Spring 2009

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A Word from the Wild

Tara Czarnecki holding salamander eggs
Tara holds a mass of salamander eggs, one of the rewards of her night-visit to a vernal pond.

In early March I had the opportunity to give a presentation about climate change to the Governor’s Youth Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, at King’s Gap State Park. The council is a group of very bright, motivated and engaged high school students who were appointed by Gov. Rendell to advise the Governor’s Advisory Council and sportsmen on conservation, outdoor and recreation issues concerning youth. 

Since it was on a Saturday, I invited my 10-year-old daughter to come along. As much as Tara loves science and is interested in the kind of work I do, she was less than thrilled with spending her Saturday listening to Dad give a lecture. That was until I told her we’d be having a field trip afterward.

Tara’s reaction was like that of a lot of kids. Learning about nature in a classroom setting only goes so far toward holding their interest. It’s only when they experience the real thing that they truly connect with nature.

As night fell, Aura Stauffer, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, led us on a walk to several vernal pools, to see the annual amphibious spectacle that is the subject of this issue of Keystone Wild!Notes.

It was a moonlit night and uncharacteristically warm for the time of year. We didn’t have far to walk to the first pond and, before I knew it, Tara was out in the water to the top of her boots, gathering a bottom sample with her dip net. She was beside herself with excitement when she dumped the first net full of muck and leaves into the white collection pan and discovered a newt. More netfulls revealed other “cool” things, including fairy shrimp, dragonfly larvae, and some really big predaceous diving beetles that she wouldn’t go near.

Even though we were in unfamiliar surroundings, we had no problem finding the next pond -- we just followed our ears. We turned off our headlamps as we approached and just listened. The cacophony of mating wood frogs was so loud, it was difficult to hear the person next to you. After a couple of minutes, we turned on our lights and were greeted with total silence and hundreds of glowing eyes. The frogs were so intent on their spring courtship that Tara had no problem catching them with her hands.

Aura then led us to our last stop, a pond that was a bit smaller, but a little deeper. It was here that we found the animals that we had come to see -- one of Pennsylvania’s mole salamanders, the Jefferson salamander. Aura ventured into the deeper part of the pond and brought back an egg mass for everyone to see and hold if they wanted to, which Tara did, of course (see photo). It made the evening complete. We had seen, heard and held nature, and that’s worth more than a hundred lectures.

Tara’s been exposed to a lot of outdoor experiences. She’s hiked through wetlands and forests, held bog turtles and black snakes, pulled invasive plants and caught catfish nearly as big as she was. Without those opportunities, and with only classroom exposure to the natural world, she probably wouldn’t be very interested in or appreciate the natural world.

So if you know a young person who hasn’t had a chance to experience nature hands-on, do something about it. Take them on a hike, go fishing or, perhaps best of all, grab a net and take them to the pond. It just might be a life-transforming experience for them.

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To experience the sights and sounds of a vernal pond, visit, to see a short video produced by the Forgotten Friend reptile sanctuary.

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Greg Czarnecki Columnist GREG CZARNECKI is the Executive Director of WRCP
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