In 58 years of marriage, Ron and Lee Davis of Orono have traveled the world, photographing rare plants and animals and experiencing a myriad cultures along the way. Whether hiking through a South American rainforest or paddling down an icy river in Alaska, they are continually blown away by the natural beauty of the world.
“In Africa, there are over 100 different kinds of antelope,” Ron Davis, 84, said while pouring over a map of Ethiopia at the dining room table of their home. “They range from the size of a rabbit to bigger than a cow.”
The couple is piecing together a presentation titled “The Top of Africa: Ethiopia,” which is about their most recent adventure seeking exotic and rare alpine animals in the Ethiopian mountains and plains. The event is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden, and it is open to the public. Admission for Audubon members is $5 and $7 for nonmembers.
“The beauty of the land and the animals and plants — that’s what’s motivational for me — the natural beauty,” Ron Davis said.
Mammals, birds, plants, insects, people, landscapes, the Davises are interested in it all, and they document it well. With his professional-grade Canon camera, Davis takes thousands of photos each trip, while Lee Davis writes extensive travel logs. Through these images and stories, they share faraway places with others back home in Maine.
Over the years, the couple has given many presentations on their wildlife expeditions for the Maine Audubon and other organizations. Lifelong educators, Ron and Lee Davis retired from teaching at the University of Maine in 2003 and are finding more time to volunteer and pursue big projects.
“We’re as busy now as we were before we retired,” Ron Davis, who refers to himself as an ecologist and naturalist, said.
Many people in the Bangor area know Davis as the creator of the Orono Bog Boardwalk, a 1-mile boardwalk that navigates a beautiful peat bog that straddles the border of Orono and Bangor. With the help of 150 local volunteers and the Maine Conservation Corps, Davis led the construction of the boardwalk in 2002 and 2003. He also is one of the founding members of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
But Ron and Lee Davis wear many hats. They continue to stay involved with UMaine and are involved in progressive politics and climate change research.
When it comes to their interest in conservation and wildlife, they’re active members in the Bangor and Orono land trusts. In fact, in 2008, they donated 37 acres of their 40-acre property in Orono to be a conservation easement held by the Orono Land Trust, where people can enjoy the forest on a mile-long nature trail.
Nearby, the Davises live in a solar-powered home with their dog, Gingah. In the hallway, there are photos of the Davises’ two grown daughters, who followed in their parents’ academic footsteps to become university researchers and teachers. They, too, travel extensively.
Alongside the family photos, exotic animals adorn the walls. Over the Davises’ bed is a photo Ron Davis took in Tanzania of a leopard licking the remains of a gazelle off its paws. Over the dresser is a photo he took of Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, at sunrise.
“I soon learned when I met him that I have to be patient when he wants to take a picture of a butterfly,” Lee Davis said. “It may take an hour. I just have to relax and let it happen.”
The couple go on a long-distance trip once or twice per year, she said, often volunteering as researchers for Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization that connects people to field research around the world.
Their trip to Ethiopia earlier this year lasted three weeks, during which they visited a wide range of habitats and located a number of rare and exotic animals with the help of Volker Sthamer, a German who has lived in Africa for 41 years and is working on a book on the birds of Ethiopia.
“He agreed to guide us for a few weeks,” Ron Davis said.
Starting in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, the Davises were ousted from their hotel to make room for politicians arriving for a meeting of the African Union. From there, they traveled throughout the mountainous country of central Ethiopia, where they found gelada, a species of baboon only found in the Ethiopian highlands.
Another highlight of the trip was searching for the endangered Ethiopian wolf.
“Only a few hundred of these [wolves] are left in existence worldwide now, and they all live in Ethiopia,” Davis said. “And we saw six of them.”
“We went up in the mountains specifically looking for them,” Lee Davis recalled.
At about 13,000 feet above sea level, Ron and Lee Davis came across the rare wolves, which were busy hunting their main food source — mole rats popping up out of underground burrows.
“That was fascinating to me — that whole scene,” Lee Davis, who has studied many aspects of animal behavior throughout her career, said. “And there was nothing to obscure our view — no trees and no big bushes, just grasses and scrub vegetation.”
Regardless of their many travels — including an around-the-world trip in the late ’90s — the Davises never cease to be inspired, surprised and excited by the places they visit, they said, right down to the last detail.
A few days ago, while editing photos from the Ethiopia trip, Ron Davis came across an image of a ground hornbill, a large, ground-dwelling bird with a thick, downward-sloping bill. He zoomed in on the photo to check its clarity and made a little discovery.
“I was wowed because I found that this bird had eyelashes,” Davis said. “Of course, they were modified feathers, but they were the longest, most beautiful eyelashes.
“Seeing things through a lens of a camera really helps me focus on things that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed,” he said.
Ron and Lee Davis’ next trip? Costa Rica in December.
To learn about the Maine Audubon and the Davises upcoming program on Ethiopia, visit maineaudubon.org or call the Fields Pond Audubon Center at 989-2591. The Fields Pond Audubon Center is located at 216 Fields Pond Road in Holden.