This summer, a new species has been inhabiting the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve. With an umbrella for shade, four wheels for mobility, and local teenagers as its guide, EcoCenter on Wheels offers information about the nature preserve and its creatures to families who are out strolling.
On a recent Sunday, two young boys peered over the edge of the cart, where an array of formerly live birds -- including a petite Anna's hummingbird and a brown-and-white killdeer -- were on display.
"Do you want to pet the robin?" asked docent Divya Shenoy, a freshmen at Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose. One of the boys reached out his hand and gently stroked the feathers while his mother looked on.
Shenoy pointed to the black-and-white speckled egg of the killdeer, which lay on pebbles of various colors, and introduced the concept of camouflage.
"See?" the boys' mother said, pointing to the egg. "It blends in."
After the family wandered away, Shenoy declared the teaching moment a success.
"That went well!" she said, smiling.
EcoCenter on Wheels, a program of the Palo Alto nonprofit Environmental Volunteers, was designed to empower teenagers to educate others, and in the process learn more about the environment themselves.
"Our teen volunteers are given the freedom to choose ... what information they would like to present, making the display their own," Kristi Moos, marketing and communications director for Environmental Volunteers, wrote in an email. "We don't provide them with a formal script, instead encouraging them to take the time to learn information for themselves and to practice interpretation methods with visitors.
"Working in pairs helps them to share information between themselves and to foster collaboration," Moos added.
On this Sunday Shenoy was joined by Colin Huang, a Gunn High School junior. Standing with the cart by the Palo Alto duck pond on Embarcadero Road, both said they decided to volunteer out of an interest in the natural world and protecting the environment. Huang is taking two biology classes this semester.
As a small aircraft buzzed by to land at the adjacent Palo Alto Airport, Huang shared facts about the iridescent magenta Anna's hummingbird.
"Their calls are high-pitched and squeaky, like the amplified opening and closing of rusty scissors," he said. "The egg is one of the smallest of any bird -- less than half the size of a penny."
In addition to the display on Baylands birds and eggs, which also teaches about nests and adaptations that birds make, the docents can teach units on skulls or salt marsh plants.
The station is wheeled out to the duck pond as a way of reaching passersby, instead of expecting people to come into the Environmental Volunteers facility, which is the ship-shaped former Sea Scouts building located across Embarcadero Road.
Vanshika Desai, a high school senior who started volunteering with the EcoCenter on Wheels in early June, said that the cart has definitely created more interest in the main center.
"Usually a lot of families come by here, and we notice that a lot of kids get interested in it, and so then the parents as a result also start to ask about the different stuff that we have," she said. "One time there was this family with two little girls in strollers who had gone to the EcoCenter and then they had come back and said that it was a really cute experience."
Moos attested to the value of going to where the families are.
"A lot of people have said, 'Oh I never knew that there was something going on in your building. I didn't know you guys were here doing nature education,' and the kids love it," she said.
The EcoCenter on Wheels project is funded with a grant from the Palo Alto University Rotary Club. Staff expect the EcoCenter on Wheels will continue on weekends throughout the school year as volunteers are available.