Lime Hollow Nature Center
Peaceful Pond at Lime Hollow

Cortland Lime Hollow Bird Club History

Formerly the Cortland County Bird Club, Inc.
By: John A. Gustafson, Bobbie Monroe and Nancy Governali

It was Connie Wilkins' idea! Cortland needed a bird club! The year was 1960.

BluebirdConnie and her husband, Chase Wilkins, operated a small printing business (Connie's Copy Service) on West Road in Cortland. This printing operation was probably the connection with Peter Paul Kellogg, noted ornithologist at Cornell University, who pioneered the recording of wild bird songs and calls. Connie persuaded Dr. Kellogg to be the featured speaker at a well-publicized event where the idea of forming a bird club was discussed. Over 275 persons showed up - many signed on as being interested in the bird club idea - and the Cortland County Bird Club, Inc. was born!

Almost immediately Connie began the publication of the Bird Club newsletter, appropriately named "Chickadee Chatter," the first issue dated November 1961. Connie solicited ads to help cover the cost of publication. Annual dues for members were $2. In 1963 there were ninety-one members. Early on, the Club initiated annual Wildlife Lectures, which, along with monthly meetings, were held at the F.E. Smith Elementary School in Cortland.

A number of Club members became involved in "Operation Bluebird" circa 1962. Two hundred bluebird nest boxes were erected along selected bluebird trails, and John Gustafson and Bill Toner, licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, banded hundreds of adults and fledglings. Dr. John Wattenburg and his retiree friends made the boxes during the winter months, using the wood from Smith Corona shipping crates. By 1972, the distribution of almost 1,000 Bluebird houses was almost entirely taken care of by Dr. John F. McCarthy. Bluebird trails existed on "Bluebird Ridge" (reached by driving up Sessions Hill Road & Forbes Road), Houghton Hill Road, and Ames & Carr Hill Roads.

This interest in bluebirds had a significant statewide impact. One of our members, Allen Christopher, and his wife Dorothy, contacted our local State Assemblyman, George Michaels, and persuaded him to introduce a bill in the NYS Assembly making the Eastern Bluebird the official State Bird. In 1970, the bill passed, in spite of objections by a member from the New York City area who correctly noted that few citizens see bluebirds; he suggested that the House Sparrow or pigeon might be a better choice.

In 1963 the Bird Club assumed responsibility for the annual Cortland Christmas Bird Count, which was started in 1918 by Harold H. Axtell of the Buffalo Museum of Science. Dr. Axtell was a native of Cortland, returning each year to visit family and to do the Christmas Count. He was gratified to learn of our willingness to continue this valuable program. Our Count is one of hundreds being conducted around North America. The Count is a valuable research tool in understanding the dynamics of bird populations.

In 1965 the Club conducted a survey of its members about the idea of developing a nature center. Of the 44 responses, 43 were in favor, with one undecided. To quote Joan Siedenburg’s report: “Most everyone wanted to have nature trails - 40 checked this item. Next in popularity, with 33 votes each, were wilderness areas and bird feeders. Twenty-seven would like to begin like the Texas Hollow center, but with a master plan for possible further development. A few would rather have the center remain simple with only outdoor exhibits and no buildings." In spite of the interest in the possibility of a nature center, it seemed out of reach.

Then Dr. John Wattenburg, a prominent physician in Cortland, deeded a seven-acre Virgil woodland to the Bird Club for use as a bird sanctuary that memorialized his wife. The Bird Club took possession of this property in December, 1971. A plaque reading "Wattenburg Sanctuary, presented to the Cortland County Bird Club, in memory of Ione Wattenburg," was unveiled in June, 1973, by Connie Wilkins. Some use was made of the area, but gradually interest in it dropped off.

The 70s and 80s: From Chickadee Chatter to the Wilkins Lectures

BinocularsFrom January, 1968, until October, 1975, club meetings, activities and bird sightings were carefully documented in copies of the Chickadee Chatter, a monthly/bi-monthly publication mailed to Club members. Meetings were generally well attended; in April, 1970, the club had a total of 155 paid members! Meetings normally had a program component that focused on the natural world. Presentation topics included birds, bogs, trip discussions, wildflowers, and stars to name a few. For example, Philip Clark gave a talk on "Beginning Bird Watching" at the October, 1975 Club meeting. In June, 1972, a Bird Hot-Line was organized to share rare-bird sightings; interested members could become part of this telephone tree. The local political side of the Club was in evidence when Bill Duffy was asked to represent Club interests as the Cortland High School began to develop an area that contained a marsh-pond ecosystem. The Club reached beyond Cortland borders as well. In the spring of 1969 CCBC, hosted the Federation of NYS Bird Clubs' annual convention held at the Cortland Holiday Inn. Persons from around the state attended, with technical papers, field trips, and special speakers making up the program. Also over this time period, bird walks were faithfully conducted in May by many Club volunteers, an annual Club picnic was held each June, and the annual Christmas Bird Count was held in December.

Minutes show that regular meetings were held about every other month from the fall of 1975 through May, 1989. During this time, Dr. John Gustafson kept the Bird Club members abreast of what was happening with a proposal to preserve the Lime Hollow area, noting that funds were needed for land acquisition. At the November, 1980 meeting, it was decided that the club help make the Lime Hollow preserve the Bird Club "Project of the Year." At this time, an application was being made for a Federal Grant in the amount of $28,000, which had to be matched by local nature organizations such as the Cortland County Bird Club. The grant was not funded.

At the September 1988 Bird Club meeting, it was announced that the club’s beloved Club founder, Connie Wilkins, had died. Bird Club members thought it fitting to memorialize this remarkable lady. At the November 1988 Bird Club meeting the decision was made to establish a "Wilkins Memorial Fund" and use Fund proceeds to host a nature lecture. The first Wilkins Memorial Lecture was held on March 21, 1989. The speaker was Dr. Stephen Kress, from the National Audubon Society and Cornell's Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Kress presented "Galapagos - The Enchanted Islands." The Wilkins lecture continues annually and has been co-sponsored by Lime Hollow Nature Center and the Biology Club from SUNY Cortland.

The 90s: The dream of a nature center is realized!

Lime Hollow SignCortland County Bird Club entered the ‘90s still incorporated with tax exempt status and a Board of Directors and Officers including John Gustafson, President. Dues increased from five to ten dollars per person and fifteen dollars per couple. During this time, one notable March sighting by Bill Toner was a flock of 40+ White-winged Crossbills seen on Cortland’s Madison Street. Politically aware, the Club corresponded with Senator James Seward to oppose Sunday deer hunting. The 1990 Christmas Bird Count results from 30 participants noted 44 species. In 1991, at a low point in Club interest, a suggestion was made to put a dissolution clause in the Club Constitution. Meetings did resume in the fall, however, and the Club again participated in the Christmas Bird Count held on December 28th.

On June 29, 1992, an historic Board of Directors meeting was held to discuss the sale of the Wattenberg Sanctuary (6.83 acres) in Virgil. In August the Board rejected an offer of $12,500 and countered with a price of $22,500 that was accepted and resulted in the sale on October 28, 1992, netting the Club about $20,000. About this time, Charles Yaple, professor at SUNY Cortland, and James Mead, Director of the Tunison fish research laboratory, were formulating plans for what soon would become the Lime Hollow Nature Center. The Bird Club Board of Directors recognized that here was an opportunity to realize its long dormant goal of having a nature center and donated the land sale proceeds to Lime Hollow Nature Center. This money was to be applied to the challenge grant goal of $34,500 made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Lime Hollow Nature Center. Since the Bird Club would realize its long-standing goal of a nature center for Cortland, it was a win-win deal!

On February 21, 1995, the Cortland County Bird Club Board of Directors merged with that of the Lime Hollow Nature Center. President Gustafson remarked that “Birding possibilities at the Lime Hollow Nature Center are probably the best in Cortland County.” In order to honor the land gift from the Wattenberg family, the development of a permanent tribute to them at Lime Hollow was anticipated. The intent to memorialize the Wattenberg generosity was discussed as early as January, 1993, at a Bird Club Board of Directors meeting. Suggestions included naming a visitors’ center or comparable facility, a tract of land, or a trail.

During the 90s, educational birding opportunities continued to be offered at Lime Hollow. On November 11, 1994, “Hosting Winter Birds” took place in the evening, while SUNY-Cortland collaborated to present “For the Birds” by John Gustafson on May 13, 1995. Kim Stahler, Education Director of the Seneca Zoo Society, directed “Wild Wings,” about birds of prey, on July 20, 1995. Then Lime Hollow Program Coordinator Susannah Touchet presented a Saturday program, “Learn About Birds,” in December of 1997 -- when dedicated bird watcher and Lime Hollow Board Member, Bobbie Monroe, also held a bird feeder make-and-take program. Local artist and subsequent Board member, Liz Sharp, held a “Making Birdbaths and Stepping Stones” program in May, 1999. Throughout this time, the Cortland community was invited many times to join John Gustafson on a “Morning Bird Walk.” No records exist, however, to confirm that regular bird club meetings took place during the 90s.

A new century – and renewed interest in the Bird Club

OwlThe turn of the century found some organized birding activities at Lime Hollow: July, 2002, “Birds of Prey” by Donna Fritz and Jeff Lewis; November, 2002, “Let’s Talk Turkey” by Lance Clark, DEC officer; April, 2003, “The Flyways and Byways of Spring Migration” by naturalist Kevin Lowry; October, 2003, “Creatures of the Night” by Donna Fritz; May, 2003, “Breakfast with the Birds” by John Gustafson and Dr. Steven Broyles, SUNY Cortland biologist; July, 2004, “All About Bluebirds-and More” by John Rogers. During this time, the Lime Hollow Nature Center was expanding its programming and attracting more interest from both children and adults. In April, 2004, Carol Navarro, then Lime Hollow Assistant Director, persuaded local resident Matt Young to reinvigorate the dormant bird club by facilitating a May meeting to determine interest. After a subsequent meeting in June, the Cortland Lime Hollow Bird Club was on its way to regular meetings, outings, and learning opportunities under Matt’s direction.

Matt, a naturalist and ornithologist, together with Carol worked tirelessly in 2005 to offer significant Lime Hollow educational opportunities that focused on birds. In 2005, Matt conducted an Ornithology Class (14 participants) that featured seven evening classes followed by seven Saturday field trips. Steve Broyles, SUCC-biology instructor, co-taught two classes on Migration & Bird Song Audio-spectrographs. The remaining classes focused on New York State birds and their habitats; after learning about a bird in class, class members hoped to see it on the following field trip. Highlights of this class included memorable trips to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Derby Hill (migrating birds), Summerhill, Bear Swamp, Lake Como (McIlroy Preserve), and Skaneateles Lake. The most memorable evening, however, was a night excursion to look for Woodcock, Snipe, and owls! Matt also conducted this class in 2006, then created a 2007 Natural History class which added a focus on plant life (trees and flowers) and land features (bogs & fens) to birds and their habitats. These classes were instrumental in developing skills and interest among the bird club’s many new and inexperienced birders.

In 2006 a Bluebird monitoring program was established to attract and study Eastern Bluebirds at Lime Hollow Nature Center. Ryan Butryn, a Tunison employee and skilled birder, organized weekly data collection from sets of houses on three different trails. Today bird club volunteers visit boxes from the end of March through the end of nesting season to document bird activity, offspring, and nest box conditions.

What does the future hold? Birds are an important focus at the Lime Hollow Center: through the generosity of the Bush family, a portion of the organization’s new visitor center on McLean Road has been dedicated as the Robert Bush Bird Room, which continues the legacy of the Cortland County Bird Club. As his final Eagle Scout project, James D. McKenna constructed a large bird feeding station that is sited between the Bird Room windows and a nearby brook. Bird Club dues are used to purchase seeds for the wide variety of donated feeders. Monthly bird club meetings generally are held from September through June and the practice of keeping meeting minutes resumed in September, 2007. Traditions such as the annual Wilkins Lecture, that memorializes the contributions of Connie Wilkins, as well as the Christmas Bird Count, continue with a solid core of club volunteers. And rising club membership has demonstrated that the Cortland Lime Hollow Bird Club has become an important educational and recreational resource for all Cortland County residents.

Here are a few of the many persons who had key roles in the Cortland County Bird Club:

  • Dr. Harold H. Axtell, founder of the Cortland County Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
  • Lynn Brown, long-time treasurer and benefactor of the CC Bird Club and LHNC. Lynn was initially skeptical about merging the Club with the Lime Hollow Nature Center, but became a staunch advocate for both.
  • Bill Breidinger, who specialized in warblers, especially in spring.
  • Dr. Ben Burtt, professor of chemistry at Syracuse University and author of a popular bird column in the Syracuse newspaper. Dr. Burtt specialized in banding hawks and owls and came to Cortland on several occasions to demonstrate his technique in reaching the nests of these birds high up in large trees.
  • Allen Christopher, who hosted trips to his farm in Freetown where his "hand-tamed" chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches enthralled hundreds of visiting school children from Cortland and Broome Counties.
  • William Duffy, an attorney who contributed invaluable legal service to the CC Bird Club.
  • Dr. John Gustafson, who served initially as steward of the CC Bird Club's avian records; later as president and architect of the merger of the Club with Lime Hollow Nature Center, and High Vista, Inc.; generally known as "The Bird Man" of Cortland County.
  • Lulu Holmes, author of many "Chickadee Chatter" articles and nature-related poetry.
  • Paul Kelsey, regional conservation educator with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Paul was a frequent presenter at meetings of the CC Bird Club and provided photos and articles for the newsletter.
  • Francis O'Leary of Truxton, who was CC Bird Club treasurer for many years.
  • Bobbie Monroe, dedicated and longtime CC Bird Club member, having served as Club Secretary, Delegate for the CBC to the NYS Federation of Bird Clubs (now NYSOA). Upon the merger with Lime Hollow became a Lime Hollow Board of Directors member, has given bird programs, led bird walks and continues to be active in the Cortland Lime Hollow Bird Club.
  • Connie Norte, a long-time, active CC Bird Club member who served as president.
  • Joan Siedenburg, who served as president of the CC Bird Club and reported on her extensive travels to wonderful natural areas.
  • Clara Sprouse, who served as CC Bird Club secretary for many years.
  • Bill Stupke, residing on Stupke Road, who developed a birder's paradise overlooking Stupke Pond, and hosted the CC Bird Club annual picnic.
  • Bill Toner, who developed several bluebird trails and set up kestrel nesting boxes, doing extensive banding over many years.
  • Connie Wilkins, CC Bird Club founder and long-time publisher of the NY State Federation of Bird Clubs "Kingbird" publication.

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