CALEDONIA — You won’t find any trout at Trout Ponds Prairie in rural Caledonia, but you will find a bounty of other plants and wildlife.
That was certainly true last week when the Caledonia Conservancy, the owners and caretakers of the preserve, welcomed dozens of fourth-graders from Gifford School to experience the magic of the property through the nonprofit’s School to Nature program.
Located on 4 Mile Road just west of Highway 31, the 28-acre preserve is home to nine ponds. Dug during the 1930s by the land’s original owner, the ponds were once used to raise minnows for bait.
Today the ponds look as though they might always have been part of the landscape — their still waters home to birds, insects, amphibians and other life.
Started in 2010, the School to Nature program exposes students to the natural world through field trips to the Conservancy’s preserved lands located throughout the Village of Caledonia. The conservancy does not charge for the field trips and writes grants to pay for transporting students to its sites.
This fall the conservancy will be helping fourth-graders at Gifford, Olympia Brown, North Park and St. Rita schools explore the Trout Ponds Preserve.
During the course of their 2½-hour field trip last Tuesday, students from Gifford learned about the various plants and animals that call the preserve’s pond, woodland and prairie habitats home — from cup plants in the prairie, to the skunks, shrews, poison ivy and garter snakes of the woods.
“Look at the color of them,” said conservancy member and guide Sandy DeWalt, directing the students to a photo of a garter snake. “See how my socks are elastic? Socks didn’t used to have elastic in them. Men used to put a garter around their leg to hold up their socks, and garters look like that. That is why they are called garter snakes.”
Ponds and prairie
At a picnic table alongside one of the ponds, conservancy members and volunteers helped one group of students examine pond water samples.
As birds chirped and grasshoppers rattled, the students peered into handheld microscopes, trying see of some of the seemingly invisible organisms that live in the water.
“This is just a little sample of what you might see (in the water),” volunteer Jodi Switalksi said. “There’s tons more.”
Later, the group was lucky enough to spy a green heron perched motionless on a dead log in one of the ponds.
Down in the prairie, Jill Baranowski, chairwoman of the School to Nature program, talked with another group of students about the many plants that make the habitat home.
Planted in 1998 with assistance from Conservancy volunteers and students at The Prairie School, the prairie was seeded with 33 different flowers, including prairie blazing star, white wild indigo, cup plant and bottle gentian. Grasses include big bluestem, wild rye switch grass and Indian Grass.
During the tour Baranowski encouraged the kids to pick a leaf of mountain mint and give it a whiff.
“It smells like toothpaste,” a boy said.