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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.

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.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Warmth: is it learned or instinctual?

In first grade at ECO, foundations for surviving winter are essential. Beyond learning how to layer our bodies in warm clothing and boots, we discover countless ways to stay warm in the woods. We use our internal fire to share a song and warm ourselves by the communal fire. We gather together and notice one another in the light of the fire's warmth.

We use the fire's alchemy to roast apple quarters, warm our salt dough sculptures and make popcorn.

While some of us sit by the fire to warm our bodies, others self-organize when invited to build a fort in the woods. These children relocate hefty tree trunks as material for the base of their fort. Among cries of excitement, we hear, "Okay, everyone drop it!" and "Go find another one!". Leaders emerge as loud voices are welcomed in this heavy duty labor of the vast forest. This instinct to move wood not only warms the body, it establishes a pattern for future woodchuck-ing, or preparing the woodpile for winter. Warmth: is it learned or is it instinctual?

There are many important ways to warm oneself during the seasonal dark of winter in Vermont!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Stone Soup

On a Tuesday and Thursday morning at Forest Preschool two weeks ago, water and a stone were settled into a suspended pot and a fire was lit below. Then, the story of Stone Soup, an old folk story about cooperation, was told. Forest Preschool is a place where cooperation grows. The fields and forest lend themselves beautifully to the many possibilities and benefits of cooperation. Cooking outdoors over a fire is no exception.

And so, on a November morning, children brought in vegetables from home and made a meal together. With some special stone magic, they learned about cooperation and tasted the outcome of their combined contributions.  "We're going to cook soup outside?" asked a child. Yes, we are and we're going to do it together.

Forest Preschool is also a place that embraces fire as a teaching tool. Fire warms us in the woods when we're greeted by chilly autumn mornings. It is also a necessary ingredient for cooking stone soup.

Once water was put on to boil, an outdoor kitchen was assembled and the chopping of vegetables ensued.

Listening to the story of Stone Soup as water and stone came to a boil in the pot.

The outdoor kitchen. They could have chopped all day!  

"What can I chop now?"
Many children were very interested in chopping and preparing the vegetables. Others played in the mud kitchen or engaged in imaginary animal play in the woods. Those interested in becoming a chef used preschool appropriate cutting tools. Some were forlorn when we exhausted our cutting opportunities. Excitement flowed again, though, when it was time to add the cooperatively prepared veggies to the pot.

"Look at my potato!"

Is the soup ready yet?

While the pot boiled, some children used the compost from veggie prep to create another version of stone soup, complete with mud and pine needles.

Almost ready!

Look at the colors!

Soup is served!

Enjoying the fruits of our labor. "Stone soup is good!"
Nearly every child ate the soup we made together and many asked for seconds. Food that you help prepare seems to taste extra good, especially food that is made over a fire outside, together. 

Enjoy the food that you make or is made on Thanksgiving! There is so much to be thankful for this fall!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Parent's Perspective

A letter Cassie Bickford, a parent and proud ECO supporter in Marshfield, wrote in support of a grant for ECO: 

Three years ago the ECO program was introduced to the students at Twinfield Union School and at first the program seemed unusual and daunting. My first thoughts were about exposing children to the cold as it began in late fall and some days were frightfully chilly. I fretted just as much about how to keep their soup warm as I did their bodies. The packing list for warm clothes seemed just as overwhelming to remember as to afford for a family with multiple children participating. The program immediately proved itself worthy of the cost and fret.

The first day of ECO, my youngest participating child came home so excited that he could hardly sequence his thoughts in a fashion in which we could understand them. Luckily, the glow on his face spoke louder than his jumbled thoughts. The next oldest told me exciting things he was able to learn and that soon they would be learning to build a fire. My oldest had similar tales and the same glow shining through.
I fully support the ECO program at Twinfield.  The children have learned many things, although I assure you they do not see it as learning but more as a fun exploration. Over the past two years my children have taught me many things about the animals around us, the vegetation around us, what is edible in the woods, and which plants you can make tea out of. In fact, the youngest says his favorite part, next to catching his own “claw-fish” (a crayfish) with his bare hands (see photo above), is making pine needle tea.
When my second oldest is asked his favorite thing about ECO he says “everything, but especially the warm fires and building structures”. My oldest was not participating last year due to her grade level and expressed a longing for the program. 
Not once have my children complained that it was too cold or their soup not warm enough, they are having too much  fun to have noticed either way.