Vashon-Maury Island Audubon’s first 20 years

by Rayna Holtz

Our beginnings

1989 was the year the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. But on the hopeful side, and not just coincidentally, it was also the year a new Audubon chapter started on Vashon-Maury Island. Aware both of the growing environmental problems of the day and the beauty and diversity of Vashon’s wildlife, Islander Emma Amiad conferred with Hazel Wolf, the famous Seattle Audubon secretary, and initiated the process in September, 1989. An idealistic dynamo, Emma tells the story modestly:

Hazel and I spoke several times on the phone and she told me to just go for it. She sent me a copy of the list of Vashon members of the Seattle Audubon and National Audubon and that became my first mailing list.

Hazel was a friend of Esther Robbins Hutton who was also a friend of mine. Hazel called Esther and asked if she would host a meeting to discuss the forming of a local chapter. Esther agreed and that way Hazel was able to stay overnight with Esther and Esther would pick her up and take her home. Esther was still working in Seattle then.

You were at that first meeting I’m sure when Hazel gave us the lowdown on how to get started and what to do. She got back to me with samples of other chapter bylaws and I think I just wrote out our first constitution and by laws myself, just to get started. We worked on them more later. We petitioned the National and I got the required number of signatures of Vashon folks asking for their own chapter. They asked for a little more paperwork and then we were set.

As fall flowed into winter, people who felt passionate about birds and wild living systems began to organize their first field trips and programs, sharing their knowledge, concerns, and curiosity. Each gathering has had its own chemistry, out of which have come years of partnerships, memorable moments, activities, and projects. Surely we all carry many vivid personal memories that still give us pleasure. Mine include these field trip highlights:

  • The thrill of seeing Western Grebes through a scope for the first time, regal and serene as they float on Quartermaster waves
  • Marveling at the brilliance of yellow-orange plumage on a Townsend’s Warbler on a cold bright winter morning at Pt. Robinson
  • Discovering a Junco nest together in the grassy side of a road ditch
  • Watching a pair of Flickers court each other with rituals of hopping in spirals around fir tree trunks
  • Admiring a flock of Cedar Waxwings snatching insects from the air over Mukai Pond, sunlight shining in their yellow tailbands
  • Following Steve Caldwell through brush and trees and learning a seventh different vocalization of the versatile Bewick’s Wrens.

Sharing excitement about the lives and habits of birds and other wildlife has been natural to Vashon Audubon members. Carol Ferch, who taught about waterbirds and wetlands to 4th grade classes very successfully for many years, says: ” I am so delighted when I am able to share the sightings of birds with others. They are just so amazing and breathtaking that I want to share the experience with everyone.”

The fourth-grade waterbird program started in 1990 when Education Chair Wanda Fink collaborated with Susie Kalhorn and the WAVES project (Water and Vashon Ecosystems) to design a marine bird curriculum for the 4th grade. It has continued to thrive under the supervision of Sue Trevathan, Kathryn True, and Gary Shugart. In 2007 it received an Outstanding Education Award from State Audubon.

Other classes have started for adults. A Birding by Ear course was pioneered by Steve Caldwell in 1998 and classes in Basic Birding were started by Dan Willsie in 1999. With assistance from Sue Trevathan and now Alan Huggins the classes have continued and evolved into The Enjoyment of Birds. For a number of years Joy Nelsen, assisted by Rayna Holtz, offered March Amphibian Day activities for families, including viewing live salamanders and frogs she collected the previous day and walking around ponds to identify egg masses of different species.

Outreach and public education have taken many routes. Ed Swan’s column in the Loop, “For the Birds” has provided detailed information about local birds twice a month for many years, and led to the first Vashon bird book, Birds of Vashon Island: a Natural History of Habitat and Population Transformation 1850-2005. For several years, Conservation Chair Joel Kuperberg produced and emailed a conservation news digest, The Environmental Eagle Eye. The chapter’s website,, was started by Morgan Holtz in 2004 and expanded by Dan Schuler in 2005. It is now filled with articles, species lists, news, and remarkable photos by Vashon-Maury photographers, all designed and maintained by webmaster Richard Rogers. Last year, Kathryn True and Jill Andrews won a grant and produced interpretive signs for the ferry terminals featuring local aquatic birds.

Fabric and art have provided especially creative ways to share Vashon Audubon concerns. Through a local art grant for nonprofits, Audubon received elegant bird costumes including a Western Tanager, a Swainson’s Thrush, and a Purple Martin sewn by artist Bonnie Wilkins. Audubon members have worn them at events conveying the problems of Migratory Birds, representing the chapter in Strawberry Festival parades, and for teaching about shadegrown coffee. Concern about the coffee issue also inspired artist Sandi Noel to design a Shadegrown Coffee t-shirt that advertises the importance of protecting Latin American forests for habitat, instead of replacing them with coffee plantations. Over the past two decades Sandi has created art for Audubon posters, shirts, and articles for many educational purposes. Artist Judith Pearce designed our Western Grebe and Landmark Trees logo.

Field trips

Every year the group has held field trips both locally and to great places in the region, such as the Dungeness Spit, the Nisqually Reserve, the Skagit Flats during the winter influx of raptors, Gray’s Harbor/Bowerman Basin during spring shorebird migrations, and Westport to travel offshore by boat and observe pelagic species seldom seen in Puget Sound. In the winter of 2003, Dan Willsie led one of Vashon Audubon’s most successful field trips out to the coast for a weekend. Participants looked at birds all afternoon, enjoyed a delicious dinner and charming rooms at the Tokeland Motel, and then birded in the morning before heading home. Starting in 2004, the chapter has provided a local outing on the second Saturday of every month.


The chapter has also actively pursued conservation goals. Dan Willsie worked with National Audubon Society to designate Quartermaster Harbor an Important Bird Area, ranking it with top areas in the country for breeding, migrating, or overwintering birds. Its importance is due to the large number of Western Grebes (a State Candidate Species) that have traditionally overwintered here, plus the 35 other species of waterbirds that use it for rest and forage during winters and migration times. Our Recycling Committee, very active for over a decade, started a recycling program at the elementary schools, expanded recycling options at the landfill, in 1992 started the chapter’s Adopt-a-Road cleanups along Vashon Highway south of town, produced several editions of a Vashon materials exchange catalog, and presented recycling and worm bin information at Strawberry Festival booths for many years.


Vashon Audubon has provided a supportive matrix for many committees and projects. Susan White and Eugene Smith started a Landmark Trees program in 1989, to acknowledge old, beloved, beautiful, large, and rare trees on Vashon. The project was later championed by Nancy Silver, who created maps and lists of trees and shared local tree lore in school classrooms . The Vashon Wildlife Inventory project produce a first checklist of Vashon birds in 1995, followed by lists of mammals, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, and shoreline species. The Vashon Stream Survey committee raised money in 2000 and 2001 to help pay for a survey of all Vashon-Maury streams by Washington Trout, establishing correct water typing maps and showing which streams are able to support fish. Dan Willsie and Rich Siegrist started a teaching collection of bird skins in 1999 under the supervision of Gary Shugart, curator of birds at the Slater Museum in Tacoma. Since then many members have salvaged dead birds found in yards and along roadsides and passed them to Gary, who enables them to have an afterlife enriching classes for adults and for fourth-grade students.

Local birds who have suffered the loss of nest holes due to competition from Starlings and House Sparrows have received assistance from several islanders. Dan Willsie began building boxes for Violet-green Swallows in 1990, and later Steve Caldwell headed work parties to generate many more. In 1994, Conservation Committee members assembled and put up several Purple Martin boxes, after noting that a pair had nested in pilings the previous year. As Martins began using the boxes, Rich Siegrist pursued the project almost single-handedly, annually cleaning boxes and adding more to suitable pilings. Numbers increased and achieved a peak of 86 pairs nesting in 2005. Bluebirds returning to nearby Fort Lewis boxes inspired Ed Swan to lead a bluebird nest box project in 2002, which we hope may yet attract the intended species.

Bird counts

To help with national efforts to monitor population trends in species, Vashon Audubon also participates in a number of counts. Carole Elder has been making a Breeding Bird Survey count in late May/early June for us since 1995. Sue Trevathan started chapter participation in the Christmas Bird Count in 1998. Rayna Holtz led the first 4th of July Butterfly Count in 1996, and Alan Warneke in recent years has expanded it into a dragonfly survey as well.

VMIAS efforts

Since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, Vashon Audubon has supported a number of efforts to help shoreline species, starting in 1992 with VIBRA (Vashon Island Bird Rescue Association), which prepared Islanders to help respond to oil spills and oiled birds. After the Dalco oil spill of 2004, when over 72,000 gallons of crude oil fouled water and beaches around southern Vashon, many Audubon members attended a Spill Awareness Class held by Washington Department of Natural Resources. Many also began to participate in the COASST beach surveys (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team) to monitor Island beachs for dead seabirds in an effort to understand which species were experiencing high mortalities and figure out why. This is a joint effort by the University of Washington and NOAA.

Beach awareness has perhaps grown over the past twenty years on Vashon, both because of problems and because of enhanced knowledge and interest in beach ecology and aquatic species. Following National Audubon’s designation of Quartermaster Harbor as an Important Bird Area in 2001, the Washington Department of Natural Resources included it in its new state aquatic reserve program to protect significant marine resources. WaDNR formally established the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve in November, 2004. WaDNR also became a sponsor of the first Low Tide Celebration at Pt. Robinson in 2006, along with Vashon-Maury Island Audubon, the Vashon Park District, Washington Scuba Alliance, People for Puget Sound, Keepers of Pt. Robinson, and VMI Land Trust. For four years now this annual celebration has taught about beach life and ecology. It has become a vehicle for communicating about the importance of Vashon shorelines in the life cycles of revered northwest species, the salmon and orcas, as well as less known key species such as surf smelt, herring, and sand lance. Conservation Chair Michelle Ramsden, partnering with Rayna Holtz, has extended the opportunities for Islanders to learn about shoreline life by setting up an Ebbtide Ecology series of beach walks since 2007.

Looking ahead

As Vashon Audubon moves forward into the next few decades, we are increasingly able to recognize not only birds and their calls, but also the trees and shrubs they sit in, the seaweeds and living creatures on which waterbirds forage, the effects of cold summers on insect populations that are vitally important for martins, swallows, and many other birds. We are recognizing more of the connections in the web of life, and taking pleasure in helping to protect them. We have been sharing these pursuits with neighbors and teaching each other new things for 20 years.

Our founder Emma Amiad says, “The birding that gives me the most pleasure is the birding I do right here on the Island and mostly on my own property. That is the gift to me from our local Audubon Chapter and the people who make it up.”

Pictured in the photo montage above, left to right: The very first meeting, at Esther Robbins-Hutton’s house, called by Emma Amiad (left end of the middle row) and addressed by Hazel Wolf, the white-haired matriarch seated in front; Joy Nelsen and Dan Willsie  on a birding field trip in 1990 or 1991; two members wearing Bonnie Wilkins’ migratory bird costumes in the Strawberry Festival parade entry in 1993 or 1994, with Joy Nelsen and Steve Caldwell inside the truck.

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