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Educator Treks — Spring 2013

May 31, 2013

Over the course of the spring, educators from across North Carolina have joined Museum staff on a number of Educator Treks to natural areas in the southeast. These treks provide educators — classroom teachers, administrators, and non-formal educators — with opportunities to experience and learn about our natural environments. Participants come away with content knowledge, ideas to use with their students, and perhaps most importantly, a bit of inspiration and renewal that will give their lessons a spark of enthusiasm and wonder.

circular image of tree trunks reaching up to the sky, stars in the sky

View of the night sky from our camping platform on the Secrets of the Swamp Trek. Photo by Art Howard.

Coastal Awakening, March 22-24, 2013

In March, a group headed out to the area surrounding Beaufort, NC to experience early spring on the Coastal Awakening trek. We had the opportunity to experience a variety of different coastal plain habitats. One of the highlights was visiting the Croatan National Forest to see the longleaf pine savanna habitat. A few thousand years ago, huge swaths of the southeastern U.S. were dominated by longleaf pine forests; today about 3% of that habitat remains. The Croatan is a great area to experience the ecosystem — the tall, straight longleaf pine trees with their huge pine cones; the open understory dominated by wiregrass; and, if you look closely enough, the carnivorous plants that have adapted to the sandy, nutrient-poor soils of the region. We were lucky enough to find and closely observe some Venus fly traps. In spite of what you may have been led to believe, most of these plants are only a couple of inches wide and are very low-growing (unlike in Little Shop of Horrors). But they are still fascinating!

Venus Fly Trap

Venus fly trap

Another highlight of the Coastal Awakening trek was a stormy, chilly morning on Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park. The group was willing to brave the elements and hike across the dunes on the island in spite of a thoroughly soaking rain. We agreed that though it was challenging, it was worth experiencing the island in those conditions — usually I would have curled up on a couch with a good book on a day like that! Seeing the variety of habitats in and around the natural dune system was amazing. We crept through some shrub thickets and stood under a sweeping live oak tree, appreciating the cover such habitat provides for the resident deer population in bad weather. The dune tops and beach were both dramatically different as we stepped out into the wind and rain; however, coquina clams and lady crabs didn’t seem to mind too much: their home in the surf is always wet!

Jane in the live oak tree

Jane in the live oak tree!

Secrets of the Swamp, April 6-7, 2013

In early April, another group of brave educators joined Museum staff on our Secrets of the Swamp camping trip into the deep, dark recesses of a bottomland hardwood swamp along the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina — only to find that the swamp was no where near as dark as we expected it to be! The trees weren’t yet leafed out — buds were just opening — but migratory songbirds were already on their way through the area. The sweet calls of yellow-throated warblers and red-eyed vireos swept through the towering trees; and at night, the chorus of barred owls kept us from a bit of our sleep! One of the highlights for many of us was quietly sitting on Upper Deadwater Creek, listening to these sounds of nature and watching the shadows of the trees play on the flat surface of the water. There is nothing quite like a quiet morning in a swamp!

reflection of tents in creek

Reflection of tents in creek. Photo by Art Howard.

South Carolina Low Country Adventure, April 19-21, 2013

Later in April, a joint group of educators and the general public traveled to the low country of South Carolina for a bird-focused adventure. The trip included a visit to one of the last remaining stands of old growth baldcypress swamp in South Carolina at Francis Beidler Forest, a stretch of longleaf pine savanna in Francis Marion National Forest, and a coastal birding hotspot — Huntington Beach State Park. For photographers and birders both, a highlight was watching an anhinga preen less than 15 feet from the sidewalk where we watched! The same bird had just a few moments before put on a show for us: swimming in the freshwater impoundment near the road, head just barely out of the water, demonstrating one of its nicknames — the snake bird. It speared a fish on its long, pointy bill and we watched as it shook the fish around until it could swallow its meal.

dark bird with white markings on its back and a blue ring around its eye, an anhinga, with head tucked over shoulder

We enjoyed watching (and photographing) this beautiful anhinga as it preened just off the sidewalk!

Spring in the Mountains, May 3-5, 2013

An incredible run of treks finished up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the beginning of May. This trek, titled Spring in the Mountains, was perhaps mis-named! At the top of Purchase Knob, the group experience 15 mph sustained winds and a wind chill below freezing! In spite of the cold, the group marveled at some beautiful wildflowers that were willing to show their faces in spite of the chilly temperatures.

white flower with three petals

Painted trillium

Pouring rain provided the right conditions for salamanders to be out and about on the forest floor, so though we looked for them under the cover of transects of tree cookies (thin slices from the cross-section of a tree), we actually found more salamanders just hiding under the leaf litter. The group collected data on all of the salamanders we found — length, weight, location, identification – including this small redback salamander!

salamander curled up on leaf

Redback salamander

In closing, I’ll share a comment from one of the teachers than participated in the Secrets of the Swamp trek: “[I experienced] a renewed appreciation for our natural world and a renewed commitment to educating our students about the importance of protecting our natural resources.” It is my hope that through experiences like these we can foster the next generation of scientists, stewards, and citizens.

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