Fall Programs Recap & Wrap-up — From the Rookie’s Point of View

By Dahna Kreger, Intern Naturalist

For the River Bend naturalist staff, early November can bring either a much welcome break from long hours of wall-to-wall programming; or it can signal the beginning of a lengthy period of down-time that for some may elicit an uprising of pending doom from the gut.  I feel that this primarily applies to me, because of my complete and total inability to sit still for any length of time.  Nonetheless, I am excited to see what projects we will create to keep occupied when not entrenched in the few programs that we’ll be working on during the winter months…

In light of the recent change in our office atmosphere, moving from cyclical chaos and relative calm to one of more consistent calm and placidity, I have luckily been able to complete a blog post during the latter period.  And perhaps because I mourn the end of fall programming, that is the subject to which it is dedicated.

Recap – here is a run-down of the programs we have completed in the last two months:

  • Kindergarten:  Seasons and Senses
  • First Grade:  Homes and Habitats
  • Second Grade:  Seeds of Life
  • Third Grade:  Nature Pyramid
  • Fourth Grade:  Prairie Biome
  • Fifth Grade (Owatonna):  Soils and Erosion
  • Fifth Grade (Faribault):  Aquatic and Ecosystem Research
  • Sixth Grade:  Decomposition

Each brought its own set of challenges, and more frequently, rewards!  As a total greenhorn, I found myself plunged face-first into the fast-paced flow of fall programming at River Bend.  Nervous and stressed at the onset, I quickly built my confidence as a public speaker and group manager.  At least, I think I successfully managed to grow in these areas… my greatest joy of all however- other than the breadth of content and material I learned, in addition to having a fantastic opportunity to work with some wonderfully knowledgeable and exceptionally bright people- was being able to hang out with kids every day, and once again be able to see life through the fresh and curious eyes of a child.  Although I don’t think I had much of a problem doing that anyway, some might argue.

I like to start with favorites, so I’ll begin with my favorite of the fall programs.  I found that I had the most fun with younger kids, and I had a blast working with the kindergarteners during their “Seasons and Senses” program.  For this one, the kids come to River Bend with their class during the fall, winter, and spring; each time visiting their special “kinderspots” which are small areas of either forest or prairie that the groups will track changes with over time using their senses of sight, sound, touch, hearing, and even taste (within reason!).  Each group had an opportunity to visit Turtle Pond.  The clever names always got the kids extremely excited, and it was so fun to see their reactions during the introduction.  The spots were called:  Fuzzy Bunny Boulevard, Raccoon Hollow, Spiderweb Square, and Butterfly AlleyI can’t wait for them to come back in late January!

Another program I found very enjoyable was the Fifth Grade Aquatic and Ecosystem Research.  For this program, students learned how to identify and analyze the different factors that impact the health of an aquatic ecosystem and how to test for them.  The students got to perform some very legitimate tests – including dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH, and even building filters that might help clean up dirtied water.  A collective favorite though was critter catching, where the students would use dip nets to capture insects and other small animals inhabiting each of the ponds where we conducted the testing.  It was always a highlight to find exceptionally large water beetles in Turtle Pond, or tiny fish swimming around in the hidden ponds tucked away in Owl Valley.   That one really shocked us, since no one really thought that fish could grow in such a small space with very few resources.  We naturalists did encounter a rather intimidating water beetle with one of the groups – it must have had a length of about 3.5 inches, including its pincers.  We kept it in a small container to show the classes coming later that afternoon, but it had escaped into the building at Trailside while we were away at lunch!  I still wonder where it might be lurking…

At this point it becomes very difficult for me to choose favorites, so perhaps continuing in chronological order might be best…

Fourth grade marked the beginning of our fall programming in early September with their study of the prairie biome.  The students were split up into pairs within small groups, and each pair was assigned to a square-shaped plot out in our prairie to conduct some basic scientific tests; such as temperature of soil and plant mass (both in the actual prairie and in the mowed trails), identifying plants and determining how common they are at River Bend, and finally catching insects in nets and jars to see what kinds of critters thrive in our mixed-grass prairie.  Again the students tended to most enjoy the critter-catching.  Sometimes, though, complete and total pandemonium would ensue whenever a bee was found and even caught in a jar… it would often become difficult to restore order after this happened, but we always managed to get everyone back on track.  To achieve this, one of the naturalist staff would “dispose” of the offending bee far off into the woods, or just release it back into the air when no one was looking.

Prairie

The River Bend prairie that the fourth graders surveyed.

Nature Pyramid

The nature pyramid helps us organize the different levels of the food chain. In this program students learned how to categorize the animals they found.

Third graders came next with their study of the Nature Pyramid.  This one was very enjoyable for the children, since it too involved a lot of log and rock rolling to search for insects.  The goal of this unit was to help students better understand each living thing’s place in nature, how abundant they are, and comprehension of the idea that nature is sustained through food chains such as the Nature Pyramid.  My personal favorite was looking for insects in the forest – since we frequently found very large millipedes that children interpreted as freaky and cool.  While they are completely safe to handle, some children opted out of that since it does feel a little funny to have a thing crawling on you that has a hundred tiny little legs, and will likely poo on your hand since it’s scared.  Overall the children did very well at categorizing where each animal belonged on the pyramid, and they especially got a kick when they realized that they too belonged on there – we’re the top dog at the highest tier!

Second graders came to us next for their Seeds of Life Program.  This one was always enjoyable to do – especially early on when we had lots of “poppers” and “hitchhikers” for the kids!  In this unit, we introduce the kids to the idea of adaptations.  That is, things that help a plant or animal survive in its habitat.  We use seeds as examples of different adaptations.  There are four different types of seeds:  hitch-hikers stick to fur, feathers, or clothing to later fall off at a new place; droppers simply fall to the ground, however animals usually carry them to other places; poppers burst from their seed container to spread away from the plant; and flyers are carried through the air by the wind by their wings or feathery parachutes.  Pretty much across the board everyone loved milkweed pods the best – finding the downy fluff scattered across the ground or still encased within the pod.  Of course, there were always those few children who would pluck a whole pod right off the plant and pocket it, and maybe one of the group leaders would discover it later on, or parents much later on at home… but I never really minded this because they loved it so much; how soft and feathery they felt, and how easily they blew away in the wind!  I remember loving that as a child, and even still today it brings me irrational amounts of joy.

Milkweed

Milkweed – flyer
*This is a tricky one; many believe that it is a popper, and while the pod does pop open, the seeds themselves fly out of the pod to distribute themselves.

This brings us to the concluding weeks of our fall programs, in which we had sixth graders and first graders coming to visit us!  The two programs did end up overlapping just a bit, however I always appreciate a little variety in the workweek, so I didn’t mind this at all and I am sure that none of the other naturalists did either.   At this point though I think we were all beginning to get a little tired, and were more or less looking forward to having a break coming up…

Beginning with sixth grade — this unit was all about decomposition, and introducing/reinforcing the concept behind and importance of using the scientific method.  In this unit, the goal was to have students be able to distinguish between producers, consumers, and decomposers; identify the non-living parts of cycles in natures (air, water, sunlight, rocks), and to review a food chain/web — either theoretical or observed that incorporates all the components of a nutrient cycle.  I had a total blast with this program!  I had been anticipating grumpy cantankerous pre-adolescent children giving me attitude and spewing out negativity about whatever I’d try to say to them.  And, I ended up with slightly cantankerous pre-adolescent children who got surprisingly excited about things like moss, lichen, and fungi.  For the program, the students were split up into pairs and groups — of which we had a total of four.  These included fungi, moss, lichen, middens and arthropods.  Of course being the leader of the midden/arthropod group often proved to be a significant advantage when it came to keeping everyone engaged and interested in what you were doing, I found.  On the first day of this unit, my group found a wolf spider and a unique species of millipede that still had a predominantly black body, but yellow and orange legs!

Nerstrand First Graders

Nerstrand first graders – showing off their pretend “squirrel” food caches of hickory nuts and basswood seeds!

Finally this leaves the first graders and their homes and habitats unit.  I know that I’ve said this about pretty much every program so far, but this one was really a lot of fun!  For this unit, the goal was to get the children to understand that a habitat is more than just where an animal can build its home. It is also a certain area where an animal prefers to live, and can find everything that it needs to survive.  An integral part of this program was reinforcing the four things that animals need to survive in their habitats – food, water, shelter, and space.  We went out in groups to investigate “evidence” of an animal’s presence – we asked them, “What would the animals have left behind in their homes or habitats?”  We were looking for things like tracks, scat, fur, feathers, scratch marks from claws, hollows in trees, and even bones.  We did have a couple of places where  we had intentionally hid animal bones – everyone really got a kick out of that!  And just because the kids are so adorable, I am including a few snapshots of some of the groups who came for this program.

Caitlin & first graders

Naturalist Caitlin Savage leading a group of first graders from Lincoln through our prairie!

As I finish this write-up, I have to say that thinking about all these programs that have passed us by has made me a little sentimental… but at least the naturalist staff gets to see everyone again in the spring!  And, after already halfway through the first week of no programming, I am doing well with the decreased activity levels of hectic-ness, and I have to say I think everyone else is too.

Dahna Kreger is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Give to the Max For River Bend

It’s just hours away: Give to the Max Day in Minnesota! Give to the Max Day is one day dedicated just to giving, to making monetary donations to your favorite nonprofit organizations. We hope that River Bend makes it on that list of your favorite nonprofits and that you are making plans to donate on Thursday.  We think River Bend Nature Centeris a tremendous asset to our community but maybe you’d like to know a bit more about us before you make a financial commitment to our organization? Then, read on and we’ll tell you a bit about ourselves and how your support makes our work possible.

Students explore the river

River Bend students hike down to the Straight River to discover what happens when the ice breaks up in spring.

The dream of a nature center in Rice County started with Orwin Rustad, a Faribault native, St. Olaf College grad, and long-time field biology teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Orwin spent his youth exploring the lands that then belonged to the Faribault Regional Center and his explorations taught him a deep love of the natural world. When the state made plans to close the Regional Center, Orwin wanted to preserve the land he loved and so he enlisted the help of other Faribault citizen-leaders to help him bring his dream to fruition. Orwin believed strongly in connecting students to nature, in getting them outdoors to make first person observations of the plants and animals that live there, and didn’t feel that a true appreciation of nature could be cultivated in a classroom.  From Orwin Rustad’s vision for a nature interpretive center to the nature center that exists today, River Bend has at its core a mission to teach people of all ages an appreciation of the natural world so that they can enjoy it and preserve it.

Students discover wildlife

These preschool students at summer camp observe a small toad discovered in the prairie.

One major way that River Bend Nature Center fulfills its educational mission is through partnerships with area schools. Thousands of students visit River Bend every year including kindergarten through sixth grade students from Faribault schools who each visit us two to three times during the year as part of their science curriculum. Students get hands on field experience learning about a diverse array of topics. Kindergarten students explore nature with their senses and watch how nature changes throughout the school year. First graders learn what an animal needs to survive in its habitat and they look for signs of the animals that live at River Bend.  Second graders learn about adaptations by discovering seeds and their different methods of dispersal, whether it’s hitching a ride to a passing animal or catching a breeze and sailing away.  These are just three examples of the topics students learn about at River Bend. Many other schools visit River Bend each school year and our talented program coordinators tailor programs to meet each groups’ educational needs. There is so much to find out about nature that the possibilities for learning are endless!

Recreation at River Bend

River Bend offers everyone the chance to discover nature by being open to the public free of charge every day of the year. We have trails for hiking, walking, running, biking, skiing, and snowshoeing.

Another way that River Bend helps people discover the natural world is by providing public access to our lands. We have miles of trails that are multi-use, we want people to enjoy nature in whatever way appeals to them most, so we encourage walking, hiking, running, biking, and (leashed) dog walking on our trails. In the winter many of our trails are available for cross-country skiers and we rent snowshoes so people can go off-trail to make new nature discoveries. Our Windows on the Wild backyard feeding area is an area accessible to anyone who wants to watch wildlife up close in the comfort of our Interpretive Center.  There is something about being active in nature or just being observant in nature that appeals to something in the human soul, it reminds us we are part of something so much bigger than any individual, and allows us to learn about and appreciate the natural world in new ways.

River Bend Nature Center was intentionally configured to be an independent nonprofit, supported by donations and memberships and not dependent on the whims of city or state financing to support itself. What this means is that to accomplish our educational mission we need your support.  Please contribute whatever amount you are able to help us continue to provide educational opportunities for area school children allowing them to make first-hand scientific discoveries in our forest, prairies, and wetlands.  If you enjoy the recreational opportunities that River Bend offers free of charge every day of the year through access to our trails and lands, please make a donation.  If you can help us fund the upkeep and maintenance of our important but aging buildings, please make a donation.  If you or your children have enjoyed an educational program or special event at River Bend, please make a donation and tell your children why you’re donating so they have your example to follow when the next generation is entrusted with supporting our nature center.  River Bend will continue to be a vital asset to our community if you give your support on Give to the Max Day and every day!

To schedule or make a Give to the Max Day donation, please visit: http://givemn.razoo.com/riverbendmn.  To find out more about River Bend Nature Center, visit us on the web: http://www.rbnc.org, on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/riverbendMN, and on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/riverbendmn.

Five Fun Fall Things to do at River Bend

By Jill Engle, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

Broad-winged hawk

A broad-winged hawk is easier to spot once the trees drop their leaves.

Now that the temperatures have started to get frosty and the landscape’s palette has turned to shades of brown and tan and is no longer orange, red, yellow, and green, it must be time for me to admit that the fall season is here. While some of us may start to have that animal instinct to hide away in our homes hibernating until the warm weather returns (me!), we should resist our instincts by zipping up our polar fleeces, reminding ourselves that in spring this will be shorts and flip-flop weather, and heading out to enjoy some of the autumn activities that nature and River Bend have to offer.  So here it is, my top five list of fun fall things to do at River Bend Nature Center.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed juncos are “snow birds” that overwinter in Minnesota.

5.  Wildlife Walk: The majority of River Bend’s trees have dropped their leaves and that makes this a perfect time of year to take a wildlife-spotting walk in the woods. Owls, hawks, and other birds of prey are easier to spy high in the barren tree branches than when they were camouflaged in summer leaves. Salamanders are a common sight this time of year as they move away from their summer habitats in search of safe spots to hibernate this

Salamander

Salamanders are a common sight this time of year as they search for safe spots to hibernate.

winter. Keep an eye out for flocks of smaller birds who are preparing to migrate; groups of robins are around and many sparrow species are stopping by feeders on their way south. Just so we don’t feel abandoned, the dark-eyed juncos have returned to our area for the winter, we’re “south” for them! Go figure.

4.  Fossil Hunt: With recent lack of rain now is a great time to take your family down to the Straight River to explore its banks. A nice place to start your exploration is just below the Honor Point overlook. Discoveries along the river include interesting rocks, shells, bones, driftwood, and fossils.  You’re not likely to find a T-Rex bone

River bank shell finds

Shells found along the banks of the Straight River.

but River Bend was once located on a very different part of the planet and was covered by oceans so you are likely to find the fossils of ocean creatures like gastropods, brachiopods, corals, and more. We have a helpful brochure available that describes the different types of fossils you may find on your river search.  Please remember everything found at River Bend needs to stay at River Bend and cannot be taken home for your collection so be sure to bring your camera to take pictures of your finds.

3.  Go to a Public Program: River Bend public programs happen all year, cover a range of topics, and often have a seasonal theme. If you love birds, our free Bagels & Birds program is held on the first Saturday of each month. Beginning November 3rd and continuing into

Milkweed seeds

Milkweed seed pods open to spread their fluffy seeds across the prairie.

winter is a three-part cross-country ski series taught by Zach Hudson, intern naturalist and assistant coach for the St. Olaf ski team. Program coordinator Elaine Loranz will lead adults in a hike to learn to identify and arrange “Winter Weeds” on November 17th.  Crafty types will enjoy “DIY Up-cycled Winter Crafts” with program coordinator Sarah Shimek on December 15th.  Finally, to celebrate (or mourn) the end of fall and beginning of winter you are invited to attend the “Winter Solstice Celebration” on December 21st.  Details about all of these programs can be found on our web site.

2. Glowing Prairie Stroll: Our prairies are a little bit past their prime in terms of blooms and new growth but many prairie plants are fulfilling their biological imperative and are spreading their seeds. Take a stroll

Glowing grass on the prairie

Prairie grass lights up in the low afternoon sunshine across the prairie.

through the prairie and you’ll notice the fluffy white seeds of quite a few different plants like milkweed, thistle, and goldenrod. When I walk along Prairie Loop trail, I love to grab a milkweed seed pod, pull out some seeds, hold my hand high in the air, and then watch the seeds fly away imagining the plants they will become next summer. The prairie grasses are also worth stopping to see in the late afternoon hours as the low sun shines

Horse-drawn wagon rides

Horse-drawn wagon rides at Bats, Bones & Bonfires.

across the prairie because the grass seed heads light up like thousands of tiny little chandeliers glowing on beautiful red and brown stems.

1.  Bats, Bones & Bonfires – October 27th, 4-8pm: The top spot on my fun fall things list has to be reserved for our annual Halloween festival Bats, Bones & Bonfires. This event is designed to be fun (not scary) for all ages of Halloween aficionados.  Attractions include horse-drawn wagon rides, a yucky nature

Jack O' Lantern Contest

Help us fill our Jack O’ Lantern trail with pumpkins by entering your Jack O’ Lanterns in our contest.

haunted house, a bouncy house, and much more. New this year will be belly dancers,  fire spinners, and costume portraits by Katie Brien Photography. Enter your pumpkin in our Jack O’ Lantern contest for a chance to win a prize. Buy hot dogs and s’mores to cook over our campfires (or buy pre-cooked). Other yummy food and drinks will also be available. Before you head home be sure to stop and pick up free goody bags for your kids!  Admission is $4 per person with kids 2 and under free. River Bend members get in free with their member card. This enjoyable, budget-friendly event should be on every family’s “must-do” list this fall.

Jill Engle is the marketing & communications coordinator for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact her at engle@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.