Celebrating 50 Years

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sandy Creek Nature Center. In preparation for the year, we’ve looked to the past to see where we started and how far we’ve come. Our start came from a group of citizens in the community that saw a need to protect greenspace and provide a place for people to recreate while learning about the natural environment. Those 12 founders created a legacy that over 55,000 people enjoy each year.. 

We’ve gone from a property with no buildings & dirt roads to multiple buildings with award winning exhibits. With only 2 staff members which grew to five full time staff, three part time, twelve camp staff in the summer and many active volunteers. At one point in the early days they had only  $12 in the bank. Now our yearly budget is over $500,000. When the center was started, it was run by a nonprofit. In 1980 the facility was turned over to the county parks department because of the day to day costs it takes to run such a facility. Fortunately, we still have a nonprofit, Sandy Creek Nature Center Inc., to support us financially as well as a voice for us when we can’t speak up as government employees. The Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services provides our day to day operational budget but Inc. has provided funding for many projects over the years, including most recently our Nature Playscape that was built using donations and none of the center’s budget or taxpayer dollars. 

What has led to the success of the center? People. The original founders’ enthusiasm recruited new people with drive and a vision to see the potential of what this place could be. Long term support from these founders and volunteers has been felt in many ways since the start. Although many of the founders have passed on, their families still support us today by visiting our facility, attending programs, volunteering and financial donations. Parents that brought their children to the center when it first opened the grounds are now grandparents and their children have children of their own. The key to thriving in the future is to continue bringing the next generation and building that connection with them so they will bring their future children and grandchildren to the center over the next 50 years.

I have been fortunate to be part of Sandy Creek for almost 19 years. Over that time, I’ve had the opportunity to meet several of the founders and build relationships with them. I’ve met previous staff that helped create our facilities and programs that are still popular today. Working for so long at one facility has given me many opportunities to learn and grow. From working on our exhibit renovation to creating a managed forest, planning and teaching thousands of programs, speaking with over a million people (my estimation based on visitation and number of years working) about Sandy Creek, I hope that I can say that I’ve left a mark on the center in a positive way just as our founders did 50 years ago.

Back cover of our Winter newsletter, The Hyla, celebrating 50 years with old photos.

Birdwatching cheat!

I work in a botanical garden and hold nature classes for children from toddlers to teens. It is relatively easy to teach them about plants since they stay still. It is less easy to study birds who are often timid, very quick, and may be hidden high up or far away. Children often have limited ability to focus for the longish periods that birdwatching entails, and very young children cannot use binoculars. About ten years ago, I turned to bird silhouettes in the landscape to combat some of these issues. I placed the bird profiles in appropriate locations near our education facility. The blue jay perched on a fence post, the pileated woodpecker on the side of a tree, and the owl sat in the woods. Bird silhouettes reflect how we often see birds in the landscape. When birdwatching in the field, birds frequently perch in such a way that color is difficult to discern, so size and other distinct features become more important (the upturned tail of a wren, the elongated beak of a hummingbird). The difference with these birds is that they stay still! I made a handout for sharing with visitors. On one side was a map to locate the birds; on the reverse, the bird profiles were paired with photos and facts about their habits and habitats. These birds have been an excellent teaching tool over the years; even as some birds disappeared,

This fall, I ordered more bird profiles and used them in the classroom with my two Junior Naturalist groups (aged 6-11 and 12-16). Once introduced to the outlines, the naturalists began to compare each bird’s size and notable features. This led to detailed and extended discussions about beak shape, possible food preferences, and more. They were eager to dive into research and pulled all our guides off the shelf; excited chatter ensued as they engaged in the process. We asked the students to draw a bird and make a poster about them. It was fascinating to see who decided to sketch and who chose to trace, but both worked well. I didn’t hear the cries that often surface: “I can’t draw” or “I’m no good at art.” Everyone participated, which was a win!

When I started this project, I thought about laminating life-size paper silhouettes and putting them in the landscape. I also thought about finding a craftsperson who could jigsaw outlines in wood. Then I found Rusty Birds, a company out of Vancouver, Washington, and I was pleased with what I ordered. However, these birds are marketed as decorative, not explicitly made for bird identification, so you should bear that in mind.

I’m no expert.

Do you ever go into flight mode when you’re asked to interpret a subject that’s a little outside your wheelhouse? Have you ever heard a team member say “I don’t do ____”? Is it like pulling teeth to get your staff to try a new topic for a program?

If you answered yes to any of these, I have a secret for you:

You don’t need to be an expert on a subject to interpret it expertly.

That’s it. Tell your peers, colleagues, and direct reports.

Now of course, I’m not trying to say you don’t need to know anything about your subject. Research is vital to program development. You can’t outline a theme or supporting facts without an understanding of your topic. What I am saying is that you don’t need to spend years studying the topic in order to make a great program.

Personal example: I love to lead birding programs! I am a mediocre birder at best. So here’s how I do it:

  • Set expectations for my audience – I call it “Beginner Birding” and not “Migrating Warblers in Mecklenburg County” because those two programs would draw different audiences and I would be a sure disappointment to the latter group!
  • Focus on the tools – I start the program with the basics. How to use binoculars, how to use a field guide or app, and what to look for (shape, size, color, etc.)
  • Facilitate the experience – Once we get accustomed to the tools, there’s time to practice, problem-solve, and set participants up for their best chance at success.
  • Provide context – Along the course of the program I use the birds we see to build knowledge and context for new birders. What behaviors are we seeing? What does that tell us about the ecology of the species we’re watching now? Can we apply that to other similar species? What species or groups of birds are we not seeing today? Why might that be? Again, I’m not an ornithologist, a bird behaviorist, or even a very good birder, but every time I lead this program, I learn something new!

So if you think you’re not equipped to lead an interpretive program about geology, gardening, or giraffes, remember that your technical knowledge of your subject areas is not the most important piece of your expertise.

How are you going to use this expertise to try something new?

Spirits Felt Along a Halloween Trail

By Cindy Neal Carpenter

Excited little ones with their adult companions jostled me along the tree lined path colorfully lit just enough to guide the way. I was checking out the Twilight Trail, part of Pumpkin Fest, an annual event held on October weekends in my home town of Brevard, North Carolina. New this year an artful story unfolded about a little white squirrel named Syd who gets separated from her family. It conveys a sense of place to residents and tourists alike because Brevard is known for its unusual white squirrels, variants of the eastern gray squirrel that scurry around its yards and woods.  And even though Brevard is in Transylvania County and Pumpkin Fest-goers see some ghosts, skeletons and a cemetery along the way, the spirits I felt here were that of creativity, dedication, teamwork and fun.

Well designed details combine creative props, lighting and story to delight Pumpkin Fest participants around every bend.

Pumpkin Fest takes place at Silvermont Park, an eight-acre unit of the Transylvania County Parks and Recreation Department surrounding an historic colonial revival mansion. This family friendly event is presented by the Friends of Silvermont (FoS) whose mission is to support and advise Transylvania County management in the renovation, enhancement and upkeep of the mansion and park. In addition to creating and implementing the adventure along the 3/4-mile ADA-accessible trail, the FoS arrange for food trucks, music, games, storytelling, and parking logistics for each night of the month-long event.

A rain forest scene complete with sound effects portrayed one of several habitats where Syd, the lost white squirrel, searches for her family.

With FoS leadership, Pumpkin Fest is truly a community effort. Each night a number of local entities provide 250-300 volunteer hours among 45 to 60 volunteers. This year 230 individuals volunteered for the evening event phase alone. Over 3,500 total hours of spirited generosity from September to early November accomplished behind-the-scenes preparations, outreach, display construction and maintenance, setting up and taking down. What a spooky amount of coordination! Based on my experience around the trail on two different nights and once during the day, it worked!

This under-the-sea scene shows the imagination and skill of volunteers who set it, with racing vertical lights that gave the illusion of being underwater.

The new story along the Twilight Trail, Syd’s Silvermont Adventure, conveys in the words of the Friends of Silvermont Board President Erik Rasmussun, “the creativity, talent and inventiveness” of the 12-member Pumpkin Fest team. A local event center donated carved Styrofoam pumpkin displays and totems created by local artisans to Transylvania County after closing its Halloween event in 2015. Since then FoS has used and enhanced these displays for their Pumpkin Fest fundraiser.  For 2022’s event an artist on the FoS board proposed tying the displays together with a story about a lost white squirrel the audience could follow along the trail. She led a small team in creating plywood figures in story appropriate poses. A FoS member shared his writing talent, creating the story and a poem, verses from which were artfully printed and displayed to unfold the tale. Collaboration among the core team fused its artistic, engineering and planning skills into an aesthetically charming and captivating experience. 

Poetry displayed like hand-inked scrolls guide the trail’s audience along Syd’s adventure.

Adding to the charm for me was encountering costumed local high school students at the story stops. These members of the National Honor Society, Thespian and InterAct clubs engaged trail walkers along the way. Three of them got out of character the second night I visited to talk with me, the weather being misty, the crowd thinning and the hour late. One shared how thoughtful a volunteer coordinator was, delivering water, checking on their comfort, and bringing her a warm shawl, which by the way, appeared to be hand crocheted and fitting to the scene.  Another shared a photo she took of a bloodroot flower after I expressed my delight over pumpkins carved with plant motifs in a witch’s garden scene. Thespians also worked a face painting and tattoo drawing booth as a fundraiser for their club. The high school students helped in many other ways during the event.

High School students bring scenes to life as they interact with the audience.

Those of you who depend on volunteers to accomplish your mission know that coordinating and recruiting them has its challenges. The FoS is no exception. Its outreach team of two applies its skills to connect with other community organizations and schedule volunteers. One member is developing relationships with the local Rotary Club and American Association of University Women chapter. The other developed and uses a shared spreadsheet to track volunteer hours and 74 possible roles that make the Pumpkin Fest event operate smoothly and safely. A challenge is to recruit and mentor new leaders who can take on the responsibilities of the core group that has devoted energy and spirit for many years.

I think Pumpkin Fest itself is a potential recruitment tool. One can feel the spirit of teamwork and love for the Silvermont Park. I feel more connected to it, just by making memories here, and will visit more often.  From what I experienced attending the event and observing other attendees, the Friends of Silvermont succeeded in supporting Transylvania County’s vision for the Park that it “is a vibrant community center and historic landmark valued by residents and visitors of all ages for its beauty, history, recreation, education, music and special events.”  Now that’s spirit!  

Hopefully the Friends of Silvermont feel this year’s Pumpkin Fest was as successful for them as was Syd’s search for her family.

Sincere thanks to Erik Rasmussen for background information on Pumpkin Fest.

Additional source referenced and for more information:

Rethinking interview norms.

Melissa King

Every neurodivergent person is an individual and what is true for one person may not be true for another. Please note that I am writing this based on my experiences as a hiring manager, as a person with ADHD, and some sources that I found while reading about this topic.

Think about the last interview you conducted an interview, or the last time you were a candidate. What kinds of questions were asked? What kind of behavior was expected? We need to rethink the traditional interview. Neurodivergent candidates may have the skills needed for a job but be dismissed if their verbal and non-verbal communication doesn’t align with what is expected from neurotypical candidates. 

Neurodiversity is the idea that there is no “normal” or “right” way to experience the world, and that human thinking and behaviors based on neurological differences should be embraced, or at  the very least, not considered deficits. 

Neurodivergent is the term used to describe a person whose brain functions differently than what is considered to be typical. Autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and learning disabilities, fit under the umbrella of neurodivergence. You may also see the term “neurodiverse” to refer to people.

Neurotypical is the term used to describe those that are not neurodivergent.

Below are a few suggestions for interviews. I’d love to hear more and add to the list. 

  1. Don’t focus too much on lack of eye contact. The most consistent piece of advice we hear about being interviewed is to “make good eye contact,” and yet it is not nearly as important as the candidates’ applicable skills.
  2. Fidgeting, moving in their seats, stimming (self-stimulating behavior), or tics. Some people cannot control their movements, others need sensory stimulation. Don’t react to it or comment on it.
  3. Be direct and specific. Avoid abstractions, use concrete language, avoid vague questions and say what you really mean. For example, instead of hypothetical situations, ask the candidate to describe something specific they have experienced. 
  4. Reword questions if needed. If a candidate provides an answer that you think does not align with the question you asked, remember that there is likely a reason they gave you that particular answer. Take a moment to reword the question in a different way. Interviewers rewording questions for candidates that need clarification is not unusual in any interview. 
  5. Give adequate time for a response. Pause after each question and give the person some time to think about it and respond, before interjecting.
  6. You may have to repeat the question. Poor working memory can sabotage an otherwise great interview.
  7. Don’t let concerns about accommodations deter you from hiring qualified candidates. Establish workplace norms that benefit neurodivergent team members without them having to ask. Many of these things benefit the entire team. For example, establishing a norm of the choice to wear headphones or ear plugs in loud environments, bringing fidgets to meetings (my personal favorite are the Pop It Fidget toys), allowing team members to doodle during meetings or stand up if needed, because this helps some people focus better. Also, plenty of people will not need or ask for accommodations.
  1. Focus on the skills they need for the job. This is the most important one. Ask questions that will help you determine whether the candidate has the skills the specific job requires. If you are on the fence, ask the candidate to provide examples of past work. We ask candidates for interpreter positions to prepare a short interpretive presentation for their interview. 

Think about all candidates holistically rather than individually checking off boxes for expected behaviors. Embracing neurodiversity is beneficial not only for the purpose of creating an inclusive workplace, but also because bringing on team members with the ability to think differently can lead to innovation and new, great ideas. 

Interpreters are known for being passionate. In interviews, give everyone the opportunity to share their passion, goals, and if possible, to demonstrate the skills required to do the job. If you don’t, you may miss out on someone who is a great fit for the job.


Austin, R. D., & Pisano, G. P. (2021, August 27). Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 19, 2022, from 

Breward, K. (2021, July 6). 3 tips to consider when interviewing neurodivergent candidates. IBCCES. Retrieved September 19, 2022, from 

Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020, June 3). Neurodiverse or neurodivergent? it’s more than just grammar. DART. Retrieved September 19, 2022, from 

Leon, M. (2021, April 2). How to conduct interviews with Neurodiverse candidates. Glassdoor. Retrieved September 19, 2022, from Skillful Communications. (2022, June 6). The best interview tips for your next job search. Big Interview. Retrieved September 19, 2022, from

Lesson’s Learned

As I was preparing to write this post, after a busy, crazy, hectic summer, I was ready to write a post linking the shifting of seasons to winding down from our busy season and resetting for the fall. Lo and behold, Ashley Zalabak beat me to it. Her post, The Seasons of Life, is wonderful, and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already! Unfortunately, that left me back at square one.

I reset by looking back on my summer season, and found the perfect place to start for this post. When I last wrote for this blog, I focused on how we were gearing up for our summer busy season. I mentioned getting our programming bag up to date, training our staff, and shared some of our favorite programming tips. I chuckle when I look back at how prepared I thought we were. Don’t get me wrong, we were prepared for most situations, but you really never know what’s going to come up. Am I right? My Director loves to say, “There is no such thing as a typical day,” and he was right again.

This year brought some first-time challengers and quite a few return challengers into our outreach ring.

  • Challenger No 1: Vehicle issues with multiple vehicles on the same day
  • Challenger No 2: Unexpectedly large group sizes
  • Challenger No 3: Lack of communication from the individual who booked the program
  • Challenger No 4: Rowdy Kiddos 🙂

Now that I set the stage, let me tell you about the lessons that I learned:

  1. Ask for help. I know how easy it is to be so focused on your goal that you forget to look around or ask for help. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It helps you to take care of yourself, helps build trust and relationships with your coworkers, and can provide new and diverse insight into problems and ideas.
  2. Ask for feedback. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to be in multiple places at once or how to know everything. Asking for feedback has given me perspective, new ideas, and allowed me to assess strengths and weaknesses in a non-biased way. This feedback led to growth and improvement for myself, my programs, and my coworkers.
  3. Adapt. If something isn’t working, shake it up. There is no harm in changing something to better suit your needs or your audience’s needs. Honestly, that is our primary job as interpreters.
  4. Take a 5-minute break and refocus. Sometimes things go wrong in big ways, and that is a-okay. Take 5 minutes to pout about it, and then come back ready to go with ways to change, improve, or what your next steps will be.
  5. Smile. This was a fantastic summer of programming, and that was because my coworkers and the participants made it that way. I know that seeing a group of kiddos excited for us to program made me excited to program, and it works vice versa as well.
  6. Celebrate the small things. This is something that shh… I didn’t learn this summer, but it is a lesson that I tried to put into action more. Take the time to recognize your coworkers and yourself when something good happens. We celebrated with ice cream more times on outreach this year than ever before, and it made the summer one I will never forget!

Enjoy your break and the shifting seasons, but don’t forget to take a moment to reflect on what lessons you learned this summer.

I’m writing a book about you.

I should clarify that I’m really asking if you would like to write it with me.

I have heard many wonderful stories from interpreters over the years about their experiences on the job that range from heart-wrenching to hilarious to insightful. When I hear them I always think, “These should be written down somewhere!”  Interpreters are storytellers, building important connections between visitors and cultural and natural resources that are essential to protecting, preserving, and inspiring change. But what about the interpreters’ own experiences? After a few years of this popping up in my brain every few months, I have finally decided to make it a reality.

I want to create a medium to interpret the impact of this field on the interpreters themselves, in your own words. I decided that an anthology would be the best option to accomplish this. My goal is to have a collection of short stories and quotes from interpreters about experiences that were meaningful to them, to document the passion of people in the field, serve as an inspiration to others, and show how what we do impacts not only the visitor, but us as well. A peek into the minds and hearts behind the resources. Stories could be about an interaction with a visitor or another interpreter, a program, a moment of revelation, a mentor or colleague you want to honor, words of wisdom, or anything that sticks out in your mind when you read this. Some moments bring us joy, others give us a good laugh, or provide new perspectives and opportunities to grow. In reality, there are also times in our careers that we are frustrated, unsure, or tearful. I want to include those too, but only if people want to share them.

I would love it if this became a printed book. I am in the very early stages, seeking out those who would be willing to share their stories or quotes. This is a passion project with the expectation of no profit. I hope to serve our community, amplify your voices, and create something that others can enjoy.

I am also able to interview you, listen and transcribe recordings, or other methods that work for you, in order to make this accessible to as many interpreters as possible.

If interested in contributing, email me at  with questions or parameters for entries. I will also eventually need folks to help me read entries and will put out another call in the future for that.

Thank you for your time, talents, and dedication,

Melissa King


For my credentials for those that would like that information, please see my LinkedIn.

Note: In my research, I found this list of works about or written by National Park Rangers if you’d like to check out something similar! I have a goal of differentiating this work from those that currently exist.

The Seasons of Life

I don’t know about you, but it’s around this time of the year that I start dreaming of quiet, cool mornings with my pumpkin spice lattes (I know, I know…), cozy sweaters, apple picking, and pumpkin carving.

We just had a fast and furious 10 weeks of Summer Adventure and Summer Camps. This is the time that we ramp up our energy, engage with the public, and make every kids wildest summer camp dream come true. This was my first year teaching summer camp and although I was exhausted by the end of each day, my heart was full of the kids faces while making rainbow bubble snakes, glow in the dark glitter slime, and deep sea creature puffy paint. Many times, I couldn’t believe I got paid to have fun with kids all summer.

10 weeks of summer have come and gone, and now it’s time to shift. It’s something that I really like about this line of work. Just like we are shifting into a different season in life (cooler weather, pumpkin spice lattes, and football games), we may also be shifting seasons at work. For us at Roper Mountain, this post-summer and pre-fall time is a time to pause, clean up from summer, reflect, start fresh, and shift our brains to a new creative way of thinking- preparing for field trips.

We will be teaching different lessons everyday, ages 1st grade through 7th grade, and over 20 different types of lessons. Kids are eager to come to Roper Mountain, for many of them, it’s their first field trip ever. We are known as a one-of-a-kind, state of the art facility that provides engaging, hands-on lessons about standards that cannot be done in the classroom. For me, as a kid, this was the field trip that made me interested in animals and nature as a career.. No pressure, right? 🙂

For me, I am using this time to reset, take a vacation, clear my summer clogged brain, and shift to a different way of thinking. Cleaning my desk, cleaning out my emails, and organizing my to-do list are some things that help me make this shift. For some people, shifts and change are hard. But I look at it as a way to start fresh. Just like I enjoy the seasons of weather changing, I enjoy the shifts that we go through at work. It’s a new opportunity, a new chance, to further our mission and remind ourselves why we do what we do.

A Variety of Beach Combers

Yoga starfish

While walking along the beach with family recently, we were picking up starfish, examining horseshoe crab shells and watching blue crabs and anemones in the low tide pools. Occasionally, we were surprised by hermit crabs when we picked up several shells. We had discussions on how to tell if a starfish was dead on the sand in the hot sun, how much of the radial disc needed to be attached to an arm or to grow a new arm back, and when is it determined that the starfish was just not going to make it. We placed every starfish we found back in pools of water left on the sand by the tide. We continued up the beach and gathered as many as we could find to add to the pool.

Blue crab

When we returned to the pool, one of the starfish had totally buried itself in the sand leaving only a slight outline of where it hid. Two other starfish began stretching and moving in many different contortionist poses. We called it “morning yoga.” It was very fun to stop and observe this activity. The starfish were stretching like we do after a good long sleep. We added the new starfish in the pool too. All of a sudden, there was a burst of sand like a burp and the starfish that had buried itself was now moving around too.

We gathered these now active creatures in our bucket and headed down to the low tide area with the row of big rocks and deeper pools since this sand pool was drying up quickly. We carried our two hermit crabs in the other bucket with us. Parents with young children joined us at the pools and we shared our information casually when asked questions. We let the children watch, touch and feel the star fish.  We had already placed the hermit crabs in a little cove and we watched as the children squealed in delight at their discovery of them. It was a great teaching moment!

While at the rocky area, we talked about the barnacles attached to the rocks exposed during low tide. We discussed survival mechanisms and what they eat while underwater. Surprisingly enough, we read that are more like crabs in many respects. There were hundreds of barnacles attached everywhere!


In the water was the anemone. The soft flowing jello-looking tentacles, had us mesmerized as gentle currents rippled over this polyp and the tentacles swayed back and forth. When disturbed, the little anemone closed up and became almost flat. Minnows darted around and away from the anemone. We waited and watched for a while to see if it ever would catch anything, and were disappointed when we didn’t see anu success.

It was a place of discovery for all of us at the low tide pool. Children and adults alike were delighted in searching for the big blue crabs hiding under the rocks and watching the small hermit crabs scramble across the sand in the water. Then it happened…..

Two large groups came led by interpreters. They split up and took their group on either side of the low tide area. One interpreter had great control of her group. Apparently, she had established rules before they came to the beach. Her group was eager to learn and asked a lot of questions. They all waited their turn to touch a starfish (many of which we just released) and learn about the other critters present.  My niece went up to listen in and ask a question, but didn’t hang around.

Horshoe crab

The other group leader was a mess. She was yelling at children to get out of the low tide waters and it went something like this, “I told you several times already to stay out of the tide pools!  Look at my leg!  I already have scratch marks from being pushed into the barnacles. Now, back up!” 

My niece and family were watching the cool 6-legged starfish that crawled out from under a boulder. Without warning, we were surrounded by a mass of people in, out and around the tidepool. The interpreter, stepped in almost crushing this creature, leaned down and said, “Oh cool a 6-legged starfish, we will take this one back to the sea lab.” She promptly threw it in her little cooler that was marked up with the establishments name and moved on. She didn’t even let her group see it and enjoy this beauty. I was taken aback and it took all of me to walk away from this scene.

Clearly, there was a lack of consistencies in training here. I know we all teach differently. We all have our own styles, but we all should want to quench the curiosity of those in our audience. What we witnessed here almost made our experience as outsiders furious. There was no shouting or crowding with all the patrons at the beach around the tidepool. Many families shared what they were seeing. We pointed out the blue crabs and we acted surprised when the little kids discovered the hermit crabs we had placed there not 15 minutes prior. None of us were part of either organized group and we respectfully moved aside as other gathered to take pictures of their kids with the starfish.

Hermit crab

I am still at a loss of what to do. Should I call the establishment and explain what we witnessed? Perhaps someone in the group raised a “red-flag” over the tour they were given. Should I just let it go? I know if I had paid for that tour I would be upset.

The point is –never forget that interpretation should be a fun, educational and enjoyable experience for all. Establish rules and guidelines before you start.  Let participants discover and ask questions to quench their curiosity. The leader should come away feeling that their presentation made someone have the “best day ever!” And for goodness sakes, if you don’t know something, please don’t make it up. Either say, “I’m not sure, but remind me and I will look it up when we get back.” Or “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Until next time, I hope you all find a place in nature to explore, rest and rejuvenate.

Helena Uber-Wamble

Improve your Birding!

If you love birdwatching but find it challenging like me, this app might be for you: Cornell Lab’s Merlin. This free App can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play, or from the Merlin webpage here: This App is produced by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

I have been lucky enough to bird with some amazing birders, but I am terrible at it. I learned very early on that a large percentage of birdwatching is not actually watching, but listening. If you know the songs and calls of birds you can then locate them visually. However, to me, birdsong to me is an ever-changing cacophony of sound. I am pretty good at visually identifying my feeder birds, but that’s about it. I am definitely listening challenged!

The Merlin App has three options for the birder on its main menu. “Start Bird ID” asks several simple questions to suggest a possible identification (location, time of day, size, main colors and behavior). “Get Photo ID” is the second option. You can either take a photo with the App, or upload a photo you have already taken. You are then given photos of the closest matches. The third feature is the “Sound ID” and this I have found the most fascinating, educational, fun and very addictive.

This sound feature is immensely helpful to me as a listening-challenged birder. As Iit records, Merlin shows the birds’ sounds in real-time! As each bird is heard multiple times the notation for it lights up. This allows me to focus in on the variety of calls, songs and chips made by each bird and to begin to discern who is talking! Once you have finished recording you have a list of the birds the App has found. You can listen to the pre-recorded songs your bird made, learn more about it and report it to eBird and add it to a life list.

The Merlin app has helped me make huge progress with practicing listening to birds and, most importantly, knowing who I was hearing. I was thrilled to discover that my hometown’s skies are filled with chimney swifts on the wing all day. I learned my house is surrounded by chipping sparrows, and that the catbird has returned from its overwintering grounds. Most excitingly, I have extended my life list beyond common (mostly feeder) birds. I have discovered a blue-gray gnat-catcher and a great-crested fly-catcher were hanging out in my back garden. One morning at work (at the South Carolina Botanical Garden) I used the app as I watched cardinals and chickadees fly into and out of a large red cedar I was thrilled to see a northern parula and a Cape May warbler show up on the recording, both new birds to me! As I concentrated on the activity in the tree, I was able to identify both birds by the pictures the app provided. I am hooked! You might be too.