Back Bay Wildfowl Guild Memories: Last Mid-Atlantic Waterfowl Festival

Back Bay Wildfowl Guild Memories

By Mary Reid Barrow, Virginia Beach Beacon, October 2, 2007

Back Bay was once known as a hunter’s paradise because so many ducks and geese wintered on its food-rich waters. The birds flew so thick that sportsmen could use what was known as a punt gun and drop several hundred birds with only one shot. Today, those times are memories. Back Bay is still a place where waterfowl spend the winter, but the numbers are limited, hunting restrictions are stiff and much of the area is protected by Back Bay and Mackay Island National Wildlife refuges. The Back Bay Wildfowl Guild works to make sure the memories don’t fade. Members operate the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum on Atlantic Avenue.

Next weekend, the waterfowl guild will sponsor the 28th Virginia Beach Wildlife Festival, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Law Enforcement Training Academy (former Seatack Elementary School) off Birdneck Road. At the festival, the guild’s best carvers, and about 50 from other places, will display and sell their duck hunting decoys, along with waterfowl art and other crafts.

The decoy, hand-carved by locals and used to lure birds within range of hunters, has become a symbol of the good old days. Now, instead of using decoys for hunting, many folks collect the wooden birds, both antique and new, and also carve them as a hobby. One such carver is guild member Gentry Childress, pictured above, a supporter of the wildfowl museum and organizer of the show. Childress, a retired schoolteacher, became involved in the guild when he moved here a decade ago. Already a carver, Childress refined his style by taking lessons from Charlie Seidel, the resident carver at the Virginia Aquarium.

Though some of his decoys are brightly painted “new” decoys, most are “antique-style ducks,” Childress said. Rubbing the decoy wood with vinegar and steel wool to age it, using a crackling medium to weather the paint and letting finished decoys roll around the surf to roughen the finish are among the tricks he uses to antique a decoy. “It’s a lot harder to make a decoy look old than new,” he said. Childress, who carves standing up, said time goes by quickly. “Sometimes I don’t even know it’s dinnertime.” 

Now the fruit of that labor, including several antique-style canvasback ducks, is lined up in Childress’ workshop/studio at his North End home, ready for the festival. A past president of the wildfowl guild and a show committee member, Childress also is making signs for the event. The main one features one of his canvasback ducks – halved, painted and glued to the sign and pointing the way to the festival. 

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