By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

Tim Talamantes was nearing the end of a 45-year career as a Petaluma gardener and nurseryman when he answered an ad. It offered to train people to be docents for the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance.

He found it impossible to resist, having worked outdoors with nature as his classroom and grown up with a mother who loved birds.

Talamantes signed on and has been showing Shollenburger Park’s intricate ecosystem to Petaluma’s third graders ever since. He describes the docent training program as eight weeks of learning “anything and everything you have to know to work with the children.”

Third graders are singled out because the tour content is perfectly matched with the state-mandated science curriculum for that age group. Docents provide the service at no cost to schools located within the parameters of the Petaluma River watershed. Private donations, sponsorships by The Madrone Audobon Society and the City of Petaluma fund it.

“My specialty is showing the kids how to dissect barn owl pellets to find out their diet patterns,” Talamantes said. “They learn about the owls’ food pyramid and how owls catch and eat their prey.

“Before we go out in the field, we do an entire PowerPoint presentation and demonstration in the classroom to prepare the kids for the 160-acre park experience.”

The tour includes a bird walk and a habitat walk on which the children learn about the delicate balance of nature that keeps what Talamantes refers to as “nature’s status quo.”

At any one time there might be 35 to 40 other docents whose shared duties include park cleaning, raising native shrubbery at Casa Grande High School and planting it at Shollenburger.

They also are responsible for leading the bimonthly Shollenburger nature walks that are open to the adult public.

“I’m truly impressed with the commitment and the shared excitement among the docents for the subject and for the cause,” Talamantes said. “I’ve noticed that the ones who don’t share that excitement don’t seem to last.”

The Point Reyes Bird Observatory’s Palomarin Field Station near Bolinas also acts as a support system for the docent program. Since 1965, researchers have been tracking bird migratory patterns from the Aleutian Islands to Alaska and Antarctica. Their collected information is helpful to docents looking to fill any information gaps.

The observatory also is the legal owner of the stuffed barn owl used in classroom presentation. (A federal permit is required for the ownership of any animal used in that capacity.)

Melissa Pitkin, the observatory’s education outreach director, is in charge of conservation science. She considers the Shollenburger docents “excellent stewards of our community wetlands here in Petaluma.”

“They do a great job, everything from helping to do science on the wetlands to educating the public,” she said. “These are important programs we need for preserving wildlife and connecting our community with nature.”

Talamantes laughs when recounting the average child’s reaction to the owl pellet exercise. “First, its ‘Iiiiiick! I’m not touching that.’ Then five minutes later, they’re up to their elbows in it. But they’re amazingly bright and absorb this knowledge like sponges.”

He knows the program is working when he overhears a child who has been through the course out at the park, telling a parent or friend the details of the course, word for word.

For all four years as a docent, Talamantes has been actively campaigning to offer the same course to adults. He has seen grown-up chaperones so excited that they had to to be reminded to step back and let the kids get front and center.

“I get pretty revved up for the tours and classes myself,” he said. “It’s great to watch the kids getting away from the screen and out to where the real action is.”

For more information about the d0cent program, visit petalumawetlands.org.