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'You can’t get that on a screen': Children explore nature at Piney Run during Preschool Discovery Week

As youngsters at Piney Run Park listened to naturalist Max Bukowitz read a storybook about critters building nests, a wild barred owl leapt from its perch and flew under the canopy of trees, clutching a snake in its talons — right before the gaze of 11 wide-eyed children.

“You can’t get that on a screen,” Bukowitz said.

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Preschool Discovery Week kicked off Wednesday at Piney Run with children and their grownups learning about birds. The program serves to expose children to nature and encourage them to explore the outdoors, Bukowitz said — and it gives them a break from electronics, too.

The morning started with Bukowitz reading “Whose Nest?” to teach the children about the various critters that live in nests. The kids settled onto a ladybug-patterned blanket on the trail just outside the Nature Center to hear the story and remarked at the chorus of birds around them — not expecting a surprise entrance.

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One of the adults spotted the large owl in a tree about 15 yards away, if not less. As people shifted to get a better look, the owl took off, gliding past the children as if showing off. Bukowitz said special moments like this are why children should get outside.

“If you understand things, you’re less afraid of them,” she said. “I think it builds their imagination.”

From her glimpse of the bird, Bukowitz guessed it was a barred owl — named so for the pattern of bars running across its body and wings.

With the excitement over, Bukowitz returned to the book. Then the owl reappeared for a second performance. It sat in a nearby tree for a few moments then again flew across the forest — this time without the snake — in front of the group.

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An owl — likely a barred owl — flies across the tree canopies at Piney Run Nature Center on Wednesday.
An owl — likely a barred owl — flies across the tree canopies at Piney Run Nature Center on Wednesday. (Brian Krista / Carroll County Times)

Once the story was done, the children gathered themselves up for a hike through the forest. Children ooh’ed at the lily pads covering Piney Run Lake, so numerous in some spots that the water seemed to disappear.

Four-year-old Lily Gladhill, of Sykesville, stumbled on the path, but picked herself up and trudged along without complaint. She kept her ears and eyes open for the sight of birds.

“I like birds. I like tweeting birds,” Lily said.

She especially liked the owl.

Her mother Samantha Gladhill said their family enjoys visiting the park whenever they can.

“It’s a nice park. They have a little bit of everything,” she said.

The Mother Nature, Mom and Me program, which is for preschool-aged children, has two classes once a month, usually on the first Wednesday and second Friday, said Max Bukowitz, a park naturalist at Piney Run Nature Center.

The hiking party stopped to admire a manmade bluebird house planted just off the trail. Bukowitz explained that the black cone around the base of the birdhouse serves to prevent snakes from climbing up the post and eating the bird eggs.

Two-year-old Brendon McCann, of Sykesville, rushed toward Bukowitz with a circular green object in his hand.

“Miss Max! What’s this?”

Bukowitz told Brendon he held a black walnut. She invited the children to give it a sniff. Several did.

As the group turned around to head back to the Nature Center, Brendon implored Bukowitz to extend the hike. His mother Sarah McCann promised him a longer hike in the future.

“He loves hiking,” she said, carrying Brendon’s 11-month-old sister Everly, asleep on her chest. “We love being outside because I feel like you can learn so much more outside.”

“My favorite thing is to look for animal footprints,” Brendon said, especially those of deer.

Back at the Nature Center, children made binoculars out of toilet paper tubes and string. The young naturalists covered the cardboard in pictures of animals and nature. Bukowitz gifted woodpecker feeders to each family. Piney Run staff drilled holes into pieces of wood found at the park to make the feeders, she said. Bukowitz instructed the families to fill the holes with peanut butter and Crisco shortening to attract ants, which could lead to woodpeckers visiting.

Lisa Maisano of Sykesville brought her twin daughters, Elena and Clara, to the three-day discovery week. Their family has been coming for years, since her eldest child was in preschool.

“It’s kind of a family tradition,” she said. “I just find it’s so peaceful down here by the lake.”

The 5-year-old twins said their favorite part of the day was hiking.

Jennifer Haines of Westminster usually lets her children explore closer to home, but she was drawn to Piney Run because it offered a program for her 3-year-old son Jack. His 7-year-old sister Hannah also came along.

Haines said their first Piney Run experience was definitely a good one and they will be back.

Over the next two days, the preschool group will learn about fish and insects.

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