You don't have to be in love with some aspect of nature to do volunteer work outside in the winter, but it sure helps.
Glen Davis, 35, of Cape May Point, has been studying birds since his boyhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. He loves to watch them in their environment, and keep tabs on them, to better protect them.
The nature educator and ornithology consultant has been volunteering since 1998 with New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, and for the past three years has helped with its winter raptor survey. That involves standing outside in one spot for an hour-and-a-half at dusk, and counting how many raptors he sees in a 360-degree radius.
All volunteers go out at one time to pre-assigned spots along the water in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties, so no one counts the same birds.
Davis moved to the area in his mid-20s so he could do things like this all the time.
"I moved here for the birding. There's no doubt about it," he said.
He doesn't avoid the cold, even when birding for fun. Recently he took a trip to the upper Michigan peninsula to look for arctic and boreal birds like snowy owl. There the temperature hit negative 15, he said.
But the raptor survey, a citizen science project run by New Jersey Audubon, poses an extra challenge because volunteers can't walk around to stay warm. They have to stay in one spot.
Davis said he has been so cold, and sometimes wet, while doing the survey it was a mental as well as physical challenge to stay out there.
"You do a little mental exercise and meditation to keep your wits about you - keep your feet marching in place, and cover your face from the wind," Davis said.
But everything falls away when a sighting occurs.
"I would say you can forget about some of the pain when you see an interesting bird," he said.
The survey was set for this past Saturday, barring a heavy storm.
Other volunteers brave the cold to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood.
The Blue Heron Pines Neighbors group spends the second Friday and Saturday of the month outside picking up other people's litter on Tilton and Leipzig roads in Galloway Township. They do it in all temperatures, only cancelling in heavy snow or rain, said founder Alan Schmidt.
On a recent Saturday, it was cold enough for most volunteers to suit up with hats and heavy coats, but Joyce Davanzo made due with a long sleeve shirt and a bright ACUA T-shirt over it. She and Ed Manthe were working on a stretch of Leipzig Road, when Davanzo found two hypodermic needles among the usual fast food cups and bags, cigarette butts and boxes, and plastic bags.
"Isn't that awful?" she said, picking them up with a grabber supplied by the ACUA, and dropping them in a trash bag. "It's the first time I've found these."
Further down the road Gary Middleton was doing his part. He's been volunteering for eight years, he said, and doesn't mind the cold. The speed of the traffic as it buzzes by, and the increasing frequency of people texting as they drive, concerns him more. But the bright yellow vest he wears for visibility helps a lot, he said.
Schmidt said the group has been part of the ACUA's Adopt-a-Highway program for eight years.
"When I moved here in 2004 I noticed it was really bad," Schmidt said of the litter. So he talked to friends and neighbors, and started the group, which was recognized in 2012 for its longtime commitment by the statewide Clean Communities program.
While overall conditions are improved, there is always more to pick up, he said.
"Litter is the gift that keeps on giving," Schmidt said.
Dave Lord, 24, of Upper Township, is also volunteering for the raptor survey. He makes his living as a naturalist on the "The Osprey" tour boat out of Cape May from March to November, and has volunteered for the raptor survey since it started in 2009. His spot to survey is Turkey Point in Dividing Creek, Downe Township.
Lord is usually too busy to be bothered by the cold, he said. But two years ago it was tough.
"I stand on an aluminum tower and it was around 22 degrees. It was not pleasant," Lord said. "And winter is my favorite season."
The vista helps make up for the chill in his bones, he said.
"I generally see about 30 to 50 northern harriers, and three to four owls. We get eagles all over the place. It's one of the most raptor-rich areas in southern New Jersey."
Lord grew up in Middle Township, and credits CMBO naturalist educator Pat Sutton, a neighbor, with introducing him to nature and birding.
He is interested to see if Hurricane Sandy had any effect on the raptor population, particularly the Northern Harrier, a hawk that feeds on small mammals in the marsh. Some of those mammals, which nest underground, were undoubtedly drowned in the flooding.
CMBO Program Director Mike Crewe, who is organizing the raptor survey, said people reported finding a large number of dead voles in the debris after Sandy.
"Luckily they have large families and quick turnaround in numbers, but any bird of prey wintering here will probably have to go elsewhere for food," Crewe said. That may explain why so few short-eared owls have been spotted so far this year.
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