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Being a Shadow? Not too Scary! In Fact, It’s Downright Cool!

Written on: May 20th, 2016 in Education & OutreachGuest BlogNERRVolunteers

To add variety to the blog and to offer a fresh perspective from our visitors, we are inviting guest bloggers to write posts describing their visits and thoughts while at the Reserve.  The guest blog is brought to you by M.L. Christmas about her recent experience attending our second installment of our “Education Volunteer Training”. Enjoy! (Maggie Pletta, DNERR Education Coordinator & Blog Editor)

Being a Shadow? Not too Scary! In Fact, It’s Downright Cool!

An important part of education volunteer training is assuming the identity of a shadow and following Maggie Pletta, DNERR Education Coordinator. While it sounds like stealthy spy-stuff, involving a whiff of danger, the shadowing is done in broad daylight and could not have been more illuminating.

The Eat-N-Go session taught us about Horseshoe Crabs, and particularly that jar on the right of itty-bitty crab eggs. (The Red Knots say “yum!”)

The Eat-N-Go session taught us about Horseshoe Crabs, and particularly that jar on the right of itty-bitty crab eggs. (The Red Knots say “yum!”)

For the first part of the session, Eat-N-Go, the adult trainees assumed the role of an elementary-school audience and listened to Maggie’s presentation on the natural history of Horseshoe Crabs, particularly their eggs’ role as a valuable food source for migrating shorebirds. The mini-lesson is customarily followed by a brief time of structured play. We were told the parameters of the game: a delightful mix of boundary-marking cones, hula hoops (safe zones), uncooked beans (Horseshoe Crab “eggs”), and individual plastic bags in which the “Red Knots / Ruddy Turnstones / Semipalmated Sandpipers / Sanderlings” (the students) could place their beany bounty. A few students would be designated as “Predators,” representing raccoons and foxes, whose job it would be to beat the migrating species to the foodstuffs. A game of “Shorebirds versus Predators” is a fun way of conveying this serious information to younger minds–and to those young at heart. (I call “dibs” on “raccoon”!)

How old is this Horseshoe Crab? Flip over the specimen, measure the shell (metric only!) at the widest part, then refer to the chart.

How old is this Horseshoe Crab? Flip over the specimen, measure the shell (metric only!) at the widest part, then refer to the chart.

We then moved to a different presentation area for the Horseshoe Molt Lab. Maggie and an assistant, DNERR’s Colleen Holstein, quickly set up eight stations along the tabletops. By stopping at each of these stations, and by going down a list of corresponding questions, it was as if we were giving Horseshoe Crabs a “physical,” one step at a time: age, eye exam, condition of body structure, etc., but all pointing toward the succession of molts the crabs undergo during a significant portion of their lifespans. This part of the shadowing session was geared to us as if we were an older, more sophisticated student group. Hence, the greater complexity of the material and the increased audience-participation level.

The lab station related to the crabs’ compound eyes was accompanied by a couple of pairs of novelty sunglasses, intended to allow students an approximation of viewing the world for themselves through compound eyes. But this participant did what anyone would do: put the sunglasses on the Horseshoe Crab. (Some of us were still in “child mode” from Eat-N-Go….)

 

Compound eyes for compound eyes!

Compound eyes for compound eyes!

But the subject of eyes, in this education training “shadowing” session that was all about observation and raising our awareness, provided a really cool moment of insight. At one of the stations, a penlight was provided for assisting students with illuminating a crab’s eyes from within: a great way to observe those compound-eye structures. No, not just the pair of eyes one typically sees when gazing at a Horseshoe Crab, which are the compound lateral eyes, as in the adjoining photo, but all of its eyes, even the median eyes. The whaaat? Yes, the Horseshoe Crab has many tiny, “secret” eyes, and the median eyes, being on the upper leading-edge of the shell, enjoy a periscope-like promontory! This participant believes that set of spy-eyes to be the coolest part of a Horseshoe Crab, although Maggie continues to claim it is the crop-gullet. We’ll just let her keep thinking that, but this writer would offer the following for your consideration.

Not scary: It’s inspirational! The compound lateral eyes are only the beginning.

Not scary: It’s inspirational!
The compound lateral eyes are
only the beginning.

This accompanying photo may look rather sinister, but the process of using the penlight to observe the various sets of eyes will also allow you to see the poetry! Yes, there is poetry in Horseshoe Crabs. The crabs would probably tell us that fact themselves, if they could speak in human languages. But instead, one refers to the Molt Lab handout, and reads that the median eyes “can sense ultraviolet light from the moon and stars.” In a flash, when reading that passage, the glow of the penlight is replaced by the fire of consciousness burning behind those tiny median eyes, the safety-beacon sensor-eyes by which the crab has been guided up onto the beach — nestled under a broad swath of twinkling stars, and touched by moonlight and the gentle lapping of the water’s edge — to go quietly about its life-affirming task while most of the human world, on the Eastern Seaboard, sleeps.  (See what I mean?)

The leading edge of our dramatic group-march to the marsh, as viewed by those of us in the supporting wave.

The leading edge of our dramatic group-march to the marsh, as viewed by those of us in the supporting wave.

We then made a dramatic group-march out toward the marsh and the boardwalk, stopping at points along the way. We paused at various stations, just as with the Molt Lab. Although not all of them had tangible way-signage, each had its own salient points of note. We were told about weather measurements and scientific experiments being conducted; discussed the Reserve’s storm ponds and vernal pools; observed several types of marsh grasses; examined a Bayberry and a Holly; discussed brackish water, tides, Fiddler Crabs, their burrows, and even the types of animal footprints one might encounter.

As if proof were needed that DNERR’s education trainee-volunteers are an eagle-eyed group, one of our bunch spotted and alerted the rest of us to the presence of a flying Bald Eagle visible above the far trees; and the alert was sounded twice more, later on in the session, to draw our collective attention to a fox trotting across the marsh.

“Sometimes I even apply the mud to my face as a sort of facial masque….”

“Sometimes I even apply the mud to my face as a sort of facial masque….”

Another the cool part of the education volunteer training event, apart from the uncooked beans, the novelty shades, and the secret “periscope” eyes? Maggie’s discussion of marsh mud composition, its degree of sulfur smell, the process of oxidation, and the natural breakdown of botanic matter. She says she likes to alert kids to the beneficial richness of the marsh’s materials by applying the demonstration’s fistful of mud to her own face as an impromptu facial! Talk about a willingness to get into the nitty-gritty!

Here our group marched just as dramatically back to civilization, now with flower petals strewing our path.

Here our group marched just as dramatically back to civilization, now with flower petals strewing our path.

The all-afternoon session passed too quickly, and the time had come for us to return to civilization, but with it would come future DNERR volunteer opportunities to impart our newfound knowledge to school students as well as to adults.

A repeat-session of this education volunteer training will be held this fall at the St. Jones Reserve, for those who might have missed the April 11 afternoon gathering and are now inspired to find out more.

Being a shadow is indeed very illuminating, and not too scary! Take one look into those glowing median eyes, and see for yourself!

Photos and text by M.L. Christmas
* * * *
M.L. Christmas, MSM, is a freelance writer/editor living in the Dover area. She is a longtime member of Delaware Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women. Her approach to nature writing, she says, is part Henry David Thoreau and part Dave Barry.

If you would like more information about how to become an Education Volunteer or the other volunteer opportunities available at the Reserve please visit: http://de.gov/dnerrvol 


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