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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

Sweet Home Southern Tier

Horseheads' Ryan Donnelly - Back in His Natural Habitat

Ryan Donnelly grew up in a Horseheads neighborhood surrounded by nature.

“I didn’t have too many neighbors my own age, I was surrounded by a lot of woods, though,” he said. “Growing up, my parents made it really important for me to go out and explore stuff.”

Ryan’s mom, Mary, an anesthesiologist; and his dad, Paul, a family physician, set up a terrarium in the garage so that Ryan could get up close and personal with his wildlife neighbors.

“I was allowed to bring back any animal that I found, as long as it wasn’t poisonous or venomous, put it in the terrarium for a day to look at it. Then I had to take it back where I found it and release it again,” he explained.

“It was nice to get a hands-on approach and a close-up look at nature.”

Ryan developed an early love for nature. Photo provided by Ryan Donnelly.

Ryan, who currently works at Tanglewood Nature Center and Museum as its Marketing Director, Educator and Camp Co-Director, also gained a love of nature from having attended several of Tanglewood’s summer camps. First as a camper, and later while attending college, Ryan would return to the nature center to work as a camp counselor during his summer breaks.

“It’s been great to, kind of, come full circle,” he said.

Ryan graduated from high school in 2011 and, after having heard local ornithologist Bill Ostrander, a well-known and respected member of The Chemung Valley Audubon Society, give a presentation on raptors and songbirds during one of his visits to Tanglewood, Ryan realized that he could actually make a living examining nature and wildlife while educating others.

“I always enjoyed nature, and being out in nature. After seeing one of Ostrander’s birding seminars, I thought, ‘Oh cool, this is an actual career that I could follow’. I’ve been really interested working with birds since then.”

Ryan chose to attend Gettysburg College to study Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Ecology and Wildlife Biology. He minored in Biology and, since he was attending school in such a legendary location, Ryan decided to study History, too.

“The main thing that sold me on Gettysburg was the staff there, the professors,” he said.

“When I went down for the Accepted Students Day, they were super-friendly, super-knowledgeable.”

The low student-to-teacher ratio, as well as its proximity to his hometown, sealed Gettysburg College as Ryan’s higher institution of choice.

“It was perfect distance – where I got the college experience, though I wasn’t right at home. But, if there was ever an emergency or I got homesick, it was only about a three-and-a-half hour drive to get back,” he explained. “It was far enough away that I could live independently.”

When Ryan graduated he moved to Charleston, S.C. where he, first, got a job studying birds, the initial catalyst for his interest in pursuing work involving nature and wilderness.

“The reason I moved down there in the first place was to do migratory bird banding,” he said. “So, we would set up these huge mist nets, and birds would fall into them. We would capture the birds and put them in tiny pillow cases, so they wouldn’t be too stressed when we moved them. We’d take them to a picnic table, put a recording band on them … and then released them back.”

“I did that for about three years while I was down there.”

Ryan also enrolled in graduate school down south.

“I really liked Charleston. I loved the salt marsh experience, going to the beach and even hiking out in the coastal forests but, even where I lived, it was a good 30-, 45-minute drive to get out to these places.”

He enjoyed the six years he spent in South Carolina, which included a stint monitoring and caring for wildlife and the environment on Kiawah Island, off the coast.

“I was working as a Lakes Technician. So, we would do all sorts of stuff, like spraying pesticides on invasive species … Algae blooms in lakes and ponds. Or managing alligators – Tracking them, taking blood samples … We worked with local colleges doing research,” Ryan explained.

He learned a lot about the reptiles there.

“The alligators, their reputation is a lot bigger than they are,” Ryan said. “We would have to do projects like, we'd do plantings for native plants in the winter because it was cooler and the alligators wouldn’t be moving as fast. So, we’d get into the pond in hip waders to be planting the plants. Every now and then you’d have one be, kind of, interested in what you were doing. But as soon as we would turn around they’d kind of go down under the water and swim away.”

Ryan got up close and personal with wildlife while he lived and attended graduate school in South Carolina. Photos provided by Ryan Donnelly.

He learned a lot during his time down south. Eventually, though, Ryan was eager to move back closer to his hometown.

“I always knew I wanted to get back up to the northeast. That’s what I grew up learning about and experiencing – This environment, this ecosystem.” he said.

“I was actually looking for jobs everywhere, like Asheville and Virginia, even some in Pennsylvania. But then I saw this job at Tanglewood pop up and thought, ‘Oh, I have to go for it.”

“This is my first time in a marketing position, ever. But they’ve been super helpful and super supportive,” Ryan said about the new role he took on when he joined Tanglewood’s staff in August. “It’s been really nice to interact in that way with a community who really enjoys nature up here.”

He’s also happy to be back in familiar surroundings.

“That’s been one of the best parts (of the job). If I ever need a break or on my lunch break, I can just walk right outside into the woods and take a little hike, and then get right back to work,” he said.

Ryan with his songbird friend. Photo provided by Ryan Donnelly.

Although Ryan's girlfriend lives and works outside the Southern Tier, keeping them on the road, traveling to visit each other when they can, he loves being back in his hometown.

“Really, one of the main reasons I moved back home was for the fall. I can’t even believe how much I missed it,” he chuckles. “Because in South Carolina it’s like, everything’s green, everything’s green … and then, like, in one week, everything drops and it’s dead.”

While COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on community and social events, Ryan looks forward to safely exploring Tanglewood’s trails and museum with the community and visitors to the Southern Tier.

Sweet Home Southern Tier is a feature that celebrates those who have returned or moved to the region. If you'd like to be featured or know someone who should be, email


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