Want to learn about the natural world and participate in volunteer projects to benefit natural resource conservation in Virginia? Virginia Master Naturalist chapters in many locations are now recruiting new volunteers to participate in their spring basic training courses. Classroom and field sessions led by expert naturalists, scientists, and natural resource managers will cover topics from trees to birds to stream ecology. Completing the course is the first step to becoming a Certified Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer and gives you access to a wide range of local and statewide volunteer projects to help you spend time outdoors with a purpose! Learn more about becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer, and visit our listing of local chapters for deadlines and local contacts.
Each year, the VMN program creates a special recertification pin to recognize those volunteers who have completed another 40 hours of service and 8 hours of continuing education during the year. Each pin highlights a different Virginia native species, and the artwork has been almost entirely by VMN volunteers. Some years, we ask a specific person for a particular photo, drawing, or painting. In other years, we have had a contest to choose the design.
For our 2019 recertification pin, we decided on the species (the American Chestnut), and then we invited all VMN volunteers to submit photos and artwork representing that species. We were completely overwhelmed by the fabulous response! We have extremely talented volunteers. In the end, we asked seven individuals in the Virginia Department of Forestry (folks who know both our program and chestnuts well) to serve as our judges. We are excited to not only share the winning artwork by Linda Duncan in our Old Rag Chapter (featured above), but also all of the submissions (below). We think this collection is such an amazing and diverse representation of this iconic species that we are looking for other ways to feature it, with the artists' permission.
Click on any image in the gallery to enlarge it and to see the name of the artist.
All our 1,800+ volunteers are contributing a lot to benefit their communities and Virginia’s natural resources! At the state level, we try to recognize our volunteers through certificates, pins, newsletter stories, social media posts, and simple thank-yous. We are pleased, however, to also be able to recognize a small number of individuals with our statewide awards. Some of these awards are based on nominations, while others are based on reporting of volunteer hours. All award winners were recognized at our VMN Statewide Conference and Volunteer Training in Fredericksburg in September. Each volunteer and chapter receiving an award also received a gift certificate to Acorn Naturalist, where they can buy naturalist tools and gear that should be handy for their volunteer work.
Volunteer Reporting The Most Hours in 2017:
Robert Toner, Certified Virginia Master Naturalist in the Eastern Shore Chapter
Bob Toner completed and reported 1,158 hours of Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer time in 2017. That is about 22 hours a week! In 2017, his numerous activities included collecting data for many citizen science bird surveys, giving educational tours at a National Wildlife Refuge, maintaining trails at a Nature Conservancy preserve, and working with other VMN volunteers to conduct an urban tree inventory in their town.
Chapter Completing the Most Hours Per Active Member in 2017:
Historic Rivers Chapter
Our chapters vary greatly in size, so we scale the hours based on the total number of volunteers in the chapter who reported service hours that year. The chapter winning the award for their 2017 work this year is one of our larger chapters, with 126 active members in 2017. On average, those volunteers each contributed 137 hours of service during the year. Some of the projects they did included collecting, cleaning, and hauling oyster shells for restoration projects with VIMS, leading environmental education programs for DOF at the New Kent Forestry Center, and conducting butterfly counts at National Park Service sites. They also put on a great basic training course and graduated a bunch of new volunteers! Congratulations to the Historic Rivers Chapter!
The remaining three awards were all based on nominations.
VMN Volunteer of the Year:
Jody Ullman, Certified Virginia Master Naturalist in the Tidewater Chapter
For the Volunteer of the Year, we received 7 nominations of volunteers from 7 different chapters. Every single one of these people, as well as many who weren’t nominated, is truly a Volunteer of the Year. The service of these volunteers and the impacts they make through natural resource education, stewardship, and citizen science in their communities is truly inspiring.
The award for Volunteer of the Year goes to a volunteer who has volunteered as a VMN with many different partner organizations, including the Virginia Aquarium, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, First Landing State Park, and others. Over the years she has held several leadership positions within the chapter including president, and actively participated on the board of directors, most recently as the co-chairperson of our Junior Master Naturalist Program which she helped build. She is described as someone who is always looking for ways to share her love of the environment and to get people learning about the natural world, whether they are pre-schoolers or adults. Congratulations, Jody, and thank you for your service!
Additional Nominees for VMN Volunteer of the Year 2018
Education Project of the Year:
Voices from the Land by the Rivanna Master Naturalist Chapter
This project aims to help youth with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Virginia explore and celebrate natural landscapes through the arts and creative writing. Funded by a grant, more than 25 volunteers met with teams of youth for 12-15 weekly sessions when they explored the outdoors and found inspiration in their local forests to create art, photography, poetry, and performances. More than 100 youth benefited from the mentoring of the volunteers, and the volunteer team is invited back this fall to repeat the program.
Citizen Science Project of the Year:
Bluebird Trail Monitoring by the Historic Rivers Chapter
Nearly all of our chapters do some sort of bluebird box monitoring, but the Historic Rivers Chapter has taken it to a new level! Three-quarters of their members participate in the project (that’s 98 people!), monitoring nestboxes on 18 different trails. What is particularly noteworthy is how the chapter has grown the effort from just 12 nestboxes in 2010 to more than 300 today. They have organized workshops to improve the predator protections on the boxes, conducted mini-research projects to test strategies for reducing house sparrow use of the boxes, and have incorporated educational opportunities for youth into schoolyard sites.
Stewardship Project of the Year:
Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling by the Riverine Chapter
Don’t chuck that shuck! At least five of our VMN chapters have been working hard on the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling project, a program of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center Riverine, Rivanna, Peninsula, Historic Rivers, and Pocahontas are all involved. In this project, volunteers collect oyster shells regularly from local restaurants and grocery stores and bring them to a common drop-off site. Additional volunteers assist with bagging the shells and spreading them on sanctuary reefs in the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding rivers. Volunteers also work at various oyster events, staffing information booths and collecting shells from participants. In total, more than 37 tons of shell have been collected, creating a home for more than 5 million oyster spat that were added to the sanctuary reefs. The award really recognizes the whole project and all of the volunteers who have contributed, but we asked the Riverine Chapter to accept the award. They were the first chapter to participate, service the most restaurants and grocery stores for the project, and collect the greatest volume of shell.
Administrative Project of the Year:
Volunteer Management System Project Overhaul by the Northern Neck Chapter
Not many volunteers become Virginia Master Naturalists because they want to spend time on organizing their local chapter, but Chapter Administration is a critical category of volunteering on which our program depends! This year’s Administrative Project of the Year award recognizes a chapter that re-organized their project list to make it easier for new members to understand and use. The work involved retired dozens of outdated projects, merging duplicative projects, and creating new projects to reflect current needs. We especially recognize volunteer John Narney, who led the effort.
The Nature Bus Comes to the VMN Statewide Conference
We were fortunate and thankful to have VMN volunteer Suzanne Moss (Tidewater Chapter) donate the use of The Nature Bus and her time as the driver for our recent conference in Fredericksburg.
The Nature Bus is the realization of Suzanne's dream to offer nature experiences to people of all ages. With years of professional experience as an educator along with volunteer experience leading youth nature clubs and what is now the Virginia Junior Master Naturalist program in Tidewater, Suzanne wanted to use her talents and resources to help connect more people to nature. She developed a plan, purchased a bus, and put all the pieces in place for a new business. Its mission is to be a vehicle for transformative, shared nature experiences and to nurture peoples’ affinity for the natural world. It is Suzanne’s hope that people will have positive nature experiences, feel a deeper connection to the great outdoors, become more attached and grow their affinity and level of concern for the health of our natural world.
For our conference, Suzanne drove the bus from the Virginia Beach area to Fredericksburg, offering a ride to VMN volunteers in her chapter and neighboring chapters who were planning to attend the conference and wanted a fun way to get there. At the conference, she provided transportation for three different field trips. Her generosity and many hours of driving helped us make our field trips safer, more environmental, and more organized by reducing carpooling and keeping everyone together.
Visit The Nature Bus website to learn more, including a list of just a few of the many possible nature experiences The Nature Bus can offer. Though The Nature Bus is a private business and not part of the VMN program, it's a great potential partner for some of the things we and our chapters do. You can contact Suzanne through The Nature Bus website to discuss possibilities.
By Karen Fall, VMN-Shenandoah Chapter
Margaret Wester recognized for service at state park
In appreciation of Margaret Wester's tireless dedication to running the Bluebird Monitoring project at Sky Meadows State Park for more than 10 years, Park Manager and Chapter Adviser, Tim Skinner, presented her with a stunning, original watercolor painting at our Chapter's annual picnic. Margaret is well-known in our chapter for expertly leading the Bluebird Monitoring project, making this is a popular volunteer activity. This year she and Bob Edmonds worked together to add a new trail of boxes that include plaques honoring our members with 10 years of service. Margaret's expertise was essential in the planning, and Bob constructed and placed the 8 beautiful cedar boxes.
VMN volunteers find new county record
When chapter member Phyllis Partain discovered an unusual grass on her property she turned to another member, Paul Guay, for help to identify it. Paul believed it to be an Echinochloa and forwarded specimens to Gary Fleming (Vegetation Ecologist with DCR-Natural Heritage) for verification. Gary confirmed it to be Echinochloa muricata var. microstachya (Rough Barnyard Grass), adding that "until recently the two varieties of this species were generally not recognized in Virginia botanical studies, and we only have a skeletal map of var. microstachya in the Digital Atlas". Gary is making some herbarium sheets out of the specimens Paul sent, to document it in Warren County. Paul provided the information to prepare labels for the specimens, and the sheets will be added to the herbaria at George Mason University and College of William and Mary. Nice contribution Paul and Phyllis!
Gratitude from Sky Meadows State Park
Vanessa Lewis, Park Naturalist, had these kind words to share with Shenandoah Chapter volunteers for their help with Nature weekend:
"I wanted to pass on my gratitude to you all for being instrumental in such a wonderful weekend. The Master Naturalists added so much to our event. Their engagement with the public was so appreciated. So many children and families had a terrific time thanks to the dedication of all the volunteers. We can't thank you enough! Thank you for the time you put into coordinating this."
Thanks Janet Alger, Tammy Batcha, Juli Bowers, Sara Dydak, Ellen Schwalenstocker, Andy and Margie Miller, and Christie Green!
Master Naturalist Volunteer Activities on Fluvanna County Stewardship, Education, and Citizen Science Projects
By Walter Hussey, VMN-Rivanna Chapter
Over the past fiscal year, 15 members of the Rivanna chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists have contributed over 400 volunteer hours to the re-naturalization of Pleasant Grove, to educational activities in the Fluvanna County schools as well as at events such as the Old Farm Day and the County Fair, and to citizen science projects, which represents a value of over $10,000 in volunteer time contributed. During these activities our volunteers have contacted over 2,600 citizens and visitors to Fluvanna County.
Working with Fluvanna County Parks and Rec, Library, and Public Schools, RMN volunteers have conducted special projects for fourth graders on Ag Day, carried out nature sessions with the second grade, hosted a Nature Field Day at Pleasant Grove for the first and second grades on Earth Day, conducted children’s Library Summer Reading Program workshops, worked with high school biology classes, and led monthly nature hikes at Pleasant Grove.
At the County Fair, RMN volunteers helped educate hundreds of visitors on native plants and environmentally friendly practices. Master Naturalist-led hikes through the wildlife habitats at Pleasant Grove provided visitors a firsthand nature experience.
Working on the Rivanna River and the new fields, both at Pleasant Grove Park (PGP), RMN volunteers have conducted citizen science activities such as measuring the health of our water resources as well as the Virginia State Bluebird Inventory along the newly installed bluebird nesting box trail.
Thanks to the work of our volunteers, our citizens and County visitors can now experience nature at Pleasant Grove Park as they:
High Knob Chapter
Volunteers share nature information at ultra trail race
Members of the VMN-High Knob Chapter recently helped share a dose of environmental education alongside other aid at their aid station during the Cloudsplitter100 ultra trail race. High Knob Chapter volunteers helped with trail maintenance leading up to the race, and they also created an aid station with natural resource educational posters and field guides on hand so that runners, support teams, family members, etc. could hopefully identify the things they had encountered.
Fred Ramey, the Town Manager of Norton, wrote, “In 2017, the City of Norton had the wonderful opportunity of welcoming the Cloudsplitter100 ultra trail race into our community. Although we were extremely excited about this unique opportunity, we soon realized what a logistical challenge we were facing. One of the most important challenges was to find enough volunteers to staff nine aid stations that would be located along the race course for the 40 hour event. Thankfully we are blessed to live in a region where we had a number of wonderful individuals and organizations step forward. One such organizations was the local Master Naturalists whose members volunteer to staff not one, but two aid stations. Their volunteerism was greatly appreciated but their overall effort was something to be admired. They not only served the primary purpose of providing food and liquids to the participants but they also gladly served as cheerleaders and tour guides. We are both thankful and proud of our local Master Naturalists for all of their efforts in our community and, yes, they were the first to sign up to do it all again in 2018. The Cloudsplitter100 consists of a 25k, 50k, 100k, and 100 mile trail run that starts in our downtown and then using the existing trail system located on High Knob.”
Several High Knob Chapter members also helped plan and conduct the High Knob Naturalist Rally, a weekend of hikes and educational programs focused on the natural resources in Wise County, and especially at High Knob Recreation Area. Learn more about it in a Coalfield Progress article.
Historic Southside Chapter
VMN volunteer Ann Nall received the 2018 Community Builders Award from the Virginia Masonic Lodge 177 for her work with the Friends of Chippokes State Park.
VMN volunteer Della Carrico was appointed to the newly formed Blackwater Task Force. This group will be leading efforts to plan the future use of this Isle of Wight County-owed property. She will be serving alongside several representatives of our state sponsoring agencies and other local stakeholders, adding important input to the committee.
The Socrates Project/Old Rag Chapter
The Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs is a national network of Master Naturalist-type programs. In September, ANROSP granted its "Volunteer Project of the Year" award to the VMN program for the Socrates Project. This project was spearheaded by Alfred Goossens and other members of the VMN-Old Rag Chapter with a goal of providing education about poisonous plants. After lots of hard work by many contributing volunteers and by several partners within Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Socrates Project team published their guide to poisonous plants of Virginia. The volunteers are now working on a second edition to include more species, and they have expanded the team to include volunteers in other chapters.
From the Virginia Department of Forestry: An Update on the Invasive Emerald Ash Borer
By Meredith Bean, Emerald Ash Borer Coordinator, Virginia Department of Forestry
The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), an invasive insect killing ash trees in eastern North America, has now been confirmed in approximately 75% of all counties in the Commonwealth. While eradication of this pest is no longer possible in Virginia, it is not too late for all native Fraxinus (ash) trees. The Virginia Department of Forestry’s EAB Program encourages preservation of Critically Endangered ash trees through cost-sharing chemical treatments, releasing biological control agents, and educating landowners about slowing the spread of EAB and utilizing ash wood wisely.
VDOF offers an ash treatment cost-share program to encourage landowners and organizations to chemically protect specimen ash trees in order to safeguard a core surviving population of ash from the devastation caused by the emerald ash borer. Any native ash tree measuring 12 inches or larger in diameter and displaying 30% or less crown dieback qualifies for treatment. Individual landowners are reimbursed 50% of the total cost of treatment, up to $1250. Organizations (i.e. non-profits, HOAs, universities, municipalities, etc.) are also encouraged to participate and can be reimbursed up to $5000. In 2018, we successfully cost-shared 107 projects treating 547 ash trees across 27 counties. The cost-share will be available once more in 2019.
While chemical control is necessary to protect specimen ash trees, biological control is a potential long-term solution to preserve ash in forested settings. Four species of tiny stingless parasitoid wasps have been approved for release as biological control of EAB and this year VDOF released three species of parasitoid wasps at four sites- two state forests and two wildlife management areas. Two to three rounds of parasitoids were released per site, for a total of approximately 2,000 females per site. The three species released have been thoroughly tested and quarantined by the USDA-APHIS to ensure they do not have significant non-target effects. Once parasitoid populations increase and become established, they can parasitize 50-90% of EAB larvae present. We hope someday these agents will be able to control EAB populations and facilitate ash regeneration on Virginia’s forested lands.
For more information about EAB, visit emeraldashborer.info. If have an ash tree on your property and would like details about the VDOF ash treatment cost-share program, please contact Meredith Bean (EAB Coordinator) via Phone: 434-220-9034 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A New Education Pavilion, Flesh-eating Beetles on Camera, and More from the Virginia Museum of Natural History
By Christy Deatherage, Education Manager, Virginia Museum of Natural History, and other VMNH staff
Virginia Museum of Natural History receives $75,000 grant from Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission for construction of outdoor education pavilion
The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC) recently awarded a $75,000 grant to the Virginia Museum of Natural History Foundation for construction of the VMNH Outdoor Education Pavilion, a multi-use covered structure with exhibit materials interpreting the natural features and forest ecology of adjacent J. Frank Wilson Memorial Park.
The pavilion will be a multi-season covered structure, with flexible-use outdoor seating and a variety of exhibit materials highlighting the natural elements and forest ecology of nearby J. Frank Wilson Park. The pavilion will serve as a venue for outdoor education programs, special events, café seating, and rentals by outside individuals and organizations.
The $75,000 in TRRC support represents 50 percent of the overall project cost of $150,000, with matching support being sought through individual, corporate and foundation support.
Sometimes, science smells like death: Flesh-eating beetles the stars of Virginia Museum of Natural History's 24/7 live video stream
"What's that smell?" A question that never has a pleasant answer. Within the most far-flung reaches of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, it's a question that has been asked many times. The answer is not for the faint of heart. A colony of flesh-eating beetles resides at the museum, constantly feasting on the remains of animals - all in the name of science. Now, every minute of the gruesome process can be viewed on the museum's website via a continuous live feed.
The museum's dermestid colony is so effective at removing the soft tissue from deceased animals that, within just a few days - or weeks for very large animals - there will be nothing but a skeleton remaining.
Enter Liberty Hightower, museum research technician and overlord of the museum's dermestid colony since 2014. Hightower and her colony of beetles are responsible for providing the pristine skeletal remains of animals for the museum's research collections through the grisly process of devouring flesh. Of course, Hightower, herself, does not eat the flesh.
"After I record important data from the animal, such as sex, body length, tail length, and other characteristics, the animal is skinned and gutted," said Hightower. "Tissue samples are sometimes taken of the muscle, heart, kidney, and liver and stored in vials frozen for later DNA analysis. In large specimens that would start to decay and mold before the process is complete, I take off large portions of muscle, leaving only a small amount on the carcass. This meat is saved for times when the colony is hungry and there are no specimens in need of cleaning. When that happens, I make jerky strips out of the meat and give them to beetles until there is a carcass in need of cleaning. The specimen is dried to a jerky-like firmness to inhibit mold growth in the warm, humid beetle tanks and then given to the beetles. The carcass is kept on screen mesh or in a tray so that not even the smallest bones are lost."
For many people, such job responsibilities aren't high on their wish list, but for Hightower, it's business as usual.
"Truly, this job is amazing," said Hightower. "While it's stinky and really warm in the dermestid room, I'm constantly amazed at how well the beetles do their job. The tiniest crevice or hole in a bone is completely cleaned by them. When the colony is really active, they can be given a mouse whole - without skinning or gutting the specimen - and finish it in a single day. One would imagine it might become a boring or routine part of my job, but it never ceases to astonish me how they can transform a carcass into a pile of white bones!"
Hightower notes that the cleaned skeletal remains are not only used in the museum's mammalogy (study of mammals) and ornithology (study of birds) collections, but they are also often used in the museum's archaeology comparative reference collection.
"Archaeologists use these skeletons to identify unknown bones found at archaeological sites," said Hightower. "By comparing an unknown to a known, archaeologists can readily identify the animal it came from. This allows for inferences to be made on the behavior of people from that time, such as what they were eating and hunting."
So, what happens if Hightower accidentally falls into the colony? Fortunately, the beetles are only interested in dead things, but that's not to say the job doesn't come with occupational hazards.
"The colony does pose a potential health hazard in that the hairs of the larva, as well as the frass (science-speak for "bug poop"), can irritate the respiratory system," said Hightower. "Many people develop an allergy to them after working with them for a few years. This is why, if I am doing more than just throwing them some jerky straps, I wear a respirator or face mask and gloves when I go into the dermestid room. This is especially important when I am pulling skeletons, as that process requires me to disturb the frass layer."
Hightower also notes that she, nor anyone else, hunts prey for her colony. All animals fed to the beetles are salvaged.
"The museum holds a salvage permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to salvage any animal remains found dead," said Hightower. "Usually, the animals we acquire have been hit by cars or killed by cats."
The continuous live feed of the dermestid colony can be found on the museum's website at www.vmnh.net/dermestid-cam. For more information about the museum, including its scientific programs, visit www.vmnh.net.
Virginia Museum of Natural History receives $97,637 grant from Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Virginia Museum of Natural History recently received a grant of $97,637 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to improve the care and accessibility of approximately 200 to 540 million-year-old geologic rock core that documents the extent and characteristics of the largest uranium deposit in the United States. Recent considerations of mining the uranium deposit have resulted in increased requests for access to the rock core collection, requiring additional measures to ensure its future health and accessibility.
The collection consists of 75,000 linear feet of 2-inch rock core drilled from Triassic (approximately 252 - 201 million years ago) and Paleozoic (approximately 541 - 252 million years ago) rocks in the Virginia Piedmont.
More than just a science-based need, the overall project will have a positive economic impact for the region, with project funding to support Virginia-based contractors and suppliers.
The grant was awarded to the museum through the IMLS "Museums for America" program, which supports projects that strengthen the ability of an individual museum to serve its public. The "Museums for America" program has three project categories: Lifelong Learning, Community Anchors and Catalysts, and Collections Stewardship and Public Access.
Upcoming Virginia Museum of Natural History family festivals