Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 11, 2011

Field trips foster love of nature

Environmental Volunteers deliver hands-on eco-education

by Karla Kane

Since 1972, Environmental Volunteers has been working to inspire a love of nature and science in more than 12,000 local children annually through field trips, camps and events.

Marilyn Hornor, a retired teacher, has been a volunteer docent for nearly 20 years.

"I used Environmental Volunteers in my classroom, and then when I was teaching half-time, one of the volunteers talked me into doing it the other half of the time. Now that I'm retired, I'm full-time EV," she said. "I love to teach kids, and I love the environment."

This past year, the organization received a $3,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund to support docent-led field trips at the Palo Alto Baylands.

Before field trips, Hornor does hands-on work in the classroom, teaching students (usually second-, third- or fourth-graders) about which plants and animals live in the various habitats of the bay. After the in-class lessons, it's off to the Baylands for a two-hour field trip, where kids learn basic ecological concepts through games, observation and guided activities.

"At the Baylands, it's interesting because it's different depending on the tide. If there are an awful lot of birds out on the mud flat during low tide, we look at what they might be eating and talk about what adaptations they have for getting that food: if they have long legs stalking around in the shallow water; or sharp beaks for catching fish; if they're good flyers and divers; or dabbling ducks."

They also observe vegetation, noting how certain plants have adapted to saltwater, and discuss the Baylands' two endangered species: the red-bellied salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail.

"We talk about why they're endangered because the only place they live is San Francisco Bay estuary, and some of the things people have been doing to try and help put back some of the marsh that has been used for landfill and buildings. That's the main reason why they're endangered, there's not much salt marsh left," she said.

Since Hornor has been leading tours in the Baylands for decades, she said she's seen positive change in the environment over the years during its transformation from marina and landfill to parkland, including the addition of the native-plant nursery.

"It was quite amazing, since I have been doing this for so long, to see that the animals and plants really came back. It was a lot faster than I expected," she said.

In the fall, pheasants are sometimes visible — "out strutting," she said — while in the spring, nesting herons, egrets and swallows prove a fascinating field-trip sight.

"It's always a real exciting thing if you get to see the clapper rail," Hornor said.

Kids are entertained by the sight of clams squirting water out of the mud during low tide, and "of course they're really excited about the pickleweed," she said, describing how she also plucks strands of cord grass for students to touch. "They can lick their fingers and taste the salt."

Hornor and her husband, Neil, a fellow Environmental Volunteer, teach older students to use spotting scopes, monoculars and other tools to observe birds without getting too close.

"The kids are really engaged," she said. "Generally, it's the animals that they get excited about. The ground squirrels, oh, they love the ground squirrels! If we should be lucky enough to see a rabbit, those are pretty fun, too."

Pam Loebner, a second-grade teacher and science leader at Gardner Bullis School in Los Altos, has been using Environmental Volunteers' programs in her classes for more than a decade, and her own children went through the programs as well.

"It's really giving them a hands-on experience," she said. "They get down and dirty, and they touch nature rather than just reading it from a book. It's a fabulous resource."

The volunteer docents "have a level of expertise that I can only dream about," she said.

"The people who do this, they do it because they love nature and they want to expose as many people as possible to the beauty around us. It makes the kids more sensitive and more aware."

Hornor is looking forward to the opening of Environmental Volunteers' Baylands EcoCenter, to be housed in the former Sea Scout boat-shaped building, set for next spring. There, she anticipates leading classes in lab activities such as examining bay water and mud ("Bay soup," she said) under microscopes. In the meantime, she'll continue her docent duties throughout the park. A trip this week included fourth-graders from Loyola Elementary School, her former workplace in Los Altos.

"I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile, and I just love doing it," she said.

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be emailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

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