Sunday, September 28, 2014

Volunteering was only the beginning...

This post is a little story about me. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I would like to show how volunteering at Hawk Ridge can make a big impact on a person and that impact can lead to inspiring a person over again. Volunteering is a cycle of giving that keeps going and going thanks to many passionate people involved.

When I was in school for my bachelor's degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education at University of Minnesota, Duluth, I had to take a class about field interpretive techniques. It was in that class that I was introduced to Hawk Ridge. We learned about the nature reserve, the migration and raptors. We had an assignment to volunteer at either Hawk Ridge or the Great Lakes Aquarium. I choose Hawk Ridge because after learning about the migration from Tim Bates, I was very inspired and awestruck about how cool this place was. Since I was a new mom and a student at the time, I did not get to volunteer as much as I would have liked to, but I have some very fond memories of that season.

I remember volunteering in the pouring rain and huddling next to the old merchandise trailer, with only the plastic overhang for protection. We were waiting to see if a few visitors would show up. Indeed, a few visitors did show up and they were delighted that we were there to talk to them about Hawk Ridge. I also remember the first banded bird I was able to hold that year. It was a "Gray Ghost"! Commonly known as an adult, male, Northern Harrier. I felt very lucky and I was thrilled when it was offered to me to hold it. This bird may even be the one that really touched my heart and inspired me to keep working with Hawk Ridge.

The next year when the fall season came around, I was still very interested in Hawk Ridge. I really wanted to learn more about it and I wanted to practice my education skills to further connect with the birds and the people at Hawk Ridge. I decided to call Debbie Waters (the education director at the time) to see if there was a place for me. Debbie decided that I would be able to be trained as a substitute naturalist. I was on-call if someone could not come in. I could not stay away that year. I decided I would come up and volunteer as much as I could. I remember going up many days after I finished with classes or before. I think that my husband (boyfriend at the time) thought that I would rather be up there with the birds, than be home with him and our son. And I have to say, it was a very high priority on my list at that time. I was feeling the migration fire and didn't want to miss a minute!

The next year, I completed my administrative internship with Hawk Ridge and gained daily experience as a naturalist at the Ridge. This was great for me and the organization, as I was able to learn about all aspects of Hawk Ridge. I was a naturalist at the overlook, I learned about the board of directors and the committees, and I also worked on a lot of special projects to help further the education at Hawk Ridge.

When I was not at the overlook, I spent a lot of time volunteering at the banding station with Banding Director, Frank Nicoletti. I found out very quickly that this was another great place to be at the Ridge! It did not take long and I had the migration fire lit in me again, but was experiencing it in a different way this time at the Ridge. I volunteered at least once or twice a week at the banding research station. I helped with banding research for songbirds, owls and other raptors. I was so grateful to be learning about this aspect of Hawk Ridge.

Through all of my experience volunteering and interning at Hawk Ridge during the fall season, I was also learning a lot about the role of the Volunteer Coordinator. I worked closely with Julie O'Connor (former Volunteer Coordinator) and learned a lot about what needed to be done from year to year. When the position came open, I went for it and I'm now in my second year as the Volunteer Coordinator. I still get really excited about being at the Ridge. I look forward to reaching out to new volunteers and teaching them about this special place. I love to see people that get excited like I did from the beginning and keep coming back. I also love to watch the visitors smile, as volunteers greet them and connect with them through conversation and stories.

Hawk Ridge has an infectiousness about it. When people come and feel excited and enthusiastic about this place, it rubs off on all the others around. This is what happened to me during my first year, when I was taught about Hawk Ridge and assigned to volunteer.  I can only hope that I can continue to portray that same kind of excitement and enthusiasm to keep the ball rolling.

So there you have it, a little about me. However, I should say that I am not the only one who started out this way. There are many people that are staff or part of the board that also started as a volunteer and continue to do so. There is a spark at Hawk Ridge ignited by the beautiful birds and migration, which creates a passion to volunteer and passion to stick around. To this day, I still get so excited when I get to see a "Gray Ghost" floating along the tree-line, as I remember my first experience with one at Hawk Ridge as a volunteer.

Katie Swanson
Hawk Ridge Volunteer Director

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