Wildlife refuge seeks volunteer naturalists

NEWBURYPORT - Matt Poole is looking for a few good (amateur) naturalists.

Poole, visitor services manager for the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, plans to build a group of volunteer “master naturalists’’ to bolster the refuge’s education and interpretive programs. The ultimate goal: “to help get the word out about why this refuge is here.’’

He’s already filled many of the 20 slots in the yearlong training program, which will ask volunteers to commit one Saturday a month to learn about subjects such as beach ecology and Plum Island history. Both classroom and field work will be involved.


When their training is completed, volunteers will work with refuge staff to create and deliver new programs for visitors, schools, and the community at large. Currently the staff targets its educational programs to high school students, in part to avoid using limited resources to duplicate existing programs in the area for other age groups, Poole said. There is a lot more they could do with the help of the master naturalists, he said.

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“We need to develop capacity. We need a group of people who are well-rooted in the basics of natural history, anything from animal tracking to what are they likely to see in an intertidal pool to what kind of birds migrate through the refuge at what time of year,’’ Poole said.

“In order to be effective docents, they need to have certain interpretive skill sets, to communicate in a compelling way across a host of age ranges. So really what we’re endeavoring to create here through this training is a team of volunteers who are excited and have the capacity to turn people on to the natural world.’’

He emphasizes that this is not a year of free nature programs, but a real training course with an expected commitment of time and energy afterward to act as “conservation ambassadors.’’

Volunteers already provide a wide variety of support to Poole and the rest of the 12-person staff at the 4,662-acre refuge, which encompasses Plum Island and much of the surrounding salt marsh. Their tasks are as varied as working in the gift shop at refuge headquarters in Newburyport to helping biologists with field research on Plum Island.


Perhaps the best-known volunteer job is that of the plover wardens, who help enforce - and explain - the annual beach closures to protect the federally threatened piping plover.

“Our mission is wildlife first,’’ said Poole, but that can be a hard sell to a family being turned away from the beach on a hot summer day. Better-trained volunteers could help tell the refuge story, he said.

Among those who have already signed up are volunteers from Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center, across the street from refuge headquarters. Teacher-naturalist Lisa Hutchings, who runs the volunteer program there, sent out an e-mail about the program.

“I’m encouraging my volunteers to do this, because it’s always good to find out about Plum Island nature and history from the source,’’ Hutchings said. “We’re all about conservation here at Joppa Flats and Mass Audubon, and we want to do our part to make the public aware that this is a wildlife refuge and not just a public beach.’’