By Trish O’Kane
On a mid-summer evening, a rarely-seen species invaded Warner Park. A small herd of splashing, jumping, shouting, laughing and questioning children stampeded along the edge of Warner’s wetland, begging to see a freshly-caught American toad.
“Oh my God. He’s so cuuuuute,” squealed a little girl in pink as she examined the toad inside his new Tupperware prison. The toad did not seem amused.
“Did you know toads drink through their butt?” UW-Madison Environmental Studies student Christa Seidl told the crowd of over 30 people, mostly children ranging from one to 13-years-old. Seidl was one of four Wild Warner Environmental Educators taking the kids, their parents and a few lookie-loos on a “Who Lives in the Water?” walk.
Sarah Bewitz, another Wild Warner educator, took the toad out to show the young explorers how he could chirp like a bird. The toad obliged. The children gasped.
Wild Warner’s team set up learning stations along the shoreline as dragonflies and electric-blue damselflies buzzed through the cattails and a male red-winged blackbird clucked in alarm. Armed with small pink and white nets, the children combed the water’s edge in a hunt for knowledge. They caught lily pads. They caught green algae. They caught beer cans and mounds of duckweed.
“This is so cool!” shouted a little girl clutching a dragonfly larvae. Wild Warner educators Britney Rutherford and Joslyn Mink explained to her what it was and how it lived.
At another station, Seidl showed little boys how to use special paper strips to measure the water’s pH. They learned that the wetland’s pH is between 6.5 and 7.0. The educators explained that it was “a little acidic.”
“What’s acidic, anyway?” eight-year-old Habib asked the college student. This young explorer was sporting new binoculars that he was wearing upside down.
Habib learned that acidic water is sour. He also learned that it is harder for creatures with shells to live in it, as well as frogs. Acidity is often caused by pollutants — acid rain or outside chemicals, the college students told him.
Acidity forgotten, the children splashed and played in the wetland as the sun set. Swallows and kingbirds twittered overhead and fish surfaced to feast on insects. Painted turtles joined them, their triangular snouts jutting out of the water. Nearby, a school of tiny bullhead fish swam fast in a shimmering black cloud.
This walk is one of a series of family-friendly activities organized by Wild Warner and Dave Meyer of the Brentwood Community Coalition. St. Paul Lutheran Church, the Brentwood Neighborhood Association and Emerson Elementary School have helped Meyer organize weekly community-building dinners. Since last December, nearly every Thursday night neighbors have met in St. Paul’s basement to eat, play games, learn crafts, make Valentines, listen to a violinist and help the food pantry. This summer the group decided to take the community party outside and into Wild Warner.
Both Wild Warner’s education team and the Brentwood Community Coalition’s dinner project were initially supported by a city neighborhood grant.