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 about some of our projects and activities on this page, and visit our Training page to learn how to become a VMN volunteer in our chapter.  Or, come to one of our three information sessions in December and January!


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Basic Training Overview

The Virginia Master Naturalist program is a corps of volunteers dedicated to conserving our natural heritage.  We work with sponsoring state agencies and with local partnering groups such as schools, parks, and environmental groups.  Our chapter includes members of all ages, interests and backgrounds, united by a desire to educate, gather scientific data, and participate in a variety of service projects designed to help protect and preserve our shared ecosystem.

The first step to becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist is the successful completion of a 40+ hour training course with your area chapter that includes both classroom and field experience. The training course is designed as a broad-based survey course that provides volunteers with background knowledge of the area in which they will pursue their service projects. This course is required only once in the life of a Virginia Master Naturalist. More on what to expect from your basic training. Basic Training Classes are held each spring (February – May) with several information sessions typically held the preceding winter (November – January).  Check back at the end of the year for more information one classes.


Applications are available at the beginning of each class cycle.  If you are interested in taking the class, check back at the end of the year for more information and class applications.

Information Sessions

Information sessions for the training classes are held at the beginning of each year in preparation for the upcoming classes .  These sessions provide a chance  to meet some of the Chapter members as well as better understand the program and the volunteer requirements. Three sessions will be held.  All are at Ivy Creek Natural Area Education Building at 1780 Earlysville Road, Charlottesville.  Sessions will be held at the beginning of each year before the beginning of class.  Dates and times will be announced later.

Please note, there is a class fee of $150 to cover materials and chapter operation costs. Enrolled participants will receive a Rivanna Master Naturalist notebook with the required curriculum materials, Peterson’s Eastern Forests field guide, as well as various other field guides and books on local natural history topics.

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Early History of the Rivanna Master Naturalists

By Ida Swenson, January 2017

For many in the Charlottesville area, we first heard of the Master Naturalists at a meeting of the Natural History Roundtable at the Ivy Creek Natural Area Education Building in the fall of 2005. Dede Smith, chair and host of the meeting, introduced a new employee of Virginia Tech, Michelle Prysby, who had been hired that October to develop a state wide cadre of volunteers.   Dede and Michelle were not only providing information, but seeking people who would be willing to help develop a local chapter of the new organization which would be called the Virginia Master Naturalists.

Beginning the process of organization of the Rivanna Master Naturalists

In March of 2006, a meeting was set up to begin the process of organization.   Invited to the meeting were Dede, Peter Warren (Horticultural agent for the Albemarle County Cooperative Extension), LoriAnne Barnett, Susan Pleiss, Mary Lee Epps (Active volunteer for Ivy Creek Natural Area), Anne Mallek (Virginia Museum of Natural History), and myself (Education Contractor for the Rivanna Conservation Society). We soon were joined by Carol Franda and Ruth Douglas. We had a chapter organization flow chart from the State as well as a flow chart for certification. Ruth and Susan went to a statewide meeting about the new organization. We also were given draft models for developing our By-laws and Operating Handbook as well as a syllabus of what should be covered in our trainings. We established ourselves as the coordinating committee for the forming of the new chapter.   And the heavy lifting began.

By the end of July, just four months later we had for submission to the State office:

  • A chapter name and ‘territory’
  • Draft Bylaws
  • Draft Operating Handbook
  • Syllabus for our fall, 2006, training class.
  • Survey of prospective members
  • Application form
  • Application cover letter
  • List of possible projects to be approved
  • Post office box

The Post office box was an adventure unto itself.   Susan Pleiss went to sign us up for one. She filled out the form and when she passed it to the clerk, he asked, “Oh, are you nudists?”   We all got a big laugh out of that, but to this day occasionally folks apply to be members of our website, and when they are vetted on facebook it turns out they are ‘naturists’.   (The rest of us don’t want to scare the wildlife!!!)

Organizing the very first training class was a monumental task but only after graduating a class could we truly become a chartered chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists.   Much work and thought was devoted to developing the syllabus for the first training.   Fortunately, our group included people very familiar with great resources for instructors for the class – Michelle Prysby

First class instructors. Lou Verner of DGIF, Peter Warren, Ruth Douglas, Sam Austin, Tom Biggs and John Murphy

Lou Verner of DGIF, Peter Warren, Ruth Douglas, Sam Austin, Tom Biggs and John Murphy were among the stellar teachers lined up for the class.   Tom Direauff and Dan Bieker were among the field trip instructors.   Not only did we have to line up the class choices and speakers, but we needed a set of readings developed “from scratch”.   Mary Lee Epps, with some assistance, not only developed the list of readings but also took over the ordering of materials as our new treasurer.   She writes, “The closest thing we had to a “text” was the Peterson Guide to Eastern Forests while I was organizing the readings.  Dede originally recommended this.  Also, I had a big stack of possible readings that the State Co-ordinating Committee (or whatever they were called) had put together, which I’m pretty sure I got from Michelle.  I sorted through these and chose which ones to include on the initial syllabus.”

At the first class meeting on September 12, we had 18 people signed up.   In August, we not only had to collect and review the applications, gather all the needed materials, but also write an acceptance letter and welcome, write Project Proposals to be approved by the coordinating committee, and collate the extensive notebook materials.   It was a monumental task, but in the end, our first training class began and now we had more of a volunteer base to develop our fledgling chapter.

Certified grads from the first class. Mary Lee Epps, Frank Wilczek, and Ida Swenson.

As the class progressed, the curriculum committee continued to work to develop a required final assessment and the decision was made to also offer a practical exam.   Ida and others wrote the final which consisted of 35 multiple choice and short answer questions.   She and Mary Lee also developed a practical exam to assess skills.   A volunteer timesheet was developed to report hours to our new timekeeper, Carol Franda. When the end of the class came, there were three folks with enough volunteer and advanced training hours to be certified: Mary Lee Epps, Frank Wilczek, and Ida Swenson.   The class, with office or committee volunteers, is listed below. Peter Warren was our chapter advisor.

And being brash and bold, the new Board of Directors (as we were finally chartered!!) decided that we should have another training in the spring of 2007. This meant that even as we were developing, delivering, and grading the assessments for the class of 2006, we were preparing for a new class!!!

At the end of our second class, we were exhausted by a year of heavy thinking and hard labor.   We all looked at each other and said “Once a year is enough!!”   We had a lot of revisions and improvements we wanted to implement, and that would take time and more thought. We were also active volunteers in other arenas than Master Naturalist administration and some of us had full time nine-to-five jobs.   And so, the policy of one class a year began.

Being part of establishing the Rivanna Master Naturalists has been one of the most constructive things I have done.   Over the past ten years, we trained a new class each year, 225 volunteers in all; over half are active volunteers.   We have contributed over 55,000 hours of volunteer service.   In 2015 alone, our education activities reached over 12,000 people.

2006 Graduating Class

And it has resulted in wonderful friends and co-workers.   Most of us have at least one story about a memorable event that happened while we were volunteering.   (Don’t get me started!!) And we have had a great time together.   Special events from hikes, to paddles, to advanced trainings, to state conferences have added richness to our time together.   Over and above all of that, we have a wonderful sense of giving back, and of preserving the natural heritage we all love.

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Become a Virginia Master Naturalist and Make a Difference

volunteers crossing wooden bridge on a hiking path

Virginia Master Naturalists spend time learning in the field as well as the classroom. Photo by T. Keffert.

Learn how you can join a community of volunteers who are helping conserve Virginia’s natural resources.  The Rivanna Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program seeks individuals who want to assist with natural resource education, citizen science, and stewardship projects.  Learn more about the program and expectations at an upcoming Information Session.

The Rivanna Master Naturalists are conducting three Information Sessions ahead of the annual Basic Training Class which will begin in February 2018.   All Information Sessions are at the Ivy Creek Natural Area Education Building at 1780 Earlysville Road, Charlottesville.

Information Session Dates

  • Wednesday, November 29, 9:00 am
  • Saturday, December 16, 10:00 am
  • Wednesday, January 3, 9:00 am

During these sessions we will review the program and schedule so that you gain a better understanding of the scope and topics that will be covered.   We will also discuss the requirements for completing the course and certification.  Several local Virginia Master Naturalist volunteers will be there to share what they have gained from this program and how they fit the volunteer requirements into their lives.  You will learn what types of activities are available and hear what motivates our members.

You may also find the Virginia Master Naturalist website quite helpful   http://www.virginiamasternaturalist.org.  Please join us at one of the above sessions.

Applications for 2018 class are due by Friday, January 12.

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RMNs Celebrate a Successful Year of Volunteering

On January 31, 2016, Rivanna Master Naturalists gathered for their winter annual meeting and celebration of 2015 accomplishments.  Board members shared some of the impressive volunteering statistics of the chapter, and members shared results of some noteworthy projects that were carried out in 2015.

In 2015, Rivanna Master Naturalists contributed more than 7,500 total hours of volunteer service.  This equates to a monetary value of more than $190,000 (https://www.independentsector.org/volunteer_time).  Below, we show a breakdown of those hours, how they compare to previous years, and how they compare to the statewide Virginia Master Naturalist program.

Particularly noteworthy projects in 2015 included the following:

  • An outing for the Boys and Girls Club in partnership with the Ivy Creek Foundation.  This program provided an outdoor educational experience for 111 children and 22 adults.  It was a novel opportunity for many of the youth.  23 RMN volunteers participated, contributing 91 hours of service.
  • Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program.  In March, RMN volunteers joined with Chesapeake Bay Foundation volunteers to begin collecting oyster shells from local restaurants for use in oyster restoration efforts.  By August, a dumpster was filled, and those shells are now being used to make new reefs that can be loaded with baby oysters (spat) in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Bluebird Nest Box Building and Monitoring.  One RMN volunteer logged nearly 350 hours building more than 300 bluebird nest boxes for use across the state.  An additional 29 volunteers contributed more than 600 hours monitoring local bluebird nest boxes and contributing the data to the Virginia Bluebird Society.
  • 20 RMN volunteers contributed nearly 400 hours to projects in Fluvanna County, particularly at Pleasant Grove park.  They educated visitors to Earth Day, County Fair, and Ag Day events, conducting citizen science projects, and assisted with a major stewardship effort to enhance the wildlife habitat at the park by installing pollinator gardens, early successional habitat, trees, and other improvements.

RMN volunteer hours 2015 1 RMN volunteer hours 2015 2 RMN volunteer hours 2015 3 RMN volunteer hours 2015 4

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Rivanna Master Naturalists Hosts First Art Exhibit

The Rivanna Master Naturalists organized and hosted their very first art exhibit, displayed at City Space on the Downtown Mall for two weeks in January. NBC29 did a preview of the show featuring Emily Luebke.
20160119_160805Despite foul weather, the January 8th opening night ranked as the second largest opening at City Space, with 187 attendees. The exhibit featured paintings, illustrations, photographs, and other mixed media pieces from artists living in and around the Rivanna River watershed.
The goals of the show were to raise awareness about the Rivanna Master Naturalists and the important work the chapter does in the community, to display the many artistic talents of the members, and to educate the public about our local natural environment.
Organizer Ida Swenson noted that “the general reaction of those seeing it for the first time was very positive!   Indeed, we all were amazed that a high quality show could be organized and set up in only two months. The general consensus was this will happen again!”20160119_160908
Swenson added that Rivanna Master Naturalists with favorite photos or art depicting our local, natural world should be looking ahead, as another art exhibit is likely to be organized in a few years thanks to the success of this month’s event.
Thank you to the efforts of the organizing committee: Ida Swenson, Lara Gastinger, Emily Luebke, Victoria Dye, Randy Page and Terri Keffert with help from Joanne Dalley and Repp Glaettli.    
Exhibitors included all of the organizing committee and helpers as well as Rose Brown,  Rachel Bush, Nancy Donnelly, John Cruikshank, Pat Klima, Janet Paisley, Donita Ahearn, Linda Goodling, and Mark Rough.    
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Call for Volunteers: Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program


The Rivanna Master Naturalists have partnered with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program to assist with a unique statewide program that aims to restore Virginia’s oyster population by returning oyster shells from the plates of diners to the bottom of our state’s rivers.

The program, a joint effort of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Center, is successfully returning thousands of pounds of oyster shells to their natural ecosystems. Restaurants in the city of Richmond are already recycling nearly 13,000 pounds of oyster shells every six weeks, but Charlottesville is not far behind. Expanding the project to Charlottesville earlier this year served as a trial as organizers aim to expand into more populous locations like Newport News and Northern Virginia.

While “recycling” might bring to mind the idea of oyster shells being repurposed into something new (like crushed to be used in gardens or driveways), the program actually aims to return oysters to their natural ecosystem.

“100% of these shells were heading to the landfill. We’re reclaiming them and diverting them,” explains Todd Janeski, coordinator of the statewide effort.


At one point, oysters were so plentiful in Virginia’s waters that historical documents include accounts of small boats becoming stuck on oyster reefs, their oars scraping against these large masses of hard substrate. Oysters provide huge ecological benefits for their habitats, the most notable of which is their powerful filtering ability: a single oyster can filter an entire bathtub-sized volume of water in just one day.  Today, the oyster population in Virginia is at less than 2% of its historical peak.

Janeski explains that the goal of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program is to collect empty oyster shells which are then amassed into complex reef structures that provide the perfect habitat for new oysters to grow. These reefs are loaded with spat (baby oysters) before being restored to Virginia’s waterways.

“In the first few days of their lives, oysters are free-swimming organisms, looking for a hard substrate to attach to. You could put down a tire rim, or crushed concrete, but they prefer oyster shell because it’s their natural environment,” Janeski explained.

These oyster shell reefs also provide additional ecosystem benefits. As the shells begin to slowly decompose, calcium carbonate is released into the water, helping to balance acidic pH levels in local waterways.  Offshore reefs also absorb wave impact, reducing the impact onshore and limiting erosion.   The reefs also provide ideal habitat for other native species such as striped bass, spotted sea trout, and crabs.

This project is a great way to connect oyster lovers and other citizens upstream in Charlottesville to the restoration of a natural wild oyster population downstream. Through involvement with the project, Janeski hopes that citizens will realize that “by supporting these restaurants, you’re supporting part of the restoration process.”

2015-03-25 13.53.00

Local volunteer project coordinator Colleen Kiernan is eager for additional help collecting from area restaurants and encourages Rivanna Master Naturalists to contact her about supporting the project. Even  30 minutes a week can help ensure the project’s ongoing success.

There are currently 10 weekly daytime pick-up spots available at locations including Blue Light Grill, Fossett’s, Rock Salt, and Public Fish & Oyster. Restaurants rinse their shells and place them in buckets outside their business at their chosen time. Volunteers will not need to enter the restaurant: simply grab the bucket, transport the shells to the repository in Belmont, and return the emptied bucket to the restaurant.

“Master Naturalists are a key part of this process. We wouldn’t be where we are without your help,” Janeski pointed out.

Can you help with this volunteer project? Contact Colleen Kiernan (cckiernan [at] gmail [dot] com). Colleen will send you a Signup Genius link listing open volunteer slots for each week.

2015-06-16 11.37.42


More information about oyster restoration statewide can be found here and here.

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7th Annual Big Meadows Butterfly Walk – August 30th

by John Holden

On August 30th, thirty-three Master Naturalists from the Rivanna Chapter immersed themselves in the grassy meadows of Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park . The leader has been going up there at least once a week since April, and felt it has been the best butterfly year in many. Walking less than 200 yards from the Wayside parking lot confirmed this to all! We had 10 species in a small area of Common Milkweed in the first minute.

Highlights of the day (and there were many) included the large number of Monarchs in flight and a large number of Monarch caterpillars . There was also a large number of Black Swallowtails, a spectacular butterfly in flight and upon landing with a double row of deep yellow dots on the forewings .

In the 2 1/2 hours we were there, some of the additional species  sighted included: American Lady, Red Admiral, Tiger Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, Variegated and Great Spangled Fritillaries, Spicebush Swallowtails, Sulphurs, Eastern Tailed Blues, and Common Buckeyes.
This year was the greatest sheer number of individuals we have ever observed, and the species count (in the mid 20s) was close to the highest number of species we have ever seen (31). Keeping that number down was a lack of several usually-seen Skippers.

A key to seeing butterflies is finding “butterfly magnets,” or nectar plants.  Field Thistle was in full bloom. Earlier in the summer there were others, including Turks Cap Lilies, Hoary Mountain Mint, and my favorite Wild Bergamot or Monarda. Rather than walking a couple of miles, it seems that just sitting in a camp chair next to a patch of Monarda would be all that is needed.
On another note, it is really essential to carry binoculars for butterfly observation. There are close focus binoculars just for this purpose.

(all photos courtesy of Eve Gaige)
DSC_0137       DSC_0138 DSC_0151     DSC_0213 DSC_0232    DSC_0255 DSC_0338    DSC_0339


Species list (compiled by Devin Floyd)

  1. eastern tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus
  2. black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes
  3. spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus
  4. orange sulphur, Colias eurytheme
  5. clouded sulphur, Colias philodice
  6. cabbage white, Pieris rapae
  7. eastern tailed-blue, Cupido comyntas
  8. pearl crescent, Phyciodes tharos
  9. red admiral, Vanessa atalanta
  10. red spotted purple, Limenitis arthemis
  11. American lady, Vanessa virginiensis
  12. painted lady, Vanessa cardui
  13. common buckeye, Junonia coenia
  14. variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia
  15. great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele
  16. meadow fritillary, Boloria bellona
  17. Aphrodite fritillary, Speyeria Aphrodite
  18. monarch, Danaus plexippus
  19. common wood nymph, Cercyonis pegala
  20. Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatius
  21. silver spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus
  22. sachem skipper, Atalopedes campestris
  23. mourning cloak , Nymphalis antiopa

In addition, our North American Butterfly Association 4th of July butterfly count team has recently posted their data from this year’s count.  Check it out and see a comparison with other years on our publications page.

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Wavy Leaf Basket Grass Pull, August 14th

 by Ruth Douglas


Participants hard at work on a patch including both WLBG and Japanese stilt grass: foreground: L to R Katha Bollfrass, Dave Smith, and Tana Herndon; background: Peter Clark of the Ivy Creek Foundation

A team, consisting of Peter Clark (Ivy Creek Foundation) and Rivanna Master Naturalists Tana Herndon, Dave Smith, Katha Bollfrass, and Ruth Douglas visited William Woods Memorial Natural Heritage Area to pull Wavy Leaf Basket Grass last week. Pat Klima joined to get some pictures and a good GPS reading for the first location of Wavy Leaf Basket Grass (WLBG) along the trail.

The trail we first walked was off to the right of the road that goes past the home of the two donors of the property, Mr. Williams and Mr. Lambert. Shortly after one spots their home, two abandoned roads branch off to the right, marked with red surveyors’ flags and red surveyors’ tape. We first took the road slightly uphill and to the left of the other one. I’ve been getting GPS readings from my camera, but they are nothing like the reading Pat Klima got and I don’t think mine should be counted on. Pat’s reading on that road, as we reached the first patch of WLBG we spotted was Lat. 37.9753599, Long. 78.59170359.


Katha and Pat

We found a number of patches that went down the hill, off to the right of the road, and marked them with flags 30, 18, 31, 29, 25, 22 and down the hill from 22 with flag 10. Also found a small patch just uphill from the trail, flag 12. We pulled enough to fill 1 black plastic bag.

We then went back to the primary road and took the other abandoned road down past a cemetery located to the left of the trail: Tana and Peter noted that it was this road that they’d been down when Tana spotted the first patch of WLBG back in July. We first spotted it somewhat past the cemetery, in the road, and marked it with flag 26. There was quite a lot of bittersweet and kudzu in that area, too. Along the trail we found more and marked it with flag 21, then 36, 22. We also encountered Ailanthus further along the trail marked flag 17, and more isolated patches of WLBG beyond that. We pulled 3 bags partially full. We ran out of time at that point and returned to the cars about 1:30.

We left several bags full for Pat Klima to pick up later in the day to incinerate.

I should also note that those in the group who had long sleeves got some WLBG seeds on them, and one person who had a cloth bag with tools put the bag on top of some WLBG that she’d pulled and placed in a bucket, and found some seeds on the bag. The seeds were not sticky at that point, but did attach to fabric. We have decided to stop pulling the grass for the season due to the seeds attaching to cloth, and this will only get worse as they get sticky.
Tucker Rollins of Albemarle Co. said he’d seen some WLBG along the railroad tracks and was not sure whether that patch was on county property or not. This brings up some interesting questions: Does this mean that trains could be the vector here, and if so, where did they pick the seeds up? Or are there are other infestations within an area near enough to the Williams Natural Heritage Area that seeds were transported from them to the area we found?
It seems clear that this is an extensive patch and we really don’t have any idea of its boundaries. It needs to be thoroughly surveyed, and sprayed with an herbicide as soon as possible.

Master Naturalists and others who are out in wooded areas should be on the lookout for more infestations. We need as many “eyes on the ground” as we can enlist.

(More information on this invasive plant can be found on the Virginia DCR fact sheet.)

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Rivanna Master Naturalists Help Clean the Bay Again!

large group of volunteers receiving instructions from the leader

Volunteers receiving instructions before heading out to pick up trash.

Note: Thanks to Rivanna Master Naturalist Pat Klima for submitting the photos and text for this post!

Clean the Bay Day is an annual event coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to engage volunteers in removing trash from Virginia’s streams, rivers, and other waterways.  The 27th Clean the Bay Day was June 6 2015.  As in many past years, Rivanna Master Naturalists Tex Weaver and Pat Klima were Zone Captains at Riverview Park in Charlottesville.  They were joined by 28 volunteers, 13 of whom were Master Naturalists. Together, they removed more than 300 lbs of trash and debris to improve Riverview Park and the health of the Bay.

three smiling volunteers next to a table with a display

Rivanna Master Naturalists had a booth at the event.

Other Clean the Bay Day events happened at 275 sites around Virginia.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports this final tally of impacts:

Clean the Bay Day 2015 in a clamshell:
Approximately 6,000 volunteers
Removed over 105,000 pounds of debris…
From over 450 miles of stream and shoreline.
(All in just three hours!)

Join us next year on the first Saturday in June for Clean the Bay Day 2016!

two volunteers with a cart of trash they collected

Real trash from our Rivanna River!


volunteers standing next to all the trash they collected

Rivanna Master Naturalists and Site Captains with the final haul of the day!

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