Interpretation 101 and Natural Systems at Elkhorn Slough

This past Saturday February 14, 2015 the Elkhorn Slough had a lecture regarding “Communication Approaches Connecting with People,” with Monterey Bay Aquarium Interpreter Jim Covel and a “Natural Systems and an Introduction to the Animal Word” lecture by the Reserve Manager Dave Feliz.

Day 2 Training Elkhorn Slough

Even though I am a scientist by education I have always had an interest in communication and thought that the lecture by Jim Covel was essential as I learn how to become a naturalist and communicate with various audiences. The main message I got from Jim was that emotions are remembered a lot easier than simple facts; therefore, it is necessary to connect information with an emotion for it to be memorable to any audience. At the end of the lecture Jim took us out to the trail and gave us a demonstration on how interact with the audience and not only give information about the Slough but to turn in into a story.

Buckeye Jim Covel

*Jim Covel telling a story about the Buckeye tree behind him.

The second lecture by Dave Feliz gave me a preview of what I will confront in the near future, which are birds. Dave quickly went over the different mammals, reptiles, and amphibians we will encounter at the Slough and went a little deeper regarding birds. The two most important points I got from his lecture are to never utter the words “seagull” or “blue jay” at the Slough. At the end of the lecture Dave took us out to the trial to observe birds. We saw a couple of Willets and a few Greater Yellowlegs among many others.

View2Elkhorn Slough Trail View


*Views of one of the trails at Elkhorn Slough.

Going to the Dentist: Mountain Lion Edition

I was reading over notes waiting for the second half of my interpreters training last Thursday. Before Lunch, we spent that whole morning talking about water management in the state of Colorado and then more specifically in Boulder County. Now, while it was very interesting to me, to see how water is almost like gold around here, would that same intrigue translate over to someone who’s on a nature hike just to see birds? I wasn’t all to sure until we started our second session. With a belly full of coffee and Panera sandwich I dove into our exercise. Construct and interpretive program. Using a prop our instructor Larry assigned to us, we would construct a 45 minute interpretive program for any audience of our choosing. Lucky for my partner Jennifer and myself, we had a replica of a mountain lion skull!

We knew right away that school children would absolutely love seeing a skull. I remember during my early school years how we would sometimes have volunteers or staff of some agency come in with casts of wolf and bear tracks and talk about the wild animals of the rockies. And those always seemed to be the best days, because even though we weren’t outside we experienced nature in some way, and we didn’t have to classwork of course (wink). But the point is having visuals like a lion mountain skull will make the story you tell much more memorable.

So Jen and I decided to design an indoor interpretive program for a class of 5th graders about the teeth of mountain lions. We called it, Going to the Dentist: Understanding Mountain lion’s teeth and what they tell us about them and what they eat. Pretty clever right? That’s the great thing about interpretation, yes you want it to be educational and factual, but you also want it to be meaningful and relatable. Everyone’s been to the dentist (I hope) so people can relate to how our teeth have a lot to do with our health and our diet.

We focused our entire program on the teeth of a mountain lion, using are nifty skull we could teach about canines, incisors, premolars and molars. What the function of each kind of tooth is, why mountain lions have certain teeth and not others and how do teeth help them with what they eat. We thought of using a steak and butter knife as an analogy for molars and carnassials, asking children to feel their teeth to see what kind they have and relate it to what they eat and what teeth vampires have and what they use their teeth for as a way to make it all relatable to the student’s lives.

In the end we had developed what looked like a great program on something simple like teeth using only a replica of skull. So I thought back to how something “boring” like water management could be of interest to anyone. It can be as long as you make it relatable and meaningful to that person. While we probably won’t do water management programs at any school anytime soon, you could always tie in the importance of water or teeth or whatever it maybe as long as you can make it relevant!

From Plains to Forests

I had a long weekend that was filled with sunny days, warm weather and the Colorado outdoors. For those who have never visited Colorado, it’s a very unique and beautiful place, even more in Boulder County. It’s the place where the Great Plains of the central US meet the Rocky Mountains. A great place to experience and learn about a wide variety of ecosystems and wildlife if you’re into that. In Boulder County you have five distinctive life zones and respective ecotones from east to west: Prairie/Grasslands, Foothills/Lower Montane, Montane, Sub-alpine/ Upper Mountain and at the very west Alpine/Tundra. I spent Saturday out east near my home in Lafayette, CO in the mixed-grass grasslands and Monday I was up in the Ponderosa Forests of the Foothills up the Canyon. It’s amazing how in a 35 min drive you can go from what looks like one world to another.

On Saturday I spent may day walking through the grasses, stopping at wetlands and lakes and looking for birds. Actually my first encounter with wildlife was a Black-tailed prairie dog colony on my way to some wetlands. I also saw a pair of Red-tail hawks soaring above, looking for a snack maybe? The most memorable thing I saw that day was a flock of about 60-80 Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings, they moved in unison from the grass to the cattails and back, often crossing my path leaving flashes of iridescences as they whizzed right by. They are so common I think some forget how special they still are.

The view from the loop trail atop of the Preserve.

The view from the loop trail atop of the Preserve.

On MLK day, I went up to the Ponderosa Forests several miles outside of Boulder, and hiked steep inclines through muddy trails and icy turns. It was a great time! You feel like a kid stomping through the mud, getting dirty with no worries. It wasn’t birding expedition, I didn’t even bring my binoculars, but that didn’t stop me from seeing and hearing them. The hike was quiet except for the pocket of chickadee chirps hear and there. They are such active little birds it’s always hard to get a good look at them, but their call is unmistakeable. While walking down through a more open part of the forest I could hear their chatter and see several of them bouncing among the branches of some pine and on the rocks below it. It look like they were having a good time too, can’t complain when the weather is working with you, right? Farther along on my way, in a slightly denser section of the forest I saw Abert’s Squirrels. They are very interesting critters of the Ponderosa pines, almost exclusively found in Ponderosa forest they have adapted to eat the pines year round, eating seed bearing cones in spring, summer and fall, and feasting on the inner bark of twigs during winter.

I had a great time exploring and learning a little more about the different regions that are at my reach. Learning about a place makes the connection to that place secure and longer lasting. Challenge yourself to learn about your surroundings, not just the birds, but the rocks, plants, trees, mammals and everything in between, will make the experience of walking through your ‘backyard’ much more meaningful.

Interpretation Training

Last night I sat in bed and went over the manual I received from my first day of Volunteer Naturalist Training. The manual is about 1 billion pages long, all of which are worth reading. The training started Thursday at 8 am, with a person or two strolling in late. Once we were all settled in and the introductions and icebreakers were done, Jeff, a staff member of Boulder County Parks & Open Space, began his presentation on the history of Boulder County by showing us some old maps. He said he couldn’t help himself, he had to show us his maps. He loves maps and I can now see why. I’m not sure how many of us think about how people of the past used the lands on which we work, play, and live in today. I didn’t really think about it until Jeff showed me his maps. The class sat there, some astonished like me, others somewhat familiar with the maps and what they said about our history. The population of my region of Colorado boomed in the 1860’s with the Colorado gold rush and mineral mining era. Little establishments around the Gold Hill area sprang up, and also around  other areas and have become our mountain towns today, like Jamestown and Nederland. Out east, the towns of Superior, Louisville and Lafayette sprung up due to the soft coal mining and farming of fertile plains. Even our beloved Boulder came to be from this historic population boom, acting as a crossroads town, where  there was commerce, large ore processing and such.  So much can be shown, inferred, and interpreted from the historical maps of our homelands. I understood why Jeff loved his maps; there are a collection of stories in the lines, colors, and shapes of maps that give us a glimpse of where we came from.

So it’s not hard to see how Jeff’s maps could influence a person to take more time out of their day to do some independent research on the history of their county. That’s really what interpretation is all about. You want to make people excited about what you’re teaching them, and you want to provoke people to the point that they’re enticed to go out on their own time and be a part of what it is you are interpreting. Let’s face it, learning is great and all, but what good is it to learn something if you’re not passionate about it?

So as I sat in bed looking through my interpretation bible, I realized how blessed I am to have deep love of the outdoors, wildlife, and science. I hope that after my time with Boulder County Parks & Open Space is over, I will feel prepared to share and pass on some of my passion to the youth in my community, and in turn I hope they become just as dedicated to learning about nature as I have.