Working to reconnect people with nature

Spring peepers, spotted turtles, and marbled salamanders are some of the amphibians and reptiles that may be found in Woodcock Nature Center’s vernal pools.
Knowing about these critters, experts hope, could make folks more likely to want to preserve their fragile habitats.
Jennifer Carpenter, a naturalist and animal care coordinator at the center, has created a research study for the site’s seven pools that will allow members of the community to become scientists for a night to see the importance these distinct wetlands have on the local ecosystem.
“I would love to see the community get involved and understand what it’s all about, because that’s how interest starts, and that’s what inspires someone to recognize wetlands and want to protect them,” said Ms. Carpenter, who joined the nature center in 2013.
Her research, which was supported by the Connecticut Association of Wetland Scientists (CAWS) and the Ridgefield Conservation Commission, has inspired the center’s first annual vernal pool study, which will take place at its Deer Run Road location on the border of Ridgefield and Wilton at 6:15 p.m., Saturday, April 18.
The free program is open to ages 14 and older and will include recording physical and biological characteristics of the pools, organism identification, and other important data collection, such as temperature and precipitation.
Ms. Carpenter said she’s been playing in wetlands and studying the creatures that inhabit them since she was 5 years old, and the study is like a dream come true.
“I used to stay out all night looking for frogs, salamanders, toads — all sorts of things,” she said. “I’ve always had an obsession with those species, and as I got older I learned what a vernal pool was and spent a lot of time around them.”
So what exactly is a vernal pool?
It’s a basin — about three feet deep — that temporarily fills with water from melted snow and spring rain, typically drying up during the summer months. Because these pools lack a fish population, amphibians and invertebrate species, like fairy shrimp, are able to survive.
“A lot of people don’t recognize it, but these are the starting points for a lot of other animals,” Ms. Carpenter said. “Raccoons and bears need food in the spring so they can start breeding, and they go to these pools to get the nourishment they need to start that process.
“Without the pools and without the species in and around them, it would affect everything in this habitat and our larger ecosystem,” she said.

Little girl’s dream

A Ridgefielder her whole life, Ms. Carpenter remembers hiking the Woodcock trails when she was a little girl.
She said that inspired her to volunteer for two and a half years, when she fed animals and watched birds.
When a position became available, she didn’t hesitate to apply, and since becoming a full-time staff member she’s been driven toward creating programs for kids — as well as adults.
Last spring she created the center’s first-ever Great Amphibian Migration weekend program, in which she taught students about vernal pools and the various wildlife that surrounds them.
“They were able to go and live what my childhood was, which was taking nets and scooping eggs and finding wood frogs,” she said. “And it ended up being a huge success, but it left me wanting more.”


Creating a program for adults — based on research and lab testing — was the next logical step in the process.
“We don’t normally do things for adults — we gear a lot of educational programs toward children and families, but I thought this would be really cool and have something that’s more structured and informative,” she said.
“I’ve done loads and loads of research and have been planning it for some time now in my head, and everyone here has been very supportive about letting me spend a lot of time reading and learning about different monitoring programs.”
She credits CAWS scientist Ed Pawlak, who runs the state’s vernal pool identification and monitoring program, for helping her with information about the program and creating the structure of the study.
The way it will work is that the larger group will be split into six teams that will first take water samples using test kids donated by Ridgefield-based Professional Water Systems, which will also do lab tests on whatever is collected.
Ms. Carpenter said she plans to run tests on the water’s turbidity, its alkalinity, and its conductivity as well as testing for calcium, sulfates, nitrates, sulfur, aluminum, and other chemical elements.
The groups will take on-site pH tests with the kits and will send the remainder to the lab, she said.
In addition, the conservationists will record weather conditions inside and around the pool, will record the species in the pool, including egg masses and fairy shrimp, and will search surrounding uplands of the vernal pools in an effort to locate species in the area.
“From scooping eggs all day until my mom called me inside to being able to do something along the lines of conservation and involving the community in these efforts, I’m just very excited about it, and I think it’s going to be a successful program,” she said.
Water samples will be compared with data the Conservation Commission collected in 2010.

Amphibian crosswalk

Henryk Teraszkiewicz, the center’s executive director, said the ultimate goal of the ongoing study is to create a movement from education to active preservation and species protection.
By using citizen science, he believes Woodcock can get more people more attached to their own back yards and protect the wildlife — specifically as species transition from the winter into the spring.
One area of interest for Ms. Carpenter and Mr. Teraszkiewicz is finding and identifying various “hot spots” near vernal pools around town.
“It’s really based around phenology, which is the science behind seasonal change,” he said.
“There are a lot of issues that affect so many of these amphibians during their migration,” he said. “Every year these different species wake up from their hibernation, which is typically underground and in close proximity to vernal pools.”
The process is called thermal inversion, he said, and it begins during the first nighttime rain above 40 degrees in the spring.
“It’s really when you’re buried underground and your back becomes warmer than your belly,” Mr. Teraszkiewicz said. “That’s the driving force that flips the switch.”
The “great amphibian migration” usually happens by mid-March, he said, but this year it will be coming later — most likely in the middle of April.
“What we’d like to prevent from happening is an issue that happens around these hot spots every year when the animals have to go from the woodland habitats and cross busy roads to get to their breeding grounds near the pools,” he said.
“It’s this big nighttime event that happens and they all come charging out of the woods,” he said. “ They don’t look both ways when they cross the road, unfortunately, and there are high kill rates at some of these sites.
“If we can use the training that’s part of this study to have people help identify the hot spots and get an action team mobilized to head out when we think that event will happen, then we’ll have people at these different spots with flashlights and reflective vests. It will be like having an amphibian crossing guard set up.”
If enough people are interested in the crossing guard program, Mr. Teraszkiewicz hopes local law enforcement will get involved to ensure the process is done safely.
“We want to have kids, families — people of all ages — out there to really start making a difference in species preservation,” he said. “It’s all about the move from education to active preservation.
“This is the natural next step for our program and the evolution of where this study is heading. …
We want to make them feel like they’re making a difference, and that’s because they are.”

Health and nature

The vernal pool study is a branch of the center’s overall mission of getting people to spend more time in the outdoors.
The program is called Reconnect, and Mr. Teraszkiewicz said the center will be using a variety of tactics to motivate the community.
“Arts in nature, recreational pursuits —like mountain biking — in nature, technology in nature,” he said, listing a few of the proposed programs.
“We’ve created a real life Minecraft game out in the woods,” he said.
He said Woodcock Nature Center was inspired by recent studies that documented a disconnection from nature over the last couple of decades that has been linked to vitamin D deficiency, ADHD, and other disorders.
“It’s not the cure-all, but we think we can help people get healthier,” he said. “The exposure to the outdoors leads to greater general health, and taking that knowledge, our idea is to develop a new appreciation for nature so that in the future we can begin making choices that are more appropriate.”
It starts with their educational programs for kids, he said, but he’d like to see adults get involved, too.
“Our catch phrase has become ‘Raising healthy communities today for a healthy environment tomorrow,’” he said. “And one of those ways to become healthier is getting involved at a grassroots level and reconnecting with your own back yard. …
“It’s right out your own window, and you can be part of real-world, meaningful science,” he said. “That’s why we hope to see more citizen science coming from our programs.”