Thursday, June 18, 2015

June Staff Spotlight: Naturalist Sam Skinner

Name and title: 

Sam Skinner, Senior Naturalist

Background in your field:
Education: Bachelor of Science Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from Texas A&M University
Employment: Employed by the Monmouth County Park System for 11 years. 
Hobbies: I spend my spare time fishing, birding, camping, hiking, and kayaking. I'm also a member of the New Jersey Audubon and am a supporter of various nature and wildlife conservation efforts.

What is your favorite thing about your job?
I have always enjoyed investigating nature and interacting with people that share the same interests. As a Naturalist with the Monmouth County Park System, I do this on a daily basis. I often find myself wondering if I am on the clock or just out having good time.

As a Naturalist, what has been your favorite nature spotting?
I have experienced so many encounters with such a variety of critters that it is difficult to say which one is my favorite.
Here are a few examples:
Sitting at my desk in Huber Woods in the spring of 2005, I saw bird gliding in the distance out of my window and at first I thought it was an osprey which is a fairly common bird in our area. I went back to my computer and then noticed the bird was quite a bit closer and it was not an osprey but a swallow-tailed kite. This kite is only seen in New Jersey a few times a year and by only a few birders.  The kite decided to circle a meadow catching insects for about 15 minutes. I was fortunate to be able snap a few quick pictures to preserve the moment. It then flew off and I imagine back south toward Florida, where they breed, and ultimately back to South America where they can be seen year round.
In the spring of 1971 I was walking along the bank of the Brazos River, outside of College Station, Texas, and heard a slight rustling alongside the trail. I stopped and searched for the source. At first I could not see a thing and the rustling would start and stop without any apparent cause. I was patient and kept watching. Then I noticed a small herbaceous plant, about 2 or 3 inches tall, start to shake and vibrate and then it zipped below the surface of the ground and disappeared. I watched and waited, and then another plant went under and then another and another. I never saw the critter performing this magic trick but I suspect it was most likely a pocket gopher. They are native to the area and very seldom leave their underground burrow and tunnel system to venture to the surface. This was a simple encounter but one that most people have never seen, and it remains with me just as vivid today.

What is your favorite park to visit for nature sightings and why?
Picking a favorite park would seem like an easy thing to do, but I have been to them all on several occasions and find each of them just as interesting. Birding is my favorite pastime and birds are in all of the parks, so I never find one lacking.
I would have to choose Huber Woods Park, Middletown as my favorite as I frequent it the most. It is the hidden gem of the Park System with miles of trails through open meadows, stands of hickory, tulip trees, mountain laurel and evergreens. Scenic views of the Navesink River are a short walk from the Environmental Center. There are several small lakes that hold birds and fish (fishing is my other favorite past time). The park has a completely different look and feel throughout year with the seasonal changes. I have been here for 11 years and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear from a first time visitor; “I have lived here all my life and I never knew this park was here. I love it!” 

What is your favorite nature program in the Park System?
The seasonal Birding Expeditions are daylong birding trips. These trips were started by retired Park System Naturalist Bob Henschel back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Bob has been retired for as long as I have been working for the Park System, but he continued to lead these trips after retiring and took me under his wing showing me the New Jersey hot spots and introducing me to his birding patrons. Several of the birders that frequent this program have been loyal customers for over 25 years. They are some of the friendliest folks I have ever met and, as you would guess, many are excellent birders both by sight and sound. We also get many new and less experienced birders along for the ride. Everyone is greeted warmly and the experienced birders are more than happy to help the beginners or less experienced. Everyone has a great time and new friendships are formed. 

Outside of the Park System, where is your favorite place to visit in your off time?
When I am not in one of our parks during my off time, I will go birding or fishing at Sandy Hook, after Labor Day and before Memorial Day when the crowds have grown smaller, or to Assunpink Wildlife Management Area for fishing or birding.

If you could give one tip to our visitors about nature in the parks, what would it be?
In my opinion the best way to enjoy nature in our Park System, and anywhere else for that matter, would be to take your time, be patient and bring a pair of binoculars. Sitting still or standing quietly for about 15 minutes will tremendously increase enjoyable nature encounters as the wildlife returns to their normal routines once your movement has ceased. Binoculars will open a completely new realm of vision from butterflies a few feet away, to snakes a few yards away, to birds a half mile away. I am off the clock in few minutes and I will head over to BayshoreWaterfront Park, Port Monmouth for some birding in the adjacent wetlands; I will probably see marsh wrens, night-herons, glossy ibis’, egrets, seaside sparrows and, if I get lucky, maybe a saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow or even a Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow.

Thank you to Park System Naturalist Sam Skinner for taking the time to tell us more about himself. Be sure to check out Sam's Roving Park System Naturalist drop-in program offered a few times each month at various parks around the county!

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