COLUMBIA — Vanessa Melton spent her Saturday afternoon where she likes best — outside, putting the final touches on a chimney-swift tower.
The tower, a nine-month project in the Wild Haven Nature Area northeast of Columbia, will be a refuge for chimney swifts, a group of birds whose numbers have been declining nationwide. Melton's leadership on the project has helped her win the city's "Volunteer of the Month" award for November.
Melton laughed Saturday as she talked about the unique challenges of building the tower through all kinds of weather, including some blustery days. "I was just hugging the tower when the wind blew, hoping the ladder wouldn't fall," she said.
Along with the help of seven other volunteers, Melton built the tower with the guidance of one book and a pile of donated tools. There were plenty of challenges, she said, like building a concrete base without knowing how to pour concrete. One day was spent just trying to master using a saw.
"We were really hoping by the time the dedication came, this thing was still standing," she said.
Robert McArthur, who played an active role in building the tower, was hammering metal trim on top of the tower Saturday and praising Melton's work on the project.
"She's not just a supervisor," he said. "She gets right in there and works with the gang."
McArthur thinks Melton and her fellow volunteers play an important role in preserving Columbia's natural environment. Referring to her work monitoring the water and wildlife in Hinkson Creek, he said, "If volunteers didn't do it, no one would."
But Melton said she "just like(s) to be out in nature." Growing up on 5 acres of land and woods in Eldon, Melton spent her childhood exploring trails and playing in the creek. She eventually pursued a degree in biology and currently works in an inorganic chemistry lab researching heavy metals.
Melton, who lives in New Franklin, estimated that she spends 15 to 20 hours a week volunteering for environmental and nature organizations. She leads a stream team for the Department of Natural Resources and is active in the Columbia Audubon Society. She is also a TreeKeeper for the city and a Master Naturalist through the conservation program of the same name, sponsored jointly by the Natural Resources Department and MU Extension.
Melton said she is motivated by her love of the outdoors and an interest in preserving wildlife, or what she calls "critters."
"I don't like to see species decline, especially when it's people's fault," she said, adding that cutting down trees has cost chimney swifts their natural habitats.
The birds then began nesting in the chimneys of human homes until people started capping their chimneys. Melton hopes that chimney swifts will begin to nest in the tower this spring when they return from the south.
With the tower completed, Melton already has plenty to keep her busy. She dabbles in landscape photography, keeps a weather journal, recently started violin lessons and chops firewood with her boyfriend for their wood-burning fireplace.
"I go home and I think, 'I gotta be outside!'" she said.