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Friends laud Hernando man whose life is for the birds

Steve Fickett Jr. earns praise for safeguarding the environment and sharing his love of wildlife.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

[Times file photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Steve Fickett Jr., right, uses binoculars to spot birds near Bystre Lake during the National Audobon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count in 1999.
BROOKSVILLE -- When Steve Fickett Jr. received an award Thursday for dedicating his life to the environment, the first thing he commented on, not surprisingly, was the bird printed on the certificate.

"This is my favorite duck," he said, admiring the image of the wood duck as the applause from the room full of Hernando Audubon Society members died down.

They, along with Fickett's family and friends, had gathered to honor several county residents for their work in conservation. But the star of the evening was Fickett, who has been observing birds since he was a child in Orange County and became famous as one of the most knowledgeable birders in the state.

Though Fickett, 79, is still an active outdoorsman, he is not quite as active as he used to be. He missed his turkey hunt this year for the first time he can remember. And last winter, after decades of leading Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count in Hernando, he turned over the job to another member, Clay Black.

It seemed like the right time to honor him, said Hernando Audubon president Jeanne Brown, who recognized Fickett for "a lifetime of contributions to the environment, his community, wildlife resources, and to Audubon."

Fickett was chairman of a group that first surveyed the state's bald eagle nests in 1972. He has served as the president of the Florida Nature Conservancy and Save Our American Raptors, and has served on the board of directors of the Florida Audubon Society.

In his 33 years as a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, he helped change the organization's goals: When he was hired in 1950, it was an agency struggling to enforce game laws in areas that did not appreciate government interference; he pushed it to take on a broader range of conservation issues.

Fickett also used his influence to preserve land throughout the state, including sections of the Withlacoochee State Forest and the Chinsegut Nature Center.

"This part of Florida has some large green places in it, places that will always be green, because Steve put them there," said Charles Lee, Audubon's executive vice president, who drove from Tallahassee to Brooksville on Thursday to speak at the dinner.

Fickett, who was born in Long Island, N.Y., moved to Orange County as a boy when it was still mostly rural and wild. He became so interested in birding that his father sent him to the Audubon Nature Camp in Maine when he was 16.

In a college career divided by World War II, Fickett studied wildlife management and forestry as a substitute for ornithology, which the university did not offer.

His experience in the war shows the two sides of his personality. He was a soldier who endured the bloody D-day invasion at Normandy and fought his way across France. But when he came to French towns, Brown said, he would go to bookstores looking for bird guides, and spent as much time as he could between battles bird-watching.

"He would jot down notes on the birds he saw as the best medicine against battle fatigue," Brown said.

In the era when Fickett began working for the state conservation commission -- then called the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission -- officers had to be prepared to fight, said Dave Wilson, a former Hernando Audubon president who has studied the history of the local organization.

"Steve went to work with a .45 on his lap," Wilson said. "Steve was a tough cookie."

And he was originally assigned to one of the toughest parts of the state, said Bill Ware, a pharmacist from Branford, who formed a close friendship with Fickett when Fickett was in Branford in the 1950s.

Shortly after he was hired, Fickett was sent to Cross City in Dixie County, Ware said at the dinner honoring Fickett. One night, Ware said, a group of hunters and their dogs were trailing a bobcat that went under Fickett's house.

"The dogs got the scent and followed it under the house and out the other side," Ware said. "That's when Steve decided to move his family to Branford."

His passion for birding and conservation continued, though, and shortly after moving to Hernando County in the late 1950s, he formed a local chapter of the Audubon Society with Lisa von Borowsky, formerly the gardener at Chinsegut Hill; the chapter was not officially incorporated until 1971.

They also worked together to found the Chinsegut Nature Center on land formerly owned by the Robbins family who lived at Chinsegut. The 408-acre tract was judged to be too small for a federal wildlife refuge, said Kristin Wood, a conservation commission biologist who now works there.

Fickett wrote several letters to lawmakers and local officials requesting that the conservation commission be allowed to use it as a nature center. That was new for the agency at the time, Wood said. And few people locally realized the importance of preserving land in the 1960s, when so much of Hernando County was still wild.

Fickett also worked to have the land deeded to the state in 1973, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was planning to sell it, Wood said.

"Not a lot of people were thinking along those lines," she said. "It was a new concept for our agency."

"I've always thought a nature center as extremely important as a place where young people could learn more about the field," Fickett said. "A tremendous amount of work went into that over the years. A lot of very good people worked on that project."

Fickett has been less recognized for his equally valuable contribution of passing on his knowledge to others.

"One of the things he does that really impresses me is birding by ear," said Mike Liberton, a former Hernando Audubon president.

"He's as good at doing that as most people are by sight. He hears a bird, it doesn't matter how far away it is, and he can tell what it is. Most of us can do that with maybe five birds," he said.

His love of birds does not mean that Fickett just watches them. He also hunts them, which is considered unusual among modern birders, but was less so when Fickett was evolving as an expert birder and patrolling the woods with a firearm.

In fact, he once even accidentally broke one of the laws he was supposed to be enforcing, Ware said. Outside Branford, Fickett once told him, he had a particularly good duck-hunting spot "and he planned to shoot a couple," Ware said.

Not long afterward, he came to Ware's drugstore, horrified, and said he wanted to show Ware how many ducks he had killed with one shotgun blast. They drove to the wetlands, and Fickett displayed the carnage.

"There were 13 ducks on the water," Ware said. "That's the kind of environmentalist he was."

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