Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation


(This 954th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 5, 2009.)



Five of the Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation ready to distribute binoculars

at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge Swallow Hollow Trail

(L to R: Horton, Rowan, Milbrand, Schelble, Steele)


With my friend Michael Noonan, whose formal title is Peter Canisius distinguished teaching professor at Canisius College, I spent a recent morning observing his program for regional middle and high school students at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Leading the school students would be eight of Noonan's Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation (CAC) college undergraduates: Nick Glabicky, Melissa Graham, Kyle Horton, Austin Milbrand, Adrienne Rothenberg, Brittany Rowan, Stephanie Schelble and Gary Steele.


No sooner had I met Noonan and the student leaders at the refuge headquarters than two big yellow busses pulled into the parking lot loaded with eager students. One bus was from Our Lady of Black Rock Elementary School and the other from Frontier Central High School.


Here is where the carefully planned and practiced logistics first went into action. Two of the leaders guided the busses to a stopping point where a third entered to have the kids remain in their seats. They would be going on to a hike around the Swallow Hollow Trail two miles east of the headquarters.


Off we all went to the trailhead parking lot on Knowlesville Road. There the students gathered into groups of six to eight and joined one of the leaders. Noonan and I followed Kyle Horton and his group of middle school students along the sanctuary boardwalk.


And here is where the long period of preparation for working with these kids became apparent. These leaders, carefully selected from many applicants based on ability, knowledge and demonstrated commitment to environmental education, had been involved for months in Noonan's program preparing them for their work here.


During the March college break, instead of heading with classmates for Florida beaches, the CAC group had gone to British Columbia with Noonan to study the wildlife of the Pacific Coast. There, where they observed killer whales, sea lions and a wide range of bird life, they also gained identification skills and spent time discussing how to communicate the ecological understandings they were gaining to young children.


Then on their return to Buffalo the group concentrated on the mile-long Swallow Hollow Trail, along which they would be leading their students later this spring. This recently completed trail with its new boardwalks and gravel trails serves as a perfect place to introduce students to our regional wildlands. It passes through a variety of ecological zones including evergreen plantations, mixed forest wetlands and marshes.


A number of aspects of the student tour I found fascinating. First, Noonan pointed out something that I would have missed: how the leaders had carefully planned and designed "stations" along the route at which the leaders stopped to invite students to notice special characteristics of where they were. "Why do you suppose that tree has fallen?" asked Horton. "What do you think will happen to it?" The student responses led to further questions about insects and mushrooms associated with the dead wood.


The students also added to their vocabulary describing this different world: transition, detritus, snag, canopy and another dozen words came up naturally and were parroted by the students when asked the next time they became appropriate along the trail. They also identified plants like the beautiful-smelling trailside honeysuckle bushes and the tiny green duckweed pads that filled stagnant water everywhere.


At the same time the students were introduced to birds along the trail. This undesigned feature of their hike was also carefully handled by Horton. The students had all been issued binoculars and, once a bird had been pointed out, he showed them its picture in his field guide. Noonan told me how the leaders had to practice until they could immediately turn to the right page for expected species.


I was impressed with the students. Yes, like all kids they tuned in and out, but every one of them gained much from their experience. After the tour and a picnic lunch they played raucous games that were not just fun but also reinforced what they had learned.


I salute Mike Noonan and his CAC gang for this important contribution to regional environmental education. So far 5900 school students have participated. This is a small number compared to the 57,000 children and adults his other student leaders have similarly educated at the Buffalo Zoo, but both programs serve this community very well.-- Gerry Rising