The Flight Stuff

Tucked into a Huntington hillside, the Birds of Vermont Museum is carver Bob Spear’s gift to the world

by Cindy Bernhardt

Bob Spear photosBob Spear created the nonprofit Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington so he could bring his passion for nature to the public through his woodcarving and gift for teaching.

Bob Spear is proof it’s possible to live your passion. He’s done so for most of his 87 years with no intention of slowing down or changing course.

Spear’s passion melds a love of nature, and the birding world in particular, with an extraordinary talent for woodcarving and gift for teaching. This native Vermonter and naturalist shares his vast knowledge and incredible carvings with countless students of all ages through the Birds of Vermont Museum he founded in Huntington.

This gem is just up the road from the Green Mountain Audubon Center, which, incidentally, Spear also had a hand in creating. The only teaching facility in New England that uses wood carvings as an educational tool, the nonprofit museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the environment through the study of birds and their habitats.

Last year the museum hosted some 4,500 visitors from as far away as Russia and as near as local elementary schools; yet, as the curator Ingrid Brown points out, “We’re still a secret. People walk into the main gallery the first time and say, ‘Wow!’ They’re just amazed.”

A place that must be seen to be truly appreciated, the museum features more than 470 of Spear’s wood carvings of Vermont’s nesting species, North America’s endangered and extinct species and a display of tropical birds.

It’s the museum’s educational emphasis that sets it apart. Spear began teaching children birding using preserved specimens while at the Audubon Center, “but kids really responded and learned more when I began to use carvings to explain things,” he recalls. “They can study the birds up closer this way.”

Open May through October, Birds of Vermont’s offerings include bird monitoring walks, presentations and educational talks, some conducted jointly with the Audubon Center. School visits are always welcome, and vacation sessions feature soap-carving classes. Becky Cozzens, a kindergarten teacher at the local Brewster Pierce School, has made annual pilgrimages with her students since the museum opened. “It’s very exciting for the kids, and they love meeting Bob,” she says.

Ingrid Brown and Erin Talmadge photoBirds of Vermont offers bird monitoring walks, presentations and educational talks, some conducted jointly with the Audubon Center. Ingrid Brown (left) is the museum’s curator, and Erin Talmage is the director.

In the spring of 2004, the museum and center’s combined properties were designated an Important Bird Area, part of an Audubon program to provide critical habitat for birds.

Spear credits his mother with uncovering his love of nature. “She did a lot of nature study herself,” he recalls, “always learning about birds and insects, and encouraged me to do the same.” Although Spear painted, drew and learned taxidermy as a child, it was a childhood pet that started him on carving. “I had a parakeet that flew away, and that was the first thing I tried to carve.”

Spear’s father was a dairy farmer in Colchester. His mother was a teacher, but schools in Vermont were not allowed to hire married women, and the farm didn’t provide enough income for the family, says Brown.

The family moved to a farm in Massachusetts, and his mother taught in a one-room school house with Spear as one of her pupils.

Unfortunately, his mother died, and they returned to their farm in Colchester when Spear was 16. He continued his self-education as a naturalist. A Navy tour maintaining radar equipment and a job at GE as a technical specialist helped Spear hone his ability to blend the artistic with the scientific. Or, as he describes it, “I figured out how to put things together.”

In 1962 he founded Vermont’s first chapter of the National Audubon Society. After retiring from GE in 1972, he was instrumental in establishing the Green Mountain Audubon Center, where he spent seven years as director. Having often visited schools to share his birding knowledge, Spear had a collection of carvings he used for teaching. Leaving Audubon, he tried to give them away as a group. When nobody stepped forward to take them, Spear decided to start his own museum.

“I needed a place for all the carvings,” he says. “I looked for an existing building but couldn’t find the right thing.” He settled on a concrete-block building on Sherman Hollow Road land owned by his longtime partner Gale Lawrence, a well-known naturalist and author with whom he still lives.

Lawrence donated the property to the museum. After building an addition and constructing the display areas, Spear opened Birds of Vermont in 1987.

A group of four backers helped establish the museum, and subsequent financing was done through the offering of memberships. Brown laughs as she recalls that she was the first member. “But he’s unpaid,” says Brown, referring to Spear. “He’s never been paid.”

Today the facility’s 100 acres and nature trails entice visitors and 500 members to come explore. Asked if he foresaw what would come from the fruits of his “hobby,” Spear replies, “The place just grew on its own.”

A gentle, unassuming man who clearly loves his work, Spear has produced every aspect of the museum’s pieces — from choosing the birds to carve and creating each specimen’s habitat to building the display pieces and designing the lighting.

Even self-proclaimed non-birders are taken by Spear’s considerable skill and the extent of the museum’s collection, which is, as Brown jokes, “one man’s retirement project!” The pieces are biologically correct and so detailed it’s hard to believe they’re not real.

“Bob strives to make his carvings as true to life as possible,” says Brown.

Bob Spear photoBob Spear works on his largest carving yet, a wild turkey he started last May. He has already dedicated 440 hours to the work.

A typical small carving may require 40 hours or so to finish, but some of the more intricate specimens, such as a magnificent bald eagle replica, take upwards of 400 hours. Working on a turkey he started last May, Spear plans to eventually carve some 50 more birds and 100 Vermont butterflies.

Spear’s tireless energy is even more remarkable considering, as Brown points out, “He’s not carving multiples of the same bird. Since every bird is different, it’s a new challenge.” Nesting pair displays contain female and male specimens, their eggs (wooden), and nests (real, whenever possible).

While Spear’s carving tools have progressed over the years from a jackknife to power tools and wood-burning instruments, his focus and interest in the process remain the same. “He’s always trying to invent new, better ways of doing things, but paces himself to pay close attention to every detail,” says Brown. “There’s nothing he can’t do, and it’s all self-taught.”

This woodcarving legacy is continuing. Spear works closely with the Green Mountain Woodcarvers. He hosted a “carve-in” class last fall. Brown, a former art major and recently elected president of the Woodcarvers, has been carving with Spear for many years as his apprentice and named successor.

Another promising wood carver under Spear’s wing is 12-year-old Hannah Miller, daughter of longtime volunteers Deb and Ed Miller. Hannah recently won several blue ribbons at a wood-carving event in Maine, and last Christmas presented Spear with a robin she carved. Her mother says, “Bob is an example of a man who has lived his passion. He’s a teacher of how to live and how to be happy. The carving and the birding are just part of that picture.”

Birds of Vermont has benefited from Spear’s creative right brain/practical left brain balance in many ways beyond his carving. Heat produced by the original fluorescent lights was beginning to cause some carvings’ paint colors to fade, so Spear recently updated the museum’s lighting by designing and installing a fiber-optic system to illuminate the exhibits.

“Fiber optics are more like sunlight and show truer color,” he explains. “There’s no heat, so there’s no damage.” Future plans call for mechanical upgrades to control humidity, thereby preventing carvings from fading and cracking; installing corresponding audio bird calls; and building an addition for activities and exhibit expansion.

A technological hit with museum fans is the feeder webcam broadcasting four-second refreshed views from a spot behind the museum. Viewers from such faraway places as Japan, China, Russia, Australia and Germany have been enticed by the shot to come visit in person. Says Brown, “People visit the webcam and decide they have to come see the place.”

Since exhibits reflect Vermont’s bird population, they’re continually updated to mirror habitat variations affecting them. Changes within our borders such as fewer farms, increased population, development and larger forests, combined with issues of temperature fluctuations and tropical forest reduction, mean there’s a different mix of birds visiting Vermont these days.

A look down a long line of cases full of bird carvings.The Birds of Vermont Museum features more than 470 wood carvings of Vermont’s nesting species and North America’s endangered and extinct species.

Some species, Spear says, are endangered now or may never come back. “You rarely see meadowlarks and bobolinks, which used to nest in fields near Lake Champlain during July haying months. On the other hand, more pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers are expanding their range with warmer weather.”

Spear’s dedication and outreach in emphasizing the importance of birds in our ecosystem have been widely acknowledged. Last year he received the Governor’s Heritage Award for Traditional Arts, adding to an already long list of accolades recognizing his numerous contributions.

It’s clear Spear’s desire is to encourage would-be and confirmed nature lovers alike to develop their own connection with the world around them.

Brown says it best, “Bob is living proof that if you have a dream and a passion, you can accomplish anything.” •