Under gathering storm clouds, five young hikers and their parents set out on a moderate trail in Round Canyon earlier this week to observe first-hand the effects of precipitation on the local ecosystem.
In the first Sounds of the Season hike, a new free program suitable for children ages 3 to 6, Irvine Ranch Conservancy docents led a group of about 10 on a 1-mile, round-trip nature walk that included educational and interactive activities.
"The program is intended to help children connect with the outdoors and to provide an opportunity to wiggle like the animals and grow like the plants," said Kelly Reetz, conservancy interpretive specialist. "It's a free opportunity for families to explore nature in a safe setting."
Participants observed the effects of water erosion on the mile-loop of Round Canyon, the audible cries of redtail hawks circling overhead and even analyzed — much to the delight of the young hikers — the "scat," or droppings, left behind by native wildlife.
"It's very informative," said San Clemente resident Amy Smith, who attended the event with her daughter, Cassidy, 6. "We home school, so it's a great way to view all of God's creatures and nature."
The group stoped about every 10 feet to discuss a new finding spotted by one of the children. Local flora specimens, such as stinking gourd, wild cucumber, lemonade berry and coast live oak, were described in detail by volunteer Patti Smith.
The conservancy volunteer encouraged the children to stay on the path, but explore their surroundings with their eyes and ears.
"I'm very excited to work as a docent," said Smith, an Anaheim Hills resident. "It's so amazing that we have this open space in the county. It all could have been concreted over and turned into housing, but instead we have this jewel."
As it were, Round Canyon, which represents a portion of the 50,000 acres of permanently preserved open space that comprises the conservancy, was the first taste of a real hike for one of Wednesday's youngest hikers.
"He's never has his feet in the dirt like this before, but we've done a bunch of sidewalk nature walks in the past," Tustin resident Pam Kisow said of her 4-year-old grandson, Conrad Anderson.
Although Conrad rode most of the hike in Kisow's arms, the tow-headed tyke smiled and squealed along with the rest of the young group as Smith adopted a fuzzy bee puppet and demonstrated how pollination is crucial to flower reproduction.
As part of the roughly 90-minute event, the children also examined acorns and observed birds' nests resting high in the oak trees lining the even-grade trail.
"I thought this was just terrific," Smith said. "And it was especially nice since it was free."
The event repeats March 15, and space can be reserved at irlandmarks.org.