Paying it forward: Volunteer enjoys working with nature

Richard Esker was recently working with fellow volunteers Carl Radcliffe and Jon Benedetti, marking a special identification code on several nesting houses for purple martins at the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge facility along Waverly Road in Williamstown. All three men are retired from the chemical industry and now fill some of their free time helping out at the federal refuge center that oversees the islands on more than 400 miles of the Ohio between Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Esker said he’s been volunteering with the islands refuge since 2003.

Question: Have you always liked working with nature?

Answer: I grew up in a small town in Illinois, and was always interested in the outdoors where I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels. I still like working in the outdoors, especially when you can see it’s doing some good.

Q: How did you decide to volunteer with the refuge?

A: I had retired and was looking for something to do with my time. My wife and I are into bird-watching and knew (refuge biologist) Patty Morrison. I asked if the refuge needed any help, and she said “sure.” We did a winter eagle survey from the Hannibal Dam to Willow Island that year. That area gets between five and 13 eagles that come down during the winter for the fish. We also do surveys of waterfowl like ducks and geese in cooperation with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

Q: Does your work at the islands refuge have an impact on those birds?

A: Having a quality river with quality fish is important. We help monitor the river and islands. There’s a lot of mussel research that goes on here, too, which is also a factor in improving water quality. They take in nutrients from the river water and clean it up. Nobody sees that because it goes on below the water surface. But it’s fascinating, and is all part of the bigger picture.

Q: What else do you do as a refuge volunteer?

A: We do all kinds of things. Carl and I have become certified boat operators and go out with the divers to help check on mussels. Sometimes we go on overnight trips to help conduct surveys. The refuge also conducts bat surveys with the West Virginia DNR as well as frog surveys and the bird surveys. We’ve also worked on Great Blue Heron rookeries and bird boxes. We plant trees and work on trails.

Q: What would you say to anyone who’s considering becoming an islands refuge volunteer?

A: The refuge is understaffed, so they can use office workers, gardeners, machinists, lawn care, carpenters, metal workers, artists-people with any kind of skills. We’ve had a lot of help from local Boy Scouts and other groups, too, including the Friends of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge Board.

(The Friends of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge is an independent, non-profit organization that encourages participation in and support of the refuge.)