21 February 2009

Icon of Bird Banding and Education Leaving Nebraska

An end of an era has happened as Nebraska ornithology lost a preeminent bird bander and educator that had a vital role in the state and region for more than four decades.

Ruth Green is "extremely sad" to leave Nebraska and its many birding attractions, and so many friends throughout the state. The move takes her closer to family in Virginia.

It was however a bit of destiny for her to come to Nebraska, since as a child in Greenway Arkansas, Ruth Cummings had studied maps as a hobby, and the state was one place she obviously wanted to go.

"I was thrilled to death to come to Nebraska."

Robert and Ruth Green moved to Bellevue in 1958, coming with a transfer from the Bermuda Islands, as a result of a military reassignment. He was in military communications at Offutt Air Force Base. She worked as a school teacher at Avery, Central and then Wake Robin Elementary Schools, mainly teaching 6th grade students.

After a few years, a dramatic change was wrought when a grant from the National Science Foundation to Fontenelle Forest ignited a passion that led to decades of preeminent contributions to ornithology. The money was used to train volunteers about birds and Ruth Green was among the group in 1966.

The experience brought about an intense interest in birds that continued for decades. It was expressed by education and handling birds and placing little metal bands on their legs, and keeping records required by the government.

"I've taught people interested in birds from east to west, and north to south." She was the instructor at 37 Elderhostels when sandhill cranes and their annual spring migration along the Platte River were the primary topic. Halsey Forest was another place where she taught people about the importance and value of birds.

Her banding efforts were directed towards teaching the value and importance of birds to their environment.

"Every bird has been a thrill to band," Green said. "I find so many different things with each one and it has always been exciting."

Ruth Green educating children at a Saturday morning banding at Schramm Park. - April 2008

She received the Ludlow Grisom award from the American Birding Association, for her indefatigable efforts for advancing ornithology. And is the only individual in the Midwest to win the award.

Her efforts included teaching many children about the value of birds, and how to appreciate and protect them. Many of her former students still enjoy the birds, and some of them are active in biological sciences.

"People learning about birds leads to their learning about other aspects of nature," she noted. Her "experiences were wonderful," Green said, during an interview in her Bellevue home undergoing the transition needed to move elsewhere.

Especially notable have been those early spring outings with a bunch of interested people out looking at a multitude of sandhill cranes, then on one occasion mix the drama of a whooping crane, and a bit further onward on the route was a common crane with two young that were the result of a hybridization with a male sandhill crane.

She has banded more than 100,000 birds, starting in 1972 when she was getting started at Fontenelle Forest, a known haven for birds for many decades. Her intense interests took her west to the forest-lands planted at Halsey, first with birding, then banding starting about 1973, while a charter member of the Nebraska Science Teacher's Association.

Her top three banding recollections are all from Nebraska:

1) curve-billed thrasher at Scottsbluff; this species was not only out of its expected area of occurrence, but also occurred during an unexpected time
2) black-throated sparrow, at a residence in South Omaha
3) summer tanager, with the banding of a breeding pair along the Platte River, in Cass County; also banding a western subspecies at Halsey Forest, which was "such a delightful place to band birds."

Another noted highlight was banding of the only scissor-tailed flycatcher in Nebraska, known at Fontenelle Forest.

"Nebraska has a wonderful variety of birds. I used to most enjoy going to Halsey Forest." Schramm Park and Fontenelle Forest are other places notably important. "The Rainwater basin now has more birds than any other place in Nebraska," Green said.

One of the many birds banded by Ruth Green. This is an Eastern Bluebird. - April 2008

There were other special outings over the hills at Fontenelle Forest, where she came to recognize 242 species of a wonderful variety during the mid-1970s.

Ruth Green is a master bander, with distinct skills and knowledge learned through practice. Her legacy is unsurpassed in the state with a tenure helping many other bird enthusiasts learn the requisite skills in this ringy endeavor. A few people, from neighboring states, have been apprentices under her guidance of how to brand the proper way.

With her departure, the banding efforts in Nebraska will be lessened, or lost? There will no longer be her there on Saturday morning, banding some more morning birds at Shramm Park along the Platte, an effort for which she received recognition from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 2008.

Although she "hated to give up her books," seven full apple crate sized boxes - about 500 books - went to the Levitt Library, at the York College of Nebraska. This repository was selected since the school is associated with the church she belongs to. Some other treasured books went to birding acquaintances.

In considering a state so essential to her for so many years, Green considers that the challenge for Nebraska birds in current times includes just finding species.

"Populations are down due to the decimating effects of the West Nile Virus. There have been two outbreaks," Green said. "Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and other species have been impacted and there are lesser numbers."

"I used to be able to put up a mist-net in good habitat and almost always count on getting some chickadees ... now it is questionable. During the past winter at Schramm Park while doing Saturday morning banding, not one woodpecker has been captured which is a dramatic change." There are also fewer white-throated sparrows and white-crowned sparrows.

At Halsey Forest, among the indomitable sandhills, there have been changes shown she has noted after decades of experience. There are fewer woodpeckers, she said, as well as very few red-breasted nuthatches. "West Nile virus has certainly been a factor."

"I used to enjoy driving along Highway 2 through the sandhills from Broken Bow to Halsey - a designated scenic byway - but with so many center-pivots replacing grasslands, it is now very depressing."

Green said she will no longer band any birds with the move to the east. "It is too difficult to maintain the records required by the bird banding laboratory" that regulates bird banding permits and efforts. "They seem to have more of a focus on scientific purposes rather than the educational value of banding birds" such as her many, sharing moments at Schramm Park and Halsey Forest.

Nebraska has also been of special interest due to the occurrence of eastern and western species, Green said. The occasional presence of southern species has also been notable.

Nebraska has been wonderful with Ruth Green. Her efforts are undeniably laudable and will continue to evoke an obvious dedication of so many times treasured during decades of times gone by.

She is leaving Nebraska the last week of February.

I was one of Ruth’s boys, though I missed her sixth grade class at Wake Robin by a year. My brother started third grade there and impressed Ruth that he knew birds then. I hooked up with her more later as I started helping out at Halsey with the banding.

I can remember many a time driving with Ruth to or from Halsey, her Marty Robbins tape in the cassette player, trying to there to get the nets up or trying to get back to Bellevue in time for 6 p.m. church service (which, leaving the Field Station at 1 p.m., often made for rapid transit).

Dr. Ray Korpi
Dean of Basic Education, English, Communication, and Humanities
Clark College, Vancouver WA

Ruth has been more than a mentor to be, she has been a wonderful friend for almost 10 years now.

I was first introduced to her at the First Saturday Bird Banding Workshops at Schramm Park. I got to the point that I was showing up earlier and earlier to watch the process, and Ruth noticed and asked if I wanted to learn about Bird Banding. The journey began from there.

Ruth helped enrich my interest in birds, and showed me the joys of photography. We had a wonderful road trip out to Utah to attend a photography class together, and I certainly had my work cut out for me to try and keep up with that lady!

We took several trips out to Halsey together to band, as well as several years of banding an the Nebraska Crane Elderhostels. There is nothing like watching the sun go down on the Platte River during Crane season. It is always cold, but you don't feel it when those clouds of birds come in to roost on the river. I got to share that every year with Ruth, and this year just won't be the same.

The wealth of knowledge that Ruth has just astounds me, even now. She is always willing to share and help others learn. Most especially, working with children is where Ruth seemed to shine. I can't count the times I've heard her tell a group, 'An environment that is not safe for birds is not safe for you and me.' Words that I take to heart.

Kris Hammond
Bellevue, NE

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