25 Jan 2017 Artistic calling is for the birds
by Jan Spann
When Gail Miller signed up for a photography class as a Hendrix College freshman in 1969, she had no idea how this one course would shape her life years later.
As a junior, she transferred to the University of Central Arkansas and first majored in art but later migrated to industrial education. In 1975, Miller was the first female to graduate with a degree in manual arts therapy. She learned more than the tools of the trade and credits Professor Charlie Powers as her mentor during college and beyond.
“I didn’t just learn the mechanics of industrial arts,” said Miller. “I learned to improvise. I learned to make jigs, and I also realized that a modification here or there can solve another problem.”
After an internship at Fort Roots VA Hospital, Miller accepted a six-month temporary job at the Conway Human Development Center. When the employee didn’t return after leave, Miller was hired as an instructor.
In 1976, Miller purchased 6.5 acres off East German Lane in Conway and the next year hired a contractor to build her house, using plans she had drafted while at UCA. She wasn’t sure she planned to stay long in the small one-bedroom but years later, she realized how perfect the property fit into her life interests, so she converted a second-floor attic into two bedrooms and a bathroom. Over the years, Miller bought 10 additional adjoining acres.
From the time she first moved into her home, the nature lover began feeding the birds and other wildlife. To draw in birds throughout the acreage, Miller planted bird-friendly oaks and sycamores and installed bird feeders and birdhouses she made in her workshop. While she may not have realized it at the time, this was the first step in what would become her lifelong passion for bird photography.
Knowing that owls were already nearby, Miller built an owl box, and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission folks helped her install it. She also began purchasing books to learn more about the diversity of the birds she saw. Miller walked the property with her two Bernese Mountain dogs and began to notice how the birds reacted to nature throughout the year.
“Part of this land is in a floodplain, which is great for wildlife but not for people, so even some areas around me are still undeveloped,” Miller said. “I noticed the birds especially flocked to the standing water during the coldest days, because they have to have water. About two-thirds of my land is woods, and I enjoy interacting with the wildlife around me.”
During the next two decades, Miller’s job at CHDC moved from instruction to administration, and she began to think about what she wanted to pursue after she retired.
Her first goal was to spend time with her dogs, the Bernese Mountain dogs that had waited patiently at home while she was at work. In the three decades Miller owned this breed, she knew they were laidback and didn’t interfere as she watched and snapped her photography subjects. She had tried camera and Audubon club outings before and quickly learned that her timetable wasn’t always the same as others. This further refined her retirement choices as something she could do at home and alone.
During the really cold snaps Central Arkansas can experience, Miller thought of the birds’ need for water that would be frozen over during these times. It was at a 2012 Garden Show at the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds that she saw a water feature on display. The feature’s designer confirmed that he could build a water feature for her. “Having had horses in the past, I add a horse trough heater to the feature in winter,” Miller said.
Planning for retirement and her new focus on bird photography sent Miller searching for the type of camera equipment that would allow her to capture the perfect images.
With the water feature in place and her camera and accessories ready for action, Miller set up a tent with a flap where she could place her camera unobtrusively. By now, the birds were accustomed to the big dogs that shared the tent with Miller when they weren’t sauntering about.
“After the water feature was installed, I saw birds I have never seen before,” said Miller. “I’ve seen 65 different species and have photographed all but four.”
It requires patience to wait for the birds and the right moment.
“I split four hours every day with time in the morning and back again in the afternoon. My dogs are right beside me unless they get bored and wander around my fenced acreage. For me, it’s peaceful as I watch for what the next moment might bring. If I had stopped to look at a phone message, I would have missed a scarlet tanager.”
“The tent was OK but I wanted more,” said Miller. “I looked at portable buildings, but they were too large. I kept telling myself that I could do it. I could build just what I wanted. I had no clue, no plan, no idea and I started anyway!”
She headed to her workshop to build something just big enough for her and the dogs, Pretty Boy Floyd and Fiona. The 4 foot by 5 foot finished playhouse sits near the water feature in her front yard. With windows on all four sides of the playhouse, the dogs can also check out the scenery or meander out the open door into their playground. The only furniture is a small chair for Miller.
Miller retired from CHDC in 2013 and her final gift to the place where she spent more than 38 years was bluebird boxes she placed along CHDC’s tree line at Museum Road. Miller volunteers for the Arkansas Audubon Society (arbirds.org/) and counts birds in spring and winter. Every year, at least four of the six bluebird boxes have nests.
Another of Miller’s passions is her work with Raptor Rehab of Central Arkansas (RRCA), a nonprofit organization that cares for ill, injured or orphaned birds of prey and releases them back into the wild. RRCA has successfully released more than 900 birds of prey back to their natural habitat.
“I have worked with Rodney Paul at RRCA and two other rehabilitators for more than 20 years,” said Miller. “Rodney gets a call from Game and Fish or a landowner who has seen a bird of prey in distress. He then calls a volunteer like me, someone trained on how to handle an injured bird like an owl, falcon, hawk or eagle.
“Folks can volunteer to be an Education Ambassador or make a tax-deductible donation through rrca-raptors.org/. RRCA receives no other funds except donations.”
Some people can’t stand being alone, but Gail Miller is not one of those. Hers is not a lonely existence, as she has found her treasure in her dogs and the birds she invites into her world. And the depth of her solitude invites the rest of us into a wonderful window of nature.
A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.