Walter Klabunde



By Mike Street

Walter Klabunde, Dean of Hawkwatching in the Niagara Peninsula, passed away December 4, 2002 at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware, at the age of 95. He was Honourary President of the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch and a past-President of the Buffalo Ornithological Society.

Walt was born January 11, 1907 in Kenosha, Wisconsin to Otto & Toni Klabunde. As only German was spoken at home he first learned English in elementary school, but this did not hold him back. Graduating a year early from high school, he went on to the University of Illinois where he received a B.Sc. (1928) and Ph.D. (1933) in Chemistry, and met his future wife Harriette in Chem Lab. After hitchhiking around the country looking for a job, he arrived back in Ohio (where Harriette and son Charles were staying) with only loose change in his pockets but bringing good news. He had been offered a job with DuPont in Niagara Falls, NY, where he worked for over 35 years, retiring in 1969.

Walt and Harriette started birding shortly after WWII when they took courses offered by Winston Brockner of the Buffalo Ornithological Society. Walt and son Phil, with Charles’ help, assembled and collimated three pairs of 7×50 B & L binoculars from war surplus kits supplied by Edmond Scientific Co. (Buying the metal and glass parts separately allowed them to avoid the 10% luxury tax on optical items). Walt was also architect and general contractor for the Lewiston, NY home the family built in 1950, doing all of the electrical work, painting, landscaping and some of the carpentry.

Eventually, birding led Walt to raptors. George Meyers of Grimsby, Ontario remembers watching the migration from a lookout at the local Beamer Conservation Area one day in 1974-75 when a tall stranger – Walt – came up and asked, “Is this a good place to watch hawks?” George recalls, laughing, that Walt said he was part of an ‘ad hawk’ committee of Buffalo area birders who were trying to determine the spring migration route of raptors that turned west when they reached the south shore of Lake Ontario. Gradually working their way along the Niagara Escarpment from the Niagara River the group, represented by Walt on this day, had arrived at Beamer CA.

Dave Copeland, the original hawk count Coordinator at Grimsby, remembers meeting Walt at HMANA Conference II in Duluth, Minnesota in September 1976 and seeing him at Grimsby the following spring. Walt first counted hawks at Beamer CA in 1979. The following year he began counting Monday through Friday from March 1 to May 15, making the one-hour trip across the border to Grimsby from Lewiston and back every day. He continued doing five days a week until 1987, covered three days a week from 1988-93, and after that came to Grimsby regularly until moving to Wilmington, Delaware in 1997.

In 1986, his work and dedication to the hawks at Grimsby earned Walt the Niagara Falls Nature Club’s R. W. Sheppard Award for worthy achievement in the conservation, research, education and preservation of nature. Following its formation in 1990, Walt was named Honourary President of the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch. Even after spending thousands of hours at Beamer, he could still get excited by raptors. One day in April 1991, I arrived at Beamer about 08:45 to find a wide-eyed Walt just itching to tell someone something. To my “What did I miss?” he replied, “Three Golden Eagles traveling together, right overhead, 100 feet up!!!!” His feet hardly touched the ground for the rest of the day. 

Walt will be missed, but the knowledge he passed on and the data he gathered during his time at Beamer will remain as part of his legacy to hawkwatchers in particular and birdwatchers generally. He and Harriette, who passed away in 1996, are survived by Charles, Phil and their sister Suzanne, and by 5 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. 

Many thanks to Gordon Bellerby, Dave Copeland, Bruce Duncan, Mary Ellen Hebb, Phil Klabunde, George Meyers and Kayo Roy for their help in preparing this note about Walter.