Students at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School had never heard of a bio blitz.
But once retired teacher Peggy Stark explained what it was and what they would be doing, the students were eager to get started.
The goal was to identify living organisms that have visited or have made their home in the school’s wildlife habitat through the years.
Divided into groups, students were on the lookout for birds, mammals, insects, spiders, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic life, flowers, trees and grasses. Each species had to be viewed, identified and logged.
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Although the task sounds daunting, the experience was an opportunity to teach third- through fifth-graders how to observe and record data like scientists and to explore the diversity of life in the world around them, Stark said.
“And it’s so much fun,” she added. “The kids are really excited about this.”
Also helping out with the bio blitz Friday were several wildlife experts, including Marc Milne and Kevin Gribbins, biology professors from the University of Indianapolis, Sandy Derringer from Jackson-Washington State Forest and Donna Stanley from Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge.
Called the Jackson Wildcat Habitat in honor of the school’s mascot, the acre-and-a-half of property is behind the school and serves as an outdoor learning lab.
Within the fenced-in area, there are different natural habitats represented, including prairies and grasslands, forests, wetlands and even gardens for butterflies and growing flowers, herbs and some crops, such as pumpkins, peanuts, popcorn and sunflowers.
There’s an Indiana garden shaped like the Hoosier state that includes the state flower, peony; the state tree, tulip poplar; and other native plants.
Stark and her husband, Steve, helped start the habitat eight years ago with support from the school’s parent-teacher organization. The school also has a Habitat Club made up of students who help maintain the area and promote it to the rest of the school and the community.
The habitat started as an empty field before but now contains more than 500 trees planted by students. It provides food, water and cover for wildlife and a place for animals to reproduce and raise their young, Peggy Stark said.
“These are all things needed for wildlife to survive,” she added.
Birdhouses students have built are located in the prairie area, and they have become nesting places for many types of birds. And a variety of native wildflowers is thriving there, too.
The Wildcat Habitat has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation and is not only for use by students but is open to the community, Peggy Stark said.
Although not all animals could be seen during the bio blitz, there was plenty of evidence that allowed students to make educated and scientific guesses as to what types are or have been in the habitat.
Students were able to collect feathers and shed snake skins, study footprints and see where animals, such as coyotes, rabbits, opossums and raccoons, had tamped down tall grasses to lie or burrow.
“We even found some owl pellets below one of the trees,” Steve Stark said.
He knew the hard work organizing the bio blitz was worth it when fourth-grader Helen Bunting told him how much she was enjoying it.
“She told me she wants to be a zoologist,” he said. “The kids are having fun and learning. We’ve even had some kids who thought they were scared of snakes reach out and touch one. This is what it’s all about.”
Helen said she likes being able to explore nature and would spend every second of the day in the habitat if she could.
“I love being out here,” she said.
Fourth-grader Kaden Brewer said he was glad he got to work with Gribbins to investigate the habitat’s wetlands area, which includes a small pond and a waterfall. Gribbins is an expert on amphibians and reptiles.
The group was successful in finding and collecting snail shells, tadpoles, small fish and crayfish. They saw and even touched a garter snake, one of several they observed throughout the day.
“I really like nature, and I think it’s cool that we are finding different wildlife out here,” Kaden said. “A lot of schools don’t have a habitat, so we’re pretty lucky.”
Besides science, the habitat provides a setting for creative writing and talking about math and geography, Peggy Stark said.
Kaden said he likes that the habitat provides a home to the various animals to keep them safe.
By investigating the wetlands area, he had learned not all wildlife live in the water.
“Some live on the rocks or on the ground around the water,” he said.
Gribbins said it was a fun change of pace to work with younger kids.
“This is just awesome,” he said as he helped students identify specimens using field guides. “Kids just don’t go outside enough these days. They spend all of their time indoors watching television or playing games on the computer.”
The habitat encourages kids to be outdoors exploring and to appreciate nature and the world around them, he added.
When it comes to bio blitzes, he said, it’s always good to take inventory of a wildlife area about every six years to see what is happening ecologically.
Fourth-grader Korey Estes is a member of the Habitat Club and said he is always surprised by what he sees in the habitat.
He was in the group looking for mammals.
“Nature is fun to look at and learn about,” he said, “but we have to take care of it or it won’t be here.”