naturalist teaching children about frogs

Ask an Ontario Parks naturalist

Can’t identify a bird or a butterfly you saw on your latest trip to one of Ontario’s provincial parks? Want to know more about a particular wild flower you spotted? Or whether the mushrooms you came across are edible?

Ontario Parks’ team of naturalists has the answer!

Just snap a photo and tweet it with the hashtag #AskanOPNaturalist.

#AskanOPNaturalist is just one of hundreds of programs Ontario Parks’ naturalists deliver every year.

“I think we all see our job as inspiring and educating park goers of all ages by sharing our love of nature,” says Presqu’ile Provincial Park naturalist David Bree.

Lake Superior Provincial Park naturalist Carol Dersch agrees. “Our goal is to help visitors make an emotional and intellectual connection with the park, so that they’ll continue to learn and keep coming back.”

Many of Ontario’s provincial parks offer a wide range of programs throughout the summer months, from bike hikes to canoe trips, species identification to animal tracking (you can even learn to communicate with wolves at Algonquin Park!) all developed and delivered by informed and enthusiastic naturalists.

Hikers, kids and naturalists
Check for events on our website or follow your favourite parks on social media for the latest schedules!

“The perfect program is one that appeals to five-year-olds and university professors,” says Bree, “and that’s what we try to create.”

How do you become a naturalist?

Ontario Parks’ naturalists come to the job from different backgrounds. Bree has a Master’s Degree in Geology; Dersch, a Bachelor’s in Wildlife Biology.  Others come from education and recreation. But it’s fair to say the majority got interested in nature and environmental stewardship as children, often encouraged by an adult in the family. Bree, for instance, traces his interest back to when he was just five years old and his mother caught a monarch butterfly in a pickle jar. Belonging to a naturalist club as a youth is also a common denominator — as is being a summer student with Ontario Parks, which is how Dersch began her career.

boy with tadpoles in bucket

“If you’re interested in nature and like people, being a student naturalist with Ontario Parks is the best summer job there is,” she says.

While there’s no formal training required to become an Ontario Parks naturalist, they all have to have a great deal of knowledge about the natural world which they’ve acquired through years of observation, a desire to keep on learning – and a passion to pass on what they know.

What’s a naturalist?

Interestingly, the word “naturalist” was first defined in 1857 to describe someone who studied the natural world. It was popularized by Charles Darwin, who used it to describe himself in a letter he wrote to the English biologist Thomas Huxley in 1854. In the day, it was considered quite an honour to be called a naturalist.

Today’s Ontario Parks’ naturalists are as excited by the world around them as their 19th century counterparts – and every bit as eager to share their knowledge.

David Bree and Carol Dersch
Ontario Parks naturalists David Bree and Carol Dersch

“When you hear a child tell another child something he or she just learned from you, you realize what kind of an influence you can have,” says Bree. “That excites me.”

Dersch agrees. “Seeing people come back year after year is a thrill.  It means they’re hooked on nature and they’ve made a connection to the park.”

As for the collective knowledge of Ontario Parks’ naturalists, it’s astounding. Which pretty much guarantees that if you tweet a photo to #AskanOPNaturalist, we’ll be able to tell you all about it.