On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist: Part 4

naturalist blog logoChapter Four—A Side Journey

Before I signed up for the year-long Maryland Master Naturalist training program, my family planned a Christmas-season cruise to warmer parts—an ongoing choice to spend time together rather than exchange gifts at this time of year. Of course, the previously arranged cruise came the same week as the December naturalist training class, so I will be reporting on that December session (Botany) later this spring, when I “make up” the missed class. In lieu of that post, I thought I would share a few thoughts on our trip and how one can bring a naturalist’s frame of mind and heart along on any journey.

Since I seem to serve as my family’s tour director and general Mother Hen, I did often get to choose what sights (and sites) we were to experience. After landing in Fort Lauderdale, we even stopped by a nature center on our way to the first night’s lodging! The Anna Kolb Nature Center advertised an observation tower (with elevator), a natural history and ecology museum, and a 2 p.m. behind-the-scenes talk about the inhabitants of the aquarium. Okay, so the nature center was quite small, but the exhibits were beautifully done and focused on the local inhabitants of the brackish inland waterways. The


Atlantic needlefish (nas.er.usgs.gov)

docent who delivered our talk was young and enthusiastic and gave us a whole new insight on puffer fish behavior. He also helped me identify the needlefish (Strongylura marina) I had seen off the dock at our al fresco lunch. Well worth the $2 admission fee, and I was happy to see some critters, even though they were in tanks.


Our first excursion was a history and nature walk on the private Half Moon Cay—a bit of hiking, a beautiful protected lagoon, interesting remnants of 18th century brick houses, and manta rays in a corralled beach area. Although the sign warned of all kinds of creatures, I only saw a mockingbird (the spitting image of his Maryland cousin).

After a day at sea, we landed at Georgetown, Grand Cayman, and promptly took a taxi-Cruise Half Moon Cay lizard signvan to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park—beautiful plants, including many in bloom even in December. An orchid boardwalk and a xeriphytic garden (plants that have a low supplemental water requirement) were the highlights, but, again, not many birds or other creatures. I did hear rustling in the undergrowth, but never saw anything larger than a tiny lizard.

The next day, in Cozumel, Mexico, we went to Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park, which sounds very touristy, but it was actually a nature park with some Sea World-type programs. We caught the tail end of a sea lion demonstration, then rented snorkels and masks and FINALLY saw some critters: a beautiful, light-colored spotted spiny lobster (Panulirus guttatus), crawling along about 8 feet under the surface; many yellow and blue striped clown fish who came right up to our masks; and a much–larger (maybe 18-inch) bonefish that snuck up on me and was suddenly—VERY suddenly—in my field of view.

We walked all through Chankanaab Park, mostly intrigued by the flowers and plants, with only a few iguanas occasionally peeking around a stone or outcropping. I guess I ended up studying botany after all, since the animals and even insects were so scarce.

Cruise botanical garden pond reflection

Reflection pond, Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park, Cozumel

I might have brought along a guidebook to the local plants—and I sorely wished I knew more about plant identification—as there were some exotic flowers and seeds for which I had no counterpart in my northern experience. And we did not have access to the many pictures and identification sources on the Internet, so we were left Cruise - botanical garden red flower 3 closeupto hypothesize about the function of the plants we saw. Our docent the first day, on Half Moon Cay, did talk a lot about “bush medicine,” the folk medicinal uses for many of the plants we saw. She even convinced a few hardy souls to try a taste of a small persimmon that grows wild there (now THAT was a fruit I knew from a Maryland childhood and a teasing older brother who pretended to eat one to convince me to try it).

One last naturalist thought—as we cruised past the island of Cuba, I was struck by how lush and unspoiled it looked. Although I know that the economic and political difficulties in Cuba have been very hard on the people there, part of me recognized that the natural environment may have been spared some of the overdevelopment that prosperity often brings.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the latest essay in our regular Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist series—thank you for going along with me on this side excursion into the natural world of our close southern neighbors. As always, you can leave comments here or email me at BethLLawton@gmail.com.

by Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist in training

Decoding evergreens

It’s humbling to be a naturalist. Just when I’m feeling confident in my plant identification skills, I’ll stumble upon a situation that makes me realize how much I still have to learn. Consider the confusion brought about by the term evergreen. While the definition is pretty straightforward—a plant that has green leaves throughout the year—the variety of evergreens can be overwhelming. Evergreens include not only pines and other conifers but also mistletoe, holly, cycads, club mosses, live oaks, and most flowering plants from

Pinus virginiana_WIB_Jan_Feb

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana)

frost-free climates.

Conifers themselves are hardly simple. There are pines, characterized by bundled needles known as fascicles. There are also spruces, which have four-sided needles, and firs, which have flat needles. Junipers are conifers whose needles overlap like shingles on a roof, while cedars have soft, bright green needles that are compressed horizontally with overlapping scales.

When it comes to foraging for evergreens, I like to stay straightforward and safe by sticking with pines. My students love chewing on pine needles, and there’s no need for further identification since the needles of all pine species are edible. Add a handful to a pot of boiling water, remove from the heat, and steep for 15 minutes. The resulting tea has a pleasant citrus flavor and is high in vitamin C. The seeds of all pines are edible, too, although the only species in the United States truly big enough to make the effort worthwhile is the pinon pine of the Southwest. The seeds of a pine are located at the base of each pine cone scale. Pine cones open when dry, so placing the cone near a heat source is an easy way to speed up your seed collection. Putting the scales in a plastic bag and crushing with a rolling pin also helps release the seeds.

Winter is a lovely time to appreciate the Virginia and loblolly pines growing along the Arboretum’s Blockston Branch Walk. Be sure to stop by the Visitor’s Center for a complimentary Native Tree map before you set out.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator

Nature vs. the neat freak

While the blizzard of 2016 raged outside, a similar blizzard inundated my house in the form of hats, mittens, gloves, coats, boots, socks, snow pants, and coats. Like real snow, the deluge of winter apparel drifted against the doorways and melted in muddy, salty puddles on my beloved hardwood floors. The outdoorsy side of me applauded my offspring for their enthusiastic winter play, but the mother in me railed at the onslaught of wet laundry and Swiffer duty.

Good things come at a cost. Ultimately, would we rather our children stay inside, clean and dry, or charge off into the snowy day, where dreamy possibilities of snowmen, snow forts, and snowball fights await? Memories are made of toboggans, not television. At least I hope.

For the time being, I’m doing my best to endure the inevitable wintry mess and encourage outside fun. I want my children to remember winter as a time when the indoors beckons only after their toes have become slightly numb and their cheeks are cherry red. As for my floors? I’ll get to them one of these days. Just as soon as we’re through with springtime mud, summer sand, crushed fall leaves, next year’s snow….

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator


I’m sitting at the front desk of the Visitor’s Center, watching snowflakes drift against a DSC_0534.JPGgraying sky. Snowmelt puddles the bridge and will surely turn to ice later in the day. This is a wet snow; the trees wear scarves of white.

In between watching the snow, I’m writing my 2016 summer camp descriptions. The window before me may be filled with winter, but my computer screen brims with words like “splashing,” “sunny,” and “blackberries.” I’m conjuring up visions of steamy summer days even as the actual temperature plummets.

We all have one foot in the present and another in the future. It’s important to enjoy each season in its turn, but there’s something to be said for the fun of anticipation. On that note, be sure to check out the Arboretum’s 2016 calendar. From annual favorites like the Arbor Day Run and Candlelit Caroling Celebration to the Arboretum’s first-ever Fairyfest, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

by Jenny Houghton 
Youth Program Coordinator

On becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

naturalist blog logoChapter Three—Acorn Condo

The second session in the year-long Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist training program took place at Pickering Creek Audubon Center, located just north of Easton, Maryland, on a 400-acre working farm whose centerpiece is the tidal Pickering Creek.  The farmland was donated in 1984 by the George Olds and Margaret Strahl Olds families and now serves over 13,000 schoolchildren each year, as well as countless individuals and families who are welcomed to the site.

When I drove in, the first building I saw had lovely murals of fifteen-foot-high birds and sunflowers—a whimsical way to camouflage an old tractor barn. I joined my classmates for the short walk to the classroom building, where the mundane folding metal chairs and tile floor were upstaged by a set of preserved foxes (one gray, one red) and a taxidermied duck who looked ready to toddle off the countertop and head for the creek.  After a warm welcome from Director Mark Scanlon, we turned our collective attention to Sylvan Kaufman, our leader for the day. Topics covered duringFarm Pond Pickering Creek 2015 the class session include tidal wetlands, seed dispersal, how plants and animals prepare for the winter, and the carbon and nutrient cycle. And don’t worry that we were sitting in a lecture the whole time—no, each member shared his or her research conducted since the last session, and there was a lot of discussion and many questions proffered and answered.

Although it was a gray, not-quite-raining day, we next headed out to walk the trails of the Center and to focus particularly on “wintering”—the various strategies that plants and animals undertake as the weather turns. Plants may have berries that ripen or become sweeter at different parts of the season, ensuring that birds are eager to eat them and thus support the plant’s survival. Birds flock to avoid predators, seek food, and create warmth. Many trees have wind-dispersed seeds, including the box alder, which was “snowing” around us as we headed toward the mature woods.

Our first stop was at an old farm pond that had regrown a variety of plants around the borders, some planted by the conservation folks, some natural regrowth. We heard more birds than we saw and also heard a number of frogs jumping into the water (it’s very difficult for 24 humans to perambulate silently!). One frog, mostly hidden in the leaves, waited right at our feet while we observed and chatted; she finally hopped into the pond when I moved the leaf over her head in a doomed attempt to take her picture.

We continued to walk the trails along Pickering Creek, while Sylvan and Samantha pointed out how to determine older growth (mature forest); the types of succession that usually happen after farmland returns to the wild or after a tree falls from lightning or other causes; the various fungi, plants, insects, and animals that can use a downed tree for food or shelter; how to tell from the browse line or telltale rubbings that deer are present in the transition zones between woods and meadow; the ecological impact

Pickering Queen Anns Lace macro

Queen Anne’s lace

of a “tip-up mound”—when a tree falls over and its root structure is up in the air; the varied uses of a dead standing tree for nesting and food; how to tell the difference between a batch of mistletoe in a tree and a squirrel dray (nest); black vultures versus turkey vultures and their long tenure (more than 80 years!) at Pickering Creek; and the role of Queen Anne’s lace as a host plant for swallowtail butterflies—a perennial favorite even if it doesn’t qualify as a “native plant” because it was introduced in the 1700s to North America.

On the way back to the classroom building, we nearly stumbled on this beautiful, large (approximately 1.75 inches in diameter) spider, tentatively identified as a marbled orb weaver spider. It was amazing to be in a group of folks happy to move the spider out of the walkway rather than fall prey to the common behavior of Squish First, Ask Questions Later. Pickering Golden Orb Spider 1

After lunch, we cemented some of our new-found knowledge with a team version of Ecology Jeopardy! (“I’ll take nitrogen cycle for 200, please, Sylvan”). A clever way for us to review the concepts from both the homework and the morning’s walk.

The next task was an acorn lab, for which we would need, of course, acorns! Getting in touch with my Inner Squirrel was much easier than I anticipated, as I happily scrounged around under a mature white oak tree, seeking not only freshly fallen nuts (for the hungry squirrel in me) but also acorns that were broken or damaged (to fill my entomologist’s curiosity) or acorns that had sprouts starting to show (Botany Rules!)—and because our lab exercise was set up to understand better the many roles that acorns play in an ecosystem.

Pickering Acorn Lab overview

We observed and measured our acorns, compared them to “urban” acorns that the instructor provided, determined whether and what kind of inhabitants were present (acorn weevils, filbert moths, acorn moths, fungus), and learned about a mast year, which 2015 is shaping up to be, defined as when the trees produce abundant crops of nuts.

One of my goals in writing these posts is to become more familiar with the vocabulary in use by ecologists, naturalists, and conservationists—rather than append or collect a glossary of terms, I will define them in context as appropriate. From our lab exercise, I happily learned yet ANOTHER synonym for scat—“frass”—for the “debris or excrement produced by insects”—in this case, left by worm larvae inside the acorn!Pickering Purple Salvia closeup

On the way out, I stopped by the “farm garden”—set up in a colonial style
and featuring this gorgeous annual salvia. For more information on the program, you might like to check out the University of Maryland Extension Program website.

Please check back to this site for more essays as I go through the program—I’d love to enter into a dialog or answer any questions you may have—you can leave comments here or email me at BethLLawton@gmail.com.