Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge volunteers share their passion
Bob Schmidt and Carl Zenger have logged more than 46,000 hours as volunteers at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in New York. Both retired in 1997, and for 18 years have helped build “just about everything,” started birding programs, improved habitat, and reached thousands of children, helping them develop a conservation ethic and connection to nature.
“Bob and Carl’s service is truly invaluable” says refuge manager Tom Roster.
Carl was always interested in wildlife. “I grew up on a farm, I didn’t have computers, but I liked birds. I built a lot of bird houses. After working inside for 42 years, I wanted to get back outside. I knew the bluebird was in trouble, and went down to the refuge to talk with the assistant refuge manager about setting up a blue bird trail.
“I didn’t know at the time that volunteering was going to turn into a full time job,” Carl chuckles. “I work about 45 hours a week as a volunteer.”
“Now when we are out monitoring the birds, our neighbors come out and talk. We take the opportunity to educate them, and they’re excited about seeing bluebirds come back.”
“It’s gratifying to help species, like the purple martin, so that they’ll be around for generations. After about eight years, the martins have decided our purple martin bird houses we built are suitable and they keep coming back. A lot of people say they have never seen the birds, and I just say come on down to the refuge and I’ll show you one.”
“I enjoy being out working the fields, too” says Carl. “Sounds kinda’ silly, but you see lots of wildlife. I probably know this refuge better than the back of my hand- every swamp hole, ditch, and meadow.”
Bob grew up in western New York and always liked to work outside. “I was a hiker, and I wanted to do something that would help the habitat after I retired. I started working a day or two a week, doing maintenance stuff, which eventually turned into full time, five days a week. Observing the eagles that have nested here for 15 years is one of my highlights.”
Bob also loves working with bird and with kids. “Some of my favorite jobs were building our duck box program, and checking on the birds. I also like preparing for the Spring Into Nature festival at the refuge,” he says.
For years now, Bob and Carl have been preparing materials for children to make bird boxes. They pre-drill all the boxes and number the parts so kids can use hand tools to put the boxes together like a puzzle.
“I love watching the kids build it,” says Carl. “Sometimes it’s not perfect, but the joy on their faces, their ‘I did this’ expression is really rewarding to me.”
“Working with the people and kids to expose them to wildlife and experiences in nature is my new favorite job – shoveling snow is probably not my top favorite,” Carl says with a big smile and one his famous chuckles. “Maybe they will remember those experiences, and they might say we need to help the Service so that their children can see these species and enjoy nature.”
Bob wishes more people knew about the refuge “because of its importance to conservation. It’s a beautiful place to recreate all year! I have a good time out here, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Bob and Carl agree that “The Service is a great place to volunteer – great people, very supportive, and cooperative.”
Neither Bob nor Carl have plans to “retire” soon.