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Friday, July 8, 2016

Inside Out

The Forest Preschool classroom changes every day.  Some of the changes are visible overnight, like when the pine trees release pollen that suddenly leaves a fine yellow dust on everything below, or when the puddle in our path that was dry yesterday is full today.  A late snow in April can bury the fresh green of spring grass, and snowsuits put away for the season must be pulled out one last time.

Other changes, though equally dramatic, happen in slow motion – like the transformation of the meadow through the seasons.  Four to five foot green and then goldenrod yellow tunnels snake through the meadow in the fall, flatten under winter snow into comparably expansive views that slowly disappear again in the spring as broken brown stalks are buried in the explosion of new green only a month later.  The grass seed heads in June look like mini firework displays.  

Our perspectives change with the view: as the meadow closes in around us again, we take our eyes off the hills and the clouds and birds and notice the developing leaves and flowers right beside us and we discover the numerous insects that live there.  

The forest classroom in the spring is no less dynamic.  Sunlight and ephemeral flowers both fade as the green canopy closes in over our heads, providing welcome shade as the spring days grow warmer.  Fiddleheads emerge from their papery nests in May and soar up over children's heads by June.  Trips to the “beaver” pond reveal plump, overwintered tadpoles – first seen under the ice in the fall – now growing legs. The river rises and retreats after each rain and the cobbled beach disappears and reappears with it.

These ongoing surprises and transformations in our environment are what make FPS unique.  All the ingredients for a rich, challenging and nurturing learning environment are imbedded in our “classroom” – in the beautiful fields and woods of the North Branch Nature Center.  Opportunities for spontaneous, trial and error experimentation abound; the details and complexities of nature feed the innate curiosity of the children and provide daily opportunities to explore and make connections. 
If “every child contains the basis for their own learning” (Christakis, xix), then the child’s environment essentially becomes the curriculum.  Here, in this environment, we find the space for exploring cause and effect, for challenging our bodies, for asking big questions and deducing answers, for imagining and creating, for sharing and connecting.  Relationships are formed and love grows – for each other and for the animals and plants around us.  

“Learning and love are mutually reinforcing concepts in the mind of a growing child,” says early childhood educator Erika Christakis.

A boy pauses in his play, gazes up at the forest around him and asks, “Do we help the trees when we play?”

Yes!  Yes, we do.

Cristakis, Erika. The Importance of Being Little, New York, New York: Viking, 2016.

Friday, June 3, 2016

BirdFest 2016 a Resounding Success!

The morning kicked off at 7:00 am with a series of well-attended bird walks, for all ages and abilities. A highlight from the walks included a Black-billed Cuckoo that several groups were able to both hear and see. The walks culminated at 9:30, when Bridget Butler, The Bird Diva, gave her "Birdsong Tune-Up" walk and talk on birding by ear. 

Concurrently, NBNC staff ran a banding demonstration, and Outreach for Earth Stewardship introduced participants to rehabilitated hawks and owls. Nona Estrin, local author/illustrator and naturalist, gave a workshop on drawing birds in their natural habitats, and Sandy Parr, from the UVM Extension Master Gardeners gave a workshop on gardening for birds.

Under the main tent, participants learned about Bird-Friendly Maple Syrup, from Audubon Vermont, Bird-Friendly Coffee, from Birds and Beans, and voted for the winner of our annual bird photography contest. T-shirts with our 20th anniversary Kingfisher design and Raffle tickets for the Capital Campaign were both for sale.

Under the kid's tent, children turned into owls, as they decorated and wore masks and paper wings. They also built soda bottle bird feeders and construction paper bird ornaments. Families had the opportunity to  build a wren house to keep, or build a wood duck box that will be put up in North Branch River Park.

Wood-fired pizza was made and devoured on-site, donated by WoodBelly Pizza. Other food donations included ice cream from Arnie's Ice Cream, bagels from Maria's Bagels, cheese from Cabot Creamery, and cookies from Birchgrove Bakery. 

The day came to a close with a sobering talk about climate change and the future for tidal marsh birds, by NBNC Teen Naturalist Club alum Alyssa Borowske. Follwing remarks by Chip, prizes were handed out to the winners of our drawing and photography contests. In all, over 200 people were present, representing nearly 30 Vermont towns (plus a smattering of folks from as far as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Montreal, Tennessee, and South Carolina!).

Thank you to all who volunteered, attended, and helped spread the word! We would also like to thank and acknowledge our sponsors who helped make BirdFest possible:


Rock of Ages
Jet Service
Borowske Chiropractic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Bob's Camera
Birchgrove Bakery
Maria's Bagels
Red Hen
Cabot Cheese 
Woodbury Mt Toystore
Birds and Beans
The World
Arnie's Ice Cream 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Vermont Returns to the Superbowl

The team scans the dunes of Plum Island as the sun sets
Yes, the Superbowl (of football) was last month. And the Superbowl we'll be discussing here was the month before that. But it is never too late to share the exciting story of youth birders exploring the Massachusetts coast, and having a great time while doing it! Here is our belated report:

Superbowl of Birding XIII took place on January 30, 2016. In this 12-hour event, sponsored by Massachusetts Audubon, 23 teams competed to see which could see the greatest number of bird species and earn the most points. The point-value of each species varied by its rarity, with common species like chickadees worth 1 point and the rarest of species worth 5.

For the 7th year, a Vermont team competed in the Superbowl. Three youths and four adults awoke at 4 AM, and while they failed to find an owl in the pre-dawn hours, the morning light revealed a great variety of birds, including a 4-point Black-headed Gull and a 5-point Redhead duck in Gloucester. Working north along the coast towards Rockport, the team picked up some other nice birds on the ocean, including Thick-billed Murre, Harlequin Duck, Purple Sandpiper, Barrow’s Goldeneye, King Eider, and many others.

As the team continued its journey north, a number of valuable birds were spotted in Ipswich. A Turkey Vulture in January earned the team 5-points, and just minutes later, a 1st winter Red-headed Woodpecker put in an appearance… another 5 point bird. Four Snow Geese along RT133 were another nice surprise, earning the team another 4 points.

A rare Black-headed Gull puts on a show at Eastern Point
The team ended their day in the birding hotspot of Plum Island, where the lack of owls before dawn was made up for with 3 Short-eared Owls hunting over the marsh and a Snowy Owl perched prominently on the dike. As the sun went down, the team had tallied 59 species and 105 points. While not enough to win the competition, Vermont again put on a strong performance in the Superbowl of Birding and planning has already begun for next year’s event. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

What We're doing in the Woods

North Branch Trekkers is an outdoor based after school group for children in grades 4 through 8, which meets every Thursday, throughout the school year… really, it is me and a bunch of kids goofing off in the woods.  But that goofing off is important.  When done in a thoughtful way, it builds a communal love for the outdoors and sense of place.

During Trekkers, we adopt an off trail mentality, using our local landscape to create opportunities to push our limits and go beyond our comfort levels.  We make it a point to venture away from the beaten path as we explore areas that many people have walked past but few have ventured into.  Stretching our limits together as a group strengthens our bond and sense of community.  It could be sledding down a 40 foot chute in the deepest recesses of Montpelier's forests, brushing past ancient hemlocks as you wiz by; or as simple as following a set of deer tracks as far as you can, leading you through frozen marsh and across steep ravines, post holing in snow up past your knees.  These are experiences that test both our mental and physical boundaries, pushing us right up against our comfort levels and beyond.  Sharing these experiences within the group strengthens our communal bond and utilizing the fields and forest in such a way makes the landscape as much of a character in our adventures as we are ourselves. 

As a part of our exploration of these unfamiliar areas, we take the time to observe who has been there.  One way that we do this via tracking.  Some kids are interested in taking measurements and analyzing the stride, straddle, and gait to figure out what animal made the tracks.  Others want to forge ahead and follow the trail as far as they can.  Every now and then we come across something that stops everyone.  It could be a kill site,  some sort of predator track, or a particularly large pile of scat.  To monitor high traffic areas that we come across in our travels, we set up motion activated trail cameras.  Part of our weekly routine is checking our cameras to see what has come to visit.  In four years, we have captured photo and video of deer, grey fox, coyote, bobcat, raccoon, skunk, fisher, mink, red squirrel, mouse, and shrew, all within the boundaries of the North Branch Nature Center property.

Often in our off trail adventures, we come across many examples of the great bounty that nature provides and with a group of young preteens after school, food is never far from our minds.  Wild grapes, choke cherries, beaked hazelnuts, hawthorn haws, apples, wild leeks, and the sap of sugar maples have all played an integral part in our gastrological education.  We taste the seasons as they come and go; grazing on grapes and roasting apples in the fall, boiling sap and "taking leeks" in the late winter/early spring.  

Every semester has its culminating feast.  In the fall we cook a Thanksgiving dinner which we have dubbed "Trekkers-giving".  Everyone brings something that can be cooked over the fire.  This past year, we have made a critical addition to our Trekkers' community.  His name is Hansel the Griddle.  Hansel is a flat piece of slate that one of our Trekkers found over the summer and thoroughly dried out to avoid cracking when exposed to direct heat.  A special nook was carved out in our fire pit for Hansel to preside over, where we can keep him warm by raking hot coals underneath.  He is often lathered in melted butter and fed delicious sliced apples and pancake batter.  He has  become an integral member of our gang and allowed us to truly expand our culinary horizons.

March is time for sugaring.  Cutting firewood, carving staghorn sumac branches into spiles, tapping trees and collecting sap, the Trekkers do all of the work themselves.  Using a pot suspended over the campfire with a tripod of three alder trunks lashed together, last year we boiled down enough sap to produce 3/4 gallon of maple syrup.  This syrup served as the fuel for our most anticipated feast of the year... the annual Trekkers pancake banquet.  Pancakes are fried up in small camping pans over the fire.  Apples and bread are roasted on sticks, then topped with a drizzling of fresh maple syrup.  Just when you think it couldn't get any better, someone breaks out the Italian sausages.  They are boiled in a pot of maple sap, then skewered and held over the flame to caramelize the sugars from the sap.  The result is a juicy mouthful of meaty mapley goodness that will be forever etched into you taste buds.  The food is truly delicious, but the most important spice used in any of our feasts is the weeks of work put into the preparing of the meal, starting with the first cut of firewood.

So why do we do all of this?  What we are really doing is creating memories.  These memories will be even stronger and longer lasting having been formed within a community of peers - friends growing up together, romping in the forest.  The groundwork for nostalgia is being laid here.  When these kids are grown and have children of their own, they will look back upon this time spent in the woods and want to recreate it for them; passing down a love for the outdoors from one generation to the next.  This is how we create a culture that appreciates and protects natural places... and it all starts with a little goofing off in the woods.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


If children play to change, then could there be a better companion than snow for this journey? 

 It falls, melts, freezes, hardens, disappears...Snow, in its bittersweet ephemerality, in its malleable, movable nature, transforms the world outdoors into one giant sandbox.  

The senses of smell, sound, taste, even sight are diminished in winter as normally fertile nature is buried in insulating white.  But touch.  Touch reigns and the children of Winter Whispers are taking full advantage of winter’s tactility.  

Padded in many layers of protective clothing, the children roll and slide and shovel and build.  Icy wind nips cheeks and noses, but core temperatures are warm and the outside world is their oyster.  

Snow.  Catch it if you can.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Plainfield Christmas Bird Count - Results

Date: 12/19/2015
Temperature: 22F / 35F
Number of Participants: 42

Canada Goose 491
Mallard 16
Canvasback 1
Ring-necked Duck 3
Lesser Scaup 2
Hooded Merganser 4
Common Merganser 7
Ruffed Grouse 13
Wild Turkey 210
Cooper's Hawk 2
Bald Eagle 1
Red-tailed Hawk 7
Ring-billed Gull 4
Rock Pigeon 266
Mourning Dove 118
Barred Owl 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 38
Hairy Woodpecker 29
Pileated Woodpecker 4
Northern Shrike 1
Blue Jay 189
American Crow 1751
Common Raven 56
Black-capped Chickadee 965
Tufted Titmouse 31
Red-breasted Nuthatch 66
White-breasted Nuthatch 65
Brown Creeper 3
Carolina Wren 3
Golden-crowned Kinglet 12
American Robin 36
European Starling 418
Cedar Waxwing 1
American Tree Sparrow 27
Dark-eyed Junco 123
White-throated Sparrow 1
Northern Cardinal 42
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
House Finch 4
Purple Finch 252
Pine Siskin 85
American Goldfinch 479
Evening Grosbeak 1
House Sparrow 147

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dinosaurs at NBNC

Heart thumping, legs stretching, a forest preschooler slides into the den between two trees at deer camp, narrowly escaping a friend in pursuit.  Safe…for now.  The fox stalks outside, sniffing, searching, but the mouse is out of sight.

At Forest Preschool this fall many engaging games emerged around the predator/prey relationship.  Camouflage, in particular, was a favorite activity on our morning walk through the meadow.  Some days the children became coyotes and rabbits; other days they transformed into hawks and mice or into a flock of hungry crows in a farmer’s field.  The children invented multiple scenarios and never tired of sneaking and hiding and being chased. 

 Along with the familiar Vermont animals, there was another creature that accompanied us on our journeys: this one larger and hungrier than all the others.  Dinosaurs metamorphosed almost daily out of predator or prey; a hunted mouse could easily transform before our eyes into a fearsome t-rex that then became the hunter. 

Excited to explore the activities and habits of the animals that actually share our home with us, I initially resisted the persistent appearance of this bygone reptile in our adventures.   What do dinosaurs have to do with where we are right now, I wondered?  So I kept watching and I began to understand that the dinosaurs are very much a part of the ecology at NBNC, that is, the inner ecology of the children who play here.  Dinosaurs are the allies of young children who, due to their size and age, inherently face new situations that can be scary and challenging on a regular basis.  As growing, developing human beings, children desire and need to take risks…healthy risks.  And that is where the dinosaurs come in.  T-rex’s are fearsome creatures but unlike wolves and bears (or zombies), they are undeniably extinct and therefore, safe.  There is no chance of bumping into a stegosaurus in the goldenrod.  The only thing that gives it life is imagination and the children are fully in charge of that.  Healthy risk – climbing trees, sliding down hills, balancing on logs – can be scary, but like the dinosaurs, just scary enough…for growth and learning. 

At Forest Preschool, the children learn to calculate and navigate manageable risk in their play.  As their teachers it is our job to enable that stretching process and ensure their safety.  It is through their own self-chosen exploration that they will develop the resilience and self-reliance so important to life.

 Learning is exciting.  And risky.  And the dinosaurs are there to help.