The Master Naturalist: Jane Whitney steps up for citizen science

Jane Whitney dedicates most of her time to conservation service within Door County for a variety of organizations – leading guided hikes, botanizing, teaching classes, studying (she was prepping for The Ridges Sanctuary’s Crane Symposium when we spoke), and giving presentations. She’s also no stranger to a clipboard, gathering data for multiple projects as easily as she collects trays of moss or lichen for her latest class. 

(From left) Julie Knox, Jane Whitney and David Barnes – aka the Orchid Trekkers at The Ridges Sanctuary – celebrate with a glass of champagne their discovery of an orchid species new to Door County and only the second record of this species in Wisconsin: Shining Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes lucida). Submitted.

“I’m busy all the time,” Whitney said. “I really am. It’s almost like a job, but it’s not regular hours. It’s what I do; I don’t do other things. This is like a hobby. People love to quilt, and that’s what they do. I do this, because I love all the components.”

Her activity has earned her, by hours of service, the distinction of being Wisconsin’s top Master Naturalist – a member of the statewide network of volunteers who are trained for and dedicated to conservation service within their communities through a University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension program. 

“Whitney has reported 7,231 volunteer hours as a Master Naturalist since 2014,” said Becky Sapper, director of the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program. “This is the most of any of the 1,395 trained Master Naturalists to date. She’s an amazing field-trip leader and extremely knowledgeable about our natural world. We are so lucky to have her as part of our Master Naturalist community.”

A Self-Taught Naturalist

Whitney’s humorous explanation for how she now spends her days is a “classic example of failed retirement.” She spent her career as an academic librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo, where her husband, John Whitney, was an art professor. They moved to Baileys Harbor in 2007 to be closer to their son Caleb Whitney; his wife, Kristen Peil; and their only grandchild, Ida. 

While her husband of 50-plus years retired with enthusiasm to his studio to create art, Whitney found herself in danger of perfecting, as she called it, the Zen of Couch Sitting.

“I don’t sew, cook or knit,” she said. “I’m not a hobby person, and I retired. But I’d always had an interest in the natural world. There’s not a lot of difference between classifying plants and classifying books.” 

So she headed outside. Soon, she had met a new friend – Julie Knox, a retired kindergarten teacher – and together they set out on a journey of learning.

“We’re both self-taught naturalists,” Whitney said. “We both loved botany. Once you start learning, and getting out and about, and going on bird hikes, pretty soon somebody at The Ridges asked to try me on a hike, and I said, ‘Sure.’ You start to learn what’s on that hike [for flora and fauna], and so much of it is totally different from Baraboo. You just keep pulling threads when you’re self taught. You figure out what people like on hikes and what they’ll likely ask you, and then you need to go deeper.”

A Bottomless Deep Dive

Whitney’s activities are hard to list, but we’ll give it a go.

She leads various nature hikes for The Ridges and elsewhere, covering cultural and botanical history as well as the flora and fauna. She’s learned how to pollinate orchids, balancing the little pollen sac on a toothpick while trekking through the woods. She’s conducted workshops on moss, sedge, woodcocks and conifers, to name only a few; and she works on plant inventories and studies fungi and soil. 

“She is our keystone volunteer,” said Andy Gill with The Ridges Sanctuary.

Whitney does much for The Ridges, but not exclusively for that organization. She volunteers her knowledge and services to the Door County Land Trust, Björklunden and The Clearing, and she’s a docent for the Friends of Toft Point. She engages with plenty of citizen science at The Ridges, including stream monitoring and orchid restoration (this is not an all-inclusive list), and she also monitors suckers for the Shedd Aquarium, as well as streams, frogs and toads for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

“It’s so cool; it will start this April,” Whitney said about the frog and toad monitoring. “It’s the longest-running frog and toad study in the country. It started in the ’80s. We go out three nights out of the year, 10 stops – always the same 10.”

Those who are monitoring jump out of the car at the locations, cup their ears, and listen to which frogs are singing and the density of the population, recording all their data on the state’s database.

“All citizen science is really about boots on the ground collecting data to support professionals in the field. They can look at our data, which they don’t have time or money to collect. There are standards and protocols – clipboards are involved,” Whitney said, laughing.

She also leads Saturday-morning bird hikes, but her primary interest is plants. 

“I’m a mediocre birder, even though I lead bird hikes, because I’m easily distracted by plants,” she said. “When you hear the white-throated sparrow in spring, nothing will touch your soul like that. So I enjoy birds, but I’m not a dedicated birder.”

Whitney considers everything she does as furthering conservation’s interrelated web, while also trying to inspire others to do the same through her tours, classes and presentations.

Inspiring Others to Love the Natural World

Jane Whitney leads a hike at The Ridges Sanctuary. Submitted.

Whitney was never a teacher in her past career, but she’s found she loves that aspect of volunteering and is constantly upping her game by discovering new ways to engage people with nature. 

She also tries to show the positive impacts humans have had on nature. Today’s Hidden Brook at The Ridges is an example. At one time, it was a grazing pasture for a farmer’s cows, but “every spring it would get flooded out,” she said. “So he said, ‘My cows are standing in water,’ and he cut through The Ridges to the lake to make it drain more quickly.”

The negative outcome is that they grazed for 10 years and took out the understory, and it takes time for that to come back. The positive outcome is that the land had 100 years to naturalize – becoming a perfect natural habitat for the endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly. 

Raising Her Hand

What Whitney has gained from all of her volunteering are connections: to nature, to people and to her own learning.

“I get the feeling that I am contributing,” she said. “I also do feel that sometimes it seems small, but you’re contributing to much larger banks of knowledge with data. That leads to larger things up the line.”

All that learning has also led to vivid memories of accomplishment, such as seeing an orchid she’s never seen before, or being able to identify a bird call without seeing the bird.

“Those moments are sort of like magical milestones because you know you’re learning,” Whitney said. 

Those are among her most notable accomplishments. 

“By far, it pushes me to learn about everything I raise my hand for,” she said. “Raise your hand.; you can learn whatever you need to learn. It’s a great opportunity to step up for citizen science. When you raise your hand, you just don’t know where you’re headed.”