Prowling the backyard, contributing to global science

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
Adam Edge, right, watches as a fellow ecoEXPLOREr photographs a salamander during a program event near the Blue Ridge Parkway last year.

There’s a not-so-new way to get your child outdoors this spring. It involves science, technology, a little curiosity, and some bugs and birds.

It’s the ecoEXPLORE program at Black Mountain and Swannanoa libraries. A couple of weeks ago, program sponsor N.C. Arboretum came to the Swannanoa Library to help kids learn more about plants by looking at specimens under a microscope and taking a walk to look at other plants.

The kids enrolled in the program got points toward their ecoEXPLORE field badge. And they had a lot of fun.

“It’s good for the kids,” said branch manager Carla Hollar. “It makes them citizen scientists, so it’s good for everyone.”

Sophia Siemens checks her research at an ecoEXPLORE event near the Blue Ridge Parkway last year.

“It’s an empowering thing for kids to learn that they can have an impact,” said program creator Jonathan Marchal. “This gives them a reason to be outdoors and a way to get involved when they hear about environmental issues and wonder what they can do to help.

“They might think that science is done far away by people in white lab coats. We want to show them that science is done in the field by people just like them. We’re building this network of little scientists.”

Kids and parents take photos of pollinator bushes at a recent ecoEXPLORE event at Swannanoa Library.

Marchal, the Arboretum’s youth education manager, created the ecoEXPLORE program a couple of years ago at all Buncombe County libraries to get kids in grades K-8 interested in science and science careers via natural science experiences. Funded through the Burroughs Welcome Fund, EcoEXPLORE “HotSpots” at the libraries feature bird feeding stations and pollinator gardens with native plants (there are also six HotSpots at the Arboretum).

Kids sign up at, then earn points by uploading photos they take of plants and animals they encounter at HotSpots and elsewhere (including their yards), as well as date, location, time and species observed, to their ecoEXPLORE profiles (instructions are at Arboretum staff review submissions and send the ones they approve to the iNaturalist Network, which is used by scientists in their research and data analysis.

“It’s really helpful to the scientists because (the kids are) building that database,” Hollar said.

Kids don’t have to be precise about species identification. “We can help them,” Arboretum spokesperson Whitney Smith said. The children’s work “is incredibly important as the climate changes and we want to see the impact on animals and plants,” Marchal said.

The kids get extra points for making their observations at ecoEXPLORE HotSpots, like the Swannanoa and Black Mountain libraries where kids can research their finds. They also get points for correctly identifying the plant or animal species and for including a clear photo that helps scientists confirm the identification. Kids earn field badges by attending free programs at the arboretum, where they do field work with wildlife biologists during public events.

Kids can redeem the points for items such as trail cameras, snake hooks, butterfly nets, field bags and binoculars (it’s all on the website). At the libraries, kids can check out iPod Touches with spotting scopes that will help them photograph wildlife. They can borrow insect-attracting UV lights, motion-activated wildlife cameras and more.  

The HotSpot near the children’s section at Black Mountain Library was the first one Marchal put in (he lives in Black Mountain). It isn’t used much, said branch manager Melisa Pressley. It has two bird feeders and a bird bath. There are plans to plant some pollinators that will attract insects and birds (and children).

“It’s always good for children to engage with the natural world,” Pressley said, “especially in a culture where we seem to value technology. The ecoEXPLORE program kind of blends those two worlds - taking photos of plants and animals and being out in nature. It’s a good fit.”

Pressley knows children are interested in the natural world. Last year they (and many adults) followed the progress of some chrysalises that the library had in a terrarium. Many were around when the butterflies hatched. To the children’s delight, the butterflies were released during story time.

The Arboretum recently got county money to install three HotSpots in Montreat (at Robert Lake Park, the nature center and at an old reservoir) and will inaugurate them at the Montreat Native Plant Sale and Arbor Day celebration at Moore Center Park on April 28. Marchal will hold a live reptile and amphibian program at noon that day, and enrolled kids who take part will receive tickets to Box Turtle Day at the Arboretum June 9. 

The Arbortetum is creating a HotSpot at Owen Park in Swannanoa, already a favored site for bird watchers. Marchal has created HotSpots in Columbus and High Point, and some in Marshall, as well as one near Tryon and two near Greensboro. He hopes to take the program to Transylvania and Rutherford counties and statewide.

“My dream,” he said, “is to develop a network of HotSpots across the state and enable children to use an app for guiding them to these places and experience the wide-range of biodiversity and its wonder from the mountains to the coast.”