OTTUMWA — Faith Henrichs has less than a month under her belt as the naturalist for the Wapello County Conservation Board, but she’s very excited about the opportunity.
“This is my dream position,” she said. “I like the variety of programs we’re able to have here, and the community involvement seems really high.”
Henrichs started in the new position Jan. 4. The Muscatine graduate received her bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University in the Quad Cities with a major in recreation, parks, tourism and administration with a minor in environmental studies. She comes to Wapello County from her service as an AmeriCorps volunteer as an environmental educator at the Scott County Nature Center.
The variety of wildlife in Wapello County appealed to her, such as the box turtle populations near Eddyville and presence of a population of eastern hog nose, a snake species that’s threatened in Iowa, at Pioneer Ridge. The nature center is also classified as an Important Bird Area with the documentation’s of unique bird species, such as the white-eyed vireo and Henslow’s sparrows, also a state-threatened species.
Lots of different bird species come through the area, Henrichs said, particularly gulls and bald eagles. “People come from all over the U.S. to look at our gulls,” she said. “About every species comes through here, I’ve heard but have yet to witness.”
She also knows about the opportunity for eagle watching. “This is a good place for that,” Henrichs said. “It’s so special. It’s something that we may take for granted, but it’s pretty unique to be able to look up and see all the trees covered in eagles.”
She said she doesn’t care how many times she sees one, she’ll always stop and watch the eagles fly if she sees one. “I’m that way with any raptor. I think raptors are majestic.”
Henrichs said she’s had a passion for nature “ever since I was a tiny tot.”
She said growing up, her and her brother spent a lot of time outside climbing trees and playing in a mud pit in their yard. They had an aunt who babysat them and loved the outdoors and would take them on walks and visits to nature areas. “I think that’s really where my passion sparked,” she said. “The excitement of finding bugs, seeing animals and just being able to get dirty.”
She also reflected on field trips she was able to take in school.
“I remember my first experience canoeing with the naturalist and seeing the salamander and the red-tail hawk. It’s crazy that I can remember that from third grade. That just speaks to the impression you can make,” she said. “It’s really fulfilling to be able to give that experience to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have that. That’s what makes it special — the impact you can have on a person and their passion as well as having a positive impact on nature and the land.”
With COVID-19, some of those opportunities to engage the kids have looked different than what she — and the students — are used to. She’s been contacting area school districts and working on putting together some virtual programs that can still be interactive. “That way, you’re still able to get that interaction since they’re not able to go on field trips.”
She’s also hoping to put together some day camps for spring break to help keep kids active as well as more public programming.
“We provide, I believe, a very important service to the community,” she said, especially during the pandemic. “The one place where it’s safe to be right now is the outdoors. It gets you moving and it’s good for your mental well-being. That can be your escape.”
But, Henrichs said, the pandemic is also providing challenges. Aside from not being able to go into the schools like normal, it’s proving difficult to get a true sense of things. She does, however, look forward to meeting and working with the people in the community.
“It’s very nice. People seem to be very interested in what we’re doing here, and that’s promising,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s also spending time at the nature center getting to know her new role — and some of the animals now in her charge, including some turtles, hissing cockroaches and a tarantula.
“The tarantula is the only one here I don’t have experience working with,” she said. She admitted that working with the spider is a bit nerve-wracking, but she’s trying to learn from the experience, speaking to the misconceptions people can have about spiders, snakes and other “creepy-crawlies.”
“I find that if you try to understand an animal’s motivation, they become less scary. You can understand them and those behaviors,” she said. “Every day is something new as a naturalist. You’re never too old to stop learning.”