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May 14, 2020

Faces of Fauquier: Birds take him around the globe

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“Once you start birding by ear as well as by sight, you literally observe several times as many birds,” George Wallace says.
It can be a great way to take your mind off the pressures you might be feeling at work, in your home life — whatever it might be — or just to get some fresh air.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
His high school biology teachers made him a “birder.”

Growing up in New York City, George Wallace never gave any thought to birdwatching — until he arrived at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass.

“I got into it when I went away to boarding school,” said Mr. Wallace, a threatened species conservation officer with the American Bird Conservancy in The Plains. “You’re sort of captive in boarding school.”

A couple of Middlesex science instructors “into birding and studying birds” would take students on weekend field trips to places such as the Park River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island off the Massachusetts’ coast, he recalled.

“That’s how I got started,” said Mr. Wallace, 61, who lives on a mostly wooded 10.8-acre lot near Warrenton. “And it just kept going.”

In a single outing, the students would observe 50 to 60 different species of birds, he said.

“It never occurred to me there were so many different birds,” Mr. Wallace said. “I was just shocked. It was really sort of an eye-opener to me — that there was all this stuff outside of the city, that I was suddenly learning about in the natural world.”

For business and pleasure, he has watched and studied birds in all 50 states and about 35 countries.

Like most beginner birders, Mr. Wallace identified the animals only by sight. Later learning to also recognize them by their calls enriched the birder experience in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

“Once you start birding by ear as well as by sight, you literally observe several times as many birds,” he said.

Few activities bring him greater joy than birding, Mr. Wallace suggested.

“They’re beautiful to look at and they create this fantastic soundscape all around us,” he said.

Birding also can yield all kinds of intangible benefits, Mr. Wallace said.

“It can be a great way to take your mind off the pressures you might be feeling at work, in your home life — whatever it might be — or just to get some fresh air.”

He offers practical advice for would-be birders. For starters, get a pair of binoculars, get outside, then look and listen.

Through practice, novices need to learn to use binoculars “so that you get quick at raising them to your eyes and getting the birds in your field of view,” Mr. Wallace explained. “That’s hard for beginning birders.”

Also get a field guide to birds; he prefers National Geographic books on the subject.

In Fauquier, local resources include the Clifton Institute and the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, which host birdwatching and nature walks, he said.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides plenty of online help, Mr. Wallace said.

In the last 18 years, he has observed 147 species on his property, including Summer Tanagers, Green Heron wood ducks, Belted King Fishers and American Tree, Lincoln and Swamp sparrows — birds not ordinarily found in a waterless hilltop lot such as his.

For about 40 years, Mr. Wallace has meticulously recorded in pocket-sized notebooks details on birds he has spotted on his property, across the country and around the world. He figures he so far has filled more than 80 “Rite in the Rain” all-weather No. 146 pads.

Birding never bores him.

“I’m consistently intrigued by seeing new birds when we go to new places. I think that will continue to please me until I pass away.”

With 10,000 bird species worldwide, “that means there’s a lot to check out,” said Mr. Wallace, laughing.

For ABC, Mr. Wallace focuses on Peru and several other South American countries — helping non-governmental organizations there restore and protect habitats of threatened birds.

Founded 25 years ago, the nonprofit seeks “to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas,” according to its mission statement. Besides the U.S., ABC works in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

• Age

• Home 
Near Warrenton.

• Work
Threatened species conservation officer, American Bird Conservancy, The Plains, 2019 to present; chief conservation officer, Rainforest Trust, near New Baltimore, 2016-19; vice president, American Bird Conservancy, 2002-16; executive director, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Colo., 2001-02.

• Why do you do the job?
I’m a lifelong conservationist. I’ve been involved in conservation, in one way or another, for just about 40 years. I’ve always been interested in the natural world. Birds, specifically, has been my expertise.

I had options to go into academia or got into something more applied. So I chose the more applied root. I wanted to do a job that would make a difference on the ground for wildlife

• Family
Wife Beth, 55; children, Gordon, 21, and Henry, 19.

• Education
Ph.D., biology, University of Missouri, 1998; master’s degree, zoology, University of Guelph (Canada), 1992; bachelor’s degree, biology, The Evergreen (Wash.) State College, 1983; bachelor’s degree, anthropology, Dartmouth (N.H.) College, 1980; Middlesex (Mass.) School, 1976.

• How long have you lived in Fauquier?
Right around 18 years.

• Why do you live here? 
I got offered a positon to run the international program at the American Bird Conservancy and took it. I never thought I would live in Virginia. It was just not sort of anything that was on my radar.

We’ve been here 18 years, and we love living here. We’ve raised our family here. Both our boys graduated from Highland School (in Warrenton). We really love the school and love what it’s given them.

• How do you describe this county? 
Very pleasing to the eye. I like the rolling countryside, the mix of small towns and agriculture.

It catches a little bit of the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains, within the Blue Ridge. It has rivers and a nice assortment of habitats.

• What would you change about Fauquier?
I would say, even before (the coronavirus pandemic), it would be great to have better internet access here. I’m so acutely aware of now, because we’re all now working from home.

It’s something we’ve struggled with the whole time we’ve lived here — installing various dishes, antennas and then ripping them out and trying something new.

• What do you do for fun? 
Fishing, hiking, backpacking, traveling, birding. I’m involved in bird conservation for my vocation and for my avocation. I really enjoy birding and traveling to look at birds.

• What’s your favorite place in Fauquier?
Can I have two? I like the Rappahannock River boundary on the southwestern part of the county. I also like that bit of the Blue Ridge (Mountains) that clips the northern part of the county.

• What will Fauquier be like in 10 years? 
I think it’s inevitable that Fauquier County will more populated. But I’m hoping that our zoning regulations hold and we’re able to retain some of the larger tracts of land that we have.

• Favorite TV show?
“Breaking Bad”

• Favorite movie? 
“The Last Emperor.”

• Favorite book?
I don’t know that I have a favorite book. But I really love nonfiction. My favorite author probably of all time is John McPhee.

• Favorite vacation spot?
New Zealand. 

• Favorite food?
Cheddars from the British Isles — Welsh, Scottish, British and Irish cheddars. The sharper, the better.

• What is the best advice you have ever received? From whom? 
Steven Herman, my academic advisor and ornithology professor at Evergreen State College. He told me get a Ph.D. and I was like, “Nah. I don’t really think I need a Ph.D.”

Sort of in stages, he was right. I finally did get my Ph.D degree. Having it planted that I would someday do that, I think was really critical to my trajectory as a person.

At the most basic level, the degree itself opens doors. But I think it was just the process I really liked: immersing myself in the research — basically identifying hypotheses and setting out to test them. It was really good for my analytical thinking ability.

• Who’s your hero and why?
Don Merton, who was a very famous New Zealand conservationist. He really pioneered a whole lot of techniques we use today in conservation generally, but especially in the conservation of birds on islands.

• What would you do if you won $5 million in the lottery? 
Once I made sure my boys had places to live, I think I would want to fund either the creation of or the expansion of a protected area that harbors threatened birds and species. The alternative would be to endow one of those places, or one of the organizations that protects one of those places.

Have a suggestion?
Do you know someone who lives in Fauquier County you would like to see in Faces of Fauquier? Email Don Del Rosso at or Lou Emerson at
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