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 http://www.sbaa.ca/projects.asp?cn=316

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.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Natural Notes: Chicago Wilderness Congress 2016

This blog post consists of my notes from the Chicago Wilderness Congress gathering at the University of Illinois Chicago Forum, held on November 2, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  

Lecture 1: Restoring the Wetlands of Calumet
Nat Miller, Chip O'Leary, and Gary Sullivan.

The former area of glacial "Lake Chicago" are now lowlands that make up the Calumet Region.  This flat and sandy area of land is dotted with various lakes and marshes and has numerous creeks and rivers passing through it.  In some areas, dune and swale topography is present.  Historically, the Calumet Region was very open with scatterings of oak trees along with scattered pockets of marsh.  There were 16 species of reptiles and amphibians, and large marshes provided habitat for marsh birds and wetland passerines.

The Calumet Region has undergone many changes within the last 200 years.  There is been a lot of habitat fragmentation, although most of the original plant communities are "hanging in there."  Birds, however, are not fairing as well, especially since 1980 where many breeding bird populations began to drop off (although until 1980 most of the original breeding bird species were still present).

The most likely cause for the decline in breeding birds in marshes in the Calumet Region is likely due to the unprecedented loss of marsh habitat.  At present, only 4,000 acres of the original 20,000 acres of marsh habitat in the Calumet Region remain, with most of it in a degraded condition.  And since 1/3 of all bird species in North America are in need of urgent conservation action, marsh restoration for birds in the Calumet Region is a top priority.

From 2015 to 2016, a breeding bird survey was conducted in various marshes across the Calumet Region.  Species presence and territory was assessed using bird call surveys.  This data was then compared to overall marsh habitat quality.
Figure 1:  An ideal marsh habitat structure would consist of
 a relatively equal proportion of vegetated areas and open water.

Marsh habitat quality is assessed based upon the following habitat structure index:

1 = vegetation monoculture
3 = Balance of vegetation and open water
5 =  Open water

The ratio of open water to vegetation is assessed by analysis of aerial imagery.  Bird species loss correlates with the decline of wetlands with level 3 characteristics.  In other words, an ideal wetland habitat structure would be a balance of vegetation and open water (see figure 1).   Other qualitative factors include species composition and the amount of edge habitat.

Lecture 2:  Restoring Hemimarsh habitat in the Calumet Region
Nat Miller, Chip O'Leary, and Gary Sullivan.

Historically, about 20,000 acres of marsh were present in the Calumet Region.  The small percentage that remains is in a degraded condition.  Historically, marshes with interconnected pockets of open water  (hemimarshes) were maintained by muskrats, who would eat their way through tall marsh vegetation, allowing deeper areas of water to remain clear of reeds and other aquatic emergent vegetation.  The loss of this habitat structure, along with pollution and invasive species such as common carp (Cyprinus carpio) which eat submerged vegetation.

So what are some solutions to address the decline of hemimarshes in the Calumet Region?  Some control methods currently being implemented include hydrological control, carp management, and invasive species management.  The ideal result is a hemimarsh with balanced interspersion of open water with submerged plants and areas with emergent vegetation.  In the Calumet Region, Hegewisch Marsh is showing good hemimarsh development following recent restoration work.

Lecture 3:  Oak Ecosystem Recovery Plan
Drew Hart (US Forest Service), Jim Anderson (Lake County Forest Preserves), Matt Evans (Chicago Wilderness), Paul Labovitz (Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore)

Completed in 2013, the plan for oak ecosystem restoration in the Chicago Wilderness (CW) region can be viewed on the Chicago Wilderness Website:


The goals for oak ecosystem restoration in the CW region for 2016-17 are to map the current distribution of oak ecosystems in Southeast Wisconsin, Northwest Indiana, and extreme Southwest Michigan.  This will be used for an oak ecosystem quality assessment.  Northeast Illinois is already mapped with three data layers: (1) 1830s  land survey records, (2) 1930s aerial photography, and present-day satellite imagery.  The goal is to create digital polygon layers for each of these time periods for the entire CW region which can be analyzed and mapped in a geographic information system (GIS).  Analysis of spatial  data for Illinois have revealed that 17% of original oak ecosystems remain.  Pre-settlement mapping of the distribution of oak ecosystems for the entire CW region is expected to be completed by June of 2017.

The quality assessment will take into account several factors, and the preliminary criteria (currently in draft stage) includes:

  • The size of remaining blocks of oak ecosystem lands
  • The percentage of fragmentation
  • Soil types
  • Proximity to other natural areas
  • Percent canopy cover
  • Number of oak saplings versus mature trees
  • Oak species presence 
  • Native shrubs present
  • Average floristic quality index (FQI)
  • Number of bird species
  • Number of amphibian species

Natural Thoughts: It's not the answers that I need

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.  
                          -Eugene Lonesco

As a professional naturalist I am filled with heartwarming stories I can tell of seeing a child's eyes light up when he learns something new, or the amazement of a young girl's eyes when she find a butterfly, or the comical screams of startled visitors when they pop the spring-loaded seeds of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).  Our role as an interpreters is not just to recite the names of different plant or animal species, but to connect those "resources" to the people and places who are impact by those resources.  Our hope is that people will not only learn about nature, but will reap the personal and emotional benefits of the "awe"someness that Paula Spencer Scott elaborated on in her recent Parade Magazine article (2016), which highlighted some of the key positive psychological effects findings of people being in "awe" of things such as scenic vistas or natural landscapes.  The experience of awe has been shown to be effecting at reducing depression and fostering a greater sense of community.  As an interpretive naturalist, the most rewarding part of my job is being able to successfully inspire someone to appreciate a quality of the natural world that they might not have appreciated had they not interacted with me.  My metric for determining my success is not only based on their display of "awe" but on the types of questions they ask.  I know I've gotten the ball rolling when a visitor or a student starts to ask more inquiring questions, as this is a true sign that active learning is taking place.

But sometimes things don't always work out as glamorously as I had hoped.

Questions from visitors and other constituents to the nature center that I serve that have the tendency to "burn out" my sense of triumphant accomplishment include topics like:

  • Simplistic or unenlightened questions.  "Is this turtle real?  Who takes care of all of the trees in the woods?  How did all of those bees in your honeybee observation hive get in there?  Am I going to get attacked by a snake or a coyote?"  As a naturalist I of course am here to educate the general public about the natural world around them, but it can be difficult for me to get excited about basic and simplistic questions that show not only a lack of general knowledge but of any sort of enlightened inquiry.  I even had a teacher that wanted to know how naturalist staff trains the birds to come to our nature center bird feeders (they're wild birds, we don't need to train them to find food!).  
  • Questions of an irrelevant topic.  As an interpretive naturalist with years of training and experience in customer service, I am well suited to answer questions from the public about natural history topics, such as what types of trees are found in the local area, what to do if you find an injured or orphaned animal, or what kinds of activities people can do at our nature center.  But it often seems we'll get phone calls or questions that have nothing to do with any of those subjects.  "What number do I call for the highway department?  Can you transfer to me the front desk of the Department of Health?  Can you come over and fix my roof?"  Or I'll get questions that perhaps have an indirect question to natural history topics, such as needed referrals for an exterminator (or asking naturalist staff to come out to their house and get rid of their mice problem!) or who they should contact about cleaning up a dead deer carcass on the local interstate highway (which would be the state's department of transportation and thankfully not us!).  
  • Questions about facilities management or organizational operations that naturalist staff is not involved in.  Working in a large forest preserve system with tens of thousands of acres of land is a management challenge, but sadly I have nothing to do with all of the trash that's in a fishing lake 10 miles from the nature center, nor did I have any say about when and where benches will be placed a long a new bike trail.  I can pass on their comments to one of the 11 departments within our agency, but unless it's directly tied to my job duties or to the nature center where I'm stationed, I'm about as helpless as my concerned visitor in getting their message across to the right people.  
In a picture-perfect world, I would only respond to intelligible and relevant questions.  But the reality is that with organizational problems with the agency I work for combined with the low environmental awareness of many people, there exists a sobering reminder of how badly our society needs interpretive naturalists to connect the public to the resources they have and need.  It is not always going to be graceful work, but in the long-run environmental education programs for the public will continue to have a positive impact on our society and our natural resources.  

In the summer of 2014, I piloted a new environmental education program for disadvantaged youth in an urban park near Washington, DC.  My triumphant vision was to connect urban youth with nature in their backyard so that they would fall in love with and cherish their local natural areas.  In reality., this pilot program left my audience scratching their heads for a while...  

Scott, P. S. (2016, October 9). Awe: How the soul-stirring wonder sparked by a shooting star or a majestic peak can transform your health and happiness. Parade, 5-8.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Natural Notes: Our Essential Oaks

This blog post consists of my notes from a presentation on oak ecosystems of the Greater Chicago Area.  The presenter was Kim Blaszcak, Resource Management Project Manager with the Forest Preserves of Cook County.  The presentation was delivered on October 6, 2016 at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, Illinois.  

Oaks as a keystone species
Oaks (Quercus spp.) are a keystone species in the Chicago Region.  They support many organisms and ecosystem functions.  Oaks are important to wildlife through acorn production and habitat.  Oaks exhibit a periodic massive yield of acorns known as a mast year that compensated for periods of scarcity.  Oak germination and timing of acorn production are important factors.  Red oak acorns are produced in the fall and germinate the following spring.  white oak acorns produce acorns which germinate in a single season (in the spring).

Oaks are a critical food source for wildlife in North America: 96 % of wildlife species nationwide eat oaks.  In Illinois alone, 45% of wildlife species eat oaks (acorns, leaves, bark, etc.).

Oak trees also provide homes and shelter for cavity-dwelling fauna such as cavity nesting birds. Many species of oak trees have leaves that persist through the winter, a phenomena known as marcescence.  Fallen oak trees and their leaves help form critical habitat for endangered resources such as wild lupine (Lupinus spp.) and the associated Karner blue butterfly (Plebejus melissa samuelis).  Blue-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma laterale) need wet areas with ample fallen branches from oaks such as Swamp White Oaks (Q. bicolor) or other wet-tolerant oaks.  Oaks are also important for many invertebrates that live on the trees or amongst the leaf litter.  For example, certain species of Lepidopterans, scales, weevils, gall wasps, leaf hoppers, borers, and even walking sticks rely on oak trees in some fashion or another.  The leaf litter also provides habitat for certain types of spiders, springtails, and mites.

Certain varieties of fungi are decomposers of fallen oak logs, which in turn helps create cavities for wildlife habitat.  Specific types of root fungi, known as ectomycorrhiza, form a sheath on the outside of oak tree roots and assist with nutrient intake.  Oaks also have plant associates, including Penn Sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), cream gentian (Gentia alba), and wild coffee (G. sp.? ).

Oak Ecology
Oaks are play an important role in providing or maintaining special abiotic factors, such as light and canopy cover, stormwater absorption and mitigation, soil stabilization, inputs of organic matter, producing clean air, and carbon sequestration.

Oaks are a disturbance-adapted group of trees, especially of fire.  In Cook County, oak communities can be classified based upon the intensity and frequency of wildfires:


            Open Savanna (0-10 % canopy cover)
            Savanna (10/20% canopy cover)
            Woodland (25-60 % canopy cover)
            Forest (60-100 % canopy cover)


The variability of oak communities relative to their wildfire frequency and intensity is related to the glacial geologic history of Cook County.  Lowland areas dominated the landscape of Cook County, a product of glaciation and the recession of ice and melt-water.  Pre-colonial vegetation in Cook County was 73% prairie, with woodland areas near lakes and rivers.  Woodland areas were primarily located on the east side of rivers and lakes that were protected from westward wind-driven fires (see below).

Figure 1:  More densely wooded areas with less fires were historically found in areas of Cook County that were east of a body of water where fire could not pass through.  

Threats to Oak Ecosystems
There are numerous threats to Cook County's oak ecosystems.  Only about 5% of Cook County remains as an oak ecosystem today.  In current oak stands, there is a lack of age diversity, and the introduction of non-native invasive plants and the development of a mesophytic plant community are replacing oak ecosystems.  Other confounding factors include herbivory - especially by deer -habitat fragmentation, and perhaps the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).

Oak regeneration has become suppressed, and new oak growth can remain stuck in the seedling stage for 20 years or more as they build up root and energy reserves for more rapid growth when enough sunlight can reach them.  Invasive shrubs can block out sunlight, preventing seedlings from developing.  Some invasive shrubs are allelopathic and can kill off the mycorrhiza fungi needed for oak growth and development.

Even earthworms, which are not native to cook county, are contributing to a decline in oaks, as they disrupt soil composition and eat mycorrhiza fungi.

Establishment of shade-tolerant, fire sensitive plants has altered oak communities into more mesophytic (middle-moisture) vegetation such as cherries and maples.  For example, fire suppression has allowed for an astonishing 4,119% increase in maple trees in Illinois between 1962-1985!

Deer can eat 6 pounds of tree buds each winter, and they love oaks!

Oak Ecosystem Restoration
Restoring oak ecosystems in Cook County involves removal of invasive brush, canopy thinning, cut-stump herbiciding of invasive woody plants, prescribed burns, and follow-up herbicide applications. Figure 2 represents an example of a restoration procedure, which can be established in concert with priority sights identified in a natural resource management plan, such as the one for Cook County.

Figure 2:  Example oak ecosystem restoration process.