On the Job – Nature Conservancy Volunteers

Doug Taron coordinates a butterfly monitoring program with the Nature Conservancy chapter in Chicago. He is originally from the Boston area and attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

I got started working with the Nature Conservancy doing basic Conservancy projects such as cutting brush and collecting seeds on prairie lands.

The butterfly monitoring program got started under the direction of an ecological entomology expert at Northeastern Illinois University. I started monitoring at that time, and when the former coordinator got really busy with other things, I was asked to take over coordination of the program. Now I manage a network of forty volunteers (there are no paid workers in the program) and I continue to do monitoring myself. The hardest thing about getting involved with volunteering was finding out about it. I would have started sooner if I had known the opportunities existed.

My volunteer work changes with the seasons. In June and July we monitor the butterflies. Each volunteer is assigned a site, and within that site they monitor butterflies along a twenty-foot wide corridor that crosses all of the different habitat and management units. We visit the same site four to six times during June and July and in total spend about twenty hours searching for and recording butterfly species. As coordinator, I organize programs to attract new volunteers to the program. I run several field training courses for volunteers per year, and a bigger classroom training session in March. I also enter all the data submitted by volunteers into a computer database.

One of the new aspects of the butterfly project that I keep making stabs at is analysis of the data that we’ve gathered. It’s not easy. The type of data we’ve gathered only means something after it’s been gathered for a long time. We are just now getting to the point where we can say something. Other scientists are using our data as well, including a doctoral student at the University of Illinois and scientists from the National Biological Survey.

The long time span of biological studies doesn’t bother me, though – I hope to keep up this work indefinitely.

We provide all the training for our volunteers, and one of the most rewarding things for me has been seeing how some volunteers have gone from knowing almost nothing about butterflies to be able to identify even very difficult species, as well as learning their Latin names! Of course, some people do come in with prior knowledge, but they do not always make the best monitors. Sometimes they stumble over preconceived notions they had, and the more serious volunteers sometimes get wrapped up in subtle points of taxonomy that are not really relevant for our study.

The other rewarding things I have gained from my work as a coordinator are organizing skills, and increased self-confidence, which I certainly wasn’t expecting. I’ve honed my butterfly identification skills and I’ve visited places I wouldn’t normally have occasion to visit. I get to see a lot of cool stuff. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people from far-flung parts of the volunteer network.

The work is really rewarding, and volunteers (including myself) often get really attached to the particular site where they work. I find that one of my biggest challenges is not overcommitting myself to the care of my site or to volunteer activities with the Nature Conservancy in general. I spend most of my leisure time doing land stewardship activities at my site that are not part of my position as coordinator of the butterfly program. The steward there has become a good friend of mine, and we enjoy working together.

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