Crawfish, tadpoles teach, delight kids on nature tours

Howard Neighbors

'Excitement for the outdoors'

Neighbors

July 21, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

When you're standing calf-deep in cool, clear Cattail Creek on a sweltering July morning, you somehow absorb a sense of a time in Howard County when there was no air conditioning, and the pace of life naturally slowed. Before you know it, you're bending to pick up rocks in hopes of finding a crawdad. You're poised to swish a net in the water and see if you can scoop up a fish before it rides the ripple around the bend.

Welcome to the summer educational farm tour, "Ponds, Puddles and Creeks" at Sharp's at Waterford Farm in Brookeville.

"Less and less kids are exposed to outdoor activities today," said Cheryl Nodar, the manager at Sharp's at Waterford Farm. "I like to think our programs pass along a passion and excitement for the outdoors. It's fun to wade in a creek and catch slimy things."

Cattail Creek runs through the 520-acre farm and eventually feeds into Triadelphia Reservoir, which provides drinking water for Montgomery County. Throughout the summer, camp groups, birthday parties, nursing home residents and company groups come out to the farm to picnic and enjoy a change of scenery. With the stream tour, kids experience an afternoon of hands-on learning and good old-fashioned summer fun.

Nodar says the "Ponds, Puddles and Creeks" program is focused on reaching elementary school-age children. "If kids go out learning three or four new things, I'm happy," she said.

She gets all kinds of questions before the tour starts that indicate the participants' level of knowledge about area waterways. While many children have learned about the Chesapeake Bay watershed in school, Nodar said, "we can bring it to life. The creek is a wonderful tool for teaching children. Some people are very visual, and book learning can be so ... dull."

More than once, she has been asked, "Are there alligators in there?"

No, says Nodar, but the Department of Natural Resources came out one time, and she recalls that researchers identified 23 species of fish in the creek. During her tours, Nodar has helped kids find and identify crawfish in all stages of development, as well as tadpoles, larvae, hellgramites, water beetles, spiders and feeder fish.

"Every day is different," she said. "They are so proud when they catch their first crawfish. You just hear squeals of excitement."

On this particular scorcher, Maria Fittro, Nodar's assistant, is welcoming a group and giving instructions. Nodar explains that a lot of kids get off a bus and are just overwhelmed by the scenery - they have never been on a "real" farm before, nor fed a live farm animal.

Fittro explains how to hold food for the farm's large Scottish Longhorn Steer on a flat open palm.

"Isn't his tongue chubby?" one girls says.

"I got slobber on me!" says one boy.

Later, on the hayride down to the creek, Fittro talks about what she tries to impart to the youngsters. "What I try to teach them is how to protect our natural water systems. If you find something, put it back. Not to litter. To pick up trash floating in the system with an adult's permission."

Nodar says that the kids are always surprised to learn that the creek feeds into a drinking-water system. It is a true teaching moment when kids see an occasional floating plastic grocery bag or soda can.

At the water's edge, Fittro goes over the rules. "If you can't see where you're stepping, don't step in it."

"Not bad advice for life in general," she added, handing out nets to each child. She and Nodar demonstrate technique, and all the while kids are rolling up their trouser legs and stripping off their socks and shoes to don water shoes.

"You can see where the currents are quite visible - steer clear," Fittro said. She points out a huge gash cut in the side of the creek when floodwaters rushed in a few weeks ago. Fittro explains how she and Nodar had to walk the creek to assess the changes from the storms.

In a matter of minutes, all the kids are in the creek. Everyone's looking for a "good spot." In less than 30 seconds, there's a shout: "I got something!" one boy cries. "It's a mini-lobster!"

"Let's put it in the bucket," says Fittro. Gently, she guides him to pick up the crawfish and place it in the collection pail.

He smiles. It's an unaffected, Tom Sawyer-ish grin.

Information on all of Sharp's at Waterford Farm's Educational Farm tours and programs: Cheryl Nodar, 410 489-2572, or www.sharpfarm.com.

Correction: In last week's "Neighbors," a key "0" was dropped from a quotation by Executive Director Darlene Sullivan. Canine Partners for Life is 100 percent funded by donations. To follow the progress of Mark Bobotek's cross-country scooter ride to raise money for CPL, visit his blog at: www. bobovespa.blogspot.com.

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