Campbell Vaughn: Phinizy program will make you a Master Naturalist

If you want to get outside and be a part of nature, I have found an amazing opportunity: Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is hosting a 10-week course called the Georgia Master Naturalist Program. This program is a collaboration of UGA’s Cooperative Extension Service and the Warnell School of Forest and Natural Resources. If I could take this course, I would be there.

 

Georgia Master Naturalist is an adult environmental education program, and Ruth Mead of the Phinizy Swamp education team hosted their first Georgia Master Naturalist course in 2013. Since then, close to 100 participants have been certified through the program. The Phinizy course is a once-a-week program consisting of full-day field trips designed to engage participants in hands-on learning about our natural resources and how to get involved. Subjects covered are basic ecology, field ornithology, longleaf wiregrass forests, mammals of Georgia, geology, stream ecology and exploring human impacts. So, what happens on these field trips?

Basic ecology concepts are presented through an exploration of wetlands. What better place to explore a wetland than Augusta’s own Phinizy Swamp? Get your hands dirty digging wetland soils and identifying wetland plants. The field trip ends with a magical hike through the bottomland hardwood forest adjacent to the tupelo/cypress in the flood plains of Butler Creek nestled within Phinizy Swamp.

Field ornithology (birdwatching) basics are introduced in classroom studies and a bird walk at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park. Phinizy is one of Georgia’s first Important Bird Areas (IBA) and now a Global IBA. Several of Augusta’s talented birders join the bird walk and help participants discover some of the more than 200 bird species that call Augusta home. This field trip is a great introduction to the swamp’s egrets, herons, hawks, sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and many more.

The longleaf pine wiregrass forest once covered much of the Southeast, so a day at Silver Bluff Audubon Sanctuary introduces the importance of this ecosystem. These pine stands are both beautiful and diverse. If weather permits, participants join an active prescribed burn and feel the heat and excitement as they light the woods on fire. The incredible Audubon staff present in the field the multiple uses of our forest from wildlife management and pine straw production to recreation and timber.

Georgia Master Naturalist coordinator and Wildlife Specialist Mike Mengak of UGA joins the course for a day as participants discover the many mammals of Georgia. Dr. Mengak specializes in mammology, meaning that pellets, skulls, scat and tracks will fill the day. With mammals that have not adapted to our human environment and those that have become varmints, this field trip will be a hit.

A trip to Appling’s Heggie’s Rock provides for fascinating studies of lichens and geology. Heggie’s Rock Preserve is a granite outcrop that spans some 101 acres in Columbia County, and it is here you see exposed granite, lichen and moss-covered rock, soil islands and the beautiful vernal pools that support rare and unusual plants. Malcolm Hodges, who is a lichen expert and director of stewardship at the Nature Conservancy of Georgia, will lead an up-close-and-personal study of the lichens. Also joining the field trip will be geologist Walt Kubilius, who will discuss rock formation while exploring this amazing National Natural Landmark.

Stream ecology is what Phinizy Center Education does best, and this field trip gets participants into Butler Creek to study its chemistry, biology and physical characteristics. Donning waders, participants will discover the fish and macroinvertebrates (animals without a backbone that can be seen with the naked eye) that call Butler Creek home. Urban impacts to our streams are real, and this field trip introduces the importance of healthy urban streams.

Human impact is very much a part of the ecology of Georgia, and the Phinizy course includes three field trips to explore its issues. Imagine the Savannah River without dams. This portion of the program starts with a field trip to Clark’s Hill Lake to tour inside the dam and learn about the ecology of the Savannah River as changed by its dams. A botanical hike on Steven’s Creek Heritage Preserve is included.

The next field trip will be a day on the Augusta Canal with a tour of the gatehouse with Augusta Utilities staff. A canoe trip down the canal will allow participants to hear from local historians and Georgia Adopt-A-Stream coordinators. The last human impact outing will explain where drinking water comes from and where it goes once it’s used.

The Phinizy Center would love to have you join their program. Signups have begun and the deadline is Feb. 24. A kickoff meeting will be from 4-7 p.m. March 8. Trips begin March 9 and run every Thursday (except April 6) through May 18. Registration is $290 for Friends of Phinizy members and $320 for nonmembers. Fees include all field trips, boating, Georgia Master Naturalist membership costs, a polo shirt, journaling supplies and other related material. Find more info at www.phinizycenter.org.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension agent for Richmond County, by emailing augusta@uga.edu.

 

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