Teaching the importance of wetlands




Photo by Miranda Leybourne. Nicholas Kotecki, a nature interpreter with Oak Hammock Marsh, shows off a coyote pelt to Grade 1 students at HMK on Tuesday, Apr. 11.

By Miranda Leybourne


Hazel M. Kellington Elementary School’s (HMK) “On the Go” program from Oak Hammock Marsh was a big hit again this year, despite a snowstorm in late March that delayed some of the classes’ presentations. The program saw guest nature interpreters from the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, located 20 kilometres north of Winnipeg, teach and interact with the grade school children and explain to them the importance of wetlands.

Eight classes at HMK had their programs on Mar. 6, but after the huge winter storm the next day, the remainder of the students took in their presentations on Apr. 11 and 12, including Mrs. Doerksen’s Grade 1 class. 

The students gathered around nature interpreter Nicholas Kotecki as he showed them pictures of the different animals that live at Oak Hammock Marsh and taught them many different things, from what the water in the marshland is like; to how the different animals in it survive the winter. Amphibians, he noted, are able to survive the harsh winter by slowing down their heartbeats and freezing nearly solid or burrowing into the mud beneath the water. Kotecki stressed how important it is to keep pollution out of waterways, since these animals absorb the water -- and any possible pollutants -- into their skin. 

But amphibians like frogs were not the only animals the Grade 1’s seemed enthralled with -- when discussing the physical makeup of the snowshoe hare how it is able to stay above the snow and the way its fur changes colours based on the season, one student couldn’t help but express his admiration for the animal. “Snowshoe hares are the ninjas of winter!” the smiling child said.

Kotecki amazed the children by passing around the pelt of a weasel, coyote and beaver and even a piece of brown bear fur. He spoke about the different eating and hunting patterns various animals have, and about the migration patterns of ducks, geese and other birds. 

“They follow the same rivers, the same hills, they go past the same farmers’ fields every year,” Kotecki told the children. “If we got rid of a wetland...when these geese fly back up, where are they going to go?”

The students were fascinated to hear about how workers at Oak Hammock Marsh gently catch the birds and put identifying bracelets on their ankles so they can track them on their southerly journeys. 

“They will catch a bunch of birds or ducks...then see how much they weigh, see if they are a boy or a girl...if they’re healthy and how well they’re going to fly,” Kotecki noted, explaining to the class that when the birds land in other wetlands in the United States, the staff there are able to look at their identification and know where the birds had come from. 

The students were amazed to hear about the beautiful monarch butterfly and the many generations that it takes for them to complete their long migration.

“They will migrate...all the way down to Mexico, but it takes them four generations,” Kotecki told the children. “The butterfly that starts flying will die, but it’s great, great, great grandchild will make it to Mexico. They’ve been doing this for so long that we don’t even know how they know how to do it.”

The children loved hearing about foxes and how they hunt their prey by tunneling through the snow and jumping and diving through it. Kotecki got the kids to pretend to be foxes themselves, jumping into the air and back down again on imaginary prey. Near the end of the presentation the students also go to make believe they were squirrel families storing nuts for the winter, trying to outsmart the foxes that were on the prowl. It showed the children how all of life is interconnected -- from the nuts that feed the squirrels, to the squirrels that become dinner for the foxes.

“If we lose one, it causes a lot of problems,” Kotecki told the children. “That’s why we try to protect wetlands like Oak Hammock Marsh, and forests...like Riding Mountain National Park...we have to protect the places these animals need. We need to make sure we keep these places safe, so they have their homes. If they don’t have their homes, they disappear.”

The students proved they learned a lot from the presentation with a game that involved them sorting the different types of animals they learned about into categories based on how they survived the winter -- whether they died during the cold months, migrated, hibernated, took super naps or stayed active. 

Mrs. Doerksen says her class really enjoyed the presentation by Kotecki. “The presenters are always really good with the kids,” she enthused.

Allen Hanke, principal at HMK, says the Oak Hammock Marsh presentations are a long-standing tradition at the school, and that this year, he wanted to specifically thank the Whitemud Watershed, who sponsored one full day of presentations for the children.