Masters of Nature
Hands-on training, classroom study and field trips transform ordinary people into nature know-it-alls.
By Eileen Mattei
Sprawled on the floor with bags of large paper “bones” of fossil animals, 24 Texas Master Naturalist trainees are trying to solve the puzzle of just how the hip bone is connected to the backbone, and the backbone is connected to the shoulder bone. With the patient guidance of paleontologist Michael Brown, we try to turn each bag o’bones into something resembling an animal. One of our creations, a short-armed creature tilted back precariously on tail bones, doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen in a museum. “This is so cool,” says Karen Fossom, “but is it supposed to look like this?” Brown explains that putting together a complete skeleton from fragments can sometimes require years of detective work. Even then, it’s impossible to know for sure if all the parts are in the right place.
Then University of Texas-Brownsville biologist Mary Jane Shands gives us a refresher course on basic ecology. She reminds us the balance of nature is never static, a constantly changing scenario filled with competition for limited resources. Despite her tales of slogging through mud and insects
to plant marsh grasses and black mangroves in the 10,000-acre Bahia Grande wetlands restoration project, she is mobbed by trainees who want to help.
This first training session with the Texas Master Naturalists’ Rio Grande Valley Chapter introduces us to the broad spectrum of natural resources covered by the program that Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Cooperative Extension launched in 1998. Designed to develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to assist in natural resources management and education, the program has grown to 35 chapters statewide and about 4,000 Certified Master Naturalists. To become certified, trainees attend 40 hours of classroom and field instruction, volunteer for 40 hours at approved sites, and attend eight hours of advanced training — all (ideally) within a 10-week period.
Engaging speakers on native plants, migrating hawks and useful herbs had attracted me to several meetings of the chapter in Harlingen and led me to apply for the next Master Naturalist training program.
My fellow trainees range in age from 19 to 75 and work in public health, manufacturing, wildlife and education, or are retired. We introduce ourselves as vegetarians and steak-and-potatoes guys, hunters and tree-huggers, all of us eager to expand our knowledge and links with the outdoors, and to share our affections for wetlands, warblers, weather signs and weasels.
“Master Naturalists lets you develop and follow your own interest in nature,” explains Linda McGonigle, chapter president. Trainee Dave Moulder, who volunteers with the ocelot survey at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, is ready to learn about wetlands and turtles. Jackie Field, a nature photographer and former oil company owner, sees training as a way to broaden his photographic opportunities.
Statewide, Master Naturalists conduct fish and wild plant inventories, collect native seeds, restore stream banks, marshes and woodlands, maintain trails and lead interpretive tours at local nature parks and state parks, and present programs at schools. According to Tony Reisinger, marine biologist and our Texas A&M University Extension sponsor, the Rio Grande Valley chapter has initiated several programs such as the Red Tide Rangers, the Batettes and the Sea Turtle Patrol. With more than 100 members from four counties, the border group represents a lot of muscle power and knowledge, primed to tackle a calendar full of projects and various volunteer challenges.
Each week’s training consists of three hours of fact-filled, captivating presentations by scientists and amateurs passionate about their fields of interest. In Class 2, TPWD marine fisheries biologist Randy Blankenship acquaints us with river ecology, describing how “the Rio Grande is such a different river than it used to be” because of changes in flow, bank stabilization, non-native species and over-appropriation of the resource. TPWD biologist Lee Ann Linam tantalizes us with the Texas Nature Tracker program and encourages us to get involved in observing a species of concern. As citizen-scientists we can sign up, for example, to monitor a habitat of Texas horned lizards or report sightings, collecting data to help determine where they are thriving and declining, and, with enough data, why.
Sunday, I drive into the sunrise with Karen to spend four hours at Sea Turtle, Inc., a turtle rehab and outreach center on South Padre. We plunge in by testing water quality and cleaning the tanks, preparing lettuce and other treats for the injured loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley turtles.
During the week, I earn advanced training credit by taking a behind-the-scenes tour of Laguna Atascosa’s ocelot survey program and use a tracking device that pinpoints one of the small cats sleeping in the near-impenetrable thorn brush. “That’s where she’s been for several weeks,” notes Dave, fellow trainee and guide.
We show up for Class 3 clutching copies of Plants of the Rio Grande Delta by Alfred Richardson, ready for an immersion in native plants and how to use them in a landscape. Frank Wiseman, native plant mentor, talks about creating habitats to please both man and beast with vines, wildflowers, bushes and trees. Overwhelmed, we leave with an illustrated CD about native flora. I attend a morning orientation at Ramsey Park, Harlingen’s former landfill now transformed into a native plant Eden by Master Gardeners and Naturalists. I begin volunteering there several hours a week, mulching, watering, labeling, planting and learning the scientific names and habits of the resident plants and animals.
Although I miss Class 4 on herpetology and insects to attend my folks’ 60th anniversary celebration, makeup sessions are built into the program. For Class 5, Gene Paull of UT-Brownsville brings geology and climate home to us by explaining why we have the weather and the terrain we do. Bedrock here is about 13,000 feet down.
We carpool to the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve in a crook of the Rio Grande for our wetland ecology field trip, led by John Jacob of Texas Sea Grant. “Once you know the vegetation, you can read the landscape. Every plant has a story to tell if you know its niche,” he says. “If the people who live here don’t care about the wetlands, no one’s going to take care of it.”
Outside we stick pocket knives into the bottom of a dry pond, discussing why the soil is red and gray. “Seeing iron here tells me it stays wet weeks or months at a time,” John says. Then we get our feet wet looking at the plants and soil in a shallow pond.
At the Master Naturalists’ monthly meeting, native plant expert Mike Heep demonstrates do-it-yourself plant propagation, snipping and chopping branches while we admire his nonchalant, skilled clipper work. “Learn by trial and error, but if it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to try again,” Mike instructs. “I use cheap clippers, because I always lose them.”
In our next class, Roy Rodriguez says you can teach others about birds without being an expert. “Make it a habit to start at the top of the beak, remembering details of color, size and shape, down to the tail. Whatever level you want to take it to, it’s all cool.”
Bob Edwards of University of Texas – Pan American launches our training on local fish and requests the lights off. “That way, if you fall asleep, it’s less embarrassing.” But no one nods off as he reveals the dozens of species — gars, gobies, gambusias — found in border rivers, resacas and bays.
After a class on coastal ecology, we head out early Saturday accompanied by friends and family on our Crustacean Cruise, an eco-tour of the Laguna Madre with commentary by Tony Reisinger. Near the jetties of Brazos Santiago Pass we see a newborn bottlenose dolphin, bobbing like an inflatable toy next to its mother. “I’ve never seen one that small,” Tony says, noting that the Laguna Madre, the nursery for many species, is appropriately named.
We return to Southmost Preserve for our class on frogs, toads and the Amphibian Nature Watch program. “It’s an easy program for anyone, wherever they are, and it’s tons of fun,” says Chad Wilmoth. Tira Wilmoth takes us through the three levels of amphibian watching. “The more you get into it, the easier it’ll be,” she assures us. “TPWD realizes you’re doing the best job you can.” I’m surprised to learn there’s no hard, fast difference between a toad and frog.
We have a too-brief session matching frog sounds to frog names before trekking by moonlight to a pond and playing “Name that Frog.” It’s like learning a language by immersion: so many sounds simultaneously overwhelm the novice trying to separate them into discrete noises. Challenged to differentiate between the long bleat of the green toad, the Mexican tree frog’s duck-like call, and the rink-rink chorus that never seems to stop, I find myself in need of more lessons.
Our last class is on butterflies — where to find them, how to identify and attract them. “You can’t do much butterflying without learning your plants,” says Gil Quintanilla, who shares a recipe for a potent butterfly brew: one pound brown sugar, six overripe bananas and two cans of beer. Blend, ferment for two days, and apply to a branch. Gil predicts we’ll see greater numbers and more butterfly species as more people know what to plant.
The advanced training and volunteer requirements eat up every minute of my spare time, but, oh, the things I see and the places I go! Besides helping at the Brownsville Birding Festival, Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary and a demo butterfly garden, I squeeze in a weekend raptor workshop that counts as advanced training. I meet bird bander Mark Conway twice at first light to help him set up nets and gather data to track migration and populations.
An evening makeup class lets me learn more about bats and observe skilled, vaccinated handlers removing bats caught in mist nets. Donna Berry, who heads our training program, loves bats and has organized the Batettes to give presentations to schools and the media. “It’s all about getting information to the right people,” she explains. For example, don’t cut palm fronds from April through September, when Mexican free-tailed bats are giving birth and raising young in palm trees.
Sea Turtle, Inc., eager for volunteers to patrol miles of beach looking for turtle nests, teaches trainees the fine art of probing for eggs in the sand (using chicken eggs as a substitute). Trainees Karen, Dave and Damian Hairston join the beach patrol on brutal, daylong tours of duty, participating in a record year for turtle nests.
By our outdoor graduation party at Los Ebanos Preserve, 17 of us have completed classroom and volunteer hours and become Certified Texas Master Naturalists. Four others have completed training but, short on volunteer hours, are expected to complete requirements for certification within the year. Maria Bonin, Robert Archer and Dave Moulder have volunteered over 120 hours each during training.
My future includes becoming a Batette, working at Ramsey Park, nature festivals and reforestation projects, assisting at bird bandings and tracking lizards. Becoming a Master Naturalist is one of the best decisions I’ve made. The opportunity to work with enthusiastic, knowledgeable people while helping out Mother Nature is priceless.
Details: For chapters and training sessions in your area, see the Texas Master Naturalist homepage at <masternaturalist.tamu.edu/> or contact State Coordinator Michelle Haggerty at <email@example.com> or (830) 896-2500.