A fourth-grade class from Cross Schools in Bluffton spent a crisp November morning exploring a maritime forest adjacent to Port Royal Sound and learning about the Lowcountry environment, thanks to the new Barry Lowes Scholarship from the Hilton Head Audubon Society.
Lois Lewis of Bluffton, co-chair of the education committee of the birding society, welcomed the children, their teacher and chaperones to a classroom space at Port Royal Sound Foundation’s Maritime Center.
“Hilton Head Audubon wants you to know about where you live,” Lewis told the group. She told them about the late Barry Lowes, a beloved member of the local Audubon organization, and about the new scholarship that was created in his memory. Lowes was in his 90s when he died in 2020.
“He taught me a lot,” said Lewis, a former middle school science teacher.
The scholarship was created to encourage teachers to take their students outside to learn in nature. “We want to connect you kids to the fabulous outdoors,” Lewis said. “We want you to learn how to take care of our environment.”
Karen Penale, in her second year as the environmental learning teacher at Cross Schools, said this was a great opportunity for her students. She said the children participated in the Aubudon annual bird count last year as third graders. “The Audubon folks were impressed with them,” she said. The scholarship paid for this field trip.
Penale teaches students from grades 1 to 7, with a specific focus for each grade level. For example, “The third graders are my birders,” she said. In second grade, students learn about the shoreline, its inhabitants and plants. Her sixth and seventh graders are learning about native plants, their benefits and threats.
“I want them to be outside for everything,” she said of her classes. Class time can be spent working on nature journals in the woods behind the school as easily as classes could be inside.
Penale’s fourth graders were learning about the maritime forest on this trip, led by Chris Kehrer and Jessica Kochman of the Maritime Center.
“Pay attention to where we are,” said Kehrer as the students paused on the trail through the forest. “This is a maritime forest. You might see wildlife. Stay on the trail.”
Before proceeding, Kehrer pointed out a common native plant, a Yaupon Holly, alongside the trail. He told the students that its leaves were a source of caffeine for Native Americans who lived here long ago. They mixed it with other ingredients and made a tea. “And when they drank too much of it, they would vomit,” he said. “That’s how it got its name, Ilex vomitoria.”
At least one 10-year-old boy giggled, unlikely to forget about that wild shrub.
As excited as the students were at the prospect of seeing a deer or raccoon, they were just as eager to find fiddler crabs in the salt marsh.
Only once did Penale find it necessary to caution a student to slow down on the trail. “I keep telling them to ‘walk and see,’” she said. “You can’t see anything if you’re running.”
Penale said teaching students about the environment is her passion. “It’s nice to be able to teach what you think is relevant,” she said.
Hilton Head Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count is coming up Dec. 15, and Penale said she hopes this class will want to participate again.
The local bird count is part of an international effort to count bird populations, providing critical data on population trends in locations around the world. The count began in 1900 and continues as the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.
For anyone interested in participating in the count, whether in a field team or as a feeder watcher at home, an information session will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 in the Fellowship Hall at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway on Hilton Head Island.
For more information about the meeting or about joining the bird count, email HHICBC@gmail.com. For more information about the Audubon Society, visit hiltonheadaudubon.org.
For more information about the Port Royal Sound Foundation and its Maritime Center, visit portroyalsoundfoundatiobn.org.