On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

naturalist blog logoBeth Lawton, a member of the 2015-2016 Maryland Master Naturalist training program, has chronicled her experience in a series of essays. Registration is underway for the 2016-2017 program, which runs October through July. Click here for more information or to submit an application, or contact Robyn Affron, Master Naturalist Facilitator.

Chapter Ten—Oy, Oysters!

I arrived at the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, Tilghman Island, for the last formal classroom session of the Maryland Master Naturalist program to find instructor Carol McCullough, a bucket of oysters, and a plethora of intriguing tools ranging from an electric power drill, paper towels, and dissecting knives, all the way to a chain mail glove. Appropriately, this culminating class took place in the brand-new classroom at Phillips Wharf and focused on the renowned oyster, symbol of the Chesapeake Bay 20160615_Oyster Dissection w toolsand our coastal plain curriculum. A native Marylander, Carol is a professional estuarine ecologist with 30 years of experience in Chesapeake Bay science.

Carol quickly familiarized us with the basics of oyster anatomy, clarifying many aspects of the creature that one would not learn as part of the local raw bar experience. We learned about gender (most oysters start as males and then switch to females as they get older and larger); bilateral symmetry and how it differs in oysters; the oyster circulatory system; a brief history of the harvesting of oysters in the bay; the types of tools used for dissecting oysters; oyster predators (besides humans); and how the oyster decides whether something is worth eating and, if it’s not, how the food item become pseudo-feces.

cqrol oyster

Carol McCullough and an oyster

Next, we turned our attention to diseases that affect oysters, most notably dermo disease, which is caused by Perkinsus marinus (something akin to a dinoflagellate), and MSX (shorthand for Multinucleate Sphere Unknown), caused by Haplosporidium nelson, a single-celled protozoa. This area is Carol’s specialty, and we learned about pathology, diagnosis, transmission, and the effects of the disease on the oyster population. Throughout the discussion of oyster diseases, Carol wove in aspects of efforts to return the oyster population to more robust levels and the impact of other events, such as World Wars and severe droughts, on oyster harvests. Other topics covered included mega-restoration projects, “kitchen wisdom,” oysters’ role in filtering the Chesapeake Bay, oysters in restaurants, and Maryland regulations about aquaculture.

kelly cox

Phillips Wharf Director Kelly Cox and the floating upweller on Knapps Narrows

We took a short break and walked across a parking area (with a rain garden!) to meet with Kelly Cox, the director of Phillips Wharf Environmental Center.  Kelly gave us the grand tour, showing the outdoor holding tanks, the floating upweller (which helps with artificial feeding), the nursery tank upweller (which can also be a downweller for raising oyster larvae), and some new equipment still being installed. Kelly also described the high school training program that Phillips Wharf sponsors, along with Chesapeake College, with the goal of providing students with background and experience needed to become aquaculture farmers.

Returning to the classroom, we dissected some of the oysters that Carol had provided, and she also prepared some microscope slides with iodine stain of oyster rectum tissue (“butt studies”) that had been incubating for one week. We looked at the prepared slides through the microscope and were able to see the “little black balls” that were diagnostic for dermo disease.

During the lunch break, our MMN coordinator for Phillips Wharf, Kayla Fairfield, described the use of an oyster farming cage. After a few classmates gave short presentations on their final projects—the paw paw tree and making paw paw jelly, educational materials for the Fishmobile, and creating a monarch waystation at Adkins Arboretum—we were treated to visits from two oystermen, Captain Wade Murphy and Captain Rob Bowen.

capt wade

Captain Wade (examiner.com, 4/6/10)

Captain Wade offered a captivating, albeit somewhat sad, tale of the changes in oyster fishing that have happened since he started working the Bay with his father in 1957. Captain Wade uses a skipjack and has had only two boats over his career (1964-1984, and 1984 to the present). He had some very practical and cooperative advice about how fishermen and environmental organizations could work together to restore the oyster populations.

Captain Rob, “not a skipjack captain” (he said, with some emphasis), also talked about strategies to help the oyster populations while still making a living from harvesting. He gave insight into the realities of working the Bay between October 1 and March 31 (the


Captain Rob

season for harvesting wild oysters), noting that in a good year, there would be 100 days of fishing. Captain Rob also works as a tugboat captain to fill in when the harvests are down or when the season is closed.

We closed our last classroom session of this first year of training with details about the take-home examination (due next month) and paperwork with which we can evaluate the program’s instructors.

In some ways, the program has gone by very quickly, but it has also required a great deal of focus, lots of reading and preparation work, and stretching of my understanding of my place in the natural world and in the world of naturalists. I find myself giving the “elevator speech” when I tell people I am becoming a master naturalist—it has nearly a mystical ring in my ears—but I’m not so sure others have that same sense. Many people respond, “oh, that’s nice, but what can you DO with it?” Trying hard not to flippantly say, “Save the planet!” I draw the parallel between Master Gardeners (cultivated world) and Master Naturalists (natural world) and also talk about lifelong learning, the joys of being outdoors, and this insatiable curiosity that seems to accompany my every waking moment. I am delighted to have had this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing my training into the second year, which entails volunteer time and advanced training classes. I’m especially glad to have had the chance to write this blog, as it has given me a great reason to take pictures and copious notes, and actively reflect on the whole process of becoming a master naturalist.

Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist-in-training

Master Naturalists on the move

It is hard to believe that our Master Naturalist training session is almost over. As I sit back in my kayak and just take in the moment of my class being one with nature and Nick Carter, I am so proud of this class. I know they will go on to be good stewards of the land, protect nature, and give back as dedicated volunteers.
by Robyn Affron
Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator
Maryland Master Naturalist Program Facilitator

On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist


naturalist blog logoChapter Nine—The Early Bird Gets the Worm [Farm]

So, for once, I thought I was arriving early to the monthly Master Naturalists’ training program, only to find that a very interesting presentation was just getting underway. Laura Rocco, herself a Master Naturalist in Florida, brought in her red worm farm to show us. I had some experience with red worm farming years ago as part of our home educating, and was glad to be reminded of how red worms can take care of your compostable garbage such as veggies, coffee grounds, and moldy bread, while providing power-packed castings (poop) for your plants.

20160518_Worm Farm and Laura

Technically called “vermicomposting,” worm composting can be done in a lovely three-layer composter, such as Laura brought, or in a simpler wooden box with a screened top (to keep the cats out and the worms in, in my household). Laura recommended a book called Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. Laura ordered her “red wriggler” worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, from whose website you can also find supplies and a wealth of how-to information.

20160518_worms and hand

From the worms, we moved right on up the food chain to Ornithology (the study of birds) with Gwen Brewer, the Science Program Manager from the Wildlife and Heritage Services of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Gwen started with a brief overview of the numbers and species of birds in Maryland, and specifically on the eastern shore, and shared with us a few resources she recommends:

20160518_Gwen Brewer Hurray for BirdsWe also learned about the three levels of legal protection (Endangered, Threatened, or In Need of Conservation) before she introduced the “cast of characters” – two birds that she would use as examples of the concepts she was going to cover: the scarlet tanager and the eastern bluebird (also known by this recently-relocated author as the “New York Bluebird”).

In brief, the scarlet tanager (Piranga divacea) breeds in conifer and deciduous forest, winters in montane (mountainous) evergreen forests in South America, has a generic-shaped bill (good for eating spiders, insects, buds, fruit), needs stopover habitats for its migration, and is facing problems in wintering areas due to hunting, contamination, pest control, and land conversion.

Contrast these characteristics with the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), which breeds all over, has both winter range and year-round presence here on the eastern shore, eats insects and fruits, and must deal with starlings who compete for cavity nests, as well as with brown-headed cowbirds (“nest parasites” who cleverly trick the bluebird into raising cowbird hatchlings).

We used this cast of characters to learn more about migration, including details of the four forces of flight (gravity, lift, thrust, and drag); how birds reduce weight and increase power; the need for fuel, as migration can burn up to half the bird’s weight during the trip; the metabolic rate used for long-distance migration; theories as to how migrating birds navigate and even avoid storms; data that ornithologists have gleaned from satellite transmitters on birds (a website that offers bird migration forecasts in real-time is called BirdCast); and conservation strategies to help birds migrate successfully.

Next we headed outdoors, first learning about how to use binoculars and how to home20160518_Gwen birding in on your target while looking through said binoculars. Gwen reminded everyone to stay limber and look down occasionally so as not to get a crick-in-the-neck, and also made some practical suggestions for describing exactly where you spotted a bird if you are out birding with others (“oh, look, over there” not being quite enough detail for your fellow birders to locate the bird for themselves).

We had some amusing times trying to learn to identify birds by their calls – the amusement coming from describing auditory output in words – “sounds like a ping-pong ball” (field swallow) “teacher, teacher, teacher” (oven birds) “pee-eee-wee” (eastern wood pee-wee). Gwen was very patient and repeatedly helped us to identify the numerous birds we heard on our walk through the woods/stream area at Adkins Arboretum.

After a lunchtime break (sitting outside, trying valiantly to identify bird songs and calls whilst munching on PBJs) we headed in for a session on Taxonomy – defined as “the science of using characteristics to name and place organisms into groups.” Gwen did a marvelous job of condensing and summarizing a lot of the theories and practical applications of classification/organization.

20160518_Amusing Latin NamesTopics covered included why classification is important as an organizational strategy and a means of communication; the process of classifying; the types of traits that might be considered, including anatomical, morphological, developmental, genetic, biochemical, behavioral, and fossil record; naming rules for species (including some silly – but real—examples, as shown in the figure); the six kingdoms and how they have changed over time, especially with the increasing role of genetic typing; the use of dichotomous keys as a decision matrix; evolutionary characteristics (paths) used for determining a species for a taxonomy, including homology, parallelism, convergence, and analogy; and different approaches to graphically depict classification (to help with the process). Gwen concluded her lecture with a brief discussion of ways to stem the loss of species and by exhorting us to watch for patterns, similarities, and differences as we go forth and explore the natural world.

Gwen Brewer also shared with us a quote from Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, upon the launching of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in March 2005:

“Only by understanding the environment and how it works, can we
make the necessary decisions to protect it. Only by valuing all our
precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a sustainable future.”






This story has a happy ending…hopefully

Five minutes after depositing my beagle in the backyard, I stepped out to…a bunny apocalypse. One tiny rabbit wilted in the beagle’s mouth, and four more were scattered through the grass. The shallow scrape of a nest lay empty.

Silently cursing the rabbit who, year after doomed year, returned to rear her young in my dog-infested backyard, I acted quickly. The guilty-eyed beagle, already having dropped his bunny, was unceremoniously booted inside. Donning gloves, I carefully scooped up each of the stunned bunnies (including the soggy one) and inserted them back in their nest.

Step two of the Great Rabbit Rescue was to construct a bunny fortress. This consisted of a roomy wicker basket tipped upside-down with an opening large enough for a grown rabbit to enter but not large enough for the beagle. The basket was secured over the nest with tent stakes and the opening concealed with clumps of grass and clover.

I don’t know for sure if the mother rabbit will return to nurse her young. I don’t even know if I did the right thing in handling the bunnies. As an environmental educator, I am constantly urging my students not to interfere with nature and to leave young or injured animals alone. This is almost always the best solution. But sometimes in life we have to go with our gut, relying on a combination of heart and head to make decisions.

In this case, my heart won out. Hopefully, the bunnies will, too.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator

Nature is everywhere

I often end my environmental education programs by asking students to share something spring16 029they’ve learned during their time at the Arboretum. Recently, a second grader answered: “That nature is everywhere, even inside.” Her response left me a little perplexed. Until this morning, that is, when my daughter shouted for me to look out the kitchen window. Tucked in the branches of a leafy bush, serenely bobbing up and down in the wind, sat a mother cardinal in her nest.

We’ve spent the day watching her, and she’s spent the day watching us, seemingly as interested in our doings as we are in hers. Perhaps the antics of my four children have her worrying about impending motherhood. Or perhaps she’s keeping a wary eye on the one-eyed cat who is no friend to birds.

Whatever the case, her presence is a good reminder that nature is everywhere, inside and out. Through all seasons, in rain and sun, light and darkness, nature is a constant in our lives, so much so that it often becomes the “background noise” that we tune out. Why not take a few moments each day to tune back in? Lie in the grass and admire the canopy of a backyard tree. Listen to the rich hum of bumblebees on your front porch. Admire the invincibility of pollen as it blankets your windowsill. Open your eyes like a second grader, and be prepared to be amazed.

For more wonderful ways to live a “nature-rich life,” check out Richard Louv’s new book, Vitamin N, which will soon be on sale in the Arboretum’s gift shop.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator