Sunday, August 31, 2014

Discovery Center at Claytor Lake State Park popular

                                     Beach area at Claytor Lake State Park, below discovery center

     Do most people who visit Claytor Lake State Park in Virginia even know what there is a neat "discovery center" in the park, a place where adults and kids alike can get up close and personal with live critters like frogs, salamanders, or see animal skins?
    Claytor Lake Park, which is such a short ways off of I-81 that it is probably the most visited state park in Virginia, has a beach and swimming area, like most state parks, trails, areas to fish, camping, a nice gift shop and conference room for meetings for groups, and even a house where you can learn about the "natural history" of the area. But it ALSO has a discovery center, a place where you can see for yourself some of the native fauna (animals) of the park. And this is a good place to go. 
     I volunteered there in June, July, and August, and I learned some "stuff"  just by being a Master naturalist volunteer at this center. For one thing, I learned there are 20 or more different kinds of snakes in Virginia. At this end of Virginia the poisonous copperhead with its brown, patchy design, is more common. The Commonwealth also has the (open its mouth and it's all white) cottonmouth, on the east coast, the the timber rattler. But most of its snakes, from the tiny ring necked snake to the black rat snake, are not poisonous. They like to be left alone and do not seek out humans, but do like to hide in tight spaces, which might include the wood pile. In fact, the ring necks we had, with their yellowish underbelly and grayish color on top, liked to "hide" under a few pieces of bark we put in their little (fish) tank. The frogs and toads also liked to hide under the moss we provided in their tanks.
     My husband has told people that one time when we were up in New York I picked up a snake to show him. Not so. I just "pointed it out" to him. It was small. Probably was a garter snake trying to find its way around in the small wooded area close to where his mother worked.
     After the Discovery Center I also did some pointing -- and a little touching-- though frogs and turtles (and lizards) I'm told may carry salmonella so one should wash one's hands after touching them -- during my dozen or so volunteer days in what was a kind of cramped room off of the bathrooms and indoor concession stand and souvenir shop above Claytor Lake Park's beach area. The beach area was a good place to locate this room, as a number of adults and kids came by to see and try to touch the critters we had on hand for them to see. The little kids were the most interested, but some teens and adults also wondered in to see live examples of nature at their fingertips.
     The little (fish) tanks had some forest material, like moss and bark (or in one case, sand), and in them such noteworthy animals as the spotted pickerel frog, the bumpy brown and beige American toad, the black rat snake, and box turtles. Kids seemed to be quite aware of the box turtles. Sometimes you see them trying to cross the road. And we also had a tank with "red efts". The red efts are the juvenile version of the Eastern newt (of the salamander family) and they are pretty! They are orangy looking and may be found in the woods, sometimes right along your trail if you look! But they hatch in the water and eventually, after a few years, go back to the water (like a pond) and live in the water as an adult. I don't know why. Maybe that is nature's way of keeping more of them alive, as they are eaten by a lot of other critters and animals in the woods. I found an eft myself on the trail at Fairy Stone State Park, the morning after an evening of a lot of rain.
     Some of the kids at the discovery center asked some good questions, sometimes not so good. "Is it an otter?" asked a girl touching the soft yet almost oily feel of a beaver pelt hanging above one of the little tanks. I said no, then she asked, "Is it a river otter?" No-- I said it was a beaver. Then she pointed out "we come here every year." Another kid said, "My family found snake eggs." That's nice, I said. "We're from Charlottesville." And one adult who'd brought a number of kids with her said, "Thank you very much, I appreciate it."
     It was somewhat interesting/awkward having a deaf assistant, a college intern who said (writing it in a notebook) she wanted to one day work at a park or zoo full time. She and her dad and a few other park personnel hunted for the "critters" who only were on display about 2 or 3 weeks. Then they put them back in the woods for "fresh" display animals. All in all, it was very worthwhile for the park and good volunteer hours for us Master naturalists.

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