at no cost on campus in one of the department’s Millington Hall classrooms, a practice that continues to the present. A letter of invitation announcing a bird club organizational meeting event was drafted and sent to Williamsburg area VSO members and other interested community citizens in August 1977.

The positive response at the September 1977 gathering clearly indicated that there was a high degree of interest for a club to organize. This mandate brought with it the usual assortment of organizational issues. Myriam Moore of Lynchburg, the VSO’s Local Chapters chairman, was asked to provide the materials necessary to form a new bird club, including a constitution and by-laws template for a fledgling organization to use. Work on those documents began immediately and a newsletter summarizing the results of the inaugural meeting and upcoming activities was sent to all those who attended.

Serendipitously, a number of individuals had held a trial run Williamsburg area spring bird count, in early May 1977, infamously dubbed the Thunderbird Count. That for-fun exercise provided an overview for a potential 15-mile diameter count circle, with its center at the Colonial Williamsburg Information Center, which could become the Williamsburg Christmas Bird Count area. In October 1977 on the kitchen table of the Beck’s Ferncliff Drive home, Bill Williams, Ruth, and Susan Sturm plotted the subsections of a count circle where participants could spend their day tallying birds. Quickly the necessary forms to establish the Williamsburg count were requested from and filed with the National Audubon Society in anticipation of the new club’s first official Christmas Bird Count to be held 2 months away in December.

The bird club’s first field trip on September 24, 1977 ventured to the Eastern Shore. Birds were scarce that day at the Kiptopeke Bird Banding Station, so the group of 5 participants headed to Chincoteague where hot, dry conditions made birding difficult. The reported trip highlights included “a good representation of herons and egrets” and little else.

Fittingly, Mitchell Byrd was the club’s first program speaker at the October 1977 meeting. His presentation on the role of environmental contaminants in the Chesapeake Bay Osprey population showcased his tireless work and that of his graduate students Bob Kennedy, Jerry Via, Gary Seek, Chris Stinson, Tim Kinkead, Kevin Roberts, and Peter McLean. Bob Kennedy went on to earn a PhD. in ornithology at Louisiana State University and has become the leading expert on the birds and mammals of the Philippines. Jerry Via completed his ornithology doctorate at Virginia Tech and has established himself as one of Virginia’s most influential avian educators. Tim Kinkead, now a Williamsburg resident is a veterinarian in New Kent County, and Chris Stinson is on the biology faculty at the University of Virginia.

In December 1977 the newly formed Williamsburg Bird Club held its first formal elections. Homer Jones presented a slate of officers that were elected by unanimous consent: President, Bill Williams, Vice President (in charge of programs), Ruth Beck, Secretary, Bill Sheehan, Treasurer, Billie Jones, Newsletter Editor, Susan Sturm. As secretary, Bill Sheehan also became, by his own choice, the de facto Records Committee chair, a position he meticulously handled until his death in 2000.

The first ever Williamsburg Christmas Bird Count was held Sunday, December 18, 1977. With the help of our Hampton Roads Bird Club companions, 100 species were found despite a soaking rain endured by all parties throughout the day. The count compilation was held in the warm, dry confines of the Beck’s home. The voluntary participation fee that participants contributed to defray the National Audubon Society’s costs for publishing the counts’ results was $1.50. 

The First Full Year

The club launched 1978 with ambitious initiatives, including a Purple Martin Committee, an Eastern Bluebird Committee, and a solicitation for a club logo design. Betty Williams agreed to work with Burke and Evangeline Davis to publicize club activities and Brian Taber took on the job of field trip chairman. Dues that year were $3 for students, $5 for individuals, and $7.50 for families. Already the club’s efforts to document the area’s birds were paying dividends. Anne Smith reported Baltimore Orioles and House Finches (then a rarity in this area!) at her City of Williamsburg Virginia Avenue home, and a Tree Sparrow was noted in Queens Lake. These were complimented by Common Redpoll sightings at the Andrew Landis home in Kingsmill and at Mel and Ginny Schiavelli’s house in Old Quaker Estates. The club began collaborative planning with the Richmond Audubon Society for the May 1978 Virginia Society of Ornithology annual meeting to be held at William and Mary. The club’s role involved assistance with field trips and some of the local arrangements.

The April 1978 newsletter was the first under the Williamsburg Flyer marquis. That month Homer Jones took the lead on the Bluebird Committee and Roy Trow became the head of the Purple Martin Committee. Interestingly, the James City County Board of Supervisors declared April 16-23, 1978 Purple Martin Week. To honor the occasion, the James City Ruritans placed a Purple Martin House at the new county government building. Congressman Paul Trible was on hand for the building dedication ceremonies. By July 1978 the Purple Martin Committee reported that 600 young martins had been banded locally and that a number of adult male martins had been found dead of undetermined causes.

That fall the club began what became a lasting community legacy with the donation of two books to the Williamsburg Regional Library: A Field Guide to North American Bird Clubs and a Field Guide to the Birds of California. In November Alice Springe and Barbara Ema took on the responsibility of co-chairing the club’s Local Exhibits Committee setting up a bird feeders display on the fourth floor of Millington Hall.

Field trips for the year included an owl hoot in February led by Tom Wieboldt, and outings to Hog Island in Surry County, Grandview Beach in Hampton, and Craney Island in Portsmouth. Bill Sheehan conducted monthly outings to Cheatham Annex, and

a series of Monday evening bird identification workshops was held through the late winter and early spring. In April the club provided field trip leaders for the Early Risers Bird Walks for the Williamsburg Garden Symposium, a service the club would continue for almost 20 years. The December 1978 Christmas Bird Count drew 48 participants who tallied 108 species including a most unexpected Spotted Sandpiper at Indian Field Creek found by Charlie Hacker.

Year Two

The bird club avoided a 1979 sophomore slump through the multiplied energies of many people. Monthly field trips to seasonally appropriate birding hot spots continued, as did an informative array of meeting programs including a very memorable one with Dr. Richard Peake’s presentation of “Bird Inspired Poetry” at the May meeting. Beginning in February a series of 30-minute post-meeting workshops on selected bird families was initiated. That same month Alice Springe and Barbara Ema created a new display in Millington Hall on bird books. In May they changed the display to showcase owls.

Roy Trow, who had relinquished his Purple Martin Committee leadership position in May with a move to Orange, Virginia, unexpectedly passed away the following month. Sam Hart graciously stepped forward to assume that committee’s chairmanship.

In October 1978 the club produced a display for the Williamsburg Council of Garden Clubs meeting created by Sue Ridd and Martha Armstrong. That same month witnessed a singularly significant decision made at the monthly meeting that proved pivotal to the bird club’s future development. Even though field trips and monthly programs were stimulating a great deal of interest within the community, they weren’t generating income for the club. A proposal to conduct a trial-run bird seed sale just for the club’s membership was approved. Alice Springe volunteered to be the point person for the sale, with the very capable assistance of Fred Blystone and Judy Pauley. The November Williamsburg Flyer had a Bird Seed Savings Day order form, with the pick-up at Fred’s Stanley Drive home to take place December 1. The sale went off smoothly enough that plans were made to have a community-wide sale the following year.

A new complement of club officers for 1980 was elected at the November meeting. They were Ruth Beck, President, Susan Sturm Vice President, Alice Springe, Secretary/Treasurer, and Bill Williams, Newsletter Editor. Tom Armour became the Field Trip Chairman.

1980

The momentum established within the club during its first two years continued throughout 1980. The club contributed a copy of A Field Guide to the Birds, and a year’s subscription to Bird Watcher’s Digest to the Williamsburg Regional Library in February. The following month it donated to the library a complete set of the landmark Arthur Cleveland Bent series, “Life Histories of North American Birds”, in memory of local conservationist Everett Raynes.

Sam Hart remained the Purple Martin Committee chairman. In April, Paula Pence and Jewel Thomas took over as co-chairs of the Bluebird Committee.

The bird club placed a bird feeder at The Pines (now Genesis) nursing home across from the (now former) Williamsburg Community Hospital in memory of Roy Trow, the club’s first Purple Martin Committee chairman. Seed supplies and regular maintenance for that feeder were provided by bird club members.

The club’s September program was a stirring presentation by Jack Willis of the William and Mary English Department on “Birds in Modern Poetry”.

The second annual Bird Seed Savings Day conducted by the club in the fall sold 13,000 pounds of bird seed.

As 1980 closed, Bill Sheehan reported that the club had compiled records for 244 bird species from 1977-1980. A historical literature search revealed another 36 species bringing the area total to 280. 

1981

The club’s fourth year began with the January publication of Bill Sheehan’s comprehensive bird species list. That spring the Bluebird Committee established a Bluebird Trail at Carter’s Grove while the existing trail at the Williamsburg Country Club produced at least twenty young, all of which were banded.

Sam Hart’s Purple Martin team was able to band more than 100 young that summer.

As an extension to work she was doing in the spring, Ruth Beck conducted a fall bird banding study at the Population Ecology Lab off South Henry Street, near what is now the William and Mary Marshall Wyth Law School.

The life of any organization necessitates that it reexamine itself periodically to take stock of its functions and structures. The club did just that in 1981 and made some revisions to its Constitution and By-laws. One of those revisions was the addition of two Members-at-Large to the Executive Committee. Cindy Fletcher and Brian Taber became the first club members to fill those positions.

The third annual Bird Seed Savings Day distributed 18,000 pounds of bird seed to the community. The success of this and previous sales prompted the club to consider returning some of the income it was generating to the college. A $500 scholarship was established to support a William and Mary graduate student who pursued ornithological research. The scholarship would be competitive and the awardees would be expected to present their findings at a monthly club meeting.

Another step towards public outreach was taken when the club “adopted” York River State Park. In so doing it agreed to provide the park birding assistance, leaders to guide bird walks, and information to assist park staff.

Local conservation writer and bird club member, Bill Snyder, became the club’s first Conservation Committee Chairman. During 1981 Bill published his entertaining book “Wildlife Neighbors of the Williamsburg Area”.

1982

The monthly programs for 1982 were built around the theme of bird families. Each month one or more of them was emphasized, with presentations from local experts on the family characteristics, species diversity, and general ecology.

Bill Sheehan reported the 1981 area bird lists sent to him included a record 227 species including 9 new ones, thus bringing the cumulative area list to 289.

In February the club established its first Rare Bird Alert phone tree. The following month Jewel Thomas, the club’s Bluebird Committee chairman, was given a letter of commendation by the Williamsburg Garden Club Council for her tireless attention and diligence with maintaining the local bluebird trails. During the summer the Williamsburg Country Club Bluebird trial produced 48 young while the Carter’s Grove trail produced 27.

Sam Hart relinquished his chairmanship of the Purple Martin Committee to Williamsburg native Bob Cross. During that summer 470 young martins were banded among area martin motels.

In June the first recipients of the Williamsburg Bird Club Student Scholarship Award were announced. Bob Anderson and Fenton Day were presented research stipends for their work on Eastern Shore birdlife. Bob applied his funds to researching the American Oystercatcher. Fenton used his added resources for studies of beach-nesting gulls and terns.

Throughout the year the club ran an active campaign to finally have its own logo. Rich Goll’s portrait of a Red-headed Woodpecker was selected as the winner in September. For his efforts Rich was awarded a copy of Bent’s Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers. Club patches emblazoned with the Red-headed Woodpecker insignia went on sale in December.

Another successful Bird Seed Savings Day generated approximately $1,700 in new club revenues.

1983 and 1984

The next two years proved to be heady times for the rapidly evolving club. The first winter Bird Seed Savings Day was held in January 1983, adding a welcomed $800 to the treasury. Also that January, Bill Sheehan published his third edition of the local area bird species checklist.

However, it was the work of the Bluebird and Purple Martin committees that captured the most significant community enthusiasm and interest. Bluebird Committee chair, Leigh Jones teamed with Bob Morris to initiate a Bluebird box building campaign through an innovative partnership with the residents of the Veterans Hospital in Hampton and many of our bird club members who helped assemble the boxes. At one point Leigh sold 100 nest boxes in 2 days! Over the two-year period the Bluebird Committee erected 230 nest boxes along 19 area trails, including trails at Cheatham Annex, St. George’s Farm (now Drummond’s Field), New Quarter Park, and Eastern State Hospital, not to mention assembling and selling hundreds of nest boxes throughout the community. For her work Leigh was nominated for the 1984 North American Bluebird Society’s Roger Foy Newcomer’s Award.

Equally energetic was the Purple Martin Committee. Under the direction of Bob Cross, Purple Martin houses were maintained at numerous sites around the City of Williamsburg and James City County, including the Williamsburg Regional Library, the Southern States Store, the McDonalds on Richmond Road, the Governor Spotswood Inn, and the county courthouse, to name but a few locations. During the summer of 1983 the Purple Martin Committee banded 450 young martins.

Both committees were featured in 1984 newspaper articles, one on the Bluebird Committee in the Limelight section of the Virginia Gazette, and one on the Purple Martin Committee in the Daily Press’s Inner Views.

The club took great pride in nominating Cheatham Annex Ranger, Walt Fuerer, for the Virginia Society of Ornithology’s prestigious Jackson M. Abbott Conservation Award for his considerable efforts for wildlife management on the naval facility. Walt’s stewardship of Cheatham Annex sustained viable breeding populations of Northern Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasants, and Wild Turkeys, as well as provided excellent habitat for wintering waterfowl and neotropical migrant songbirds. He was recognized as the award recipient at the 1983 VSO annual meeting in Roanoke.

All of the committee camaraderie prompted the club to hold its first spring picnic on May 7, 1983 at York River State Park. The event was beautifully planned and orchestrated by Jeanne Armour, Doris Phippin, and Norma Olson. A second comparable event was repeated the following year at York River State Park on May 19, 1984.

Revenues from the fall and winter Bird Seed Savings Days made the club realize it needed to apply for non-profit status. With the help of club member Jack Gross, that long overdue and necessary step was completed in 1984. Also during that year, the club began utilizing computerized mailing labels for the newsletter thanks to the generosity of Bert Emerson.

The bird club’s monthly programs, held in room 117 of Millington Hall on the William and Mary campus, more often than not necessitated providing the speaker with a 35 mm slide projector, and making sure there was a spare projector light bulb just in case! Up to 1983, arranging to borrow a projector from the college had been an extra responsibility of the program chairman, usually through Ruth Beck. The club decided it was time to alleviate this unnecessary complication and it purchased its own 35mm slide projector, including spare bulbs.

Irene Rusnak was awarded the second Williamsburg Bird Club Student Research Scholarship in 1983 to support her investigations of “Home Range and Habitat Utilization of Resident Bald Eagle Pairs in Virginia”. The following year Chuck Rosenberg and Tim Kinkead shared the award. Chuck conducted comprehensive research on nesting Barn Owls. Tim studied the nesting ecology of Ospreys.

Continuing its community outreach projects, the club placed 12 window bird feeders at the Pines Nursing Home, and donated Audible Audubon kits to 6 area elementary schools.

1985-1989

Joe Doyle became the Bluebird Committee Chairman in 1985, assuming responsibility for the community’s 230 boxes along its 19 trails. During that summer an astounding 623 young were fledged from these bird club facilities!

Peter McLean was chosen to receive the 1985 student scholarship award for his studies of Chesapeake Bay Ospreys. The following year that recognition was accorded to Lynn Walter for her research on the food caching behavior of Carolina Chickadees.

Much of 1987 was devoted to preparations for hosting the Virginia Society of Ornithology Annual meeting at William and Mary, June 5-7. The club had learned a great deal about hosting such an event when it assisted the Richmond Audubon Society with the same affair in 1978. Club members did a magnificent job of showcasing the area’s “colonial birds”, including Cynthia Long’s hilariously clever “Colonial Nesting Birds” slide show which brought down the house at the Friday night program. A presentation by the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps opened the Saturday night annual meeting banquet at William and Mary’s Trinkle Hall, followed by dinner-time performances by a local balladeer and violinist. Dr. Judith McIntyre, the keynote speaker for the Saturday evening banquet, gave a stirring overview of her children’s program on the plight of the Common Loon. Teta Kain debuted the second edition of Virginia’s Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist, which subsequently became colloquially known as the “blue book”.

Also during 1987, the Conservation Committee under the leadership of Carolyn Lowe, met with the Ford’s Colony developers to ask that they take into consideration protecting Chisel Run off Longhill Road behind Williamsburg West for its natural value and significant bird habitat.

Bob Cross received the bird club’s 1987 and 1988 scholarship awards for his comprehensive studies of Piping Plovers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore barrier islands.

Anne Smith, highly regarded and well known throughout the community as “Kindergarten Smith”, became the Williamsburg Bird Club’s first recipient of Lifetime Membership status in 1989. Mrs. Smith had boundless enthusiasm for the bird feeding stations she maintained in her backyard just off Virginia Avenue, next to what is now the Hospitality House. She regularly acquired day-old donuts and discarded fruit to supplement her more routine bird feeders, and relished having visitors come to see her birds. It was not uncommon for her to have several Baltimore Orioles at her home each winter, which she insisted responded best to grapefruit rind stuffed with raspberry jello! In 1980 for instance, the Williamsburg Christmas Bird Count led the nation with 13 Baltimore Orioles, most, but not all, were at Anne Smith’s house!

Also in 1989, Betty Williams was recognized by the club for serving as its Historian for 12 years.

As 1989 closed the decade, Bill Sheehan reported that the area species list had reached 314. 

1990-1991

The Bird Club entered its teen years with continued multiple interests contributing to the greater good of the community. Bill Davies energetically established the club as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program. Each calendar quarter club members assembled under Bill’s direction along a section of Route 5 from Five Forks to Green Springs Road to make sure all of the debris tossed along the highway was cleaned up. The very next year the club was recognized by the James City Clean County Commission for its “valued contributions” to the county through its participation in that program.

The club made three scholarship awards in 1990. Kennedy Clark invested his award in research on “Shoreline Habitat Selection by Bald Eagles in a Non-Breeding Concentration Area on the James River, Virginia”. Gregory Keller investigated “Nesting Substrate Preference and Breeding Success of Common Terns and Black Skimmers on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. Tim O’Connell tackled “The Effects of Gull Predation on the Colony Reproductive Success of Terns and Skimmers in Virginia”. The club also contributed $180 to support the Kiptopeke Hawk Watch, a long-term project that was started in 1977 and sustained out-of-pocket by several club members. In 1991 the club donated a Purple Martin house to the Virginia Coast Reserve of The Nature Conservancy to be put at the Machipongo Station on Hog Island, in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Sadly, the club’s first Lifetime Member, Anne Smith, passed away in 1990. She was memorialized by the donation of an inscribed copy of The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John Terres to the Williamsburg Regional Library.

The 1990 Bird Seed Savings Day attracted 150 local buyers who bought 18,000 pounds of bird sustenance from the club.

1992-1993

Ellen Bentley, a student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science was selected as the 1992 student research award recipient for her project “A description and landscape analysis of the habitat requirements of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Great Egrets, and Green-backed Herons in Tidewater Virginia”.

The club donated Bluebird boxes to the Virginia Department of Transportation in 1993 to be put up at interstate rest stops. Kristine Clements was awarded the 1993 student scholarship stipend for her research on Great Blue Herons along the James and Chickahominy rivers.

1994-1995

Bill Holcombe, the bird club Program Chairman, organized an innovative Spring Bird Count Contest for 1994. This informal event asked club members to keep track of all the species they observed March 1- May 30. Entrants were asked to choose to participate in one of three categories-Level One-Beginners; Level Two-Intermediate; and level Three-Advanced. A participant was considered Level One “if you’ve started bird watching in an organized fashion within the last three or four years and before that you didn’t know a phoebe from a red-eyed vireo”. Level Two folks were those who “would recognize 80% of the birds on our area count but have trouble separating all of the flycatchers and sparrows”. Level Threes were those who “expect to recognize everything but the strangest ‘off-his-beat’ bird in Virginia”. Of the 18 club members who began the “contest” 12 sent in final reports, all of which extolled the fun of making themselves become more cognizant of the birds they saw and, surprisingly, did not see!

Wild Birds Unlimited, owned by club members Valerie and George Copping began a program that continues to the present of donating 5% of its sales to Williamsburg Bird Club members to the club.

Fred Blystone became the second Williamsburg Bird Club member to receive Lifetime Member status in 1994. Fred had more than earned this recognition for serving as club treasurer for 14 years and being the lead for club’s primary fund raising strategy, the Bird Seed Savings Day.

To assist in her studies of the nesting habits of Black Skimmers, Kristol Matthews was awarded the 1994 student research stipend.

As 1994 concluded the club voted to increase its annual membership dues to $10.00 for Individual, $15.00 for Family, $25.00 for Patron, and $5.00 for Student.

The Bird Club’s focus for the first half of 1995 was coordinating yet another ornithological meeting. With 1987 fondly in mind, the Williamsburg Bird Club co-hosted a joint meeting of the Virginia Society of Ornithology and the Wilson Ornithological Society at the Fort Magruder Inn and Conference Center May 4-7. This special event was launched with a Friday evening program featuring Hal Horwitz’ stunning “Natures Jewels” photography. On Saturday, a symposium devoted to Ornithology in Central America attracted researchers and students pursuing bird studies throughout that diverse and little researched part of the world. During the Wilson Ornithological Society meeting Amanda Allen, bird club member and a graduate student at William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, was given an award for Best Student Paper for her presentation on “Tidepool Value as Foraging Patches for Breeding and Migratory Birds in Tidal Salt Marshes in the Lower Chesapeake Bay”. The splendid Saturday night banquet was highlighted by Virginians Mike Male and Judy Fieth presenting their documentary, Warbler Watching.

Graduate student Elaine Mertus received the 1995 student research award to investigate nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers on Jamestown Island.

Five years of hard work by Bill Davies earned him high praise from the Virginia Department of Transportation as he was the 1995 winner of the Adopt-a Highway Dare to Care Competition.

1996-1999

David Whalen was presented the 1996 bird club graduate student scholarship to research “The Breeding Ecology of Barn Owls in Upland versus Marsh Habitats in Virginia”. Valerie Weiss and Chris Gordon became co-selectees for the 1997 student research scholarship. Valerie proposed to apply her award to finding out about “Population Declines and Habitat Requirements of the Brown-headed Nuthatch”. Chris conducted a study to resolve the question of “Is Food Acquisition a Limiting Factor in the Reproductive Success of the Black Skimmer?”

1998 became a benchmark year for the organization through the publication of the first comprehensive annotated checklist of the “Birds of the Williamsburg Area”. To accomplish the project an editorial board comprised of Joy Archer, Ruth Beck, Brian Taber, and Bill Williams synthesized all of the bird records data Bill Sheehan had systematically compiled since he assumed the duties of Local Records Chairman in 1977. The resulting booklet, edited by Bill Sheehan, celebrated the bird club’s twentieth anniversary. David Schuster and Joanne Lu served as the publication’s production staff, and Rich Goll’s Red-headed Woodpecker logo decorated the booklet’s cover design. Tom Armour contributed 4 of his superb photographs to enhance the quality of the work. The contents presented the status of 326 species documented within the Colonial Historical Triangle which included the City of Williamsburg, James City County, York County, and Hog Island Waterfowl Management Area in Surry County, as well as the roads leading to Hog Island from Scotland Wharf. Four additional species were folded into the annotations including Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and White-tailed Kite all seen just across the Chickahominy River in Charles City County on the same day, 5 June 1988, and a Western Tanager recorded in 1983 in Gloucester County approximately 1 kilometer north of the Coleman Bridge. The booklet also offered “Best Bets”, locations where species were most likely to be encountered.

Graduate student Karen Johnson was honored with the club’s 1998 scholarship award to delve into the “Determination of Spring Departure in White-throated Sparrows”.

A revitalized Bluebird Committee reported that 68 Bluebirds fledged at York River State Park during summer of 1998. The next year 115 Bluebirds fledged at York River State Park and 190 fledged at Camp Peary from 100 nest boxes.

2000-2004

The first 5 years of the 21st century were sobering ones for the Williamsburg Bird Club membership as a covey of our most beloved and passionately devoted members passed away. Bill Sheehan had been the club’s only records keeper and compiler. His willingness to receive phone calls and to follow up with local citizens about their personal bird sightings made the club real to more people than many of us will ever know. Captain Sheehan stood on ceremony with no one, yet his door was always open for lively opinionated conversation, the warmest hospitality, and a delicious cup of coffee. Bill was generous with his personally manicured plantings, and ever vigilant for local bird trivia. He edited the Williamsburg Flyer in 1990, 1991 and 1993, helped lead field trips, and was a regular ambassador for the bird club at the annual Williamsburg Garden Symposium. His legacy was memorialized with the dedication of a bench and plaque placed at the Population Ecology Laboratory off South Henry Street on May 6, 2004. Good on you, Sheehan!

Alice Springe also passed away in 2000 leaving behind a legacy of enthusiasm and service to almost every aspect of the organization. Her service to the club included Secretary/Treasurer in 1980, Secretary from 1983-1985, and coordinated the Bird-Seed Savings Day for many years. Perhaps her most enduring legacy to the club and the community was her diligence in having the club purchase books for the Williamsburg Library. Alice’s favorite bird was the Belted Kingfisher. Therefore, no trip she was on was complete until she had seen one for the day’s list.

In 2002 the local bird and conservation community lost Joy Archer, a loss which was echoed throughout all of Williamsburg. Joy was a club stalwart serving as its Secretary from 1986-1992, and as President for 1998 and 1999. Her caring generosity and interest in conservation became apparent through bequests to several including the College of William and Mary’s Keck Environmental Studies Lab, Williamsburg Land Conservancy, the Virginia Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory.

A trio of club members who had been active in the club from its 1977 outset, Charlie Hacker, Julie Hotchkiss, and Betty Williams all passed away in 2003.

Former club president (1984) John Hertz passed away in 2004.

Renee Held and Emillie Snell-Rood each received bird club scholarships awards in 2000.

The Bluebird Committee monitored the fledging of 86 Bluebirds at York River State Park in 2000. 

2001

Scholarship winners David DesRochers Birds of Man-made Salt Marshes and Kevin Kroll Habitat Use, Productivity, and Winter Dispersal of the American Oystercatcher in Virginia. Sadly Kevin passed away quite unexpectedly on December 30, 2001 of unknown causes.

Bluebird Trail at York River State Park fledged 115 young in 2001.

2002-2003

A covey of significant club members

116 Bluebirds fledge at York River State Park

Alex Wilke wins scholarship for research on American Oystercatchers

2003

Dues increased to 15.00 individual, 25 family, 35.00 patron, 5.00 for a student

Alex Wilke and Catherine Markham win scholarship money

Ruth Beck honored by the club for service-Lifetime Member status and proclamation

56 Bluebirds fledge at York River State Park

2004

In January the club launched it web site www.wmbgbirdclub.com 

Club begins to sell enamel pins for $5.00 each

97 Bluebirds fledge at York River State Park.

Elizabeth Long and Caitlan Kight win Sheehan scholarship

Bill Holcombe passed along his co-editorship of the club newsletter to Shirley Devan

 

The Williamsburg Bird Club fledged in 1977, forty years ago! We will be celebrating this anniversary in September. Details will be sent to members later this summer. Meanwhile, we have been going through our history and think members may be interested in things we've done over the past forty years.

  • Read our old newsletters. The Williamsburg Bird Club has had a newsletter since it's founding. The name has changed a few times, but the content has always been interesting!
  • See who received research grants and what the studies were on. The Club has granted numerous research grants to ornithology students at William & Mary since 1982.
  • See what we've donated to the Williamsburg Regional Library. We have donated books, CDs, videos, DVDs and magazine subscriptions to the public library since 1997. While weeding has reduced the collection, many titles remain and the collection grows each year. 

 

 


Phi Beta Kappa at W&M awarded the Williamsburg Bird Club the Lifetime Learning Award in May 2015. Geoff Giles, who was Bird Club President at that time, turned over the Award to current President Bill Williams at the March Club meeting. 

35 Years of Research Grants Given by the Club

The Williamsburg Bird Club has awarded research grants to graduate students for ornithological research studies at the College of William and Mary since 1982. 

YEAR AWARDEE(S) PROJECT  AWARDS AMOUNT    Mentor Peer-reviewed article published
1982 Bob Anderson Eastern Shore Birdlife - Studies of Feeding and Population Dynamics of American Oystercatchers  $250.00  $250.00 Byrd  
  Fenton Day Eastern Shore Birdlife - Studies of the effects that Herrring Gull Colonies have on Adjacent Tern and Skimmer Colonies  $250.00  $500.00 Byrd  
1983 Irene Rusnak Home Range and Habitat Utilization of Resident Bald Eagle Pairs in Virginia  $500.00  $1,000.00 Byrd  
1984 Chuck Rosenberg  Research on nesting Barn Owls  $250.00  $1,250.00 Byrd  
  Tim Kinkead Nesting ecology of Ospreys  $250.00  $1,500.00 Byrd  
1985 Peter McLean Studies of Chesapeake Bay Ospreys  $500.00  $2,000.00 Byrd  
1986 Lynn Walter Research on the food caching behavior of Carolina Chickadees  $500.00  $2,500.00 Byrd  
1987 Bob Cross Studies of Piping Plovers on Virginia's Eastern Shore barrier islands  $500.00  $3,000.00 Byrd  
1988 Bob Cross Studies of Piping Plovers on Virginia's Eastern Shore barrier islands  $500.00  $3,500.00 Byrd  
1989 Bob Cross Studies of Piping Plovers on Virginia's Eastern Shore barrier islands  $500.00  $4,000.00 Byrd  
1990 Kennedy Clark Shoreline Habitat Selection by Bald Eagles in Non-Breeding Concentration Area on the James River  $250.00  $4,250.00 Byrd  
  Gregory Keller Nesting Substrate Preference and Breeding Success of Common Terns and Black Skimmers in Virginia  $250.00  $4,500.00 Beck  
1991 Tim O'Connell The Effects of Gull Predation on the Colony Reproductive Success of Terns and Skimmers in Virginia  $500.00  $5,000.00 Beck  
1992 Ellen Bentley A description and landscape analysis of the habitat requirements of Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets and Green-backed Herons in Tidewater Virginia  $500.00  $5,500.00 Beck  
1993 Kristine Clements Research on Great Blue Herons along the James and Chickahominy Rivers  $500.00  $6,000.00 Beck  
1994 Kristol  Matthews Nesting habitats of Black Skimmers  $500.00  $6,500.00 Beck  
1995 Elaine Mertus Investigating nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers on Jamestown Island  $500.00  $7,000.00 Beck  
1996 David Whalen The Breeding Ecology of Barn Owls in Upland versus Marsh Habitats in Virginia  $500.00  $7,500.00 Watts J. Field Ornithology, Auk
1997 Chris Gordon Is Food Acquisition a Limiting Factor in the Reproductive Success of the Black Skimmer  $300.00  $7,800.00 Beck Waterbirds
  Valerie Weiss Population Declines and Habitat Requirements of the Brown-headed Nuthatch  $300.00  $8,100.00 Cristol  
1998 Karen Johnson Determination of Spring Departure in White-throated Sparrows  $500.00  $8,600.00 Cristol J. Experimental Zoology
1999 Jenny Gamble Learning of Drop-Catch behavior in Herring Gulls Foraging on Clams   $500.00  $9,100.00 Cristol Animal Behaviour
2000 Renae Held Tern nesting on the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel  $500.00  $9,600.00 Beck  
  Emillie Snell-Rood* Constructed Wetlands as Habitat for Native Birds   $500.00  $10,100.00 Cristol Condor
2001 Kevin Croll Habitat Use, Productivity, and Winter Dispersal of the American Oystercatcher in Virginia  $500.00  $10,600.00 Beck  
  David DesRochers Birds of Man-made Salt Marshes  $500.00  $11,100.00 Cristol Ecoscience
2002 Alexandria Wilke Research on American Oystercatchers on Virginia's Barrier Islands  $500.00  $11,600.00 Watts Waterbirds
2003 Alexandria Wilke Research on American Oystercatchers on Virginia's Barrier Islands  $500.00  $12,100.00 Watts  
  Catherine Markham The influence of salinity on diet, prey delivery, and nestling growth in Bald Eagles in the Lower Chesapeake Bay   $500.00  $12,600.00 Watts Auk, J. Raptor research
2004 Elizabeth Long Prey Selection of Peregrine Falcons During Breeding Season in Virginia  $500.00  $13,100.00 Watts  
  Caitlin Kight The effects of human disturbance on the breeding success of cavity-nesting bird species  $500.00  $13,600.00 Swaddle Biological Conservation
2005 Caitlin Kight The effects of human disturbance on the breeding success of cavity-nesting bird species  $500.00  $14,100.00 Swaddle  
  Ariel White Mercury Effects in Belted Kingfisher and Eastern Screech-Owls  $500.00  $14,600.00 Cristol Waterbirds
2006 Caitlin Kight The effects of human disturbance on the breeding success of cavity-nesting bird species  $500.00  $15,100.00 Swaddle  
  Anne Condon An examination of mercury levels in fledgling birds along contaminated portions of the South and Shenandoah Rivers in Virginia  $500.00  $15,600.00 Cristol Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology
  Rebecka Brasso The effects of mercury contamination on the nesting of tree swallows  $500.00  $16,100.00 Cristol Ecotoxicology
2007 Joanna Hubbard Choosy birds choose who?  Exploring male mate choice in eastern bluebirds  $500.00  $16,600.00 Swaddle Auk
  Elise Larsen Impacts of urban development on bird diversity in the Coastal Plain: the role of diet  $500.00  $17,100.00 Watts  
  Mikaela Howie Distance from aquatic source to which mercury contamination affects wildlife  $500.00  $17,600.00 Cristol  
2008 Allyson Jackson Golf Courses as Replacement Habitats: Effects on Fledgling Survival?  $500.00  $18,100.00 Cristol J. Wildlife Management
  Mikaela Howie The Infiltration of Aquatic Mercury into the Terrestrial Ecosystem  $500.00  $18,600.00 Cristol  
  Ryan Burdge Pesticide Exposure and Diet of an Insectivorous Songbird on Virginia Golf Courses  $500.00  $19,100.00 Cristol  
2009 Leah Wilson Mate guarding behavior in the Australian Zebra Finch:  Is it flexible and Optimized  $500.00  $19,600.00 Swaddle Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
  Marie Pitts Reproductive success of eastern bluebirds on golf courses: habitat effects across multiple spatial scales  $500.00  $20,100.00 Swaddle  
  Andrew McGann Rusty Blackbird:  Winter Ecology of a Disappearing Species  $500.00  $20,600.00 Cristol Condor
2010 Sarah Lemelin Effects of Mercury on Reproductive Success and Adrenocortical Function   $500.00  $21,100.00 Cristol Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
  Catherine Lewis The Sublethal Effects of Mercury on the Songbird Immune Systems: An Experimental Study  $500.00  $21,600.00 Cristol Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
  Amanda Bessler The Effect of Mercury on Zebra Finch Spatial Memory   $500.00  $22,100.00 Cristol  
2011 Megan Kobiela The Effect of Mercury on Starvation and Predation Risk Tradeoffs in Zebra Finches  $500.00  $22,600.00 Swaddle Animal Behaviour
  Jenna Carlson Sublelethal effects of methylmercury on avian flight: a captive dosing study on European Starlings  $500.00  $23,100.00 Swaddle Ecotoxicology
  Kenton Buck Variation and Heritability of Avian Mercury Bioaccumulation  $500.00  $23,600.00 Swaddle PLoS ONE
2012 Morgan Niccoli Is Occupany Modeling a Feasible Alternative to Collecting Demography Data?  $500.00  $24,100.00 Leu  
  Jessica Ebers The Effect of Methylmercury on Immune Response to a Common Parasite in Songbirds  $500.00  $24,600.00 Cristol  
  Courtney Turrin Negative Feedback Effects of Population Saturation in Bald Eagles in the Chesapeake Bay  $500.00  $25,100.00 Watts Ardea, J. Raptor Research
2013 Vitek Jirinec Wood Thrush habitat use at the home range scale: implications for local distribution  $500.00  $25,600.00 Leu Condor
  Margaret Whitney The Impact of Methylmercury on Passerine Migratory Behavior  $500.00  $26,100.00 Cristol  
  Ghazi Mahjoub Effectiveness of a "Sonic Net" at an outdoor aviary: implications for reduced aircraft bird strikes  $500.00  $26,600.00 Swaddle Bulletin of the Wildlife Society
2014 Stephanie Chin The effect of dietary methylmercury on parental care of a model avian species  $599.00  $27,199.00 Cristol  
  Autumn Swan Effect of Noise on the Social Structure of European Starlings  $599.00  $27,798.00 Swaddle  
  Akshay Deverakonda* Determining Space Use of Breeding Wood Thrush Pairs in Southeastern Virginia  $599.00  $28,397.00 Leu  
2015 Sarah Wolf Assessing the ototoxic effects of methylmercury exposure in the zebra finch  $599.00  $28,996.00 Cristol Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology
  Virginia Greene Mercury and Mate Choice in Zebra Finches  $599.00  $29,595.00 Cristol  
  Nicole Ingrassia Using sound as a barrier to bird strikes with stationary objects  $599.00  $30,194.00 Swaddle  
  Nicholas Newberry*
The investigation of the relationship between housing prices and bird diversity 
 $599.00  $30,793.00 Cristol  
2016 Juan Botero Inducing Oxidative Stress in Captive Zebra Finches  $599.00  $31,392.00 Cristol  
  Nicholas Newberry* Exploring the Relationship Between the Birds Outside and the Price on the ‘For Sale’ Sign  $599.00  $31,991.00 Cristol  
  Virginia Greene Toxic Song:  The Effects of Mercury on Song Attractiveness in Zebra Finches.  $599.00  $32,590.00 Cristol  
  Ohad Paris The Effects of Methyl-mercury Exposure During Development on Songbird Reproductive Success  $599.00  $33,189.00 Cristol  
  Sarah Wolf Assessing the effects of mercury on hearing: auditory brainstem response in the zebra finch  $599.00  $33,788.00 Cristol  
2017 Megan Thompson A Study of the Cognitive Memory of Birds and their Ability to Avoid a Toxic Food Source  $599.00   Swaddle  
  Carly Hawkins Investigating the effects of anthropogenic noise disturbance on songbird social networks  $599.00   Swaddle  
  Ananda Menon The effect of Mercury on Reproductive Function in Male Songbirds  $599.00   Swaddle  
  TOTAL AWARDED    $35,585.00     25 led to peer-reviewed article published
  * undergraduate student          
  72 GRANTS AWARDED          
  66 AWARDEES