Saturday, February 17, 2018

Natural Notes: Mustelids of Cook County, Illinois

This blog post consists of my notes from a lecture about Mustelids of Cook County, which was presented by Chris Anchor, wildlife biologist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County.  The presentation took place at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, Illinois on February 16, 2018 and was presented to an audience that consisted mostly of naturalists and resource management specialists from local Forest Preserves and affiliated non-for-profit organizations.  

Mustelids, or weasels, include weasels, otters, and mink, among others.  At one point, skunks were classified as members of the weasel family, but are now considered their own unique group of mammals.  The Forest Preserves of Cook County has been actively tracking and monitoring weasels and other fur bearers for many years now.  Weasels are most often tracked using radio-transmitters. 

All native weasels are voracious predators and will often hunt down more than their fair share of food, caching away any extra.  Weasels are very territorial of each other and will often attack and even kill a member of their own species (or other species of weasel).  All weasels smell bad and have glands that release a thick and putrid liquid. 

Wildlife biologists have several techniques for figuring out what a wild animal eats.  Common techniques employed include analysis of fecal samples, analysis of stomach contents, and analysis of stable isotopes. 

Stable isotope analysis is performed in a biological laboratory at a university campus.  Whiskers from the animal can be plucked when captured and sent to a laboratory.  By analyzing the carbon to nitrogen ratio of each whisker segment, one can determine almost exactly what that animal has eaten during its recent life!  For wildlife in Cook County, stable isotope analysis have revealed a much more opportunistic diet than what is often assumed, especially for weasels and other Cook County predators like coyotes. 

Mink (Neovision vision)
Minks are aquatic but can often be found (and are very good at) climbing trees.  They are relatively large compared with most other weasels and are about 22-26 inches in length with dark brown or black fur with a white blotch on the chest or belly.  When one encounters mink in the wild, the white fur from their belly will stand out.  Mink are opportunistic predators and will often eat squirrels and muskrats.  Mink are often solitary except during the breeding season.  Population studies of mink and muskrats have revealed an almost consistent 2-year gap between an increase in the population of minks and an increase in the population of muskrats, suggesting that muskrats are a top prey selection of minks. 

Badger (Taxidea taxus)
Badgers have poor eye site but are nonetheless skilled predators.  They are active day and night.  They often excavate large holes at night eating ground squirrels and woodchucks.  They are stocky and muscular with short but powerful legs.  They are large in size and are about 27-30 inches in length.   The mating routine of badgers is rough and aggressive, and it is not uncommon to find blood and fur scattered about after copulation. 

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
Skunks are no longer classified as weasels but share many similarities in behavior and physiology.  Skunks are active at night and in the Forest Preserves are often found near picnic groves and other open spaces eating grubs and insects.  Skunks can be captured for analysis rather easily, since they are slow and awkward runners.  As long as a tarp or burlap is covered before they can spray, skunks can easily be neutralized.  It is also easy to step out of the way if they start to spray. 

Skunks have very sensitive paws that allow them to detect vibrations in the ground, aiding in their search for earthworms and grubs leaving in the soil.  Deep blood vessels allow skunks to run through thickets and brambles without serious lacerations. 

Skunks and bats are both major vectors of rabies, and in part as a result of radio-telemetry research conducted in Cook County, it is now illegal in Illinois to trap and release nuisance wildlife. 

Main population control factors of skunks are disease and severity of winters.  Skunks can be vectors of canine, feline, and mustelid diseases!  As such, they have served as great vectors for disease research and monitoring. 

Long-tailed Weasels (Mustela frenata)
Long-tailed Weasels are large but smaller than mink.  They have a distinctive white belly with dark gray or brown fur on top.  They have tiny feet, and their foot prints are not much larger than those of mice and other smaller rodents, their preferred prey items.  It is not uncommon to encounter their tracks among mice tracks.  Long-tailed Weasels are short-lived, around 2-3 years to no more than 5 years.  Their close relative, the Least Weasel (M. nivalis) is extremely rare in Cook County, and the well-known Ermine weasel (M. erminea) is found north of Illinois. 

River Otter (Lontra canadensis)
River otters were common in Illinois during early European Settlement, but due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss were lost from Illinois by 1930, and until recently have not rebounded.  From 1994-1997, 346 otters from Louisiana were released in Illinois.  They were also delisted as an endangered species in 2004.  The estimated population is now about 30,000 in Illinois, including Cook County!  The 2012-13 hunting season was the first in many years to include trapping of otters. 

Otters, like many other weasels, are voracious and opportunistic predators.  Prey includes fish, frogs, clams, muskrats, turtles, young beavers, and even water beetles!  Otters will drive out beavers and muskrats from their lodges and devour their young.  Otters quickly decimate their food supply and must eventually move elsewhere, especially if they hunt in smaller, more isolated ponds and wetlands.  A common indication of the presence of otters are piles of clam shells left behind, although muskrats do this, too.  Otters will also eat catfish and other large fish, even if the fish is larger than themselves!  The contents of their latrines are mostly mucous. 

River otters are mostly active at night, and they have large ranges, especially in rural areas.  They are the largest members of the weasel family in Illinois and can weigh up to 30 pounds!  They have tiny ears so that water does not go into them, and they exhibit delayed implementation.  Breeding occurs in January-April, and only until the female finds a suitable location or good weather conditions will she gestate.  Baby otters, referred to as pups, will gestate in only two weeks!  Otters, like most weasels, are often solitary and are intolerant of the pretense of other otters, although sometimes males will stay close to the female, especially if the female is in heat.  During the winter, otters can take refuge in abandoned beaver and muskrat lodges, can can swim below the ice in search of food. 

Otter track patterns are easily distinguished by their skid-bound pattern: 
Figure 1:  Diagram showing skid-bound pattern of river otter tracks.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

When water needs plants...

Many of us have heard that one of the benefits of protecting forests is for cleaner air.  That's because trees take in carbon dioxide, and through the process of photosynthesis, trees exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen, which we need in our air in order to breath.  Protected natural lands like forest preserves help ensure that we have spaces for trees and flowers to grow so that we can reap the benefits of cleaner, fresher air.  But did you know forests and other ecosystems also help to clean our water? 

The various plants that grow in forest preserve woodlands, prairies, wetlands, and other natural areas help to soak up billions of gallons of rainfall every time we have a major rainstorm.  According to the National Audubon Society, inland wetlands alone provide over $1.6 annually in water-quality protection in the United States! 

Plants, like all living things, need water.  Without water, plants and other living organisms would dehydrate and loose their ability to maintain necessary body functions.  Plants however, do us another favor by soaking up rainwater during storms, reducing flooding and erosion of soil.  In wetland areas, plants and microorganisms naturally living in the water and soil help to break down dirt, chemicals and other pollutants that wash in from farmlands, manicured lawns, shopping malls, highways and other developed areas.  In other words, the results of the daily activities of plants and microorganisms leave us with cleaner water!  One could perhaps think of our forest preserves as a giant "sponge" helping to soak up access rain while filtering our waterways and drinking water resources. 

In an effort to mimic this natural "forest sponge" effect, the Forest Preserves of Cook County has an ongoing plan to manage and reduce urban stormwater within our landholdings.  At Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland for example, you'll notice that the parking lot median has been planted with dozens of native wildflowers blooming in a linear-shaped depression, known as a "bioswale."  The bioswale traps runoff from rain and snow events and allows water to infiltrate into the ground more slowly while native forbes and herbs filter out sediment and automobile fluids.  Runoff that normally would race right into the nearest stream or lake instead makes its way into this artificiality constructed feature. 

On your next nature walk or bike ride, take a few moments to breath in the fresh air that the trees around you help to provide, and stay hydrated with water that likely originated from a clean lake or stream that had some help from natural areas like your Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Learn more about your Forest Preserves stormwater management efforts:

Alex Palmer
Naturalist, Sand Ridge Nature Center

Figure 1:  Bioswale in the parking lot of Sand Ridge Nature Center, Forest Preserves of Cook County

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

More than Magic: The Importance of Fall Colors

It's that time of year again!  Cooler temperatures, the low hum of leftover crickets and katydids in the trees, pumpkin spice everything, and that sweet smell of decaying leaves that permeates local parks and yards.  But best of all are the striking fall colors in parks and woodlots across the northeastern United States (figure 1).  
Figure 1:  Fall color at sunset at Sand Ridge Nature Center in Illinois, 2016.  
Every fall in eastern forests, what was once a garden of green transforms to a gallery of color, ranging from bright yellow to blood red to a variegated orange.  The glory doesn't last long, and soon the trees are barren and browned as dried leaves flutter to the forest floor (or into your gutters or on your car's windshield!).  

I've always had a love-hate relationship with fall, and in an earlier blog post I admitted my distaste for nature's summer finale.  But the one thing I will agree on with autumn-enthusiasts is the showy blaze of color that dazzles the roadways and trails throughout the northeastern chunk of our continent.  

A question that might be on the back of your mind, however, is why do trees turn colors in the fall?  It ends up that not all trees turn colors in the fall and that this is a phenomena that is unique to temperate climate zones across our globe.  And while the colorful glory of fall is usually well appreciated by many, the ecological importance of fall leaf-drop is a process of paramount importance to most ecosystems within the northeastern United States.  

From food production to self-protection:  Why do some tree leaves turn colors in the fall?
Leaves are green...or are they?  The majority of leaves are green because of a cellular organelle within the tissue of a green leaf, known as a chloroplast, that releases a pigment known as chlorophyll which reflects green light (see figure 2).  Chloroplasts help drive an important process that most plants undertake that allows them to produce food from light energy (there are some plants that do not have chloroplasts, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post).  The process driven, in part, by chloroplasts that converts light energy into plant food is known as photosynthesis.  Figure 3 shows a highly simplified model of the photosynthesis process.  
Figure 2:  Chloroplasts within a plant cell
 (an individual chloroplast is indicated by the red arrow)
Figure 3:  Photosynthesis.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Plants that photosynthesize are able to produce their own food from light, and the ramifications of photosynthesis for many animals, including humans, is profound.  Nearly every animal species that we're familiar with relies on plants for food, including that family member or friend that everyone seems to have that's on that all meat "paleo" diet.  That's because most terrestrial and aquatic animals are a part of a food chain that starts with herbivores (primary producers) and concludes with predators (secondary and tertiary producers).  The many different food chains that exist across the world are a part of a greater food web that helps maintain ecological sustainability.  And another benefit that might be apparent to you if you study figure 3 is that the byproduct of photosynthesis (aka the "exhaust") is oxygen, which we need in order to breath!

In the northeast United States, plants are secretly working away at pumping out oxygen as they convert light energy into plant food.  In most tropical and subtropical regions, plants do this throughout the year (figure 4), but in moist temperate regions, such as where I am in the greater Chicago area, most plants cease photosynthesis in the fall as cooler temperatures set in and as the availability of daylight decreases.  

Figure 4:  In tropical areas, evergreen plants, such as the palm trees
that adorn this beach in Southern Florida, photosynthesize year-round.
Broad-leaved plants in moist tropical environments can expose their foliage to the bright sun year-round, but in colder climates like the Chicago area nearly all broad-leaved plants must protect themselves from cold and dry winter air.  Trees in temperate forests must protect their assets in order to survive and ensure that they can continue to produce food to sustain themselves in the future.  As winter approaches, they must drop their leaves and go into dormancy until warmer and wetter conditions return in the spring.  When the leaves start turning colors in the fall is when you know the transition to dormancy has begun!

But why do leaves that have been green almost the entire year suddenly start turning so many different colors?  To let you in on a little secret, the "true colors" of the leaves become visible when chlorophyll begins to dissipate.  The relative concentration of chlorophyll, along with the fact that green pigment is stronger than reds and oranges, masks the other pigments in a tree's leaves.  As the tree prepares to go into dormancy, photosynthesis temporary comes to a halt.  The chloroplasts move to the outer edges of the leaves and begin to decompose, allowing other pigments to become visible.  While this is going on, the tree forms an abscission zone at the point where the leaf is attached to the stem, and this disconnects any flow of water and nutrients to and from the leaf (figure 5).  Eventually, the leaf dries and detaches from the tree.
Figure 5:  Leaf abscission. 
Click here for image credits.

More than just pretty:  Why leaf fall matters
Many species of broad-leaved trees in the northeast United States drop their leaves in the winter and go into dormancy to prevent themselves from desiccation (drying out).  The process of entering dormancy leaves us for a brief amount of time a forest filled with color.  The leaves fall to the ground, and the tree replaces its lost leaves with new ones in the spring.

The question we need to ask ourselves about fall color and leaf drop, however, is so what?  Summer ends, we are dazzled with a display of showy colors, and then the snow starts to fall and it's winter.  We huddle by the fireplace inside, or we frantically do our holiday shopping, all the while missing out on the most important part of fall:  rotting leaves.

Figure 6:  Soil horizons, or layers.
You heard me right: Rotting leaves.  The process of leaf drop and the subsequent decomposition cannot be overstated in terms of its ecological importance. The decomposition of leaves replenishes the soil with nutrients that plants need to grow, thus eastern temperate forests actually self-fertilize!  The assortment of rotting leaves and other decaying material is known as detritus, and detritus eventually breaks down further into hummus, or topsoil (figure 6).  Topsoil is one of the most important layers of the soil profile, and most of our crops rely on the fertility offered by natural topsoil.  Thick mats of fallen leaves also help prevent erosion and moisture loss from woodland areas, and it creates habitat for dozens of decomposers, including insects, crustaceans, fungi, and even animals like salamanders that prey on decomposers.   Figure 7 shows a common animal that is among the decomposers, the "rolly-polly" isopod that many are familiar with.  
Figure 7:  Isopod, a common decomposer.  Image source:  Click here

So you see, fall leaf drop is not just important for its aesthetics, but also for its necessity in  maintaining ecological stability.  The health of our forests and many other habitats rely on this annual phenomena, adding top soil and replenishing the environment with critical nutrients.  We benefit by having the opportunity to witness the many colors of fall, and our soil and waters are more productive as a result.

Threats to the Magic:  Changing our Landscape and our Climate
One of the more obvious threats to autumn color is the removal of trees and forests and replacing those areas with urban and agricultural landscapes.  If there's no trees, there's not much fall color, and in return no new topsoil being formed nor replenished.  In the region I live and work in, most of the landscape is urban with only a few pockets of natural woodland and prairie found in small "islands" (figure 8).  But in areas where green grass still grows, we don't see much of a hummus layer, especially when we're talking about green turf grass in manicured suburban yards and parks (figure 9).  While raking leaves can be a lot of fun and is an important landscape maintenance task, one could argue that we've gone overboard.  We are removing too much of that nutrient-packed, moisture preserving detritus layer provided to us for free from the trees and flowers growing around us.
Figure 8:  A highly urbanized area just outside the city of Chicago.  

Figure 9:  Highly manicured landscaped areas that are cleared of fallen leaves are deficient in topsoil and are not easily replenished with nutrients nor protected from desiccation.  

Climate change, especially in my region, is causing summers to become longer, subsequently extending the growing season closer to the first hard freeze.  What affect this will have on local ecosystems in my area remains to be seen, but I can tell you that the unusually warm and wet season we have had is making for a disappointing fall (everything is just kind of wilting and turning brown, or is infected by fungal diseases like powdery mildew).  Shorter winters could alter the pace of decomposition, and with heavier rains this could lead to topsoil erosion and nutrient overload into nearby waterways.   The consequences of climate change will be significant in my region, and fall might not arrive with the same glory that it has in the past.

Autumn leaf drop is a magical site that is a privilege to witness for those that live in or visit moist temperate regions of our planet.   Besides being pretty, the process of leaf abscission and the resulting formation of a hummus layer in our soil is a critical event that sustains our ecosystem.  Threats to this very process has the potential to affect us negatively in many ways.

So be sure to show some appreciation for nature's conclusion to summer!  To help you out, I will end with some scenes of fall colors from the many places I have been within the last several years.  Enjoy!

Figure 10:  Autumn color at twilight at Sand Ridge Nature Center, South Holland, IL.   
Figure 11:  Fall color along a beach at Madeleine Island, Wisconsin.   

Figure 12:  St. Peter's Dome overlook near Ashland, Wisconsin.  

Figure 13:  Fall color in Bayfield, Wisconsin.  
Figure 14:  Autumn foliage at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, IL.  

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Naturally Yours: Tips and advice for dating an interpretive naturalist

So you want to date a naturalist.  Or perhaps you are already dating one.

Who can blame you?  Naturalists have a dreamy and wondrous sense of the world.  They are always observing what's around them, taking time to look at each flower, each rock, every bird that passes by, often expressing colorful admiration for every butterfly or moth that flutters past.  And more often than not naturalists are an open book, happily telling you about the amazing natural wonders around them, and opening your mind to things you might have never have known.  And naturalists are always eager to get outside, rain or shine, to explore a new trail or to try and catch a new frog species with a child-like sense of enthusiasm and excitement.

Yes, we naturalists are dreamy, free-spirited, and curious creatures.  But unless you too are naturalist , you may find some of our behaviors a little bit excessive at times.  Perhaps an 8 mile hike up a steep ravine isn't necessarily your idea of every day fun, or flipping through a field guide on wildflowers is not exactly your cup of tea when you want to relax on your day off.  So what can you do to ensure your happiness as well as the happiness of the naturalist you are dating?

First, it's important to understand the essence of an interpretive naturalist.  Let's break that into two parts:  interpretive and naturalist.  As resource interpreters, our daily jobs are doing what you have probably seen numerous times on romantic evening nature walks with your naturalist.  We love to share our knowledge and enthusiasm with the natural world with the hopes of inspiring others.
Where as others might consider nature walks a nice thing to do every once in a while, routine nature walks are an essential activity that confirms or sense of place and purpose.  Indeed, we need to get out in nature on a daily basis as opposed to once in a while, or otherwise we start to go into withdrawal.

Secondly, we are naturalists.  We love to identify plants and animals, or conduct bio-blitzes (rapid surveys of the different organisms found in a natural area)... for fun.  In fact, we are even willing to spend an entire day driving from site to site (what I like to call "park-hopping") just to look and see what different natural areas offer.

We enjoy teaching others about the wonders of nature, and we are always striving to expand our understanding of the natural world...always.  And I mean always!  At work, at home, on vacation, or any other time we have a nonstop itch to explore the ecological sciences that must be satiated sooner rather than later.  And on days where you would rather relax at home instead of hiking up a mountain, or on nights where you would prefer to bar-hop instead of park-hop, you might find yourself somewhat overexerted!

Here are some of the challenges you might face when your lover has his or her heart somewhere out in the wilderness:

"Let's go on an 8 mile hike through a steep ravine to look for salamanders!"  
A few times per month naturalists need to get out and have a "field day."  Doing so helps them to satisfy their craving to explore the natural world, but for many it can be a bit much to spend an entire day aimlessly bushwhacking through a jungle.  At times it might be best for you to stay home on some days and let your naturalist have the time he or she needs to immerse themselves in nature.  As a compromise, you could suggest shorter trips or more relaxed nature walks at least a few times that you could accompany them on.  Naturalists love to have a companion alongside them, and they should be willing to compromise by planning outings with you that are a little more reasonable.

"Ohhh, what's this?"  An adventure is always a few footsteps away when you're on a date with a naturalist!  Be prepared for an unexpected outdoor adventure at any given time.  Whenever you go out with a naturalist, be prepared for him or her to grab you by the hand and pull you into a garden, woodland, nature trail or other wild place.  Even during so called "urban hikes" you might end up somehow chasing a dragonfly through a field or sniffing every flower in a garden.  Be sure to bring a water bottle with you and perhaps some sunscreen or bug spray, because a naturalist's adventure will happen rain or shine and warm or cold.  

"It's the end of the world!"  Although in the workplace naturalists assume a positive attitude when working with school groups or the public, behind closed doors they can be outspoken bleeding hearts and even sometimes outright pessimists.  Let's face it, the world is filled with pressing environmental problems ranging from global warming, loss of biodiversity, pollution, invasive species, citizen apathy and reduced government budgets. It's easy for a naturalist to become vulnerable to a consistent "doom and gloom" mentality.  This is where you, their romantic partner, can step in and remind them of the good work that they do.  Ask them to imagine how much worse things would be if the world did not have naturalists like them  teaching others about environmental stewardship.  And remind them that one of the reasons you love and care about them is because of their passion and good work.  Remind your naturalist that you are here for them too and that you want them to be happy.

"Nothing ever changes,  I'm not making enough of a difference!"
Naturalists are often ambitious professionals with a mission to save the world, and a such they can be vulnerable to a burn out, which might not always make your Friday nights the most cheerful one. Change comes slowly, and it might be surprising to know that you only need to petition to about 5-10% of the general population to adjust their behavior in order to move change forward, according to various social research experts.  While naturalists have their work cut out for them, all of them have the ability to reach out to enough people to make a significant impact on protecting the environment. So tell your naturalist to cheer up and enjoy the time that you have together now!  And enough rants about invasive species already!  Sometimes it can be nice to just stop and smell the roses, regardless if they are the invasive Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) or the native Pasture Rose (R. carolina).

There's nothing more exotic or romantic than dating a naturalist!  You will never get bored, and you'll see and learn about things you never imagined!  So on your next evening out admiring moths, be sure to slow down and take some time to admire each other before you embark on your next journey through the brush.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Passionate or Passionless? Conducting quality interpretive programs on topics that don't interest you

In a picture-perfect world, I would only deliver picture-perfect interpretive programs at my site on subjects I am deeply knowledgeable and passionate about.  But as a close colleague of mine bluntly stated to me once, "Sometimes as interpretive naturalists we don't always have the luxury of doing only the programs that we like to do."

Most naturalists that I've worked with would consider themselves generalists who know a little bit about everything, from plants, to insects, to local history, to everything in between.  However, there are some topics that are more of a specialty or some than for others.  For example, I know a lot about salamanders, but I would actually consider my coworker more of the "herp specialist" since he has studied herpetology more extensively than myself.  As such, he is often the one to lead our reptile and amphibians programs at my nature center.  In contrast, I am generally considered by others to be more well-versed on  the subjects of birds and wildflowers, and subsequently I am usually the one people turn to for questions about these groups of organisms.  In either case, both of us are knowledgeable and passionate about the aforementioned subjects, and we are both fully competent to conduct interpretive programs on these topics.  What makes it even easier for us, though, is that both of take interest in learning about birds, wildflowers, and salamanders.

However, we do not live in a picture-perfect world, and sometimes I'm assigned a program topic that I'm simply not interested in.  At my site each year, we have a special event, "Archeology Day", that coincides with Illinois Archeology Month, a statewide initiative to showcase and develop an appreciation for Illinois' important archeology sites and research projects.

I am going to have to apologize ahead of time to many of my colleagues for admitting this but, despite participating in archeology digs, visiting enormous Maya and Inca ruins during a study-broad college class, attending lectures by nationally acclaimed archaeologists, and even spending 6 months as an intern at an archaeological park, I still find the subject of archeology tedious and uninteresting.  It's not that I find ruins of ancient cities unimpressive, nor do I discredit the importance of data collected from archaeological research in regards to understanding human society, but the truth is much of the direct work involved with archeology...well...seems quite boring to be honest.  To be well-versed in the discipline apparently requires days of literature reviews,  hours of sifting in sand for fragments of artifacts, and meticulously cataloging each artifact (I imagine some of my colleagues would find some of my work just as cumbersome, such as cutting invasive Buckthorn for several hours a day to restore a tall-grass prairie).

Ideally, I would defer what I consider an uninteresting subject such as an archeology-themed program to another staff member.   But as a paid employee of my respective organization, I am sometimes required to carry out interpretive programs that are not necessarily specialties or interests of mine, and I am required to carry those programs out with enthusiasm using proper interpretive techniques, as with all naturalist-led programs at my site.

So what can you do if you're stuck doing a program that you're completely uninterested in but still knowledgeable about?  One method that has worked well for me is to "connect the dots" between one subject (the one you are not interested in) and the subject(s) you are interested in.  For example, perhaps you are a wildlife enthusiast, but when it comes to plants you couldn't care less about them. Yet you are selected to lead a summer wildflower walk at your site.   One way you could make the program more appealing for you while still staying relevant to the topic is to discuss the important roles that wildflowers have in providing food and cover for wildlife.  Also, many important insect species such as butterflies require the presence of a certain species or family of plants in order to carry out their life cycles.

My colleagues who are enthusiastic about Archeology would be quick to point out to me that the importance of understanding Archeology is not only about understanding human culture, but also the influence of past peoples on a subject I take great interest in:  local ecology.   Archeology research has helped to reveal the influence of  Native Americans on the development of local ecosystems, as ancient people periodically set wildfires in our region that allowed the persistence of fire-dependent communities such as prairies and oak-savannas (figure 1).  Therefore I could potentially offer a significant contribution to my site's Archeology Day event by developing programs or exhibits highlighting the connections of past cultures to local natural history, thus connecting the dots between my passions and the needs of my workplace.

Indeed, common interests between topics you're interested in and the topic you're not interested in can fuel the passion you need to deliver a professional interpretive program.  But interpreters should also be careful about how they deliver programs whose topic they are passionate about but whose audience might be otherwise.  For example, I love to identify spring wildflowers.  As soon as the first warm day in the spring sends forth our early-blooming wildflowers, I love to burst out of the doors of our cozy nature center building, with my Newcomb's wildflower field guide in hand, and start to run through the keys to figure out which wildflower is which and what taxonomic families of plants they belong.  Indeed, identifying the taxonomic class of wildflowers in the spring is my quick cure for cabin fever.  But emphasizing wildflower taxonomy with our nature center visitors at a family program could be nothing more than a cure for insomnia.  While it's certainly acceptable to include information on identification of wildflowers, a better method of engaging your audience might be to include more universal themes such as stories and folklore about these harbingers of Spring.

Generally speaking interpretive programs should prioritize the interests of the audience as opposed to the interpreter. But it's still important for the interpreter to also exhibit passion for the topics of their programs.  Finding connections between the topic at hand and the interests of your audience can help you deliver a moving and provocative program.  Indeed, as Tilden has stated, interpretation is driven by a deeper sense of understanding that can develop into a call to action to protect our natural and cultural resources. Keeping this overarching mission of interpretation in mind will hopefully provide just enough steam for you to deliver a quality interpretive program with just the right amount of passion you need to provoke your audience (and yourself).

Finally, the mission of your organization should always come into consideration when planning any time of interpretive program, regardless of your own personal interest or background.  If you are passionate about your agency's mission, then use that passion and energy to fuel enthusiasm and provocation into your program delivery.  Fake it if you need to, because your job is less about putting on a "nice program" and more about facilitating a change in the mindset and behavior of your audience in a manner that enhances stewardship of our natural and cultural resources.

Figure 1:  There is strong evidence that indicates Oak savannas in the Chicago region were historically maintained by wildfires set by Native Americans.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Visitor FAQs: Why do Painted Turtles and other semi-aquatic turtles lay their eggs on land?

One aspect of my profession as an interpretive naturalist is that I love is that there are never-ending opportunities to learn new things. And it's often the visitors of the nature center where I work that ask the most interesting questions.  Below is my response to a question a recent visitor asked. 

A common sighting on a warm, sunny day in the Chicago region is Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) basking on a log in a shallow pond or slow-moving stream.  These stoic critters can appear rather lazy as they slouch in the sun, but as cold-blooded reptiles they must fire up their metabolism by absorbing heat from the sun.  An admirer who approaches too close to a basking turtle will witness an otherwise motionless creature plunge into the water and out of sight in a split-second.  

But during the spring and fall, Painted Turtles are often encountered in rather unexpected places, such as along a trail, across a grassy field, and unfortunately along busy highways.  Are these turtles lost?  What are they doing so far away from the water?  Chances are, these land-wondering turtles are pregnant females looking for a suitable location to lay their eggs.  But why does an animal that spends 99% of its time in or near water decide to wander off, sometimes as much as 2 miles, to lay their eggs?  Why wouldn't they instead choose a site near the pond or in the water?  This was a provoking inquiry that one of my nature visitors recently brought to my attention.  

Painted Turtles, like most species of turtles and tortoises, lay their eggs on land.  Turtle embryos are highly dependent on sunlight for their growth and their sexual development.   Turtles, like all reptiles, are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, and therefore must rely on an outside heat source, such as the sun, to engage their metabolism.  Much like a chicken-egg, turtle egg shells consist of a hard and dry calcium layer and do not hold up well under excessively moist or saturated conditions.   Furthermore, the ground generally warms much faster than water, allowing more suitable temperature grades for embryonic development.  

Why Painted Turtles and other semi-aquatic turtles in the Chicago region travel so far from a body of water is unclear, but perhaps by doing so their eggs are less vulnerable to predation.  In either case, do not be surprised if you see a Painted Turtle strolling down a pathway with no apparent pond or lake in sight.  It might be time for them to lay some eggs!  

Figure 1: Painted Turtles and other semi-aquatic turtles spend much of the daytime basking in the sun, or in the case of these nature center turtles in captivity, under a heat-lamp.  
Figure 2: A recently hatched baby turtle.  Pregnant females will sometimes travel a mile or more from
the nearest body of water to lay eggs.  
The Science Behind Algonquin's Animals. (2005). Painted Turtle Research in Algonquin Provincial Park. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Natural advice: Powering up for Program Plans

When I was first informed that we were now going to be asked to submit official program plans for our nature center education programs, I couldn't help but cringe a little bit.  Another piece of paperwork to fill out?  I even noticed my coworker roll his eyes a bit.  But when I thought about it for another moment, I began to understand why the agency I work before was taking the initiative to have their staff develop written plans for their education programs. 

Program plans, or program outlines, offer a summary of what you have planned for your interpretive program, including themes, materials, where you'll conduct the program, and other pertinent information.  A good program outline allows someone to pick it up and know right away what the program is about and what materials and preparation tasks are necessary to conduct the program successfully.  But what is a program plan supposed to look like?  It seems like all of my coworkers have their own way of planning a program.  I like to write detailed, verbatim outlines that are more like a script, while the other naturalist I work with simply jots down some bullet points on a piece of scratch paper.  Another naturalist doesn't even bother to write an outline because he already feels comfortable enough with the topic!  Because it has been optional for my organization’s staff to write program outlines, we have never really had to worry about other people looking at them or needing them - until now.

So why go through the extra trouble of writing a program plan?  For one thing, it's important to remember that many of us work for public service agencies, such as park districts, nature centers and museums whose core values include accessibility for all.  Our work is not usually copyrighted nor meant to be proprietary.  Therefore as paid staff of our organizations, we are obligated to contribute to our organization's egalitarian mission by providing educational services to our respective constituents.  Therefore we should allow our work to complement our organization's mission and act as educational resources ourselves.  We can also contribute to the success of our colleagues and coworkers by allowing them to “CSE” (copy and steal everything) so that they can improve their interpretive programs (but of course give proper and due credit to those who generated the original ideas!).

So what does an ideal program plan look like?  There are many variations on program plans, and the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) has a rigorous outline format for planning interpretive programs as part of their Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) training.  But you don't necessarily need to follow their outline format completely.  At a minimum, your program plan should generally include your title, your audience, the location of your program, your objectives or your overall theme, materials needed, your introduction, body, and conclusion, and perhaps any special notes or remarks about your program before or after you go through with it.

You don't need to get too hung up on this part, but your title should be catchy and reveal the program's topic.  For example, a program on maple syrup could catch people's attention with a title such as:  Maple Sugar Time!

What is the intended age group for your program?  Try to be specific and avoid general categories such as "families" or "general audience."  For example, perhaps your program is best suited for Pre-K and K or for ages 12 and up.

Give the specific location or locations for where your program will take place.  Do you have an indoor location as an alternative if there is inclement weather?  And is your location accessible to persons with disabilities or the elderly?  Include any pertinent information about your program's location in your plan. For example, the outdoor learning circle is a better description of your location as opposed to just saying "the nature center."  Your location doesn't have to be set in stone - but for planning purposes it is a good idea to factor in what kind of space you will utilize for your interpretive program and where those spaces are. 

Objective or Theme
One of the major criterion that NAI focuses on their CIG training is whether or not the interpreter can demonstrate developing a sound theme or set of objectives that captures in a single sentence what the outcomes will be after participants have attended your program.  For example, a program on deer could have a theme statement such as "After attending my presentation on deer populations in our park district, my audience members will have a greater appreciation about and will show more support for managing deer populations in urban areas."  NAI's Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) training manual provides excellent tools for developing interpretive program themes and objectives:

Materials Needed
List what supplies you'll need or think you'll need.  For example, a preschool program on coyotes might require a coyote pelt to see and touch or perhaps a colorful picture book featuring coyotes.  Or if you are leading a long hike, you might want to include a first aid kit as a program item if you are going to be a good distance from a visitor center.

Introduction, Body, and Conclusion
You can either format this part as bullets or verbatim, whichever you are most comfortable doing.  As long whoever might pick up your outline can understand generally how you intend to format your program, you’ll have plenty of flexibility here.

Your introduction should include what actions you will take to get your audience situated, such as giving an overview of what they will be doing or pointing to the location of the restrooms.  Your body is the content of your program, and this would be a good time to mention how or when you are going to use your materials as well as stating your subthemes.  An example of a section in your program plan's body could include a statement like "pass around coyote fur for audience members to touch and ask them why they think coyotes have such thick fur" or "tell a story about how maple syrup is made."  Your conclusion should wrap up your theme and you should state what type of closing remarks or actions you might take, such as promoting an upcoming special event or passing out program evaluations.

Special Notes and Remarks
I like to occasionally include some "heads-up" information such as what to do if trail conditions are not conducive to your program, or any special notes about how to address any controversial topics that might be included in your program (e.g. global warming, slavery).  You don't necessarily need a separate section to your program plan for special notes, but they are definitely nice to include somewhere in your program plan.

Program plans are meant to be dynamic rather than static documents.  The forest preserve district that I work for requests any feedback for improvements in the "reflections" section of their program plan template.  If there is something that could have been improved, something you wish you would have included, or if there was something that went exceptionally well, you can include your remarks in your program plan after it is over.  For example, for one presentation I did on snakes, I wish I would have included a longer nature walk following the presentation, since my audience really seemed to enjoy walking on the trails with a naturalist.  I would include this remark in my reflection so that the next time I do (or somebody else does) this program they could include a longer hike.


To some degree, interpretation is an art, and many interpreters understandingly like to claim a certain level of "ownership" over their creative work.  For example, my coworker is considered the expert on salamanders and has a very specific format for his salamander programs.  He has even included his own photos and hand-outs that he himself produced in his program.  But what if my coworker called in sick that day and I was called on to do his program, or what if he quit and decided to work somewhere else?  I know enough about salamanders to conduct a quality interpretive program, and being able to turn to his program plan at the last minute would serve as a critical reference.  Also, what if another naturalist in my agency wanted to do a similar program at their nature center?  They would have a fantastic in-house resource to turn to as would other environmental education agencies with a similar mission.  Well-composed program plans could serve as the foundation for developing and delivering quality interpretive educational programming.

So power up for program plans!  They're not just another form that you have to fill out.  They are a critical resource for your colleagues and others that support your organization's mission.