The Nature Corner: Kids encountering nature

Published 12:11 pm Tuesday, August 7, 2018

By Ernie Marshall

A Time for Science Nature and Science Learning Center has a building on Dickinson Avenue in downtown Greenville for exhibits and programs for the public, but also a lesser known 380-acre site 11 miles south of Greenville. It consists of lots of woods and other habits, ponds and Contentnea Creek for kayaking, and trails for hiking and exploring. So it’s a great place for kids and adults alike to get acquainted with what can be discovered out there in the natural world.

I have had the good fortune to assist with the science day camp the center holds each summer. Here is my report for this year’s adventure this June, some recollections and impressions.

There were about a dozen youngsters of late grade school age, all eager to get started. After a brief orientation from me, we headed out on one of the hiking trails.

First, I introduced them to a few hazards to be met with in nature, things hands-off rather than hands-on. There aren’t many, nature is mostly a friendly place.

Snakes: There are about two dozen species of snakes in this part of our state, but only three are venomous: the copperhead, cottonmouth, and rattlesnake (the Canebrake rattlesnake, a regional subspecies of the timber rattlesnake). So the odds of a dangerous encounter with a snake are fairly slim.

Happily nature supplied a good example. As we crossed the footbridge from the road to a hiking trail, one of my sharp-eyed budding naturalists points and cries out, “There’s a snake.” It was a red-bellied water snake, which is harmless but somewhat resembling a cottonmouth and sharing its habitat. My directive on snakes is just leave it alone and keep your distance, especially if you are not sure whether or not it is venomous.

Ticks: Ticks are far more common than snakes and many carry and transmit dangerous diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. By staying on the trail and not walking through leaf litter and tall grass you can generally avoid picking up any ticks. As a precaution, later shower and check yourself over for any ticks that might have hitched a ride home with you.

Poison ivy: This plant abounds in our region and many people have a severe allergic reaction to it by way of a very painful and rash.

We didn’t have to look far to find poison ivy beside the trail, and nearby, Virginia creeper. Both grow as vines or spread by runners on the ground and look alike – except poison ivy has three leaves and Virginia creeper has five. “Leaves three leave it be; leaves five let it thrive.”

Biting bugs: Plenty of insects, such as bees, wasps and ants, have a rather painful sting. But most are plant pollinators and don’t sting unless disturbed, so I count them among our animal friends.

Midway through the walk we came upon a velvet ant crossing our path. It looks like a large, hairy, bright orange and black ant, but is actually a wingless wasp. A folk name for this insect is “cow killer,” an exaggeration of course but it (the female actually) is reported to have the most painful sting of any insect. We decided to let it pass and not find out. Just follow the rule of “Look and see, but let it be.”

As we continued along the trail we came across more critters and many signs of them. Attached to a leaf was the “shell” or exoskeleton of a cicada. The insect grows a new “skin” and crawls out of the old one through a slit down its back. A replica of the animal remains, including details such as it large eyes. This insect is best known for the loud churring “song” (or racket depending on the ear of the beholder) that announces the beginning of summer. (They are often called “locusts”, but that name better applies to grasshoppers.)

Among the animal “signs” we found were deer and raccoon tracks; where a raccoon (most likely) had dug up a turtle’s eggs, eating the contents of the eggs and scattering the shells; neat rows of holes drilled by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, to consume the tree sap and also insects that show up for the oozing sap; and a pointed stump with teeth marks left by a beaver “crewing down” (felling) a tree.

We saw and heard birds, green herons, an osprey, several songbird species, and a red-shouldered hawk, the large hawk indigenous to wooded wetlands. An alert lass in pigtails and green sneakers that lit up when she walked was good at spotting birds for us.

I introduced the kids to how to sort out the performers in the symphony of bird song. There are “name sayers”, like the Carolina chickadee, with its cheerful “chickadee-dee-dee” tune, and the “jay, jay, jay” call of the sassy blue jay. I had them come up with their own mnemonics. A redhead in an Eastern Elementary t-shirt went with “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” over “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” for a Carolina wren.

At the beginning of the walk a wide-eyed girl in a Go Pirates cap somewhat nervously said to me, “I’ve never been in the woods before.” At the end I asked her, “Well, how was your walk in the woods?”

“Awesome!” she exclaimed.

[By all means, read The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, on the benefits to children of exposing them to nature.]

Questions, comments, criticisms? Contact the author at marshalle@ecu.edu. Check out my blog, ecmnaturecorner.wordpress.com.