Connie and Lee Witkowski are educators at heart, and teaching others extends not just to their jobs, but also to their volunteer work.
The Witkowskis have been volunteering at the Forest Preserve’s Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve in Plainfield for about 17 years. They became involved at Lake Renwick through their work with the Will County Audubon Society, which was instrumental in getting the property dedicated as a nature preserve.
At Lake Renwick, the Witkowskis help with the Saturday bird programs held from May through August. They work in a team of three, opening the gates, welcoming visitors, staffing the viewing area, and telling people about the birds on the island.
“We are educators,” Lee said. “We like transferring information from our databases to others’.”
Lee is a professor in the Biology Department at Lewis University in Romeoville. Connie teaches language at the College of DuPage and also works as a tutor for homebound students in the Hinsdale Township High School District 86. Volunteering is a natural extension of their work, something that allows them to share their passion with others.
“We help people get excited about what they’re seeing in their areas,” Connie said. “I like to think we help increase people’s awareness of the environment around them.”
Lee originally became interested in birds in college, when he took a class in ornithology for his undergraduate degree. After college, he met others also interested in birding and became a part of the group that founded the Thorn Creek Audubon Society in the 1970s. He served as the society’s first vice president and second president.
LEARN MORE ABOUT VOLUNTEERING
Lee and Connie enjoy watching and teaching others about the egrets, cormorants and herons that reside at Lake Renwick, but they have also seen a few special treasures there through the years, including bald eagles and the occasional owl. For a while, a few years back, an owl built a nest in one of the platforms on the island, Lee explained. He said it was able to coexist with the other inhabitants at the rookery because its usual diet of small rodents didn’t compete with the other birds there.
In addition to working the Saturday programs at Lake Renwick, they both also lead migratory bird hikes and photography hikes at the preserve, providing the couple with another opportunity to share their knowledge with others who are looking to learn more.
“It’s giving our knowledge to people to get them excited about different things,” Connie said.
Lee also serves as the volunteer coordinator for the Forest Preserve’s Keepataw Preserve in Lemont, is trained to conduct prescribed burns and is certified to apply herbicides to help control invasive species. He is currently working on his burn boss certification, learning how to safely construct burn piles and oversee prescribed burns.
But the Witkowskis’ volunteer work reaches beyond the Forest Preserve District of Will County. Both are volunteers at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, helping with bird hikes there. They also assist at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Sagawau Environmental Learning Center in Lemont. Additionally, they volunteer each year at the Illinois Audubon Society’s Bald Eagle Watch Weekend. This year’s event is scheduled for Saturday, January 26 and Sunday, January 27 at Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby.
“We get our daily fix of adrenaline from volunteering,” Lee said.
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