12 Jul 2019

Snakes at the Seaside and Birds in the Bush

By Claire Eamer

"Snake!" yelled 8-year-old Carys, and dove for the grassy bank beside the trail. She emerged clutching a deeply puzzled garter snake at least 60 centimetres long, with elegant checkerboard markings on its sides and a jagged yellow stripe running the length of its back.
Western garter snake, found at Pipers Lagoon Park, Nanaimo.
The rest of the group -- more than two dozen kids and adults, with an age range from 8 to 80-ish -- crowded around to admire her catch. Our leader, biology professor Tim Goater of Nanaimo's Vancouver Island University (VIU) identified it as a female western garter snake (Thamnophis elegans), almost certainly pregnant, and the largest specimen he had seen at Pipers Lagoon, the small seaside park we were exploring. Western garter snakes have a variable diet, depending on where they live, he explained. Carys's prize catch would specialize in hunting intertidal fishes among the park's rocks and tidepools.

Professor Tim Goater with
a large clam at Pipers Lagoon.
Once everyone had admired the snake, we put her back on the slope beside the trail and watched, fascinated, as she disappeared into the grass and undergrowth in less than a second.

The mixed group of kids and adults wasn't just a casual group of visitors to the seashore. We were students in a class called Explorations of Animal Diversity, one of 10 offerings at this year's edition of Grandkids University. The two-day program is open to kids aged 7 to 13 and to their grandparents or grandparent-equivalents (other senior relatives or special friends).

Carys, left, entranced by birdbanding.
Carys and I (I'm her great-aunt) were in our second year at Grandkids University this year. Her brother, Rowan, was in his third year. He and his special friend, Susan, spent two days in the chemistry lab, making soap, slime, invisible ink, instant ice cream, and pop-bottle rockets -- and learning a considerable amount of chemistry along the way.

Over two days, Carys and I got to see and handle garter snakes both in the lab and in the field, peer at insects through a dissecting microscope, search for animals in the intertidal zone, visit a bird-banding station, dissect a ratfish in search of parasites, and tour VIU's International Centre for Sturgeon Studies.

Master bander Eric Demers shows the wing feathers
of a Common Yellowthroat.
And, at the end of the two days, we all attended a graduation ceremony in the university's theatre. VIU's symbols -- a mace and a beautifully decorated steering paddle -- were formally piped through the theatre to the stage. Then, the VIU registrar, in full academic robes, presented each adult and child with a completion certificate. Kids and adults who had attended Grandkids University for 5 years also received "Masters" medals. (Both Rowan and Carys are determined to get their Masters!)
A female American Goldfinch receives its individualized band.
This is the 11th year for VIU's Grandkids University, and it drew a record 163 participants. Almost a dozen former kid participants have grown up to become VIU students, and a number of the participating adults also take VIU classes. Clearly it's part of the university's recruiting program, but it does more than just generate students.

Carys found a seastar that had lost one arm
and was still regrowing its replacement.
Both the kids and the grandparents learn things -- about the subject they are studying and about each other. For two days, they are equals, experiencing the pleasure of learning something new and interesting. The kids can see that adults don't know everything, but that they can learn. The adults get a chance to see how bright and capable the kids are.

And everyone is reminded that learning isn't drudgery. It's fun.

All photos by Claire Eamer.


paula said...

What an amazing science program!

Claire Eamer said...

Carys informs me that I got part of the story wrong. She says Tim caught the snake at the seaside and she just helped control it. She caught a snake near the bird-banding site all by herself. (I still think she spotted the seaside snake first, called it, and did a lot of the catching - and Tim certainly gave her credit. But who am I to argue with a snake-whisperer?) -- Claire