Jenny Byers checks a nest box containing swallow chicks.

Many people sought refuge in nature to ease the stress of the COVID pandemic. Fortunately, Jenny Byers, the winner of Rural Action’s 2021 Volunteer In Action Sustainability Award, was there to take fledging volunteers under her wing, teaching them how to monitor nest boxes and record data that is an important contribution to ornithology.

It wasn’t long ago that Jenny was a beginning birder herself, sitting in the audience of an Athens Area Birders event where Rural Action’s Joe Brehm talked about the nest box project and prothonotary warblers. “His enthusiasm was infectious,” Jenny remembers. “Members of the audience were talking about it afterward. I was very interested at that point.”

In nominating Jenny for the Rural Action award, Joe wrote: “Jenny has coordinated one of Rural Action’s most active citizen science projects for two years. Jenny has managed 8‐12 fellow volunteers who check on nest boxes throughout the region from April‐August each year. … Jenny both monitors boxes in the field and coordinates the other volunteers, showing new volunteers their assigned sites, answering questions, and guiding everyone through the process. Her leadership in this program has been absolutely integral to its growth.”

On a recent June day when summer is reasserting itself after a cool spell, Jenny sprays insect repellent on her arms, pulls on her boots, and leaves her hybrid Toyota Camry in the lower parking lot at Little Fish Brewing Company, setting off to check on a nest box along a spur of the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway. “It’s likely too late in the season for there to be chicks,” she said, noting the boxes along this stretch of the bike path tend to house bluebirds and swallows.

Her destination is visible from the bike path. The trail to it? Not so much. She picks her way through the weeds, keeping a sharp eye out for poison ivy, and then peeks inside the box. “There are chicks in there,” she says, just as a sortie of tree swallows begins dive-bombing her, trying to drive her away from the nest. She closes the box carefully to avoid disturbing the youngsters and retreats back out onto the bike path, pursued by a flock of indignant swallows.

Tree swallow chicks in one of the nest boxes Jenny monitors.

Is there an experience during her nest box monitoring that stands out? Jenny pauses and smiles, remembering a time several weeks ago when she was checking a grid of eight nest boxes in a swampy area. It’s a habitat that prothonotary warblers are fond of, but they’ve yet to colonize the nest boxes.

“I stopped to make some notes, and a female prothonotary landed four feet from me on a branch,” Jenny says, still clearly moved by the experience. “I just stood there, watching her, and then she flew onto the nest box. There were mosquitoes swirling around my face and I was wondering if she was going to swoop in and pluck one of them out of the air.”

Perhaps this is why Joe jokingly refers to her as “the Proprietor of Prothonotaries.”

(This is the first in a series of stories highlighting the winners of Rural Action’s 2021 Sustainability Awards. Read more of them to be inspired by these efforts to make our little corner of Appalachia an even better place.)

Meet the Award Recipients