Audubon Docents: Beyond the School Bus Tours

By Cindy Hardin, Director Environmental Education Programs
Photography by Leslie Davidson

The docents that staff school field trips love their work and dedicate a significant amount of time to educating children about the ecosystems in our area.  However, we also subscribe to the old adage regarding “all work and no play”—dull is a word we avoid at all costs in both our teaching methods and as a personal description!  In order to keep things lively and interesting, we conduct several field trips for ourselves during the school year.  These trips are designed to enrich our own knowledge, which we can pass on to visiting students.  Just as importantly, they allow us to get together and relax, and have a little fun in our off hours.

We have already visited several interesting spots during the 2012-2013 tour season.  In late September the Ballona docents headed south to the beautiful Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach.  The weather was picture perfect, and many migratory species had already settled into their winter home.  Ruddy Ducks, scaups, White-crowned Sparrows and many others were on display.  The trip was well attended by both returning and new docents, some of whom had never been to the Bolsa Chica.  This location is always a great place to visit for our “rookies”, as it gives them a chance to see a salt marsh with more water habitat, which opens up discussion about restoration and public access to environmentally sensitive areas.  This year’s trip had a special relevance, as major restoration plans are currently in the works for Ballona.  As we walked along the levees and into the upland habitat, we were able to see that both sections and their respective ecosystems are closely connected (literally and figuratively) and essential to each others’ functionality.  We realized that the Osprey―high up in a snag―needed that perch to survey the waters below in its search for a slippery snack!  Masses of Goldenbush were in full bloom in restored upland areas, with a cloud of pollinating insects hovering over them, and flitting Phoebes not far behind.  This piqued our own “foraging instincts”.  In addition to sharing a love of nature, Ballona docents are great cooks and have a love of food, so lunch is usually a feature when we go afield.  That day we went for Mexican food.

The next excursion was closer to home and the antithesis of Bolsa Chica: Hyperion Sewer Plant, right down the road in El Segundo.  This is a fabulous tour and free and open to the public.  Our group was expertly led by long-time Public Relations Director, Nancy Carr.  We viewed a brief film about Hyperion and its processes.  We learned that the amount of water handled daily would fill the Rose Bowl to the brim four times over!  After the film it was time to don hard hats and board the trams to tour the plant.  We made stops to see the screens that filter the sewage water as it first arrives, viewed the trucks being loaded with processed “material” that will be used to fertilize the county owned farm, Green Acres, located near Bakersfield, and saw the settling ponds where the natural separation of solids and liquids occurs.  No lunch stop after this trip―time constraints and lack of appetite stimulation being two major factors!  This trip really got people thinking about the precious resource of water, and how in the future we will need to get over the “ick factor” of gray water for gardening and other uses in order to sustain our ever growing population and its demands.

Our tour schedule falls off in December due to Winter Break for the schools, so it’s the perfect time for a docent excursion.  This time our destination was another wetland of a completely different nature.  We visited the Madrona Marsh, a freshwater marsh, nestled in the heart of Torrance.  Surrounded on all sides by major roads and development, this island of habitat is historically (and still is) a vernal marsh.  We were extremely fortunate to have Tracy Drake, Marsh Manager and naturalist extraordinaire, act as our tour guide for the morning.  Madrona is anchored by an impressive nature center, which is chockablock with information about wetlands and interesting exhibits.  Five cases of realia highlight different species in their respective habitats that are found at Madrona.  By the time we got outside for our tour of the wetlands, the rain of that morning had dissipated, leaving us to enjoy clearing skies and refreshing post-storm breezes.  As we wandered through thickets of willows and ponds of water we were able to sight lots of avian activity.  In the time that we were there we saw twenty-two species of birds, including a Peregrine Falcon perched high atop a nearby building, Black and Say’s Phoebes, kingbirds, and of course a host of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and other small birds, foraging for breakfast after the rains.  Flickers were present as well, both the Northern and Yellow-shafted variety.  Tracy also took us to the sump ponds that are used by the city of Torrance to handle run-off from the surrounding areas.  It was a great lesson that illustrated how natural areas and urban development can exist side by side in a mutually beneficial manner.  Habitat for animals is created and maintained, and pollutants are cleansed as the run-off passes through the marsh.

Photos by Leslie Davidson, Madrona Marsh Docent Field Trip, Dec. 18, 2012
































The Madrona Marsh field trip was extremely well attended, with about half of our volunteers from our active docent roster participating.  A holiday luncheon for all followed our tour.  We feasted on a Chinese food banquet at a nearby restaurant, which was recommended by Tracy.  The Lazy Susan in the middle of the table was spinning with all kinds of deliciousness, and a festive time was an excellent capper to a day spent outside, admiring the jewel that is the Madrona Marsh.

Our last get-together for 2012 took place right at Ballona.  We can’t get enough of the place!  Several of us got together between Christmas and New Year’s Day to do a little restoration work at the wetlands.  Although we all love hosting field trips for school children, there is a special quality to being out there with just ourselves.  We were also able to really make a dent on removing some of the invasive plant species that crowd out the native plants essential to a high-functioning ecosystem.  Our target species for this outing: the dreaded euphorbia terrisima.  This prolific plant is trying to gain a toehold in the very rare coastal dune habitat at the saltmarsh―we spent the morning removing five wheelbarrows worth of the noxious weed.  We were fortunate to be joined by three young women who were home for break from their studies at college.  Emily, Joyce and Jessica are all graduates of Los Angeles Audubon’s Greenhouse Program, and worked diligently at the day’s task.  It was delightful and inspiring to see these young people devote a day of their vacation to environmental work, and we were very appreciative of their efforts.

Photos by Leslie Davidson, from last Docent get-together at Ballona Wetlands, Dec. 27, 2012

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Staff field trips are not limited to the Ballona volunteers.  In October the interns that handle tours for our program at Kenneth Hahn made a trip to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.  The group toured the museum, with extra time spent in the Bird Hall.  Species found at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area were the focus here.  Viewing the specimens up close gives an invaluable lesson, and hones identification skills.  This helps to prepare our interns to teach our young tour attendees about the abundant bird life found in the park.  It was an especially appropriate time for such a lesson, as flocks of Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers and other species had recently arrived to take up their winter residency in sunny Southern California.  This trip was also well-attended, and a good time was had by all.

The busy time for school field trips has now commenced, and consequently the opportunity for docent field trips has diminished.  However, Spring Break is not far off, and there are plans in the works to a special trip at that time.  This excursion will bring together the hard-working staff from both the Ballona and Kenneth Hahn programs, for a destination that has yet to be determined.  It will be sure to have all the components of the above trips―education, camaraderie and fun!  Watch for the May/June issue of the Western Tanager to find out about our next adventure.  And remember, if this all sounds too exciting to miss, and you have an interest in teaching children about the outdoors, we always welcome new docents to either program.


Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 4 March/April 2013