Kids explore fascinating alien world

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Hampton - posted Wed., Jun. 15, 2011
Connecticut DEP employee Valerie Leclerc helps Nylu sort through the contents of her net at Goodwin State Forest. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Connecticut DEP employee Valerie Leclerc helps Nylu sort through the contents of her net at Goodwin State Forest. Photos by Melanie Savage.

“Oh my goodness, this is very exciting,” exclaimed Juan Sanchez, bending over his microscope to get a better look at a phantom midge larva. Sanchez was quickly surrounded by children eager to get a look. “See those spots right there behind his eyes?” asked Sanchez. “Those are chambers that he uses to trap air. He uses them to regulate buoyancy.”

The otherworldly creature under the microscope lens was transparent, with large eyes, brush-like mouth parts, and large, black spots behind its eyes and near its tail. “I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed those chambers near his tail before,” said Sanchez, eliciting a “Cool,” from one of his young charges. Sanchez explained that the creature under the microscope would soon change into a tiny, non-biting fly that would hang out near the surface of the pond.

Ponds were the order of the day on June 11, as Sanchez hosted the first in a series of children’s workshops planned for the Goodwin State Forest in Hampton. Children attending the workshop were handed nets and turned loose on a small pond on the property. They were encouraged to sweep the pond and examine the critters pulled up from its depths. The result was a profusion of aquatic creatures that the children were encouraged to examine further at the forest’s Education Center.

Dipped carefully from a large bucket and parceled out into shallow trays were a variety of tadpoles in various stages of development. There were larvae and worms, beetles and water striders. There was a tiny wriggling creature resembling a worm with hair-like appendages. A trip under the microscope revealed the creature to have four small legs, a tail and feather-like gills. “Oh my, you children have done very well,” said Sanchez. “Do you know what you’ve found here? You’ve found a larval salamander.” The children were amazed to learn that the creature, barely half an inch long, would grow into a spotted salamander, native to the area, and black with bright yellow spots at maturity. “See,” said Sanchez, pointing to a picture in a book. He gently took hold of a little girl’s hand, drawing a line from her wrist to the tip of her middle finger. “These guys can grow to be this big,” he said.

Sanchez possesses an infectious enthusiasm and an effective manner with children. “I was a science teacher and naturalist in public schools for 32 years,” he said. Now retired, Sanchez is still involved in a number of different projects, including the assembly of an atlas of lichen for the Connecticut Botanical Society. He also volunteers his time to a number of different programs at Goodwin Forest, including the children’s series and a new series that he’s calling the Victorian Naturalist.

The Victorian Naturalist (the first was held on June 12), offers a chance to dress in Victorian fashion and explore nature. Visitors are also encouraged to bring a picnic lunch to share on the Goodwin grounds. Sanchez plans a second Victorian Naturalist event for August.

The children’s workshops, geared toward children ages 6 and up, are planned for every other Saturday afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m. Future topics will include birds, mammals, flowers, insects, and a second pond session.

One of the more interesting creatures found during the first pond session was the larva of the predacious diving beetle. “We need to move that little salamander larva away from those guys,” said Sanchez. Sure enough, shortly after the tiny salamander was moved, one of the beetle larva swooped over and grabbed hold of a wriggling blood worm. “Whoa,” exclaimed a little boy, watching the worm disappear into the larva.

“I’ve seen those guys eat nine tadpoles in half an hour,” said Sanchez.

The Goodwin State Forest is located at 23 Potter Road in Hampton. The next children’s workshop is scheduled for Saturday, June 18, at 1 p.m. For more information, call 860-928-6121 or e-mail Sanchez at juan.sanchezjr@ct.gov.


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