Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Minnesota Master Naturalist Training

A strange thing: I have been working on something big, and I have not mentioned it on this blog.  It's the sort of thing that fits perfectly with the goals of this blog - to write about my outdoor adventures in the Northwoods - but I have made nary a peep about it. I am not sure why that is...perhaps I was enjoying the process so much that I didn't want to take the time to log it?  It's time for me to get you all caught up with the activities of the last two months.

I am now an official Minnesota Master Naturalist.  Why did I do it...and what is it, anyway?  I'll start at the beginning.

Ever since I was a kid, I loved birds.
When I was a cute little kid, I loved nature.  I loved animals and plants.  I loved learning about them, and I loved being outside.  I didn't get many opportunities for really digging into the outdoors (growing up in the middle of Minneapolis with a family who considered the Motel 6 "roughing it"), but I did my best.  I read my Little Golden Books (mammals, trees, and birds) until they fell apart.  I loved the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, and I thought that the cool, earthy women who worked there were just the awesomest people ever.

"What's your job?"  I remember asking one of them.

"I'm a naturalist," she said.

Excellent!  Now I had a name for what I wanted to be.  Along with a singer, an author, a librarian, a Radio City Music Hall Rockette, an astronaut, and the Minnesota Twins play-by-play announcer.  Becoming a Naturalist fell to the back burner over the years due to less-than-stellar experiences in Junior High and High School Biology classes, finding my bliss in Art and History, and the getting a Real Job and not having time for plants and animals.   Well, when I moved up to the North Shore I realized that I finally had the time, energy, and opportunity to take this Master Naturalist training I'd heard about.  Childhood dream come true!

The Minnesota Master Naturalist Program is run through the U of MN Extension service.  The course is 40-hours worth of classroom/field trip/outdoors instruction.  There are three different course options, one for each biome in Minnesota.  I took the Northwoods, Great Lakes courses at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center, north of Duluth.

At the risk of going on and on, I'm just going to post some pictures from our classes and give examples of what we learned.  I did not take many pictures because I was too busy, I didn't have express permission from my classmates to post pictures of them online.  :-)

The name Minnesota is based upon the Sioux words for "sky tinted water". 

  • Minnesota is an ecologically unique place.  There are four distinct biomes - coniferous northwoods, prairie grasslands, deciduous hardwood forests, and aspen grasslands.
  • We learned about how the glaciers contributed to the geology of Minnesota.  Eskers, drumlins, kettles, kames, moraines.  It made me think of all of the state parks I've been to and hikes I've been on so far this year: the Laurentian forests of the Superior National Forest, the Driftless Zone of Nerstrand-Big Woods, the prairies of Sibley
Looking at critters: probably a caterpillar or a spider

  • Before taking this class, I knew the difference between a clover and a dandelion.  Now, I can recognize about 10 different spring wildflower with confidence, and make educated guesses at many more.  I like starflowers the best.
  • There are seven kinds of frogs that can be found in Minnesota.  The ones that make so much noise in the spring are Chorus Frogs...tiny critters with big voices. We found lots of frog eggs and some tiny tadpoles while wading in a pond in the cold rain.  Sounds fun?  It was!

Stomping through the mud and reeds, looking for frog eggs and waterbugs

  • I can now tell the difference between Red, White, and Jack Pines.  
  • I can now tell the difference between Balsam and Spruce with just a quick look.
  • I have discovered that, above all else, I love pine trees.  If there is nothing else I take with me from this class, it is the desire to learn more about conifers and devote some of my future volunteering to their care.
  • This spring has been amazing for butterflies in Minnesota.  Monarchs, Red Emperors, Swallowtails, the below-pictured Cecropia's a wonderful time to be into butterflies.

An amazing find: mating Cecropia Moths. The male is on the right, female on the left.
The Cecropia Moth is the largest moth found in Minnesota.

  • I, with the rest of my class, participated in the Boulder Birding Big Day.  (Not Big Bird day...I did that as a kid, in the picture at the top of this post!)  We split into groups and spread out over the 18,000 acres of Boulder Lake to see how many kinds of birds we could find in 4 hours. 
  • My group identified 30 birds.  I can now identify about 30 birds either by their call or by sight.  Before this class, I could probably identify 10.  Not only do I have three times as many birds in my mental catalog, I now know HOW to look at a bird/listen to a bird to help make the identification.

Camping out the night before the Boulder Birding Big Day: a beautiful sunset, a warm early spring breeze, loons calling. 

So, now that I've taken my 40 hours of classwork and have graduated the Master Naturalist program...what do I do next?  Well, taking this course opened up a number of doors for me as a volunteer.  I plan on giving back to the environment of this state that I love, I plan to keep learning, and I plan to teach others.  Graduating isn't the end, it's the beginning of the next set of adventures.

Onward and upward!  I loved every minute of class, and I can't wait to hone the skills that I have learned, focus on topics of particular interest, and give back through volunteering.  Of course, I'll be writing about all of it.  :-)

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