Natural education: Stillman Nature Center interns get hands-on field experience

  • Intern Rebecca Behrendt weighs one of Stillman's screech owls.

    Intern Rebecca Behrendt weighs one of Stillman's screech owls. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

  • Maggie Bednarek, an intern at Stillman Nature Center, examines a turtle eggshell.

    Maggie Bednarek, an intern at Stillman Nature Center, examines a turtle eggshell. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

  • Interns hold loppers and a bow saws, tools they often use to clear trails. From left are Maggie Bednarek, Rebecca Behrendt and Michelle Emmerson. Stillman director Mark Spreyer is also shown.

    Interns hold loppers and a bow saws, tools they often use to clear trails. From left are Maggie Bednarek, Rebecca Behrendt and Michelle Emmerson. Stillman director Mark Spreyer is also shown. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

  • Intern Michelle Emmerson builds a wren house at Stillman Nature Center.

    Intern Michelle Emmerson builds a wren house at Stillman Nature Center. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

 
Posted7/16/2019 6:00 AM

Hawks, great horned owls and peregrine falcons. Oh, my!

Those are just a few of the birds of prey at the Stillman Nature Center in South Barrington that are breaking in the new college interns this summer. Turns out that learning about their habits, diets and behavior is just the start of their hands-on work in the field.

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"We're trying to give them some practical experience outdoors," says Mark Spreyer, executive director. "This much I guarantee: They'll never walk another trail again without knowing how much work goes into maintaining it."

The three interns eagerly concurred during an interview last week, but they said that was all part of the beauty of their work.

Take Maggie Bednarek of Palatine. She graduated from Augustana College last year with a degree in biology, driven in part by her passion for snakes, reptiles, and anything amphibious. She figured she wanted to do something with wildlife.

Yet, one month into her internship at Stillman Nature Center she has discovered even more passions, such as birds of prey, raptors and all the hidden gems of nature found along woodland trails.

"Any experience working outside is valuable," she says, "but this has widened my knowledge beyond reptiles and amphibians."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Working alongside her is Rebecca Behrendt of Palatine, who will be a junior at Illinois State University pursuing a major in zoology and environmental science.

She developed an interest in birds while going on bird walks with her mother, but working with the 10 raptors at Stillman -- including hawks, owls, falcons and a turkey vulture -- has given a whole new meaning to bird watching, Behrendt says.

"Stillman rescues these raptors that are permanently injured," she says. "I've learned how to handle them and educate the public about why they are not able to go back into the wild."

The third intern is Michelle Emmerson of Arlington Heights, who is majoring in environmental science with a concentration in conservation and restoration ecology at Loyola University in Chicago.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

She brings a wide range of experience to her role having worked with Loyola's Student Environmental Alliance as well as hands-on work at Loyola's retreat and ecology campus. But even she is seeing nature differently after just a month at Stillman.

Nearly every day, she works with her fellow interns to clear the 80 acres of trails, prairies and orchards of invasive, nonnative plants, such as buckthorn and garlic mustard. But in between the weeds, she has taken time to see all the turtles, frogs, snakes and dragon flies on display.

"We're expanding our knowledge in plants and ecosystems, as well as a whole range of subjects," Emmerson says.

Spreyer figures the nature center has hired interns for more than 10 years and now they depend on them to advance their mission of restoration and educating the public. He credits the South Barrington Garden Club with helping to support the internship program.

Over the years, he adds, the center has drawn interns from American University, Augustana, Eastern Michigan University, the University of Vermont and the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

"We've had some great interns over the years, but these girls are outstanding," says Spreyer, who also writes a nature column for the Daily Herald. "They have such genuine enthusiasm and curiosity. It's a joy to work with them."

To learn more about Stillman Nature Center, its birds of prey and its programs, visit stillmannc.org.

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