by Debbie Beer
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the 550+ refuge system, is not only an Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA), but a critically important resource for hundreds of urban Philadelphia youth who otherwise have little opportunity to experience nature. Refuge staff and volunteers renew their commitment to environmental education with increased outreach to nearby Eastwick schools, to strengthen community connections, and inspire stewardship of the public lands in their own backyard.
Eastwick community teachers, mentors, and leaders are embracing the environmental education opportunities at Heinz Refuge, and working hard to develop processes and programs to engage as many children as possible. PA Young Birders [www.payoungbirders.org] has partnered with the Refuge to help provide bird/nature programming and hands-on leadership with students. On a crisp Autumn day in mid-November 2012, over 35 fifth-grade science-class students walked over to the refuge from nearby Pepper Middle School, to take their science lessons outside! Mariana Bergerson, Deputy Refuge Manager, led a program about solar energy, and I led a bird-nature walk. The students were divided into groups of girls and boys, respectively, and each group experienced both activities.
On the bird-nature walk, we observed with eyes and ears, encountering many experiences to hold our attention, while learning how the refuge's natural habitats provide important resources for a wide variety of wildlife. The girls found a dead mouse on the trail, and after a few initial shrieks, were completely fascinated by the creature, and listened closely as Refuge Manager, Gary Stolz, explained how it might've landed there (likely by a predatory raptor that had caught it, and then dropped it). They observed a Great Blue Heron at close range, marvelling how it stood shock-still for a long time, patiently hunting for fish in the impoundment. The boys discovered several nests visible in the bare trees, including a robin's nest and squirrels' nests made of leaves. They saw pairs of Mallards feeding a few yards away, noting the difference between male and female. A nearby dead Snapping Turtle, with partially exposed shell, sparked an interesting discussion about turtles hibernating in mud; it was likely this individual did not get down deep enough before a cold snap, and it froze to death. Fuzzy poison ivy vines were identified on many trees, and Stinging Nettle plants shown, with their tiny thorns that cause an itch.
All the students collected colorful autumn leaves, mostly Sweet Gum and maple types, and put them into their field journals to make leaf rubbings. The students asked great questions, made astute observations, penned interesting notes and drawings in their journals, and showed great enthusiasm for learning about nature.
I'm amazed by the students' energy, enthusiasm and appreciation for birds, turtles, snakes, trees, plants and habitats. I've heard children say, "I've never been in the woods before," and "this is the best nature walk ever!" I'm delighted to play a role in connecting Eastwick community kids to Heinz Refuge, and inspiring the next generation to be good stewards of our precious public lands, particularly those in urban areas.