Within the Mediterranean climate and the richness of natural beauty that draws people to Sonoma, Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie saw an opportunity to practice citizen science and to volunteer. Since their arrival, Rusert and Peterie have become fixtures in the Sonoma nature scene, involved in organizing numerous events and working with local organizations to form conservation-promoting partnerships.
Because of their work in 2013 – partners in life and in the business of conservation – Rusert and Peterie have been selected as recipients of the John Muir Association’s Conservationists of the Year award. While living in Sonoma for more than a decade, Rusert and Peterie created the Valley’s annual Christmas Bird Count and the Christmas Bird Count for Kids, and are actively involved in birding and conservation in the Valley.
The duo have been running the local bird counts for nearly a decade and have deep appreciation for the local environment and wildlife, and the uniqueness of the Sonoma Valley habitat.
Their bird counts, especially CBC4Kids, have spread across 22 states, with Sonoma as the hub, and even internationally to Canada, affording the opportunity for so many of North America’s youth to experience nature and be a “citizen scientist.”
Winners of the award are praised for their work and Muir-like qualities. A Muir Association press release described Rusert and Peterie’s efforts as being “like John Muir’s – their work has both a local and global outreach.”
John Muir is one of America’s most well-known and acclaimed conservationists and founder of the Sierra Club. The John Muir Memorial Association was organized in 1956 to preserve Muir’s home and gravesite in Martinez. In 1964, Muir’s home was recognized as a national historic site. Muir lived at the historic site for the last 24 years of his life, until 1914, and wrote many of his works there.
“The realization that we are connected at some level with John Muir’s namesake is so humbling.Our commitment over the past 12 years to involve the community with birding and nature has been most rewarding,” Peterie said, adding he remembers reading about Muir and his adventures protecting nature and influencing presidents.
Both Rusert and Peterie have been longtime Muir admirers, quickly pointing out that the renowned conservationist paid particular attention to birds and was a celebrated ornithologist. “My favorite quote from Muir is, ‘Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe,’ and that is something we try to live by,” Rusert said. Peterie’s favorite is, “As long as I live I hear waterfalls and winds and birds sing.”
Russert and Peterie, Rusert said, try to take local approaches to solving global issues, often resulting in a local movement that grows into something larger.
The John Muir Association will present Rusert and Peterie with the award on the Saturday following Earth Day, April 26, which is also Muir’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of the John Muir National Historic Site.
Together for decades, the two share a conservationist spirit and, as partners, their combined passion for nature has only enabled them to do more.
Rusert, who grew up in New York, came from a large family with a tight budget and was encouraged to spend time outside, not only because it was free, but because his parents felt that learning about nature was an important part of life. “A big thank you to mom and dad for making us aware of nature and birding,” Rusert said.
He entered the early stages of bird rescue efforts in his youth and fostered that passion for birds and ecology into his adult years. “I learned that birding really is a life sport.”
Peterie was always drawn to nature. Growing up in the Midwest and Texas, he spent most of his time outdoors, walking in creeks and climbing trees. “I grew to love those things that weren’t manmade or controlled by people,” he said.
He eventually got involved in local Audubon groups, but was more interested in reconstructing habitats he explored while birding. So he shifted his focus to cleaning beaches to sustain the environment and its inhabitants. “Instead of just birding, I felt like it was more important to do something,” Peterie said.
Highlights in their conservation careers have been establishing new Audubon chapters, rebuilding natural habitats and, perhaps most passionately, engaging communities in meaningful science for any level and age. The two are cautious to avoid focusing on solely advocacy issues, hoping to avoid ruffling feathers, and rather share information in a nonjudgmental way with community members.
There are officially more than 400 species of birds in Sonoma County, according to Rusert. “That’s half the number of bird (species) in the United States.”
When the duo came to Sonoma in the early 2000s, there were already Audubon chapters in the area and an active Sonoma Ecology Center. But at a citizen scientist level, Rusert said, there was room for Sonoma to grow. They established the Christmas Bird Count for the Sonoma birding community, 10 years ago, as an inclusive event for any interested member of the community to attend, regardless of birding skill level or experience. Shortly thereafter, in 2007, they created CBC4Kids, to allow children to learn about birding and deepen their appreciation of nature.
“Once we got to the point where we started focusing on youth education, that was the turning point where we started to realize there are so many children out there who are not connected to nature, who don’t go to parks, who don’t know how to climb trees,” Peterie explained. “There’s an instant gratification in seeing a kid look through binoculars for the first time.”
Rusert, who is a consultant and retired teacher, and Peterie, a private banker in Napa, do all their work as volunteers and pay for most things out of pocket. Recently, their birding organization has earned nonprofit status, enabling them to take contributions and expand their projects.
Rusert said he sees Peterie and himself as a bridge between local ecology and birding organizations and the community. “I’m thrilled that we have been part of a birding community that has supported everything that we have done, not being expert birders.I mean we are medium level … it makes us feel like what we are doing is important to the peers,” Peterie said.
Peterie said what makes his work so special is the partnership he has built with husband, Rusert. “We are such a team and we are able to do things together. Together anything is possible,” Peterie said. “It’s just the two of us trying to take on the world … when we succeed it’s so rewarding.”
“By doing this (building a family experience) we have engaged the community and made an appreciable difference in awareness of nature and in the sport of birding,” Rusert said. Peterie and Rusert were also involved in creating a Sonoma bike map with the Index-Tribune, and they host an ongoing Wine Country Weekend nature lecture series. They also host an Arbor Day event each year in the Plaza.
Rusert says he and Peterie are “inspired to do more” and to find ways to engage families and kids in the community. “We are constantly learning to learn, and nature affords us that opportunity,” Rusert said.
The duo will be honored at the John Muir birthday and Earth Day celebration Saturday, April 26, at Muir’s home in Martinez. For more information on Muir, the award and the celebration, go to johnmuirassociation.org. For details and up to date information on Rusert and Peterie’s projects, visit sonomabirding.com.