One of my favourite parts of working for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is running events — particularly Conservation Volunteer (CV) events. I love meeting new people, learning their stories and what motivates them to come out. I love teaching them new skills, answering questions, showing them cool plants and animals, and getting a whole lot of work done with a whole lot of hands. Conservation Volunteer events are the best!
The first CV event I ever organized took place on December 1, 2018. The event was at the Napanee Plain Alvar Nature Reserve, in Newburgh, Ontario. The site is home to the eastern loggerhead shrike, an endangered songbird. These birds like open areas for hunting, so with the help of cattle and a team of volunteers, we can maintain the habitat to their needs. Cattle do most of the work by eating encroaching woody vegetation, but they don’t like to eat eastern red-cedar, and as such, that’s where we need people power.
This event is always a popular one because it takes place in December and not only do we remove encroaching shrubs, we take make festive holiday wreaths after using the branches. It was at this event that I met John Lowry for the first time; it just so happened this was John’s first CV event too.
I recall that cool December day. I had just finished explaining the task for the day, and all 20 participants eagerly got to work. John approached me to introduce himself and said that he was really excited for his first event. He was planning on retiring soon and was trying to get an idea of where he might like to help. We chatted for awhile, and, since then, I have seen John at nearly every CV event I have hosted.
John grew up in the Belleville area and has lived there all his life. His father introduced him to the outdoors when he was young, so he’s always had an appreciation for the natural world. He worked for the Belleville Police for over 32 years before retiring and is now grateful to spend more time outdoors exploring and directly involved with conservation. He has been to the vast Hastings Wildlife Junction, through the rolling hills of the Rice Lake Plains, and even explored parts of Algonquin Park, but one of his favourites and most-visited spots remains Prince Edward County.
So, what was it that made John fall in love with Prince Edward County? He referenced the “largely rural character of the area, despite being in highly urbanized southern Ontario but also the incredible natural assets. There is the world-famous Sandbanks Provincial Park, which features the largest freshwater baymouth sandbars (a sandbank that closes off access to a bay) in the world and their unique habitats. Home to the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, literally thousands of birds pass through this area in the spring and fall during their annual migrations. To John, it is a very special place.
Since John and I first met, his volunteer work has expanded substantially. John has now assisted at 10 CV events since December 2018, the majority of which were in the county. This is an impressive number given the pandemic-related break in programming in 2020 and 2021. He has pulled pods of invasive dog-strangling vine, planted plugs on a prairie, cut buckthorn and more. And this is just scratching the surface of John’s involvement in conservation. Although John started volunteering with the CV program through NCC, he has now volunteered with Quinte Field Naturalists, South Shore Joint Initiative, Friends of Sandbanks, and these are just the organizations related to the county. He’s organized field trips, helped with biodiversity data collection and even organized stewardship events. If there is an event in the county or anywhere within a couple of hours of the area, John is there.
John’s proudest moment was completing a buckthorn removal project at Sandbanks Provincial Park with the help of other dedicated volunteers from the Friends of Sandbanks. He organized this project from start to finish, including applying for funding, liaising with the park, securing contractors and taking part in the work too. “It was hard but incredibly satisfying to see how much of a difference we made with just two days work,” recalls John.
John not only grew as a volunteer but also as a naturalist. When I first met him, he was just discovering his passion for plants, particularly rare and interesting wildflowers. I recall being on several hikes with him and he would ask me to identify each plant we saw, taking notes and photos along the way. He was hungry to learn more. Now, he shows me photos of flowers he has found and identified that I have never even heard of! He’s gone from curious about plants to a well-versed botanist in fewer than five years. It’s been so fun to watch him learn and now for me to learn from him.
John also has a personal conservation project he’s taken on, separate from any organized group. He has started regularly collecting cans and bottles from roadsides. One of his biggest pet peeves is littering. He remembers being young and his dad, having the same pet peeve, would take him and his siblings out to pick up empty bottles. They would cash them in and split the money. So, it seemed natural to him to bring this back.
Every time John drives to the county, or anywhere for that matter, if he sees a can or a bottle, he picks it up. On one trip to the county, he collected $19 worth of recycling in just one trip. The benefits of this are three-fold:
1) The environment is cleaned up, making it healthier and safer.
2) The metal and glass gets recycled.
3) You can earn some extra money.
In 2021, John’s first focused year of collecting cans and bottles, he collected nearly $850 worth. In 2022, he collected over $1,500 in cans and bottles! His goal is to collect over $2,000 in 2023. And while this sounds like a nice chunk of change in John’s pocket, he donates all this money to NCC on Giving Tuesday, when donations are typically matched, and the impact of donations is doubled. An incredibly generous and selfless gift from an incredibly generous and selfless person.
John does so much for conservation in the county and beyond. Calling him a conservation hero is almost an understatement. He’s involved in countless capacities and his dedication is truly amazing. You may not have a lot of time to dedicate to conservation, but John encourages everyone to do whatever they can and get out and get their hands dirty. No amount of help is too small. Contact local organizations and see where you can help. “There is nothing quite as rewarding as hands on-work,” says John. “I truly believe this. You quickly realize you really can make a difference.”
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