On the ground: Preschool celebrates groundhogs

The groundhogs slept in Monday morning, but local preschoolers did not.

While Punxsutawney Phil — the nation’s weather-predicting, brown-haired rodent — forecasted another six weeks of winter upon emerging from his stump over 300 miles away from the Elm City, a group of starry-eyed youngsters celebrated Groundhog Day with a nature walk though West Rock Park.

The cold did not deter local residents and a dozen Hamden Hall preschoolers from joining West Rock Nature Center Park Ranger Wray Wales in relishing the legend of the prognosticating groundhog — and, Wales added, perhaps developing a new appreciation for the local wildlife and flora.

“People are indoors for much of the winter so it’s good to get active and calm all that cabin fever,” Wales said of the annual tradition he founded a few years back. “And it’s such a well-known myth that everyone enjoys.”

Indeed, for the Hamden Hall preschoolers — bundled up under layers of scarves, beanies and woolen gloves — there was no denying their excitement.

Four-year-old Alistair Selby said he had never seen a groundhog and wanted to know what the animals ate. His friend Evan Popageorge recalled once catching a glimpse of a groundhog under his family’s shed, a memory the boy recounted while throwing his arms excitedly into the air.

“It comes out in spring and it is huge — like a big rat,” Popageorge said, exaggerating the size of the creature with his hands.

The wintry morning air did not dampen the imaginations of the preschoolers, either. A few demanded to know if lions lived in the reserve, while others pointed excitedly at deer tracks they observed along the hiking trail. Though attendees did not see any groundhogs, Wales pointed out animal tracks, hibernation coves and hideaways and taught the youngsters in attendance how to spot different animal footprints in the snow.

While Wales admitted the chance of a groundhog sighting was unlikely in the current weather, he said he had hoped the walk would enrich the younger participants’ understanding of the local flora and fauna.

Clare Rich, a teacher from Hamden Hall, a private school on Whitney Avenue in neighboring Hamden, said she brought her pre-K class to the walk because her students were enthusiastic about scouting the area for signs of animals normally confined to books and pictures. Mostly, though, she said the children love to ask any questions that come to mind. One child unabashedly inquired about bears in the area; several others winced at the sight of the squirrel pelts hung on the walls of the nature center, voicing concerns about the fate of the small animals.

“I take a group of preschoolers here twice a year, once in the winter and again in the spring,” Rich said. “It’s a real learning experience for them.”

But the nature walk held an ageless appeal: For local resident and retiree Victoria Navin, the Groundhog Day Walk was an opportunity to indulge her love of the wilderness. Navin, an avid nature enthusiast, has over the years participated in several walks organized by the West Rock Nature Reserve.

“It’s a waste to be indoors during the winter when there is so much beauty to be appreciated,” Navin said. “The last thing I want to be doing is sitting at home and twiddling my thumbs.”

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