Wildlife Monitoring: The Florida Master Naturalist Program

By Stel Bailey Fight for Zero staff
Published Sept. 27, 2019

As someone who is attracted to hiking, camping, and nature, I was interested in this UF extension program developed by the University of Florida. The Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) benefits those interested in learning about Florida's environment. Since I run a nonprofit organization that focuses on the environment and health, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to help us expand into education programs as volunteers or even to do things like eco-tours. 

This month I received a certification in wildlife monitoring. I thoroughly enjoyed this program and learned a great deal. There were great speakers, presentations, educational material, and hands-on learning. The best part was that we went out in the field, which made this program unique! I am so excited to share some of the things we learned and the journey of this particular topic course below.

We spent Saturday from sunrise to sundown at the Barrier Island Education Center. As we went over how to monitor sea turtles, we also learned about the barrier island ecosystem and sea turtle nesting habitats. 

Pictured above is the diamondback terrapin, a turtle native to the brackish coastal tidal marshes of the eastern and southern United States.

Unfortunately, there are natural threats and human impacts on sea turtles. These eggs were likely found by turtle predators like raccoons, who will dig up nests to devour freshly laid eggs. Other predators include fire ants, crabs, lizards, birds, dogs, coyotes, and ghost crabs. 

We went on a 1-mile loop hike through coastal habitats on the Barrier Island Trail. This trail is a lightly trafficked loop with beautiful wildflowers, pollinators, birds, and more. It is open daily from 7 am to dusk (no dogs). 

On our hike, we stopped to discuss native plants and little critters we found along the way. These Hermit crabs interact with each other and are often found in large groups. 

We spent time in the field with a FrogWatch volunteer, learning how to monitor frogs and toads by ear rather than sight. Frogs play an essential role in human medicine and wetland ecosystems. They are considered indicators of environmental health.

In another field exercise, we did a gopher tortoise burrow survey and found 21 active burrows. Gopher tortoises live in a scrub habitat where trees aren't too close. They have front legs that help them to dig and can dig deep. Other species use burrows like amphibians, insects, and mammals throughout the ecosystem. These animals depend on the holes to shelter from predators and natural disasters like fires. 

We went to Viera Wetlands for another hike just as the sun set. We searched for alligators, held fireflies, and listens for both bats and frogs. 

Did you know that bats are not rodents? The structure of a bat wing is nearly identical to a human hand, and they are the only mammals that fly and do not glide. The best thing about bats is that they eat a lot of mosquitoes, flies, beetles, wasps, and ants. They can eat their body weight in insects every night!  

Then we spent the day at Turkey Creek Sanctuary, taking hikes and listening to various speakers in class. I snapped a few images of a green lynx spider on our walk. This spider doesn't use a web to capture its pretty. They like to hunt prey on vegetation and flowers and can adjust their body color to match the background. Although they prey on beneficial bugs like butterflies, they could potentially be used in agricultural pest management, helping manage harmful insects and caterpillars. 

We brought out some aggressive Nuthatch birds using a recorded call. Nuthatches will defend their territory throughout the year. They are one of the noisiest woodland birds in the early spring and get their name from the way they crack open seeds.

We have a responsibility to teach children to respect the environment.

“You won’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.” -Unknown

There are three core modules: freshwater, coastal, and upland. 

Then there are four special topics: conservation science, environmental interpretation, wildlife monitoring, and habitat evaluation.

To learn more about courses check out the Florida Master Naturalist Program

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