“We saw cottonwoods, mesquite and willow, and we wrote down how they’re affected by water use and how the different trees affect the river.”
-Arlene, age 13
What does it take to get kids interested in nature? Try wriggling desert pupfish, bobcat tracks, scavenger hunts and splashing in the river!
Dozens of southern Arizona junior high students found the San Pedro River, on two glorious spring days, to be full of these wonders. As part of Arizona Project WET, a Water Education for Teachers program of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service, the students spent a day at one of two Nature Conservancy properties—the San Pedro River Preserve near Winkelman and the Three Links Farm near Benson.
After piling out of a van at the San Pedro preserve, 6th graders from Laguna Elementary, a Tucson-area school, began their explorations—a geo-caching mission using GPS (Global Positioning System) units.
Go Forth and Explore
Divided into small groups of five, the kids and a Project WET leader used the units to track clues cached in boxes, the clues ultimately leading to some kind of animal.
In this case, it was a great horned owl. “We found a rat’s jawbone and some feathers and an owl pellet,” said Gabe, who added: “I really like these GPS‘s.”
Next the groups conducted various water investigations. One group—slightly distracted by the temptation to splash water on their friends—analyzed animal tracks in the sand by the river. “Were they headed into the water or out of the water?” asked the group leader. “Do they have claws? If they do they’re probably from the dog family, maybe a coyote. Cat tracks don’t show claws,” she said.
The group determined the tracks had no claws and were probably from a bobcat.
Connecting the Clues
Other groups had other investigative assignments, such as measuring water flow rates and counting birds, plants and animal species.
One group studied the types of trees in the vicinity of the river. “We compared the types of trees close to the river with other trees farther away,” said 13-year-old Arlene. “We saw cottonwoods, mesquite and willow, and we wrote down how they’re affected by water use and how the different trees affect the river.”
Each group followed the same scientific process. They each had data sheets and were asked to make a hypothesis about what they expected to find. They presented their findings as part of a “Water Investigation Symposium” at the University of Arizona on April 29.
Students from Florence Middle School documented seven types of birds at the San Pedro preserve’s pond, including a regular waterfowl resident, a coot. They spotted four bird species by the river.
Birds, Birds and More Birds
Another group hypothesized that they would see smaller birds near the river, while larger birds would likely be found in open areas where they could hunt. “We counted about 15-20 swallows, smaller birds, and away from the river, we saw turkey vultures and two gray hawks,” said 7th grader, Johnny, from St. David School.
A specific bird, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, is one reason the Conservancy purchased the 6,900-acre property, formerly a catfish and pecan farm. This bird likes flowing water with a canopy of trees. By removing the pecan operation and restoring several of the ponds to grass, the Conservancy was able to return more water to the river and make the habitat more hospitable to the flycatcher and numerous other wildlife.
Most of the students came away with one conclusion: Water supports life, lots of it.
But for some, the highlight of the day on the river was probably much less profound: It was the fun of wading in it, splashing and getting cool.
This year through Arizona Project WET more than 10,000 Arizona students will learn about our natural sources of water, and how they can conserve water and keep the rivers healthy and flowing.