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FUNKS GROVE — Acting like wildlife detectives, 21 children ages 6 to 11 went searching for evidence of life amid the stark winter landscape of Central Illinois.

And they found it Friday in Funks Grove as they took part in the Experience Winter program at Sugar Grove Nature Center.

They found it in obvious places, such as the bird feeding area at the nature center. But they also found it in less obvious spots, under leaves, along the trails and along the creek.

“Our goal is to find stuff that shows us it's really not dead in winter,” volunteer Karen Lowery told the children as she led them on an exploratory hike in the prairie and forest adjacent to the center.

Children excitedly pointed out squirrel nests and looked for tracks.

They learned words that were new to most of them, such as “gall” — an abnormal growth on a plant where a bug has laid an egg — and “scat.”

“That's poop,” answered 8-year-old Alex Dzhafarov of Bloomington, when Lowery asked if anyone knew the word.

The young detectives looked closely at various galls to see if they had a tiny hole, showing the egg had hatched and the maggot had emerged.

They searched for various types of seeds as Lowery explained they not only bring life by sprouting in spring but also provide food for birds and other creatures.

They even found some “scat” and offered suggestions about what left it.

Alex — short for Alexandra — planned to take home a piece of bark in which burrowing bugs had left trails.

“When I get home, I'm going to wash it off so I can see the pattern more clearly,” she said, adding she hoped to figure out what kind of bug made them.

Talia Pierard of Bloomington said, “I like to wander around trying to find wildlife.”

The 8-year-old clutched a feather with brown and black bands, which she planned to show to “Miss Jill” — environmental educator Jill Wallace — in hopes she could identify the bird to which it once belonged.

“I think it's from a hawk,” Talia said matter of factly.

Wallace said the center has a variety of programs throughout the year for adults, families and children. The Experience Winter program has been offered during Christmas break for at least five years and has remained popular.

Six-year-old Kate Lamney of Normal said her favorite thing about playing outside is “climbing on things.”

She showed a piece of white “shelf fungus” that came from a downed tree that the children explored and walked on. They found different types of fungi and holes of different sizes made by bugs and woodpeckers and natural decay.

Back in the center's classroom, the children used magnifying glasses for a closer look at various natural items, including those they found on their hike.

They later made plaster casts of animal tracks and cooked hot dogs over a campfire.

Lowery, who retired as a Bloomington High School science teacher, still likes teaching and helping youngsters learn about the outside world.

“I want them to know a seed is more than something blowing in the wind,” she said.

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