A Gift From the Past
- Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program
Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory gets a $2,000 gift that harkens to the beginnings of bird banding in the region and Washington College’s past.
Sometime fairly soon, around mid-March or so, the ospreys will start returning to the Chester River nesting sites embedded in their memories, where they’ll reunite with their mates, rebuild their nests, raise their young, and fish from the river. And the full-circle nature of this annual migration has found a parallel in a recent gift to Washington College’s Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory.
The Kent County Bird Club has donated $2,000 to the observatory at the Chester River Field Research Station at Chino Farms, funds that were part of a trust formed by a former president of Washington College and the woman who taught Jim Gruber, the station’s director and master bander, how to band birds when he was just a boy growing up in Kent County.
By all accounts, the late Dorothy “Dottie” Mendinhall was a force to be reckoned with, and when she pursued her interest in ornithology at Damsite, her home in Tolchester, Maryland, she brought to bear all of her fierce, determined energy. Under Mendinhall’s watch, Damsite became a major wildlife center and banding station under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the only one on the upper Eastern Shore (as Foreman’s Branch is now). According to the Maryland Ornithological Society—of which Mendinhall was a charter member and president of the Kent County chapter—more than 100,000 birds were banded at Damsite from 1959 until 1991.
“Under Dorothy’s tutelage during this period, several young MOS members became licensed bird banders under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” the MOS website says. One of those young banders was Jim Gruber, who has continued to pass the skills and knowledge down to scores of Washington College students who intern at the banding station, as well as to local high school students and others who visit.
In the mid-1960s, Mendinhall, Daniel Gibson, then president of Washington College, and his wife, Helen, organized three waterfowl carving shows on the campus. (The shows in 1965 evolved into the Chestertown Wildlife Exhibition & Sale, which closed in 2013 after a 47-year run.) Money raised from the original three shows was put into a trust fund called the Gibson-Mendinhall Fund; its goal was to help support ornithological research and activities in Kent County.
For many years, the fund supported the Daniel and Helen Gibson-Dorothy Mendinhall Scholarship, which, according to the MOS site, was given to local teachers for training workshops in ornithology. The fund over the years has drawn down, until last year, the Kent County Bird Club, which oversaw the fund, donated the last of the money.
The club donated $15,000 as matching money to the Friends of Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge to repair a popular boardwalk and waterfowl observation area at Tubby Cove. The remaining $2,000 it donated to Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory.
Gruber says he’s not certain how the funds will be used yet; he speculates that they may be added to the fund-raising initiatives to build a new banding station at Chino, which has been in the planning stages for some time now. The present banding station is housed in a former pheasant cote, and while it’s rustically charming, it is quite small and limits how many people can visit or work at a time.
Since 1998, the Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory has banded 242,366 birds. Last year, students and scientists banded 13,138 new birds of 131 species and “recaptured” nearly 6,000 birds that already had been banded. These efforts create a long-term data set that can help begin to answer questions not only about birds, but about issues as varied as climate change and infectious disease. Also in 2016, 439 visitors to the station—among them 238 Washington College students—took part in 78 banding demonstrations.
“It had always been a dream of Dottie’s that a long-term banding station in the Chestertown area would be established,” Gruber says. “It would be a place to study ornithology and train new banders, as well as a place to draw researchers to discuss the latest banding techniques and research in the field. The Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory is accomplishing what she had hoped, and I’m grateful to be part of that.”