Taylor Schaefers led 11 children along a trail at Swiss Valley Nature Preserve outside of Dubuque this morning, pausing to ask her charges to look for signs that birds had been nearby. 

She clued them into bird droppings on twigs and fallen leaves near the trail.

"There's probably some sort of birds that flew over here not too long ago," said Schaefers, a naturalist for Dubuque County Conservation Board.

The children spent their morning at the nature preserve and nature center for an animal tracking camp, taking advantage of a day off from school to learn about animal tracks, fur and other topics.

"It definitely just gives parents something to do with their kids, getting them outside before the holiday," Schaefers said.

During the camp, the children learned about the footprints that animals leave behind and then made their own plaster molds of prints. They examined rubber molds of different kinds of animal droppings, as well as various furs and skulls.

The morning also included a hike to look for signs that animals had been in the area, with stops to examine footprints, look for bird nests and inspect holes in trees.

Sebastien Hosch, 8, said he liked going on the hike, as well as making a mold of an animal footprint. He said he has plenty of experience with the outdoors, noting that he enjoys camping and currently is making a fort in the trees at his house.

"I liked all the things that we did," Sebastien said. "I like how I got to learn about what footprints are which."

He said he enjoyed his morning at the animal tracking camp.

"It's a fun place to be, and I had a really good experience," Sebastien said.

Miranda Kettmann, 10, attended the camp with her sister Zoey, 6. Zoey said she liked going on the hike, especially when the children found a stick shelter that had been built before their arrival on the trail.

Miranda said she learned that there can be all kinds of animal footprints and droppings. She particularly enjoyed seeing the different footprint molds, such as those of a bobcat and beaver.

"I didn't realize how big (a beaver's) foot could be," she said.

Schaefers noted that the animal tracking camp originally started out as a morning offering, but it filled so quickly that staff added an afternoon session, too.

She said she hoped participants picked up an appreciation for nature and paying attention to the little things, while learning a bit more along the way.

"I love when kids are able to learn outside of school, and learning hands on, I think, is the best way of learning," she said.

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