The World's Best Birdwatcher

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

It's a wonder that Pete Winter ever became a birdwatcher. As a young man, he spent a great deal of time hunting. Watching birds was extra. Now, Winter is perhaps the premier birdwatcher in the world. He is also an ardent conservationist, and a resident of St. Louis.

According to the American Birding Association, Winter is the world's topranked living birdwatcher. He has recorded the sightings of more than 7,700 bird species. Only the late Phoebe B. Snetsinger, also from St. Louis, had officially seen more bird species in the wild.

Winter also conducts a successful eastern bluebird restoration program on land he owns along the Meramec River in Franklin County. Through the Bluebirds Forever project, he has helped fledge nearly 10,000 bluebirds in Missouri. He is best known for his global birding accomplishments, but he is equally proud of his bluebird restoration success locally.

"I never intended to become a ranked birdwatcher," said Winter, 83. "For me, an interest that was born relatively late in my life simply continued to grow over the years until I was hopelessly hooked. While I have traveled the world to see birds and have wonderful memories, helping the Missouri state bird thrive is a lasting legacy."

The Bluebirds Forever project is the brainchild of Winter's brother-in-law, Bud Taylor, who has a home on Winter's 2,600-acre Roaring Spring Ranch near St. Clair. During the winter of 1994-95, after Winter had completed 165 of his more than 170 worldwide birding expeditions, Taylor asked Winter which bird he considered to be his favorite.

Winter's reply was immediate and enthusiastic. "The eastern bluebird! It's gentle, it's beautiful, and it has a wonderful song."

In response, Taylor announced, "Pete, I will try to raise them for you." The project began in 1995 when Winter and Taylor surveyed the ranch land for suitable bluebird house locations. Bob Winter, Pete's brother, began building the houses.

"We fledged 135 bluebirds that first year," Pete Winter said, "but because we had lost so many eggs to black snakes and raccoons, we considered the season to be a disaster."

Since then, Taylor--called "Buddy Bluebird" by his grandchildren--has solved the predator problem by covering every box post with a sheet of slick, polished aluminum. The 2000 nesting season alone saw 1,200 bluebirds fledged, along with 128 chickadees, 45 tree swallows and even 12 broods of flying squirrels.

More than 1,500 bluebirds were fledged in 2001. After they increased the number of bluebird houses from 170 to 210, the number of fledglings rose to 2,147 in 2002. There are now 246 boxes occupying all available bluebird habitat on the ranch.

Raising bluebirds takes dedication and persistence. Riding his all-terrain vehicle, Taylor inspects each of the bird boxes twice weekly during the nesting season and services them as necessary. He removes old nests, fumigates the boxes to destroy parasites, and rubs a bar of Ivory soap on the inside surface of the box lids to deter wasps. Because bluebirds are prolific nesters, Taylor may apply this regimen several times during the year.

Each pair of bluebirds typically has 14 chicks a year, in cycles of four or five each during three separate nestings. Taylor keeps precise records of each nesting cycle, and each house is numbered so he can track locations and habitat. For every house, he records the date of nest building, the date of egg laying, the number of eggs laid, the period of incubation, and the date and success of fledging.

Named for a large natural spring that empties into the Meramec River, Roaring Spring Ranch encompasses a number of habitats. Most of the upland acreage, crisscrossed by walking and riding trails, is covered with hardwood forest frequented by white-tailed deer and wild turkey. Occasional visitors include pileated woodpeckers, Kentucky warblers, ovenbirds, summer tanagers, white-breasted nuthatches, Cooper's hawks, and red-eyed vireos.

On the lowlands bordering the Meramec, stands of oak and hickory give way to sycamore and maple. Red-headed woodpeckers, waterthrushes, prothonotary warblers, ospreys, and great blue herons can be seen there.

Although Winter has seen most of the world's 9,800 bird species, one bird that has so far eluded him is another Missouri resident, the northern sawwhet owl. This 7-inch-long denizen of the night has a vast range, but it has so far eluded Winter's sharp eyes.

"It frustrates me to no end," Winter said, laughing.

In contrast to his success with bluebirds, both on his ranch and on other lands in St. Louis County, Winter has found it painful to witness a general decline in the number of other passerine birds on his ranch property. "Passerine" refers to an order of small- to medium-size, chiefly perching songbirds that have grasping feet with the first toe directed backward.

"During summer weekends, I can hike for miles in the forest and not see or hear a single wood warbler, thrush or vireo that were so plentiful decades ago," Winter said.

Each year, Winter lamented, there is "a greater stillness" in the remaining forests of the Midwest. Loss of habitat, both in the U.S. and in the birds' wintering ranges in Mexico and Central America, has drastically reduced the populations of many forest and grassland bird species. In fact, the cerulean warbler has declined range-wide at an annual rate of 4.3 percent a year since 1966, according to an analysis of the USGS Breeding Bird Survey.

On the other hand, two purple martin houses on Roaring Spring Ranch attract about 10 pairs of purple martins each year, and an array of hummingbird feeders attract a large number of rubythroated hummingbirds. Around Taylor's ranch home, the hummingbirds may consume a half-gallon of sugar-nectar each day during late spring, summer and early fall.

The ranch is also home to the gray bat, a federally endangered species. These bats inhabit Roaring Spring Cave, near the mouth of Roaring Spring. The cave is one of the few known breeding sites of the gray bat and is monitored by Missouri conservation agents under an easement provided by the Winter family. Each year, after the bats have hibernated, agents enter the cave and gauge the amount of deposited guano to assess the bat population. Population estimates dropped about 75 percent over the last several decades but rebounded somewhat in a recent survey.

With more than 7,700 bird species and 30 years of serious birdwatching behind him, Winter has taken up a new hobby--identifying in the field all 200 species of wildflowers that the late Edgar Denison illustrated in his classic book, Missouri Wildflowers.

Winter met Denison many years ago while they were birding together in St. Louis' Forest Park. Through the years, Winter often called upon Denison to help identify wildflowers.

"I recall seeing along the Meramec a wildflower I had never before encountered," Winter recalled. "While I thought it was a member of the mint family, I called Edgar to describe to him what I had found. He told me I was eyeing the beefsteak plant, Perilla frutescens, then a recent immigrant from India.

"Apparently, the wildflower had found the moist river valleys of Missouri to be to its liking," he continued. "When I visited India years later, I looked for the beefsteak and found it growing in the river valleys of that country. I still wonder how the plant had made its way to Missouri."

Advancing age and world terrorism slowed Winter's global birdwatching expeditions, but he and his wife, Gloria, who accompanied him on many of his treks, still occasionally travel to foreign lands. When they do, Winter typically adds another bird or two to his life list.

And what a list it is! Among the species Winter has seen, the standouts include:

  • A parrot and an antbird that had been so recently discovered that they had not yet been named by ornithologists.
  • The spectacularly plumaged birds of paradise.
  • A bird that uses volcanic heat to incubate its eggs.
  • Another bird that builds a nest of saliva.
  • Eagles carrying monkeys as food for young chicks in the nest.
  • The resplendent quetzal of Central America and the striking blue hyacinth macaw of Brazil.
  • The amazing wandering albatross, which sometimes literally flies around the world.

A decorated U.S. Navy pilot, Winter flew 77 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. He returned to Missouri after the war and, with his brother, founded a successful sand and gravel business.

Winter considers himself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel the world while looking for birds. His bluebird project is one of many ways he is giving back to the state that has been so good to him. Years ago, the family donated Robert A. Winter Park and George Winter Park, the latter named after Pete Winter's father, to the St. Louis County parks system. The family has also provided scenic easements for hiking and biking trails along the Meramec Greenway.

Winter Brothers Material Company owned the land that the Missouri Department of Conservation purchased along Interstate 44 in St. Louis County. That property is now Forest 44 Conservation Area.

Winter is donating all proceeds from the sale of his new book, Dawn Chorus: The Adventures of a Birdwatcher, to the Winter Brothers Charitable Foundation to finance park land benefaction and conservation projects in Missouri. triangle

BUILD YOUR NATURAL LIBRARY!

Learn more about Missouri's fascinating birds and plants and build your own "lifelists" of the species you've seen with the help of Conservation Department publications.

Birds in Missouri is a comprehensive guide to 354 bird species in Missouri, including resident, part-time resident and migrant species.The book provides identifying characteristics and range maps. The softcover edition of Birds in Missouri costs $30 and the hardcover edition costs $38, plus shipping and handling, and tax, where applicable.

Missouri Wildflowers provides 297 stunning photographs of wildflowers commonly found in the state.The book also provides plant characteristics, habitat preferences and range of each species,making plant identification easier.The softcover book costs $12, plus shipping and handling, and tax, where applicable.

The books are available at Conservation Nature Centers and most regional offices, or you can order them from the Nature Shop, Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City,MO 65102-0180 or by calling, toll-free, (877) 521-8632. It's easy to visit the Nature Shop online.

The 16-page Bluebirds of Missouri booklet provides lots of interesting information about bluebird nesting behavior and food and habitat preferences. It also includes plans for building bluebird houses. "Bluebirds of Missouri" is available free by writing Publications, P.O. Box 180, JC 65102-0180 or by emailing publications.staff@mdc.mo.gov.

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