My Audubon Journey.
I started birdwatching when I was ten years old; innately drawn to and determined to identify the Slate colored Juncos and other birds around our Pennypack Park-area home. In the sixth grade, I knew so much about birds that the Daily News even took notice when they came to my elementary school to do a story on a special program of which I was a part. By 13, I had securely decided what I would do “as a grown up.” Despite the razzing I took from friends, all I wanted to do was study birds and become an ornithologist. And nothing was going to stop me.
On November 12, 1978, (exactly 40 years ago), my family moved to Las Vegas. Since m career track was going so well in PA, I was not thrilled about the move (understatement). My parents, doing all they could to soften what I considered a devastating change, got in touch with the local Audubon chapter in Las Vegas (The Red Rock Audubon Society) and began taking me to monthly meetings. I was 14 and by far the youngest active member of the chapter. I went on many field trips…even noting my first Bald Eagles at Paranaghat National Wildlife Refuge on January 10, 1980.
I was slow to make new friends and tried different activities and clubs to gain acceptance. I played football in tenth grade but I wasn’t very good and rarely got in. I took a theater class and then joined the theater club and this is where I found a circle of friends and an activity that excited me. I was the star of plays and even the school mascot (Joe Cowboy) my senior year. The adoration was fun and intoxicating…and it wasn’t long before it caused me to reconsider my career choice.
In 1985, I moved to Los Angeles to try my hand at acting. I was 19. At night I worked at a place called Philly West near UCLA (yep, steaks and hoagies) and during the day I went to school, rode my bike for exercise, and went on a few auditions. It was nothing short of divine intervention (and my bike) that brought me to the hills above the homes of Beverly Hills one day where I came across a lake, surrounded by mature deodar cedar trees and saw two men standing near the entrance of this decommissioned reservoir. I learned that they had just built a nature center with an odd name (The Sooky Goldman Nature Center) and were looking to staff it! If the sight of a giant lake on top of a hill didn’t floor me, the prospect of a job as environmental educator certainly did.
The lake and nature center were in Franklin Canyon - everyone has seen it because it’s been used in a million movies and TV shows/commercials. I became active with the Los Angeles Audubon Society and began leading walks in the canyon. I even banded birds and had an education crow. I was back to birds and nature and it felt great! I often went on programs of other area Audubon chapters and became active in the native plant “movement” and society in California. For a while, I even worked on developing and funding a nature TV program for PBS called The Nature of L.A.
Always pining for PA and nostalgic, I joined the Bucks County Audubon Society and received their newsletters while still in California. In one issue, there was a photo of a small, historic house and a blurb about how National Audubon would be opening an office in the house. I got the name of the director of this new office...a gentleman by the name of Frank Gill. I wrote to Frank, not really aware of his stature in the ornithological world, and inquired about jobs with National in Bucks County. Fast forward as my wife and I and two small children moved back to PA (2001). I immediately made contact with Frank and Sally (his wife and special project manager at NAS Science) as they requested, and at the time they had nothing to offer in terms of work. I “knocked on their door” every six months and even applied for an office manager job which I did not get.
A few months later, in April of 2003, when the person they selected did not work out – Frank contacted me and asked me to temp to keep the books in order and bills paid (I had worked in the finance dept of the City of West Hollywood when that nature center job ended and much of California’s environmental jobs and money ran out. Frank thought this would be helpful experience.) Before starting the temp job, I went to the library (remember those?) and studied corporate finance. Well it turns out the Science office, located in a large farmhouse in Ivyland, was just using Quicken and a simple checkbook. Easy!
After six weeks, they offered me the job full time. But I had been witness to a developing program in the office; the Audubon At Home program and it seemed right up my alley. I turned down the office manager job and applied to Tess Present for the AAH position. They needed someone who could write (I had written for the nature center newsletter, LAAS newsletter, and had even tried my hand at freelance magazine writing in L.A.) and I was hired.
I would have PAID Audubon to let me work for them. It was an absolute dream come true and I felt right at home and thoroughly enjoyed the work. I have incredible gratitude to Frank and Sally and will never, ever forget the door they opened. The Science office was an incredible powder keg of energy; GBBC, CBC, AAH, IBA and more all run from that office. Things were buzzing and funding was assured. In the early days, renowned ornithologist Bob Ridgley was in the office. And then Steve Kress came down for a Science meeting. Wow…I was really pinching myself! It was an incredible time at Audubon.
After about four or five years, Audubon At Home got passed around to different departments eventually moving out of Science except for the occasional technical review. I was still doing things for the licensing department (approving plushies, calendars, etc…basically anything that had bird content), but there not much else to do. That’s when Tim Schaffer came a’ callin’ and offered me the opportunity to bring AAH to real world practical application in PA.
You all know the rest of the story. Eleven years at APA. Saw many people come and go over those years, both at National and at Pennsylvania. I thought if I just kept my nose down and had support (and a bit of autonomy) to try new things, to start new programs, to innovate ways to get more visibility, that the ride would keep going. I’m very proud of the work and spending 15 years at Audubon. Not many do.
In recent years, I’ve felt support wane and my enthusiasm along with it. I suddenly felt like I was treading water without much of a life vest. Then big changes came and I recognized they were indicative of a new culture at Audubon. One that was so different from the “company” I joined 15 years ago. A new way of doing things. New ways of interaction. The team spirit was not what it once was and there was a palpable tension and jockeying at the cost of longtime, collegial friendships. That is sad, but that’s also part of life, I suppose.
My time off gave me time to reflect and gain perspective and I realized that the new organizational objectives and the cost being paid to fulfill them just didn’t work for me any longer. And so, I decided to end the Audubon journey. Birds and the environment will always be a part of my life. I look forward to reconnecting at the chapter level and enjoying birds without the constraints of budgets and timelines…purely recreational. For now.
Thank you for those who shared this journey with me. I hope I helped you in some way and at some point during the past 15 years! I have met some incredible people and have seen some fantastic places and will remember them with great fondness.
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