Earth Day at the Dunson Farm

Bill and Margaret Dunson hosted an Earth Day gathering for school children on their 107 hilly acres. Blue Ridge Discovery Center furnished volunteer guides who helped Bill and Margaret lead explorations of the diverse ecosystems on the farm: pond and marsh, field and forest, creeks and valleys, and trails throughout. Cattails and reeds, native grasses and shrubs, pine forest and hardwoods and the borders between provide what birds love. The Dunsons have been opening up their farm for years for those who want to explore the natural wonders they carefully tend or ignore, as needed. Bill and Margaret are the kind of retired educators who never really retire, and their farm is a wonderland of wild things.

Ruth Turnmire brought her class of 17 from Mountain View Elementary in Ashe County, North Carolina. Ruth is a veteran teacher with wide experience in Grayson County, Virginia, as well as in North Carolina and Kentucky, and she’s long since learned to take education out of the classroom. She knows how to help broaden the visions of her schoolchildren, and she knows the place for joy in learning. And that is what we all experienced --- Bill and Margaret, guides and teachers and seventeen seven-year-olds --- amazement and laughter and the wonder of wild things.

We had hands-on displays of fish, salamanders, snakes, tadpoles, crawfish and dragonfly larvae that tended to hug the other creatures in a tight clasp. Dragonflies, we learned, are voracious but these larvae mainly liked to anchor themselves. We learned that pumpkinseed sunfish may swim up streams and colonize your new pond. If you see an amoeba-like array of small dark tadpoles swimming, those are toads. Frog tadpoles are lighter, often larger, and less inclined to swim en masse. We saw the elusive spring peeper up close and personal.

The sunny day was a bit chilly for the snakes. Even the native black rat snake huddled with the colorful corn snake from Florida. With a little urging, both demonstrated their tree-climbing skills, to the young rapt crowd. Snake handling was allowed.

Bill showed us the first lightning bug of the season. He tries to keep the fish out of some of his ponds, to nurture the insects and the birds instead. We learned that tree swallows could appear out of nowhere, if you only had a pond. And they changed from black to blue in the sunlight, flying to the many birdhouses on the property. As the kids piled out of the bus, Bill noted a yellow-throated warbler singing in the yard. Later, as two groups winded their way back from a hike, a savannah sparrow was heard and seen in the middle of the hill fields. There were many other birds noted by eye and/or ear: Louisiana waterthrush, robins a plenty, blue birds (and within one box, newly hatched young), towhees, a mockingbird, red-tailed hawk, male and female red-winged blackbirds, a possible scarlet tanager, oven-bird, and brown thrashers. This is not a complete list of birds noted, but allowing that the season is early, birding was not the focus.

All the children wore clothes that reflected the theme of the day, wild things. The teachers told them to wear something with nature on it, if they had it. The girls came through with butterfly shirts and the boys had a fish or a bear or a deer-hunting outfit.
One quiet fellow wore a tie-died peace symbol. The mostly morning event was on the trail, but after a quick lunch, all kids were allowed to explore and plunder the many newly restored wetlands and ponds, where netting and screaming competed for attention. “Harvesting” pond critters was the thrill of the day, with nearly every young explorer taking home a tadpole. We had one very excited boy who snagged a sunfish, and another who caught an enormous bullfrog tadpole.

There were two guides to each group of three or four children, and the groups spread out to follow their own whims. There are many choices of where to go on the 107 acres.
As the big white bus took them back to school and more mundane chores, the grownups happily noted that most of the kids were taking some Grayson County mud home with them. That is a measure of success.

Written by Carol Broderson and Scott Jackson-Ricketts
Photos by Bill Dunson, Scott Jackson-Ricketts, and Devin Floyd

This Mountain View Elementary School field trip was also made possible by the generous support of Blue Ridge Birders and the James Coman Education Fund.