Project tracks how flora and fauna fared during wetlands restoration

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHY FULLER - Noelle Robison (center) demonstrates how the feather of a Canada goose is water repellent. Terra Carlton, left, and Tiernan Hegarty also helped with the study of birds at Fernhill Wetlands done by students at Forest Grove Community School.Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and even the critters you can’t see — none of these escaped the watchful eyes of 54 fifth- and sixth-graders at Forest Grove Community School.

Last week, the students showcased their year-long study of Fernhill Wetlands and, more specifically, how recent restoration work affected the flora and fauna.

The group worked with Clean Water Services to collect data during three visits to the wetlands — fall, winter and spring — and aggregated the data to present a snapshot of how the landscape changed during CWS’ restoration and improvement of the 90-acre south wetlands.

“We presented students with the problem: ‘Big changes are taking place at Fernhill and CWS needs to know what impacts the project has on the ecosystem.  As students and scientists, how can we help them?’” explained Erin Morgan, the school’s experiential education teacher.

Small groups of students then chose a focus area and began their work.

Sixth-graders Thomas Tollefson and Jonah Myatt used “critter boards” to study the diversity of life in open fields versus wooded areas.

“Critter boards” are pieces of corrugated metal placed on the ground in both areas.

On their visits to the wetlands, Thomas and Jonah removed the critter boards and documented the critters they saw — reptiles, amphibians, bugs and even tiny field mice they found under and around the board.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHY FULLER - Thomas Tollefson and Jonah Myatt researched how many critters took refuge under critter boards placed at Fernhill Wetlands by Clean Water Services staff.

“It seems like our hypothesis is correct — that there was more diversity in the open field,” they wrote in their conclusion. “However, we feel more confident to say our data is inconclusive, because we basically found the same types of animals in both locations.

“It appears that the reconstruction is not harming the critters.”

As with any scientific experiment, student scientists must reflect on what they did right and what they did wrong.

“We could have been more quiet. We could have been more organized in our data collection. We may have misidentified the critters because the critters moved so quick after being uncovered from the board,” they said.

“The best part was the moment of suspense before lifting up the critter board to see what would be underneath,” they added.

“Since the wetlands are undergoing restoration currently, they offered a rich source of data and questions for students to explore,” Morgan said.

The wetlands were thoroughly studied by the group, taking into consideration everything from the footprint of the humans who use the trails there to the trees, plants, birds and insects — all the way down to the macro-invertebrates that call the wetlands their home.

“It was our second trip to Fernhill when I began to see the impact of this project,” Morgan said. “Students arrived with a sense of purpose and excitement; they knew what they had come to do, and were eager to see what changes had taken place at the wetlands.”

One of the groups studied mammals exclusively and hypothesized they would find more invasive species than native animals.

They examined clues the mammals left behind — such as tracks and scat — to determine the types living there. One mammal left obvious clues. On their second visit, “an entire patch of willow along Dabbler’s Marsh had been chewed off to fashion a new beaver dam,” Morgan said.

The groups who studied plants found that plant species increased from 23 in the fall to 36 by spring.

Native species, it turns out, outnumbered invasives.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHY FULLER - Students presented their findings at Clean Water Services headquarters in Hillsboro last week.

And so the students learned another lesson: It’s OK for your hypothesis to be wrong. There’s always something to learn from the data.

“One of the ways student research will help us at Fernhill is to determine future education and research projects for students and citizen science,” said Ely O’Connor of CWS. O’Connor worked with the students on their research.

“The Community School group was one of the first to collect data at multiple sites over the course of a year. If we can continue that research over time it may help inform some of our planting and enhancement work,” O’Connor added.

In doing real-world science, Morgan said, “students develop an incredible ownership of their learning, the natural spaces in our region and their responsibility to educate community members.

“Students may or may not remember the steps of science inquiry or how to classify a plant. However, my hope is that students will take this passion and community consciousness into their lives beyond school.”

“It’s important for the community to know about the wildlife and animals at Fernhill,” said fifth-grader Lily Lind.

The students’ research can be found at

Clean Water Services will also link the students’ research to its Fernhill Wetlands web page.

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