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Walt Bulmer 1942-2021

Ellen Paul

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Walter Bulmer, Jr. died on November 29, 2021.


Walt was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on July 11, 1942 and raised in Lordship on Long Island Sound. Here, Walt began pursuing his passion for nature and wildlife as a boy. At first, after constructing a turtle pond in his backyard, one might have pegged him for a herpetologist. While he loved amphibians and reptiles and devoted considerable time to studying herps, his primary interest was always birds. He started with egg collecting, joining the Fairfield Audubon Society, spring bird walks, and Christmas counts. As a budding young ornithologist who demonstrated precocious skill, he forged a relationship with the famous naturalist and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, who often helped Walt with difficult identification points.

In 1964, he earned his Bachelor of Science in biology from Salem College. As an undergraduate, he held a teaching assistant position in biology and, during his senior year, taught ornithology. In 1966, Walt earned a Master of Science in ornithology from the University of Arizona. While at the University of Arizona, he was a research fellow in the virology lab and he learned how to collect and prepare museum specimens of birds and mammals that are in the University of Arizona’s collection.

He presented his master’s thesis on the breeding biology of the red-faced warbler at the Cooper Ornithological Society’s annual meeting in 1966. After graduation, Walt accepted a position with the Smithsonian Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program. For two years, he chased birds on Gardner Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, and Swain's Island—banding some 20,000 individuals and collecting others. After his stint in the Pacific Islands, Walt entered a doctoral program at the University of Connecticut. He was also a lab assistant and taught vertebrate zoology. He continued his work in collecting and preparing specimens, this time for the University of Connecticut Natural History Museum. During the summer of 1969, Walt returned to the Smithsonian to work on dissertation data collected during the Smithsonian Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program. While at the Smithsonian, he was offered a teaching position at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia. He accepted. For 40 years, at Northern Virginia Community College, he taught biology, human anatomy and physiology, vertebrate zoology, and tropical ecology at the college. He spent a magical summer with his family in Hawaii while teaching summer classes at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu. He led field trips to the West Indies and Central America. His local field trips yielded the data for Fairfax County, Virginia’s environmental baseline studies. Walt completed extensive field research in Guatemala’s Central Highlands, studying the evolution of small mammals in the new world. For years, on the last weekend in April, he organized a camping trip that saw his students, friends, and family descend on the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia for legendary camping and celebration of nature.

In 1998, the Washington Biologists’ Field Club, which is comprised of elite scientists from all over the world, invited Walt to join its ranks. Membership is selective and restricted; in the club’s 120-year history, there have only been a few hundred members. Walt was honored when his esteemed colleagues not only selected him for membership, but also elected him as secretary from 1999-2011, vice president from 2011 – 2014, and president from 2014-2017.

Upon Walt’s 2009 retirement, he donated his life’s work—thousands of bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian specimens he collected and prepared—to the Smithsonian Institution, where scientists and scholars access them to advance the study of ecosystems that support life on earth. Little do they know that the man who caught and prepared them did it in jeans with the barest of essentials in his backpack—mist nets and Schaefer beer, warm after hours of hiking and tracking. He drank it happily.

When he was not in the field, teaching, researching, or travelling, he could be found enjoying the simple pleasures of home. In the mornings he rose early, often made breakfast and coffee, and read the Washington Post cover to cover. He collected beautiful, hardbound books about birds and read them all. He devoured scientific journals and articles. He mowed the lawn and refilled the bird feeders. He loved sports and held season tickets to the Redskins and Bullets. He met dear friends for lunch and happy hour at Westons and Bar-J’s and, alongside Judy, frequently hosted family and friends for parties, holidays, and gatherings in their home. He attended every wedding, graduation, recital, birthday and event for his children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. Walt admired Stephen Hawking. In an interview, Dr. Hawking once said that he gave his children the following advice, which resonated with Walt: “One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don't throw it away."

Walt’s passion for birds and other wildlife inspired a prolific career. In this career, which stimulated his quiet curiosity and vast intellect, he was required to submerse himself in the natural world. In so doing, he brought the love of his life, Judy, and their children and extended family on adventures far and wide. To pick one would be an injustice to all the rest, but it would be glaring not to mention Chincoteague Island. Walt brought his loved ones to this little slice of heaven on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and, because of him, three generations have spent time, together, on the beach with terns and gulls, crabbing, riding bicycles on the wildlife loop, trying to see all the birds he pointed out on walks, crowded in the house on Jester Street—laughing and talking. Every day of his life, Walt did what he loved with the people he loved. This is to have succeeded.

He is survived by his beloved wife of 44 years, Judith “Judy” Lago Bulmer of Woodbridge, Virginia; his children Anthony F. Bulmer (Kimberlin) of Lake of the Woods, Virginia, Michelle Bulmer Usry (Alan) of Gadsden, Alabama, and Michael A. Bulmer of Woodbridge, Virginia; his grandchildren Brooke A. Bulmer (Jonathon E. Finley, Jr.), Allison M. Doss, Jordan M. Atha, and Arantza Alviarez; his great-grandson Jonathon E. Finley III; his brother John F. Bulmer (Linda) of Hilton Head, South Carolina; his nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, Walter Bulmer, Sr. and Evelyn Bulmer. 


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