The Night Primeval at Cherokee Marsh: Christ the Solid Rock and Madison Audubon Society


When the marsh wakes up, it does so with a riot of prehistoric sounds. Cranes bugle. Chorus frogs sing, blackbirds scold, and the woodcock peents, just like they have done for thousands of years. Even if you never see anything, the sounds tell us that life is everywhere. On April 17, members of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church joined the Madison Audubon Society on their annual flight of the woodcock hike at Cherokee Marsh.


The American Woodcock.

The woodcock is a funny little bird that has an elaborate mating dance. First, he walks around on the ground and makes a buzzy, peenting sound. Then, he darts into the air about 200 feet. On the way back down, he twists and twirls all the while whistling and fluttering his wings. It’s quite the visual and auditory spectacle and well worth a trip to the marsh just for the possibility of seeing this bird. I had promoted this trip to the church as a woodcock hike, so I was hoping that he would perform. I had my fingers crossed. Like clockwork, the male woodcock started peenting at 8:15 p.m. He was about 75 yards away so we couldn’t see him on the ground. Last year, he stood right on the trail about 25 yards away so we all got a good look at him through the spotting scope. Levi Wood, the Audubon guide, suspected that a recent prescribed burn opened up a lot more peenting territory making the manicured trail less attractive. It was too dark to see him flying, but we heard him twittering on the way down. When a bat flew by, we thought for a moment it was the woodcock, but no luck. Despite not seeing the little bird with the big peent, it was still a magical night. Just being present to this annual ritual is a gift, especially when that gift is shared with others. What did the kids think? They weren’t too impressed with the woodcock, mainly because they couldn’t see him. They were much more impressed with an American toad that hopped across the path. A boy picked him up so everyone got a good look. We also talked a lot about snakes and saw a really tiny brown snake slither through the grass. One girl was pretty freaked out about the snakes, but I assured her that snakes will not harm her. If I did this hike again with kids, I might play the video for them in advance so that they knew what to listen for. It takes time to hone listening skills and patience. Bird watching is great for that. Kids need to learn that real nature doesn’t always meet our expectations. That may be disappointing at first, but it makes the moment of discovery that much sweeter. Plus now, we have a reason to go back again next year. The woodcock dances through the first part of May. Diane Schwartz lead outings at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison, Wisconsin. To volunteer, contact Diane at 


Where are we going? Learning to read a map


Where are we going?

Hiking is a great way to teach map reading skills. In the photo, I am showing a student the map at Cherokee Marsh. Map reading teaches spatial awareness and boosts confidence. Kids always ask, “How far have we hiked? Have we hike a mile yet?” Showing them a map and then hiking the trail is the best way to learn this skill.

March Mudness at Cherokee Marsh: Tips on hiking with kids on a muddy day


Stump standers. Show kids how to enjoy nature. Photo by Emily Kuntz.

Forget Basketball.
March is all about mud, sandhill cranes and those glorious first warm days.

A few weeks ago, I took 12 kids and two adult volunteers to Cherokee Marsh for some mudilicious fun. We also had fun tromping on the ice, playing with sticks, spotting sandhill cranes and soaking up the warmth of the day. Here are a few tips for a happy mud-filled day.

1) Carry plastic bags: If possible, make sure everyone has proper footwear before heading out. We had two girls with woefully inadequate footwear who complained the whole time – to no avail. In the future, I will always have a few plastic bags on hand. Kids can slip their feet into them before putting on their shoes. The bags will keep their feet mostly dry.

2) Ignore the whiners: No sooner had we gotten out of the van and a few kids were complaining about the mud. It didn’t take long for them to realize that mud is a lot of fun.

3) Get Dirty: Don’t worry if the kids get a little dirty. A bit of mud will not hurt them at all.

We are here at Cherokee Marsh.

We are here at Cherokee Marsh. Show don’t tell.

Teach kids to be bold in the face of sloppiness and how to prepare for it.

4) Don’t forget the binoculars: In a group of 12, it’s good to have about 3-4 pair.

5) Do Nothing: Don’t worry about “doing” anything on your hike. Some kids just don’t get what to do outside so you have to show them. I picked up a stick and started poking at ice. We looked at the ice and how the ice was melting. We stomped on it and inspected leaves stuck in the ice. We spotted birds and listened to sandhill cranes. We found a patch of moss, just starting to grow. We felt its softness and warmth and enjoyed seeing a spot of green color in a sea of brown and white. At the end of the hike, I laid on my back on the warm cement. Several kids joined me. We looked at clouds and listened for birds while soaking up the warmth. Give kids time to invent their own activities. By just hanging out and doing nothing, Matt started mixing up water, mud

and leaves in a cup to make a delightful mud stew. Other kids just enjoyed their snack. There is no need to plan activities all the time.

Are we having fun yet? No caption needed here.

Are we having fun yet? No caption needed here.

6. Have Fun! Be enthusiastic and show them how to look and listen. They will follow your lead. And don’t worry if you don’t

think you know enough about the outdoors to lead a hike. All you need is a good attitude and the willingness to explore. The kids really don’t care if you know the names of birds or animals. What they care about is having fun and exploring. You can also go back and look up the animals and see if you can find them in a book or on the internet. If you need help, just send me an email at I know you can do it.

How do you teach kids how to have fun in the mud? Post your ideas. 

You can find Diane planning for bike club this summer and developing plans for new programs in Madison, Wisconsin. Contact her with ideas on how to get kids outside. 

Halloween Hike: Snapping Turtle & Garter Snake

cherokeemarshOctober 30, 2009 was warm, windy and wet–but not raining–perfect for an afternoon hike to Cherokee Marsh. Unlike our previous day trip to Hinchley’s Farm, we didn’t need mittens, hats or heavy coats. It’s important to grab these days, even if the day is little damp.  My co-teacher, Elizabeth, and I had 10 kids ranging in age from 5 to 9. Most had never been to the marsh and a few had never hiked.  While walking, five-year-old Joe asked, “What are we going to do here?” He seemed perplexed after I told him that we’re here to enjoy nature, look for animals and enjoy the leaves falling from the trees. An 8 year-old girl was a little scared, so she held my hand.  Hiking can be scary to kids, especially on a windy, overcast day, right before Halloween. However, both kids persevered and as leader of the pack, Joe became the best animal spotter.

I really wasn’t sure what we’d see today. Most birds had already flown south and the winds kept other bird from view. Perhaps we’d leave without seeing something, but that wasn’t the case.


As we walk closer to the water’s edge, Joe spotted a snapping turtle hunkered down in a ditch alongside the trail. The turtle was within 3 feet from us and when he saw us, he tried to hide. We backed up to give him some room. In a few minutes, he poked his head up so we all got a good look at his pointed nose and powerful jaw.

“We don’t want to get too close.” I said. Some of the kids were a little afraid, but this lessoned as they saw how afraid the turtle was too. Meanwhile, I kept my eye on Lizzie, who was standing right up to the water’s edge off to the left. She wasn’t interested in the turtle. She could easily dip her foot in the water, but in this case, I’d let her, just so she could get the consequence–wet feet!  Okay, back to the turtle. As we said goodbye to the turtle, Joe shouted, “A snake!”

gartersnakeRonnie screamed as did a few other girls. She started crying. She didn’t even see the snake, but was responding to Joe’s announcement. I told her and all the kids that garter snakes are not poisoness and are very gentle. I’m not sure that they believed me, though if I could have, I would have gently picked up the snake and showed them. Elizabeth shared that she used to capture garter snakes as a kid. Quickly, the girls calmed down and we kept walking.

By the time we got back to the van, the kids were ready to go back. At 30 minutes, this was short hike for me, but a long hike for them. I always have to remember this and be sure to let them set the pace. It was time to go.