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Mar 24, 2014 9:46 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Dirt Time—Local Naturalists Complete Intense Field Training Event

Mar 25, 2014 9:03 AM

Twenty-two Long Islanders gathered in the Long Pond Greenbelt last week to test their knowledge of wildlife tracks and sign. Among the group were professional biologists, science teachers, environmental educators, local hike leaders and avid naturalists. Evaluating their observation and interpretation skills was George Leoniak of Marlboro, Vermont, and a senior tracker with the international CyberTracker Conservation organization.CyberTracker Conservation is an unusual name for a conservation organization, but perhaps not its most unusual aspect. The program’s origins can be traced to South Africa, where scientist Louis Liebenberg worked with illiterate, highly-skilled trackers and hunters: bushmen of the Kalahari.

Liebenberg writes that, “The art of tracking may be the origin of science. If so, then modern day trackers should be able to do science.” Liebenberg’s problem was that some of the best traditional trackers in Africa can not read or write. Realizing the scientific value of the bushmen’s wildlife knowledge, Liebenberg set out to overcome this problem by developing a hand-held electronic device with an icon-based interface that enabled non-literate trackers to record complex geo-referenced observations on animal behavior: the CyberTracker!

Leoniak is one of six wildlife track and sign evaluators in North America, and last month he agreed to hold the first ever track and sign evaluation here on Long Island. The event was sponsored by the Long Island Nature Organization, which also hosts the popular annual Long Island Natural History Conference.

Two-day participants were presented with seventy questions, while the one-day workshop consisted of 35 questions. Both groups had to identify tracks and sign of voles, moles, chipmunks, flying squirrels, gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits, deer, raccoon, red fox, muskrat, domestic dog and cat, insects, turtles, and a variety of birds including turkey, crow, sanderling, mallard, great black-backed gull, blue jay and woodpecker. It was some quality dirt time under the watchful eye of an expert.

The series of challenging questions formed the framework of the workshop, and the means for evaluating each participant, but it also created a powerful learning experience as each question, and possible answers, were discussed.

How did the Long Islanders measure up? Ten of the 22 participants managed to achieve at least a Level I certification. Callie Velmachos of Sag Harbor, who has taught Introduction to Tracking workshops in the area, scored highest of the lot. Juliana Duryea, who works for the East Hampton Natural Resources Department, was second highest. Both have taken evaluations before and both managed the Level III certification with a score of more than 90 percent.

Ben Faraone of Sag Harbor, and a student of the Tom Brown program, achieved a Level II certification with a total score of more than 80 percent. Level I certifications went to Chandra Elmendorf of Sag Harbor, Michaela Himelfarb of Locust Valley, Abby Cramer of Brooklyn, Dai Dayton of Bridgehampton and Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, Steve Biasetti and Anita Wright (both very knowledgeable environmental educators with the Group for the East End), and Rebecca Kassay, coordinator at Stony Brook’s Avalon Park and Preserve.

Although it’s nice to receive a certification at the end of the day, all participants were rewarded with an excellent field training experience, and all left with a wealth of new knowledge. The next workshops are scheduled for May 2 and 3 in Quogue. For more information and to register, visit www.LongIslandNature.org

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