Diggin’ In: Meet three master naturalists geeked about nature

January 18, 2016

Master naturalists are curious about nature, live for the outdoors and care about natural resource management and conservation efforts.

Similar in concept to the nationwide master gardener training sponsored by state universities and cooperative extension services, master naturalists walk a different path — studying geology, meteorology, climate and citizen science, as well as native trees and biology of plants, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and insects. However, just like master gardeners, they train for several months, and then volunteer in the community through stewardship, citizen science and educational programs.

"I joined so I could find the rest of the ‘nature geeks’ out there because I knew there had to be more like me in such an organization," says Elisabeth Wilkins of Yorktown, Va., one of 95 members in the Peninsula Chapter, Virginia Master Naturalists.

As volunteers, the master naturalists help design and plant pollinator habitats at schools, establish wildlife covers along public corridors, install living shorelines, clear and mark nature trails, participate in water cleanups, monitor water quality, count birds, study wetlands and map wildlife, just to name a few of their annual projects.

In Virginia, the statewide program — — began in 2006. Today there are more than 30 chapters under the statewide program sponsored by Virginia Cooperative Extension, Department of Forestry, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Museum of Natural History and Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Center for Coastal Resources Management.

Nationwide, the Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs — — links wanna-be naturalists to natural resources programs.

Meet three master naturalists

Larry Lewis, 68, of Newport News, Va. After retiring in 2010, I trained as a master gardener. During my first year as a master gardener, a now great friend gave me a copy of Tallamy’s "Bringing Nature Home." She encouraged me to train as a master naturalist and introduced me to horticulture at the Virginia Living Museum – — near me. Tallamy’s book changed my gardening focus forever. After reading Tallamy’s book, my style shifted to pleasing not only the gardener’s eye, but planting to encourage birds and pollinators. Unnaturally green lawn and pleasing formal design are no longer a goal. Planting for nature can mean your garden can look a little wild during parts of the year. And limited use of herbicides and no pesticides are the new rule. I see a bug bite as proof the plant has a purpose in the garden.

Laura Marlowe, 63, of Poquoson, Va. After retiring from a 30-year Navy career, followed by a few years working for a defense contractor, I became a master naturalist in spring 2014 because I was interested in conservation and the environment. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Then, I discovered my interest in trees, and wanted to learn to identify them and their role in the environment, so I took master gardener training that following fall. After that, I took tree steward training and still love learning about trees. I love being surrounded by trees, and think that a home that looks like it was planted in the woods is the most inviting, and provides wonderful habitat for birds and small animals. It is really exciting to me to find box turtles in my yard and recognize them from previous years, or see cardinals nesting in the shrubs by my house.

Elisabeth Wilkins, 46, of Yorktown. After 15 years as an environmental educator in New York City, I am a very enthusiastic environmental educator and mentor. I love to share what I know and dispel "nature myths," and was awarded the Virginia Master Naturalist of the Year in 2014. My favorite master naturalist project is the eMammal cameras project, overseen by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. It captures images of what’s out in the woods when the humans are not — the heat-and motion-sensing cameras provide more of an instant gratification, because every three to four weeks we get to see new pictures of what animals were visiting our sites. We recently got a gorgeous up-close picture of a coyote in Newport News. Another great part of the eMammal project is the diverse group of stalwart volunteer hikers who put the cameras out…we have a jolly time hiking out to the sites, looking at nature together along the way, trying not to get lost while off-trail.



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