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Parks naturalist now at Red Oaks Nature Center

Goal is to help others appreciate the great outdoors

July 16, 2014

» click to enlarge «
Sarah Hodges is the new parks naturalist at Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods in Madison Heights. Hodges shows a group of kids visiting the Red Oaks Nature Center through West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation July 9 the plants and animals around the pond right outside the nature center building at 30300 Hales.

MADISON HEIGHTS — The Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods had been operating without a naturalist since the city cut funding for staffing in 2010. Since then, Oakland County has agreed to manage the park in a 25-year lease agreement, and now the county has restored the full-time role of parks naturalist.

Sarah Hodges is the new naturalist at the Red Oaks Nature Center. She attended the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and minored in communication.

“I chose this field because I was really interested in being outdoors and learning about the outdoors, identifying birds and plants and such,” Hodges said. “I also really enjoy working with kids and teaching. This attracted me to the field of nature interpretation.”

Her first job in the field was at the Environmental Interpretive Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where she worked as a student naturalist for 3 1/2 years, gaining the majority of her naturalist experience and training.

She also worked at a summer camp in Howell called Wildwood Ranch, where she served as a camp counselor, and she served as the nature director at Camp Cedar in the Upper Peninsula two summers ago, in a small town called Cedarville, just east of Hessel on the shores of Lake Huron.

More recently, she worked as a restoration technician last summer for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Alliance. They partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work on Refuge Gateway, a Wayne County-acquired piece of property near the federally owned and protected Humbug Marsh, the last undeveloped mile on the U.S. side of the Detroit River.

Once the site of a Chrysler plant, the land is now a brownfield property and is undergoing prairie, wetland and forest restoration. Hodges and the others, aided by numerous school groups, helped plant a variety of flowers and more than 140 trees.

Once Hodges came onboard with Oakland County in mid-April, she started training at the county’s only other nature center, the Lewis E. Wint Nature Center in Clarkston, where she observed the other naturalists and how they handled their programming.

“My main responsibility is nature interpretation, so when school groups or private groups come in, I teach them about nature, which can include bio-facts about taxidermy, animal pelts, animal skins, deer antlers and more,” Hodges said. “I take visitors outside on nature walks, which is important since kids don’t get out enough these days, and this helps them to develop a sense of place — this is where you live, this is what lives here and grows here, and here’s how they interact, and how it affects you.

“So there’s this component of learning the ways of nature, like life cycles, and predator-prey relationships, but I also like to include a component of stewardship,” she said. “I like to teach how the decisions you make affect the natural world around you.”

Park offerings
Suarez Friendship Woods is a 38-acre park located south of 13 Mile and west of Dequindre. The nature center itself is located at 30300 Hales.

“It’s unique in that it’s literally in the middle of an urban area, surrounded on all sides by neighborhood,” Hodges said. “It’s a great place, since people can go from an everyday environment with cars and buildings everywhere and then, all of the sudden, they’re immersed in wilderness.

“I’ve been told by many birders here that this is the best place in Oakland County to see birds,” she said. “It’s a stop on migratory patterns for many species. And there are a few habitats here, like the old growth in the south end with the big trees, and then the north end is all newer growths, like shrubs and berry bushes.”

The Red Oaks Nature Center is a cabin-like building nestled among the greenery. Inside, there’s an apiary thrumming with bees; an indoor pond; taxidermy mounts and animal pelts; interactive exhibits; seasonal displays; an auditorium for films; and live animals including 12 turtles, a bullfrog, an eastern fox snake and a tiger salamander.

With a naturalist now at the park, visitors can look forward to programming, as well.

• Right now, the nature center is in the midst of its nature minicamp, “Get Outside,” from July 15-17. July 15, “Birds of a Feather,” was all about birds; July 16, “No Bugs About It,” is all about insects; and July 17, “Water Wonders,” will deal with water.

Kids gather at the nature center from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. each day. The camp costs $25 per day, and kids bring a sack lunch. Each day includes a nature walk, a game, a craft and live animals.

• From 1-2:45 p.m. Aug. 16, the nature center will host “Nature’s Color Palette,” part of the Nature Sprouts program, for children ages 3-6. The event will teach kids about the wide variety of colors that emerge in the natural world. There will be a hike, a craft, a story and snacks. The price is $4 per person.

• On Sept. 9, the nature center is planning a butterfly parade where kids will wear butterfly wings and march up and down the nature trails while learning about the roles that butterflies play in nature. There will be other activities, as well, but at press time, details were still being finalized.

• From 10 a.m.-noon Sept. 13, the nature center will hold an event called “Fun and Games,” part of their outdoor workout series called “NatureFit.” The event will feature a variety of obstacle courses and other activities by way of Oakland County’s Retro Games trailer. The cost is $3 per person and includes snacks.

• On Sept. 20, the nature center will host an event called “Migration — My Gracious!” Guest naturalist Tim Nowicki will talk about the extraordinary physical accomplishments of migrating wildlife. The cost is $3 per person.

Hodges currently is busy coordinating all of these events. By the end of the month, she’ll have moved from Livonia to a new home in Oakland County. It’s a busy time for Hodges, but she says she’s excited.

So, too, is Lynn Conover, the county’s recreation program supervisor who oversees programming at the two nature centers. She was part of the team that hired Hodges.

“Now that she (Hodges) has been working for us for a little over three months, I can say what comes shining through is her passion for the natural world and sharing that with others in creative ways, which is really what a naturalist does,” Conover said. “It’s a combination of a person who truly knows the natural world, especially in their area, and of a person who is a teacher at heart. We, as a society, don’t spend as much time outdoors these days, and we’re trying to change that. The art of helping people relate to things occurring in the natural world is more important than ever.”

The Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods is located at 30300 Hales, south of 13 Mile and west of Dequindre, and can be reached at (248) 585-0100. To learn more about upcoming programs, visit

About the author

Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski covers Madison Heights, Hazel Park, Madison District Public Schools, Lamphere Public Schools and Hazel Park Public Schools for the Madison-Park News.

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