The Florida Master Naturalist Program

The Florida Master Naturalist Program

Kayaking over seagrass beds and stingrays, hiking among pitcher plants, boating past diving ospreys, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just some of the great experiences I’ve had while teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. More than 20 years since its inception, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.

Kayaking Santa Rosa Sound in Navarre is one of the highlights of our Coastal Systems FMNP class. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With the FMNP, we seek to do just that.

Master Naturalist students conduct field work in small groups. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Over a span of 40 hours in 6-7 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. Registration includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.

Master Naturalist students walk “The Way” boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The classes do not count towards university credit but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that many will list on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists participate, most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often form long-lasting friendships during the courses.

Information on upcoming classes in northwest Florida and all around the state is available online. Classes range from fully in-person to hybrid and online options. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.

Florida Master Naturalist Program Offers Opportunity to Understand Local Ecosystems up Close

Florida Master Naturalist Program Offers Opportunity to Understand Local Ecosystems up Close

Kayaking through a crystal blue spring, hiking among longleaf pines and discovering gopher tortoise burrows, gliding past alligators by boat in Mobile Bay, private tours of the EPA lab on Pensacola Beach, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just a handful of fond memories from my experiences teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Having recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.

Kayaking Santa Rosa Sound in Navarre is one of the highlights of our Coastal Systems FMNP class. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With FMNP, we seek to do just that.

Over a span of 40 hours in 7-8 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. The registration fee per core module is $250 – $300 and includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.

This trail and boardwalk in Perdido Key were part of a multi-stage FMNP final project highlighting multiple ecosystem types. Photo credit: Jerry Patee, Master Naturalist

The classes do not count towards university credit, but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that look great on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists (and many seeking employment in the environmental field), most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable, but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often bond and create long-lasting friendships during the courses.

Extension Agents in northwest Florida are offering two Master Naturalist courses, starting in the next few weeks. In Escambia and Santa Rosa County, we will have an in-person daytime Coastal Systems class starting March 28 and running through May 16. Walton County is teaming up with Miami-Dade to offer an evening hybrid (online class sessions, in-person field trips) Freshwater Systems course from February 18 to April 13. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.

Master Naturalist students conduct field work in small groups. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Panhandle Outdoors Live! at St. Joseph Bay Rescheduled for September 28th

Panhandle Outdoors Live! at St. Joseph Bay Rescheduled for September 28th

The University of Florida/IFAS Extension faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series. Conservation lands and aquatic systems have vulnerabilities and face future threats to their ecological integrity.  Come learn about the important role of these ecosystems.

The St. Joseph Bay and Buffer Preserve Ecosystems are home to some of the one richest concentrations of flora and fauna along the Northern Gulf Coast. This area supports an amazing diversity of fish, aquatic invertebrates, turtles, salt marshes and pine flatwoods uplands.

This one-day educational adventure is based at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve near the coastal town of Port. St. Joe, Florida. It includes field tours of the unique coastal uplands and shoreline as well as presentations by area Extension Agents.

Details:

Registration fee is $45.

Meals: breakfast, lunch, drinks & snacks provided (you may bring your own)

Attire: outdoor wear, water shoes, bug spray and sun screen

*if afternoon rain is in forecast, outdoor activities may be switched to the morning schedule

Space is limited! Register now! See below.

Tentative schedule:

All Times Eastern

8:00 – 8:30 am  Welcome! Breakfast & Overview with Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension

8:30 – 9:35 am Diamondback Terrapin Ecology, with Rick O’Connor, Escambia County Extension

9:35 – 9:45 am  Q&A

9:45- 10:20 am The Bay Scallop & Habitat, with Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension

10:20 – 10:30 am Q&A

10:30 – 10:45 am Break

10:45 – 11:20 am The Hard Structures: Artificial Reefs & Marine Debris, with Scott Jackson, Bay County Extension

11:20 – 11:30 am Q&A

11:30 – 12:05 am The Apalachicola Oyster, Then, Now and What’s Next, with Erik Lovestrand, Franklin County Extension

12:05 – 12:15 pm Q&A

12:15 – 1:00 pm Lunch

1:00 – 2:30 pm Tram Tour of the Buffer Preserve (St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Staff)

2:30 – 2:40 pm Break

2:40 – 3:20 pm A Walk Among the Black Mangroves (All Extension Agents)

3:20 – 3:30 pm Wrap Up

To attend, you must register for the event at this site: 

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoors-live-at-st-joseph-bay-tickets-404236802157

For more information please contact Ray Bodrey at 850-639-3200 or rbodrey@ufl.edu

Good Teachers

Good Teachers

Florida Master Naturalist Student and Florida State Park Ranger, Bruce Williams, prepares for his snowy plover lesson.

There is an oft quoted proverb “those who can’t do, teach.”  It is meant to be humorous, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Teachers of all kinds have enormous impacts on our lives.  For graduates of the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) there is a line in the mission statement that reads “The FMNP teaches those who teach others about Florida’s unique ecosystems and wildlife.”  In fact, to graduate, FMNP students must complete a project and present, or teach, it to the class.

A good teacher, like a good entertainer first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson (John Henrik Clarke).  In a recent coastal class, we had the good fortune of having a State Park Ranger as a student.  His job requires him to do interpretive education at the park, so he had quite a bit of experience under his belt.  His project, a craft project involving the assembly of a cute snowy plover chick, was his way of holding his audience’s attention while he talked of the importance of preserving and protecting habitat for shorebirds.

I thought the project and message was impressive and worthy of sharing. To all of you teachers out there who work to make our lives and world better, thank you, and here is another great activity to add to your quiver. If you would like more information on the Florida Master Naturalist Program go here: https://masternaturalist.ifas.ufl.edu.

Making cotton ball snowy plover chicks

Group Project: Make a Snowy Plover Chick (Peipert, 2011)

This project is suitable for Elementary age through Middle school age children. It is recommended when doing project with a class or large group that some preparation is done ahead of time.

Supplies:

corrugated cardboard (disassembled brown packing box will do)

1 bag of cotton balls

1 container of black glass beads (sold at craft stores)

black sunflower seeds

1 container of wood toothpicks (kind with one end blunt)

1 can of black spray paint

several of each black, brown & gray markers

several bottles of quick dry tacky glue (sold at craft stores)

Cotton ball snowy plover chick craft

Preparation:

  • Using an exacto or carpet knife and T-square cut corrugated cardboard into 3”x3” squares for the # of stands needed. To complete stand preparation, write Snowy Plover chick on stand, draw a pair of feet in center of stand and pierce cardboard in center of feet. This step is a real time saver and recommended for young children.
  • Paint toothpicks with black spray paint for legs, easiest way to do this is by taking toothpicks and sticking them into a spare piece of cardboard upright them paint.

Instructions: (skip to instruction #3 if using stands with feet & holes premade)

  1. Draw a pair of bird feet on center of cardboard and if you want write” Snowy Plover chick” on cardboard.
  2. Use the pointed end of a toothpick to make a hole in the center of drawn feet. Then put the blunt end of toothpicks in the holes and put a heavy glob of glue around them. Don’t be shy with the glue, it will dry clear and will be better support.
  3. Take one of the cotton balls and roll around between hands to make it smaller. This will be the head. Next using all three or two markers make many dots on one side of both cotton balls creating a speckled pattern.
  4. Put a glob of glue at top of each toothpick and put larger cotton ball (the body) on top of toothpicks pushing down so the glue is covered by the cotton ball. Next put a glob of glue on the top of body and put white side of cotton ball (the head) on glue.
  5. To complete the chick put a small glob of glue on opposite sides of head then place glass beads on. Lastly put a glob of glue on side of head that the feet are facing forward and place sunflower seed on with the pointed end facing out.
  6. Let stand for at least 15 minutes to dry before handling.
  7. Enjoy your Snowy Plover chick creation!
Groundhog or Gopher?

Groundhog or Gopher?

Groundhog

Groundhog Day is celebrated every year on February 2, and in 2021, it falls on Tuesday. It’s a day when townsfolk in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, gather in Gobbler’s Knob to watch as an unsuspecting furry marmot is plucked from his burrow to predict the weather for the rest of the winter. If Phil does see his shadow (meaning the Sun is shining), winter will not end early, and we’ll have another 6 weeks left of it.  If Phil doesn’t see his shadow (cloudy) we’ll have an early spring.  Since Punxsutawney Phil first began prognosticating the weather back in 1887, he has predicted an early end to winter

only 18 times.  However, his accuracy rate is only 39%.  In the south, we call also defer to General Beauregard Lee in Atlanta, Georgia or Pardon Me Pete in Tampa, Florida.

But, what is a groundhog? Are gophers and groundhogs the same animal?  Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don’t have a whole lot in common—they don’t even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers, kangaroo rats, and pocket mice. Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels. There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about. In the spring, gophers make what is called eskers, or winding mounds of soil. The southeastern pocket gopher, Geomys pinetis, is also known as the sandy-mounder in Florida.

Southeastern Pocket Gopher

The southeastern pocket gopher is tan to gray-brown in color. The feet and naked tail are light colored. The southeastern pocket gopher requires deep, well-drained sandy soils. It is most abundant in longleaf pine/turkey oak sandhill habitats, but it is also found in coastal strand, sand pine scrub, and upland hammock habitats.

Gophers dig extensive tunnel systems and are rarely seen on the surface. The average tunnel length is 145 feet (44 m) and at least one tunnel was followed for 525 feet (159 m). The soil gophers remove while digging their tunnels is pushed to the surface to form the characteristic rows of sand mounds. Mound building seems to be more intense during the cooler months, especially spring and fall, and slower in the summer. In the spring, pocket gophers push up 1-3 mounds per day. Based on mound construction, gophers seem to be more active at night and around dusk and dawn, but they may be active at any time of day.

Pocket Gopher Mounds

Many amphibians and reptiles use pocket gopher mounds as homes, including Florida’s unique mole skinks. The pocket gopher tunnels themselves serve as habitat for many unique invertebrates found nowhere else.

So, groundhogs for guesses on the arrival of spring.  But, when the pocket gophers are making lots of mounds, spring is truly here.  Happy Groundhog’s Day.

Meet the Author: Carrie Stevenson

Meet the Author: Carrie Stevenson

Carrie Stevenson is the Coastal Sustainability Agent for the UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension Office, and has been with the organization almost 17 years.  Her educational outreach programs focus on living sustainably within a vulnerable coastal ecosystem. She helps clientele better understand how to protect and preserve local ecosystems and water resources, wisely use our abundant rainfall and sunlight, and prepare and mitigate for flooding, coastal storms and climate impacts.

Growing up an avid reader and science junkie, a young Carrie aspired to find a career that allowed her to “be outdoors and wear jeans,” and in college sought to become a science writer. When National Geographic didn’t come calling, she found a position as a field-based environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. There, she handled compliance and enforcement cases related to stormwater and wetlands, spending days tromping through the swamps, wet prairies, and newly built subdivisions of northwest Florida. After joining UF IFAS Extension, she spent 6 years as a Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Agent before switching to Coastal Sustainability. Her expertise and articles focus on climate issues, stormwater, hurricanes, native plants, and wetlands.

A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she enjoys biking, standup paddleboarding, and traveling to national parks with her family. She also has many favorite international outdoor experiences, ranging from hiking glaciers in Canada to snorkeling coral reefs in Belize and watching elephants drink from a South African river. A native of Mississippi, Carrie has lived with her husband in Pensacola since 1999. Carrie earned her master’s degree in Biology/Coastal Zone Studies from the University of West Florida in Pensacola and an undergraduate degree in Marine Science from Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). She is the proud mom of an Eagle Scout and leads her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She is a Fellow in the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI), past president of the Florida Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (FANREP), and member of IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay.