Kent County Parks launches nature center, hires naturalist

CAMDEN WYOMING — Though it has sat mostly idle for the better part of a decade, the “butterfly garden” at Brecknock Park in Camden Wyoming has begun to spring to life under the watchful eye of Kent County’s new park naturalist, Kara Okonewski.

Last week, Ms. Okonewski released two black swallowtail butterflies — named Ian and Shannon — she’d collected from eggs and nurtured through their chrysalis state. Though she says the population of the particular butterfly is robust in the area, sheltering the butterflies during their 30-day maturation and releasing them allows her to exhibit them for visitors, collect data and bolster the local stock.

“We record everything we do and share the data with the University of Georgia’s Ecology lab,” she said. “Just observing can tell us a lot too though. We can see during their growth if there are parasites, disease or deformation and sort of get an idea about how well are garden is performing.”

Much like the butterfly’s metamorphoses, Ms. Okonewski has been taking Brecknock Park’s historical and environmental programing through its own transformation — namely from nothing to something. Formerly a park naturalist for the state, she pitched the idea of running a Nature Center to Kent County herself.

“I was always walking by the park and I just decided to ask one day what they were doing with the old padlocked up Nature Center in the back,” said Ms. Okonewski. “I talked to Mike Rigby (Assistant Director of county parks and recreation) in November 2017 and asked what they were doing with it, and he said ‘Well, what would you like to see done with it?’”

Working alongside Mr. Rigby and Director of Kent County community services Jeremy Sheppard, she volunteered to gauge public interest in a Nature Center by offering programs once per month. The response exceeded expectation.

“We were very pleased to tap into her passion for providing park naturalist services,” said Mr. Sheppard. “We understood that we had a facility that was really meant for that was not being utilized, so it was an easy fit to start up the relationship and start providing some minor programing on a volunteer basis. With the growth of that program, popularity and attendance, it was obvious we needed to take another step and more officially provide those programs.”

A butterfly.

Over six separate days, Ms. Okonewski said she had 600 visitors to the center. Because of this, Kent County Levy Court was readily convinced to bring her on part-time and expand the center’s offerings.
“I worked as a volunteer for about a year and a half, and because of the response, they accepted my proposal for a weekly schedule and officially approved the position six weeks ago,” she said. “It looks like I’m going to be the first person in Kent County parks and rec history to offer environmental and historical education — they actually needed to write the job description.”

Now with hours on Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Ms. Okonewski has redoubled her efforts to gussy up the Nature Center, build exhibits and introduce new programs.

“We’re cleaning up and rebuilding the butterfly garden and constantly rotating the exhibits in here — a lot of people have actually come forward with donations like taxidermy specimies and all kinds of cool stuff,” she said. “A lot of the things are from my person collection or things we’ve found in the park. I think we’re going to find a lot of things of historical significance here as well. Working with the state park archaeologist on only a very small area doing the most superficial search we found musket balls, colonial-era shoe buckles and an oxen shoe probably from when this was a grain mill back in the 1600s.”

Ms. Okonewski is planning on introducing themes to guide the exhibits for each month as well.
“August is the month of frogs — we’ll go over everything frog-related like their life cycles, diet and habitat while looking at X-rays of them and their bones,” she said. “September will be Monarch Madness month where we’ll raise a ton of monarch butterflies here, work with the University of Georgia to do parasite tests and tag them with serial numbers and then release them so they can migrate to Mexico. There, they’ll get picked up and their serial numbers can get checked and it’ll tell us things about the strength of our garden and survival rates.”

Ms. Okonewski says the public will have the opportunity to sponsor a monarch butterfly for $20 and tag and release them.
In time, Mr. Sheppard believes the Nature Center will continue to grow as a public resource.

“We’re going to look at the metrics of how well her programing does and how many relationship she can make with the local school districts, day cares and home-schoolers to help offset some of the costs of running a full time Nature Center and if that’s all positive, it’d be an easy sell to move this to a full-time position and provide these services year round,” he said.

For a full list of the Nature Center’s offering and programs, email Kara.Okonewski@co.kent.de.us or visit co.kent.de.us/parks-recreation.aspx.

The public is also welcome to visit the center for free during its Wednesday, Friday and Saturday hours at Brecknock Park on 80 Old Camden Road in Camden Wyoming. Residents interesting in donating to the effort can volunteer their time, native plants for the garden, unwanted nature items, books, displays or collections, birdseed, hand soap, hand sanitizer and garden tools.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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