Campers invade the swamp

The Swamp Stompers at a weeklong session of BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center Camp zeroed in on Norway rats, European starlings, Burmese pythons, nutria and wild pigs to determine whether these invasive species merited a “live and let live” approach, should be “attacked on sight” or given a “total knockout.”

Center Director Claire Coco started a morning session for boys, ages 7-10, with a discussion of the damage invasive species do to the ecosystem. She gave an example of elephant ears, a highly invasive plant. “We would have beautiful native irises all over the place, but the elephant ears take over everything,” Coco told the campers.

Nature Center educator Lauren Herbert helped the campers put together a guide of invasive species.

“The Chinese tallow tree and the Chinese privet were brought over because they looked good,” she said.

House sparrows from England were released in New York in the 1850s and have become very invasive in many parts of North America.

“The house sparrows are not that big a problem here,” Herbert said, “so we just ‘live and let live.’”

Elephant ears, big leaf ligustrum and tallow are all attacked on sight because if the entire species were eliminated from the swamp at one time, the ecosystem would also be disrupted because these plants are found in such a large quantity.

Some invasive species must be dealt with immediately like wild hogs. “A wild hog is a very dangerous animal,” Herbert said. “That would require a total knockout.”

Alex Goldberg, 10, enjoys Swamp Camp so much that this is his third year to participate. Maxwell Suhayda, 8, likes the camp activities but loved the day at the beach at BREC’s Blackwater Conservation Area.

“That’s an unstructured day,” Coco said. “The only rules that day are to stay between the staff, don’t throw stuff in other people’s faces and have fun.”

Coco and facility supervisor Jessica Guthrie described the Swamp Counselors in Training, a new program this year at the Nature Center. At one week in May, former campers and interested students, ages 14-17, learned how to work as assistants during camp sessions.

CITs learn how to write a résumé, prepare a job application and have a preliminary job interview. “By going through the program, they are invited back for two weeks for hands-on experience,” Guthrie said. “Then they have a job reference.”

“We’re hoping this develops a steady stream of counselors,” said Coco, who thinks the CIT training will also help provide counselors at other BREC camps. The plan is to continue these CIT programs next spring.

Nathan McDavid, 14, attended the Swamp Camp every year from the time he was 3. This year, he went through the CIT program. “It’s fun getting to work with the kids,” he said. “Now I see how everything works.”

Growing up, his weeks at the camp were some of his favorite of the summer. “I couldn’t wait to go to this camp,” he said. “Monday would come, and then Friday would be right there.”