Quizzing the Professor

50 Stories for 50 Years

is presented by New Leader Manufacturing

Local ornithologist Neil Bernstein has been bird watching since the 1960s and has also been connected to the Nature Center since the early 1980s. Today, many people connected to Indian Creek Nature Center recognize him as our resident bird expert. Throughout the year, Neil offers bird banding programs for all ages and shares his passion and knowledge of our feathered friends. We quizzed Neil about his connection to the Nature Center and how he feels about the organization celebrating its 50th anniversary. 

How and when you first became connected to the Nature Center?

My wife Renate and I arrived in Cedar Rapids in August of 1982. I was a new professor at Mount Mercy College, now University, and a student gave me a tour of natural areas in Linn County. A first stop was the Indian Creek Nature Center, which largely consisted of the old barn and some trails. Our main involvement with ICNC was volunteering at the Maple Syrup Festival. Then the Mount Mercy Biology Club volunteered for the Haunted Halloween trails behind the barn. At some point, I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors, and we both continued to volunteer over the years.

What have you enjoyed most about being involved with the Nature Center over the years?

There has been tremendous growth in the natural area, the buildings, the environmental message, and the educational programs. Rich Patterson was doggedly focused on continual improvement and outreach. Our two daughters essentially grew up at the Nature Center, and, as they became teens, they wanted to volunteer at the syrup festival and other events.

The Amazing Space, Creekside Forest School, and demonstrable sustainable development has exceeded our expectations. We took one friend to the Amazing Space who had not been to ICNC for decades. He was “amazed” at the changes. 

Two interesting stories: One summer, Renate and I went canoeing when our oldest daughter was 3 and a half. Renate’s parents stayed with her, and Renate’s father wanted to hear a talk at the Nature Center that was advertised in the Gazette. Upon trying to drive to the Nature Center, he kept missing the turn off from Mount Vernon Road. Finally, after several passes, a voice came from the car seat in the back: “The Nature Center is that way, PopPop.”  Upon arriving, all the adults greeted Anya by first name.

Both daughters volunteered at the syrup festival, and as young kids they usually bussed dishes. When our youngest daughter was 16, she decided that she was going to make pancakes, and she joined the sausage and pancake cookers.

Talk a little about the programs you offer here…especially bird banding. What can people expect when they attend? What do you think they enjoy most about it?

I like answering the questions about birds. There are lots of people who watch birds from their yards but never would consider themselves birdwatchers. They have great questions. I also enjoy the young people’s involvement in two ways. First, my students from Iowa Lakeside Laboratory and the University of Iowa get involved in the banding and the public education aspects. Second, the younger children that come are enthralled to touch and release birds. We get lots of good questions, and some people return multiple times. I am hoping to expand the bird banding starting in the fall.

Why is having a nature center as part of a community important to you? 

Nature centers are important for the same reasons that the symphony, theater, art museum, library, parks, and trails are important. Community viability rests on diversity of cultural experiences and opportunities. I sometimes return to natural places that I enjoyed as a teenager and undergraduate student. If they exist, they are surrounded by concrete and houses. We need natural areas for our mental health and well-being.

What is special to you about ICNC celebrating 50 years? 

From very humble beginnings and hard work by many people, a nature center has been created far beyond what I first thought possible in 1982 on my first visit. Who would have thought we would be partnering with sustainable agriculture, running a preschool, and displaying sustainable buildings?

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