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Kate Schwartz

The Naturalist

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Dr. Leigh McGaughey
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

Kate is a young, knowledgeable naturalist, with deep love and curiosity for the natural world. She has translated this passion into lifelong learning and a career. Through this, she is making a contribution to the Great River Rapport.

Kate’s interest in and love of nature dates back as far as she can remember. She grew up on a small 15-acre hobby farm in Williamstown, always spent time outside, and was fascinated by what she could find in her surrounding environment. She watched cartoons related to nature like Zoboomafoo and Wild Kratts and had a messy closet stuffed with backpacks and other supplies for outdoor adventuring. She spent endless hours wading through the stream on the property and took samples from the eight-foot-wide by three-foot-deep pool near the bridge and even set up a little science lab with a small sink where she would wash her sample jars. And Kate would record everything she saw in her field journals: wood ducks, red wing blackbirds, American goldfinches, mud minnows, and more. No descriptors or details were left out, from the spines on fins, the colours, the sizes, even feathers glued on the pages.

Kate is a young, knowledgeable naturalist, with deep love and curiosity for the natural world. She has translated this passion into lifelong learning and a career. Through this, she is making a contribution to the Great River Rapport.

Kate’s interest in and love of nature dates back as far as she can remember. She grew up on a small 15-acre hobby farm in Williamstown, always spent time outside, and was fascinated by what she could find in her surrounding environment. She watched cartoons related to nature like Zoboomafoo and Wild Kratts and had a messy closet stuffed with backpacks and other supplies for outdoor adventuring. She spent endless hours wading through the stream on the property and took samples from the eight-foot-wide by three-foot-deep pool near the bridge and even set up a little science lab with a small sink where she would wash her sample jars. And Kate would record everything she saw in her field journals: wood ducks, red wing blackbirds, American goldfinches, mud minnows, and more. No descriptors or details were left out, from the spines on fins, the colours, the sizes, even feathers glued on the pages.

This fledgling naturalist never stopped nourishing her hunger for knowledge about the natural world. Starting at age 11, she spent two summers at the River Institute’s “Ecofriends” day camp at Cooper Marsh Conservation Area where she could “touch frogs and do nature-based crafts”. She then transitioned to the Junior Scientist camp at the institute’s headquarters in Cornwall. For the three years she attended, she picked up on the teachings and enthusiasm of Dr. Brian Hickey and revelled in the endless opportunities to set hoop nets, catch turtles, seine for fish, and identify freshwater invertebrates. Dr. Hickey’s hands-on approach to learning science inspired Kate to continue on her path as a naturalist, a person who uses knowledge of natural history to educate others. By the time she was 16, Kate had joined the River Institute (RI) staff as a summer intern. She went on to work at Cooper Marsh as an interpreter for one summer and returned to the RI every year since then to work as a research assistant and field technician. She has worked on several projects and with all her experience, often leads various field crews. A day in her life might look like this: loading the truck and/or boat with equipment, heading out to the site, gearing up with waders, seine netting to catch (and release) minnows, completing water quality surveys, taking water quality measurements, and so on.

Now 23, Kate has recently completed her Bachelor of Science degree majoring in ecology and biodiversity at Bishop’s University and already has her eye on future post-graduate studies.

At 18, Kate received the river award from the institute, an honour presented to those who show leadership in environmental awareness and conservation from the St. Lawrence river and its watersheds.

Though she has worked on a bat project, a walleye contaminant project, and a turtle project, for the past five years Kate has been part of the Fish Identification Nearshore Survey (FINS) team, led by scientist Matt Windle. The project looks to collect baseline information on the status of fish communities and their aquatic habitats, including invasive species and species at risk, as well as bringing awareness to the importance of these fish species to food webs. The project’s dataset includes 130,000 fish in it!

Kate’s passion and inquisitiveness have led her to amass an impressive amount of knowledge about the minnows the FINS team collects. To most people, minnows are minnows but as it turns out, there are many species and Kate is able to identify the nuanced differences between each one. Some young-of-the-year fish that will grow into larger creatures are relatively straightforward to identify. The juvenile yellow perch, for instance, are easy to distinguish from the sunfish because they have separated dorsal fins, not two connected ones.

But being able to distinguish between different species of shiner is trickier and comes down to little clues: black chins, spots on the tails or fins, blunt or pointy noses, and even the quality of the shimmer. Honing in on this type of information and the thrill of discovery continues to excite Kate.

While her work with FINS culminates in a dataset that is shared and used by other scientists in North America, it feeds into the Great River Rapport and is used to develop indicators of the health of the St. Lawrence River ecosystem.

In her relatively short life, Kate has watched the unfolding of changes to the stream where she once primed her passion for the natural world. Her beloved pool is no longer there; neither is the buffer zone that used to be alongside the stream. She knows that with the rise of industrialized farming, people have eschewed traditional and forgotten the importance of hedgerows for windbreaks and buffers for streams that protect areas from overgrowth and too much sediment.

Though the tale of time can be sad, Kate still sees the beauty around her. In another nearby creek where she often visited as a child, she recently saw a black swallowtail caterpillar and netted seven species of fish: golden shiner, common shiner, fathead minnow, creek chub, johnny darter, brook stickleback, white sucker. And she also found a large freshwater mussel a sign that this creek is in good health.

As Kate continues her work as a field biologist, she serves as a reminder to other young naturalists that there is a place in the world for their curiosity and discoveries, too. Whether it’s working for conservation authorities, the government, NGOs, non-profits, or academic institutions as an ecologist, scientist, consultant, educator, policymaker, or communications specialist, there is a need for people who understand, connect with, and strive to protect the natural world. Without them—without nature—we won’t survive.

“You don’t have to grow out of being curious”.

Until she entered the scene, Kate didn’t know a career existed that allowed a person to be curious forever. As it turns out, there are many opportunities.

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Dr. Leigh McGaughey
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

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