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A Transformative Year

This week’s blog was written by Mary G., a Bucktails alumni. Mary would like to study wildlife conservation in college and go on to become a wildlife biologist. She attended the academy because she wanted to meet wildlife biologists and learn what their jobs are like. Mary also wanted to learn about our state animal, the white-tailed deer.

2021 was a transformative year for me. I discovered amazing hobbies, learned incredible things, and got to be a part of awesome experiences. This was the year I joined eBird. I had started to watch birds at the end of 2020, but I soon discovered that there was a whole world of birds beyond my feeders. With the help of the internet and my field guide, I began to identify the unfamiliar species I saw. I also participated in some walks with experienced birders, who shared their knowledge with us beginners. Now my life list is at 79 birds (including a Great Horned Owl!!). I still have much to learn and much to see, but I’m happy with this first year of birding.

A downy woodpecker rests on the window by my bird feeders.

I also started iNaturalist this year, and this really changed my life. I had been birding for a couple of months already and then I heard about a different app where you could observe anything, not just birds. I submitted observations of everything I found: fungi at the park, spiders on my deck, deer on the road. This added up to 582 observations. By researching the species I came across, I learned more about the plants, fungi, and animals that live in my area, like tan jumping spiders, Virginia creeper, and common snapping turtles.

A tan jumping spider tries to take down a fly at my house.

Wildlife Leadership Academy had a big impact on my year, too. I learned so much from both the online and in-person classes, and also from the outreach projects I worked on. I hadn’t ever done public speaking outside of school before, but this year I led programs at the local library. Another large part of my outreach was learning. I attended events at nearby parks, where I got to hear about local history, invasive plants, and wildlife. I also enrolled in online classes about ecology and entomology.

One of my outreach presentations that I made for the library.

Before this year, I never expected to be interested in these topics. Birds were nice, and bugs were fine, but I didn’t think I would want to study them. Now I can see that wildlife is really important and really fascinating. I hope to discover even more in the coming year and to never give up on these interests.

The photos in this blog belong to the author.

February Student of the Month – Zachary R.

Zachary wearing a blue camo-style tshirt, facing forward.

Our student of the month for February is Zachary Rowland! He is an alumni of the PA Gobblers field school, where he learned about all things turkey! Zachary enjoyed picking up new nature photography skills and learned all about identifying plants native to Pennsylvania.

Zachary has been an active member of his community before he became a Conservation Ambassador, and has achieved the Eagle Scout rank. His Eagle Scout project involved cleaning up and restoring a local cemetery, paying particular attention to the final resting places of many veterans in the cemetery.

Zachary has continued his work in the community by creating an educational trifold to help share his knowledge. He has given a presentation at his local library, “talking turkey” with visiting patrons. Zachary has also gone above and beyond to further his own knowledge about conservation and wildlife by continuing to attend other educational presentations.

Zachary is currently participating in our student-driven Pay It Forward fundraising program to help raise funds for other students to attend the program this summer. He says, “WLA is a great learning opportunity and it’s a lot of fun. I hope to return next year for either Whitetail or Bear school.”

You can check out his fundraising website by clicking here – where you can see he is over halfway there to meeting his goal!!!

We are very proud of Zachary for taking the initiative to engage with community members and spread the conservation message. He is constantly learning new things and sharing that knowledge, which is an important part of being a Conservation Ambassador. We are looking forward to seeing what new challenges Zachary takes on in the future!

The Amazing World of Lichens

This week’s blog was written by Sierra R., a Bass alumni. This summer Sierra returned to the Wildlife Leadership academy as an Assistant Team Leader to continue to learn about the environment and the many career fields available. Sierra’s hobbies include hiking, nature journaling, Girl Scouts, and theater.

During my hikes in the woods, I have seen many different forms of life ranging from plants to animals to fungi. Yet there’s one common organism I have not given much thought about. That organism is lichen. You have probably all seen lichens somewhere outside. They often grow on trees, rocks, and sides of buildings. In fact, lichens are one of the most widely spread and adaptable organisms on the planet. Their habitat ranges from desert biomes to deciduous forests to cold, almost uninhabitable tundras, yet most people don’t know what lichens exactly are.

Example of a fruticose structured lichen

Lichens are not just one – but two different organisms formed together, and they are truly one of a kind. Lichens are the product of a mutual partnership between algae and fungi. In an interesting twist, both of these organisms are grouped outside of the plant kingdom. This means that lichen is not part of the plant family at all, but technically the fungi family. Algae is part of the kingdom Protista, while fungi are in a kingdom entirely of their own (the Fungi kingdom). In lichen, fungi give algae a structure to grow with; Together, their cells form different layers to create lichen. The fungi provide algae protection from harsh environments. Algae usually only thrive in water-based environments, but the fungi provide enough protection so that algae can live and grow in land-based ecosystems as well. The algae, in turn, perform photosynthesis, which makes energy for both the algae and the fungi. This positive relationship is largely part of the reason why lichens are so widespread even in the harshest environments.

Example of a crustose structured lichen on a rock

Apart from lichens’ ability to thrive, some species also have the remarkable ability to indicate air quality. Because lichens lack a root and vascular system, they get all their water and carbon dioxide from the air. When pollutants go into their system from the air, it can affect the color and health of the lichen. Thus, healthy lichen indicates clean air. Because there are so many different forms of fungi and algae, there are a plethora of different lichen species. According to the U.S Forest Service, there are about 3,600 species of lichen in North America. Because of their variety, it can be hard to group lichen, but there is a basic system to keep them organized. There are three main types of lichen based on growth; foliose, fruticose, and crustose. The most common types that you are probably familiar with are crustose and foliose lichen. Foliose lichen is almost crust-like but not quite flat; it often looks leafy in appearance and has two sides you can discern. Crustose lichen, on the other hand, grows as a flat crust. It always has one side flattened against its growing surface. The last category is fruticose. Fruticose lichens are not flat at all. Instead, They form either self-supporting structures or thin hair-like structures.

Example of a foliose structured lichen

No matter where you are, you are bound to find some form of lichen. For such a small organic structure it is truly an amazing life form that shows the teamwork of two unlikely organisms.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

The First Snowfall

This week’s blog was written by Ruth S., an Ursids alumni. Ruth would like to pursue a career in law. She attended the academy because she was looking for an opportunity to strengthen her leadership skills.

By the end of November, all of the leaves have fallen off the trees and are laying on the ground dead and crunchy. The trees push the leaves off the tree branches. That is necessary for the tree to survive the cold winters and the snow. Then in the spring and summer photosynthesis occurs in the leaves. This is the process where the leaves use sunlight and convert it into energy. This process then repeats among the trees year after year.

My dog and I on top of the snow fort we created last year

On November 28, 2021, we had the first snowfall that stuck to the ground. I was so excited when I woke up and saw snow on the ground. I had wished for a moment that there were a couple more inches so I could do the fun winter activities. Whenever I see snow on the ground, I think of snowmen, ski season, hot cocoa, snowball fights, and snow days when school is canceled. It’s the best feeling to know that all of these fun things are only weeks away.

The photo used in this blog belongs to the author.

January Student of the Month -Claire C.

Claire stands smiling on her porch, holding her acceptance certificate to the Wildlife Leadership Academy, which reads "Welcome to the team!"

Our January student of the month is Claire Conti, a Bucktails alumni! Claire plans to pursue conservation as a career, specifically as a park ranger. She was thrilled to attend the Wildlife Leadership Academy, furthering her education in the sciences.

Claire has been working on a variety of outreach projects in her community since her attendance at the field school. She has been practicing the photography skills she learned by taking lots of nature photos, and is one of our Photo Friday Specialists!

Claire has also been finding projects to enhance the community’s landscapes and natural areas. She participated in a project, along with State Senator Lindsey Williams and Sharpsburg Mayor Matthew Rudzki, helping to plant trees in the local park. She participated in a special service project during Earth Day, where the community came together to help clean trash along roadsides. Claire’s understanding of the importance of maintaining healthy habitats – and sharing that message with others, encouraging them to get involved – is part of what makes her a great Conservation Ambassador!

Group photo of Claire with other volunteers, all persons masked and standing with tools used to plant trees.  Saplings that have already been planted are in the background.

Claire is currently participating in our student-driven Pay It Forward fundraising program. In her own words, “Paying it forward is so important to me, because I think that every kid should be able to reach their goals, no matter who they are. Conservation is our only future, no matter how you slice it. The more youth we have fighting, the better chance we have to win.”

You can check out her fundraising website by clicking here – where you can see she is very close to meeting her goal!!!

Claire is an outstanding community member and conservation ambassador, and we have no doubt that she will accomplish any goal she sets for herself. We are proud to have Claire as a member of our Academy family, and are excited to watch her future unfold!