Ants and Fossils, Turtles and Trees: Virginia Master Naturalist Conference

Virginia Master Naturalists from across the state gathered at Smith Mountain Lake for the annual conference this past weekend. Blue Ridge Foothills and Lakes Chapter (BRFAL) did an amazing job planning and hosting this conference. Around 250 Master Naturalists attended making it the biggest conference in Virginia to date.

The event kicked off with optional offsite tours on Friday morning. One of these tours was a behind the scenes visit to the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. I elected to take this tour and it turned out to be fun and informative. The tour was led by Dr. James (Jim) Beard who is the museum Curator of Geology. We began the tour with an overview at the museum entrance.

IMG_0651Next we visited the invertebrate paleontology lab to learn about projects the museum is involved in. Jim showed us a whale fossil that is being reconstructed, and told us that it came from a dig site in Caroline County where apparently quite a few whale fossils have been found.IMG_0554.JPGJim took us to the loading dock where we met another staff member, Ray Vodden, a research technician. Ray showed us a dinosaur cast (a composite of different individuals found in a quarry in Colorado) that was given to the museum by the Smithsonian. Ray explained that he had to cut the cast so that it could fit in the museum, and how he has been fixing it and making sure next time it can be taken apart rather than cut.

IMG_0557We returned to the paleontology lab with Jim and Ray to see the juvenile mastodon skull that is being prepared for display.

IMG_0561.jpgJim took us to meet with Dr. Elizabeth Moore, Curator of Archaelogy. She discussed a current project that involves examining tiny fish fossils with the goal of determining which species were eaten by Native Americans along the Virginia coastal areas near Virginia Beach.

IMG_0572.JPGLater, we visited the entomology lab and met with the Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Dr. Kaloyan (Kal) Ivanov. Kal showed us many insect collection boxes, live juvenile walking sticks, and a Black widow spider with a parasite that he is evaluating.


IMG_0583Kal also explained the history of the lab and discussed a recent field expedition to Wyoming. He collected ants during this trip and showed us a box of them.
IMG_0584.jpgKal passed around a new book, The Geology of Virginia. The first book published about Virginia’s geology in years. This book is available in the gift shop.

Jim showed us the museum’s butterfly collection: a stunning variety of beautiful specimens from around the world.


Then we were shown where the museum stores additional items, including a collection of bird skins.

After the tour, I visited the public area of the museum.


IMG_0644Just outside the entrance to the museum, I stopped to admire the butterflies in the small garden. Learn more about the museum by visiting their website:

This years conference ran from Friday to Sunday at the WE Skelton 4H Center, Wirtz, VA. After the optional tours on Friday, attendees got together at the facility located right on Smith Mountain Lake, an appropriate venue for Master Naturalists and great for doing a little birding! Master Naturalists got to know members from other chapters and share experiences.

Friday evening, an award ceremony was held to recognize chapters, chapter advisors and individual Master Naturalists for efforts during the previous year.

The State-wide Master Naturalist photo competition entries were on display during dinner and the winner’s names were announced.  Here are photos of the entries and winning pics:

IMG_0692IMG_0691IMG_0682IMG_0681Tucker Caldwell, a member of my chapter, Merrimac Farm Master Naturalist, won third place for his photo of a stag in Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park!


Some of the other winning photos from other chapters:

Saturday morning, there were classes on-site and tours offsite. I traveled to a local tree plantation with 13 Master Naturalists for the Plantation Forestry Field Trip: From Seedling to Sawtimber. Bill Sweeney, Franklin County Area Forester, Virginia Department of Forestry, was our instructor. We visited two separate properties and learned how the property is managed. The property owner took us on a tractor ride to show us the trees he is growing for eventual harvest. 

Saturday afternoon, I attended classes led by other Master Naturalists in their area of expertise. I attended Monitoring Populations of the Eastern Box Turtle with Todd Fredericksen. Todd introduced his ongoing monitoring project. He showed three turtles in class pointing out the differences between males and females. Then Todd brought the class outside along with tracking equipment in search of a turtle he released earlier. It was interesting to watch him track down the turtle, then demonstrate how they measure the turtle and record observations.




DSC_0772The next class I attended was How to Establish a Successful Pollinator Habitat Project. During this presentation, Jack Price, member of the Central Rappahannock Chapter, discussed a project he is involved in that established a butterfly garden in Washington, VA.

DSC_0775.JPGSaturday night’s dinner was followed by key note speaker, Dr. Tim McCoy of Virginia Tech. Tim talked about the state of pollinators, especially bees. He concentrated his talk on native bees and their importance as pollinators. We learned about different types of bees and how to create a habitat for them.

IMG_0735This conference was my first Master Naturalist conference. I did not know what to expect, and washington pleasantly surprised by how well organized it was (kudos to BRFAL Chapter!). The instructors/speakers did an excellent job, and it was clear that they are passionate about what they taught. I hope to be able to attend next years conference to be held in Front Royal, VA!

Interested in becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist? Look for a chapter near you and learn more about the Virginia Master Naturalist program.


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