VMN State Conference 2017 Review

view from vmn conference.9.16.17.sg

Even though I am still just getting my legs under me for this program, being in the most recent HMN Cohort and not yet even having all of my volunteer hours, I am glad I took the opportunity to attend the Conference. We had the wonderful advantage of the Conference being so close in proximity to us this year, right there in Front Royal, VA. Even though I didn’t stay overnight with most others, but rather drove the hour to and from each day, it was a time of adventure and education.

On the first evening, not only was the scenery at the 4-H campground very, well, scenic and gorgeous, but the rooms full of displays from other areas were fun to look at. We are made so different with so many different interests and, with that, it creates such a wide variety of opportunities. One area was focusing on purple martin housing, others had a lot of child education with nature artifacts, and one had even partaken in a mastodon excavation project…WHAT! There, of course, were a few of the cooperating departments and organizations as well that were engaging people and handing out fun literature and SWAG. There was the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Department of Environmental Quality, and the Virginia Native Plant Society, among others.

This first night was the awards ceremony and photo contest winners. Unfortunately nobody from Headwaters won in a photo category (don’t know how many from Headwaters had entered…it seems worth entering next year; they are continuously adding new categories), however, I am proud to say that our own Paul Bugas from DGIF won the Partner Chapter Advisor of the year. So yay! It was nice to begin to get to know other individuals from around the state and put names to faces as they were called up for awards. I must say that VMN president Michelle Prysby did a wonderful job presenting a multitude of information.

Now on to Saturday. It was a perfectly weathered morning and I was personally excited because my most anticipated field trip was coming close. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get into any other field trip for this particular conference. (Future learning tip for myself and others for future conferences, I thought I had registered very soon in the early bird season and still all of the field trips were filled up! Luckily I was able to get a space on the wait-list for one, and even more luckily there was a spot to open up. So if, in the future, you want a lot of the fun, adventurous field trips, register ASAP!)

Now where was I…oh yes! Field trip, one and only, a tour of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Being as passionate about endangered exotic wildlife as I am for our own backyards, I was in heaven. We got to see the breeding areas for their populations of cheetahs, Przewalski’s horses, mane wolves, scimitar-horned oryxes, Persian onagers, dama gazelles, and various birds. What most people don’t know about SCBI, however, is their focus on native plant and habitat studies as well! The tall-grass meadows and the native tree-relationship studies they have are amazing. They happened to point out the overlooked thought that, with most of the test plots having been planted within the past 7 years (including the trees), this very well may be a 100 year span scientific study. Talk about perseverance! We traveled by caravan of three vans to the different locations, one of which enabled us to find a bunch of monarch butterfly caterpillars picturesquely swaying on their stalks of milkweed. This area, which we learned covers 3200 acres was much more elevated than expected, but which offered some amazing scenic views.

Bear skull on bear skin.9.16.17.sg

Bear skull on bear skin. This bear was poached so is now used to teach about living with bears.  Credit: Stephanie Gardner

We just barely got back to the 4-H camp for lunch (the food, by the way on the field trip was pleasantly varied and delicious.) After lunch, I had a seminar on black bears in Virginia and their management. The presenter, Seth Thompson, was a biologist from DGIF down in southwest Virginia. He spoke of biology, behavior, misconceptions, interactions with humans, and ways to coexist. Fun fact #1: Did you know that black bears can come in about 5-6 different colors including gold, auburn, and paisley? Nah, just kidding on the paisley 🙂 And fun fact #2: “the most dangerous animal is a mama bear” is not true! They typically tree their cubs then run a separate direction to lead away a predator or stand passively at the base. Still be wary around them, though. They are coming out with some innovative bear-resistant trash cans and other repellent systems to help us live in peace with the black bears in our area, especially since we have one of the highest populations in the entire state.

My second seminar was one I equally loved and have learned that I have a secret passion for (even if I haven’t yet had the opportunity to put it into practice.) The presenter, Megan Whatton from the Nature Conservancy, came to speak about a new backyard habitat survey system they are developing in cooperation with Cornell Lab of Ornithology, called “Habitat Network.” (Here’s a link to it to find out more or participate: https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/nature-in-cities/the-habitat-network.xml)

It is a citizen science movement to get individuals to make wildlife friendly backyard habitats and record it. I already have my own Pinterest page with a plethora of ideas, and it was fun to learn more and get inspired further. To see such peaceful birds, bees, frogs, reptiles, and butterflies right outside one’s window seems so relaxing.

After the seminars, we were on to a reception where I met some wonderful people from the Historic Rivers Chapter and the Peninsula Chapter, dinner, some door prizes (I won one!), and a keynote speaker. After that, sorry to say, I did not stay for the campfire and was not able to return for Sunday’s seminar, but boy was it a fun weekend! I hope that I have convinced others in the chapter to go to the conferences in coming years. We need a good HMN presence there to represent our area and our projects! If you have any more questions about the conference, feel free to email me at kmd_005 [at] yahoo.com.

– Kristina Oates, Cohort V, September 2017

Top photo by Stephanie Gardner of the view from the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal where the 2017 Virginia Master Naturalist Statewide Volunteer Conference and Training was held.

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