- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

To waterfowl hunters, wildlife lovers of every description and all patrons of the arts, few accomplishments reach the lofty heights as those attained by artists who win the Migratory Bird Conservation and Hunting Stamp competition - better known as the Federal Duck Stamp contest.

In 2010 and 2011, collectors and waterfowl hunters throughout the United States will own a stamp displaying Robert Bealle’s painting of an American wigeon.

Bealle, 57, a lifelong resident of Waldorf in Charles County, Md., beat 223 other artists with his beautiful rendition of the grayish-brown duck with the distinctive soft-green eye patch and white belly. In a two-day period at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, eight finalists made it to the last round of judging, and Bealle came out on top.

“It only took me 27 years to win the federal contest,” Bealle said, laughing. “The monkey is finally off my back.”

Through the magic of printing plate reduction, the painting soon will be seen on the stamp that has raised more than $750 million since 1934 to purchase nearly 6 million acres of wildlife habitat for the federal refuge system. The stamp sold for as little as $3 many years ago but has climbed steadily; it will sell for $15 in 2010-2011. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 98 percent of the proceeds go to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.

If you own a current duck stamp, it can be used for free admission to any national wildlife refuge that is open to the public. Last year alone, more than 41 million visited refuges, which provide excellent recreational activities, including hunting, fishing, bird-watching and photography.

“The magnitude of this moment has not escaped me,” said Bealle, who has won the Maryland Duck Stamp contest three times, including in 2008. “I’m so humbled and appreciative of this. I just don’t know what to say.”

In seasons past, I have spent some happy hours in a duck blind with the bearded, gentle artist, who enjoys hunting waterfowl as much as he does working with acrylic or oil paint.

What isn’t talked about much is the potential income artists can derive from the sales of signed and limited, numbered prints of an original painting. Some wildfowl artists have agents to represent them in negotiations with upscale art galleries and outdoor catalogs that offer reproductions of lifelike waterfowl art for hundreds of dollars. As time goes by, a signed print’s value climbs, which explains the popularity of this uniquely American art form.

Bealle spends little time worrying about such things. He said he has no plans to hire an agent.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail:gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Mueller’s Inside Outside blog can be found at www.washingtontimes.com/sports.