by Elise Hinman
How did the natural world captivate you as a child? Maybe it was when you learned that wild blackberries are edible (and delicious), built a fort out of downed tree branches, or observed a family of bluebirds making a nest in your backyard. I remember raising Sierran tree frogs from eggs at my house, watching the tiny tadpoles sprout legs as their tails disappeared. Releasing the young frogs back into the stream left a lasting impact on my respect for Mother Nature.
We all have our memorable moments in the great outdoors; we can only hope that an excitement for nature will live on in our youngest generations. On May 25, MMWD partnered with the California Academy of Sciences on an event aimed at making this hope a reality. Family Citizen Science Day at Lake Lagunitas brought a slew of activities to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed to stoke the fire of a new generation of scientists. Over 150 people attended the four-hour event, and judging by the excited kids and beaming parents, it was an amazing success.
Each family was furnished with a Field Scientist Activity Book and a bandana with a map of MMWD’s trails. They could play Lake Lagunitas bingo during their walk around the lake, hang out at the Lagunitas deck for hands-on activities, or participate in some of our scheduled events. Kids who completed three or more activities received one thing no citizen scientist should be without: a field notebook!
The scheduled events included two outings to an actual Mt. Tamalpais bioblitz site. There I helped kids identify a plant, carefully dig it up and place it in a plant press. Once at Cal Academy, the pressed plant will be dried and then transferred to a permanent mount, which will preserve the specimen in perpetuity—with the collector’s name on it! Checkerbloom, cat’s ear and narrow-leaf mule’s ear were a few of the flowering species collected for this fascinating project.
At the wooden deck on Lagunitas Dam, the kite-making table was a popular stop. Here, kids had the opportunity to color their own osprey before folding it into a kite complete with a tassel tail. One mother (a science teacher no less) even improved upon our design by adding weight to the tail, giving the kite more stability—way to go! Running back and forth on the dam, participants chased the breezes that would lift their kites sky-high.
Luckily, the commotion on the dam didn’t faze the turtles sunning themselves on logs floating in the lake. Family Science Day participants studied these reptiles through binoculars and determined whether they were native western pond turtles or invasive red-eared sliders. Such data is important for MMWD to keep track of each species’ population size. Toward the end of the event, one bold turtle swam near the wooden deck area to take a closer look at the festivities, to the delight of lake-gazers.
Other kids made a bee-line for the macroinvertebrate table, where Cal Academy’s Alison Young pointed out fascinating water bugs hiding among the lake’s aquatic vegetation. Equipped with a waterproof magnifier, kids could get up close to these critters and see how they move through the water.
Once an hour, my fellow watershed aides, Jaimie Baxter and Jen Stern, and I led families to the redwood grove at the bottom of the dam to meet a tree. What does it mean to “meet a tree?” Well, one bold participant would be blindfolded and then led on a winding path to a mystery tree in the grove. Without eyesight, she had to touch the tree, smell the tree, listen to the sounds around the tree, and remember as much as she could about the tree, Trusting her guides, she was led on a different winding path back to where she started. She could then remove the blindfold and accept the challenge of finding “her” tree! The kids loved this activity and played multiple rounds, I was surprised by the trust blindfolded kids placed in their leaders; they walked without hesitation into anything their guides led them through, even if their guide was four years old and more excited about the activity itself than making sure her sightless partner made it to the tree unhurt. It was a hoot!
Family Citizen Science Day filled me with hope. In the time I spent observing the activities from afar, I saw smiles, heard laughter from both kids and parents, and felt curiosity and joy emanating from the families at the event. I listened as kids asked questions about the natural world, unable to contain their excitement at the knowledge they gained. This day wasn’t successful because it brought a crowd of people; it was successful because we helped nurture a new generation of environmental scientists and nature-lovers. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Family Science Day is an annual event on the watershed. Next time you visit Lake Lagunitas please stop by Sky Oak Watershed Headquarters and pick up a free Sprouting Scientist Field Activity Book. Elise has completed her season with MMWD and headed off to Syracuse University to earn her Ph.D. in Biology, studying the evolutionary ecology of invasive plants.