Remembrances of Mary Ratcliff

Collected by Sarah Swanson, Event Manager

The sudden loss of Mary Ratcliff was devastating to all of us in the Bird Alliance of Oregon community, where she had been a volunteer since 2011. Her contributions to Bird Alliance of Oregon were both deep and broad, and she left an indelible mark. The following remembrances of Mary from staff, fellow volunteers, and birding friends paint a portrait of a passionate person with an unforgettable combination of intelligence, kindness, and enthusiasm.

Trying to find the right words to sum up someone as dynamic and beloved as Mary Ratcliff can be a daunting challenge. How lucky then that Mary counted Kim Stafford, the former poet laureate of Oregon, among her many friends. He said of her: “What a bright spark she was, even brief encounters made clear her vivid spirit.”

Mary Ratcliff at Wild Arts Festival

Deanna Sawtelle: I remember when she started volunteering.  She was so excited and quickly found things she was passionate about like the Nature Store and the Wild Arts Festival Book Fair.  Her huge heart and wonderful smile and sunny personality will be missed at Bird Alliance of Oregon.

Vicky Medley: Mary began volunteering at Bird Alliance of Oregon in 2011 in the Nature Store. She quickly dove in, impressing staff and volunteers alike with her deep and broad involvement. She won a Mamie Campbell Award, our highest honor for volunteers, in 2012 having given over 1,800 hours in just over a year! From 2011 to the time of her death, Mary had generously given over 5,700 hours of volunteer service. She was a long time leader in the Wild Arts Festival, in the Nature Store, as an Outings leader, and in Birdathon.

Mary was incredibly detail oriented and conscientious in her work, which made her an exceptionally valuable volunteer. On top of her hard working nature, she was equally kind and welcoming in her relationships with others. Those attributes made her such fun to be around! I join all the staff and volunteers who mourn her death, and I am thankful for having known Mary. 

Mary’s Mamie Campbell Nomination (2012): Mary Ratcliff began volunteering in 2011 in the Nature Store and has since given over 1,800 hours of service.  She counts birds for the Christmas Bird Count and helps others find and identify local birds by leading Magpie Field Trips and helping at Swift Watch.  Mary is one of the wonderful volunteers who make up the Wild Arts Festival Book Fair Committee logging a huge number of hours toward making the book fair as wonderful as it has grown to be.  Xander Patterson, Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Finance Manager, says “Mary has brought diligence and order to the Wild Arts Festival Book Fair.  Whatever she does at Bird Alliance of Oregon–the book fair, the Nature Store, and everything else–-she always does it with plenty of pep and good cheer.

Lynn Herring: Mary was a truly wonderful person — genuinely sweet, talented and generous with her time, as she shared her birding and tech skills with Bird Alliance of Oregon and the Lake Oswego Watershed and Sustainability community.  It was great to have her participation on the Marshall’s Murrelets Birdathon Team and occasional Christmas Bird Count teams.  Several years ago, she put up a Screech Owl box in her backyard and was so happy when a Western Screech Owl decided to live there.  More recently, she was very proud of the successful native planting efforts around her house — and her new electric Chevy Bolt!  We all miss you, dear friend!

Meryl Redisch: Many people knew Mary. They knew her as an avid bird-watcher and e-bird lister. They knew her as an effective community activist and as a dedicated volunteer for conservation and climate related causes. And, they knew her as a mom, sister and daughter. My introduction and friendship with Mary began through a different portal. Before Mary returned home to Lake Oswego and while still working in the tech field in California, she became one of my first Birdathon pledge sponsors. Being brand new to Oregon and Bird Alliance of Oregon in the summer of 2003, I was handed a list of people to solicit for my first Birdathon in 2004.Mary was on that list! Birdathon after Birdathon, I could count on her very generous pledge of support and enthusiastic responses to my pitch and follow-up letters. One year, when I was late in getting my  letter out, Mary sent in her usual pledge along with a note to see if everything was ok. That was Mary, checking in to see how you were doing.  When she retired and moved back to Oregon, we finally met in person. She led me on a walking tour (with binoculars in hand!) around Lake Oswego and we talked about everything. I can’t recall if she offered to help Bird Alliance of Oregon or if I gently suggested that she would be an awesome volunteer, but she soon attended a volunteer orientation at the Cornell Road campus and found one of her causes. After that, she never missed volunteering at the Wild Arts Festival or joining a Birdathon team to raise funds for the organization. Mary’s warmth, intelligence and capacity to give her time and from her heart, will be missed by everyone who knew her, and by me.

Mark Greenfield: If my memory serves me right, I first got to know Mary through my 2011-2012 year-long School of Birding class that Dan van den Broek taught.  In May, 2012, we used the class to create the first Lagerhead Shrikes Birdathon team, of which Mary was a part. That year we birded a variety of locations in and around Bend and Sisters. I quickly got to appreciate what a fun person Mary was. While she and I probably talked too much on that and future Birdathons, all the way into 2021, birding with her was always a joy, and Mary was always someone I looked forward to seeing, not just on future “Gonzo” Birdathon trips to Medford and Klamath Falls, Summer Lake, the south coast and even Zumwalt Prairie in Wallowa County, but at other Bird Alliance of Oregon functions during the years. Her sudden passing was quite a shock, and I will miss her greatly. She loved Bird Alliance of Oregon, she loved birding, and she loved people. She always brought laughter and smiles to my face.

Charles Milne: Mary Ratcliff was Bird Alliance of Oregon’s mission personified. Her deep commitment and passion for birds were infectious. I will forever be grateful for her teaching me birding, volunteering in the Nature store, and leadership with the Book Fair at Wild Arts Festival for over 30 years. Her immense passion and dedication will be deeply missed for a long time.

Janet Moler: Mary delighted in birds. She shared her joy and knowledge freely, and her enthusiasm for birding was contagious. Mary was an upbeat person with a generous heart. She was always willing to share a laugh, a story of her birding adventures, or an eBird checklist. She was dedicated to Bird Alliance of Oregon and its mission, and was an active volunteer in so many ways. Her presence will be missed throughout the organization, and her impacts and work will ripple out for many years to come. 

Sally Loomis: The morning of August 23 I sent my friend Mary a chipper little email letting her know that my solar power set-up, months in progress, had finally gone live the day before. I knew that she would be thrilled for me, as she had boundless enthusiasm for anything promoting sustainable living. I wasn’t concerned that I didn’t hear back from her right away, figuring she was out birding or at a meeting of one of the many organizations she belonged to.  Instead, I received a phone call that afternoon with the shocking news that Mary was gone.

What a loss that is! I know that she had a wide network of friends, mostly based around Bird Alliance of Oregon and the Lake Oswego community, but I keenly feel her absence. She could be fiercely private about details of her life, but she was extremely generous with her time. She was always available to troubleshoot computer problems for me, I would reciprocate with garden advice.

Things are different now. I’m writing this during my birthday week, and she won’t be taking me out to lunch, nor will we celebrate hers in January. She won’t be able to visit me for the annual ransacking of my crabapple tree by marauding bands of cedar waxwings. Nor will I share a fall day raking massive bags of leaves from under her heritage American Elm to use as leaf mulch. I feel bereft, and I know I am not alone. She will be missed by many.

Wendy Temko: Mary was one of the most positive, enthusiastic, and engaged people I have known. She was very focused on making an effort to help the environment. And of course she was totally dedicated to the birds, in a multitude of ways. Our last correspondence was just over a month ago, when I was trying to identify an owl family in a friend’s garage in the SW hills. Even though she was busy getting ready for a trip, she took the time to send me all kinds of pictures and comments to help with the identification. She was truly a bird scholar. I will miss her smile and her beautiful, positive nature.

Tony Rubin: Mary Ratcliff, in addition to being an avid birder and bird walk leader, was one of the most prolific volunteers I have known, and I have known a lot. Besides her Bird Alliance of Oregon participation she phone-banked for OPB, she was a member of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network and the Oregon Democratic Party. She avidly gave time and attention to all four while growing a garden, taking care of her dad in his assisted living phase, and managing to go birding with such pals as me, and leading bird walks.

Mary introduced me to many local birding spots including Reed College and along the grounds of the Columbia Fire Safety LLC and the river itself.  We explored Sauvie Island along Rentenaar Road many times, and sometimes, although she was by far the more experienced birder and I was just studying in the School of Birds with Dan, I was able to ID the bird before she did…but only sometimes.

Before her Arizona trip — her last birding trip — Mary and I spoke about her plans to try and see many Hummingbird species she’d never seen, and, while there, do some geological exploration as well, Geology being a big deal in her family. 

The last time I saw Mary was after her trip in Sally Loomis’s lovely backyard on August 9 where we held a Book Fair Committee meeting. First we had a usual pot luck dinner, during which a very happy Mary told us about her Arizona trip. Two things. She beguiled us, laughing throughout, about managing a visit to a friend’s where she slept in the West-facing guest room in the hot Arizona temperatures of August. But here’s the best part. Don’t ask me what species, but I did ask Mary during dinner if she had captured all the hummingbirds she hoped to see. Her answer? Smiling broadly: “Yes!”

Karen Chaivoe: I always wondered how Mary would find time to read a book, catch up on a Blog, newspapers or television show, listen to podcasts, plus keep up with her many volunteer responsibilities, interests and hobbies. Mary put the Energizer Bunny to shame.

Mary was a voracious consumer of information and generously shared with those around her. I was a gracious recipient of websites, podcasts, books and  conversation, spanning many topics, most often birding and environment.  Her regular  updates included the “buried underwear” experiment, the Sustainability Network,  the  progress of Miner bees in her yard, and discoveries  from a historical diary of an early Lake Oswego resident’s avian observations. Her family history and background is fascinating.

We birded often, near and far. Outings also included observing plants, animals, insects, geology and the occasional scat. Mary’s enthusiasm, curiosity, attention to detail and perseverance always contributed to a day well spent and many wonderful memories. A kind and generous soul. A life well-lived.

Dena Turner: Mary has been a good friend and birding buddy for a number of years. I am saddened at Mary’s sudden death as we have lost an energetic and committed friend of birds and sustainability. Mary gave many great gifts to the community in introducing new birders to birding, in writing a sustainability newsletter, in annually promoting an electric vehicle fair; the list goes on. Mary always said yes to volunteerism.

Mary will be sorely missed as a friend and respected member of our community. Mary will be fondly remembered as a “Birding Queen,” as several of her friends called her. Wherever her spirit is now, and in our hearts, Mary is a Birding Queen who in her legacy is advocating for our feathered friends and their habitats.

Jill Turner: I fondly remember first meeting Mary and wondering, “Who is this dynamic, excited nature lover?”  Mary was passionate about protecting our planet and thus was deeply engaged in various organizations with that mission in mind. Her great intelligence, good memory and vast computer skills proved essential for the work of our Book Fair Committee.  Her commitment and devotion to the cause, along with her positive energy and optimistic attitude never ceased to amaze me.  Mary was thoughtful, kind and generous.  I shall miss her deeply.

Molly Marks: Mary lived her life with a deep love and passion for the natural world. She carried that passion throughout her life, living deliberately with her commitment to follow a meaningful path in this world. It was a great gift to have Mary as a friend. While we miss her dearly, her inspiring spirit will remain with us.

Laurie Garretson: We all know Mary was passionate about birding!  She always had a picture to share from her most recent trip to some wonderful and special birding spot.  I remember sending her a photograph of a quetzal that I took this last spring while visiting the mountainous Savegre River area of Cost Rica and she was just as thrilled as I was even though she had already seen the bird on her trip years before.  Whenever I couldn’t identify a bird, I would take a picture and she was back to me in a few minutes to identify it.  Meeting for coffee one morning, she talked about her birding trip to the Stirling Range in Southwest Australia.  Bruce and I will be visiting the area in October after hearing her tales of this unique spot.  It will be bittersweet that I can’t report back to her about it.

We did a couple of memorable committee weekend trips to my beach house.  Along the way to the coast, we went birding near Banks.  We saw a snowy owl at the south jetty, spent time at the Necanicum Estuary, the cove and the mill ponds and trespassed through someone’s yard on Tillamook Head in order to better view the seabirds!  Mary energetically led the way and made our trips so interesting.

Mary’s enthusiasm and her smile were infectious, and she led our Book Fair Committee with positivity and a “can do” attitude…. even during the pandemic when it was a Zoom/virtual event. Even when we had to move from Montgomery Park to a more challenging space.  She kept us moving forward while some of us felt defeated.  Above all, Mary believed in doing whatever she could to support Bird Alliance of Oregon and a more sustainable world.

Mary has touched our lives with her intelligence, compassion, gentle nature and love of the natural world.

Carol Enyart: I didn’t know Mary as well as people who worked on her committee, although we met “outside” of WAF a few times this last year. What I do know about Mary is that she was generous with her time and knowledge….and knowledge she had! She seemed exceptionally intelligent. She was a true team player who encouraged sharing of ideas and resources. Mary always had a smile on her face and gave me the feeling that she truly listened when we talked. She cared deeply about Bird Alliance of Oregon and its mission. Mary was kind, thoughtful and caring about others. We say this too often after we lose someone, but I wish I had gotten to know her better.

Sarah Swanson: The Maya Angelou quote about people remembering how you made them feel seems very apt in Mary’s case. In addition to her intelligence and dedication to service and making a better world, she was an incredibly warm person whose attention made you feel appreciated and important. I’ll always remember Mary being at least as excited and proud about the publication of each of my books as I was. Every encounter with her, whether it was at a committee meeting or out in the field birding was a delight. 

In the last year, I enjoyed working more closely with Mary on the Wild Arts Festival and really appreciated all the hard work that she put in behind the scenes with the book fair. Her impact and her absence will be felt at Bird Alliance of Oregon for years to come.

Mary Solares: Mary Ratcliff and I became fast friends when I became chair of WAF in 2011 and she joined the Book Fair Committee. For the last 2 years, Mary and I were a two-woman team as part of the Marshall’s Murrelets. We engaged in a one-day Birdathon where we covered portions of the Willamette Valley. Our day consisted of 16 hours of travel, 263 miles by car, 4.8 miles by foot and 13 flights elevation gain. It was a long and exhausting day but also exhilarating with a species count of 75. Spending that time with Mary, sharing laughs and learning more about each other took us to a deeper level in our friendship. At the end of our trip, I offered to treat her to a manicure and pedicure. At first, she declined because she had never had one! After thinking it over and a tiny bit of arm twisting on my part she gave in. For Mary, this was about as exciting as a trip to the dentist but in true form she accepted the challenge after I suggested she choose a nail color from some of the species of bird that we saw on our trek. She eventually settled on the red of a Red-winged Blackbird. Once she sat in the massage chair and put her feet into the foot bath, you could see her starting to unwind. As the technician massaged her legs and feet, and dipped her feet into hot wax, she lost all her apprehension and relaxed to the point where she fell asleep. Afterwards, in the car she was so happy and said her feet had never felt so good. The Birdathon celebration was 3 days later and I suggested she show off her “new toes” but of course she didn’t! One of my last memories of Mary took place at Fern Ridge, as we watched spellbound when a Sora suddenly appeared then disappeared between the reeds. Mary taught me more about birds than anyone else and gave me a deeper appreciation of the natural world. I will miss her deeply.