10 May 2009

Heron Haven a Mecca for Nature and Enthusiasts

[Ione Werthman at Heron Haven, Omaha]

Ione Werthman at Heron Haven, 30 April 2009.

With a tenacity derived from decades of experience, Ione Werthman continues to promote and enhance a nature haven that is the pinnacle of a lifetime of dedication to the environment and its protection.

Her effort and ongoing vision is vividly apparent in a bit of land, Heron Haven Nature Preserve in west Omaha. Although the site is a bit of a tract of just about 25 acres, its value to birds, wildlife and local flora is vast indeed. And the place is a magnet for volunteers which share Werthman's view.

A review of the April 2009 newsletter issued to the group of friends and enthusiasts nurturing the heron haven, indicates the depth of dedication by volunteers and contributors to the cause. Consider these contributions:

  • grant for $1000 from the Omaha Community Foundation for uses around the haven trail cleanup work done by Chris Kasel
  • Wells Fargo Insurance Company donation of bookcases, file cabinets and office supplies
  • Bruce Warr and Larry Shackman doing brush removal, and planning and design for the installation of a new fence for the butterfly garden area. Funding for the fence was provided by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality since the material used was recycled plastics. Verla Shaner is in charge of the flower plantings for this project.
  • Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District contributing by clearing trees and furnishing some soil additive for the new trail through the garden
  • Eva Bennett donation to purchase more nature games to be used for education activities

Ione Werthman also mentioned how there are two more young men working on their Eagle Scout project at the haven. One project will repair a fence damaged by the June 2008 tornado which swept through Omaha. The other contributed effort will involve planting buffalo grass and roto-tilling to prepare the soil to extend the picnic area and bird garden at the back of the nature center. More than 20 Boy Scouts have done their Eagle Scout projects at Heron Haven, Werthman said with pride.

On the day of our visit, Donald Vanacek, who had been at the nature center for a recent program, brought in a box of gourds adapted to provide bird houses, either for house wrens or purple martins, preferably, but still worthwhile for the English sparrow.

This is a tally for just this spring. The extent of volunteer contributions is a wonder when considering what has been accomplished at Heron Haven, since its simple beginnings in 1992.

Within three months, once neighbors of a proposed apartment development project contacted activist Werthman in 1992, then actively involved with the Audubon Society. Once a neighbor of the wetland provided a check for $200 to support the cause, a direction was indicated for the fate of these acres.

The three great blue herons Ione Werthman noted when she first visited the place, made their distinctive and indelible mark, indicating a haven for herons, egrets, ducks, geese, plovers, raptors, woodpeckers, thrushes, warblers, sparrows and a myriad of other wild bird species.

Funds were raised and the property purchased so it could be permanently protected as a nature area. Werthman's focus and intent raised the necessary funds - $187,000 - for the purchase of 12 acres of what had been a part of the Big Papillion Creek channel. Once the waterway was channelized, there was a relict oxbow and wetland habitats along with the woodlands. The site was not suited for an apartment complex, but an alternative view was much more appropriate.

Overall, she has procured more than $1 million for the urban sanctuary, including the removal of ten dump-truck loads of rubble and trash! Also monies were used to construct a boardwalk at the marsh, put in a blind that is its own haven for fowl photographers, and excavation to deepen the wetland.

Ione Werthman raised these funds that are part of that celebrated source of money to create the heron haven: $175,000 in 1996, to purchase a former bar - once known as Puddle Mary's Catch and Carry Bar (buy a drink to enjoy while doing a little fishing), or later, Gilley's Place with its storied history - which is now a nature center, established in 1998. Money for this came from the many donors which could see that this was a worthy endeavor, as well as the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Papio-Missouri NRD which were in complete agreement.

With her particular tenacity, the ongoing development of this special bit of urban nature, over came particular bumps in the road. A huge, 100-year flood occurred along the creek on August 7, 1999, just a couple of months after the grand opening of the nature center, there was water in the building at 10 a.m., and gone four hours later. Mud was left behind, so the building has since been remodeled to make it suitable for classes, gatherings of nature enthusiasts, and a hangout for people that enjoy a place to rest after an outing to watch the geese or other wild birds which appreciate these few acres.

[Pair of Canada Geese]

Pair of Canada Geese at Heron Haven, 30 April 2009.

The bird list for Heron Haven currently has a tally of 133 species. A peregrine falcon is the most recent addition, perhaps it was Zeus, making the trek to western Omaha to visit a place where it might find a bit of food to take back downtown to its mate, attending the nest at the Woodmen Tower.

In April 2008, Ione Werthman received the Howard L. Weigers Nebraska Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Award, notably for her work to establish Heron Haven, but which also is based on her 35 years of volunteer work with the National Audubon Society, Friends of the Niobrara River, and otherwise to protect and nuture the nature of Nebraska.

There are now 250 members of the Friends of Heron Haven group, with a fine number actively involved. This group was established in 2004 to support protection and ongoing enhancement of the wetland along Maple Street.

When talking with the matriarch of Heron Haven - or volunteer director in official parlance - it is obvious that there is no moss growing under her feet. She looks forward to further improvements for this little bit of urban nature.

By the end of this year, or the beginning of next year, there will be a dragon-fly pond established near the nature center, according to planning now underway.

The Corps of Engineers will soon be undertaking a project to remove the invasive Asian reed-canary grass at an east area of the haven wetlands.

What else might be in the future for Heron Haven, perhaps?

The Heron Haven Nature Center is expected to be a trailhead for the recreation trail to be established from Hefflinger Park, up Maple Street to the east, to Tranquility Park, across the Big Papillion Creek and 120th Street to the west. This project is being developed by the Papio-Missouri NRD.

There is the city of Omaha-owned property to the east of the haven property. It is a deep ravine, bordered by housing, but a place that obviously could never be developed in any reasonable manner, and a source for spring-water which nourishes the wetland. When a group of students from Creighton Prep school developed a detailed, three-dimensional layout of the haven vicinity, showing the primary features, and potentialities, including a possible hiking trail addition in the east ravine.

Invasive species are a concern. An effort to revert the site flora to just native species would be a great enhancement.

Next to the nature center, there is a measly 3-acres used by Mulhall Nursery, mostly for storage of their products. It could perhaps be better used as a bit of green space, rather than commercial property?

Werthman also considers the longer-term for the haven: "It would be nice to place a berm above where the city sewer pipe-line crosses the wetland. This could be a prime place for the geese to nest."

"The more people involved the better," Werthman said. "it is fun being out here to educate others while also learning."

It is the profound dedication of individuals which have established Heron Haven as a special place for so many people, and a natural area so important for flora and fauna in an otherwise developed urban setting.

Each owes Ione Werthman their own distinct expression of thanks. The Canada geese express their pleasure each day, and the song of the house wren is another bit of joyous song of this bit of haven resulting from a singular focus on environmental conservation and nature education in an urban setting.

Sam's Bird Blog features pictures of the birds and other natural scenes at Heron Haven.

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