Nature in their own back yard

MARSHALL – It’s not every day that kids willingly drop down on the ground to sniff yellow snow, but Samuel Lutheran School students eagerly did just that during a birdwatching and animal tracking lesson Tuesday at the Wayside Rest Park near Marshall.

While the experiment involved scent detecting, the source of the yellow snow was actually artificially produced as part of the educational program offered by Prairie Ecology Bus Center (PEBC), which is a state-of-the-art school, mobile scientific laboratory and classroom designed to educate children and adults about the environmental and natural sciences.

Since PEBC travels to natural areas near the participating schools, the Samuel School sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, along with their teacher John Festerling, had the opportunity to learn right in their own back yard basically. PEBC director Chrystal Dunker and staff naturalists Alisha Flemming and Clay Steele were present Tuesday to guide the group.

“It was really fun and interesting, with all the birds and animals and stuff,” sixth-grader Kristina Hagberg said.

Students began the day by learning about birdwatching.

“Try to pick out three things,” Dunker said as she randomly selected bird photos to display on the monitors inside the bus.

After the students got a glimpse of the bird photo, they began paging through their pocket-sized bird books to find the correct species.

“It’s a black-capped chickadee,” Dylan Criquet-Danielson said.

As the students looked in their books to find the next one, a white-breasted nuthatch, Dunker pointed out the bird’s physical characteristics and strange behavior.

“It has a bowl-shaped bottom side and a pointy tail,” she said. “Its beak is also up, like a snobby little bird. It also has an unusual behavior. It starts at the top of tree and goes down the tree, eating upside down.”

Dunker also had the students identify the goldfinch during the winter months, as well as a female cardinal, prompting them to question why the males are so much more colorful than the females.

“It’s so the females don’t attract much attention when they’re sitting on eggs,” Samuel MacArthur said.

Dunker agreed, adding that after mating season is over, there is no need for the male to look flashy.

“The dull female colors are great camouflage for nesting,” she said. “The males are the ones that attract the most attention.”

After leaving the bus, students soon learned about bird-calling, which demanded that they use their sense of hearing. Paired up in groups, the students practiced the bird call they were given via a random card.

“Jay, jay, jay, jay,” MacKenzie Schultz and Criquet-Danielson said.

Flemming then explained that the bluejay was the “watchdog of the forest” because it typically alerts new arrivals to the area.

“The bluejay is loud and annoying,” she said.

After the students took their turn at making bird calls, including the chickadee, downy woodpecker, cardinal, nuthatch and gold finch, they listened to audio versions of each bird. Then they moved on to the next lesson, which involved the sense of smell.

“There are 16 flags, and each random canister is going to match four of them,” Steele said of the 16 yellow snow areas marked by numbered flags. “You have to smell all the yellow snow.”

The four scents included vinegar, peppermint, black licorice and eucalyptus (Vicks Vapor Rub). Of the four students who correctly identified all four of their scents, Schultz was the first one to finish, followed by Riley Swanson.

Dunker then led the students through a “Tracking 101” lesson, noting that in addition to seeing, hearing and smelling, the students would also be checking for signs in nature.

“If animals eat, they have to poop or they’ll die,” she said. “We call that scat.”

Dunker showed fake versions of scat to point out the differences that herbivores, carnivores and omnivores leave behind.

“Omnivores have the most-disgusting scat,” Dunker said. “That includes animals like coons, possums, skunks and humans, too.”

Noting that birds shed feathers and animals shed fur, Dunker also pointed out that deer shed antlers every year.

“The antlers are made up of calcium, so sometimes you see squirrels chewing on them to get the minerals off of it,” she said.

After learning how to adjust and focus binoculars that were handed out to each student, the group took off for a hike through the woods. Working in pairs, the students were required to list all the signs they spotted along the way.

“I heard a woodpecker,” Jordyn Lanoye-Guerrero said. “We saw and heard a woodpecker.”

After Dunker pointed out an “apartment building,” which was constructed by woodpeckers, the students walked by a number of trees that had their roots exposed.

“Is that erosion that caused that?” Hagberg said to Dunker, who acknowledged that it was.

The group saw a variety of other birds, including a white egret, a warbler, a cardinal and a grackle. A few even caught a glimpse of a bald eagle before it flew out of sight. The students also heard a number of birds and other sounds in nature.

“I liked learning the sounds of birds and what they do,” Hagberg said. “The best part was going on the hike and writing down what we heard and saw.”

Festerling estimated that it had been about 10 years since students had the opportunity to participate in a PEBC program or activity. A grant allowed the students to have access to the educational experience on Tuesday, he said.

“It’s just fabulous to get the kids out here and teach them things,” Festerling said. “It’s not about walking through nature and ignoring it, but seeing and hearing things. It’s great.”

Flemming agreed.

“It’s amazing, when you just sit down, listen and watch, what you’re going to find out here in nature,” she said.