Refuge volunteer seems to be everywhere

JIM VAIKNORAS/Staff photoLynette Leka, at the Plum Island Wildlife Refuge, has been an active volunteer at the refuge and Mass Audubon since moving to Newbury in 2003.

NEWBURYPORT — It seems that it would be easier to ask Lynette Leka what she does not do as a Parker River National Wildlife Refuge volunteer than to have her list all the ways she donates her time there.

You may meet her at the gatehouse, where she “really likes to work. I love the end of the day,” she said, or she can be spotted pulling invasive pepper grass in the Great Marsh.

However, since she moved to Pine Island, Newbury, in 2003, the refuge is not the only organization that benefits from her energy and scientific background.

Leka purchased her Plum Island home, itself in the Great Marsh, in 1998, when she was still working in a Boston research lab with a focus on nutritional immunology and living in Newton Corner, where she raised a family.

Since her 2003 retirement, she has become a key member of the Parker River Clean Water Association, becoming the one who each month supervises volunteers, whom she has trained, to take the water samples from 14 locations throughout this watershed. She analyzes the samples in a Governor’s Academy lab, an arrangement created by Susan Oleszko, now retired head of the Byfield school’s science department. In addition, she manages the group’s membership database.

If you spot her making weekly observations of four osprey nests in the marsh, which takes 45 minutes each and then there’s writing the reports, she’s wearing her Essex County Greenbelt hat.

Or when you’re on the road, that could be her on a Saturday morning behind the wheel of the Joppa Flats Audubon van, co-leading a trip led by the education center’s director Bill Gette. They go way back, because it was meeting Gette that led to her relocating to Newbury. He was leading a workshop at Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln before he moved here to open Joppa Flats.

On the other hand, if she’s driving a red car and has a passenger, she’ll be driving a man who is blind as part of the new Time Trade Network of Greater Newburyport, which is an entirely volunteer organization founded in 2014.

During an interview with a reporter, she apologized for turning her head to identify birds flying by the refuge headquarters, looking toward the Merrimack River. “I had gotten into birding in the mid-’90s,” she recalled, “going on walks” offered by Mass Audubon.

However, she wasn’t finished listing all the ways she volunteers at the refuge, because she is a piping plover warden and helps monitor a purple martin colony, which, in part, involves pulling out sparrow nests from the birdhouse.

Despite the trend toward more and more people appreciating Plum Island’s role as a wildlife refuge for about 70 years, she reports there are still visitors who say something like: “I’ve lived here forever; why are you charging me?” when they stop at the gate.

Despite all that she does with other organizations, Mass Audubon still looms large on Leka’s volunteer calendar.

For a decade, she hosted Audubon interns for a month in her Pine Island home, managing their visit as well. They came from Brazil, Panama and Belize. In addition, each year she partnered with the late Betty Petersen to take trips to Belize, where Mass Audubon owns 250,000 acres. “I’ve been there quite a few times,” she said, and has also taken her daughter and son-in-law, who live in New York City.

With her scientific background and classes she has taken here, you might expect Leka to be connected with the Plum Island Coastal Field Station at Marshview Farm, Newbury, that is associated with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, but that is not the case. However, she does use the station’s rain data for the five days prior to taking those Parker River watershed samples, she reported with a smile.

And not to be forgotten, she is a member of the Friends of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

When you have a suggestion for someone who John Harwood should interview for the Getting Acquainted series, contact him at

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