Melissa with the Long-eared Owl “situation” on the Magee Marsh Boardwalk in 2013.

Unlike many of you, I came into birding later in life. About seven years ago, my best friend from college invited me to meet her at The Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio. I was a little amused and a bit confused about her curious new hobby, but Maumee Bay was a convenient halfway meeting point for us between her home in Grand Rapids, MI and mine in Athens, so I said, “Sure! Why not?” What I experienced there – especially on the iconic Magee Marsh boardwalk – was nothing short of life-changing. My eyes and ears were opened to a wondrous natural world I had always intuited was around me but had never paused to pay any significant attention to. Learning that such a thing as a Long-eared Owl shared the planet with me, and getting to see it through the fancy optics of generous birders who wiped tears from their eyes at getting such great looks at their life bird, was life changing. I was hooked and my friend and I continue to joyously meet at the Biggest Week every year since (except, of course, in 2020).

I grew up in Troy on the flat, western side of the state, and moved to Athens in 1998, a Colorado native super excited to finally live in Ohio’s hill country! I have a Bachelor’s degree from Heidelberg College (now University) in Music and Political Science and a Master’s in International Studies and Women’s Studies from Ohio University. I moved to Athens in 1998 where I worked for many years for a progressive, interfaith campus ministry and routinely engaged Ohio University students in service learning and action projects dealing with environmental justice and conservation issues in Appalachia including acid mine drainage in area watersheds, fracking waste injection wells, and the effects of strip mining and illegal dumping in rural areas.

When the university was exploring the possibility of building a housing development on an important green space known as The Ridges (on the campus of the historic Athens Insane Asylum) a few of us created a petition and organized successfully to save this important habitat from development, which is currently the number 3 eBird Hotspot for Athens County.

The Ridges from Radar Hill. Summer Tanagers nest here. And Henslow’s Sparrows have been found recently in the fields further down the road.

I volunteered to help Rural Action, a local nonprofit sustainable development organization, organize the very first Birds in the Hills festival in 2016 at Camp Oty’okwa in the Hocking Hills, which was a family-friendly weekend with a variety of activities for all ages. A highlight for me was a field trip to Baptist Church Road in Zaleski State Forest, Vinton Co – a notable warbler hotspot there. I have also volunteered with Rural Action’s Young Naturalist Program and a Nest Box Watch project where I monitored a grid of Prothonotary Warbler boxes in Athens County.

Melissa’s son Benjamin helping check the PROW boxes.

I’ve been a member of the Steering Committee for Athens Area Birders for several years. In non-Covid times, we hold a weekly Birds and Brews meet-up at the Little Fish Brewing Company beer garden just outside of Athens that overlooks the relatively new wetland, where we’ve had breeding Hooded Mergansers for the last few years! We have held a couple of Northern Saw-whet Owl nights with local banders and actually caught one the first year to the delight of everyone who came out.

Hooded Merganser with babies at Little Fish Wetland.

Selfie with former OOS Board member Bob Scott Placier and a Northern Saw-whet owl at Little Fish.

I have helped Athens Area Birders organize numerous public talks and field trips around Athens County over the years. Of course the pandemic has canceled every in-person event for the foreseeable future. Tuning into zoom talks and presentations has been an interesting experience and I’m hoping to have my first foray into livestreaming a bird-related event in October. I was particularly impressed with the virtual Black Birders Week earlier this summer, as it lifted up and offered important insight into the experiences of Black birders in the aftermath of the Christian Cooper incident in Central Park and the current movement for racial justice. I’m hopeful that we in the birding community do the hard work of making sure everyone who loves birds feels welcome and safe in their pursuit.

The pandemic kept me mostly birding in Athens County this year, but I did learn of an active first year Bald Eagle nest in Zaleski State Forest near Lake Hope State Park in next-door Vinton County. I made weekly pilgrimages to this nest and was thrilled to observe the two eaglets in the nest, branching, and eventually flying with the parents flying in to feed from time to time. Thrilling!

Zaleski State Forest eaglets Melissa named Liberty and Justice. Photo by Melissa.

I joined OOS as the SE Ohio Regional Director and Event Co-chair in November 2019 and hit the ground running to help plan Warblers and Wildflowers, which sadly skid to a halt in March as we realized the pandemic was going to be with us for quite a while. Hopefully it can happen in 2021! And once it’s safe to meet up again, I hope to get to know the birders and birding hotspots all around the SE Ohio region outside of Athens County. Feel free to reach out to me at melissa.wales@ohiobirds.org!

When I’m not birding or organizing bird-related events and activities, I am the mom of two teenage boys and work as the Executive Director of Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, a nonprofit performing arts venue and provider of arts education programming.

One of Melissa’s favorite birds, the Cerulean Warbler. Taken May 2020 on the Adena Hock-hocking bike path off of Glen Ebon Road near Nelsonville..

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