On May 11th, monsters were sighted at Sam Parr State Fish and Wildlife Area. The first graders of Newton Elementary and St. Thomas Schools arrived at the park early in the morning for a special field trip. (No, the first graders are not the monsters; I and their teachers, or their parents, would never suggest such a thing.)

The first graders listened politely and participated enthusiastically during presentations by Eric Carr, Katie Turkal, Officer Coker, Patty Gillespie, and Bob Gillespie. They also enjoyed playtime and a picnic.

Then came the monsters. But first the children listened to Miss Patty (Patty Gillespie), retired Ballard Nature Center co-director, read Bedtime at the Swamp by Kristyn Crow and illustrated by Macky Pamintuan. In the children’s book, a young boy is happily viewing the fireflies in the swamp when he becomes frighten by ominous sounds, a splish- splashing, rumba-rumbaing, and bing-bang-booming. He runs and shimmies up a tree and is soon joined by his sister, brother and cousins who have been sent to fetch him home. Just as the swamp monster appears beneath the tree, the same eerie swamp sounds are heard, and it turns out to be the mom who tells them all to come home to bathe for bedtime and to bring along their new playmate, the swamp monster.

Of course, the first graders expect Miss Patty to assure them that there is no such thing as swamp monsters. Instead, Miss Patty asks Bob Gillespie of the IDNR to bring up the lidded bucket and asks the teachers to first peek at the captured baby monster. The lid is lifted slightly, and Mrs. Kennedy screams from fright. She and Mrs. Walker discuss if it is wise to let the children see the monster. (A round of applause for good acting by all teachers!)

Finally, the children convince their teachers to allow them a peek. “We want to see. We are brave,” they say. So, Bob Gillespie, who is seemingly fearless, reaches into the bucket and pulls out an Eastern Box Turtle, much to the delight of the children.

But, there were other “monsters” to be seen down at the “swamp,” a shady shallow pool adjoining the park’s lake. Miss Patty showed off her favorite swamp monster, a small-mouthed salamander. First the children observed the baby salamander (larval form) which has gills for living in water just as tadpoles do. The dark-gray smooth-skinned adult salamander seemed to show off for the kids as it crawled energetically in Miss Patty’s wet hands. Jim Gillespie, site superintendent at Sam Parr Park, pointed out the dragonfly nymphs in the water and held up a shimmering winged dragonfly. The children also observed fairy shrimp, whirly-gig beetles, damselfly nymphs, baby fish or fry, tadpoles, etc.

Bob Gillespie showed off a live snapping turtle - I told you he is fearless – and displayed the shells of other aquatic turtles found in Illinois. To educate about the mammals who utilize lakes and streams as habitat, Gillespie entertained using puppets and pelts of otter, raccoon, beaver, etc. The first graders were enthralled when Gillespie held a beaver skull and told of beavers’ strong teeth used for bark-peeling and tree-felling.

If you know a first grader, ask him or her which swamp monster is the favorite.