A teenaged Eagle Scout who took a young neighbor under his wing in Ohio piqued Ron Mills’ interest in birding.
Little did either of them know Ron would pursue a 30-year career as a naturalist and become president of the Peace River Chapter of Audubon Florida.
“Between spending summers with my grandparents in West Virginia on the top of a mountain to hanging around with my teenaged neighbor Pat Saunders, who was a birder, I was drawn to nature and the outdoors,” says Ron, who lives in Punta Gorda. “I guess I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old and was really into snakes, bugs and birds. As I got older, my interests just evolved.”
During college, Ron worked as a seasonal naturalist for the Ohio State Park system. This led to his first full-time employment as district naturalist for southeastern Ohio.
He later moved into the central office, where he worked in a various positions spanning a 30-year career.
His responsibilities became increasingly administrative, but he gravitated to the outdoors whenever possible.
Seventeen years ago, when Ron and his wife, Tobi, prepared to retire, the appeal of a warmer climate brought them to Florida’s Gulf Coast.
It wasn’t long before he joined Peace River Audubon.
“I’d always been outdoors and wanted to find a group with similar interests, so we joined the local Audubon chapter,” Ron says. “It was an excellent way to make friends, get to know a whole new range of birds, and have opportunities to volunteer, teach classes and enjoy being able to continue my love of nature.”
Founded in 1977, Peace River Audubon Society carries forth the mission of the National Audubon Society.
“Our focus is birding, conservation and education,” Ron says. “Although the pandemic has changed the way we present our activities and programs, we continue to be very active. Many of our events and workshops are now virtual, but we also have smaller groups that practice social distancing and go birding.”
The chapter has approximately 130 members, some of whom spend winters in Florida and summers in the north.
Ron says the group’s busiest times for activities and events are late fall, winter and early spring. In December, the group participated in the Christmas Bird Count—a national program that helps track bird migrations in the winter.
Peace River Audubon began a yard certification program last year to recognize individuals and businesses that promote and protect wildlife.
The Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary certification encourages using native plants and creating landscapes that provide food, water sources and shelter for birds and butterflies.
“Although this is a fairly new program, we’ve been awarding certifications at a steady pace,” Ron says. “In addition to private backyards, we’ve recognized community gardens, libraries and other organizations with a nice sign that shows they’ve met the criteria.
“A recently awarded grant is funding a children’s activity book about native plants for birds. That should fit with the yard certification program very nicely.”
From February 12-15, Audubon members and others interested in birding across the nation will take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count—a program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. People are encouraged to observe and record the types and numbers of birds they see to help track bird migration and populations.
“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great chance for you to become a citizen scientist, even if you’ve never observed birds before,” Ron says. “The website birdcount.org has full instructions, checklists and other information to make it easy, and you can do the count for as little as 15 minutes.”
Birders are friendly people who welcome the chance to share their love of nature.
“You’ll find that contacting a local chapter will provide many chances to meet new people, whether you’re a novice or a seasoned birder,” Ron says.
“The best way to learn about bird watching is to join with people of like mind,” he adds. “You can learn a great deal from others, no matter what your experience level.”
Ron and Tobi start just about every day of their retirement with a cup of coffee and birdwatching from their lanai.
“It’s such a peaceful and relaxing time to sit quietly and watch the birds come to our feeders,” Ron says.
Resources Plentiful in Florida
The National Audubon Society has chapters across the Americas. Audubon Florida has 45 chapters with more than 100,000 members. These chapters provide educational programming, field trips, birding activities, and opportunities to network with and learn from people of all ages who enjoy birding.
Here are some of the projects Audubon Florida supports and promotes through conservation, education, research and volunteerism.
Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, western Everglades. More than 13,000 acres of old-growth cypress forests are protected and restored under Audubon ownership. It is a site for extensive environmental research by biologists, hydrologists, citizen scientists, students and volunteers. Highlights include an amazing 2.25-mile boardwalk that meanders through the marshes and cypress swamp, providing great opportunities to see birds and other wildlife. corkscrew.audubon.org
Audubon’s Everglades Science Center, Tavernier. The center focuses on the Florida Keys and Florida Bay, with an emphasis on the roseate spoonbill, as well as hydrologic and ecologic studies of the Everglades ecosystem. https://fl.audubon.org/chapters-centers/audubons-everglades-science-center
Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, city of Maitland and town of Eatonville. This urban environmental Audubon Center focuses on the rescue, medical treatment, rehabilitation and release of Florida’s raptors. cbop.audubon.org
Ridge Audubon Center and Museum, Babson Park, Lake Wales Ridge. Nature trails lead through long-leaf pine forest being restored and preserved, with turkey and scrub-oak habitats. www.ridgeaudubon.com
Street Nature Center, Winter Haven. Operated by Lake Region Audubon Chapter, this 42-acre sanctuary focuses on youth and young-adult education, and features two nature trails and a butterfly garden. www.lakeregionaudubon.org/howe_house.html
For more information about Audubon Florida or to find a local chapter, visit fl.audubon.org.