Nature Connection 2022 - Chronicles of Noah
by Brian Dusseault
Late May last year, Bay County Audubon Society Chapter Co-President Lynn Marcoux and I, Program Chairperson, hatched a simple plan to explore the feasibility of bringing author and bird expert Noah Strycker to Panama City to headline our Chapter’s second “Nature Connection” Program. Noah would recount his world-record adventures preserved in his book “Birding Without Borders” and brought to the stage as his “Big Year 2015” presentation- plenty big in fact, as he had identified over 6,000 birds in one year. As birders, we had to hear that story! And we appreciated that he had also spent over 1o years off and on in the Antarctic region, doing research on penguins and also serving as expedition guide for touring groups. Over the next several months, with Noah now in the picture, the NC 2022 Program morphed into five days of various educational activities, including involving Noah visiting local schools to lead interactive penguin presentations; a “Penguin Art Contest” for elementary students (and their art teachers!) ; a juried and judged art and photography contest co-hosted with Bay Arts Alliance at the PC Center for the Arts; Noah leading three organized bird walks; and of course Noah’s grand finale “Big Year 2015” rendition at the FSU PC Holley Center. Throughout the months of planning amid a growing schedule Noah was a champ, telling us he was ready for anything. I knew we were, too, at least in our commitment.
But our best laid plans would come with a price tag, and we knew we would need to explain our vision to sympathetic sponsors who could help shoulder the financial burden of putting on such a wide-ranging offering. Without our generous supporters, we would have no viable program. Our two major foundation sponsors, Fyfe Family Foundation and Isaac W. Byrd Family Foundation, gave our Program a secure financial “foundation” without which we could not have put on a five-day Program, described below. Many, many individuals stepped up also, some financially and others with their time and expertise, to help us put together each program component. Each part fit in with and supported our overall mission: involving our youth in learning about Nature and our connection to it. We also pledged to donate a significant amount of net proceeds to fund Nature-related activities for students through local educational conduits, including the Bay Education Foundation, to broadly include students in future activities at all levels whether in public, charter, or private schools.
Early on, having read Noah’s five books and reviewed his online videos, I knew without a doubt that he was the perfect choice to engage our youth and carry the Program. Thank you, Noah, for who you are, what you do, and for using your personal gifts to help us reach our youth now and in the years to come and bring the message during your stirring, heart-warming, yet reflective, closing presentation at the Holley Center which earned the standing ovation it received.
So here’s a summary of what ultimately transpired for our grand adventure we call "Nature Connection 2022.”
Bird Walks with the Bird Man of Eugene
Flying in late from his home outside Eugene, Oregon, the night before, Noah met the Florida sunrise on “Day 1” with a small group of birders at St Andrews State Park. Herons and egrets nested around Gator Lake, and migratory birds seemed to drop in to “meet and greet” our famous “Bird Man”, and get counted. Before 10 am we had a 48 count. Noah also led a bird walk exploring the FSU PC and Gulf Coast State College campuses with veteran birders and college students enjoying a memorable first birding experience on the North Bay shore and around the several ponds on a late spring afternoon. Finally, the “Birding Open Invitational” at Neil and Susan Lamb’s back yard “nature preserve” attracted new and veteran explorers walking the trails, working the skies and enjoying Noah’s learned commentary when identity issues challenged. Starting with a startling barred owl call at 4:45 am, and ending with a male painted bunting on a feeder, the “Back Yard” bird count pushed 50 despite interrupting thunderstorms. Thanks to the Lamb’s for opening their home and hidden gem of a Lynn Haven wilderness to the birding guests.
As “Penguin Man,” Noah Wows Students and Adults
“Day 1” also brought the first of Noah’s many school-based presentations, each a 45-minute admixture of pictures and video clips, with narration to pace the process in what always turned into an intense interactive learning event whether in a classroom, cafeteria, chapel, or library. Noah had a clever technique to set up his presentation. After introducing himself as a penguin expert, which of course the kids already knew, Noah cued up the first video. He stated matter-of-factly that most people didn’t know that scientists had recently discovered a rare colony of penguins that could fly. And there on the screen were little penguins running down the ice, faster and faster, finally taking to the frigid air like little Cessnas and triumphantly flapping and gliding across the Antarctic icescape, just like real birds! There was instant group commotion: students had been taught penguins can not fly, they have flippers not wings, and are way too heavy. As the video unfolded, some shook their head, crying out “no, no, this can’t be”, and even “fake news” outbursts were heard. Noah stopped the video, and came to the rescue: what they had seen was a BBC-produced video shown on April Fool’s Day to a British audience years before and was meant as a clever joke, and for Noah was also a backdoor test of students’ knowledge. Everything they had studied about penguins being flightless birds was true, Noah announced! Good work, kids! Laughter erupted in a collective sigh of nervous relief. The room settled down, all eyes to the front. Noah now had the students’ undivided attention for the rest of the story.
Noah’s show highlighted penguins in their natural habitats: colonies on ice in Antarctica, on rocky shores on Southern Ocean islands, on beaches in South Africa, Galapagos Islands, Australia, to name a few of the locales which host the 18 species of Penguins. And there were funny video snippets that elicited surprise and approval (penguins jumping into Zodiac boats to escape nearby Orcas), laughter (“do you want to see a ‘penguin attack’, with a two-foot tall penguin pecking at a bothersome researcher? who then falls on his behind?”), oohs and aahs when showing cute chicks and doting parents. It was scores of hands in the air with questions, often questions just blurted out; shrieks of delight at penguin antics; applause: all in all a fluid interactive learning experience shared between Noah and his students. Afterward, pictures were taken with “Penguin Man”, and the kids skipped off to lunch or the next class.
By comparison, Noah’s presentation at Gulf Coast State College, as part of the monthly Citizen Scientist Program headed by Prof. Carrie Fiorimonti, embodied a more subdued academic/scientific cerebral approach based on Noah’s field work in the Antarctic area, concentrating on penguin population changes due to climate and diet, with maps and pictures creating a high-level learning encounter. Regardless of audience age or academic level, Noah knew how to connect, imparting the message that we are all part of nature, with penguins and birds in general an exemplary way to illustrate that.
Speaking of Illustrating…Alas, a Penguin Art Contest Takes Flight
The mere thought of a penguin, with its aura of fuzzy cute, cuddly, tipsy waddle, Panda-like vibes, even “Happy Feet”, can lead to Penguin Mania. I learned that early on when talking to elementary school teachers who loved the idea of having an Antarctic explorer (Noah) talk to kids about penguins: “Everyone loves a penguin.” To provide an outlet for the kids’ creative juices, why not have them study penguins and then do some art once they are hooked! Local artist Paul Brent had already blazed the trail for well over two decades with an art contest for Bay County 4th graders featuring a different endangered Florida species every year. Here’s one with an undeniably cute subject. So the “Penguin Art Contest” was launched.
So art teachers were contacted through the auspices of the Bay County Art Teachers Association, courtesy of president Brandi Goss, and 12 schools participated in the first-ever Bay County Audubon Penguin Art Contest. Open to kids in Kindergarten through Grade 5, each school’s art teacher would choose the top two pieces in each of the four categories, with one selected as “School Winner”. The School Winners would be recognized at a ceremony at the Holley Center before Noah presented his “Big Year 2015”, and one would be honored as “Best in Show”. After that the penguin art would be displayed during April at the City Hall of Panama City, corner 5th and Harrison (known hereafter as “Tuxedo Junction”). Thank you Dr. Kesia Blenn, Quality of Life Department, for organizing these creations into a delightful, uplifting exhibit.
And beyond the children who were school category or school winners, another 600 or so created some form of art in those 12 schools because kids just love penguins. For example, Lynn Haven Elementary probably had produced 300 drawings of penguins, displayed in hallways and classrooms alike, mainly by 2d and 3d graders. Noah had penned a letter addressed to students from his Antarctic vessel where he was guiding tours, emailed to each art teacher, in which he encouraged students to work hard on their penguin art, and that he would be there soon to see it and do his school presentation. Many kids must have been inspired by that personal contact, considering how many responded in the art and in the enthusiastic reception Noah received at each school.
Bay County Audubon/Bay Arts Alliance 1st Annual Art/Photo Competition
Not sure what came first, the penguin or the egg, but a Nature-themed art and photo contest seemed like a workable program for our local artistically-inclined community considering the children of Bay County were being recruited to do theirs. We started with a “call to artists and photographers”, enticing them to submit Nature-themed items for the upcoming contest. (The event was optimistically billed as the “1st Annual"). There would be competition categories: Birds, the Animal Kingdom (all living things other than birds), and Landscapes, for both art and photography. The date was set for April 1, the show when the Judges’ decisions would be announced.
Jayson Kretzer, executive director of Bay Arts Alliance, headquartered at the Panama City Center for the Arts, graciously agreed to co-sponsor this event. (In retrospect, that was a fairly bold gamble for Jayson, who has hosted a long string of successful events at the Center.) He offered the Center’s galleries to display the art and photos. He and his staff would design and handle the layout of the art and photo pieces by category and prepare the labels for each piece. They would arrange for snacks and drinks, and create an inviting venue for the event. Contest winners would be announced towards the end of the evening and cash awards bestowed. It was the real thing! Our end of the bargain was to solicit entrants, collect and identify the entries, arrange for judges who would jury the entries and then decide the category winners (first and second place), and then which piece was “Best in Show”. There was also a youth division, also with awards.
The Contest resulted in about 100 juried items of both art and photography to be gallery displayed by category out of nearly 14o submitted, and 20 prize awards were given. “Best in Show” went to Dorothy Starbuck for “Ibis.” In the Youth Division, Marissa Winslow received “Best in Show” with “Monarch.” Anastasia and Ellen of Bay Arts Alliance did a marvelous job in setting the tone with visually pleasing and creative layouts of both art and photos, along with setting up the accommodating relaxed atmosphere for artists, patrons and the public, and keeping everything on track.
Before Contest winners were announced, Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki read an official “Proclamation” listing reasons (following each “Whereas:”) why he was declaring the month of April as “Earth Month”. Of course this special month would include “Earth Day” and the other 29 days which would ideally be devoted to other scheduled programs evidencing commitment to our environment. Thank you Mayor Brudnicki for your interest and endorsement which was very well received by the bustling crowd attending the Contest finale.
Tammy Marinuzzi, Professor of Fine Arts at Gulf Coast State College, served as head judge and co-jurist for the Contest, working with five other Judges: Amanda Hunt, Bay High School Art teacher; Bonnie Tate-Woodby, local photographer who teaches classes at “The Light Room” downtown; Olivia Clemons, local artist and Flagler Technical College Art & Design Program graduate (also co-jurist); Melody Bogle, acclaimed oil and pastel artist, including “plein air,” from South Walton County; and Jenna Varney, specializing in fine art and graphic design, and a recent South Walton Artist of the Year. Judges, thank you for bringing your time and expertise to this premiere event.
Noah’s “Big Year 2015” Main Event on April 2
Set up for the “Big Year 2015” presentation at the FSU PC Holley Center began mid-afternoon with buffet dinner caterers from RC Hospitality Solutions at Edgewater Beach Resort tending the serving tables and bar implements. Several invited photographers and artists were busy creating display or easels spaces, including Jeff Waldorff (and Wife Angelique) of Navarre Beach; Staci Doucett, once a PC resident but now living near St Augustine; Steve Wiggins; Mercedes Franklin; Heather Clements; Pavel Amromin; and Olivia Clemons (also a Contest Judge), all sharing a Nature-themed ad hoc exhibition with main event attendees, Nature artfully and inspirationally presented in diverse media.
A string quartet, WeddingMusicPlus,Inc., a professional group actively involved in the Panama City Symphony Orchestra, was heard tuning before the 5 pm food service began, soon to be ready with its celebrated eclectic musical menu which set the desired mood. Art teachers were arranging the “School Winner” art pieces on the side counters near the stage, one of which would be announced as “Best in Show” during the upcoming Awards Ceremony. The IT guy had the computers up, the screens down, and the PowerPoint program highlighting our many sponsors beginning its five-minute loops. Several local environmental groups including Bay County Audubon Society, Sweet Bay Chapter Native Plant Society, and Panama City Beach Turtle Watch reached out to attendees desiring information. Food and drinks were being served to the incoming attendees. It was a good time to socialize, meet the guest artists and photographers, enjoy the atmosphere.
The evening’s formal program opened at 6:30 pm with the Penguin Art Contest Awards Ceremony, prepped with a backdrop photo by Noah Strycker on the giant stage screen depicting a “waddle” (large group) of Emperor Penguins on Antarctic ice. Stefanie Gall, Ph.D., former Bay District Schools superintendent, was perfectly suited t0 serve as Awards Ceremony hostess due to years working with children in many professional capacities and world travels involving penguins on several continents.
Each of the twelve “School Winners” walked the stage with family members and art teacher. Noah Strycker; local artist Paul Brent; and Pam George, Director of Gulf World Marine Park; greeted each student with a hand shake. Paul then presented the School Winner Award Certificate and Pam gave a gift bag which included passes to Gulf World, home to five African penguins, and a special up close “Penguin Encounter” event. Audubon member Donna Cronwell photographed each school winner’s entourage and also the student’s art, preserving proud moments. Paul had the honor of deciding the “Best in Show” from among the School Winners, presenting the top award to Asia Carlisle of Breakfast Point Academy. Congratulations all, and many thanks to the presenters for creating a memorable ceremony for our young artists and families!
Then a world map, actually a picture of it entitled “Where Chautauqua Has Traveled…”popped up on the stage screen, filling it completely. The actual map is affixed to a long wall in a Chautauqua classroom, a centerpiece of pride on its small campus. Red dots could be seen overlaid on numerous countries on this Mercator projection, reminding one of “been there” colored push pins. Arriving at the podium, Ashlyn Ward and Carissa Boston, young teachers with Chautauqua Charter Learn & Serve School and world travelers themselves, explained the map’s significance and message. The red dots, superimposed on Iceland, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Jamaica, Ireland, Ayer’s Rock in Australia, to name a few places Chautauqua students had traveled over the years, with some students (and teachers) having visited all seven continents! They explained Chautauqua School’s philosophy for its students aged 18 to 21, and those also participating in its Adult Program, that traversing the world opens them to real-life educational experiences, implementing the School’s “Learn and Serve” mission to prepare disabled students to meet the demands of the world they are about to enter. Thank you Cynthia McCauley for your guidance and vision so fully realized by the programs and actions of these students as they reach out to others around the world.
The Chautauqua teachers further related that the red dot covering the southern-most tip of Chile represented the latest School trip, completed just two weeks earlier, which included volunteering at a college, meeting residents, and visiting the Southern Ocean, the edge of Antarctic environs. What a coincidence: these students had just visited “Penguin Territory", touching waters connecting with the stormy Drake Passage, not far from where Noah Strycker studied, explored, and guided in his penguin endeavors over many years, even the week before! Hats off (fur hats most likely) to those eight Chautauqua students, the eight Bay High mentoring students, and faculty chaperones making life-time memories who added another red dot to the Chautauqua School world wall map, and to Ashlyn and Carissa for their support of the Chautauqua mission in bringing their stories to us that evening.
Caroline Stahala, Ph.D., Western Panhandle Shorebirds expert with Audubon Florida, provided a local update on the status of our wading and shoreline birds, such as plovers, sanderlings, terns, gulls, oystercatchers, skimmers, herons, egrets, etc. With a carefully composed PowerPoint program, she laid out the big picture with stats and facts on the several populations and ankle-deep observations from Pensacola beaches to the Big Bend. Thank you, Caroline, for the latest considered impressions and commitment, with your reasoned suggestion that constant vigilance is imperative with habitat pressures being what they are.
Noah’s Time: Much Ventured, Much More Gained
Noah’s “Big Year 2015” actually started in 2014, when intricate planning began to address the bottom line issue underlying such an ambitious trip: how to see or hear and then identify as many birds as possible in one year on a world-wide basis. Where to go? Passports and Visas needed? How long to stay in any one place? Where are the best birding areas? How to get there? Where to sleep? Are there cultural taboos? Is language training needed? What to eat? Who will help? How to find those helpers? Will a cell phone work? Is there internet? How to pay for a year abroad without remunerative work the entire time? Just a few of the deal-breaking issues that Noah had to resolve, at least on paper, before starting his Big Year, which could have been a Big Bust considering all the moving parts and sequential order required by the plan. Every day, for 365 of them, just about everything had to come together, again and again and again.
Armed with a cash advance from a publishing company for a promised book, a gift of photography and video equipment from Leica, a 40-liter “Vagabond Tour” REI backpack and an Apple laptop which stored the hundreds of contacts made with people previously unknown upon whom he would be totally dependent, Noah set out on the 41-country, seven continent venture, as the New Year broke in Antarctica at 3 am with the first bird, a Cape Petrel, and ended up in India 100,000 plus miles later just hours before the year disappeared with a Silver-breasted Broadbill, bird #6042.
And he told us and showed us his journey in less than an hour at the Holley Center through a masterful and captivating presentation of visuals, personal reflections, scary situations, beautiful vistas, exotic birds, philosophical musings all bundled up for our imaginations and hearts to ponder and appreciate. This was Noah’s Arc de Triomphe.
But, as Noah explained as he wound down his journey’s tale, putting up on the giant screen the final visual crowded with pictures of the world’s people who had helped him on his journey, it really wasn’t about the birds. As he had learned well before all the birds had been counted, “The real prize, looking back, was the friendships I’d made - the hundreds of people who, at one point or another, had taken their time to share their sheer love of birds. The future of birds on our planet is uncertain, but with so many people who care, I can’t help but be optimistic. By working together across all kinds of borders, we can help make sure the next generation enjoys birds, too.” The essence of the record-setting trip was about connections made with other human beings, who share a common bond with each other and with all creatures in the vast interactive web of life called Nature. Thank you, Noah, for using your life experiences as an example for us to help understand our role in this world.
It was a perfect ending to a busy week, with new plans to be developed as we begin to share the fruits of this Program with our youth and others working to broaden our understanding of Nature in our changing world.