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St. Louis-area students become acquainted with wildlife through BioBlitz

Michael Dawson of the St. Louis Zoo shows an American toad to a group of fourth-graders from Community School on May 4, 2018.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Armed with clipboards and binoculars, students from the St. Louis area got a chance to explore nearby forests, fields and ponds, all while cataloging local wildlife.

Local naturalists and wildlife experts helped guide small groups of students as part of the first BioBlitz at Principia School in Town and Country on Friday. The BioBlitz, which happens each year in communities across the U.S., is an effort to record plants and animals, while also helping “citizen scientists” feel more connected to nature.

Michael Dawson, the conservation education liaison at the St. Louis Zoo, said the event can help ease the disconnect between urban communities and nature.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity to get young people excited about nature and wildlife,” Dawson said. “It’s maybe somebody’s first time seeing a toad or holding a toad, and I get excitement out of watching the joy on their face.”

Dawson leads a group of fourth graders from Community School in Ladue as they search for aquatic wildlife. Pulling on a pair of khaki hip waders, he explains that it takes patience to find reptiles and amphibians.

The students are not deterred, however. In under a half hour, they find several cricket frogs, an American toad and a northern water snake.

Fourth-graders Gwen Stewart and Harper Hall take turns holding the toad, as their classmates carefully note it on their clipboards.

“It did feel very delicate and it was very smooth on the stomach, but you could still feel the bumps on its back,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty cool because I’ve never seen a lot of the stuff I’ve seen today.”

Dawson scoops a net through the pond water and turns it inside out, pointing to the dragonfly nymphs wiggling inside. The students gather around him to get a closer look.

Ellie Stevens, Education Coordinator for Forest Park Forever, goes insect hunting with two Principia students on May 4, 2018 as part of the first Principia BioBlitz.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Ellie Stevens, education coordinator for Forest Park Forever, goes insect hunting with two Principia students as part of the first Principia BioBlitz.

Community School teacher Robyn Corwin said events like these are invaluable for the students.

“They’re getting so much from this,” Corwin said. “They’re learning about the wildlife that’s around here and how to respect and take care of nature.”

Forest Park Forever Education Coordinator Ellie Stevens agrees. On a nearby hill, she leads a group of 5-and 6-year-old Principia students as they search for insects.

For Stevens, events like the BioBlitz can help young students feel a little less afraid of their surroundings.

“It really helps you understand how much life there is and helps you approach natural spaces in a different way,” Stevens said. “It’s pretty easy for little kids to move from feeling frightened of something to feeling really curious, interested, engaged and often they become advocates that way, too.”

More than 200 students from Principia, Community and The St. Michael School of Clayton joined this year’s BioBlitz.

The organizers hope it will become an annual event at Principia.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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