Sonoma County kids see nature through a viewfinder

"Circle of Life" by Holly Herman. (Pepperwood Preserve)


Give teenagers a camera and set them loose at a 3,200-acre nature reserve. At the end of four weeks, they will come back with exhibit-quality photos of bugs, butterfly wings, ant eggs, baby mice, discarded snake skin and other everyday parts of nature.

Student interns aged 13-17 enrolled in Pepperwood Preserve’s summer TeenNat program spent their days combing the terrain northeast of Santa Rosa, learning about the environment while also becoming proficient with GPS units and Canon PowerShot Elph 160 cameras.

Their photos will be on exhibit through the fall and include:

“Come Closer if You Dare.” Jordan Cruz-Loya, 16, stumbled while hiking and spotted a praying mantis on the side of a hill. He carried the creature to a grassland habitat and took about 25 shots before he was satisfied.

“I found out that a praying mantis has a lot of body parts,” Jordan said with a smile.

“Jabba the Newt.” Rosa Rios, 16, found this hefty male newt (Taricha granulosa) under a rock near a dried up pond, along with another male newt and family of baby newts. After photographing Jabba, she shared information about her discovery on, a social network where citizen scientists crowdsource and share information about nature.

Rosa described her find this way: “The stomach was orange, and it had a bumpy black back. It has big brown eyes and four legs with 4-5 fingers. Even though it was in the desiccated area of the pond, it was still wet, and indicated to me that these amphibians need water.”

“The Hidden Gem.” Brayan Orduña, 16, found this orb weaver (Argiope aurantia) in a green area near a pond. “I was looking for a cricket with red legs when I hit the spider web,” he said. ”That’s when I found the ‘massive’ spider. After I took a bunch of shots, I noticed I was surrounded by other spiders.”

Unable to identify it, he turned to for help, posting a photo. “I learned to use the macro lens so I was able to get the web in the shot, too,” Brayan said.

“Circle of Life.” While hiking a trail through redwoods, Holly Herman, 13, came across a stick bug (Phasmida) that, with the help of environmental educator Jesse Robinson, she identified as a rare one. “We were doing sword fern research that day, and I didn’t have a field guide with me,” she said.

Her friend Will Anderson caught the bug so she could photograph it. “I keep the camera set on macro instead of auto to get most of my shots,” Holly said.

“Come Get Some.” Zach McDonough, 15, also found his gem on a hike to the redwoods to study the sword ferns. One of the instructors lifted a rock and revealed a large scorpion.

“I was in a position to get the shot,” Zach said. “You can’t tell from the picture, but it’s 2 to 3 inches long.”

Zach moved the scorpion out of a crevasse to photograph and wound up dropping to his hands and knees so he could follow it down into a hole.

Identifying the forest scorpion was a challenge, so he started by noting its coloration and belly. “Most of the scorpion was a dark brown, almost black,” he said. “The belly was tan-to-white with brown spots, and the stinger was reddish.”

The group also found a pregnant female that was an inch wide, proportionately wider than his scorpion.

Pepperwood’s gallery is open during all public events at 2130 Pepperwood Preserve Road. This week, the photo exhibit can be viewed before the Friday evening bat lecture, which starts at 7 p.m., and the Saturday public hike, which runs 9 a.m.-1 p.m. For a complete list of upcoming public events, visit or call 591-9310.