In touch with nature: Naturalist Program gives students a new appreciation of great outdoors

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

When Cindy Roesel visited the Big Haynes Creek Nature Center in Conyers she noticed a bare, wide open meadow near the walking trail.

"It seems we just had to have some wildflowers in that meadow," said Roesel, who was a student in the Master Naturalist Program at the time.

She organized a seed ball-making booth at the Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival in August. Festivalgoers made enough marble-sized seed balls -- out of compost, clay and seeds -- to fill 36 square-yard drying racks.

In February, volunteers tossed the seed balls into the meadow, part of the 173-acre Big Haynes Creek nature preserve on the grounds of the Georgia International Horse Park. The flowers will bloom in April, providing nourishment for wildlife and visual enjoyment.

Roesel said the Master Naturalist Program changed how she views the outdoors.

"In the past, for me walking was for exercise. It's totally different now. When you see what's out there, when you put a name on a flower and you know when you expect it to bloom, when you understand what you are seeing, that's what the Master Naturalist class is all about," Roesel said.

"It just opened my eyes."

Sponsored by the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and presented locally by the Rockdale County Cooperative Extension Office, the Master Naturalist Program is currently enrolling students. Classes run each Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. beginning April 15 and are open to all ages.

Coursework covers insects, birds, water quality, wildlife, organic food issues, granite outcropping ecology, urban forestry and botany. The Master Naturalist classes offer broad overviews of the subjects designed to "whet people's appetite" about the natural world, said Jule-Lynn Macie, director of the Rockdale County Cooperative Extension office.

"What I hope is that people come away from it a bit enlightened on environmental issues and should the need arise they can become advocates for a topic that interests them," Macie said.

Each class is taught by several specialists and takes place in different locations in Rockdale and metro Atlanta.

The water quality portion entails a field trip to the Clayton County Water Authority's Newman Wetland's Center and water treatment plant. Macie said the importance of keeping water clean is stressed.

"I think there's a lot of misconception of how water is treated," Macie said.

The Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center is the setting for the wildlife component and students learn how to attract birds, butterflies and other animals to their backyards with native plants. Animal identification is also covered and instructors will have live specimens -- perhaps a live screech owl, alligator or bald eagle -- for participants to view.

"That's one of our more popular days," Macie said.

The group visits Arabia Mountain to learn about the 485-million-year-old granite rock outcroppings and the unique plant and wildlife that thrives there such as diamorpha, the black spotted quillwort, turkey vultures and the marbled salamander.

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit hosts the birding class. Instructors review identification of birds and basics such as feathers, pigment, skeleton, reproduction, food and migration. Students learn reasons for decline in bird species including habitat loss and impacts with towers.

An entomologist, Macie teaches the class on insects, which touches on bee conservation, butterflies and the biology and identification of insects. It's possible to find 1,000 different kinds of insects in the backyard, said Macie, and 97 percent of insects provide some good to the environment such as decomposition or pollination.

Macie said the Master Naturalist classes, offered every other year, prove popular with the public and students travel from locations across the state to attend.

"I think, honestly, they will tell you everything is a 'wow' for them because most of the topics are things that people don't have any background in," Macie said.

"When you look at the evaluations they like everything. They really don't say speakers weren't good or suggest topics be taken out. They always want more."