F. Eugene Hester’s passion for wildlife dates back to his childhood.
“I’ve been hunting and fishing since I was a kid,” Hester says. “Grew up in Wendell, just east of Raleigh.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that the longtime outdoorsman – known as “Gene” among his friends – ended up graduating from NC State in 1954 with a degree in wildlife conservation and management.
Hester recalls the undergraduate project that first ignited his curiosity about a particular waterfowl – one to which he would later dedicate the majority of his career. “I was taking ornithology with professor Tom Quay, who focused his field research on how birds adapted to their habitats,” Hester says. “Each student in the class had to select a species of bird to study. I chose the wood duck because I’d seen them on my family’s farm pond.”
By the end of his school project, Hester says he was intrigued by many of the wood duck’s unique behaviors, “like how they nest up in trees rather than in the brush or marshes.” His interest in wood ducks’ nesting habits broadened to include their migration patterns and brood rearing. Hester pursued these subjects further with the goal of becoming a zoologist, completing his master’s degree in 1956 at NC State and his PhD at Auburn University in 1959. Laughing, Hester muses, “Who knew what started out as intrigue would turn into over 50 years of research.”
“One day,” Hester says, “I thought to myself, ‘Well, I really ought to write all this up,’ because I wanted people to have access to that information.” In the spring of 2012, he did just that. Last February, Hester published his newest book, Wood Duck Adventures – now available for purchase online through Five Valleys Press and Amazon.com.
Wood Duck Adventures narrates the progression of Hester’s research – from its inception in 1953 through his present conservation efforts – but the zoologist’s story isn’t the only one featured. The book is also a tale of Hester’s collaboration with wildlife photographer Jack Dermid. The two have worked together as colleagues and friends for over five decades to document the lives of wood ducks.
Their study began with a “desire to provide nesting opportunities,” Hester writes in the opening chapter. He and Dermid made their first nest box, intended to mimic the tree cavities wood ducks often inhabit, by attaching a portion of hollow log – with boards covering the top and bottom – to the side of a tree trunk. Upon later discovering a female wood duck nesting in the box with several eggs already incubating, Hester and Dermid began constructing more nest boxes on trees in other ponds and swamps throughout Eastern North Carolina.
From their observations and photographs of the nest boxes – as well as their efforts banding and web-tagging to track the birds’ ages and distances traveled – Hester and Dermid gained insight into the activities of wood ducks. Included in Wood Duck Adventures are detailed descriptions of courtship, egg incubation and hatching, brood rearing and migration.
Hester (left) not only wrote Wood Duck Adventures, but also contributed the majority of the book’s photos. “Photography first started as a hobby for me,” he says. “Jack [Dermid] was the professional – working at the time for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.” Over the years, Dermid gave Hester photography tips while Hester taught Dermid everything he knew about the wood duck.
To date, Hester’s photos have been printed in over 60 publications. When he’s not photographing for fun, Hester also takes pictures for several conservation projects.
Wildlife conservation has always been a central aspect of Hester’s career. Shortly after earning his PhD, he returned to NC State as a faculty member in the school’s zoology depart. In 1963, he also became the leader of NC State’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Hester’s conservation work for the federal government included esteemed positions in both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
Though he’s enjoying his retirement, Hester says his original work lives on. “My nephew’s done a lot of nest boxes in Johnston County, so there are still plenty of homes out there for the wood ducks.”