Wetlands Prairie Discovery

Instructors: You will be walking the students to the Prairie Platform, through the identification area and out into the grasses. Please have bug spray and closed toe shoes.

Grades: 4 - 5th, but can be adapted to all ages.

Time: 3 hours

TEKS Correlation: 4.1A, 4.2B, 4.4A, 4.5A, 4.7B, 5.1A, 5.2B, 5.4A, 5.5A

Objectives:
  • Learn the difference in plants that live in the forest and the prairie.
  • Learn that the American prairie is endangered and why.
  • Learn the characteristics of the prairie and why important.
  • Learn what restoration is and how prairie restoration is done.
  • Learn some of the animals that live on the prairie.
Supplies:
  • Lesson plan for American Prairie
  • Grass and wildflower/insect/bird/identification guides
  • Soil and grass sample bags
  • Sweep nets/hand lenses/white pans/collection jars
  • For soil sampling: 1" PVC �" pipe/hammer
  • Flower and grass presses/blotter paper/rubber bands/scissors
  • Binoculars
  • Journals/tape/glue/pencils

Forest Plants

As you begin your walk to the prairie platform from the interpretive building, you will pass the McGovern Discovery Area under construction. Point out the surrounding trees, vines and grasses, (palmettos, oaks, sphagnum mosses, poison ivy, Arizona ash...) in order to contrast this with the flat grassland looming in the distance. Show them the bold Golden Silk Spiders if they are currently out.

Did You Know the American Prairie is Endangered?

When you approach the prairie, tell the students that 740 million acres of the United States used to be covered in Prairie but less than 1% prairie land remains. Why do the students think that this rapid decline in prairie has occurred? (Invasive species of trees such as the Chinese tallow tree, woody vines and scrub trees, natural changes in the weather, but mostly DEVELOPMENT).

Coastal Wetlands Prairie Characteristics

Coastal wetlands prairie such as is found here at ABNC is similar to the Northern tallgrass prairie yet the species of wildflowers and grasses are different. The Coastal Prairie is also home to the endangered Attwater's Prairie Chicken, whose population currently rests at 52 individuals. There is a preserve for these birds in Texas City, TX and one near Eagle Lake. Conservationists are trying to keep this species alive. Many Native Indian ceremonial dances are derived from the "booming" dances of the chickens in Early January when their mating season begins. You can show the children this behavior and they enjoy being "chickens."

Winter wetlands are exemplified in the coastal prairie. The black, dense soil in the prairie, often called "gumbo" works like a sponge when the rains come. This soil, though hard to work, swells and absorbs a great deal of water, thus preventing flooding. The grasses help to hold it in place, so there is little runoff. When the soil dries out due to evaporation from the heat of the sun, it cracks and shrinks becoming a self plowing field.

Prairie Restoration at ABNC

ABNC is currently experiencing a restoration project to bring back the acres formerly occupied by coastal prairie grasses. From time to time, you will notice the grasses being mowed, then set afire. This is part of the "controlled burn" process. Trained groups of firefighters and land managers gather on just the right day to burn out an area of the prairie. Why do you think they do this? [Often lightening, Native Americans and farmers would start a fire in the Prairie. The fires eliminate many of the invasive species that are competing for the food sources in the area. If you have invasive plant species, you probably have invasive animal species, too. In order to maintain a grass dominant ecosystem, improve the soil with the ash from the fires, remove woody underbrush and satisfy the seed dormancy requirements, these controlled fires are started periodically. The weather conditions must be just right for this to happen.] When a prairie has been burned, many animals, plants, birds and insects will leave or hide, but most will return.

One example of the grazing animals on the prairie is the bison.

Who Lives in the Prairie

Sweep Netting Activity. Since more than grasses and bison exist in the prairie, we'll be taking a look at the insects that are dependent on the grasses for survival. It is easier to catch insects in the summer when they are in season, but many are still around. At this point, demonstrate the sweeping techniques and do some catch and release exercises. Talk about how the animals here have adapted to living in the grasses. (Camouflage, wings, sounds, size, length of body parts...)

Standing still in the prairie in fall is a quiet and beautiful time of the year. Just looking at the different grasses and wildflowers can be a wonderful experience. Gather a few samples with your class and go back to the identification garden. The students can glue or tape a small sample of the different grasses in a journal or notebook to identify. If you have some artists in the group, they might like to do a drawing or sketch of the view. There have even been dances and music composed on a Prairie theme, (Martha Graham and Aaron Copeland).

Birds & Binoculars Activity. Use the binoculars to look for birds on the prairie. Use the identification guides to determine the kind of birds seen.

Soil Samples. Talk about the necessity of good soil for things to grow. Remember that plants are the only PRODUCERS. Everything else is a CONSUMER. There are just different levels of consumers and finally, there are the DECOMPOSERS. It sounds like it could be the name of a band, but is actually a necessary step in the finest breakdown of materials. Decomposers are bacteria and fungi.

Hammer your soil sampler into the ground and twisting, withdraw a sample. Have classmates try different areas. Try to remove your sample in one piece and place it on a piece of paper. Compare the samples with those in your class. Look for color, texture, whether it is coarse or grainy, sand content, clay content, if it is sticky.

Review by means of questions and answers. Gather your supplies and return to the class room and have everyone wash hands before dismissal.