Welcome to the Rivanna Master Naturalist Chapter!

Welcome to the Rivanna Master Naturalist blog!  We are a local chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program, a statewide volunteer program that trains and organizes Virginians to participate in natural resource education, citizen science, and stewardship projects to benefit the environment.  Learn more about the chapter on our About page.  On this blog, you’ll see reports from our volunteer service and training, news about upcoming events, and other RMN announcements and information that will keep you informed about.  For information on becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer, visit our Training page.  Thanks for checking it out!

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NABA Butterfly Count and Class: What a great turn-out…of people, that is.

This article is written by VMN volunteer and Rivanna Chapter member Terri Keffert, who co-founded and co-coordinates the Albemarle County NABA Butterfly Count.

About Our Count

A record number of eager and curious participants joined in on both the Advanced Butterfly Identification class in June and the annual Albemarle County/Charlottesville North American Butterfly Association (NABA) count that followed. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the number of butterflies that were counted – following the great spangled fritillary butterfly with wings opensecond long cold winter in a row, the numbers of individuals and species were significantly lower this summer.Over fifty intrepid students from Albemarle and surrounding counties came out to Ivy Creek Natural Area to learn how to identify butterflies on a stormy night on June 11, 2014. Nancy Weiss and Terri Keffert shared many of the marvelous characteristics that are used to distinguish each species from another, including some butterfly trivia along the way.

All that newfound or refreshed knowledge was then put to good use on Saturday, June 14, when 39 volunteers weresplit into three teams led by Nancy, Terri, and Laura Seale and sent to sites across the county to count butterflies. What a beautiful day it was! Temperatures were in the high 70s/low 80s and sunny. But signs of the long, cold winter were evident. Many of the flowers that pollinators love so much were still not blooming, or barely. But more than that, the butterflies that were so active after 2013’s similar winter were not there this year. One concern was the lack of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and the ever-present Cabbage Whites that are usually so prolific every year. The hope then was that the butterflies, like the flowers, were just getting a late start this year. However, now at the end of the summer, while numbers have risen, the populations still do not seem to have recovered.

The Rivanna Master Naturalist website has the data sheets for 2014, as well as a comparison summary of previous years’ counts and conditions.

Overall, across all six sites, we counted 217 individuals and 19 different species, with Great Spangled Fritillaries, Eastern Tailed Blues, and Silvery Checkerspots dominating the counts. As a comparison, 535 individuals and 27 species were counted last year. Even in 2012, when the survey took place the day after the great derecho and temperatures were blistering hot, we counted 275 individuals and 26 species.  The data from 2014 and a comparison summary of previous year’s counts and conditions are posted on our Publications page.

But this is why it’s so important to perform these surveys – to be able to see the anomalies, and to become aware of possible trends or environmental problems that may be occurring. Myself, I’m optimistic that the butterflies will recover by next year if the winter conditions aren’t repeated.

Many thanks from Nancy and Terri to all who helped with this count and all who wanted to!

Where have all the butterflies gone?

great spangled fritillary butterfly with wings closedConcern about the lack of butterflies this year in Charlottesville and Albemarle County has generated much discussion about why this has happened. Even now, at the end of the summer, the diversity of species and the number of individuals is much lower than it has been in prior years.

One of the stronger hypotheses is that the butterflies were struck by a double whammy this year. First, we’ve had two years of long, cold winters, plus hard frosts this spring. (So many of the plants that normally survive took a hit this year, so it may make sense that the butterfly overwintering life-stage may have had a high mortality rate as well – not that they were reliant on those plants – just an related observation.)

Then perhaps to go along with that is a circle of life issue. The major cicada cycle last year lowered the number of acorns that larger critters had to feed on last winter, thus perhaps encouraging those animals to find and eat the protein-rich caterpillars/chrysalis’ more than what is normal.

I got so excited this morning to see four Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on my Purple Coneflowers! That’s the most I’ve seen together all year so far. Disconcerting when I remember how many of these I usually see all along the roadways and in the fields all summer. John Holden reported with excitement the larger numbers of butterflies he saw up in Shenandoah National Park last week, especially along the mown areas where monardas and other flowers have been allowed to grow. I’m suspecting that with fewer adults earlier in the year, it just may take more time and many generations to recover, but my hope is that they will.

I’ve wondered how far afield this population decrease has occurred. I haven’t talked to anyone or read about any other areas of the country (except the Monarch problem, but that’s a different issue.) But then, I haven’t searched it out either. Since I’m not seeing national headlines about it, it makes me think that it is an environmental issue based on just our region (or wherever similar climate and/or cicadas conditions may have been present.) It’d be interesting to know…

What do you all think? Does that sound feasible? What are your insights? Your theories? Have you read or heard anything?


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Virginia Master Naturalists Improve Charlottesville City Parks

Volunteers planting trees at Quarry Park.Two Rivanna Master Naturalist projects this spring have benefitted everyone who enjoys Charlottesville City Parks.  In April, twenty-two volunteers planted approximately 100 tree seedlings along Moore’s Creek in Quarry Park. Rivanna Master Naturalists coordinated this event with the Rivanna Conservation Society and City of Charlottesville.
Last weekend, on June 7, many Rivanna Master Naturalists participated in the 26th annual Clean the Bay Day, an event spearheaded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  This marks the 6th consecutive year (since 2009) that the Rivanna Master Naturalists have been local Charlottesville area site leaders in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Other partners this Volunteers carrying trash along trail.year (including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy) were the Rivanna Conservation Society, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, Dixon Disposal and the City of Charlottesville. 41 volunteers participated picking up trash by canoe/kayak along a two mile stretch of the Rivanna River from Darden Towe Park to Riverview Park and along 1.5 miles of riverside trails. Approximately 750 pounds of trash were removed.  Rivanna Chapter members Pat Klima and Tex Weaver were the Master Naturalist site leaders and RMN Chapter member Carol Cutler provided educational materials at the Master Naturalist informational table.

Take a visit to Quarry Park or Riverview Park and enjoy the improved habitats!  And, check out more pictures of the buffer planting and of Clean the Bay Day 2014 on our photo sharing site!Volunteers canoeing down Rivanna River collecting trash.

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Rivanna Master Naturalist Ranks Swell With New Class!

posed image of all 2014 Rivanna Master Naturalist training course graduatesLast week, the Rivanna Master Naturalist Class of 2014 completed their last training session.   Thirty-five new Master Naturalists have joined our ranks.   This was our largest class to date and we had several reservations and concerns about how successful we would be with such a large number of students, but everyone on the Curriculum Committee and the class pitched in to make this work.   This class has already contributed more than 530 hours of volunteer time and four members have attained the necessary volunteer and advanced training hours to be certified!  We are very excited to add these volunteers’ talents and enthusiasm to our chapter.

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It’s Bluebird Time

two bluebirds perched outside a wooden nest box.

Pair of bluebirds at a nest box on the Meadowcreek Golf Course.

Eastern  bluebirds are now common in central Virginia due in large part to the building of nest box trails specifically for them.  We had almost lost these cavity nesters by mid twentieth century. Primary causes were loss of habitat as large farming tracts were turned over to development coupled by competition for natural nesting cavities in trees by  non-native species (house sparrows and starlings).  Efforts to return the species to our area began in the 1980s,  Prominent in this effort was Bob Hammond, retired veterinarian, who built and monitored more than 300 bluebird nest boxes throughout the CHO/ Albmarle area.  His trail thrived for more than 25 years but by 2007, after Bob had retired from active duty, nesting productivity was much diminished and many of his sites  badly in need of refurbishing.  In response, that same year, the RMN established a new  project specifically aimed at restoring and maintaining the then officially named  “Bob Hammond Bluebird Trail”.

Today this program is one of the most popular citizen science projects  in the  Rivanna Chapter.  The Hammond trail now consists of 30 sites including parks, schools, hospitals, golf courses, farms and roadways.  In 2013, 2233 native cavity nesters fledged out of the 362 nest boxes on the trail. The vast majority of these fledglings ( 79%)  were bluebirds, fourteen percent were tree swallows, the remainder an assortment of chickadees, titmice and house wrens. It was a very productive season as measured by the number of eggs  developing into fledging birds at  eighty four percent.  This data was sent on to the Virginia Bluebird Society. Thirty four dedicated volunteers monitored these boxes of which twenty three were RMN members.

bluebird nest with eggs and nestlings.

Bluebird nestlings on their first day after hatching.

The bluebird monitor’s season starts in February as nest boxes   are cleaned out in anticipation of the arrival of  breeding  pairs into the area.  Nest building begins usually in late March at which time the monitor begins weekly visits to his/her designated site .  From this time on until sometime in August when the season winds down, the monitor  carefully records  all nesting activity in each box, which species visit, how many eggs are laid, how many hatch and how many hatchlings fledge. Each nesting sequence takes approximately 6.5 weeks to complete.  Here in Central Virginia bluebird pairs usually have two and sometimes  three nestings a year. Throughout the season, the monitor is alert to any signs of predation and responds by installing the proper guard  and/or relocating  the endangered box.

The importance of selecting suitable boxes, with appropriate mounts for nesting success was dramatically reinforced in a recent study by RMN monitor Mary Tillman.  Mary measured productivity at two similar sites, each with 12 nest boxes. Site A  had been fitted  for many years with small, poorly ventilated boxes, mounted on fences posts lacking predator guards, Nest boxes at Site B  were  of a newer model, with good ventilation and well-shaded by  overhanging roofs. These were  mounted on metal poles with both snake baffles and wire mesh raccoon/cat guards.  Although there were more nesting attempts at Site A (24) than at Site B (15), nesting productivity at site B was much greater (65 fledgings or 88%) compared to that of site A (27 fledgings or 25%).

male bluebird perched on a stem

Immature male bluebird at Greenbrier Park, about 40 days after hatching.

Hopefully the Bob Hammond Trail and others like it, with their dedicated monitors,  will continue to keep the common Eastern Bluebird common here and everywhere for the years to come.

–From Rivanna Master Naturalist volunteer Ann Dunn, who is also the Albemarle County coordinator for the Virginia Bluebird Society’s nest box monitoring program.  Ann Dunn and RMN volunteer Mary Tillman recently led an Advanced Training session on bluebird monitoring for our chapter.

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Young Students Learn Nature Drawing Skills from An Expert

image of young students looking at and drawing natural objects such as pine cones and seeds


Lara Call Gastinger, a class of 2013 Master Naturalist, has started an afterschool Nature Drawing club at Burnley Moran Elementary. For six weeks (and each meeting for 1 ½ hours), Lara takes 10 students (mostly 1st graders) outside to find, observe, and document what they find in nature.

From Lara:
“They began by making nature sketchbooks with twigs and rubber bands. On a particularly stunning spring day, they sat under a tree in front of the school finding rocks, hemlock cones, tiny blooming speedwells, grass, pine needles and oak leaves. Our second meeting was inside (due to the snow and cold) but we had plenty of nuts and dried specimens to touch, describe, and draw.

Most importantly, was learning that real trees in nature do not look like lollipops. We went outside to observe a real tree and were amazed at its branches, textures, and leaves hanging on. In the next few weeks, we plan on adding watercolor to our sketchbooks.”

Along with being a Virginia Master Naturalist volunteer, Lara is an artist and the head illustrator of the Flora of Virginia.  All the Virginia Master Naturalist volunteers who achieved 2014 recertification are sporting her artwork, as she designed the 2014 recertification pin image of the Virginia spring beauty wildflower.


young student sitting outside sketching in a notebook

Burnley-Moran student practices nature drawing in the field.


image of two notebooks with drawings of trees, one very simple like a lollipop, and the other more complex like a real tree

Before – and – after: Students demonstrate their improvement at nature drawing.

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Observations from a Unique Ecological Area – Maple Flats

group of field trip participants near the pondRivanna Master Naturalist volunteer and chapter field trip leader extraordinaire John Holden sent this report on the latest of the chapter’s annual visits to Maple Flats in Augusta County, and Rivanna Master Naturalist Devin Floyd contributed the fabulous photos!





image of a vernal pond and a tiger salamanderMaple Flats Ponds is a unique place, in the George Washington National Forest about 1 hour from Charlottesville.  It is comprised of several vernal sinkhole ponds in Alluvial deposits overlying Limestone and Dolomite, and it is drained by 2 small crystal clear streams.  There is also one permanent pond, fed by seven springs.  It is one of the best salamander sites in the East. In 2013 we found 7 species, in about 2 hours time.  It also is and has been home to Red-headed Woodpeckers and Wood ducks.  You can learn more about the unique ecology of the area and some of the interesting species found there at http://www.asecular.com/forests/mapleflats.htm, written by geologist and environmentalist Robert F. Mueller.

In a recent Rivanna Chapter field trip, 28 Virginia Master Naturalists, family, and friends braved a cold 40 degree day with a weather forecast promising a 70% chance of rain.  Those 28 were justly rewarded, as we found our first Tiger Salamander, a large striking species up to 13″ in size.  We also found Marbled Salamanders and a Spotted Salamander.  Both Marbled and Spotted salamanders are in the Mole salamander family, comprised of species that spend much of their lives underground.  Both species are associated with vernal pool habitats.  The most common salamander was the Redback and we also saw a Northern Dusky.

image of salamanders and snake

There is reason to offer another trip this Spring, to see species we usually see, the Red and the Slimy salamanders. We were also treated to seeing Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked and Wood Ducks on the ponds.

Chapter members should watch the Listserv and the website for Salamander trip # 2, in April . If you want to go on your own to the unmarked trails and trailhead, John Holden would be happy to assist with directions.






up-close images of plants and salamanders


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Rivanna Master Naturalist Volunteers Nurture The Next Generation

group picture of 4-H Junior Naturalist youth4-H Junior Master Naturalists has been one of our chapter’s important environmental education programs for a number of years.  We sponsor three full-fledged Jr. Naturalist programs at Ivy Creek Natural Area in Central Albemarle County, Baldwin Education Center in Southern Albemarle County, and in Fluvanna County. We have also contributed to similar programming at Southwood Mobile Home Park with the hope that this may be a site for a Jr. Naturalist program in the future. The purpose is to interest and excite children in the wonders of the natural world and expand their understanding of natural phenomena. In all cases, children are placed in age appropriate learning groups for individual sessions and combined for field trips. For each program, a topic is chosen, sometimes a guest teacher is brought in, and children are involved in discussion, hands on activities and trail experiences. Volunteers in the Junior Naturalist program are truly dedicated and tend to stay with this activity year after year, building their own knowledge and extending appreciation of the natural world to the next generation.

To give you a flavor of what the Junior Naturalist clubs are like, we have two accounts from Rivanna Master Naturalist volunteers who regularly lead club activities.  RMN chapter members interested in volunteering with the clubs should contact Dorothy Tompkins (Baldwin Center), Mary Lee Epps (Ivy Creek), or Ida Swenson (Fluvanna.)  Parents interested in learning more about 4-H generally or the Junior Naturalist clubs specifically should contact the Charlottesville/Albemarle office of Virginia Cooperative Extension.

RMN volunteer Dorothy Tompkins, who co-leads the Baldwin Center 4-H Junior Naturalist club, writes: “Last year we had a much more structured approach to each session for the older kids than we have had this year.  Last year we had some “lesson” time with “slides” or other visuals then “hands on activities”.  For example, we used “Project Underground” as a guideline for one session and the next time we took a field trip to Grand Caverns.  We tried to get outside a bit each session and asked them to keep a journal with drawings/sketches as well as notes.  This year to provide a different experience we are spending much more time outside, making observations about different topics, such as how plants and animals adapt for winter.  They are using their journals more this year.   We spend a little time each session on birds, emphasizing not only appearance, but behavior, flight patterns etc, so that they will get acquainted with the more common birds.   We plan a spring session on geology with one of our Master Naturalists who is a geologist showing them how to identify different minerals in rocks then taking them for a walk to examine what is right around them.  We have four Master Naturalists and a couple of parents who are regulars.   Sometimes other parents help, especially with field trips.”

RMN volunteer Mary Lee Epps offered this report on a recent Junior Naturalist club meeting.

A Good Day for Wildlife

I help with a Junior Naturalist 4-H Club based at Ivy Creek Natural Area in Charlottesville.  Recently we had our first meeting of the spring semester on an unusually mild day for January.  Snow and bitter cold were forecast for the next day but now the sun was shining and the temperature was in the mid 50’s.  As I headed toward the Education Building a few minutes before 4:00, I noticed a group of children and parents lined up along the path in front of me, all looking in the same direction.  Of course, I immediately asked what they were looking at and one of     opossum in the forestthe children pointed excitedly to a small grey animal a few feet away.  It was a possum, playing dead.  They told me that it had come lumbering along when suddenly it noticed people ahead of it and promptly flopped on its side.  It looked convincingly dead to me, but the others assured me that it had been quite lively moments earlier.  We stood watching it for a few minutes.  Every time someone else came walking up the path, one of the children would run and alert him.  After a few minutes the possum raised its head to see if the coast was clear.  When it realized that the intruders had not left, it simply flopped down again.  Everyone remarked on how odd it was to see a possum in the daytime, even in late afternoon.

Eventually I tore myself away and went into the building to help register new members and make nametags.  (We open enrollment twice a year so that we had several new children to sign in.)    We started the meeting by having everyone introduce themselves, tell their school, grade, and a favorite animal.  (The choices this time ranged from elephant to humming bird.)  We then played a game to see who could recall as many of the children’s names as possible.  Then everyone had a turn being blindfolded, feeling some sort of natural object, and trying to guess what it was.  These included a raccoon pelt, a black walnut, and a bear skull, but the hit of the afternoon was fake coyote scat.  All the kids insisted on feeling that one.

youth peering through the forest at a deer

At every 4-H meeting, we hike on one of Ivy Creek’s many trails and after going over the rules (no sticks, no one ahead of the first leader or behind the last one, and no wondering off from the group), we headed down the path toward Martin’s Branch.  I was at the tail end and again I saw the group stopped ahead, lined up along the trail and looking off into the woods.  They had sighted a deer.

We then headed for the reservoir, on the way stopping to examine a young beech tree that had been cut off by beavers, and then had resprouted below the cut.  We also noticed a dead snag with gaping holes and a pile of fresh chips at the base, signs that it had been attacked recently by pileated woodpeckers.

As we approached the reservoir, we again warned the children to be VERY quiet because there were ducks on the water.  There are a lot of small boys in the club and this always proves difficult, but this time they met the challenge and we were able  to watch  5 pairs of mallards swimming along, all the time dipping their heads into the water searching for food.

Youth walking across a log in the forestWe ended the walk at a favorite downed tree that the children played on for several minutes before it was time to head back.  And as we approached the parking lot, what should come ambling along, but our possum.  It was definitely a good day for wildlife!

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Rivanna Master Naturalists Featured in the news

The Rivanna Master Naturalist chapter has been working hard to get the word out about our next training course, with some success!  More than 60 prospective trainees have attended the information sessions, and we were featured in C-ville Weekly and on NBC29.  Remember, applications are due January 10.

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Become a Rivanna Master Naturalist Volunteer in 2014!


Group photo of 17 members of 2013 Rivanna Master Naturalist class in front of the Ivy Creek Educational Building

The Rivanna Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists is pleased to announce that the 2014 Basic Training will
begin February 11 at the Ivy Creek Natural Area. This year’s class will be on Tuesday evenings with some Saturday field trips scheduled.  A tentative schedule, application, and reference forms are posted on the Training page, and they are due January 10.   For more information, email RMN Chapter President, Laura Seale at  lauraseale68 [at] gmail [dot] com or
rivannamn [dot] info [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Virginia Master Naturalists is a corps of volunteers dedicated to conserving our natural heritage.   We assist local sponsoring agencies such as schools, environmental groups and Virginia State agencies.   We educate, gather scientific data, maintain trails and other environmental endeavors.   We have a broad range of age, interests and backgrounds.  And we are looking for like minded people to join our mission.

We strongly encourage you attend an information session to meet some of the Chapter members as well as  better understand the program and the volunteer requirements.   Three different sessions will be held at Ivy Creek Natural Area Education Building at 1780 Earlysville Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903.   They are December 10 at 7 PM, January 4 at 10 AM and January 7 at 7 PM.

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Naturalist Help Desk: Butterfly Query


Good morning!

I saw this butterfly yesterday outside of my office and almost stepped on it, thinking it was a leaf! My husband and I both tried to identify it with no success. Can you help?!

Thank you,

Kim B.
Feb. 20, 2013


Hi Kim,

I am pretty sure it is a Question Mark Butterfly, Polygonia interrogationis.

It is similar to the Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma), but has an extra little “dot” on the hindwing marking.

Both of these species are native to this area and both overwinter as adults, so it isn’t too surprising to see one at this point.


Hope that was helpful. We will be happy to attempt ID for any critters you get questions about. It’s fun.

Laura Seale
Rivanna Master Naturalists

If you have a question for the RMN Naturalist Help Desk,
email us at rmnhelpdesk [at] vmn-rivanna [dot] org.

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