Melissa Benzinger McGlynn can grasp a Northern saw-whet owl by its feet, deftly remove it from a tangled net, measure and band it for the Pocono Avian Research Center, and then gently release the bird to continue its migration, all without as much as a hoot or holler.
Not bad for the 31-year-old NCC biological science major and wildlife artist who once danced on the brink of homelessness and wrestled to overcome a debilitating car accident that left her laid up for months and unable to walk.
It is all part of a growing commitment to wildlife that has inspired her since childhood. “My first loves were frogs.” (Really!). She also enjoyed Eastern newts, barred owls and colorful warblers of all types. And she freely admits she is a big fan of turkey vultures, to boot.
Over the years she’s developed a special knack for tending to feathered friends, although it didn’t come easy. Today, thanks to years of experience, she’s as comfortable feeding mice to a great horned owl with an injured beak as she is volunteering at the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, where she cleans large outdoor flight pens containing hawks, vultures and falcons.
Such are her skills that the fearless volunteer no longer frets in her caretaker roles, even when she has to tend to the center’s eagle. “As long as I make sure he has a fresh fish in his talons, he’s happy,” she says.
Changing plan – pandemic strikes
All was proceeding wonderfully for the aspiring ornithologists. But then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, sidetracking her planned Doolittle duties this past summer, a time when she was scheduled for another bird banding internship and a bird carving workshop.
Instead, she became a spotted lantern fly sleuth. Working for the USDA, she spent her days scouring Southeastern and Southcentral Pennsylvania for the invasive and destructive bugs that routinely decimate grape vines, fruit trees and hard wood trees in their path.
The full-time job required searching out forests that could be treated by USDA arborists to eradicate the bugs. The job also included surveying dead bugs left behind as well as survivors on “control” plots of land nearby.
Social distancing throughout the spring and summer didn’t cramp the outdoorsy Monroe County native. “I busied myself learning to kayak and climbing mountains in the Delaware Water Gap as well as bird watching with my dad at least once a week.”
In fact, spotting her first-ever White-Eyed Vireo and a Yellow-Throated Warbler were high points of her father-daughter birding day trips to South Jersey.
Her parents get credit for building her interest in the outdoors. “My mom insisted we go on brisk family hikes for exercise. But my dad always slowed us down to stop and talk about birds we were seeing or hearing as well as the animals that crossed our path.
“Early on, he taught us to identify birds by their songs if we could not see them. An Eastern Tohee, for example, sounds like it is singing ‘Drink your tea,’ or ‘Trick or Treat’,” she explains.
The self-proclaimed “Swamp Monster” never misses the chance to get her feet wet helping wildlife. “I’m happiest near water because that’s where the birds, amphibians and other animals hang out. As a child, I’d come home with mud practically up to my waist, but my mom never complained.”
Being named to the All-PA Academic Team this spring by the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa and the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges was a game changer. The honor came with a full scholarship to any Pennsylvania state college, enabling Benzinger McGlynn to let her dreams soar like the turkey buzzards she adores.
“As soon as I finish at NCC this fall, I will attend East Stroudsburg University for degrees in animal biology and environmental science. After that, I want to study for a master’s in ornithology.”
But those dreams once were mired in a quagmire of bad luck. She graduated from East Stroudsburg South High School in 2007 and quickly became submerged in the recession of 2008. “With no money for college, I bounced from one poorly paying job to another as I tried to help my family. I was never more than a step away from homelessness.”
But her life became even more murky after she suffered a broken knee and hand in a 2013 car accident. “During long months of recuperation, I was trapped in a second-floor apartment in downtown East Stroudsburg. The only way I could see any wildlife at all was by lying on my back by a window and watching the occasional bird or buzzard fly by.”
As soon as her hand began healing, she tried needle felting which enabled her to create the wildlife of her memories, using raw wool, a specially barbed needle, clay, and a few pipe cleaners for the animals’ spines and feet. Making the veritable zoo of insects, birds and animals that grew from her memories passed the time and gave her something to sell online at dancingvulturedesigns.com and at wildlife and birding festivals.
But her creatures also danced in her head and filled her with resolve to spend her future helping the animals that had inspired her.
A volunteer for all seasons
Besides Benzinger McGlynn ‘s regular volunteer efforts, she has done roadside cleanups and works with the science club to sort through the NCC campus’ garbage, separating recyclables from trash. She even “mothers” a Monroe County stream for the Brodhead Watershed Association, checking the water’s quality by testing it monthly and making sure there are no obvious signs of pollutants.
She says she will miss her study breaks which have been spent watching animals on or near the NCC Monroe Campus she attends. One afternoon she counted more than 20 bluebirds. She also watches trail cams affording views of nearby wildlife including squirrels, foxes, raccoons, mice, skunks and chipmunks.
Even when at work in the library, she always picks a seat by its two large windows. “When I look up from my books, I always loved observing Cedar Wax Wings and Eastern Bluebirds making late autumn and winter dives into nearby bushes to snack on berries. Watching the animals go about their daily routines is refreshing and very grounding to me. It puts my focus on what’s really important.”
She urges people to realize, “We all are interconnected in a gigantic earth ecosystem and what we do affects…”
She stops talking midsentence and halts abruptly on her front porch step. She has spotted a wayward little black spider. Although spiders are not among her favorite creatures, she picks up a fallen leaf, prods him gently with her car’s key fob so he climbs onto the leaf. Then she lowers the spider and leaf onto the ground and in a hushed voice proclaims.
“No one gets squooshed on my watch.”