On becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

naturalist blog logoChapter Two—Introductions All ’Round

Loblolly pine. Virginia pine. Paw paw. Indian pipes. Devil’s walking stick. Big bluestem, aka turkey’s foot. Whew! The first class of the new session of Maryland Master Naturalist training was a lovely whirlwind of new people, a venture into five different habitats, a field exercise, and lots of information. The Master Naturalist training program entails a one-year stint of monthly training sessions, some field trips and volunteer time, and a second year of volunteer time combined with additional classwork. I walked into the Adkins Arboretum conference room at 9:45 a.m. on a recent October morning to find 20 people already at desks, with fat white notebooks placed at each position along with a copy of Ned Tillman’s book, The Chesapeake Watershed: A Sense of Place and a Call to Action. I snagged a seat up front, eager to be able to hear and see all that was coming, and scanned the group. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people and such a wide variety of ages. Some folks had very official-looking name badges pinned to their chests, some wore gardening clothes, some had brand-new outdoor shoes on, one had a beautiful scarf just asking to be snagged by a holly tree. Part of our morning’s activities included introducing ourselves—the group ranged from a local school principal, to a few retired teachers and health care providers, a librarian (me!), a nurse practitioner who really wanted to be a forest ranger, and a Park Services forest ranger who recently left the Park Service to become a nurse!


Photo courtesy of University of Maryland extension.

In addition to the 20 or so students at the center desks, the side seats of the room were also populated with volunteers from the Arboretum as well as some of the day’s speakers and instructors. We listened to a lovely welcome from Ginna Tiernan, acting executive director of Adkins Arboretum; an overview of the rules and regs of the program from Joy Schindler Rafey, the representative of the University of Maryland Extension program at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (our “parent” organization); and speakers from the three organizations sponsoring this training: Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Talbot County, Adkins Arboretum, and Phillips Wharf Environmental Center at Tilghman Island. We also heard from a number of volunteers and folks who had already completed the Maryland Master Naturalist training program. I expected all of the speakers to bring knowledge about the natural habitats of each of their quite-different sites, and I wasn’t disappointed, but I was most taken with their uniformly passionate enthusiasm for the program, for us as students, for the smallest of creatures, and for the planet as a whole.

The speaker from Pickering Creek, Samantha Pitts, described the 400-acre farm as “community-based conservation of natural resources” that features an old forest, wetlands, a mix of habitats, and 4 miles of walking trails. Their website welcomes visitors with a repeat of the theme of Connecting People with Nature—and Ms. Pitts certainly exuded that same feeling as she described the events and facilities at Pickering. They have a wealth of activities, including children’s camps, adult education programs, birding, volunteer opportunities, and others—with a focus on birds as a nod to their affiliation with the National Audubon Society. I was unaware of Pickering before this class and was left feeling as though I’d like to stop there on the way home that very day!

Robyn Affron, the visitor services coordinator (and our training organizer) from Adkins Arboretum, was next to speak. She shared the bounty of this 400-acre native garden and preserve, mentioning the 5 miles of dog-friendly trails, the native plant nursery, and the goats (who offer both friendly faces for visitors and practical help in clearing invasive plants from some areas of the preserve). Programs at Adkins range from art exhibits and performances to environmental education programs for school groups, to book clubs and other programs for youth and adults. Ms. Affron encouraged us to share photos and make use of the social media opportunities sponsored by Adkins.

Our next speaker was Kayla Fairfield, the general manager at Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, an organization designed to inform, inspire, and involve those who live near the Chesapeake Bay. Phillips Wharf features a winter lecture series, oyster restoration projects, and the ever-popular Fishmobile, a traveling marine science program that brings aquariums, touch tanks, and educators onsite to schools and events. Ms. Fairfield fairly bubbled over with enthusiasm and excitement about speaking to a roomful of committed nature lovers, and we, in turn, seemed ready to sign on for any project she mentioned.

paw paw

Paw paw understory. Photo by Beth Lawton.

At this point, I was ready to jump on the bandwagon and volunteer at ALL of these amazing sites, never mind that I barely have time to take the once-a-month class to get trained in the first place! But signing up would have to wait, as we were quickly divided into two sections and heading OUTSIDE for the rest of the day’s activities.

My group headed to the woods—which I was soon to learn were more properly the meadow, the edge where the habitats meet (“ecotone”), the lowland forest, and the upland forest—as we walked from the Visitor’s Center, through a field, down to the creek, over the bridge, and up a slight rise in the trail (okay, it’s the Maryland coastal plain—a very slight rise!). At each change in habitat, or at a few specimen plants, our leader, Margan Glover, shared information from the most-specific details to a broader perspective, helping us to get a firm grounding in the philosophy of naturalists. Margan had to keep reminding herself to “move along” as she had so much to share with us and our walk was only scheduled for 45 minutes. I had only grabbed one piece of paper, in case I might want to make a note or two during the walk—well, I certainly filled every tiny space on that notepaper (Note to self: bring journal next time). The highlights for me included a neat trick to tell the loblolly pine (3-needle bundles) from the Virginia pine (2-needle bundles); the notion that if you find common Boston ivy in the woods, look around for an old foundation that’s likely to be there near this cultivated plant; why squirrels eat the white oak acorns before the red oak acorns (they’re sweeter and have less tannic acid); and how to tell an Asian praying mantis (green and larger) from the native praying mantis (a mottled brown).

mw pod

Milkweed pod. Photo by Beth Lawton.

The next part of our walk, led by Sylvan Kaufman, started out in the meadow behind the Visitor’s Center. In addition to the same type of wonderful information about what plants we were seeing and birds we were hearing, Sylvan reminded us of some of the issues to consider with invasive plants and how they can get established on the edges where habitats meet. We also had a very interesting discussion about the controlled burns that can be used for meadow maintenance, when the human stewards have a reason for not letting the natural transition back to forest occur. Our exploration tour continued to the non-tidal freshwater wetland near the Visitor’s Center; in 2000, this area was restored to the wetland from a previously created pond. This “braided wetland” offers many microhabitats, including a wealth of plants from the aggressive (but native!) vine Mycenium scandums, to marsh pennywort, the red twig dogwood, buttonbush, and rushes.

After a brief lunch break, where we had a chance to chat a bit with our fellow students, we had a short lecture from Sylvan on the scientific method, why plants are the basis of communities, and how natural history is “written” by tree rings, fossils and rock layers, DNA, ice core layers, secession and disturbance, species morphology, and comparative anatomy, among other things. We were to become experts at “reading” what the natural world has to tell us.

So, with that in mind, we headed back outdoors for the “observation” portion of the day’s work—a period of 45 minutes or so to formulate and test a hypothesis about something that had captured our interest during the walks. We were to observe, take notes, draw pictures or take photos, and consider how to apply many of the broader questions to our specific hypothesis.

My hypothesis: “The dry summer and fall have given plants a chance to thrive that usually would not grow in the streambed area.”

bb creekbed

Blockston Branch creek bed. Photo by Beth Lawton.

My location: Blockston Branch—across the bridge from the meadow, then about 40 feet to an opening or natural path on the left. Visible water could be seen on both sides of a cleared mud flat crossing. The day was sunny and 70 degrees, the dappled sunlight on the brook just perfect!

My drawing looks a bit like a squished pancreas, but the sketching DID get me to look very closely and find where the ferns and maple seedlings were growing, to note spider webs across the wet areas but not above the dry spot, to see a decent-size rock and a log that had fallen into the creek, but not sunk down because the mud was dry and solid. I listened, too—and heard chipmunks chirruping, no, wait, that was some kind of bird (How does one learn to identify birdsong?) and acorns falling onto the forest floor—this year, they won’t be floating off to take root in new environs. When I got up from sitting next to the creek, a frog jumped and my mind jumped from plants to wondering how the dry weather was influencing the amphibians. I had seen one underwater creature (fish? frog? snake?) zoom across the pool of standing water near my perch, but there was no leaf movement on the water and thus, seemingly, no running water in this “stream.”

I meandered down 100 yards to another part of the stream, where quiet observation rewarded me with four frogs, a solitary bee, no signs of maple seedlings, and the tiny trickles of moving water, even though I noticed that the leaves were still stationary on the water’s surface. With notes taken, and feeling a Zen-like peacefulness from my midday sojourn into nature, I headed back to the classroom for a brief closing session.

For more information on the program, you might like to check out the University of Maryland Extension Program website. Stay tuned 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.

by Beth Lawton






One thought on “On becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

  1. I’m so glad you are enjoying the Master Naturalist coastal plain class Beth! Just to add to your store of new knowledge, the native vine in the wetland is Mikania scandens. More botany next month!

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