CHARLESTOWN, R.I. -- One thing we discovered at the Kettle Pond visitors center is that you're never too old for ''discovery drawers." The center, which opened last October, serves as a headquarters and information source for the five national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island. Marked by a striking metal sculpture of a blue heron holding a fish, it sits in the northern section of Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.
In a sunny, open display area, the center showcases the six habitats found in the state's refuges: forested uplands, dense with pines, oaks, sweet ferns, and blueberry bushes; coastal shrubland, home to many types of songbirds; salt ponds, which provide oyster and quahog beds; salt marshes, nurseries for hundreds of species of fish; barrier beaches, with dune grasses, shells, and seabirds; and rocky shores, home to mink, purple sandpiper, and the harlequin duck, named for its bright, clown-like plumage.
The best parts of the displays are the discovery drawers containing samples from the plants or animals found in each habitat. We picked up shells, sand dollars, and whelk egg cases; we saw a red fox track; we touched the soft wing feathers of a hooded merganser and compared them with the finer, silkier tail feathers of a mallard duck.
Kate and Stephen Tokarski of Bradford, who brought their 2-year-old twins, Matthew and Gavin, to the center, praised the child-friendly layout. ''It's a great way to help them learn to appreciate nature at a very early age," Kate Tokarski said.
There's also a short movie about the history and work of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Rhode Island refuges. A wall-size map of the United States shows the four flyways migrating birds travel -- designated Atlantic, Central, Mississippi, and Pacific -- with blue lights showing each refuge along the route.
Interconnecting trails fan out from the center, offering fairly level walks. We walked to Watchaug Pond along a half-mile trail said to be popular with birders. The huge boulders hulking in the woods all around us were left by receding glaciers. On the way back we took a side trail past a vernal pool, a dark, primeval-looking spot.
We then drove to the southern section of Ninigret, on the other side of Route 1, and followed a trail to Ninigret Pond, the largest salt pond in Rhode Island. Signs along the way told the history of the area, which in the 1700s was one of the largest and most successful plantations in the state, famous for producing cheese.
In the 1800s, seaweed rights to a stretch of beach would be deeded to local farmers, who in turn sold privileges to anyone who wanted to harvest it for fertilizer. In 1943 this area became the Charlestown Naval Auxiliary Landing Field; there are still long stretches of crumbling asphalt and faded numbers on runways. Since 1970 the Fish & Wildlife Service has been gradually restoring the natural habitat.
Contact Ellen Albanese at email@example.com.