October 3, 2010

Carvings capture birds of Vermont.


---- — In 1938, Robert Spear noticed two parakeets flying out of his Vermont barn. Fascinated by their appearance, he carved their likeness in white pine with a jackknife then painted it the appropriate colors. His attraction to birds grew, as did his skill in reproducing their images.

Soon his creations numbered in the hundreds.

By 1987, needing a place to display his work, Spear founded a nonprofit corporation and opened a museum in rural Huntington, Vt. My wife, Marty, and I stopped by Birds of Vermont two weeks ago, where we briefly met Mr. Spear, now 90 years old, in his workshop, putting the finishing touches on yet another specimen.

Staff member Allison set up an introductory video for us. We learned about Spear's dedication and also about his technique. Penknives and chisels have been supplemented over the years with electric tools. He's unique for painting his carvings before burning and etching fine details. Spear believes that makes them more realistic.


That first parakeet sits in a display case, along with other early work. One wooden rack holds an assortment of warblers. For variety, there's also a guitar he made.

We began looking at the more than 450 carvings that fill the building. Spear's newest installation begins right outside the video room. Scenic backdrops complement a collection of aquatic birds frequenting the Lake Champlain basin. One side of the aisle depicts birds in spring plumage inhabiting the area where the Winooski River enters the lake. Opposite are species in fall plumage, backed by a diorama of Dead Creek in Addison County. A few birds are represented by silhouettes; future carvings will take their places. One will be a cormorant diving underwater for fish.

A monumental carved turkey rules the roost nearby, the product of more than 1,200 hours of work. The live version of this quintessentially American bird has thrived since being reintroduced to the region in 1969. I'd known Benjamin Franklin had championed the species over the eagle as our national symbol. But I hadn't realized the turkey can run 18 mph, fly 55 mph and glide a mile without flapping its wings.

On the second floor landing, we were greeted by a selection of raptors. We carried bar-code readers, allowing us to scan labels near many of the birds and hear their sounds. The call of the eagle surprised me by being fairly muted, but there was no mistaking the insistent warning cry of the peregrine falcon. One unique fact: The male merlin will pass food to the female while still midair, in essence a KC-35 of the avian family.


The Nesting Birds Gallery fills another large room on the second floor. Virtually every bird that has taken even brief residence in the Green Mountain State has been memorialized, usually in a lifelike pose and frequently accompanied by a nest and/or eggs. A winter diorama highlights feathered friends found in Vermont only during that season, such as the snow bunting, Bohemian waxwing and snowy owl.

Expect every common variety that you see in your backyard and then some. For starters, there's a yellow-bellied sapsucker in flight, the imposing pilieated woodpecker, and Vermont's state bird, the ground-nesting hermit thrush. An entire aisle is given over to the many warblers in the region.

For color, it's hard to beat the delicate blue, brown and white lines of the cerulean warbler or the brilliant red of a scarlet tanager. Pay attention also to the nests. I learned that great crested flycatchers use dried snakeskins in constructing their perches, while the goldfinch nest is tightly woven enough to hold water.

Use the barcode reader and listen to the calls. Appreciate the musical sounds of the northern cardinal and the melodic notes of a Baltimore oriole (not "strike three, you're out," as Marty expected). Mockingbirds are an entirely different story; these can imitate not only other birds but also a piano, barking dogs and a squeaky gate. The crow, on the other hand, sounds like a crow.

If you're impressed by the repertoire offered by your favorite club's band, consider that a Carolina wren can choose from more than three dozen tunes. And the brown thrasher has the ability to sing more than 1,100 different songs.

Read the "fun facts" on each information card. That's how we learned the eastern screech owl lives a symbiotic life in its nest with blind snakes. Belted kingfishers teach offspring to fish by dropping dead ones into the water for practice. Killdeer will fake injury to divert intruders away from their nests. And the long tongue of the hairy woodpecker has a barb at its end to help pull insects from trees.


When Spear exhausted the possibilities of Vermont natives, he spent some time fashioning replicas of threatened and extinct species. Unless survivors are indeed confirmed in the southeastern United States, this may be your only opportunity to see what an ivory-billed woodpecker looks like. Or a California condor. Or an auk.

The workshop area is situated in the back of the museum. Small exhibits explain techniques of carving, including the fashioning of nests and eggs.

A picture window downstairs overlooks a cluster of feeders, thus providing the chance to watch a few live birds in action. Binoculars are readily available for scrutinizing detail. We spied blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees and more — as well as the inevitable squirrel at the bottom of one pole.

On Sundays, talks and children's activities are scheduled. Visitors on sunny days can walk the trail network amidst the 100-acre adjacent forest and hike even more at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary.

Robert Spear, who also founded Vermont's first Audubon Society chapter in 1962, has amply demonstrated what an individual with a passion can accomplish. His achievement should continue to provide instruction and enjoyment for countless visitors over the years to come.

E-mail Richard Frost at: