Denis Kania graduated from college with a degree in computer science and worked in applications development for more than 20 years. By then, he had grown tired of the corporate world and was ready for something different.
A friend suggested he look into an job opening in the St. Charles Park District’s natural resources department. He was interested in birds and nature, so he figured what the heck.
“It was like being reborn,” Kania said. “I felt like a kid again with something new to learn every day. They even paid me to do it!”
Kania worked at the park district for 18 years before retiring as manager of natural areas in 2018. He and his wife, Melissa, kicked off their retirement with a 40-day camping trip out west that covered 7 states and 4 Canadian provinces. Since retiring, they have also traveled to South Africa, Botswana, Ecuador and Panama.
He’s also a founding member and current president of the DuPage Birding Club, and has organized birding trips to Ghana, Ecuador, Jamaica and Thailand. And he’s a volunteer for the Forest Preserve District. Their son has a degree in forestry and works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“He witnessed my two careers, and he made a wise choice!” Kania said.
Here’s his story.
Favorite thing to do in the preserves
My big thing is BIRDS. Pretty much everything I do is related to birds. I have been organizing international birding trips for over 20 years. I’ve been teaching bird-related classes at the Morton Arboretum since 1997. And I have been creating bird art for over 30 years.
A colored-pencil drawing of a white-spotted flufftail, found in Ghana and Kenya, by Denis Kania.
Certainly, I love to go birdwatching in our preserves, but In the spirit of being stewards we volunteer for the Forest Preserve District in a variety of ways. I do ecological restoration work.
Melissa and I both volunteer for special events, and we both participate in the Forest Preserve District’s trail watch program. Since the district started opening up volunteer opportunities this year, we have been volunteering somewhere in the county almost daily.
What Brings Him Back Time and Time Again
There are 268 species of birds that can be seen in the county on a yearly basis. It’s a fun challenge to try to track them all down in a single year. Along the way, there are many preserves to visit that include a variety of habitats. And there are a lot of friendly people to meet as well.
Favorite Forest Preserve and Time to Visit
We have lived in Naperville for 40 years and have always been fans of visiting the preserves. We live very close to McDowell Grove Forest Preserve and have always enjoyed the trails there.
In spring and fall we see an increase in birds as they migrate through the county. May and September are key months, so I spend a lot of time in any of the preserves along the West Branch DuPage River. That includes places like McDowell Grove, West DuPage Woods, and St. James Farm. Last year, we made a point of visiting every DuPage forest preserve.
Catching the Nature Bug
I think the nature bug was always there, but I didn’t realize it until the 1990s. It was the key to opening up my mind to new thoughts and ideas.
Denis Kania removes bricks as part of a picnic pavilion improvement project at St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Warrenville.
There are a few key things that I have learned over the years that I can attribute to my nature quest. A big part of it comes from my international travels, but it is relevant here as well.
We need to realize that we share our natural resources. We have to become stewards for the things that do not get a vote. The value of those resources are often overlooked when it comes to an economic equation, but they have great value in everyone’s lives. Just look at how crowded our preserves have become during the pandemic.
McDowell Grove in Naperville is one of Denis Kania's favorite preserves to explore.
We need to have patience. We have brought pressure on all of our natural systems for over 100 years. At this point, they cannot fix themselves. We need to provide that stewardship, and we need to be patient as we foster the recovery.
One of Denis Kania's colored-pencil drawings of hooded warblers.
Favorite Nature Quote
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” ~ Mark Twain
It’s not a nature quote but more about the perspective I have gained from all of my travels. Sometimes I wonder if it shouldn’t be a requirement that we all leave the country at least once in our lifetime.
How Nature Inspires
Nature inspires me to be open to the unexpected. It’s hard for us to relate since we have built-in safety nets in our lives. In nature, survival tops the chart and anything goes. You can read all the nature books you want, but there is still the potential to witness something that has never been seen before. Who would think that an owl could find and eat a crayfish in the middle of the night, or a spider could catch a hummingbird in its web?
Advice to Others
My interest in nature started with birds. As you dig deeper into your passion, you will find that there are so many other things that you need to understand. All the moving parts in nature are interrelated. Your appreciation of nature will grow no matter what your entry point might be.
Pileated woodpecker drawing by Denis Kania.