Mary Harper’s life the past five years shows how involvement in nature grows slowly and surely, kind of like a natural process.

Her path to becoming a leading volunteer at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge wandered and shifted directions in response to changing conditions and needs in her chosen post-retirement habitat.

Harper, of Margate, began by doing volunteer work with the N.J. Fish and Wildlife in 2003.

After a few years, she said, she realized she needed to learn more if she wanted to do more. She took a Rutgers class in environmental stewardship at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority.

On the last day, the class took a field trip to Forsythe in Galloway Township, which she had visited since her teen years to look at birds.

Forsythe personnel told the class about volunteer opportunities there, and it sounded like a perfect fit to Harper. After her internship at the refuge, she was asked to help fill some big shoes.

John Dazenbaker, who knew Forsythe’s birds better than anyone, had passed away in 2008. The refuge needed someone to continue the weekly survey of migratory birds he had done for more than a quarter century.

“The refuge wanted to expand its relations with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and I had worked with them on eBird (the online birder’s resource) while at N.J. Fish and Wildlife,” Harper said.

Since 2008, she has surveyed for an international shorebirds study on Forsythe’s famous wildlife drive and in the Little Beach wilderness area of the refuge’s Holgate unit at the southern end of Long Beach Island.

Last summer, for the refuge biology service department, she also surveyed two of its properties in Brick Township and helped with another of a white cedar swamp outside Manahawkin.

“That was fun, because I got to see all of the Pine Barrens vegetation, such as sundews and pink lady’s slippers,” she said. “I went out with a biologist who could point these things out to me.”

Other efforts are decidedly less fun, as when she helped a crew hammering steel rods into the salt marsh to measure its growth and enduring buggy, 100-degree heat. “I had to lie on the marsh and hold the rod so it went in straight.”

Harper is on the refuge environmental education committee and has just become head of its annual fishing derby.

She’s also secretary of the Friends of Forsythe, the volunteer organization, and last year joined 23 counterparts from other refuges nationwide for a week of classes at the system’s National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia.

The learning was great, but she said she really enjoyed hearing what other refuge Friends were experiencing throughout the country.

“I came away with an appreciation for how well supported Forsythe is by the local community,” Harper said.

Friends of Forsythe, already 175 strong, is seeking new members. They can stop by the refuge nature store, or come to a meeting 5 p.m. the second Thursday of each month, or visit

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