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 Volunteer naturalist Carol Fink explores Heritage Park with the Little Trekkers Parents and Tots program offered by the nature center.

Volunteer naturalist Carol Fink explores Heritage Park with the Little Trekkers Parents and Tots program offered by the nature center.

Photo provided by Ashlie Smith

Heritage Park Nature Center to host naturalist training program

Nature Center looks to boost volunteer core

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published March 11, 2020

 Heritage Park Nature Center volunteer naturalist Dianne Long finds a caterpillar while out exploring in the park.

Heritage Park Nature Center volunteer naturalist Dianne Long finds a caterpillar while out exploring in the park.

Photo provided by Ashlie Smith


FARMINGTON HILLS — A desire to build upon the current volunteer team and an increasing interest from residents to learn about the natural world are what motivated the Heritage Park Nature Center to hold its inaugural free volunteer naturalist training 6-9 p.m. March 18.

Naturalist Ashlie Smith, the nature center’s supervisor, hopes the training will lead to some new community members signing up as volunteers, which would help the nature center expand upon its current programming.

“There’s a strong interest in nature and a real passion from families to want to get out and enjoy the natural world. Our biggest limitation is being able to have enough staff, resources and facility space to be able to offer that to the community,” Smith said, adding that harvesting a more diverse group of volunteers with different perspectives on nature would benefit the center’s programs even more.

The training, Smith said, will be a chance for community members to figuratively dip their toes in the water and see hands-on what a volunteer naturalist does, the programs the center offers and how they can get involved.

“We want folks to be able to make an educated decision whether or not they actually want to join our volunteer team,” she said. “If they don’t, then we at least want them to leave with more knowledge of what a naturalist is, how to successfully connect and communicate with people, and what our job entails.”

So what exactly is a naturalist? Smith said a lot of preconceived notions only paint part of the picture.

“Does it look like somebody that’s a park ranger? Is it somebody that goes out and does bird watching or nature journaling? Is it an educator — somebody that takes kids out and explores the natural world with them? All of that is true,” she said. “We want to get the message across that really anybody can be a naturalist. The qualifications are somebody that has a passion for nature and the willingness and skills to share it with others in a meaningful way.”

Helping park visitors and prospective volunteers learn how to connect with nature in a positive way is another goal for the upcoming training, Smith added.

“Whether they’re hiking with their family out in the woods or just enjoying a picnic dinner, it’s going to make that connection (to nature) even stronger and allow them to feel confident in exploring the outdoors,” she said. “This (training) will give them the extra tools they need to bring those skills into their everyday lives. … I think there’s something to gain for anyone, regardless of if they decide to join our volunteer team.”

Smith said that, when the nature center and their volunteer naturalists can help connect people to nature, those people end up caring more about nature and wanting to protect it, which ultimately helps the city’s local natural environments.

Farmington Hills resident and volunteer naturalist Mike Mencotti, 67, said being a volunteer naturalist has allowed him to give back and share his passion for birding with the community, and it’s taught him a thing or two about nature.

“One thing that birding has done for me is, it isn’t just about the birds. You start to think about the birds’ habitat, their habits (and) their migration patterns. The next thing you know, you’ve learned all sorts of things about the natural world you never set out to learn.”

“Whenever I am co-leading a program with a naturalist, the naturalist will point something out from a whole different perspective or look at it from a different angle than I ever did. The next thing I know, the teacher is learning,” he added.

Smith emphasized that expertise in the subject matter is not necessary for being a volunteer naturalist. Like Mencotti, joining the nature center as a volunteer is more about sparking curiosity and enabling learning.

However, for those who do want to learn more about a specific aspect of nature, Smith said such sessions will come this summer.

The nature center plans to provide one or two supplemental training sessions for those who may want to learn more about plant identification, how to lead a hike, birding or other topics. The nature center plans to host another volunteer naturalist training in the fall.

The upcoming training will discuss what a naturalist is and how to be a successful one, and it will include interactive stations about birds, plants, predator versus prey relationships and how to reflect in nature. The session will close with the next steps to take if a participant is interested in joining the team.

The volunteer naturalist training is for those ages 18 and older. For more information, call (248) 477-1135 or email Smith at