Sense of wonder

Junior Beach Watchers learn about the Whidbey Environment

“Fifteen children and their parents recently gathered in the morning mist under the Admiralty Head Lighthouse with Washington State University Island County Beach Watchers to study the ecology of the forest, slugs and worms.While parents hoped for sun, the children seemed content in their oversized rain coats and shorts. They gathered around the WSU Beach Watcher volunteers awaiting further instruction, eager to explore the soil and trails. The children ranged in age from 5 to 11 years old. It was the first meeting this year for the Junior Beach Watchers, a group of youngsters that learns about the ecology and preservation of island forests and beaches.Heather Leahy-Mack headed the study on slugs. She just completed her master’s degree in natural resource planning and has been volunteering with Junior Beach Watchers for two years. She is a member of the WSU Island County Beach Watchers, a program that offers 100 hours of free environmental training.Now we are trying to share that training with the next generation, she said.The children gathered around Leahy-Mack to see the slugs she had in glass aquariums. The kids seemed intent on learning about these slimy creatures. Leahy-Mack had European, Asian and American slugs. A banana slug stretched across more than 6 inches, trying to escape the aquarium.Leahy-Mack explained to the children about which slugs were good, and which were bad.The banana slug is native to the area, so it is helpful to the environment, whereas the European and Asian slugs are foreign to the environment and are not good. Creatures which are foreign to any environment tend to eat too much or produce too quickly, running out native species of plants or other creatures.Native creatures have adapted to the environment to maintain a symbiotic existence.She said the safest way to get rid of slugs in the garden is to cut a two-liter bottle in half, place the top level with the dirt and fill it with beer.The slugs are attracted to the yeast in the beer and they fall in, she said. That way, you get rid of unwanted slugs, but other animals and plants aren’t harmed.Slimy creatures which live in the soil were also studied.Janet Hall of the WSU Waste Warriors demonstrated how worms work in a compost pile. She showed a diagram of the soil and what worms eat and how they help the ecosystem. Hall led the children to a compost pile not more than 15 feet away to feed the worms. She explained that worms have small mouths.Really, worms are not eating the food and soil, they are eating the bacteria that is eating the food and soil, she said.Next, Park Ranger Ken Hageman took the children on a forest walk. He pointed out animal homes, such as a bird’s nest, and various plants.He explained why plants grow well together and talked about the seeds on ferns.Little hands frequently shot into the air. Hageman called on a little girl.Why does that tree grow crooked? she asked with wide eyes and obvious curiosity.Because it’s looking for the sun, Hageman explained. Sometimes a tree will twist and turn, or even grow completely sideways, looking for the best way to get the sun.Another little voice asked, Why does that plant grow on top of that tree trunk?Not only is the plant looking for sun, Hageman said, but the trunk holds water and nutrients better than the soil.Besides, he said, if you’re a seed, you want to be up on a trunk off the ground, so no little critters can eat you as easily. Hageman asked them frequently what kind of tree this was or what flower this was, reviewing the information he’d already talked about. The children remembered the plants even at the end of the day.Michelle Goodrum had a 7- and 9-year-old daughter at the Junior Beach Watchers. She said they participated in the program last year as well. The kids’ favorite thing last year was the tide pools in Rosario, she said. I like that the parents can stay and learn, too.The fee for joining the Junior Beach Watchers is $5 for one child in a family or $8 for more than one child in a family.Junior Beach Watchers scheduleJuly 15: Children will learn about different birds, their habitats and how to observe these feathery friends by two of Whidbey’s Audubon leaders.July 29: The low tide of the day will allow children to spend the morning learning about creatures that live and rely on tide pools at Rosario beach. Children will also learn about the importance of beach etiquette while exploring the tide pools.Aug. 5: Children will conclude their Junior Beach Watcher adventures this summer learning about whales of Puget Sound and the importance of clean water and a healthy ecosystem to whales. The second hour of the day will be spent at Christopher’s in coupeville for pizza.For more information, contact Heather Leahy-Mack at 679-2025, Donna Keeler at 678-4045 or the WSU Beach Watchers at 321-5111 extension 391.”