Learning to be natural leaders

Ryan Finch walked down to the muddy edge of the lake, reached into a mound of crisscrossed tree limbs and pulled out a branch.

"Look what I found in the beaver lodge," the 8-year-old said with gusto as he walked along a path minutes later. One end of the branch had been whittled to a pencil-like point.


Ryan's discovery highlighted an afternoon filled with talk of flying squirrels, raccoons and truffles -- not the chocolate kind -- all part of a series of monthly winter classes for young children at Sykesville's Piney Run Nature Center.

The center has provided such classes for about 20 years, said Erica Starr, a Piney Run naturalist. Children come to learn about trees, spiders, birds and mice, among other subjects.


The program "gets them aware, gets them understanding, starts a base," Starr said.

She also hopes it "piques an interest that they can build on," driving them to respect and stay involved in nature as they get older, Starr said.

Recently, boys and girls trickled into the room where that awareness would begin.

A display of stuffed animals gave a sense of the outdoors: a wild goose, a mallard, an owl, a fox with a bird in its mouth.

"We're going to talk about flying squirrels today," said Justine Schaeffer, the naturalist teaching the class. She dangled a flat, square-shaped stuffed animal from a string. The flying squirrel, she explained, could very well be in their backyards, living in tall trees.

"Do you know what happens when gray squirrels eat a lot of birdseed?" Schaeffer asked the group, referring to the flying squirrels' earthbound cousins.

"They die?" Alex Vesotsky, 9, guessed.

"They turn into flying squirrels," Schaeffer said. She laughed at her joke, and the kids smiled in response.


At one point, Schaeffer used Anna Vesotsky, 6, to demonstrate how flying squirrels are equipped to glide through the air.

Using clothespins, Schaeffer attached pieces of fabric to the young girl's arms and sides to imitate the membrane connecting the squirrels' front and hind legs.

Cardboard tubes added to the costume emulated the cartilage at the end of the rodents' "wings."

"There you go -- Anna the flying squirrel," Schaeffer said, as the girl spread out her arms.

To teach about the symbiotic relationships in an ecosystem, Schaeffer used a ball of red yarn to show how flying squirrels, trees and truffles -- a smelly underground fungus that the animals eat -- depend on each other for survival.

The children held potatoes to represent truffles, a small toy man for a lumberjack or the stuffed animal for a flying squirrel. As Schaeffer explained their connections, she drew the yarn from one child to another, creating a red web.


The natural balance can be disrupted, Schaeffer explained, by an invasive plant species or a lumberjack cutting down trees.

"There are problems like this all the time, where the needs of people kind of compete with the needs of the ecosystem," Schaeffer said. People must find a way to balance those needs, she said: "It's a question that doesn't have any easy answers."

The group soon slipped outside into the cool, gold-flecked afternoon for a hike.

They shuffled through the brittle leaves that covered the winding path on a mission: to spot wooden boxes built as potential nests for flying squirrels. But along the way, they spotted traces of other creatures.

Near the beaver lodge, the kids spied some empty mussel shells apparently left behind by raccoons. And in the soft mud along the lakeshore, they spotted what Schaeffer said were beaver tracks. They looked like a small child's handprint, with just four fingers showing.

"Look at my tracks," said Anna, stepping in the mud with her tennis shoes.


The group trudged back to the nature center with new treasures -- and with dark mud caked on their shoes.

"It was cool," Brianna Finch, 10, said of the nature walk. "We like to hike because there's things you can see that you don't think are there."

Schaeffer said she has two goals for her classes: fun and education.

"I do want them to learn something about the environment that surrounds us, so that they can understand how important it is," she said.