Celebrating the Life of Jim Brett

Curator Emeritus passes at age 84

Posted on in Heroes of Hawk Mountain by Hawk Mountain

Written with input from staff and volunteers

Read the obituary here.

Hawk Mountain’s Curator Emeritus James Brett died Friday, December 28 in New Tripoli, PA. He was a Hawk Mountain hero, icon, and friend.  

Jim is one of three, and the last person, to hold the position of Curator at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Combined with 25 years on the staff, it’s little surprise so many people forever link his name to their Mountain experience. Here he developed the education program, established the “new” Visitor Center, and founded the international intern program. That program grew from a fledgling effort in 1976 to an internationally recognized conservation traineeship under his leadership. He remained at Hawk Mountain for 26 years, during which time he turned the Sanctuary from a small regional wildlife reserve to an organization of international significance and stature.

A life-long naturalist, he led a 50-year conservation career, driven by his innate ability to build team spirit and camaraderie.

“Jim believed deeply in the Sanctuary mission and relayed to every group of interns that each person at the lookout is a conservation opportunity. He urged them to engage with visitors, and share the wonder of the raptors,” recalls Director of Conservation Science Dr. Laurie Goodrich. That style of direct engagement, informal interpretation, and sharing a sincere passion for nature continues to guide the Sanctuary today.

Jim built fellowship and solidarity among the staff along with an enthusiasm for hard work. He made everyone want to work hard, have fun, and take pride in making the Sanctuary ready to share with the public. For example, all staff and interns contributed at least one day or more to laying brick in the herringbone-pattern sidewalk to the new Habitat Garden. And, early in the winter the entire team gathered to split and stack wood.

His unique approach and charismatic personality extended far beyond the Sanctuary. Two of his greatest friends in raptor conservation were Yossi Leshem and Noel Snyder, two leading figures in raptor conservation. With Noel he worked on condor conservation plans, and he and Yossi set out to bring people in the Middle East together over birds. Jim believed conservation success required reaching out on tough issues to people on both sides. For example, some of the first international interns were from the West Bank and Israel. They lived and worked together, and Jim and Yossi worked hard to bring biologists from Palestine to work with Israelis in bird conservation. Yossi continues to do amazing work today and he and Jim enjoyed a lifelong friendship. Similarly, Jim began leading tours to Africa in the 1980s and fell in love with the countries, especially Tanzania. He took hundreds of people there over the years.

Any experience with Jim Brett brought closeness to wildlife and people. “He loved the rural people everywhere and would stop, whether in Mexico, Africa, or Pennsylvania, to talk to people along the way, winning hearts,” Goodrich remembers. 

Jim was also a prolific writer, having authored and co-authored three books, Feathers in the Wind, The Mountain and the Migration: A Guide to Hawk Mountain, and Hawk Mountain: A Conservation Success Story. That’s in addition to his “Mountain Year,” an annual and beloved column published in the Hawk Mountain News that featured selections from his personal journal of the people and the wildlife that highlighted each season. When it came to raptor migration and writing, Jim counted Pete Dunne as his close friend. 

Jim loved the history of Hawk Mountain and the people who spent time here. He sought out and formed friendships with old hawk shooters and discussed the old days, talked with visitors at the lookouts, and built new friendships. With them, or sometimes alone, he often explored the Sanctuary forest and nearby areas. These ‘forays’ had only loose destinations, and became Sanctuary Forays for members, which were essentially long hikes through the woods for spontaneous discovery. Such explorations usually lasted several hours and focused on seasonal phenology and time spent together outdoors.  

Jim’s many conservation accolades are well documented, but here at Hawk Mountain, he is perhaps best known for his generosity of time and friendship…as the man who was a best friend to all and who made each person feel special and valued. Above all, Jim Brett loved people and nature, and bringing the two together, but what he really loved and excelled at was exploring nature with people. We certainly loved him, and he will be missed.

“Jim Brett was unique and his influence global. A mighty oak has fallen but the sound reverberates through the forest and will for many generations.”
— Pete Dunne