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Retired minister is bird man of Waynesboro

March 22, 2000

Willard RahnBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Willard Rahn leads his weekly bird watching excursions at Renfrew Park dressed like he's just walked out of an Abercrombie & Fitch store.

"It's my bird watching uniform," said Rahn, 74, of Waynesboro.

The tan, pocketed L.L. Bean vest, waterproof shoes and forest green National Geographic shirt are not for show. They're tools of his avocation.

One vest pocket holds his Roger Tory Peterson bird book. His compass rests inside the right breast pocket. The left one carries the R-229 10-power Achromatic Lens magnifying glass for close-up looks at insects. The long sleeves of the National Geographic shirt keep out mosquitoes. Binoculars swing from a strap around his neck.

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He never travels without the attire and equipment, and wherever he travels he goes bird watching.

Rahn was a minister at Trinity United Church of Christ in Boonsboro for three years and at Hawley Memorial Presbyterian Church in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., for eight years before that. Now in retirement, he serves as a part-time chaplain at the Homewood Retirement Center in Williamsport.

In some circles, especially around the Waynesboro area, where he has lived for 26 years, Rahn is known as the man who leads the bird walks on Saturday mornings throughout April and May at Renfrew.

He's been involved in the hobby since he was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey in the early 1950s. A man he knew there, Alfred Wilson, invited him to see an Audubon Society film and his bird watching career was born.

It turned out that Wilson had a daughter, Virginia.

"He got me interested in birds and I got interested in his daughter." Rahn said. He and Virginia were married the following year, reared four children - Tim, Tom, Todd and Tina - and have four grandchildren.

One of the first things Rahn learned about bird watching is that birds are usually heard before they're seen. Wilson taught him that right off, he said.

"You hear the sound and you follow it to the bird. I know the calls of all local birds," he said.

Rahn sees bird watching as education. "It's repetition. The more times you see a bird, the more familiar you become with it."

He said he's no ornithologist, but he knows about 300 different species of birds and their calls. His favorite is the ruddy duck. It's his nickname when he's talking on his CB radio.

Among the more common species seen on Rahn's local bird walks are mourning doves, a half-dozen kinds of woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, chickadee, white breasted nuthatch, killdeer, wood ducks, mallards, Canada geese, grackles, starlings, house finches, sparrows, hawks and owls. "We see deer, groundhogs and squirrels too," he said.

Rahn said he sees fewer birds than he did 20 and 30 years ago and thinks pollution and loss of habitat are the culprits, along with cats.

"If people knew how many birds their cats killed they would never let them out of the house," he said.

Bird watching leads to a sort of bond with the feathered creatures. "We get to know a bird and some of its habits and learn to identify it," he said.

Rahn maintains a string of bluebird houses at Renfrew, sometimes getting two nests a year in each one.

"Everybody ought to have their own corner, something that they get to know something about," he said. "Mine is bird watching."

The new season for bird walks begins April 1 and runs through May 27.

An average class is six to 10 people. Those who want to go can simply show up in the lower Renfrew parking lot off Welty Road at 7 a.m. on any Saturday in April or May. The walks usually end around 10 a.m., Rahn said. Information is also available by calling Renfrew at 1-717-762-0373.

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