D&R Greenway Presents Lecture on the Art and Craft of Carving Birds

Princeton, N.J.– D&R Greenway Land Trust will present a lecture on Wednesday, May 17, exploring the fine art and craft of carved birds and what they can teach us about birds on locally preserved properties. Doors open 6:30 p.m., program begins 7 p.m. Ron Kobli, owner, Decoys and Wildlife Gallery in Frenchtown, Jay Vawter, Curator, Vawter Decoy Collection, and Dr. Charles Leck, wildlife biologist, will share unique perspectives. This program supplements the ongoing exhibit Decoys—Timeline: From Craft to Art. RSVP at (609) 924-4646 or Gallery hours Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 609-924-4646;

Vawter, a retired investment counselor and avid photographer who has collected carved birds from all over the world, will present a slideshow of the steps taken to carve a saw whet owl from a block of wood. Pat Godin took home a third-place award from the Ward World Championship for his carving. “That is a good thing because if it came in first it would have to stay at the Ward Museum for a year and I didn’t want it out of my sight,” says Vawter, who made a generous gift of his prize-winning decoys to D&R Greenway in 2012. “D&R Greenway preserves lands full of these birds,” he said.

In a gallery of their own, in specially designed wood and glass cases, courtesy of Vawter, the decoys raise awareness about conservation. “We are excited to show these decoys because they can teach us so much about wildlife on the lands we preserve,” says D&R Greenway President & CEO Linda Mead. “The collection and its display fits with our mission of inspiring a conservation ethic. The accompanying lectures offer information about the habitat these species need to survive, and we hope to inspire conservation of wetlands, marshes and places in our region that make a difference to these species.”

“The May 17 talk will be an opportunity for visitors whose interests in birds run the gamut from sport to art and wildlife,” says Dr. Charles Leck, professor emeritus, ecological sciences, Cook College, Rutgers. “They will get to see the decoys up close and learn about conservation. These have gone from hunters’ tools to art and well beyond. They are incredibly accurate.”

Abbott Marshlands, one of many lands preserved by D&R Greenway, was once a prime wintering area for black ducks, according to Dr. Leck, until acid rainfall affected the food supply. In the 1930s and 1940s, wood ducks were rare in this range but have made a comeback, a conservation success story. Dabbling ducks, too, have made a comeback.

Wood ducks are “the most beautiful ducks in the world,” says Dr. Leck. “In the wild they make cavities in trees for nesting, but have adapted to nest boxes in preserved habitats.”

The American wigeon is commonly seen at the Abbott Marshlands. “It likes aquatic vegetation and doesn’t like to expend energy, so robs from other birds such as coots,” Dr. Leck says with a chuckle. “Not many birds are into piracy.”

In the Northeast, “we’re blessed with views of ducks year round,” continues Dr. Leck, from the Assunpink Wildlife Refuge to the Forsythe Refuge, north of Atlantic City, where fall and winter migration and summer breeding bring many birds. “At Barnegat Bay you can see the red-breasted merganser and all kinds of scaups and scoters. The scenic overlook on I-295 is another good place to see winter waterfowl. If you have mud on your feet there are some interesting birds around.”

Dr. Leck has become more interested in decoys since D&R Greenway acquired the Vawter Collection. “I’m interested in the art, and have become more appreciative of what goes into it. It’s a chance to see extinct birds such as the Labrador duck.”

He is also interested in the history of decoys. The earliest decoys were made from rushes, grasses or cattails, occasionally feather-enhanced. Many were simply two-dimensional representations.

“Decoys have been around since prehistoric times,” says Ron Kobli of the Decoys and Wildlife Gallery. In Lovelock Cave in Nevada, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a cache of 11 duck decoys was discovered in the early 20th century. These were made from bundled tule, a long grass-like herb, covered in feathers and painted. More than 2,000 years old, the preserved prehistoric specimens include white-fronted, Canada and snow geese, as well as American mergansers, pintail, wigeon, brant, whistling swan and ring-necked ducks.

“It’s an American craft, and part of the history of this country,” says Kobli. “They were developed for hunters, and like D&R Greenway, hunters are interested in preserving land. The National Wildlife Refuge System partners with hunters who have played a major role in the conservation of the nation’s wildlife resources.”

Kobli, 77, uses some of his decoys, including one valued at more than $100,000, for hunting. He may take some of his customers out to establish the decoy’s provenance. He was a falconer and ran a guide service. “You can’t legally have a stuffed bird of prey so people buy carvings,” he says.

When he was 12 years old, his father would drive him to Philadelphia to salvage decoys that had been put out with the trash. “My father, a boss at Bethlehem Steel, was making $150 a week—good money then. I was making $200 a week, selling decoys.”

Kobli is happy to see the American eagle’s comeback. “You couldn’t go into the Lehigh River when I was a kid. Because of silt from the coal, you’d come out black. The eagle’s comeback is a tribute to the cleanliness of the water.”

Five years after his gift to D&R Greenway, Jay Vawter is still collecting. “Not so much decoys but carvings,” he says. “I got a few more ducks but mainly raptors and songbirds, carved from wood.” He is focusing on the carvings of Greg Pederson, who recently took home best in show, first place and honorable mention in the Ward World Championships—Vawter owns all three winners. D&R Greenway is planning a special exhibition of Pedersen raptors and songbirds in November.

“One is a life-size Harris hawk, another is a life size Merlin, and one is a two-thirds-size snowy owl, along with miniature raptors. There will be a dozen—it will be a spectacular show but only up for two months because I can’t part with them for any longer.”

D&R GREENWAY LAND TRUST IS IN ITS 28TH YEAR of preserving and protecting natural lands, farmlands and open spaces throughout central and southern New Jersey. Through continuous preservation and stewardship — caring for land and easements to ensure they remain protected and ecologically healthy in perpetuity — D&R Greenway nurtures a healthier and more diverse environment for people and wild species in seven counties. Accredited by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission, D&R Greenway’s mission is to preserve and care for land and inspire a conservation ethic, now and for the future. Since its founding in 1989, D&R Greenway has permanently preserved close to 20,000 acres, an area 20 times the size of New York City’s Central Park, including 28 miles of trails open to the public.

The Johnson Education Center, a circa 1900 restored barn at One Preservation Place, Princeton, is D&R Greenway’s home. Through programs, art exhibits and related lectures, D&R Greenway inspires greater public commitment to safeguarding land.
Carolyn F. Edelmann, Community Relations; Curator, Olivia Rainbow Gallery

D&R Greenway Land Trust
One Preservation Place, Princeton 609-924-4646 X131

“In wildness is the preservation of the world” Henry David Thoreau