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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A World of Leaves at Forest Preschool

"The leaf looks bigger! "I see lines and dirt."
Mother Nature pulled out all the stops this Autumn, transforming the landscape into a brilliant wash of red, orange, and gold. It's a poignant time of year as the natural world is shifting and readying for long sleepy winter. With leaves raining down and crunching underfoot, Forest Preschoolers have been alive in their senses and exuberantly exploring the wild world around. Leaves on the ground this time of year are abundant and fascinating; ideal for play and learning. At Forest Preschool, we have been taking full advantage!

Preschoolers learn rapidly from what interests them. This way, information is more easily retained and strong synaptic connection are made. Many Forest Preschoolers were drawn to pile, move, and build with leaves, others to examine closely, some to sort by shape and color, and count. Many children used leaves in "mud kitchen" baking recipes. Some collected and designed with. Stitching leaves with a blunt needle was also a source of intrigue. This foray into sewing was a first for many and provided a great way to work those fine motor skills.

"I wonder what THIS might look like under a
magnifying glass?"
I love asking children open ended questions that have no wrong answers. The answers are sometimes priceless but more importantly, they engage curiosity. One morning as myself and another child were sitting and weaving yarn in and out of holes punched in leaves, she spontaneously declared, " I could make this anywhere. There's leaves everywhere." I wonder where the leaves are in the winter?" I asked. She took moment and then stated, "Under the snow but you can build a snowman in the snow. But you can't put in on a piece of string!"

Building a nest for an owl backpack!
Many nests for wild animal friends have been built with leaves at Forest Preschool. Pretending to be an animal building and then snuggling in the final product is great fun. Preschoolers are primed to learn by engaging in their imagination!

Nestled in with owl backpack aptly named Mr. Owl!

"I'm going to use my paws to build the rest!"
Each day I tell an oral story. One day, part of my story told of a red squirrel building a nest with fallen leaves. When the story was over, a child was excited to build a squirrel nest of his own. In the  process of construction, play, and my asking open ended questions, he and friends learned about nest sites, construction, materials used, and the insulating property of leaves. 

Later that morning the child sat back, look around, and exclaimed, "The world is covered in leaves!" Another shared, there's mostly maple trees here at Deer Camp."

"Where can we put the door?" "Now the thing is, can we make a door out of a stick?"

Another busy squirrel building a nest!

Leaves add a whole new element to "mountain climbing,"
healthy risk taking, and gross motor skill development.

Pure joy!

Now that most of the leaves have fallen and the temperatures are following suit, we look forward to what nature will offer in the coming weeks to the children's innate sense of wonder and endless curiosity.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Owl Banding – Midseason Update

The North Branch Nature Center’s second season of Northern Saw-whet Owl banding is underway. In collaboration with other owl researchers around the U.S. and Canada, we are operating banding stations in Montpelier and Shelburne to track the fall migration of these incredible birds. While it is still early in the banding season, we have already learned that this year is going to be very different than last.

In 2013, the banding station in Shelburne showed the rate of hatch-year birds we encountered to be only 11%. Hatch year birds are those born during the most recent breeding season. This low rate of occurrence typically signifies a poor breeding season where not many Saw-whet Owls were fledged. So far in 2014, 87% of the birds encountered in Shelburne had been hatch year birds, which suggests that this year's breeding season was much better than last, with high productivity.

This weekend’s public demonstrations in Montpelier and Shelburne were attended by roughly 80 people. We caught and released a total of 9 owls in Montpelier on Saturday and 2 in Shelburne on Sunday. If you are interested in visiting the banding station, please email Larry. And, please consider supporting our banding project by adopting an owl.

Learn more about NBNC’s Saw-whet Banding program. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Celebrating 5 Years of Educating Children Outdoors in Vermont

In central Vermont we are welcoming in another school year with stunning foliage, warm days and the ongoing chorus of crickets and katydids. Here at the North Branch Nature Center we are celebrating our 5th year of ECO- Educating Children Outdoors. This year we are welcoming Alex Rob and Carrie Riker to our ECO team. Carrie and Alex bring years of experience leading children outdoors and a passion for connecting children to our rich landscape here in Vermont. We are also thrilled to expand ECO to a new school, Calais Elementary! During the 2014-15 school year ECO will be in 7 schools, reaching 463 children and 40 teachers with a standards based nature immersion program.

Small group work in the forest
In these past five years we have been inspired by all the teachers, parents and of course the students we work with by being immersed in nature throughout the seasons. As a classroom community we are learning with children on a continuous basis through ECO. We are also developing long lasting relationships with students and the green spaces that we visit each week.  Whether it’s sitting around a fire on a chilly winter day, witnessing spring ephemerals unfold or watching skeins of geese fly south, students and teachers are experiencing phenology in an active way that connects them to the place they live in. When asked why we live here in Vermont, most people reference the values of our state that we love so much. The mountains, crimson red maple trees, the change of seasons, clean lakes to swim in, local food, deep snow, family traditions, and small towns with a big community feel.

Through ECO we want to help our students to foster a love for Vermont that will last their entire lives. I can’t think of a better way to do that then to help them understand where they live by introducing them to the natural world that surrounds us and all its wonders.

So, what do children know about the natural world in Vermont? First and second graders at Moretown Elementary can easily name at least 10 native species of animals and what their distinguishing characteristics are. Children at Union Elementary will be able to tell you later this month about the history of stonewalls and their importance in shaping our agricultural heritage.  It may appear that third graders were only playing hide and seek in various locations on the East Montpelier school property last week, but really they are studying habitats from the ground up. What better way to start a lesson than with hiding in 3 different habitats?  If you need a map of Twinfield’s forested trails you can always ask an ECO student. This year students will be become cartographers.

Kindergartners at any of our participating schools will surprise you as well. These are our youngest students and they know where every animal home is in the forest, they can build you a squirrel drey or a giant eagles nest. They will be the first to tell you that in nature we “hurt no living thing”. So be careful where you step and hold that insect ever so carefully.

At the end of a day learning in the forest we feel a sense of joyful exhausted accomplishment. We are also reminded that children will only protect what they love and they will only love what they know.
We know Vermont and we love it.

What is 20? Showing our mathematical thinking.

Symmetry in nature

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Predicting the Birds of Winter

Occurrence of Common Redpoll in Vermont
from 2002-12 based on Christmas Bird Count data.
Predicting the future isn’t easy. Crystal balls are unreliable and tarot cards can seem uselessly ambiguous. Weather forecasts do pretty well, but even with multimillion dollar radar equipment, they have their margin of error. Look at a graph of occurrence for Common Redpoll, and it can seem as random as flipping a coin. So how can one person accurately predict which northern-breeding birds will travel south, months in advance? Ron Pittaway has figured out.

Ron Pittaway is a prominent ornithologist in Ontario who began producing his famous ‘winter finch forecast’ over a decade ago. His forecast addresses ‘irruptive’ species of birds. These species are cold-hardy, and if they had it their way, would stay in the far north all winter long. But, in some years when food is scarce, they are forced to move south. Ron Pittaway predicts the movements of these birds by collating data on the seed crops of trees in the far north each year.

A Common Redpoll feeds in a birch
For example, Ron predicts a decent number Common Redpolls to move south this winter, because, “birch seed crops are variably poor to average in the boreal forest.” Redpolls like birch seeds, and without birch seeds in the boreal forest, the redpolls will move south. His forecasts not only predict which birds will come south with pretty good accuracy, they also give a glimpse into the life histories of these birds and how/where to observe them.

I, like many birders, eagerly await the winter finch forecast each year. As thousands of breeding songbirds disappear from Vermont each fall, it gives me something to look forward to in the winter to come.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What happened to all the Monarchs?

A Monarch visits Joe-Pye weed this fall at NBNC
“What happened to all the Monarchs?” This has become a common question the past few years, as the iconic, once-common orange butterflies are now a rare treat to find. The milkweed in fields and meadows across Vermont that once harbored Monarch caterpillars are now devoid. So, where have they gone?

The decline of the Monarch population began decades ago. While the causes are varied, the primary factor thought to be responsible for the 90% reduction in the Monarch population is the increased use of pesticides that kill milkweed, the Monarch’s only hostplant. The Midwestern states are at the core of the Monarch’s reproductive range, and Monarch breeding habitat there has been rapidly disappearing. Farms that once provided marginal Monarch habitat, with milkweed popping up between rows of corn, are now ecological deserts. The use of glyphosate (aka round-up) on genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops has killed what little milkweed could grow in the mega-farms of the Midwest (and beyond).
Source: monarchwatch.org

Added to this are all of the other threats and stressors that Monarchs face. Bad weather, such as droughts, unusually hot or cold periods, and storms, can wipe out large percentages of the population or limit their reproductive success. Illegal logging in the forests of central Mexico threatens the important overwintering grounds of the Monarch. Predators and pathogens may be an increasing threat as Monarchs become squeezed into smaller patches of milkweed as their breeding habitat continues to shrink. And global warming may pose another set of challenges that are only beginning to be realized. The rapid decline of Monarchs has prompted a number of conservation organizations to seek protection for the Monarch under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A Monarch tagged at NBNC, to help track its migration
So far this fall, Monarch numbers appear up from 2013. Sightings have been more numerous throughout Vermont and other parts of the breeding range and the overwintering population is expected to be double that of lastyear. While this gives some hope, Monarchs need our help to be brought back from the brink. Here are a few things you can do:

  •  Help preserve milkweed! Milkweed is a native plant and is common in open or disturbed areas. When it comes time to mow, be sure to leave some milkweed for the Monarchs! You can also plant milkweed to create habitat for breeding monarchs.
  • Plant a butterfly garden. Late-flowering plants such as Joe-Pye weed, asters, and goldenrods provide important food sources for migrating Monarchs to refuel on their long journey.
  • Report your Monarch sightings! There are several tools you can use to report butterflies, including eButterfly.org, iNaturalist.org, or you can send yourobservations to us at NBNC. (Note: The Viceroy butterfly can look a lot like a Monarch… learn how to identify a Monarch)
  • Help monitor migrating Monarchs. You can order tags through monarchwatch.org, or, join NBNC for our Monarch tagging events on Wednesday afternoons at 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thanks for an amazing year!

Serving with the North Branch Nature Center as an AmeriCorps member has been an amazing experience. A year spent teaching and learning outdoors – what could be better? During quiet moments in the field, I often stopped to consider how lucky I was to pass a year in a beautiful place, with great people, doing fun and important work.
Lindsey leading the Fall Forest Preschoolers through the field 

           2013-2014 was the first year of my life spent so wholly outdoors and in one location. I felt connected to the field, forest, and river of NBNC in a unique way that allowed me to learn more from it. Seeing the landscape shift with the seasons seemed to put daily life in context.
Beautiful snowy field
Mary and our Spring Forest Preschool crew
            The incredible folks of North Branch Nature Center provided me with the support and knowledge I needed to grow as a teacher in my own right. Seeing these educators in action was inspiring. Always eager to share resources, tips or suggestions, these wonderful folks were open books of insight and experience to me. The little ones I spent my time with taught me a great deal, too! Through this lens, I was able to see the world in a new light – to slow down and investigate our world through play.
Forest School & their boats
On top of the education experience I gained, I was also exposed to so much naturalist knowledge. The wide range of topics covered by nature center staff is astounding! River ecology, mammal tracking, caterpillars, moths, wildcrafting, turtles, birds, bird banding, wildflowers, amphibians, crayfish, bees, medicinal herbs, fire tending… the list goes on. Participating in many events around the nature center (owl banding, the Superbowl of Birding, Birdfest and more) were great opportunities. I felt lucky to be surrounded by passionate people, so happy to share what they know about the natural world.

            To everyone in the North Branch Nature Center community (staff, volunteers, parents, students, campers): Thank you! Thank you for welcoming me onto the team, for sharing your wisdom, for letting me learn from your children. With expanding programs and many possibilities ahead for North Branch, it has been an exciting year to serve with such a unique and important organization.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Red Knot and the Feisty Dogs

Four shorebirds whiz by the shore of a
sandbar on Lake Champlain.
It was the first day of September, a federal holiday, and a picture-perfect summer afternoon; the waters of Lake Chaplain were packed with canoes, kayaks, jet skis, and sailboats. As my wife and I paddled through the shallow waters of the Winooski River delta, we saw two dogs racing energetically from one side of a large sandbar to the other. It wasn’t until peering through my binoculars that I saw why the dogs were so frantically running back and forth.

The dogs were chasing shorebirds. On August 27, local birders Jim Mead and Ted Murin discovered a Red Knot, a rare sighting in Vermont, on that same sandbar. Almost every day since its initial sighting, Jim had observed the Knot, sometimes with other shorebirds and sometimes all by itself. As we paddled closer, we could see that the Red Knot was one of four birds being pursued by the eager canines. Every time the birds would land, the dogs were close behind. Much to my surprise, the shorebirds were persistent and continued to return to the small sand island again and again, only to be chased off once more.

The shorebirds were relentlessly pursued by the
dogs until their owners intervened.
After several minutes of cat-and-mouse, or rather, dog-and-shorebird, it became clear that the birds were intent on staying put. We decided to paddle to the dog owners who were conversing in the shallow water as their dogs ‘got some exercise’. After greeting them as we paddled close by, I kindly told them, “I don’t know if you realize, but your dogs are chasing a group of shorebirds. These birds are actually quite rare around here and seem to really need this island. As much as the dogs chase them, the birds keep coming back”. I didn’t want to lecture these strangers, nor did I want to blame them or shame them. Without further elaboration, they replied, “we didn’t realize, we’ll call them in now,” and within minutes, they were back in their canoes, rowing away as their dogs swam alongside.

Red Knot (front), Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle),
and Sanderling (back) return to feeding after
the dogs and their owners disperse.
The shorebirds quickly resettled on the sandbar and began feeding. They allowed me to approach quite closely and photograph them without opposition. I later saw the same canoers on shore and one seemed eager to learn more about the birds. I explained to her how they breed in the arctic and can migrate thousands of miles over open ocean in a single flight. I showed her a picture of the Red Knot and told of how its population has declined drastically in recent years and could be in danger of extinction. She seemed intrigued and enlightened.

As is often the case, a little education went a long way towards changing a behavior for the benefit of wildlife. It can be hard to approach a stranger, especially when you anticipate how they will react. But it is always better to be actively engaged than to be a passive bystander, no matter what reaction you receive. And always remember, if you are kind, considerate, and open, you increase your chances of being heard. Whether you are asking a neighbor to keep their cats indoors or reminding a friend to recycle, these little things add up. Make sure you are doing your part for the environment by being part of the conversation. As lovers of nature, we have a lot to teach and society, as a whole, has a lot to learn.
Red Knot catches a worm. After nearly a week refueling in Vermont,
it still has over 5,000 miles left to go to reach its wintering grounds.