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Friday, April 18, 2014

Spring Bird Walk Report: Berlin Pond

Our spring migration bird walk series had a great start with 13 participants searching for birds under cold but sunny skies today at Berlin Pond! For the past few years, the pond has been open by now, but most of the pond is still frozen. This may have worked in our favor, by concentrating the waterfowl close to shore, giving us spectacular views! The loon in perfect lighting was a highlight, as were the rowdy Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Next week's walk will take place Friday, April 25 at 7:00 a.m. at the North Branch Nature Center. 

Canada Goose  9
Wood Duck  2
American Black Duck  2
Mallard  4
Ring-necked Duck  2
Bufflehead  1
Hooded Merganser  2
Common Loon  1
Belted Kingfisher  2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Eastern Phoebe  5
Blue Jay  2
American Crow  3
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  8
American Robin  1
American Tree Sparrow  2
Song Sparrow  8
Swamp Sparrow  1
Red-winged Blackbird  15
Common Grackle  2
Purple Finch  2
American Goldfinch  4

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beavers Mobilize

 To begin our Wednesday ECO days outdoors each week at Waitsfield Elementary, kindergartners hike down a field in town  to pause and play games and sing songs before entering the path toward their woodland "camp". The field is bordered by a beaver lodge and dam ~ and this week we spent our ECO time investigating the beaver's quarters from dry ground, and then tried our hands at building our own!  The children were incredibly quiet while watching from the banks of the pond. I was so proud of them! They were rewarded with a pair of beautiful Canada Geese, floating peacefully on the pond right next to the beaver lodge while we watched. I love when nature throws little "group motivators" at my ECO classes. Thank you, nature, good one!

Beavers come out on top as superior builders even when compared with human teams equipped with fossil-fueled machinery! They inhabit their lodges during the winter, snacking on the outer bark of sticks they collected last summer. When spring arrives, tracks can often be found in the last snow of winter, having been laid down during the beavers' first walk of spring! Their lodge is constructed with an entryway below water to keep predators away, and the living quarters in the dry area that surfaces the pond. Their building techniques are impeccable ~ using placement of vertical sticks, they then use the sturdy wall building technique of wattle and daub which results in a waterproof shell that deters wolves and wolverines when residing in the western part of the U.S.. In Vermont, the sturdy beaver lodge construction deters coyotes and sometimes bobcats.


Kindergartners at Waitsfield Elementary School visited a beaver lodge from the
edge of the pond created by its inhabitants.

A closer look at the beaver lodge. Snow conditions were perfect the week before for us to catch
the beaver's tracks as they began their spring wanderings after this long winter of 2013-14. 
This busy beaver begins her own beaver lodge...alas in the snow.
She realizes the lodge will be built much faster if the whole family pitches in to help!
Sometimes even when you "Become a Beaver" you can't help but fling mud with sticks instead of building your lodge. These students must have turned into beaver pups instead of beaver parents!

The last week of winter and dressing for the weather can be confounding! Yesterday's temperatures were in the 50's, but today is much chillier. This kindergartner was warm with layers under his rain gear and rain boots. Temperatures hovered around 35 degrees. Winter coats and snow boots also suffice on a wet cold New England day like this!

Winter's Treasures: A Milkweed Pod that made it through feet of snow and days of below zero, and a hopeful admirer.

Any guesses what this kindergarten detective holds?
A striated piece of bark. It may have come from the red pine trees that wave majestically near the beaver lodge. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Birdsong: Red-winged Blackbird

The song of the Red-winged Blackbird rings through swamps and meadows in early- to mid-April in Vermont. Males arrive back before females, and their distinctive conk-la-reeee is a warning to other males that “this territory is taken!” Singing their song is a full-body motion, with their bright red wing patch being flashed with each and every rendition.

Learn more about birds and their song with NBNC’s Birding By Ear Mini-Course.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Sweetness of Spring

Maple syrup made over an open fire at Forest School.
In my mind, spring mud is synonymous with sap buckets and sugaring season. When the back roads of Vermont begin to thaw, I'm always excited to see silver lidded buckets adorning many sugar maple trees. This year's winter seemed interminable with buckets waiting weeks in some cases for the first drop to land. But at last, the season shifted and Forest School experienced the sweetness. Over a span of two weeks, we embarked on an outdoor sugaring adventure, serenaded by many newly arrived songbirds.

The story of sugaring at Forest School began on a soggy Friday with a myth. Students listened to a native myth about the origin of maple syrup and then headed out to Deer Camp to get to know a sugar maple tree and learn how to identify it.

Once we found a healthy, appropriately sized sugar maple, a bit and brace were used to drill a hole.

Students took turns dripping the hole.
After the hole was drilled, we talked about other creatures that tap maples trees such as red squirrels and Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. People aren't the only ones who like to drink the sweet sap! (Sapsuckers eat bugs that are attracted to the sap.) Next it was time to put the tap in and hang the bucket. The highlight of the morning was hearing the first drops of sap hit the bottom of the bucket. The group delighted in tasting the sap with their fingers; a fabulous sensory experience. We happily thanked the tree for sharing its sap!

After lunch, we ducked out of the rain and looked up sugar maple trees in field guides. With field guide in hand, each student looked at and drew the shape of a sugar maple leaf in their journals.
The joy of checking on the sap bucket.

The following week, the sun was shining brightly, the air temperature was remarkably warm, and Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows were joyously singing. It was a perfect day to boil sap. Before the boiling began, the group delighted in drinking sap that had collected in the bucket the day before. We marveled at how water-like the sap looked. Then we poured gathered sap into a pot suspended from a tripod and moved the tripod over the fire to begin the boiling process.
Morning meeting around around the fire while while sap boils. Pot is suspended from a tripod made by the after-school group, Trekkers, the previous week. Thank you Trekkers for letting us use it!

Singing around the campfire as sap boils.
Sugar on snow!

Around the fire we watched steam rise out of the pot. This was a perfect time to talk about the process of evaporation. After boiling about a half gallon of sap for two hours, just the right amount of water evaporated and maple syrup was made! Snow was gathered in small cups and syrup was promptly poured over. Yum! What a treat to taste the fruits of our labor.

The sugaring season in Vermont will soon be nearing an end. Forest School's sugar making story concluded on Friday when we visited our sugar maple tree and brought the process full circle by taking down our bucket and taking out our tap.

This sugaring story is one of many at Forest School that makes my heart sing. It weaves together a sensory tale of observation, immersion-based learning, connection, singing, community, play, and joy. I look forward to many more stories taking shape at Forest School as spring unfolds.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Duck Bonanza in Charlotte

As we turned the calendar to April this week, it has begun to feel a bit more like spring. But March’s 15-degree colder-than-average temperatures have left thick ice over much of Lake Champlain. The narrow channel of open water created by the Charlotte ferry has continued to be a magnet for ducks as waterfowl migration nears its peak. Following up on our winter report from the ferry, here are some of the ducks that made an appearance at the ferry today:

A group of Bufflehead  were courting near the ferry dock. Their
iridescent feathers shimmered green and purple in the sun.

Several hundred Mallard were spread throughout the bay.
This species may be common, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful!

A pair of Northern Shovelers was a rare treat! Here they are resting
on the ice with American Black Ducks and Canada Geese.

Not all of the species present were easy to locate in the mass of over 1,000!
Can you spot all eight duck species in this photo? (click to enlarge)


Here is a full list of waterfowl species observed:

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Horned Grebe

Monday, March 31, 2014

Marching into Spring at Forest Preschool; Snow Paints the Picture

I am always excited to flip the calendar page from February to March. The days lengthen and the sun climbs higher in the sky. Even though March can bring significant snowfall in Vermont, temperatures often moderate, bringing spring-like weather and returning migratory birds. We have seen record amounts of snow this March but deep winter temperatures held fast most of the month, painting a different picture this year

Animal forms; making tracks in the snow!

At North Branch Nature Center, March marks the beginning of Forest Preschool's spring session. Here at Forest Preschool, we have embraced the weather, the thick blanket of white, and large, plowed piles of snow! The barn on-site offers a safe, cozy space to warm during mid-morning meeting and snack. Time outdoors experiencing the winter world has allowed youngsters opportunity to build resilience while playing, exploring, and learning through their senses. When winter is hard pressed to make way for spring, snow and ice inspire wonder and is just plain old fun; even in March! 

Here’s a peek at our immersion-based creative play and exploration in the frozen landscape this March at Forest Preschool:

Developing a sense of place; looking for signs of life while voyaging through the snow to the bridge.
Exploration and discovery; finding animal track stories in the snow.

Promoting healthy movement; climbing "Pirate Mountain."
Creative self expression; drawing and writing in the snow with dried goldenrod stems!
In addition to Golden Rod stems, Preschoolers enjoyed creative self expression outside by dipping paint brushes into glittery, magic winter paint and making strokes on the snow! Children were fully engaged in the process and experimentation, making lines and shapes and watching how the color seeped into the snow. A large pile of plowed snow was transformed into a climbing mountain and pirate ship, complete with climbing rope, pirate flag, and sleeping dragon on the other side. What fun!

Eventually the snow will melt and give way to new life and the return of many songsters. Clothing layers will be shed and a spring world will slowly emerge, beckoning the little ones to make new discoveries and experience wide eyed wonder. I'm excited!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Where are the blackbirds?

“This is getting old,” said everyone in Vermont. “We’re ready for spring!” This is a conversation that has been repeated for weeks throughout the state as winter refuses to abate. The colder-than-average temperatures have certainly had their effects on wildlife, including here at the North Branch Nature Center.

One of the first signs of spring at NBNC  is the arrival of the Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows. They are among the first avian migrants to return. While sightings from other locales are beginning to trickle in, we’re still waiting at NBNC. How late are they? We went to the record books to find out:

We’re already a week past our 5-year average arrival date with no sign of our early-spring migrants. That could change any day now, and we hope it does! When do you think we’ll hear the first “conk-la-reee!” of the Red-winged Blackbird? Have you seen or heard Red-winged Blackbirds or Song Sparrows yet?