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The pioneer of the outdoor classroom

Before ‘nature deficit disorder’ and ‘forest bathing,’ there was a binocular-toting science teacher on a mission

| 07 Dec 2023 | 11:39

At 83, Jack Padalino is still leading caravans to search for eagles’ nests. The president emeritus of the Pocono Environmental Education Center finds the Covid birding boom incredible; the culmination, in a way, of what he has spent five decades working toward.

Tell us about where your love of birds started.
In ‘62 I became a science teacher in Sussex County, NJ. After that I got an academic-year scholarship to get a degree in conservation and outdoor education. It was during that time, 1967, I took a course in field ornithology with Marie Kuhnen at Montclair [State University]. That was the start of my birding. From that, Marie – Dr. Kuhnen – became a lifelong friend. We birded together: we went to do Big Days – that’s as many birds as you can count in a day – in May. We did that for 39 years. Our biggest Big Day, we had 196 species in New Jersey.

What was it about that ornithology course that spoke to you?
We spent 20 minutes indoors and that was it. Every other meeting, once a week, was somewhere in New Jersey for a field trip – Marie was such an incredible instructor. In fact, when I incorporated the Pocono Environmental Education Center as a not-for-profit, Marie was the first person I asked if she would consent to be a trustee, because I wanted what we did there to reflect her relationship that she had with nature. I mean, she trained most of the biology teachers in Jersey at that time.

What was your role at the Pocono Environmental Education Center?
In 1972, I was associate director of the Pocono Environment Ed Center program development and marketing. ‘76 I became director, and I was director there about 25 years. During that time we started all kinds of natural history programs, such as Warbler Weekends in the spring; the Greatest Show Above the Earth; Hawk Watch Weekends; the Search for Eagles, that was in the wintertime.

To this day, I continue doing searches for eagles. We have 15 active nests under surveillance right now. The transect I run is from Poxano Island on the Delaware, which is in the vicinity of Bushkill, all the way up the Scenic Delaware, up to the Mongaup, and I end up at the headwaters of the Lackawaxen in Pennsylvania. That’s the transect I’ve been running for 10 years.

And how’d you find yourself at PEEC to begin with?
I was doing a PhD at New York University. I lived here in Dingmans [Ferry, PA] since 1972 full-time while I was teaching in Frankford [NJ]. But while I was at NYU I saw an advertisement that they were looking for someone at Keystone Junior College [which ran PEEC until the 80s] – a directorship – and that was right in my backyard. Hey, the kids didn’t have to move. At that point I had something like 39 different offers to teach science at the college level and I settled on this Keystone job, which I had to take like a $10,000 pay cut, but it was one of the best decisions I made in my life.

I had control over what I was doing. I had a tremendous amount of fun with it. I met some of the most fascinating people.

The Pocono Environmental Education Center is an institution. My husband remembers coming to PEEC from Rockland County, NY with his Boy Scout troop some three decades ago and now my kids take elementary school field trips there. Talk about the Center’s reach.
At one point we were the largest residential center for environmental education in the western hemisphere.

What do you mean by ‘residential’?
People would come stay with us for an average of three days, two nights. Or we’d have summer programs, we ran elderhostel programs for a number of years. We had a lot of special interest groups that would convene workshops like the New Jersey Mycological Association, different bird clubs from around the tri-states area would come to PEEC for birding wekeends. We had people doing fern forays – the American Fern Society would come. But most of our activity was by school kids from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, middle school or upper elementary kids. So PEEC just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and some of the schools I attracted to come to the place, they’re still coming there, which is kind of neat.

How has the Center evolved – or not – since the early years?
It’s taken on more of a nature center flair. The residential programs have become fewer and fewer. Well it’s solvent, it’s like a 50-year partnership with the Park Service. It’s practically unheard-of.

What do you attribute the Center’s longevity to?
Great people, good working relationship with the Park Service, and fulfilling a need, connecting people with nature. One never outgrows their need for nature.

Have you been seeing more eagles over the years?
Oh yeah. I’ve seen eagles every month of the year. Since I started – I’m talking almost 50 years ago – there’s been an incredible increase in the eagle population. So much so that the Pennsylvania Game Commission doesn’t even bother counting the nest sites anymore. It’s one of the really incredible successful stories about bird conservation in this country. That together with the peregrine falcon.

Have you seen more interest in the eagle caravans, or is it the same core group year after year?
It depends on the year and how much publicity we’ve done. For the most part I have a one- or two-car caravan, anywhere between four and eight people. The highest number I had was 46 people with a Boy Scout troup in a bus, then the teacher from Wallenpaupack had a van with eight of her students. That was a neat kind of thing.

Do you have a favorite bird?
My reply to that is: the next bird I see.

What’s next on your birdwatching schedule?
On Monday I’m going to Florida for six days to bird, the Merritt Wildlife Refuge. I just enjoy traveling and birding, as long as I can do it.

Are you going with anyone?
Nah, I’m sort of doing it as a solo. Last year I went with a guy from the Galveston Ornithological Society, spent a week birding in Florida, but I’m going to do it by myself this time.

Have you set out what you set out to accomplish, or is there something left you still feel you need to get done?
Oh there’s always room to improve and get great things done. I’ll tell you a really neat human interest story. A person I taught 55 years ago at the Frankford School, a fellow by the name of Dan Casey, went on to a career as a wildlife biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service, and co-authored the Birds of Montana. So in October, Dan came back for his 50th high school reunion, and he and I spent a day birding together at Sunrise Mountain in Stokes State Forest, New Jersey. So it’s a neat kind of thing, you know, after 55 years, what goes around comes around.

But I’ll keep doing searches for eagles and different kind of things like that, for as long as I can.

Is it getting harder, at 83, to get out and go birding?
Oh yeah, my mobility has decreased, so I can’t do a whole heck of a lot of walking. But I can bird from the car, or go to locations. I was recently in Virginia for a Road Scholar program. I got to see 120 different birds. I couldn’t do most of the stuff physically that the other people did, but I was happy enough to see as much as I could. One of the other things about birding is there are about 82 million birdwatchers in this country. ‘Specially since Covid, the numbers of people have increased incredibly.

When I first started, there were very few birding festivals. You could count ‘em on one hand. Now there are hundreds, all over the country.

Does the influx of newbie birders have any downsides, like overcrowding prime birdwatching spots? Or is it all positive?
I’ve been encouraging beginning birders. If you’re a birder, you want to encourage other people to do so. The number of people entering birding is incredible. One of the recommendations I make to beginning birders is to pick up Pete Dunne on Birdwatching, a beginner’s guide to finding, identifying and enjoying birds – it’s a fun kind of thing to do.

Any other advice for newbies?
Hook up with your local bird club for birding trips. Backyard birding and birdfeeders is another way that people can get hooked.