We Gathered to Study Nature

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

located and agrees to be there at the designated time. The Secretary is dropped nearby via helicopter, then whisked to the site by limousine. Dick shows him the Eurasian tree sparrow and they bird together for an hour.

In that relaxed setting, Dick poses the question, "Mr. Secretary, is birding your favorite pastime?" Schlesinger's response: "These days, with all the pressures on my time, it's how I maintain my sanity."

The world's top birder - the observer with the longest life list - is a St. Louis County member of the WGNSS. Phoebe Snetsinger, a housewife whose children have flown the nest, recently identified her 8,000th bird species in the field. She spotted the rufus necked wood rail in a Mexican swamp.

Late in the 1960s WGNSS members were generously granted a new base for their activities. This resulted from an invitation by Burrell and Ruby Pickering to adopt their 500-acre retirement property, which they called Sunny Ranch. The Pickerings, both devoted to conservation, joined the WGNSS, then established marked nature trails and a nature museum in an old barn they renovated for that purpose. They also invited the various interest groups to regular outings on the property.

Sunny Ranch was a lovely spread with sizable fields, maturing oak-hickory woods, a small creek and several ponds. The membership studied plants, birds, insects and even fossils there. Burrell's personal project was an extensive bluebird trail. He built and set out the boxes himself, tripling their number from 20 in 1968 to 60 by 1972.

Each one was numbered and WGNSS families - also school classes with their teachers - were recruited to keep tabs on all young bluebirds leaving the boxes. Records show that in 1968 some 62 bluebirds fledged at Sunny Ranch, and that by 1972 that number had jumped to 299.

A particular concern of the Pickerings was to make their land a safe haven for wild, native creatures that had been confiscated due to illegal possession, abandoned or otherwise abused. These were mostly animals from St. Louis, and they ranged from bats to birds, raccoons to coyotes. Some might have called Sunny Ranch a dumping ground for critters; WGNSS members recognized it as a refuge for wayward wildlife.

The wonderful relationship between conservationist landowners and organized nature enthusiasts continued until 1981 when Burrell Pickering died and his estate passed on to heirs. Yet today, even though WGNSS members no longer claim a home base, they find plenty of natural habitats in conservation areas and state parks to explore in pursuit of their special interest.

For me, as a 50-year member, what other benefits can I ascribe to the 75-year old WGNSS? Obviously, we are getting older, but we are not less active. Though we eagerly welcome younger members, we also claim many retired people who maintain active interests and exercise active bodies.

An example: one day when Edgar Denison was in his early 80s he led a botany group into the hills of Hawn State Park. Pausing along Pickle Creek, he explained to his charges how every year the local rocks were growing bigger and the hills rising taller. Then he added with his somewhat German accent: "Nature's peculiar that way." Having said this, he resumed leading his group up the creek in pursuit of fascinating plants.

Peggy Leonard, the current president, reports that when the WGNSS was founded 75 years ago, "The only requirements for membership were a sincere interest and one dollar per year for adults, two-bits for juniors. Now, even with higher dues, sincere interest is still the important thing."

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