Good Natured in St. Charles: Naturalist training program to entice nature lovers

Learning experiences such as this very wet wetlands field trip help participants in the Kane County Certified Naturalist program understand the connections within our local ecosystems.

Well, it’s that time of year again. The leaves are displaying brilliant hues of red, orange and gold; the birds are migrating; and the snakes are slithering toward their winter hibernacula.

Meanwhile, within the nature education departments at the Geneva Park District, the St. Charles Park District and the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, the naturalists are making seasonal preparations of their own, in anticipation of the 2023-24 session of the Kane County Certified Naturalist program.

Since its inception in 2007, KCCN has introduced nearly 400 people to the wonders of our local ecology – how a savanna is different from a woodland, and a woodland differs from a forest; what makes a wetland a wetland; how Illinois earned its nickname of Prairie State; why soils vary with ecosystems; and, yes, how all these pieces fit together.

If you’re wondering whether KCCN is the program for you, we’ve prepared a little test that might help. In a nod to graduate-school exams and our own quirky sense of humor, we’re calling it the GNAT, or the General Naturalist Aptitude Test. You can take it in the comfort and privacy of your home, and No. 2 pencils are not required. Wanna give it a shot? Here ya go!

  • 1. When you need to relax and clear your mind, you:
  • a. Veg in front of the television
  • b. Shop
  • c. Head to a park or forest preserve for a nice long walk
  • 2. You rate your curiosity about our natural world as:
  • a. Nonexistent
  • b. Mild, but not compelling
  • c. Undeniable, powerful, maybe even off the charts
  • 3. You find a walnut stashed on top of the propane tank of your gas grill. Your next steps are to:
  • a. Curse the critter that left it there and give the nut a toss
  • b. Wonder briefly how it got there, then chuck it out of the way
  • c. Leave the nut where it is, take its picture, then begin a literature review of research on the scatter-hoarding habits of local squirrel species
  • 4. You’re out for a walk and a feather wafts down from a tree. You:
  • a. Stroll past without a second thought
  • b. Look up to see where it came from
  • c. Walk around the tree to get the best possible view of the bird. Realizing there are actually two birds up there, and one is feeding on the other, you step back but continue to watch, reserving judgment on what’s happening and instead focusing on the field marks of both species so you can later attempt to identify them. That evening, you chatter endlessly, to anyone who’ll listen, about the amazing sight you witnessed, and how, based on your observations, you believe the two birds involved were a mature female Cooper’s hawk and an American robin of undetermined gender
  • 5. You realize your Thursday nights this winter will be gloriously obligation free. Seizing this opportunity, you:
  • a. Stock up on good books and spend those evenings burrowed in a quilt, reading
  • b. Make plans to binge watch assorted series on Netflix
  • c. Look for a program where you can join like-minded individuals in learning about Kane County’s woodland, prairie and wetland ecosystems

If you answered [c] to each of these questions, chances are KCCN would be a good fit for you. The program, which carries a fee of $350 for the year, begins with six classroom lectures on Thursday evenings in January and February, followed by four Saturday morning field trips in the months of April, May and June.

Participants then transition to a variety of other learning and volunteer opportunities throughout the ensuing year, with a goal of logging 30 hours of participation by April 2024, and earning their certification – a level of achievement that includes a graduation ceremony and spiffy polo shirt complete with embroidered KCCN logo.

Perhaps more important, though, are the connections made, and the friendships that form among folks looking to get involved in the stewardship of Kane County’s natural areas.

If KCCN sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, please consider attending the information session we will host at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles. During this meet-and-greet, we’ll go over the course syllabus, and respond to any questions you might have. Attendance at this event isn’t mandatory, however. If you’d like to just go ahead and sign up, the Geneva Park District ( will begin taking registrations on Friday, Nov. 11; look for course code number 5411902-01.

Questions? Feel free to let me know. I’m certified. Hope to [c] you soon!

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at