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Lifelong interest in the outdoors

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

Bill Opengari is, without question, an outdoorsy type. When asked where he wanted to do an interview for this week’s neighbor’s story, he suggested Heritage Park on the Dora Trail. Outdoor interviews are not unusual … in summer. On this day, the temperature was in the low fifties and there was a significant breeze. As we sat at a picnic table talking, Bill Opengari didn’t even bother zipping his jacket.

“I think this is wonderful weather,” said Opengari. “I come over here sometimes when it’s in the teens and the wind is blowing, but this is really nice weather. As you can see, I didn’t want to do this indoors in an office.”

Like many of our neighbors, Bill Opengari is not from Pulaski. He grew up in Bristol, Virginia, and studied botany and history in college.

“Before I could get into teaching, I took a job in business and I stayed in business for all these years,” said Opengari.

That business was the steel industry. For many years, Opengari worked with Dominion Steel out of Roanoke. His day job didn’t interfere with his passion for nature, especially his love of ornithology, which is the study of birds.

“I’ve been birding since I was 11,” said Opengari. “That was in the 40s. I’m 84. It’s a lifelong interest.”

His love of nature led Opengari to become a Master Naturalist.

“It is a course of study at Virginia Tech,” Opengari explained. “You go into several different fields. Like me, I’m a specialist ornithologist but when you go into a Master Naturalist program, you get a thorough backing in so many other fields like botany, Lepidoterology/butterflies, entomology/insects, and repairing habitats. After you graduate, you become what they call a citizen scientist, whereby you devote so many hours of volunteer work, like, for example, this butterfly pollinator garden.”

The pollinator garden that Opengari constructed was only a few feet from where we were sitting in Heritage Park. A few feet in the other direction, a box with a small hole on one side was perched on a plastic pipe three feet above the ground. This is a Bluebird box, which is part of a Bluebird trail.

“I’ve been involved in Bluebird trails for about 40 years and what they are … first I’ll tell you why they are,” said Opengari. “In the 70s, Bluebirds became threatened because of change of habitat. So a Bluebird trail is a series of boxes along a road. Bluebirds nest in them because they’re cavity nesters. People go around on a volunteer basis and check contents of the them weekly and determine what’s nesting in the box. They see how many eggs, how many young, how many fledge and leave the box. That’s the way you get a data basis too on the activity.”

The boxes are specially designed to foil predators. The PVC pipe that holds the box is too slick for a raccoon to climb and a metal stovepipe wrapped around the bottom of the box makes it difficult for black snakes to enter the nest. Black snakes are the biggest predator of Bluebirds.

Bill Opengari has set up these Bluebird trails in Roanoke, Botetourt, Nelson, Franklin, Giles and Pulaski counties. According to Opengari, these Bluebird boxes have helped the Bluebird population and other cavity nesters, such as swallows make a tremendous comeback in numbers.

Opengari met his second wife Peggy at a meeting of the Roanoke Valley Bird Club and the two moved from Roanoke to the tiny town of Eggleston in Giles County. He and his wife shared their love of birds, sometimes organizing international birding trips.

“Not many people in Eggleston or in Giles County,” Opengari admitted. “One of the things I liked about it was there were great trails and rivers and streams. That’s one reason I like Pulaski because you’re close to the New River and of course the Dora Trail, which is right here.”

Ten years ago, Bill’s wife Peggy passed away. When his step-daughter Lee Spiegel decided to start a business in Draper, called Pulaski Grow, Opengari agreed to help her build an aquaponics greenhouse. This was five years ago and it was then that Bill decided to move to the town of Pulaski, where he lives today.

Soon after moving, Opengari became involved with a group of like-minded individuals.

“The Friends of Peak Creek were right up my alley,” said Opengari. “When I moved here I found that this organization was dedicated to the conservation, restoring and repairing the Peak Creek habitat, which they do. We have a lot of programs and projects to do that.”

Recently, Opengari was named Volunteer of the Year for the Friends of Peak Creek.

“I maintain the Bluebird trail and the pollinator garden, which is primarily native plants that butterflies nectar on and hummingbirds nectar on,” said Opengari. “We’re losing a lot of these pollinators like bees and butterflies and we’re losing those because they don’t have native plants to nectar on and that’s where they get their energy.”

As well as maintaining the Bluebird trail along the Dora Trail, Opengari tends to 16 Bluebird boxes on the Virginia Tech Campus and in Glenn Alton in Giles County.

“I had to cut back on the Glenn Alton boxes because I had so much trouble with bears,” Opengari related. “They could smell the birds in there and they’d break the box open like a box of crackers and eat the young or the eggs. So, I took a lot of those boxes down.”

Opengari also helps the Friends of Peak Creek with planting saplings, cleaning up trash, sampling the water and checking the aquatic insects found in the stream. When not volunteering, Opengari hikes and canoes and while doing what he does out of doors, he will likely also be birding.

“You go out for the pleasure of looking at the birds and finding the birds but there’s always a possibility, because of what you know, of finding something that shouldn’t be there,” Opengari opined.

Not long ago, Opengari sited a species of Yellow Throated Warbler that was known to live in Louisiana and had never been recorded as nesting in the New River Valley.

“So that bird has migrated up the Mississippi, the whole Ohio River and into the New River Watershed, which happened in the past … I’d say 60 years,” said Opengari. “Things like that are really exciting to a birder.”

According to Opengari, the Dora Trail is now a state registered birding trail, where over 50 species nest. During the migratory season over 100 species of birds can be spotted along the trail. Doubtless, Opengari could name and describe every one of them, including the elusive Green Heron, which can sometimes be sighted just upstream of the Pulaski post office.

When asked what the strangest bird in the world that he could think of, Opengari paused and then smiled.

“There’s a bird in Antarctica looks like a chicken, it’s white,” he said. “It walks on the ground around following penguins and it eats penguin poop. I can imagine the first explorer in Antarctica thinking, ‘Oh look, there’s some chickens,’ and eating one of them, which may not have been as tasty as he first imagined.”

These days, Opengari will occasionally visit his daughter Laura and granddaughter Sabrina in Roanoke. As far as his new home in Pulaski, “I like it and I’d like to see it grow like everybody else,” said Opengari. “They’re doing a lot of remodeling downtown which I think will really help but the people here are really friendly and I really enjoy everybody I come in contact with along the trail.”

If you see Bill Opengari someday on the Dora Trail, ask him about birds … or just about anything involving nature and he’s likely to provide an interesting answer.

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