Wildlife lover John Nelson, who serves as president of the Audubon of Martin County, shares his love of nature.
It took a high school reunion in Africa for John Nelson to realize he was surrounded by majestic beauty and wildlife right here at home in Florida. Nelson, who is in his second term as the president of Audubon of Martin County, says he first caught the wildlife bug while growing up in East Africa, where his parents served as missionaries.
In 2006, after finishing college in Seattle and having a successful career on the Treasure Coast, Nelson flew back to Kenya to reminisce with old classmates. “While I was there, I realized I knew more about the ecology and wildlife of East Africa than I did about my own environment back home in Palm City,” Nelson says.
Upon his return to the U.S., he decided to recommit himself to nature. Audubon of Martin County—a non-profit that connects people with nature through science, education, protection and restoration of local habitats to safeguard birds, wildlife and natural resources—was the perfect place to start.
“Florida was truly Ground Zero for plume hunting because of its wading birds. Even game wardens in Florida were an endangered species, as illegal plume hunters did not think twice about murdering them in order to take more birds for profit or to avoid arrest,” Nelson says of Audubon of Martin County, which celebrated its 60th birthday on Nov. 19.
While illegal plume hunters are not an issue in Florida today, Nelson, a self-employed credit consultant, says there is no shortage of work to be done or awareness to be built when it comes to environmental stewardship on the Treasure Coast. “Obviously, we focus on birds,” he says, “but the whole broad approach is environmental and educational. Right now we are all very concerned about getting the St. Lucie River back into a clean state of being.”
The non-profit is also the second chapter in the U.S. to offer the Audubon Field Academy, an educational program for adults. The eight-session program will span two years, and adults who complete it will be Certified Birding Naturalists.
Nelson says a short-term way for individuals to get involved is through the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count—the world’s oldest known citizen science program—about to enter its 115th year. Counties are divided into circular grids, and 25 to 30 volunteers with binoculars spend one day driving, counting and identifying the birds in their grid. The results, which often identify 80 to 100 species of birds, have helped researchers better understand climate change and global warming, and their effects on the animal and human population.
Since becoming the organization’s president two years ago, Nelson has worked with volunteers to create a Birds and Butterfly workshop for Martin County school children, as well as a student photography and essay contest. Nelson says the push to raise awareness and educate the public is working, as evidenced by the landslide of citizens who voted to pass the Florida Land and Water Amendment. He says Audubon will continue to be active in environmental education.
“It’s critical to ensuring our area continues to welcome and support its greatest natural resource—its beautiful and delicate wildlife,” he says.