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Winyah Naturalists: Course teaches residents how to be stewards of resources

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Walter McElveen doesn’t consider himself an expert on any one subject, but he does know a lot about— well, a lot when it comes to the makeup and function of the ecosystem and various habitats around him.

McElveen, of Pawleys Island, is a master naturalist, meaning he has completed a course dedicated to teaching students about the environment in which they live and training them to be volunteer stewards who work within their community to provide education, outreach and service dedicated to the protection of natural places.

“It all has to do with the area we live in and what’s out there,” McElveen said of being a master naturalist. He graduated from the course four years ago.

“The plants, the trees and shrubs, the insects and animals, we look at all of it,” he said. “You learn how to identify what’s there, what it’s doing there, how it got there and how to appreciate it. Why do we have sand dunes on the beach and where did that sand come from? How does a swamp get to be a swamp? This course teaches you how it all happened and why it all happened.”

John Thomas, a 2009 graduate of the course, said he learned why the sand on the beach at Pawleys Island is different from that in Charleston. It has to do with how the sand is deposited onto beaches by rivers, he said.

With such a wealth of natural habitats, from salt marshes to pine forests, and cypress swamps to freshwater rivers, there’s certainly plenty to study, and plenty of reasons to make the effort, McElveen and Thomas agree.

“It helps you better interact with everything around you and gives you a fantastic appreciation of the area and all it has to offer,” from sea shells and shore birds, to the red-cockaded woodpecker that lives in the forests of areas such as Hobcaw Barony and Sandy Island, McElveen said.

Between the course and the trove of field guides that come with it, he’s learned to identify sand pipers and plovers, different kinds of seagulls and ducks. He knows what lives in the salt marshes and why. He knows the real name for the Pawleys Island shell, where they come from and that, despite local legend, they aren’t restricted to the island’s beaches.

He learned it all over the course of 13 weeks and this month a new group of students will do the same.

The 2012 Winyah Master Naturalist course, offered through Clemson University, starts March 16. Classes are every Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with one overnight trip. Cost is $600, including a “master naturalist tool kit,” which contains all the field guides for the course.

“You spend a lot of time reading, but it’s mostly field trips and going to see the experts who can take you into the swamp to see how it functions and the forest to see why certain trees live there, but can’t live somewhere else,” he said.

Students talk to biologists, entomologists and an assortment of other experts.

Thomas recalled going to Huntington Beach State Park with his class and digging in the sand.

“You get an awareness of all the things that are around you; things you never knew existed,” he said. Digging through the sand, “I was amazed at some of the things that were there.”

Among them were ghost shrimp.

“It’s the ugliest thing you ever saw,” Thomas said. “I never would have known it was there if not for this course. They took us to the jetty out there at Murrells Inlet and we walked along it. I would never have thought there were that many kinds of crabs living there — some that will take your thumb off if you don’t approach ‘em right.”

He praised the reference materials that come with the course. They taught him that his favorite sea shell is called an Atlantic spotted cockle and that sea snails are vicious predators, making holes in other shells and sucking out the organisms that call them home. That’s why so many shells have small, neat, round holes in them when they wash onto the beach.

Students also discover new places they weren’t aware of before, such as the Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area, which Thomas and his wife recently visited. It’s one of a number of sites students visit on field trips, including the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Hobcaw Barony, Huntington Beach State Park, the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and Francis Marion National Forest. This year’s overnight field trip goes to the mountains.

The estuaries are a major component of the class. Georgetown County has the second largest estuary on the east coast.

Once students graduate from the course, they begin volunteer efforts. Graduates must complete 30 hours of volunteer work to receive master naturalist certification and become eligible to join the local Winyah Master Naturalist Association chapter.

Chapter members participate in advanced volunteer training courses, field trips and events, and continue to build on the knowledge they gained through 13 weeks of study.

Seats are still open for the master naturalist course that starts this month.

To register, go online, or for information, call Jennifer Plunket, 904-9033.

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