Adam Blauert

Blauert on Outdoors: GEECe makes for an educational field trip

Local high school students on a field trip to a local refuge where they learned about local species and ecosystems. This refuge is a great destination for school groups because it is the home of the Grasslands Environmental Education Center.
Local high school students on a field trip to a local refuge where they learned about local species and ecosystems. This refuge is a great destination for school groups because it is the home of the Grasslands Environmental Education Center. Sun-Star correspondent

I’ve often written about our local Merced, San Luis and San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuges. We also have a large number of nearby refuges that are managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Out of the state refuges in our area, the Los Banos Wildlife Area offers the greatest range of recreational and educational opportunities. It’s also the oldest state refuge in California, established in 1929.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the opportunity to take some of my high school students to the refuge to learn about local species and ecosystems. This refuge is a great destination for school groups because it is the home of the Grasslands Environmental Education Center (usually abbreviated as GEECe).

I didn’t know anything about GEECe until last year when I met Candace Sigmond, the biologist and education coordinator, while taking the California Naturalist class at UC Merced. Candace conducts hands-on educational programs for students of all ages, both in the grasslands and ponds surrounding the center and in the center’s classroom building.

My students learned by exploring. Candace encouraged them to walk around the refuge, explore, observe and ask questions. They also got to use nets to discover and observe pond life, and they dissected owl pellets to identify the types of rodents and moles being eaten by local owls. GEECe even provides waterproof waders and tall rubber boots that students can wear in order to access and study the ponds more closely. It was a fun and educational day for my group. The students came home with a much better understanding of the environment around them.

If you’re a K-12 teacher, you can schedule a trip for your own class. A wide range of activities is available – including, but not limited to the ones that our students did. The GEECe website is gwdwater.org/geece/who-we-are.php.

If you’re a member of the general public, you can enjoy the public access trail around the Van Atta Interpretive Marsh.

The smaller pond is currently full of water, and the larger pond should be filled by the end of January or the beginning of February. I recommend visiting after the pond is filled. Ducks, rather than geese, predominate at this refuge. We also saw a lot of hawks. The half-mile trail leads to a raised viewing platform overlooking the ponds. The trail surface is level and ADA accessible, made of packed gravel and dirt.

Waterfowl season remains open through the first weekend in February and during that time the refuge is open for hunting on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and open for educational programs and wildlife viewing on the other days. The trail and the GEECe center are both open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., though GEECe is closed to the public when school visits are taking place. The trail will be open seven days a week after waterfowl season.

The refuge is three miles north of Los Banos on the north side of Henry Miller Road, about a mile east of Highway 165. The start of the trail is indicated by a large sign in the back left (northwest) corner of the parking lot. GEECe is located behind the hunter trailers – walk towards the back right (northeast) corner, through the gap between the trailers. The GEECe building doesn’t look all that exciting on the outside, but it is the home of great programs. For information about the refuge, go to www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Los-Banos-WA or call 209-826-0463.

It is often cold at the refuges in the winter, especially if the wind is blowing. Wear warm layers and don’t forget to bring binoculars or a camera.

If you’re a teacher, you can also schedule educational programs at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. We spent the second half of our day there. Students walked through the exhibits and learned about the refuge through a presentation given by one of the rangers, who then joined us on our bus to narrate our drive around the elk enclosure.

At the points where the elk were closest to the fence, we stopped and the students got to see them up close. For information about scheduling educational programs at San Luis, contact the refuge at 209-826-3508. For general information about the refuge, check out the website at www.fws.gov/refuge/san_luis.

Adam Blauert: adamblauert@yahoo.com

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