Bird’s-eye view

Local Audubon chapter elevates long-time volunteer to first executive director

Mary Muchowski got hooked on birding locally during an Altacal Audubon outing in Bidwell Park.

Mary Muchowski got hooked on birding locally during an Altacal Audubon outing in Bidwell Park.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

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Though she may not remember the date, Mary Muchowski vividly recalls the day she fell in love with birding in the North State.

It was mid-December in the mid-1990s. Muchowski, a Chico State grad, returned to town in 1995 after traveling to eight sites as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. The Altacal Audubon Society, Chico’s chapter of the national birding organization, had its Christmas Bird Count coming soon. She’d signed up for the section in Upper Bidwell Park.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual tradition, dating to 1900. Birdwatchers around the country converge on predetermined areas and tally each avian seen and heard. Muchowski considered herself an “intermediate birder” at that point and welcomed the chance to spot local species.

If only the weather had cooperated …

“It was raining all day long,” Muchowski told the CN&R last week, chuckling. The chapter’s then-president, Richard Redmond, was guiding her group and “was soaked to his bone. I didn’t have waterproof binoculars, and even the people who did, there was so much moisture that you could barely even use the binoculars because it was just so wet—and you’d see one little bird huddling under a branch because it was windy and rainy.

“And, somehow, I got hooked.”

She began volunteering with Altacal Audubon. For most of the Snow Goose Festival’s 20 years—when her job hasn’t taken her out of Chico—she’s led field trips and excursions. The past decade, she’s coordinated the Christmas Bird Count and served as an at-large member on the chapter’s board of directors.

Now, Muchowski has a new role: executive director—the group’s first.

Altacal Audubon hired her to expand its educational and outreach programs, according to board President Steve Overlock, as well as upgrade fundraising and organizational efforts. Of the 19 applicants, Overlock said Muchowski clearly distinguished herself as “the best.” She resigned from the board and started in February, in time for the Snow Goose Festival.

“It seemed like there were more and more programs we were doing and we wanted to do,” Overlock, in his sixth year as president, said by phone. “I work full-time, and I felt like we needed more of our face out there. We knew we could fill the position with work; it was just a matter of finding someone, because there’s so much going on in Chico.”

Altacal Audubon got a push from an unexpected source. Last spring, a woman in Paradise, Elizabeth Brown, bequeathed the chapter $500,000. Members didn’t remember her being actively involved, but she’d paid dues and, in talking to a friend, the board discovered more about her.

“She was a wonderful quilter and she had a beautiful bird garden,” Overlock said. “She was a very reserved person, a very quiet person—and she had a secret love for birds and Altacal.”

The bequest funds, among other things, the new position. Altacal Audubon long has wanted an executive director, akin to Plumas Audubon Society, which recently hired Lindsay Wood to succeed its founding executive director. Wood, coincidentally, previously worked with Muchowski at the Butte Environmental Council (BEC).

Muchowski was a late applicant for the Altacal job. When it posted in September, she didn’t have time to devote to volunteering with the nonprofit. In December, she asked the board if the position was still open and applied then.

“We really needed someone who had experience with nonprofits and birds,” Overlock said, adding: “This was a long process, because we’re all volunteers [on the board].”

One board member lost her home in the Camp Fire, and with it a computer that contained financial records. Muchowski is reconstructing that documentation, along with reorganizing other operations and processes. She has experience from stints as office manager and events coordinator, then educational outreach coordinator, at BEC.

Muchowski works 10 hours a week for Altacal Audubon, though she’ll up her commitment in winter, when she’ll have much to do for the Snow Goose Festival. That coincides with her off-season for the Forest Service, for whom she conducts wildlife surveys in the Feather River Ranger District of the Plumas National Forest.

Education—for youth and adults—is her passion. She hopes to expand such offerings overall but feels the Snow Goose Festival is the right size at five days: “I’ve seen some festivals burn out when they try to get too big, so keeping that going at the level it’s at now would be great.”

She’s also excited about advocacy. The board recently added John Merz as conservation chair. Merz, former director of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, has championed local environmental causes for decades.

“Advocacy is not in our mission statement,” Muchowski said, “except for education about conservation. We pretty much take the lead off national Audubon or Audubon California on advocacy issues. [But] we have a new conservation chair I would hope to work closely with.”