Last Friday morning, in the shady woods of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, camp counselor Noah McCarter sat on a fallen log and held a tiny blue and white feather in his hand.
“What kind of bird do you think it was from?” he asked a camper sitting quietly beside him.
“A blue jay!” Nora exclaimed.
Noah placed the feather in Nora’s hand and she proudly shared what she just learned with her fellow Discoverers, with whom she spent the week as part of Felix Neck’s Fern and Feather Natural History day camp program.
Noah, along with counselor Claire Chatinover, had been teaching the campers about nature through various hands-on activities, crafts and games. Tracking, identification, classification and nature vocabulary are skills the counselors share.
“On a basic level it’s sensory awareness, comfort in nature and problem-solving,” said sanctuary director Suzan Bellincampi. “What’s amazing with using nature as a teaching tool is that you can learn anything.”
In the Play Zones nestled in the woods, Noah and Claire also teach their campers how to work together as a team as they gather to play the Red Tail Hawk game. “For this game you have to have the same kind of a cooperation that a flock of birds uses to all fly together in the air,” said Noah. “Can you imagine how hard it is for a bunch of birds to fly together all at the same time?”
For 50 years, Felix Neck has been teaching visitors about nature. In December of 1968, George M. Moffett Jr. gave a 200-acre parcel known as Felix Neck to the Massachusetts Audubon Society to be used as a wildlife sanctuary and nature education center. The Martha’s Vineyard Natural History Society had been offering the Fern and Feather day camp on the property for several years prior, but with the transfer of the gift to the Audubon Society the natural history society would now have access to their educational resources to expand the programs.
When the land was transferred and the Felix Neck Wildlife Trust was established, a Gazette editorial from July 15, 1969 stated, “In general the theme is that of all the Vineyard countryside and shore, coming down from the old time, evident nowadays with increasing urgency: the wonder, beauty and importance of all the natural world, the indivisibility of the life principle of all beings in all things. Felix Neck has its own individual expressions, as so many Island regions do, its own old secrets to contribute to the present day.”
Today those individual expressions are seen in the sanctuary’s unique natural habitats — forest, field, marsh, pond and shoreline — on 350 acres of land, where the sanctuary offers not only structured learning opportunities, but also a butterfly garden and an extensive trail system. Visitors are invited to get involved as much or as little as they want. Every opportunity has one common goal — to expose visitors to, and inspire an appreciation for, the Island’s diverse ecosystem.
“We give them the tools to be able to experience the outdoors on their own,” Ms. Bellincampi said.
And on any given day, the opportunities for learning are many.
While the Fern and Feather day campers were having adventures in the woods, another program was getting under way.
Behind the visitor’s center, children and adults gathered nets and headed down a grassy trail to the shoreline of Sengekontacket Pond for Seashore Discovery. Teacher/naturalist Bethany Pennington placed a kiddie pool on the sand, filled it with saltwater and asked participants to put their nets in the water and to see what they could find. Crabs, mussels, scallops, eel and minnows were collected and placed into the pool, where seashore discoverers could watch them up close and personal.
“It’s really fun for them to go in and find crabs and eels and fish,” said Ms. Pennington. “Then when they go to the beach they know what they’re finding and what they’re seeing. It gives them the appreciation that there’s a lot of things living in the water.”
“Yesterday we saw a clam with his head sticking out!” said one Discoverer.
“Yes, that would have been its foot,” Ms. Pennington explained.
Two days before, Todd Borci and his son, Colin, took a trip on the Skipper for a Marine Discovery Tour, another Felix Neck program that takes participants out onto Vineyard Sound where they drag nets, check lobster traps and try scup fishing. Intrigued by what they learned, the two decided to come to Seashore Discovery.
“Having a naturalist and people that know what it is that they’re pulling out of the water and to explain it makes that connection for the kids,” said Mr. Borci.
“Dad! The crabs are killing the fish!” yelled Colin. “See, that’s it right there,” Mr. Borci laughed.
Once the sea creatures were gathered in the pool, Ms. Pennington asked participants to gather around as she shared information about each one.
“Every crab’s purpose is a little bit different,” she explained. “Hermit crabs are in the same family as the bigger crabs. When you get bigger you need new clothes, your other clothes don’t fit you anymore. The hermit crabs are the same way, and they also need somewhere new to live, so as it grows it gets a bigger and bigger shell.”
As the seashore discoverers made their way back up the trail, the visitor’s center was bustling with activity.
Philip Hunsaker was getting ready to feed the frogs and turtles in the sanctuary’s Discovery Room, where, three times a week, the sanctuary invites visitors to watch the animals eat their lunch during Tank Time. The Discovery Room also houses the sanctuary’s live owl cam, where visitors can view barn owl fledglings and their parents in the nest.
Next to the Discovery Room, Susie Bowman returned from doing a damselfly and dragonfly survey, and a volunteer shared a picture she had just taken of an osprey perched on its nest and holding a fish in its talons.
It’s all nature all the time at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Even at night.
When the full moon rises, Felix Neck offers a guided kayak tour on Sengekontacket. The night of the super moon, Ms. Pennington led kayakers across the pond as the sun was setting, stopping occasionally to point out a snowy egret along the shoreline or to listen to the call of a screech owl.
Once the sun set and the moon was high, Ms. Pennington led kayakers into the narrow channels of the salt marsh and asked them to rest their paddles and turn off their headlamps.
“It’s hard to find places of quiet, a place where all you hear is nature . . . there’s so much noise pollution,” she said. “It’s nice to just sit and take it all in.”
For more photos, visit the gallery Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.