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Nature centers in Howard County, Laurel bring the outdoors to those shut in due to coronavirus pandemic

Though the doors to the Howard County Conservancy are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, on a gray Friday morning, Ann Strozyk, a Howard County Public School System environmental educator, was able to lead a lesson on animal sounds to participants hailing from Columbia, Laurel, New York, Virginia and more.

After sharing the eerie howl of a coyote and the whirr of cicadas, Strozyk challenged participants to “hone in” on their auditory skills to identify the correct animal.

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“I keep saying to myself, ‘How did I get here?’ ” Strozyk said, laughing afterward. “I was so nervous. I was trying to engage the audience.”

Since the government shutdown, the Howard County Conservancy has been hosting live weekly sessions on Facebook with nature-related themes, from a garden tour to a storybook reading and a lesson on honeybees. Stronzyk’s “Guess the Animal Sound” was the first interactive session where participants were asked to respond.

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“It would have been a complete bomb if people had not participated, an epic failure,” Stronzyk said. “There is a slight time lag, so I would tell a story or a fact so responses could come in. There are certain things to figure out.”

“It is something new for us,” said Meg Boyd, executive director of the Howard County Conservancy. “Like many organizations, we had to pivot how we provide programs to the public.”

Working and meeting remotely, the Howard County Conservancy staff and volunteers looked at each other’s various interests and monthly events to create the sessions’ themes. Some are geared more for adults, others for youth and some, like the animal sounds, for all ages.

“A volunteer who is a retired elementary principal is planning trivia on animal babies,” Strozyk said. “We are working very differently. It is a way of connecting with the community.”

Staff and volunteers have also been experimenting with live broadcasts outdoors using their phones, Boyd said.

“We are expanding beyond our building,” Boyd said. “We’ll go outside to our gardens and meadows.”

The success of the live programs has been surprising.

“We were shocked at the response we got,” Boyd said. “For the first one, we had 835 on that program. The next one, 500. That’s a huge response. We wouldn’t be able to accommodate that turnout in person.”

“People from New York? What!” Strozyk said. “That is awesome. We are reaching a lot of people.”

Both Boyd and Strozyk believe that some type of live programming on Facebook will continue even when the center reopens its doors and offers its in-person programs again.

“Obviously, we might do it less, but we want to keep it up,” Boyd said. “It’s extended our reach.”

“I am just thrilled to connect people with nature,” Strozyk said. “We are building programs and seeing what they turn into.”

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Howard County’s Robinson Nature Center has been working with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks to create fun, educational video and photo posts for both rec and parks’ Facebook and Twitter pages and Robinson Nature Center’s Facebook page, according to Anna Hunter, marketing and public information superintendent for county rec and parks.

“Some of the Robinson Nature Center social media posts include video spotlights on Robinson’s animal ambassadors [like Houdini the turtle and Sirius the snake], a virtual story time puppet show performed by the RNC staff, a turtle ‘race’ and photos of the plants and flowers in bloom for the spring on the Robinson grounds,” Hunter wrote in an email. Pre-recorded “mini lessons,” led by Robinson educators for children and parents, are also in the works, she wrote.

Online programming is a new area of programming for the department, Hunter wrote, and one it hopes to continue after the pandemic as “it allows us to access new individuals that may have had access issues to our programs in the past.”

Many of the center’s popular programs, including its Lil’ Acorns program, will be offered online with both live interaction and pre-recorded information, Hunter said. Classes are planned on cooking, fine arts, music, sport skills and more.

“Our first online program, a Supper Club for individuals between the ages of 22 and 48 with special needs was held last Thursday [May 7],” Hunter wrote. “It was originally to be held at a nice restaurant and demonstrate how to develop dinner conversation skills and table manners. We took the program online and it was a true success [and actually ran over its planned time as the participants were so engaged].”

The Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel has also taken to Facebook to offer a variety of daily short lessons for primarily elementary-aged children, according to Tim Parker, lead education ranger.

“This is something we started since people are more at home right now,” Parker said. “We’ve had a tremendous response from it. People have been really excited about it.”

From Movement Monday to Creative Friday, the center staff have given bird-watching tips, a session on how to make your own binoculars and a story time.

“We put resources where we are seeing interest,“ Parker said. "Getting outside and getting to know nature is always important and something we always need to have going on.”

The grounds of the historic Montpelier Mansion in Laurel have been open for walking throughout the past few months. Staff members still took photos of the grounds as flowers bloomed and posted them online.

“Our biggest click was the grounds tour,” said Holly Burnham, an educator at Montpelier.

Another popular post was Montpelier’s lemon curd recipe. The recipe post was part of Montpelier’s effort to transform its popular Herbs, Tea and the Arts festival in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Traditionally held the last Saturday in April on the mansion’s grounds, the festival features performances, tea, exhibitors and more.

“It is something we do for the community,” Burnham said. “It has lots of loyal followers and some of them were really sorry we were not having it.”

For this year’s festival, the staff created a two-part online experience. Part one featured the performers, recipes and the vendors. Part two featured the educators sharing advice on gardening, nature, local resources and more.

“We love that we can reach people. We’ve gotten some positive feedback," Burnham said. “We update our Facebook page once a day. We have something for all different audiences, and there is always something for kids to do.”

Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation has canceled all summer programs, Burnham said, and the staff at Montpelier are now discussing ways to reach those who do not have Internet access.

“I’m scratching my head about this,” Burnham admitted. “What are ways to reach people? In the summer, being online gets old after awhile.”

People are encouraged to send ideas either via email to montpeliermansion@pgparks.com, by phone, 301-377-7817 or through the mail to 9650 Muirkirk Road, Laurel, MD 20708.

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