One of Canada's Premier Birding and Nature Festivals

Archive for May 17th, 2014


leave a comment »

Matt Cunliffe is Natural Heritage Education Leader at MacGregor Point Provincial Park. If you’re registered for any Huron Fringe event you’ll no doubt see him and his team doing everything they can to make your visit and event as enjoyable as possible. He is leading Wonders of the Wetland on Day One of the Festival…but sadly its full. Nonetheless you’ll get a good idea of Matt’s personality in the field when you read the following. We asked him how he came to think like a raccoon and this is his story.

MattEven as a kid my ‘playground’ was the outdoors. My mom ran a daycare centre in Kincardine and to escape the noise I would often play in the backyard. On top of that I grew up in the cottage community, Point Clark. There weren’t many children there, and being the eldest of three boys living in a cottage that makes the Visitor Centre look spacious, I spent most of my time exploring the shoreline and small-forested areas around me. I have always been interested in animal behaviour, as a child, often spending hours sitting in an area making notes on what critters I saw and what they seemed to be doing.

I didn’t realize it growing up, but I was also conducting informal pond studies with my brothers. We would go for long hikes along the shoreline often stopping to turn over rocks to see what was hiding underneath in the water. We would each make predictions before turning over a rock, with the victor gaining bragging rights until the next stone. I was desperate for a job after my first year of University and thinking I would try my hand at food service industry, when a friend of mine mentioned MacGregor Point Park. He had spent the year before building bikes for the Park Store’s (then) new bike rental program and had gotten to know some of the student interpretive aides who worked out of the Visitor Centre (VC). He said something along the lines of “Every time we’re out on a trail, you’re going off about some plant that does this or some animal that does that; if you worked at the VC you’d have people actually listening to your trivia!” A friendly jab at the time, but it did get me thinking, what a fun, different type of summer job this could be.

At the time I was determined to become an elementary school teacher, which only made applying make more sense. In no time I had my resume into the park and began to check in (maybe a little too regularly) to see if they had scheduled interviews yet. After weeks of anxious waiting, and the strangest interview questions I had heard for a job yet, I received a phone call asking when I could start. I started working for MacGregor Point Provincial Park late spring of 200, and after 8 fantastic years – I have yet to look back.

Now, that one question that really floored me, the one that I thought my answer had lost me the employment opportunity was, “if you were to choose one animal to represent your personality, what would it be and why?”

I froze. I laughed nervously. I meekly asked for some time to collect my thoughts. I know now that this wasn’t a graded question. (Thank goodness).

It was just Norah Toth trying to gain some insight into the natural heritage knowledge of the interviewee…that would be me.

No, I didn’t mention a unique/rare species of the park, nor the Redstart the ‘flag-bird’ for the Huron Fringe Birding Festival. For a moment I drew a blank Knowing I had to answer, I felt being honest would be the best action.  “A raccoon I suppose…” was all I could say.

After some light chuckling I was asked why. “Well,” I answered. “To start, I am certain you have them here.” No laughter… now I was nervous (for those of you that know me well, my humour is always funny to me, but it fades in and out with everyone else). “… I, um… They work well in teams, yet are great problem solvers as individuals, they are constantly on some task, or will actively find one, and ah… if you leave any food out, odds are I will eat it.” I guess Norah found my final comment humorous after all.

Throughout my eight seasons at the Park I have worked in a number of roles. Year one I was a Natural Heritage Education (NHE) Aide working for the Friends of MacGregor Point Park. I assisted with programs for the public and eventually lead my own by the end of my first season. Year two I was hired by both the Friends and the Park as a Campfire Program Leader with Rye Witter which lead to an almost ‘stand-up comedy’ routine that we would weave into our interpretive programming. If people weren’t in stiches learning about animal defences or the bazar insects of the park then we felt we weren’t doing our job properly. I mean, campfire are supposed to be fun!

My third year truly set me on my current path though. I was asked if I’d be interested in acting as the NHE supervisor for a season to gain more responsibility and better hone my leadership skills. I accepted graciously and immediately knew this is what I wanted to do.

Year four I was successful in the competition for the Supervisor role and I thought this is it.

Year six my supervisor and mentor, Norah Toth, retired and I was again asked to act (or back-fill) a position. I jumped at the opportunity and have been working in that capacity since.

I’ve spent most of my life close to Bruce County. I’m onto my ninth year at the Park.

For an up-close look at the what you can expect to experience at this year’s Huron Fringe Birding Festival click on:

Recognized as One of Ontario's Top 100 Festivals

Recognized as One of Ontario’s Top 100 Festivals