Retired electrical lineman Ricky Ray grew up in Miami Springs and moved to Vero Beach just five years ago. Almost immediately upon arriving, the lifelong bird lover stopped by the local Audubon House on Oslo Road, just to check it out.
“Dr. Baker came up and asked, ‘Can I help you?” Ray recalls. “He asked if I had a few minutes, and the next thing I knew, I was folding Peligrams!”
Retired entomologist and passionate conservationist Richard Baker, who has a PhD in zoology, is the longtime director of the Pelican Island Audubon Society, and the Peligram is its monthly newsletter.
Ever since his encounter with Baker, Ray has been a tireless PIAS volunteer; in fact, he has become what PIAS executive director Donna Halleran calls the “backbone of the volunteer corps at Pelican Island Audubon House.”
It is only fitting; Ray has been known as “Bird Man” since the fifth grade. He has always enjoyed being out in nature. When he was growing up in South Florida, his father used to take him fishing in the Everglades, and he remembers being fascinated by all the birds he saw on the mudflats. He fed birds in the yard “just to see what kinds of birds would come by.”
In the 1970s, Ray took the “online” Cornell birding course, which at the time was done via mail correspondence. He goes birding at least once a week and enjoys trying new locations. When asked if, as a lineman, he ever found himself engaging in some impromptu bird-spotting while at the top of a pole, he doesn’t hesitate: “All the time!”
Ray spends at least two days per week volunteering with PIAS—more if needed. “He is not afraid of hard work,” says Halleran. “He volunteers to help any way he can—he leads bird walks, helps with our kayaking student trips … he stands in any place he is asked to help. He often changes his schedule to be supportive.”
Ray takes groups of Harbor Branch high school-age junior scientists out birding every Monday. He also enjoys leading nature hikes, especially “when people get a big rise out of seeing a bird that’s not supposed to be in the area or that they haven’t seen in a while.”
He gets a kick out of taking fifth-graders out on conservation-focused kayaking excursions
as part of the Audubon Advocates after-school program. “Many of the kids have never been kayaking before, and I get to teach them,” he says, chuckling as he describes the need to corral the wayward kayaks of students who have not yet quite mastered the art of steering with a paddle.
All of the volunteer work is not fun and games, however; some of it is downright backbreaking. Ray pitches in to mow trails, pull invasive plants, and tend to some 1,200 Southern live oak saplings grown from acorns and made available to the public at no charge.
But, according to Halleran, “Ricky always has a smile and usually sings a tune as he helps.”