MILLVILLE — The babble from the children rose inside the blind as they became more excited by the birds they saw beyond a two-way mirror.
On the other side of the glass, they spied a cardinal and a tiny, deep-blue bird called an indigo bunting eating seeds at feeders outside the wooded shelter.
Tim Williams, manager of the Clyde E. Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, lives for teaching moments such as these.
"Some people say 'How many birds do you put out there?' " Williams said. "I don't put them out there. They're out there on their own in the forests and the fields."
Later, inside the sanctuary's nature center, Williams showed a toad and garter snake to the kindergarten students from Lexington's Harrison Elementary School.
"Ohhhhhhhhh!" exclaimed the kids when, in the blink of an eye, the toad lapped up a mealworm with its tongue.
"Toads don't cause warts, and they won't turn into a prince," Williams told the students during their visit in May. "And we're not going to test either one of those theories today."
Nevertheless, he allowed the children to touch the toad, which to some "feels like a pickle," Williams said.
"It does feel like a pickle!" said one girl.
Williams has provided these moments over the last 36 years at Buckley, which makes him one of the longest-serving managers in the 45 U.S. centers operated by the National Audubon Society.
"I think Tim is one of the most dedicated, enthusiastic, fun and overall devoted teachers anyone could have about the natural world," said Lynn Tennefoss, Audubon's vice president for state programs and chapter services and Williams' supervisor. "He really loves sharing what he knows, and he has truly inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of children in the years that he has worked. ... Tim really puts his heart and soul into it, and people respond."
Buckley, which covers 379 acres in Woodford and Franklin counties, is the only Audubon property in Kentucky. (John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, where the famed naturalist studied and painted, is a state-owned facility.)
Williams, 60, said he loves the position he's had since Jan. 1, 1975.
"I like permanence," he said. "And permanence to me doesn't mean five years; it means forever. I've always been that way.
"I like the opportunity to get people excited, to get them involved, to hear them say 'Wow!' And everybody I talk to out here says 'Wow!' about something. I like doing that, so I stick around to do it some more. It kind of reinforces itself."
Williams and his wife, Debbie, live in a brick house on the Buckley property. They have no children, but Williams has worked with more than 140 paid interns who typically spend 10 weeks training at the sanctuary. Interns live in a mobile home that Williams occupied when he first came to Buckley.
One of his former interns went on to collar lions for scientific research in Africa, but not all go into nature-related fields.
Williams grew up in Covington, but he was exposed to nature as a child.
"There was a railroad behind our house, and there was a low-lying area where the rainfall would collect. So, it was a swampy area where I could run around and lift up rocks and logs and find turtles and frogs. People would come to our house to see what kind of turtle or frog I had picked up."
He graduated with a degree in biology from Northern Kentucky State College (later NKU) in 1974. The following year, he succeeded Ellwood "Bud" Carr as Buckley's manager.
The sanctuary was set aside by Emma Buckley in 1967 as a memorial to her late husband, Clyde, a Lexington tobacco warehouse owner. The sanctuary's woods, two ponds and open fields are home to all kinds of birds, mammals and wildflowers.
Norm Brunswig, a colleague and former supervisor of Williams, said "Tim is a fellow who bloomed where he was planted. ... He embodies conservation education."
"He fell in love with Buckley, and he made the betterment and the use of Buckley for education and environmental improvement his life's work," said Brunswig, who is now executive director of Audubon South Carolina and manager of Francis Beidler Forest there. "He was smart enough to know when he was happy and where he was happy, and he stayed right there and made the place better and better."
Except for a $500 grant from the Woodford County Conservation District, no tax dollars are used in the operation of Buckley Sanctuary, which has an annual budget of about $120,000. It receives its operating money through admissions, grants and private donations.
An endowment also funds about "a third to a half of what the sanctuary requires because I do everything, and I'm real conscientious about saving and pretty frugal about how things work," Williams said.
While he was initially skittish about asking people for money or to name Buckley as a beneficiary in their wills, Williams said he is no longer shy about broaching those topics.
"It's really important for people who use the place to understand that it requires income to keep it going," Williams said. "I do mailings. I do some face-to-face contacts to ask people to help support us."
Despite the sour economy, fund-raising "has been better than it's ever been," he said.
The sanctuary welcomes about 5,000 visitors a year, but Williams is in contact with another 5,000 at fairs, festivals and schools to spread the word about Buckley.
In 2009, Williams received the Golden Egret Award, which is the highest honor bestowed to a staff person by the National Audubon Society.
"I didn't even know I was nominated," he said.
Having sanctuaries like Buckley is important for several reasons, Williams said. That marshy area behind his Covington childhood home has been taken over by parking lots and buildings. "I want the opportunity to maintain something that kids and families can enjoy more permanently than a lot of places," Williams said.
And with the hectic pace and stress of today's workplaces, people need refuges for quiet respite.
"It's quiet and peaceful out here, and those are rare commodities now," Williams said. "I know it makes me feel wonderful. If I'm bogged down with paperwork, which I often am, if I just walk outside and see the hummingbirds and the wildflowers and birds flying over or bluebirds flying in and out of a box, it just recharges my battery."
One cancer patient wrote Williams that Buckley was her special place to come and rejuvenate. "I'm sure she's not the only one who's like that. When I read those things, that just gets me pumped up again. I think, 'Gosh, I've got to do more to make this happen, because people need this kind of thing.'
"These are all like my kids, the trees and the squirrels and the deer and the hummingbirds and bluebirds," he said. "And I want to see how well they serve the community, and they've been serving them really well."