Harry Nehls: A Keystone Member of Our Flock

by Vicky Medley, Volunteer Manager

Bird Alliance of Oregon was founded and has been sustained by many long-time stewards. Harry Nehls, a unique and treasured member of our flock, is an outstanding example. He has led and supported Bird Alliance of Oregon for over 64 years! Harry recently retired from his Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteer work, and we are thrilled to take this opportunity to honor his commitment with a Lifetime Achievement award.

Harry Nehls at Wild Arts Festival
Harry Nehls at Wild Arts Festival.

The first mention of Harry in the Warbler was in the May 1957 issue, while he was still in high school. After high school he joined the army, so he was not active again until he returned to Portland in 1963. In 1965, Harry started writing the Field Notes section of the Warbler. “When I first joined, there was no organized discussion of bird sightings. I made the discussion more consistent and detailed,” he said in the October 2002 issue. Harry Nehls wrote our Field Notes section from 1965 until 2020, which made it the longest-running column in our history.

Over the years, Harry quickly and quietly became a leader at Bird Alliance of Oregon and in the Oregon birding community, as well as nationally. He served as Bird Alliance of Oregon’s board president from 1969 to 1971, and as (volunteer) director from 1972 to 1975. In addition, Harry served as the Warbler editor from 1969 to 1977. As editor, he gathered all the material, wrote, typed, and printed the entire issue each month. Printing was done on a mimeograph at the time, and he would copy, collate and staple, address, and sort 14 double-sided pages 2,200 times per issue. It took a minimum of 8 hours for each issue! Judie Hansen, a fellow former Warbler editor, said, “Harry led monthly work parties for a job that nobody wanted to do.”

In the 1970s, Harry Nehls started compiling the Rare Bird Alert (RBA), receiving tips and disseminating reports via a weekly tape-recorded message at Bird Alliance of Oregon’s switchboard. He continued this role, augmenting it with an email and website version, as well as monthly recaps in the Warbler, until his last alert went out in April of 2019. The RBA lives on on our website and in the Warbler, written by Bird Alliance of Oregon Educator and Trips Associate Brodie Cass Talbott, who pays frequent homage to Harry’s trademark style.

Throughout the years, Harry built an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and bird behavior. He wrote his first book, Familiar Birds of the Northwest, in 1983, and he co-authored Birds of the Willamette Valley Region in 2004. Over 2,700 copies have been sold in our Nature Store, and a copy is given to all new Bird Alliance of Oregon staff. According to Nature Store Manager Janet Drake: “It’s one of the most popular books the Nature Store carries, and it is the perfect field guide for beginner and seasoned birders alike.”

In his time with us, Harry has led classes and trips, served as state coordinator for the National Breeding Birds Survey, been a regular author at the Wild Arts Festival, participated in countless community science projects, helped maintain the sanctuary, tirelessly advocated for our conservation agenda, and led or supported many special projects. Harry never tallied up his volunteer hours, but it must have been well over 30,000 by the time he stepped away from formally volunteering earlier this year.

According to National Geographic,“a keystone species is an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem.” Harry has been a keystone species for our entire flock at Bird Alliance of Oregon! We thank and honor Harry for a lifetime of support and leadership.