A Stream Exploration How-To Guide

Summer is a great time for you and your little adventurer to discover the hidden world of streams

06-06-2011 // Jennifer Bové

Girls investigating stream

When summer temperatures soar, slip on your wading shoes for an expedition to the nearest cool, inviting stream—the perfect place to let the whole family's curiosity run wild!  Splashing and giggles are guaranteed, but just wait until you start discovering bugs, fish, and other critters that can't be found at the swimming pool. It's fun to play stream scientist alongside your little explorer: all you need are a few simple tools to study the secret lives of creatures that live just below the surface.

Make a Water Window

What You Need:

  • Cardboard milk carton
  • Scissors
  • Plastic wrap
  • Rubber band

What You Do:

  1. Cut the top and bottom off of your milk carton so that you have a square-shaped tube remaining.  Stretch clear plastic wrap over one end and secure it to the carton with a rubber band. This is your “water window.”
  2. When you get to the stream, place the plastic-wrapped end of the water window against the surface of the water. The window eliminates ripples and glare so that you can peek right down into the stream and see what's going on below.

Catch Some Critters

What You Need:

  • Bug net or sturdy metal kitchen strainer (the kind with screen mesh)
  • Cotton ear swabs
  • White plastic ice cube tray
  • Magnifying glass
  • Aquatic creature identification guide (download and print a free copy of Stream Insects and Crustaceans)

What You Do:

  1. In the shallow water at the edge of the stream, hold the rim of your net or strainer against the bottom of the stream. Make sure the current is flowing into the open "bowl" of the net.
  2. With your hands or feet, stir up the stream bottom material (gravel, sand, leaves) just upstream of your net. Loose material will rise up and wash into the mesh.
  3. Scoop the net out of the water and examine the stuff you caught. If you see wiggly insects or other creatures, gently pluck them out with your fingers (or use a cotton swab to collect).
  4. Place the critters into the wells of your ice cube tray that you’ve already filled with stream water to keep them comfortable.
  5. When you've finished studying, gently lower the tray in the water and let your catch swim free. Then you're ready to sample another spot along the stream!

Learn a Little Stream-Smart Lingo

  • Aquatic Invertebrates: underwater animals that don't have backbones (such as insects, snails, and crayfish)
  • Bank: land at the water's edge
  • Glide: an area of smooth-flowing water in the stream
  • Pool: a deep area of slow-moving water in a stream
  • Riffle: an area of fast-moving water or rapids (riffles are full of oxygen bubbles, which makes them great places for small stream creatures to live)
  • Riparian Area: the area along stream banks where plants and trees grow
  • Substrate: the material that makes up the bottom of the stream (rocks, sand, mud, dead leaves, sticks, etc.)

Share Your Stream Story

When you get home, visit Wildlife Watch, a national nature-watching website where people of all ages can post stories and photos from their outdoor explorations.


Be Out There logo

Jennifer Bové, mom and former field biologist, is an award-winning contributor to Your Big Backyard® and the editor of three anthologies including Wild With Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors. Jennifer's blog is filled with timely tips and family fun. Stop by for a visit at www.bovesboots.blogspot.com.



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