From the Big Apple to the big outdoors

MARQUETTE – Although New York City’s Central Park has its share of greenery, it’s far different from wilderness areas in and around the Marquette area.

Students from the New York area spent time this week in the Upper Peninsula as part of The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program.

The students embarked on summer adventures to nature preserves in 27 states, including sites in the U.P.

“The main goal of the LEAF program is to expose urban youth to nature and conservation careers at a young age to nurture a passion for the environment, which will stick with them both personally and professionally for the rest of their lives,” said Brigitte Griswold, TNC director of youth programs, in a news release.

For example, the students Tuesday performed trail work in the Fox River Pathway trail. On Wednesday, they collected bird data with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Little Garlic Balds Preserve in Powell Township.

The preserve is managed by the TNC, said Chris Cantway, U.P. land steward for the conservancy. The “amazing property,” as he called it, made for a picturesque place for the students to perform ecological studies.

“It’s got a nice, undeveloped lake, Blemhuber Lake,” Cantway said. “Probably one of the most unique things are the bald systems, like Hogsback (Mountain) or a lot of those places, where you have those open rocky areas with unique plant and animal life in the open.”

There’s not an overabundance of that scenery in New York City, so the LEAF students had plenty of opportunity to absorb it in the U.P.

Tajeira Bonner, 17, of New York City said she’s been able to kayak and canoe, determine texture of soil by crunching it in her hands in a “bowtie” shape, and even get messy after marking trails with blue paint.

Then there are the avian studies at the Little Garlic Balds Preserve.

“We’re learning which type of bird it is based on its sound,” Bonner said.

Local birding expert Skye Haas helped the students with bird point counts at the preserve.

“It’s one of the more popular methods to survey for birds,” Haas said.

A surveyor will stand at a certain spot for various intervals, he explained.

“You just record everything you see and hear, and usually it’s more hear than see,” Haas said. “I’ll have many point counts in the morning where I don’t even raise my binoculars in a dense forest.”

Haas said the students then were to return to the TNC office to process the information and enter it into databases.

Of course, the LEAF experience involved way more than office work, although that’s an important part of many a biologist’s job. Students could get excited over seeing a chipmunk, ask the identity of an unknown insect and listen to hummingbirds.

Katie Koch, migratory bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helped students locate a flicker nesting hole, identify a red squirrel vocalizing and watch a turkey vulture fly overhead.

The vulture sighting gave Koch the opportunity to work in a little lesson in Vulture Nest Defense 101. One way a vulture guards a possible predator near its nest, she told the students, is to vomit on it.

“Just think of what they’re being fed,” Koch said. “They eat dead animals.”

Those are the types of things not every New York teen learns in school.

In its 20-year history, LEAF has expanded from one to 27 states, with more than 700 interns participating in the program. Support from the Toyota USA Foundation has made the expansion possible.

LEAF also provides professional development opportunities for educators and high schools.

The paid internship program, was to wrap up Aug. 1. During their time in Michigan, students were to learn about the Great Lakes, forest and river ecosystems, sustainable forestry, invasive species, habitat restoration, bird monitoring and collecting biological data.

Those experiences cannot be obtained in a big urban classroom.

So what does Bonner think of the U.P. experience?

“I think it’s pretty peaceful, so I like the setting, the ability to become one with nature in a sense,” she said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is