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Education center now under construction at Safari Park
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Education center now under construction at Safari Park

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Wildlife Safari Park

WORKSHOP: Mike Benkis leads a bird photography workshop at Wildlife Safari Park near Ashland on Saturday morning. The students warmed up in the new education center. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

ASHLAND – After a morning spent photographing birds in the wild, a small group warmed themselves with hot chocolate and coffee in the newest facility at Wildlife Safari Park.

On Saturday morning, the new education center at the park hosted a bird photography workshop, although it is technically still under construction. While most of the actual workshop was held outside, the new facility provided a welcome respite from the cold temperatures.

Elizabeth Mulkerrin, vice president of education for the park’s parent zoo, Henry Doorly Zoo, said they were scrambling to figure out a place for the photographers to gather when they realized the education center was be perfect, even in its unfinished state.

Once it is completed, the building will provide a climate-controlled space to be used to provide year-round educational programs for all ages.

“The purpose of the educational center is to increase the outdoor education opportunities that we have available,” Mulkerrin said.

Until now, the park held classes, workshops and other activities outdoors or under large tents. Weather was a determining factor in what and when activities could take place, Mulkerrin said.

“We’re very excited about all the opportunities this opens up for us,” said Pam Eby, education program manager for Wildlife Safari Park.

One of the amenities Eby is most excited about is the covered patio on the back of the building that overlooks Pawnee Creek. There, children will be able to step into the gentle waterway to take samples, which they can investigate using microscopes set up in the education center.

A ribbon cutting ceremony is being planned for March or April, Mulkerrin said. They will announce the main donors to the facility at that time, she added.

Another future announcement will be a project with Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools.

“We’ve been in partnership with them and we’re developing educational opportunities to push us to the next level,” Mulkerrin said.

For now, the park has shut down for the winter, Eby said. They normally close down in November, but this year there was the opportunity to remain open on weekends during the first few weeks of December because of the mild weather.

Saturday’s workshop provided tips for amateurs to photograph the winged residents of the park. Mike Benkis taught the class, which had eight students.

Benkis, a veteran photographer who started out as a volunteer at the park until he was hired to teach, offered tips like exposing for the bird, not the entire scene.

“If you get the bird in focus and well-exposed, you can recover the shadow details in post,” he said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the park hosted one or two workshops a month, Benkis said. In recent months, classes were held every few months.

The next class will probably be in the spring and could focus on Photoshop, because there has been a lot of demand for that topic, Benkis added.

One of the benefits of taking a class like Saturday’s workshop is that students are allowed access to places that normal visitors don’t get to see. Some are held outside of regular park hours, like a workshop earlier this year on photographing bison that took place at sunrise.

Early access was one reason Eric Kaplan of Omaha took the class.

“I’m fascinated by the early access part of it and the behind the scenes,” he said.

After the photography workshop, the Sandhill cranes, swans and pelicans will be put away for the winter months. Eby said birds the will stay in barns on the park’s property, where they stay warm during the cold months.

These birds would normally migrate to warmer climates at this time of year, but they have been injured and cannot return to the wild, Eby said. There are also some “volunteer” residents at the park, such as Canadian geese, who come and go as they please.

Volunteer birds were not the only ones flocking to the park this year. Eby said the park benefitted from the pandemic because it was one of the only public activities still open.

“We had over 410,000 people come through the park,” Eby said. “It was wonderful.”

Mulkerrin said the zoo has exciting plans for the park in 2021.

“2020 was incredible and we’re looking forward to building upon that when it comes to outdoor nature opportunities,” she said.

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