Tuesday, April 2, 2013

WILD School Sites Part 4--Stepping Stones, Animal Tracks Plot, and Maintenance

This is the fourth article in a series on WILD School Sites, or outdoor classrooms. WILD School Sites are locations that can be used by students, teachers, and the school community as places to learn about wildlife and the environment. The first thing to do when developing a site is to formulate a plan. You can contact your district Wildlife Communication Specialist, who can walk you through the process to help ensure success.

So what type of project should you do?

Remember, no two sites are the same, so each site will consist of different projects. Available resources, such as time, money, space, and labor, will also play a role in what projects are chosen. Last month’s article focused on brush piles, perching wires, and viewing blinds as an inexpensive and quick way to get your site up and running. This month we will look at a few more projects which can be completed as well as some important thoughts for those who already have sites.

Cementing your legacy

Stepping stones help provide a visual and functional walking path through your site. This can be especially important in the early stages of a project when young plants are still frail. Stepping stones can also help with established sites by leading participants from one project to the next.

There are numerous kits available, or you can build your own with old plastic planter saucers or cake pans. Directions can be found on various sites online. After the mold is filled, wait for 30-60 minutes before proceeding. Once the cement has started to set, the students can proceed with decorating the stepping stones. Virtually anything can be used to decorate the steps. Leaves, animal tracks, insect replicas, or any other outdoor learning device can be incorporated into the stepping stones.

Sneaky visitors

Many species of animals are wary of humans and can be quite elusive. Creating an animal track plot is an inexpensive and fun way to learn what types of animals pass through your site. Students and educators are often amazed at the species that live around them.

Begin by clearing an area at least 3ft. by 3ft. of all grass and vegetation. A raised bed can also be constructed using landscape timbers. The area should then be filled with clay soil 2-3 inches deep. Be sure to rake the soil smooth and moisten the soil so it is soft enough for animals to leave impressions.

To increase the number and types of animals that visit your plot, try using various types of bait to lure wildlife in. For additional learning opportunities, keep records of what animals visit the site. Students can also create molds of the animal tracks using plaster of Paris.

Don’t walk away

Whether you are just starting out, or a seasoned veteran, WILD School Sites need to be maintained or they will become an overgrown patch of weeds. Maintenance really depends on what projects have been included in the site. This time of year, many species of bushes, including butterfly bushes, can be trimmed. Consult a garden book or website for other species. Warm season grasses can also be trimmed. Now is also a great time to start placing orders for perennials. Stick with native species if possible. Native plants will benefit more wildlife than non-native plants. Also, some non-native plants can become invasive. Native plants are also better adapted to local weather and pests so they require less water and chemicals.

If your site has nest boxes for birds, now is an excellent time to clean those boxes and remove any old nesting material, insect nests, and repair any damage that may have occurred over the winter. Nesting birds such as bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, house wrens, and tree swallows are beginning to look for nesting sites. So be sure to be ready for them.

A Final Thought

Although most WILD School Sites contain multiple projects that can take years to develop from start to finish, stepping stones and animal track plots offer an opportunity to start educating youth about Ohio’s wildlife at any time of the year. They are relatively inexpensive, easily constructed, and can be used at virtually any site. As the weather begins to warm, don’t forget to take students outside and perform some general maintenance on your site. For more information about these projects or other WILD School Site projects, contact your district’s Wildlife Communications Specialist.

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