Burlington's wild heart: Field naturalist Alicia Daniel
Editor's note: The following story originially appeared in the Burlington Free Press. Photos by Glenn Russell / burlingtonfreepress.com.
Suppose you were a mink in need of breakfast in Burlington. Where would you go?
If you lived on the shores of Long Pond, on the edge of the Intervale, chances are you wouldn’t need to go far. Step right out of your den — which might be hidden under the gnarly roots of a northern white cedar — and depending on the season, you might find a muskrat, frog, salamander, or shorebird to start your day — or to end it, since mink are mostly nocturnal animals.
If the pond is frozen, you could check out the otherworldly looking Donohue Sea Caves at its northwestern shore to see if you might catch some fish.
Long Pond is part of Arthur Park, one of Burlington’s “Urban Wild” areas — so designated in 2005 as part of the city’s Conservation Legacy Program. The park, located roughly two miles north of downtown, is something of an open secret to Burlington’s human residents. It is also one of the areas on Alicia Daniel’s list of places to check for signs of wildlife, which is how she came upon the mink on its breakfast outing one frigid Sunday morning in late January.
Picture Daniel as a liaison between Burlington’s human and wild residents. Informally, she has played this role for many years. More recently, it has become part of her job: Last July, Daniel became Burlington’s first-ever field naturalist — a position that may be unique in the nation.
By Daniel’s definition, a field naturalist is “someone who is in love with the study of the natural world.” This much is evident to anyone who has ever accompanied her on a field walk.
On that chilly Sunday morning, you could hear the enthusiasm in her voice as she recounted the story of the landscape around her over the past 600 million years: How the bedrock at Arthur Park (and underneath North Avenue, and Burlington High School) started out as sediment at the bottom of an ancient ocean. How the resulting rocks were plowed west across the landscape during the collision of tectonic plates that formed the Green Mountains some 430 million years ago. How glaciers two miles thick covered New England, long after the ancient ocean was gone. How their meltwater formed a giant water body called Lake Vermont that reached to the foothills of the Green Mountains. How over the next 2,000 or so years, Lake Vermont was transformed into a salty arm of the Atlantic Ocean called the Champlain Sea, leaving behind legacies like the Charlotte Whale — and the Donohue Sea Caves in Burlington.
Using the image of a layer cake, Daniel explains that the layers of the Burlington landscape combine to form a particularly diverse mix of life forms. Because much of the bedrock underneath the city is rich in minerals like calcium and magnesium, the soil that forms on top of it is rich in these nutrients, and in turn supports plants that are dependent on them. In other places, the bedrock is covered by thick layers of sand from the ancient beaches of the Champlain Sea. These places support plants that can survive in nutrient-poor, drier soils.
Because of this rich mix of habitat types and because of Burlington’s location between Lake Champlain and the foothills of the Green Mountains, the city has a special setting that goes beyond spectacular sunsets and easy access to hiking trails: Many different kinds of animals can be encountered here — bear, moose, bobcat, and coyote come from the wooded hills to the east; shorebirds, otter, and mink from the lake, the Winooski River, and the smaller streams. Daniel calls this the city's "wild heart."
Fifteen years ago, Daniel mapped the movements of these animal species in a survey titled “Where the Wild Things Are.” Updating this survey is one of the projects on her to-do list as field naturalist. It is one of the more social parts of her job: Volunteers including Burlington residents and a number of Daniel’s former students in the University of Vermont's Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning graduate programs will help with the tracking. Daniel will also lead seasonal nature walks for the public.
Among the less visible aspects of the job, Daniel will be updating management plans and creating natural history overviews for the city’s Urban Wilds; conducting rapid ecological assessments for prospective conservation lands; and developing training protocols for Urban Wild stewardship volunteers.
Daniel came to Vermont in 1987 to be trained in UVM’s Field Naturalist graduate program and subsequently served as its associate director for five years. She still teaches the program’s foundational field course and has conducted ecological assessments for the city over the years.
The city created the field naturalist position to have ecological expertise in-house and to avoid the insurance hurdles that have made the hiring of independent consultants increasingly difficult, according to Burlington land steward Dan Cahill. Parks and Recreation director Jesse Bridges already sees several benefits: A field naturalist for the city not only makes for better stewarding of Burlington’s financial and human resources, it is also an expression of “how we care for the land and the people,” he said. It also gives the city more focus in the areas of land stewardship, conservation education, and land acquisition.
One of the things Daniel particularly appreciates about her work is the interest and engagement of Burlington residents in land stewardship. She sees a real “grassroots demand” for conservation education — something that is supported by a recent Parks and Recreation Department survey in which 37 percent of respondents asked for more nature activities and education.
New North End resident Kate Kruesi says that Daniel and Cahill opened her eyes to the ecological treasures of Arms Grant and other Urban Wild areas. It is “wonderful for the city to have a naturalist on staff,” Kruesi said. She describes Daniel as a particularly skilled teacher who “uses visuals and metaphor and asks questions to help listeners process what they know.”
Burlington residents will have a chance to join their field naturalist on an “IHeartWildlife” Walk on Valentine’s Day. And if you encounter a mink?
“Give it lots of space to hunt,” Daniel said. “The mink may not like being closely watched. But for the mink and Burlington’s other wild residents, it is a good thing to have human neighbors looking out for them.”