Audubon in Action
News From the National Audubon Society
The Last Hurrah
Audubon’s departing president reflects on a cradle of conservation.
I recently joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a groundbreaking for the reconstruction of the Tamiami Trail highway on the north side of Everglades National Park. The road had been acting like a dam, preventing water from flowing south into the park. A new one-mile bridge will lift the road so water can flow under it.
This ceremony was particularly meaningful to me as I step down as Audubon’s president after 15 years. When the Audubon Society began more than a century ago, we hired wardens in the Everglades to guard roosting sites from poachers who were shooting wading birds into extinction for their plume feathers. In 1903 Audubon requested help from President Theodore Roosevelt with a roost site on Pelican Island. Roosevelt responded with an executive order creating Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first-ever federal wildlife refuge.
Roosevelt then asked Audubon warden Paul Kroegel to become the first refuge manager. When the president couldn’t get federal appropriations for Kroegel’s salary, Audubon covered it with private donations. Another Audubon warden, Guy Bradley, was shot and killed by poachers as he guarded his territory.
Eventually, Audubon won the Plume Feather Wars, and wading birds recovered. Half a century later, these same birds were again sliding toward extinction because of DDT and other toxins. Again Audubon came to the birds’ defense, leading efforts to ban DDT and other dangerous pollutants. And again the birds recovered.
But the recovery was short-lived for some birds, including roseate spoonbills, because of yet another threat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was draining the Everglades for development. The decline of roseate spoonbills in Florida Bay was an indicator that the bay’s ecology was suffering, too, because of reduced freshwater flows. Audubon scientists were the first to sound the alarm. Their research helped shape a $9 billion Everglades restoration plan that included the project to lift part of the Tamiami Trail to restore water flows to the park.
Audubon’s long and rich history in Florida is not unique. Our dedicated staff and volunteers are fighting to protect hundreds of critical ecosystems across the country. It has been a privilege for me to steward Audubon during my tenure as president, and to advance the mission we all care about so strongly.—John Flicker
Running Up the Score
Former Audubon board chair Donal O’Brien Jr. has raised millions by leading 27 Bird-A-Thons.
Once a year Donal O’Brien Jr. goes combat birding. He wakes long before dawn, dons outdoor clothing and gear, and treks through fields and waterways in rural Texas for 18 hours in search of as many bird species as possible. O’Brien’s wife, Katie, and other hardcore birders accompany the 75-year-old former two-time Audubon board chair on this mission—the Bird-A-Thon (INSERT TEXT LINK: audubon.org/bird/birdathon), an annual Audubon spring fundraiser that aims to count as many species as possible in a 24-hour period. “They’re on the go the whole time,” says National Audubon vice president Anne Brown. “It’s from 4 a.m. until past sunset.” O’Brien revels in the never-say-die attitude. “That’s part of the fun,” he says, “getting up early and going out until the last tiny bit of daylight.” The energy and effort pay off. Before the event, individuals pledge to donate a certain amount—usually $1 to $3—per bird species spotted. O’Brien and crew typically spy 200 species, which adds up to a hefty sum for Audubon.
Since 1982 O’Brien has headed 27 Bird-A-Thons, raising $3 million for the Quail & Grassland Bird Initiative in Texas, the California Condor Program, and countless other Audubon initiatives. The confident, iron-willed conservationist has an unwavering passion for birds. But he’s also modest, whether giving others credit for projects or expressing embarrassment that in 2007 Audubon named a position after him, the Donal C. O’Brien Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy.
While keeping a careful eye on Washington, his heart lies in the hinterlands. “He was really aware of the credibility of Audubon’s field people [when he was board chair]. And he listened to what they had to say,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor coordinator Jesse Grantham, a regular Bird-A-Thon participant with O’Brien. “Donal was right out there wading through the swamps or scrub of south Texas, with the mosquitoes and chiggers and heat and humidity. He’s an incredible trooper and really loves to be out in the field.”
Though proud of the Bird-A-Thons, O’Brien places three accomplishments higher on his Audubon achievement list: acquiring North Carolina’s Pine Island, linking Audubon to the Important Bird Area (IBA) program, and involving chapter representatives in policy and program decisions. In the end it always comes back to birds. “We have a challenge right now to save what we’ve got left,” O’Brien says. “It takes the best people, the most competent, dedicated people to know how to do that. And then it takes a lot of work.”—Michele Wilson
Pony Up Your Pennies
Go cushion diving, piggybank breaking, even pocket surfing for pennies (and nickels, dimes, and quarters), and then donate the loot to Audubon for its second annual Pennies for the Planet drive. Proceeds, which totaled $26,000 last year, will this year benefit California’s shoreline, Louisiana’s coastal marshes, and Florida’s Panther Island. The end of August marks the deadline. For details, visit penniesfortheplanet.org. —Michele Wilson
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