Volunteers learn all about butterflies and bugs in Irvine Center nature course


Many Queen Anne's lace blossoms have a red or brown flower in the center, which legend says recalls Her Majesty pricking her finger with a needle while making lace.

Monarch butterflies, which feed on poisonous milkweed, are brightly colored to warn predators they would be a dangerous dinner.

Female crickets lay eggs in the earth in the fall through a hair-like tube called an ovipositor. The eggs hatch the following season, after the parents have died.

These were just some of the off-hand facts Rob Mardiney, education director at the Irvine Natural Science Center, passed along on a recent afternoon to a half dozen volunteers starting a basic nature course at the center on Greenspring Avenue in Stevenson.

After the four-week course, they will begin leading hourlong nature walks for elementary and preschool children through the trails that crisscross the woods and fields at the nature center on the 240-acre grounds of St. Timothy's School.

The volunteers, who took voluminous notes during the outing, said afterward that they never knew most of the things Mr. Mardiney told them, or may have once known some of them and forgotten.

"I think my vocabulary has increased by about 50 words today," said Mary Ann Lewis, 52, of Roland Park, a middle school science teacher. "I really have a lot to learn and when you get a real naturalist you get so much more."

During her teaching career, Ms. Lewis said she found that "children don't know much about nature" so anything to capture their interest should be tried.

"I really learned a lot about everyday weeds and flowers," said Alex T. Vida of Randallstown, retired treasurer of a Baltimore toy company. "I got a lot of misconceptions cleared up. I'm sure it will be useful for more than volunteering."

The volunteers are not being turned into trained naturalists, said Mr. Mardiney, who was educated at Vassar and Cornell. They will learn enough to handle most questions posed by the youngsters, who arrive in groups of 50 on school field trips.

The center offers six different field trips for elementary school groups: seasonal field trip, observing insects, introduction to plants, introduction to birds, natural communities and maple sugaring.

Professional naturalists handle visits by high school and college-age students. As many as 5,000 students a year visit the nature center, most from Baltimore County elementary and private schools.

Youngsters must be taught both the facts about nature and the right attitude toward the woods and their inhabitants, Mr. Mardiney said.

To illustrate, he told the story of a smart little boy who knew all about the spiders commonly known as daddy long-legs when Mr. Mardiney showed one of the critters during a nature walk.

"Then when I put it back on the ground he stepped on it," the naturalist said. "He knew the facts about it, but he needed some help with his attitude."

Volunteers lead no more than a dozen children at a time, and because the field-trip schedule is already fully booked for the autumn season there is a need for a steady supply of leaders, Mr. Mardiney said.

W. T. Dixon "Dick" Gibbs Jr., executive director of the center, said retired people, especially teachers, are much sought-after as volunteer walk leaders.

The center's classroom is lined with shelves and cases of stuffed birds, insects and spiders, all of which the volunteers will learn about during the course. Live specimens and skeletons are also used in the teaching.

One thing all the volunteers learned for openers, if they didn't know it already, is that snakes smell with their tongues and are warm and dry, not cold and slimy.

They were introduced to "Slinkette," the center's 6-foot boa constrictor -- which promptly had to be uncoiled from a stool leg -- as Mr. Mardiney gave each student a chance to handle the reptile.

Boas are not native to the United States, he said, but Slinkette has been at the center for many years and "she's a great teaching tool."

Volunteers had various reasons for learning to lead the nature walks, but love of children and the outdoors were common themes.

Mr. Vida, 67, said that since retirement he has time to indulge his interests, including children and volunteer programs. "This seemed a way to combine them," he said.

"This is an area I really like, the kids and the woods," agreed Susanne Hinrichs of Timonium, who retired this year as a preschool teacher and often takes her grandchildren for walks through the forests at the family's summer home.

Debbie Blumenthal, a computer specialist on leave of absence from work, said she takes her 2 1/2 -year-old son walking at the Oregon Ridge Park Nature Center and decided to volunteer to work with other children.

"The kids are enthusiastic if you get them started young," she said.

About the science center

VOLUNTEERING: If you want to volunteer to lead nature walks at the Irvine Natural Science Center, call Rob Mardiney, educational director, 484-2413.

TOURS: The center offers tours to public and private schools. This fall's schedule is booked, but to sign your school up for the winter and spring seasons, call 484-2413 after Jan. 7, 1991.

HOURS: The center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; visitors are asked to check in at the center office.

HOW TO GET THERE: The Irvine Natural Science Center, founded in 1975 with a $100,000 grant from Olivia Irvine Dodge and her sister, Clothilde Irvine Moles, is located on the grounds of St. Timothy's School on Greenspring Avenue, one mile north of the Beltway at exit 22.

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