Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My New Gig

Trail Through the Woods at Sandy Creek Nature Center

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had some activities in the works and am happy to say that I am now a Volunteer Trail Guide at Sandy Creek Nature Center! My main job will be to take school groups on nature hikes through the park and to help with environmental educations classes inside, too. I love sharing nature with children and I am very excited about this new opportunity.
Claypit Pond (Formed when clay was excavated for a brick factory on the property)

Sandy Creek Nature Center is a county park with a nature center, miles of hiking trails, an ADA interpretive boardwalk, a historic cabin, a bird blind (built by the Audubon Society) and more. The nature center has several classrooms and a large hall with live animals and interpretive stations, as well as a planetarium, a gift shop, and more educational exhibits outdoors. The staff are excellent and welcoming, and they have a wonderful attitude! There is a solid core of volunteers to help with operating the programs. Volunteers assist at the front desk, the gift shop, educational programs, maintaining the trails and much more. The nature center hosts programs all year long and serves as a meeting place for groups such as the local Audubon chapter. Sandy Creek is a vibrant place and I'm so happy to be involved with it.
Audubon Bird Blind on the Pond

Educate by Example--Cistern, Little Library and Mantis made from metal scraps outside the Education Building

Teachable Moment--Poop Info in the Bathrooms!

In preparation for leading my first trip, I have spent many hours exploring and familiarizing myself with the trails. It would not be good to lose a group of kids in the woods! As you can see from the map below, the trails twist and turn to cover most of the property. It would be easy to get turned around. But the intersections are well marked and maintained. I only got lost on the first day, and even then I wasn't too far off.

Map of Sandy Creek

The weather this week has been rainy, so it was overcast when I was on the trail. The cloud cover enhanced the colors of the greens and the browns in the deep woods, and the red Georgia clay looked even redder. It has been a wet year and there is abundant fungus, of all shapes and sizes. Turkey tail fungus sprouts out of downed trees and branches and puffballs and tall mushrooms poke out of the leaf litter. The low light makes it harder to see the birds, but they are there. I heard a Kingfisher clacking near the pond, and Nuthatches, Bluejays, Titmouses, Chickadees, Cardinals and Carolina Wrens were making a racket just about everywhere I walked. I saw a couple of Phoebes, Catbirds, and what I think was a Magnolia Warbler and a Swainson's Thrush. (I need to hook up with those Audubon folks to learn these birds!)

Beautiful Turkey Tail Fungus on a Twig

Swainson's Thrush

Magnolia Warbler

There are often a few frogs and toads on the trail and I saw one fast Red Bellied Snake (about 8 inches long). Down at the pond, I finally saw a turtle. I've been shadowing school groups for the past few weeks and the noise usually scares off wildlife, especially turtles. Sometimes we get lucky, though. On the hikes we try not to dwell on danger or fear in the outdoors, but it is smart to be aware of likely hazards such as poison ivy, which is abundant. We teach them the old "leaves of three" rhyme, but Sandy Creek has also added "hairy is scary" because the vines don't always have leaves, such in the winter or fall, and sometimes the leaves are high up in the tree canopy. But the vines are distinctively hairy. I saw one yesterday that looked like an animal pelt!

Tiny Red Bellied Snake

Painted Turtle Basking

Hairy is Scary
I passed numerous squirrels and surprised a group of 3 deer. It always makes me laugh when they snort and stomp their hooves. They just don't seem that scary. They are big, though, and if they weren't deer, I'd be more cautious around them. But they're about as scary as rabbits. The pond has a beaver lodge, and it would be great to see a beaver sometime. They are mostly nocturnal, though, so chances are slim on field trip days.

Someone is Watching Me

Beaver Gnaws--They girdle big trees to encourage small, tasty sprouts

One of the trails in the park leads through a small section of restored Piedmont Prairie. According to the interpretive sign, prairies (De Soto called the "savannas") were once much more common in the Southeast. Native Americans used them for farming and hunting and they managed the land with fires to inhibit dense plant growth. Over time, prairie plants and animals from the midwest migrated and adapted to the area. With the arrival of European settlers, that management by fire ended and forests encroached on what was previously prairie. The restored area is small, but it is a beautiful example of the difference fire makes in a landscape.

Restored Prairie

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum sp.) After the Rain

Luna Moth found on a Field Trip

Gold Moth Caterpillar on Frostweed

The park is in the process of implementing a management plan to improve habitats for wildlife and the health of the forest. It involves eradicating invasive plants, thinning of trees, prescribed burning and replanting for more diversity. It will be exciting to be able to watch the changes from the beginning. I helped out with a program at the park last weekend called "Forest Fun Day" to increase public awareness of the importance of forests and of the new management plan at Sandy Creek. I went on a hike led by a forester who explained how the general health and diversity of the woods could be improved with the removal of invasive plants and the use of prescribed fire. Crews have already begun cutting down Privet and Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) and plowing fire breaks. The cut vegetation will provide fuel to keep the fire burning across the forest floor.

Ephemeral Forest Art by Chris Taylor ("Portal"), at the Forest Fun Day

Invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) Cut and Waiting to Burn

Forest Plan Interpretive Signs on Trail
I'm learning a lot and I have a lot more to learn, and it feels great to get back into environmental education. There is nothing like seeing that spark of excitement when a child discovers something amazing in nature. I can't wait for tomorrow!

A Child's Collection from a Forest Scavenger Hunt
(Many thanks to Rex Rowan for helping me identify the wildlife!)


  1. This "big kid" wants to explore the nature trail soon! Learned a lot just by reading your post. Have fun today!

  2. Sounds like a deal, Janet! Let's make a date. Thank you for reading!