Naturalists Educate Residents about Ecology of the Area
Bats and badgers and beetles - oh my! From wildlife to wildflowers, the St. Charles area provides a thriving and fertile habitat for native plants, birds, and animals.
For the St. Charles Park District, keeping track of them all - literally and figuratively - falls to the skills and talents of Mary Ochsenschlager, manager of natural resources, and Renae Frigo, naturalist.
Maintaining and enhancing the community's natural areas, preserving and protecting open space, and offering environmental education, are a few of their tasks.
Whether it's teaching schoolchildren about salamanders and snails, or supervising adults as they volunteer during park clean- up work days, Ochsenschlager and Frigo are dedicated to providing enjoyable environmental education opportunities that address a wide variety of ecological issues.
"As we continue to lose precious natural areas to increased development, we subject our native landscape to numerous threats," according to Ochsenschlager, or Mary O., as she is affectionately known. "It's important that we learn how to preserve and protect what remains."
That education process starts with the youngest residents and continues through adults and family groups. Both Ochsenschlager and Frigo have master's degrees in environmental education from Northern Illinois University, and collaborate on designing the programs.
"Part of the reward for me," says Frigo, who teaches the majority of the programs, "is watching the joy of discovery in our class participants. We love to make learning about the environment exciting and fun."
Courses and special events follow the seasonal calendar. In spring, for instance, there might be a work day to celebrate Earth Day at Persimmon Woods, while summer brings an opportunity to learn about prairie wildflowers at Campton Hills Park.
Fall would be an ideal time to go on a geology tour of northern Kane County or learn about macroinvertebrates at Norris Woods.
And come winter, what could be more invigorating than heading out on a snowshoe nature hike at Otter Creek Bend, or more beautiful than spending an evening enjoying the sight of moonlight glimmering on the fresh snowfall at Ferson Creek Fen?
"The learning experience must be a positive one" says Frigo. "In order for that to happen, it's important that course participants feel comfortable spending time outdoors."
Some of the most popular naturalist programs do just that. A perennial favorite is a series of night-time field trips into several of the district's six native areas to introduce people to the sights and sounds produced by insects, frogs, birds and animals once the sun goes down.
"It's unusual for people to be outdoors in total darkness," says Mary O. "The night hike courses enable them to open up their senses to the nocturnal world."
Other popular programs include "Tadpole Mania" for 5- to 7-year- olds, and the summer Nature Camp, which is sponsored in conjunction with the St. Charles Noon Rotary Club.
And there has been an entire series of programs entitled "Focus on the Fox" that highlight aspects of life on, in and around St. Charles' largest natural attraction, the Fox River. Experts conduct classes on the effects of the dams, restoration projects, cultural perspectives and in-depth discussions of life forms found in the river ecology.
The district works in conjunction with other area organizations to provide a wide spectrum of environmental education courses. Through the "Learn From the Experts" series, classes are offered in partnership with the Conservation Research Institute and the Forest Preserve District of Kane County to provide in-depth information and learning opportunities.
The district is also part of the Chicago Wilderness effort, a consortium of more than 100 agencies and organizations dedicated to protect the natural communities of the Chicago region and to restore natural areas for long-term viability. …