People are flocking like waterfowl to the Laguna de Santa Rosa two years after the foundation dedicated to restoring and enhancing the 254-square-mile watershed opened a new public educational center.

The barn-like Great Blue Heron Hall is now playing host to a wide range of nature classes and talks, not just for visiting schoolchildren, but also for the general public.

The Laguna De Santa Rosa Foundation has been ramping up its educational programs, offering at least two classes or lectures each month aimed at helping people better understand the wildlife and ecosystem of the vast wetland that stretches some 22 miles along the Santa Rosa Plain from Cotati to the Russian River in Forestville.

A workshop on Saturday in which local artist, biologist and storyteller Ane Carla Rovetta will show how to make chalks, paints, charcoals and inks from natural materials, is already full.

Some people showed up March 8 to meet a Great Horned Owl and learn more about these important predators, including how to identify different owls by their hoots.

The foundation holds regular open houses on the second Saturday of each month featuring special activities and guided tours of the whole Laguna Environmental Center, set on a low knoll just off Occidental Road between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Here, with its newly restored 1870s farmhouse framed by big canary palms that serves as headquarters for the foundation, are a number of natural attractions for visitors, including interpretive kiosks, gardens, an observation deck for bird watching, a small pond that showcases native Laguna plant life, a century-old hop barn and picnic areas.

Under construction now is a children's "playscape" with all natural structures to climb on and explore, like logs, boulders and a living willow tunnel to crawl through.

"We've always led walks on the Laguna trail, the Sebastopol preserve and to the delta pond rookery," said Christine Fontaine, director of education programs. "But now that we have the center we are having people here and have increased attendance at all of our events.

Last year, some 2,000 people participated in workshops, classes and events, everything from stargazing parties to storytelling. Experts have come in to lead workshops on bird songs, woodlands, dragonflies, mountain lions, basketmaking and building a wildlife habitat in your backyard.

Executive Director David Bannister said part of the appeal of the Laguna is that it offers a chance to experience nature in what is for many people a very short drive from home.

The 1,530-square-foot Great Blue Heron Hall is a bright and airy space, built to evoke a barn, in keeping with the agricultural history of what for 150 years was a farm.

Called Stone Farm after the last owners, the site was acquired by the city of Santa Rosa in the 1980s as a place to dispose of treated wastewater. The Laguna Foundation persuaded the city to lease them the site for $1 a year. In 2009 they moved in, waging a capital campaign to restore the farmhouse, develop the grounds and build the educational center.

Bannister said the Laguna is a significant natural resource and ecosystem, made all the more notable because it is encircled by so much development.

"Right here in the Santa Rosa plain where several hundred thousand people reside — and even though it's been heavily altered — we have this habitat that is home to over 200 species of birds, including bald eagles and peregrines," said Bannister, pausing on a walk to watch a white-tailed kite hover over the trailhead of the 1.8 mile Laguna de Santa Rosa trail crossing the wetland between Occidental Road and Highway12.

Now is an optimum time to visit the Laguna. Birds that had stayed away because of the drought have returned with the recent rains, said Bannister.

The area is also home to badgers, raccoons, mountain lions, foxes and bullfrogs that deliver a loud chorus at night.

Upcoming events include a talk Thursday on the Complex Social Life of Cliff Swallows, a slideshow on the Birds of the Laguna on March 29 and a birding walk led by LandPaths, also on March 29.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.