It happened when I stopped for a take-out coffee at a restaurant in Hastings one morning last March.
Noticing my binoculars, a man at a table for six called out, “You a birdwatcher?”
As I turned to respond in the affirmative, one of his companions spied my Audubon name tag, which I had forgotten to remove.
“Hey!” she said, “You’re a Rowe Sanctuary volunteer!” They thanked me for my contribution, raved about the sanctuary and waved as I walked out the door. I waved back, feeling a bit like a movie star.
Volunteers have been a part of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary since its beginnings. In 1974, when the sanctuary had a staff of one, volunteers helped build the first two observation blinds so that visitors could watch the sandhill crane migration from the river’s edge.
As the sanctuary became established in the 1980s, volunteer work crews helped clear brush and trees from the river channels and meadows. A self-trained burn crew conducted annual prescribed fires to control unwanted trees and regenerate the meadows’ prairie plants.
According to sanctuary director Bill Taddicken, “Volunteers are vital to the programs at Rowe Sanctuary. We have a very small staff, and without the crucial work of our volunteers, we couldn’t accomplish all the work that we do on the river.”
My own experience as a Rowe volunteer began in 2005 when I found an article in the Kearney Hub that said the sanctuary was recruiting a cadre of volunteer naturalists. We received training over the course of five Saturdays, on sandhill cranes and the natural history of the Platte River. And then we became tour guides, leading visitors to the observation blinds in the morning and evening. What could be better?
But leading a group of people for a half-mile on an unpaved trail in the dark, especially in subfreezing temperatures or 30 mph winds, is not for everyone. Many volunteers prefer to make their contribution within the walls of the visitor center. Some work in the gift shop; others wait at the information desk to answer visitors’ questions about where to watch cranes during the day, where to look for prairie chickens, where to get a good breakfast or lunch.
And they talk to visitors who inquire about becoming volunteers. Indeed, most of Rowe’s 100 or so volunteers came here first as visitors who wanted to see the migration, then decided to make it a part of their lives.
Margaret Muñoz of Kansas City visited Rowe Sanctuary several times before becoming a volunteer this year. Her assignments included outdoor jobs — such as filling bird feeders and keeping the trails and blinds tidy — and light housekeeping in the visitor center. She also went to the observation blinds several times as a trainee.
“I liked going to the blinds,” she said, “but I was hesitant to lead a group before having more experience.” Rowe encourages volunteers to visit the blinds as often as necessary until they feel comfortable leading a group. But after getting comfortable, most volunteers can’t get enough of it.
Taking people to the river has been one of greatest joys of my life, and I know other volunteers feel the same. When visitors thank me for volunteering, I appreciate their gratitude, but I tell them it’s no sacrifice. My work isn’t exactly unpaid, it’s just not paid with money. Volunteering at Rowe allows us to witness mornings and evenings of unparalleled beauty. It offers friendships that can last a lifetime. And it is an opportunity to be part of a mission in which we believe passionately: protecting the Platte River for cranes and other wildlife.
And on really good days, we might even get to feel like movie stars.