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Workshop: Naturalist Skills and Ecology Basics

November 18, 2023 @ 9:00 am - 2:00 pm

Presented in partnership with Sara Johnson of the North American Land Trust

Naturalists seem to have an innate skill for knowing the natural world around them, but like any skill, it is learned, and often honed over years of attention to detail and repeated examination. Many people function in the world with nature as a static backdrop, but when they slow down and pay attention, they discover there is immense diversity. This realization has the power to captivate and inspire us, not only to notice the detail, but to become better stewards of our natural world. 

The study of interconnectivity of life around us, and the process that many naturalists deeply understand, is the study of Ecology, and can offer us one of the greatest tools of conservation. Ecology allows us to better understand the interactions between organisms (including us) and their environment, from the way that the bedrock and soil shapes the plants that grow in our forests and fields, to the insects and animals that depend on these habitats for their survival. These intricacies have a long evolutionary history that shapes all life in our region to create one of the most biodiverse regions of North America.

In this workshop, we will distill complex ecological concepts through a regional lens to break down the skills needed to observe and learn about your local environment. We will start by identifying wildlife and their signs, discerning plant families and their features as well as how they comprise distinct habitats, observe insects and their adaptations, and study the soil, geology, and geography to understand how they define our local environment. We will also discuss the tools, devices, and techniques that can assist with identification and observation of nature. It will be a day of thoughtful observation and attunement to nature, and there may be periods of wandering and wondering without an agenda in addition to structured training through exercises.

Location: Chapman Mountain Preserve – 1263 U.S Hwy 72 East, Huntsville, AL 35811

This workshop will take place outdoors at the Terry Education Pavilion as well as throughout the preserve’s trails. Chasco and Driskell Trails are more accessible for mobility. However, Terry and Bulldog Trails may be more challenging for mobility devices. Access to parking and restrooms will be available.

Cost: $90 for Non-members, $50 for Land Trust members at the Trailblazer level or above. Not a member? Join today!

Course fees will help pay for five hours of instruction, snacks and drinks, some worksheets and handouts, and all of the supplies needed to participate in the workshop, including: 


Course Description: All skill levels are welcome. We have designed the workshop to especially benefit those who may not have a lot of experience outdoors or have taken basic ecology or science courses. However, even those with previous experience in these techniques will be able to take away novel approaches and ideas. Throughout the day, we expect to hike around 3.25 miles in total, with plentiful stops in between (~1.5 mi in the morning, ~1.75 mi in the afternoon). There are no benches along the majority of the trails so keep this in mind when considering trail distance.

The workshop will include lessons on: 

  • The Fauna – we will discuss tracking and reading signs of wildlife, observation and identification, animal adaptations, and food chain dynamics. 
  • The Flora – we will introduce the concept of habitats and how they are defined, seasonal changes, common vs. rare species, specialization of plants, and the host-species concept of plants and animals.
  • Soil, Geology, and Geography – we will examine how these features define the plants that grow in our region, and how this defines all levels of the food chain. 
  • Alabama Specific Ecology – we will observe some of the specific plants and animals that make Alabama special, and a destination for ecologists and nature lovers.
  • Naturalist tools and the study of ecology – we will learn about the tools and techniques naturalists use in observation and explore questions like: 

What are some of the common themes of ecology in our world and how do they apply to our local environment? How do we begin to identify and know our local flora and fauna? How can understanding ecology change the way you view your place in nature and how you operate in the world? How can learning about your native wildlands improve our stewardship of our environment?


  • 9:00 – 10:00 am: Introductions to workshop, materials, and each other. We will take a short walk to the bird blind and begin with observation and a senses activity. 
  • 10:00 – 11:00 am: Short Loop Hike from Driskell to Chasco Trail (~1.5 mi). We will discuss the Flora and Fauna of Alabama, including multiple exercises.
  • 11:00 – 12:30 pm: Break and Lunch, followed by Basics of Plant ID exercise.
  • 12:30 – 2:00 pm: Big Loop Hike from Terry to Bulldog (~1.75 mi). We will discuss upland forest ecology, soils, and geology, including multiple exercises. The day will wrap up with a round-table discussion of our observations and the greater concept of conservation.

What to Bring/Wear:

Throughout the day, we will be hiking and sitting down. While fall weather in Alabama tends to be mild, please dress according to the weather conditions of that day. In the event of rain, we will be able to work under a lit pavilion, but you are also encouraged to bring a raincoat and comfortable footwear as we intend to head out in the woods rain or shine. Although supplies are provided, you may bring additional supplies if desired to improve your experience, such as binoculars, preferred field guides, and a notebook to record your observations.


Sara Johnson is a biologist who has studied bats, birds, and botany over her tenure in the field and is passionate about helping others build deep connections with the natural world. She enjoys opening peoples eyes to the natural diversity around them and encouraging them to become better stewards of their local environment. She is a conservation biologist with the North American Land Trust and through this work, helps landowners conserve their land forever, while guiding and improving stewardship and land management practices. Outside of her work, she is a volunteer with the resource advisory committee for the Land Trust of North Alabama, a dark-sky advocate with Starry Skies South. In her personal life, she enjoys hiking and kayaking across the Southeast with her partner.



November 18, 2023
9:00 am - 2:00 pm
Event Category:


Chapman Mountain Nature Preserve
1263 U.S Hwy 72 East
Huntsville, AL 35811 United States
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