As the moon rose over Sengekontacket Pond on Sunday night, Felix Neck education coordinator Cristina Pereira led a small group of adults through the trails of the sanctuary. The next day, Ms. Pereira guided a group of high school students for their morning lesson about otter scat remains.
But no matter who Ms. Pereira or other educators at Felix Neck are working with, the goal remains the same: to encourage Islanders to engage with their natural habitat.
“We started out studying the land and developing a sense of place here by seeing what different types of habitat there are,” Ms. Pereira said of one of the high school classes that come twice a month as a part of their biology class. “We’re following the standard biology curriculum and filling in what we can here at Felix Neck to make it more place-based and meaningful to kids who grew upon the Island.”
Instead of looking at polar bears when studying endangered species, classes look to bees or piping plovers, species that are closer to home. “The concept that there are animals that are endangered is the same, but if you do it locally, it’s more meaningful,” she said. “There’s more continuity when they come to Felix Neck.”
Felix Neck prides itself on getting kids involved at a young age and maintaining a relationship throughout adulthood. Many kids begin their time at the sanctuary through the Fern and Feather summer day camp, continue learning through their schooling and some even become camp counselors later in life. As a result, the sanctuary has seen a 45 per cent increase in school activities over the last few years.
“In the past we’ve done a lot of programs that meet twice in the fall and that’s it,” Ms. Pereira, who began in May, said. “But what we’ve started this year are programs like nature journaling with kindergarten and second grade, where we’re meeting once or twice a month.
“I’m developing a relationship with the kids [so we are] able to build on learning and establish some background knowledge and go a little deeper into the concepts because of the continuity,” she added.
Felix Neck also works with a home-school group, the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and volunteers in their Citizen Science program.
“It’s part of a larger effort to really involve people in the research and monitoring of wildlife on the Island and Felix Neck,” sanctuary director Suzan Bellincampi said. “We have almost 90 volunteers right now and they’re out at midnight looking for spawning horseshoe crabs or up at 6 a.m. listening for birds . . . These are real world implications.”
Ms. Bellincampi and Ms. Pereira emphasize to students that what they’re doing contributes to the bigger picture.
“For our salamander surveys, first we’ll go out and sing the salamanders song and get excited for that,” Ms. Pereira said with a large smile on her face. “And the fact you’re looking under boards for slimy creatures is exciting, but when they understand what field biology is and that they’re doing real science out in the field, they have a greater connection to it.”
Ms. Pereira, 26, previously worked with elementary and high school students in Cleveland, and there too she emphasized place-based learning. Even though she spent summers on the Vineyard, transitioning from Ohio to the Vineyard has been a learning experience for her as well. Ms. Pereira often is reading up on horseshoe crabs before she teaches a lesson the next day or has teachers support her in lessons in the ponds at Felix Neck and Cranberry Acres in West Tisbury.
“She’s one of the really exciting things that are happening at Felix Neck,” Ms. Bellincampi said of Ms. Pereira. “To have someone that’s really focused on the school program and has the skills and talent and passion for it is fabulous.”
With help from Ms. Pereira, Ms. Bellincampi is trying to extend the experience of growing up at Felix Neck to extend past Fern and Feather.
“What’s unique about our program is the multi-generations of kids,” Ms. Bellincampi said. “It’s the tradition, and I think Felix Neck’s place in the community is unique and special. Everywhere you go you see people and they say, oh you work a Felix Neck. And they’ll tell you a story. That’s a really cool piece, to be such an important fixture.”
Felix Neck will celebrate the generations of walkers, campers and trailblazers tomorrow at their annual fall festival. This year’s event is Celebrating Backyard Birds, and a naturalist is bringing seven different birds of prey — a barn owl, bard owl, red tailed hawk, red shoulder hawk, osprey, great horned owl and a turkey vulture.
The morning will begin with a 9 a.m. bird walk with Susan Whiting, followed by music by the Flying Elbows, baked goods, Chilmark Chocolates and hot dogs. In between squash bowling, bittersweet wreath making and face painting, festival attendees can string popcorn and cranberries together for the birds to eat or take a horsedrawn hayride.
“The real goal of it is a community celebration,” Ms. Bellincampi said. “It’s an event for all your friends, all your neighbors.”
The Felix Neck Fall Festival is Saturday, Nov. 27 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the sanctuary off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Admission is $3 for members, and $6 for nonmembers; children under three are free.