Adam Blauert

Blauert on Outdoors: UC Merced naturalist classes can be useful

Last spring, I participated in the California Naturalist class at UC Merced. On at least one occasion when I was trying to explain this to someone in conversation, I think they thought I meant “naturist” (a synonym for nudist) instead of “naturalist.”

It made for awkward conversation, especially since I didn’t piece together the misunderstanding until several hours later. But at least they tried to be polite.

That said, what is a naturalist? Our course textbook includes in its definition all “people who observe, study, and interpret the natural world.” Naturalists are often directly involved with explaining natural environments, species and processes to the public. It’s a job performed daily by many rangers and volunteer docents.

I found out about the California Naturalist program early last spring when it was offered as an extension course at UC Merced. I decided to enroll to learn more about local landscapes and habitats, and to be better prepared to explain the outdoors to the student groups I take on field trips.

It was a good decision. I didn’t come away from the course an expert in everything related to the science of our local outdoors, but the course gave me a lot of foundational information so I am better prepared to learn on my own. In addition, I gained a lot of specific, useful information about local ecosystems and landscapes that I’ve been able to share with friends, family and my students.

The course included 10 Thursday-night classes and four Saturday field trips. I learned a lot and I highly recommend the program to anyone who wants to know more about our local outdoors, especially if they like sharing it with other people. The top four things I gained from my participation were:

▪ Vastly expanded knowledge of local environments and their inhabitants.

▪ Meeting and networking with interesting people.

▪ Comprehensive understanding of the environments of our field trip destinations.

▪ Beginning an exciting community service project (you’ll read more about that part in a future column).

California Naturalist classes are generally focused on the areas surrounding the course location, thus our class sessions and field trips focused on the Central Valley and foothills.

Topics included nature interpretation, keeping a field notebook, water and aquatic ecosystems, geology and soils, rangeland ecology, plants, invertebrates and insects, birds and vernal pools. They were taught by course instructor Chris Swarth and interesting guest speakers from UC Merced, the UC Extension, the Yosemite Conservancy and other local organizations.

The four field trips were true “field” trips. We were literally in the field, learning from what we could find and see at locations that included the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, UC Merced’s Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve, Hite Cove in the Sierra National Forest, Henderson Park, Lake Yosemite and private ranch lands in Madera County.

California Naturalist courses are offered throughout the state and range from weeknight or weekend schedules to intensive, week-long sessions. UC Merced will offer another one, and I will mention it here as soon as the date is announced. Until then, two upcoming nearby courses include:

▪ Calaveras Big Trees, Friday through Oct. 10.

▪ Sierra Nevada Research Institute (Wawona), Nov. 1-7.

The Sierra Foothill Conservancy also offered the course on its lands in Mariposa, Fresno and Madera counties last spring and will offer the course again next spring. For information and a calendar of upcoming California Naturalist courses, go to

With only about 20 students in the class, it was easy to ask questions. The course fee was $350 and covered class sessions, field trips and two useful textbooks. One, “Secrets of the Oak Woodlands,” by Kate Marianchild and Ann Meyer Maglinte, is one I highly recommend. Compiling lots of interesting information about common foothill species, it’s easy to read and provided facts and examples that worked well in my classroom and on field trips with students. Much of the information is the result of recent research and was new to most people in the class.

Adam Blauert: