Rusert earns bird award
THE IBIS TOM RUSERT was trying to release in Yolo County realized it had a good thing going with the avid birder and did not want to leave his side - make that head.
Tom Rusert laughs off the fact he's been nicknamed "bird dude" in some circles - he knows it's a fitting moniker considering his passion for all things feathered.
From founding SonomaBirding.com, to the Christmas Bird Count for Kids, to the Valley of the Moon Nature Lecture Series to the Plaza Tree Map, Rusert has spent countless volunteer hours sharing his love of birds.
That unbridled zeal earned him the most prestigious ornithology recognition in the country, the American Birding Association's Ludlow Griscom Award. The award is named for the famed American ornithologist (1890 to 1959) and is only given out sporadically to an individual who "dramatically advanced the state of ornithological knowledge for a particular region," according to the ABA website. It will be presented during the ABA Awards Ceremony in Half Moon Bay, set for Sept. 29 to Oct. 4.
"I was dumbfounded," Rusert said of receiving the award. "Most of the recipients are nationally and internationally renowned scientists."
Rusert said his biggest birding accomplishment is the creation of the Christmas Bird Count for Kids, which he founded in Sonoma five years ago. A longtime organizer for the Audubon Society's century-old Christmas Bird Count in Sonoma, Rusert was always disappointed when he had to turn away young participants who did not meet the skill level required for the adult count. So he made them a count of their own.
"It all started with the big picture, which was the Christmas Bird Count for Kids," Rusert said. "There's such a need to get kids outdoors and excited about nature."
The kids' count was so popular, it quickly caught the attention of the national and international birding community. Today, more than a dozen states hold Christmas Bird Counts for Kids. In the past year alone, Rusert has worked with the National Audubon Society to bring the Christmas Bird Count for Kids to 17 National Parks, made presentations in Washington, D.C., for the Department of the Interior and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and recently helped Bird Canada establish a dozen counts across the country.
"We created a model that could be replicated. We want to see this go all over the world," Rusert beamed, adding that his partner, Darren Peterie, has significantly contributed to the creation of the count. " I don't know of any nonprofits here that have packaged an idea like this and taken it around the country."
Two other Sonomans were instrumental in Rusert receiving the award. Valley resident Ted Elliot, an avid birder who as a child once went bird watching with Griscom himself, nominated Rusert for the award. After mailing in the nomination form, Elliot contacted longtime friend Dick Ashford, a former Sonoma mayor and a board member of the American Birding Association, who seconded the nomination.
"I'm so impressed with what Tom has done for birding," Ashford said. "I don't think he saw it coming."
Ashford said the selection committee only picks a recipient when it has a nominee worthy of the award; it is not presented annually. He cited the fact that all of the birding work Rusert does is entirely a volunteer effort as one of the reasons he was selected for this honor.
"I think the reason it was such a surprise for him (Rusert) is that many of the previous recipients make their living with birding. He's just a guy that's got it in his heart and wants to share it, especially with young people," Ashford said.
Previous recipients of the Ludlow Griscom Award include Roger Tory Peterson, first person to ever create a birding field guide in America; Stuart Keith, who holds the record for the most birds spotted, recording more than 4,000 species in his lifetime; and Richard Pough, who founded the Nature Conservancy.
"I thought I had a snowball's chance in hell of getting this," Rusert laughed.
Rusert credits his parents love of nature and tight purse strings as the impetus for getting him interested in birding. "They had eight kids and not a lot of money so they'd tell us, 'You can do anything that's $5 or less,' basically birding, baseball or boy scouts," Rusert said. "Mom and dad loved to be outdoors. They'd go out of their way to show us a hawk or a formation of geese."
Beginning with the Junior Audubon Program in Hamburg, N.Y., Rusert spent his youth building bird boxes, counting species and helping with bird rescues. Later in life, he founded the 13th chapter of the National Audubon Society in North Carolina. He said he only has more plans to continue sharing his love of nature with his community and beyond.
"It's a lifelong sport," Rusert said.