This Saturday, May 15, marks the 16th year that the local watershed protection organization CU Maurice River will be celebrating its outstanding volunteers with “Ah Why Knot Awards.” Our members collectively contribute more than 10,000 hours each year to environmental/conservation projects. They monitor a host of species like purple martins, bluebirds, osprey, eagles, and wood ducks. They have led nature walks, saved horseshoe crabs, created wildlife habitat, maintained nature trails, cleaned natural areas, conducted surveys for air and water quality, taught children, fed the International Shorebird Recovery Team, helped with fundraisers, restored wetlands, conducted stewardship projects, planted riverine buffers and so much more.
This year the awards will be held live outdoors and will once again include the International Shorebird Recovery Team. The name derives from members’ responses when asked to help out—“Ah, Why Knot.” The knot is a play on words because the award is a wood carving of the nationally threatened shorebird species called the red knot, which the group is working to protect. Each year we give a Presidential Award from the CU Board of Trustees. This year we have added an Executive Director Award for outstanding contributions to the CU’s Mission, and a Chickadee Award for a youngster who has participated with gusto.
Ah Why Knot Awardees and Special CU Recognitions
Presidential Award: Matt Pisarski is the planning director and department head for the restructured Department of Planning, Tourism & Community Affairs. He has served Cumberland County for over 20 years, working on land preservation, cultural programming, and planning initiatives. Matt holds a Bachelor’s in History from Rowan University and a Master’s of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the Greenwich Planning/Zoning/Historic District Board and the Bridgeton Historic District Commission. The current President of the statewide historic preservation advocacy non-profit, Preservation New Jersey, Matt grew up in Greenwich where he currently lives with his husband Jesse. Matt’s passion for all things Cumberland County is evident in his contributions. CU has worked most closely with him on the Eagle Festival. He has orchestrated County support for the Purple Martin Festival, Mauricetown’s Artist Day, East Point Lighthouse, Bayshore Heritage Byway, American’s Byways, farmland preservation, and myriad other activities in which CU has also been integrally involved. His interests go far beyond these intersections with CU’s work. He helps numerous other organizations in arts, tourism, and planning.
Executive Director Award: Tom McKee is a Trustee Emeritus of CU and a resident of Mauricetown. A 25-year veteran of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, he has worked in the areas of hazardous waste cleanup, watershed management, and geographical information systems. After graduating from Rutgers Cook College with a degree in Environmental Science, Tom currently works in environmental consulting, assisting clients in matters related to hazardous waste cleanup, wetlands permitting, and GIS mapping. He has lent his expertise to CU and has been a key participant in the mapping of the phragmites invasion on the Maurice River, and has used his computer-aided drone for both mapping and aerials of work sites. His work has led up to a very complex grant proposal for wetlands restoration and solutions for restoration. For many years he has brought his birding and outdoor skills to Wild About Cumberland. Tom is an avid birder and a folk musician. He sings as he paddles and many of his songs are about our region.
Ah Why Knots for CU Maurice River
Jim Blumenstein is a CU Naturalist and member of the CU World Series Team, the Fish Hawks. He has helped with Eaglefest, Family-Friendly Fridays, CU Saturdays, and also offered presentations. He teaches social studies at Sterling High in Somerdale, NJ and freely shares his expert teaching skills with CU’s members. Jim is a fan of the Down Jersey region and introduces his students to the natural and cultural history of our area. He lives in Audubon with his wife, Samantha, and their three kids. His family is continually engaged in the natural world under their parents’ mentoring.
Dorothy “Dottie” Dayton is a relatively new member of CU, having joined our ranks in 2019. She’s been very involved in the wetlands restoration at AMCOR, the First United Methodist raingarden, Wheaton Arts water restoration site, the Neighborhood Wildlife Garden, and ReTurn the Favor. She especially enjoys our paddles, and has found being a bluebird landlord very rewarding. Although she’s retired she still owns and runs “Dottie’s Sewing Shop” in her home in Leesburg. She has two grown children, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. When asked why she is active in CU she says it’s because she enjoys what we do, and she would never consider a sedentary retirement life. Dottie especially enjoys working with other volunteers and the CU staff.
Jill Mortensen & Stephen Freed: Jill has been an involved member and advocate for CU for 34 years. Ten years ago Stephen and she married, and now both have been actively volunteering for CU. Jill noticed that monarchs and bees were not as plentiful in her garden and thus enrolled in our garden tours and workshops on native gardening led by Pat Sutton. Since then Jill has been not only an advocate for patient health, but for planet health as well—one backyard at a time. Jill and Stephen’s yard is one of our Wildlife-Friendly designated pollinator gardens. One might describe her endeavors as fulfilling Doug Tallamy’s concept of creating our Country’s Largest National Park one backyard at a time. At Jill’s medical practice, Cumberland Family Medicine Associates, LLC, she and Rutgers Water Resources Program installed a demonstration rain garden. Stephen and Jill have been involved in the Neighborhood Wildlife garden on Third Street in Millville, the AMCOR restoration, clean-ups, germination sessions, campfires and potlucks, the Chili Bowl Fundraisers, osprey banding and platform construction, environmental advocacy, membership recruitment, CU Ambassadors, and more. Stephen is a retired lawyer for Weston, an environmental company based in PA. He is very environmentally conscious and responsible. They enjoy ecotours and among other adventures they hiked the Scottish Highlands and went on an expedition in Africa. They recently went on one of our special naturalist-led bird tours that was a fundraising winning bid. They have four grown children and several grand-dogs.
Lisa S. Garrison, 19 years ago, became involved in our organization as the Geraldine Dodge Foundation program officer who helped us get the grant for The Cumberland County Birding Guide, still a valuable tool for wildlife enthusiasts. She took the lead in securing multi-year Dodge funding for the International Shorebird Team to create a solid database of scientific research on migratory red knots at three critical sites: Delaware Bay; Bahía Lomas, Tierra del Fuego; and Nunavet, in the Canadian Arctic. Subsequently, Lisa joined the team in Chile as liaison between the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program and the environmental agency CONAF, to encourage protection of Bahía Lomas as a RAMSAR wetlands of international importance, so designated in 2004. Today we recognize Lisa’s cultural contributions. A musician/songwriter from Fairton, where she shares her life with Jorge Phillips, Lisa sings at our campfires and recounts West Jersey history on our cultural walks. At our September CU Social at Greenwich Friends Meetinghouse, she regaled us with stories of early Quakers, free black communities, and the Underground Railroad. And who can ever forget Lisa’s joyful spirit as she recited from Dallas Lore Sharp’s chapter about turkey vultures at his graveside in Haleyville?
Kathy Geiger has been an active member on our nature walks. She is also part of a trio of horseshoe crab rescuers with the ReTurn the Favor project; she, Wendy Walker and Jan LoBiondo really know how to make work fun and rewarding. Kathy is a retired grade school teacher, bringing an enthusiastic learning spirit to our events. She has helped with the Neighborhood Wildlife Garden, Wild About Cumberland, the Eaglefest, clean-ups, wetland restoration projects, and rain gardens. She is also one of a number of Master Gardeners among our ranks and she brings a calm cheerfulness to any project. Kathy taught grades K-6 for 35 years in Margate schools, spending her last 20 years teaching science to 2nd graders. Kathy and her husband Rich are Millville residents. They enjoy active ecotravel, having participated in Earthwatch research expeditions in Arizona, Africa, and Mongolia, including trapping jaguars in Brazil. They enjoy bicycling trips as well. Kathy has a son and daughter, both married.
Chickadee Award: Vera Rossini
At six Vera isn’t our youngest volunteer; yes, you read that correctly. But she is our most ambitious, having racked up over 35 hours of service this year alone. She is all kid with an endless curiosity about the natural world. Vera particularly enjoys getting her feet wet when collecting dragonfly nymphs for the Dragonfly Mercury project, or when saving horseshoe crabs on the Delaware Bayshore. On wildlife walks like Family-Friendly Fridays she often engages other children, sharing what she’s learned over the past three or four years. She keeps her parents Karla and Julian Rossini in line. Yes, she is our Executive Director’s daughter, but ask our staff or any volunteer and they will tell you she is truly deserving of this award.
International Shorebird Recovery Team
H4 Enterprises: JR Phil Heun, Vicki Heun, and Boomer Heun are siblings who run a third-generation heavy construction business: H4 Enterprises. Since 2013 H4 has been working closely with the American Littoral Society to rebuild habitat and take part in the experiment that this work represents. We started our work together after Hurricane Sandy when nearly 70 percent of the beaches suitable for crab spawning disappeared. No one had built beaches for horseshoe crabs so we had to figure it out as we were building based on scientific literature. We had little time to get the job done before the crabs returned in May. With JR, Boomer, and Vicki, we figured out how to create superior crab spawning habitat at the least cost; they got the work done in time, and since then, we have been experimenting to make better spawning beaches. H4 took part in our constant revisions, each year’s methods better than the last, as we learned the best way to make good habitats that last.
It went far beyond usual big machine construction. They partnered with us, helping us understand the practical limitations of heavy machines in sensitive habitats and innovating solutions that only experienced machine operators could offer. They didn’t do it for the money alone but freely offered to work closely with us long before projects started and adapted to the craziness of building habitat within endangered species areas. Vicki, JR and Boomer have done as much to restore horseshoe crabs as anyone.
Theo Diehl first began working for us as a recent graduate of the Stockton Environmental Science program, collecting data on shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. He immediately impressed our team with his good nature, ingenuity and determination to complete fieldwork. Over the last four years, he has shown us he’s not just a good biologist, one who cares passionately for wildlife and their protection, but a biologist of the next generation. He brings a fresh and much-needed perspective to our work in advocating for animals that have no voice. Theo has easily taken up old skills, catching and handling animals, collecting data and analysis, but he also has a commercial drone license, makes 3D mosaics of ground topography, puts together short videos that explain 23 years of information in a minute, works out bugs on a web page or in coding for statistical software, plus he is a self-taught expert in Motus radio telemetry. He is the future of a profession that badly needs a re-think, a redirection to issues more important than saving an animal—like saving our world.
Alinde Foijtek started coming to Delaware Bay as part of a University of Georgia team studying avian influenzas in wild birds—not just detecting presence/absence of viruses, but studying their annual ecology and how they change year to year. Alinde is a key member of the Georgia team, and has become a key member of the NJ shorebird team as well.
Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Alinde drove from Georgia to join our small shorebird capture team. We were successful because of her help—and she still collected a large number of influenza samples when few other researchers could do influenza surveillance due to Covid-19—the work that informs annual influenza vaccines. More than this, Alinde meets all challenges with patience and ingenuity, every job with good humor and kindness, and she’s rock solid in the field when things get hairy. We’re incredibly lucky to call her our own.
NJ Audubon’s DE Bay Shorebird Ecology and Conservation Team: Lena Usyk
In some way, shape or form, Lena Usyk has worked for NJ Audubon as a field biologist since 1996, although her path has had many twists and turns. Early in her career she was hooked on raptors, working as the official migration counter at the Montclair Hawk Watch for three years. Lena then left New Jersey to work in Utah and Nevada counting raptor migration for Hawk Watch International in 1998, and then at Kiptopeke, VA in 1999. In 2000 she took a field biologist position in Michigan and by 2005 was enrolled in a Master’s degree program at Central Michigan University where she worked on Le Conte’s sparrow—raptor food! After she successfully completed her Master’s degree, she came home to roost and took field biologist positions on several grassland and marshland bird projects for NJ Audubon. But she was destined to work on shorebirds. In 2009 and 2010, she traveled to Suriname and French Guiana to work on NJ Audubon’s Connecting the Dots shorebird project and then in DE Bay in 2014. Since then, she has been a key member of NJ Audubon’s DE Bay shorebird ecology and conservation program team. In 2016, she took over as the Bandedbirds.org database manager, after Jeannine Parvin left the program. Lena has also been a dedicated volunteer for Citizens United, Cape May Bird Observatory, and at the finish line for World Series of Birding.