The crane project lost a great friend and supporter recently when Joe Bonislawski passed away. Joe was a member of the St Marks Photography Club and a St Marks NWR volunteer and spent literally hundreds of hours over the past five years working on the Whooping crane pen, getting it ready for our arrival each winter.
Our first year at St. Marks he put in more than 200 hours on the site, and this year, despite declining health, Joe was out there in the marsh working away, giving it everything he had. These were ‘his birds’ and he was going to do everything he could to help provide them with a safe place to winter.
Joe retired to the St Marks area from south Florida more than half dozen years ago and immediately began to pursue his passion of photography. He was one of the original members of the St Marks Photography Club and it was a rare event indeed for one to make the long drive down Light House Road without seeing Joe either out there with his camera setting up for a shot, or waist deep in the Gulf casting a net to collect marine samples for the Florida Marine Research Laboratory. He was, for me, as much a part of that beautiful area as the lighthouse.
Everyone fortunate enough to have known Joe is blessed with fond memories of him. One of my favorites is the time five years ago when he waved Bev and I down and asked if he could come out to the blind to take some pictures that Sunday. Bev replied, “Why don’t you make it Monday. That’s when the chicks are leaving on migration.” (For the previous two weeks, Bev had spent all day every day in the blind observing the chick’s pre-migration behaviors in an effort to predict their departure.)
Joe was at the gate when we arrived bright and early that Monday morning and we were soon in the blind looking out at the chicks in excited anticipation as Joe set up his camera for the shot. Then, as if suddenly responding to a call only they could hear, the birds took off, circled a few times then climbed up and were off on migration as Joe snapped away with his camera.
The moment was pure magic. We were all smiles and tears and it was clear it meant as much if not more to Joe than it did to Bev and me. Sharing such a moment formed a special bond between us and never again did I see Joe without remembering. No one cared more about those chicks than Joe did.
And so it was no coincidence that Joe and the birds left us at the same time. Migration is, after all, a journey to a better place…..the trading of an ending at one place for a beginning at another. No one who knew Joe…or the chicks…or the spiritual landscape upon which we exist, can doubt that on the morning of migration day, he gathered together his little flock, led them up towards the heavens on a northerly heading, then seeing that all was as it should be, he peeled off to begin his own migration.
Joe was a great guy… a true gift. We will miss him…and so will the birds.