Nature’s Heroes

The universal struggle of “man against nature” has existed since the dawn of modern society. Countless pieces of literature and art showcase epic tales of survival and conflict, and stories and depictions of adventures and battles with the creatures that dwell in the wilds.

Given this rich cultural history—combined with our increased reliance on technology—it is understandable why many of us fail to recognize the degree to which we rely on nature and the environment just as much as we struggle against it. The soil brings plants that provide us with the food we eat and the air we breathe, wildlife contributes to the ecosystem that sustains us, and the earth’s landscapes provide the raw materials that allow humans to build civilizations.

In truth, nature does not exist for us or against us. Nature is simply indifferent. Nature nonetheless needs to be preserved for countless reasons, not the least of which is our own survival. In practical terms, nature is the source of all of our resources, and if we exhaust one resource we will create an imbalance that will affect the other seemingly unaffected resources.

Not everyone accepts or is aware of this fundamental implication and existential threat, which often means that it is left to a select few to fight for conservation for the rest of us. One organization that has taken a leadership role for over 120 years in preserving our local wildlife and protecting our regional ecosystem is the Connecticut Audubon Society, Founded in 1898, the Connecticut Audubon Society has been a pioneer in environmental conservation and—thanks to dedicated individuals like those profiled below—continues to make a positive impact on Easton and surrounding communities.

Patrick Comins – The Advocate

Of the many individuals who have worked to support the environment in Connecticut, few have done as much as Patrick Comins. Patrick has always had an appreciation for the natural environment, pouring over field guides as a young boy and learning his bird species at an early age. Many experts throughout the state hail Patrick as one of the leading authorities in bird identification in Connecticut, although he himself is too humble to acknowledge it.

Patrick is currently the Executive Director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, having previously worked 18 years as the Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Connecticut (the state office of the National Audubon Society). Patrick’s primary focus is bird conservation and maintaining the precious habitats that exist throughout the state. Connecticut is unique in the sense that it sports a large variety of species, many of which rely on Connecticut’s shores for migration and nesting.

While most of Patrick’s work consists of advocacy, he still finds time to get outside and enjoy the outdoors. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Patrick oversees all efforts throughout the state, many of which find their way into southwest Connecticut in the Aspetuck watershed (which comprises parts of Easton and Fairfield). But while he enjoys carrying out fieldwork and being outdoors, most of his work comprises of advocacy. Patrick has led many successful movements to help secure conservation for wildlife. His most recent victory was playing a vital role in supporting the Great American Outdoors Act, which included $900 million nationwide for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Most naturalists and scientists grow up with the dream of surrounding themselves with research or being outside in the field, but Patrick knows that much of the action to save the outdoors takes place in the conference room. Birds and animals cannot represent themselves, and Patrick has made it his mission to give them a seat at the table.

Pamela Fraser-Abder, PhD – The Educator

Born in Trinidad, Dr. Pamela Fraser-Abder never thought that a time would come where she would find herself a resident of Easton, Conn. But as someone who is passionate about the environment and education, she has found her niche working at the Connecticut Audubon Society. Pamela is a person of many talents. She teaches at New York University, where she is professor emeritus of science education, while simultaneously helping spearhead the educational programs at the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Pamela’s academic background has always been with plants, and she was formerly a Master Botanist at Cornell University with a particular expertise in cultivars that you would normally find in her native country. Her other passion is education, and she received her Ph.D. in Human Resources and Education Planning at Pennsylvania State University. In addition to joining the science education faculty at NYU, Pamela has co-authored a book chapter that formed the basis for the United Nations recommendations for the inclusion of women in science and technology and has led workshops on that topic in France, England, Latin America, and other parts of the world.

Pamela enjoys the large variety of sanctuaries that the Connecticut Audubon has to offer. – Tomas Koeck Photo

On the home front in Connecticut, Pamela gets great satisfaction from introducing children to nature. She works tirelessly to make this opportunity available to underprivileged children, forming workshops led by the Connecticut Audubon Society to help integrate science and nature into the lives of those who don’t have parks readily available to them.

Exposure to nature and science education at a young age is very important, as those who are not exposed to the natural world only lose more connection with it as they grow older, Pamela believes. Instilling the idea early on that nature does not want to “hurt” you can help to create everlasting change in future generations through lifelong learning. In addition to her international reputation as a leading academic, one could say that Pamela has always held a watering can throughout her career: Sometimes she helps plants grow, and other times she helps children learn; but in every instance, she helps nurture those who desire to grow.

Milan “Miley” Bull – The Steward

Milan “Miley” Bull is another example of someone who developed a passion for nature at a very young age, something that he credits to his father. Miley has always surrounded himself with the New England outdoors. He is a University of Connecticut alum with a graduate degree in Marine Biology but is quick to point out the irony that he now spends most of his time far away from the shoreline, working deep in the Connecticut woods.

Miley has been with the Connecticut Audubon Society for over 30 years and is currently its Senior Director of Science and Conservation. His many responsibilities include the oversight and management of sanctuaries such as the Roy and Margot Larsen Sanctuary on the border of Fairfield and Easton. Keeping sanctuaries open and running smoothly is integral to fueling people’s fascination with nature and allowing them to enjoy and view wildlife. Individuals with disabilities also have access to this outdoor experience through a wheelchair-accessible trail, since, as Miley emphasizes, sanctuaries exist as much for the people who hike them as they do for the wildlife that inhabits them.

Miley has become very familiar with the immense biodiversity that is present throughout New England. Here he inspects some spotted Joe-Pye Weed. – Tomas Koeck Photo

In addition to his current management responsibilities, Miley has contributed to many other organizations, including serving as the founding director of the Connecticut Ornithological Association, and by serving on the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Conservation Advisory Council and many other local and statewide organizations and committees. At the same time, Miley also organizes tours and expeditions for the Connecticut Audubon Society EcoTravel program, leading trips to places as far as Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and other exotic locations.

Through his work as a Connecticut Audubon Society steward, Miley manages and takes care of the trails, helping create valuable programs and organizations throughout the state, which has elevated the Connecticut Audubon Society to new heights. Miley and his colleagues continue to give new life to an organization whose origins date back to before the formation of the National Audubon Society and help to ensure that it will exist for many years to come.

Frank Gallo and Frank Mantlik – The Outreach

Frank Gallo and Frank Mantlik have been close friends for over 40 years and have devoted countless hours to finding and identifying rare bird species. Both are experts in the bird identification field and recognized as leading regional ornithologists and champions of conservation. If there is a rare sighting in the state, the find most likely originated from one of them.

Gallo’s love for nature blossomed during his early childhood and spent the warm summer months finding and catching different amphibians and reptiles with his brother. His passion for the outdoors continued into his young adulthood when he went on to study marine biology at Southern Connecticut State University. His interests increasingly shifted toward ornithology while doing fieldwork on Falker’s Island off the Connecticut coast, and through the influence of Noble Proctor, SCSU professor and nationally recognized ornithologist.

Gallo has written many articles and profiles, the most notable being Birding in Connecticut, published by Wesleyan University Press, Gallo has a deep understanding of bird ecology. He has led educational birding tours across the continent and is a member of the Avian Records Committee, which documents rare species that range into Connecticut from other regions.

While Gallo enjoys identifying rare birds in the region and making breakthrough finds across the state, his true passion is passing on his love of ecology to the younger generations, especially those who have not yet been exposed to nature or the ecology of birds. “It’s amazing to watch them from start to finish,” says Gallo. “They didn’t know a dragonfly from a cow when you started, but by the end, they’re running around like maniacs trying to find the rarest [species]. That’s what this is all about.”

Another one of the most respected naturalists and bird experts in the state is Mantlik, a former president of the Connecticut Ornithological Association and a tour leader for Sunrise Birding. Mantlik has led tours from Cape Cod to Texas, and internationally in Costa Rica, Jamaica, and South America. An accomplished photographer, his publication credits include Natural History, Audubon, Field & Stream, and American Birds.

Like his peers, Mantlik developed an early passion for the natural world—a passion that burns just as brightly today. Yet, just like his friend Gallo, Mantlik most enjoys sharing his knowledge with the regional community and introducing others to the wonders and joys of nature. “It’s a spiritual thing to get people outside, and to enjoy and appreciate nature,” says Mantlik, who is happy to help in whatever way he can to facilitate the Connecticut Audubon Society’s educational mission.

I credit one of Mantlik’s tours with sparking my own interest in birding and opening up a whole new world in the environmental field as I strive to make my own contributions to the ever-growing area of environmental education. Both Gallo and Mantlik extend their passion beyond the restrictions of the traditional curriculum, and their community outreach teaches others to appreciate nature and the environment as much as they do.

On cold late-fall evenings, Frank Gallo and Frank Mantlik look for owls. Both are involved in several different population surveys that help monitor bird populations inside and outside Connecticut. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Environmental organizations like the Connecticut Audubon Society play an integral part in their local communities and depend on the generosity of supporters to continue to do their important work. Donations can be made on the Connecticut Audubon Society website.

For more nature photos, fun facts, and environmental entries, you might like to follow my nature photography Instagram, @tomaskoeckhttps://www.instagram.com/tomaskoeck/ .

Tomas Koeck
Tomas Koeck

Koeck is a photographer and videographer. He is completing his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from the School of Communication, Media & the Arts at Sacred Heart University. He has worked on several stories with the non-profit Vision Project and is on the Easton Courier’s news team.  He has published in the Connecticut Audubon Society, TAMRON Optics, ESPN, and the Spectrum. He has also been featured on the prestigious Instagram wildlife photography platforms Elite Owls and Elite Raptors. He also runs a YouTube channel with over 20,000 subscribers.

He has conducted scientific research for Penn State University on invasive plant regeneration as well as field work with Dr. Kim Steiner of Penn State’s dendrology forest biology division. Koeck is also a recipient of the University of Connecticut’s Environmental Studies Award and has published species profiles for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

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