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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Deciphering Ducks

As the days grow steadily longer, spring is fast approaching and signs of spring are upon us.  But before the leaves burst out and the colorful songbirds arrive in droves, a great migration of waterfowl is about to take place.  Most of these plump-bodied water birds have their sights set far north of Vermont, but stop briefly in our ponds and puddles on their journey.  Over two dozen species may pass through each spring, some colorful and some drab, but how do you tell them all apart?

For anyone who has painstakingly searched for warblers as they dart around in treetops, watching waterfowl will be a nice reprieve from the aches and pains of warbler neck (the syndrome that comes about from craning your neck upwards in order to look vertically for warblers above).  Waterfowl tend to be sedentary, sitting still in the open water allowing for prolonged observation.  They tend to be large, and have distinctive patterns that help identify them.  But with many species, distinguishing them can be difficult.  

One of the first steps towards deciphering ducks is to have the proper equipment.  Binoculars are a must, but they will only allow you to see waterfowl that are nearby.  A spotting scope can be an invaluable aide in identifying ducks even at great distances.  The next step is to learn the most common ducks.  The best way to spot other rarer species is to know that what you are looking at is not a Mallard!  Can you tell which of the ducks below is a female Mallard?

To learn more about ducks and how to tell them apart, join us for the Better Birding Series on Monday, March 5 (program details below)
Better Birding Series: Deciphering Ducks
Monday, March 5, 6:30 p.m.@ First Baptist Church of Montpelier
Fee: $10
In time for the spring waterfowl migration, you'll get ducky. Think of this lecture as a "Duckumentary." You'll learn a simple approach to watching waterfowl and how to distinguish species in flight or when they're just sitting there in front of you. Featuring guest lecturer Larry Clarfeld of NBNC.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

All Day Outside

Exploring a winter creek
It's another beautiful Monday in Vermont and 30 first grade students are getting ready for a day in Hubbard Park. Each backpack carries a lunch, a water bottle, and a hand crafted mini sled. Every hand, head, foot, and mind is properly prepared for the day ahead. And, yes,...it's February. The outside temperature has climbed to 28 degrees and students are carrying thermometers and a plethora of questions that were generated during morning meeting.

Thermometers in action
How cold is it outside? What is the temperature of the river? Can penguins survive in Hubbard Park? Penguins as we know, do not live in Vermont. But to these first graders at Union Elementary, it is a hot topic because they have been studying penguins through a new math curriculum. Along with penguin math, the students have also been discussing properties of matter and force and motion. What better learning scenario than a day outside in winter? They will encounter a river, a pond, and a mysterious creek moving under ice. A half inch of fresh snow and a layer of hard packed snow turned ice, adds another medium to study. Icicles, frozen puddles, and melting snow under a February sun. We have found the ultimate science laboratory outdoors in the capitol city!

Taking the temperature of the North Branch River

Custom made sled for Piggy
 The concepts of  force and motion is easy enough to experience first hand by sliding bodies down an incline. But, why not construct your own mini-sled with cardboard, plastic, paper, popsicle sticks, and duct tape? Now that's a motivational button for learning! Build your own sled for your favorite small animal or cartoon character. After a few test runs on a carefully groomed surface, children were reconstructing their sleds with more duct tape and objects found close by.
"Hey Amy! I'm gonna tape my water bottle to this sled! Then watch out for how fast it's gonna be!"
Now that's force and motion, first grade style.

Mini sled with jet propellers and a plow
   The day sailed on in a mixture of sun, laughter, snow, idea sharing, questions, tons of observations, and new conclusions. Slow learning is good learning, for it allows for assimilation. This ECO day was planned so that children could move in between "science stations" which offered different degrees of stimuli and multiple ways to be a participant. It may not look slow with all these excited bodies scurrying about, but really,.. it is. All these outdoor provisions that helped to create a day of learning ultimately guided every child to follow their own interests and needs through inquiry based learning. In the end, children experience independence, self organization, participation, and empowerment.

That's 10 am to 2:45pm. No need to go back into the school building today.
We closed our day by having a  sharing circle on the snow covered lawn of Kellogg Hubbard Library.
" What were you most thankful for today?" the teachers asked. Here is what the children shared:

"I am thankful for,....my mini sled because it went fast, the birds singing, being outside, the frozen water that I broke, the fire because it got me warm, my mom, my dad, my teacher, penguins, my friends, nature, the earth and,...I'm just thankful for the whole day!"

All day. Outside. Something to be truly thankful for.

The community is our classroom

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Vermont Team Competes in Superbowl… of Birding

Sunrise off Cape Ann

The skies were clear and the weather warm for the Superbowl this past weekend, only it was birds flying instead of footballs. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. teams of birdwatchers looked high and low for as many different types (or species) of birds as they could find along the Massachusetts coast. For the fourth year, a team of adults and youths from Vermont participated, sponsored by the North Branch Nature Center of Montpelier.

The night before the competition, the team (called the North Branch Noddies) carefully planned their route for the following day. In addition to being experts of the local birdlife, teams must devise clever strategies to ensure they are in the right places at the right times to see the most birds. Each species is assigned a point-value based on the how difficult it is to find (1 point being easiest and 5 points being hardest). So, while a chickadee is worth just one point, a Snowy Owl is worth three, and a Townsend’s Warbler is worth five points.

The Team gazes upwards at a
Townsend's Warbler

Alarm clocks rang at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the competition, and by 5:00 the team was poised and ready at their secret owl spot. By 5:15 a.m. they had their first two points, for a Eastern Screech-Owl calling in the distance. Scouring the rocky shoreline of Cape Ann, the Noddies continued to rack up points through the morning hours. Many species of birds that breed in the arctic spend the winter months off the New England coast, which for them, is considered “south for the winter”. The obligate trip to the fish pier added several rare species of gulls as they fought over fish scraps on the docks. A pair of Peregrine Falcons watched from afar, perched atop the distant church steeple.

The mild weather certainly played a role in the birdlife encountered. Lakes and ponds with open water meant an abundance of waterfowl that typically vacate in winter, such as Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, and American Coots. Even some insectivores were toughing it out on the coast this winter including a Gray Catbird and a rare vagrant Townsend's Warbler, seen gleaning insects from the needles of a tall spruce tree.

Sunset from Plum Island, after
12 hours of birding

Slowly working their way north, by late afternoon the Noddies had reached Plum Island, considered one of the finest birding locales in New England. Here, on the rolling sand dunes and extensive marshes, the Noddies would complete their quest. From a single spot along the main road, two Snowy Owls could be seen sitting upon the barren, snowless landscape. A flock of hundreds of shorebirds chased the breaking waves along the beach. And as the sky became infused with pink and purple at dusk, a Short-eared Owl could be seen cruising the fields, hunting under the shadows of the setting sun. After twelve hours of birdwatching, the Noddies raced to the finish line with a total of 66 species and 124 points.

The Noddies will be competing in the World Series of Birding this May, email Larry for more information.

If a Child Picks Up a Stick in the Forest,....

 What happens if a child picks up a stick in the forest? It's not a question of if, because they do and they will! When a child does pick one up, what does that stick become? Working with school teachers, this is one of the first concerns of being outside with a classroom of curious children. Do we let them play with sticks? And what does it look, feel, and sound like if 20 children are wielding sticks in the forest? Laying down a rule of "no picking up sticks" is like taking your students to the top of a fresh snowy hill with sleds scattered about and telling them they can't go sledding. What would the point be?
Here is where we break down the barrier of "no sticks" and begin to observe and experience the benefits of allowing children to physically, socially, and emotionally construct their world through stick play.

First, what if we asked the children what they thought? So, we did. In morning meeting we asked students "How would you use sticks in the forest?" The children's reaction was immediate. Hands were raised and bodies were wriggling with ideas and prior knowledge.
We can: build a fort, build a fairy house, build a house to sleep in, make a really big pile, build a fire, make a trap, build a wall to protect us, make a store and sell things,......
Wow. That's a lot of ideas! Notice the use of the word build. Children building things with objects found in their immediate environment is as natural as them learning to walk. Providing space and time to build outdoors expands the experience into a new realm. With more space, it allows for more movement, which creates more language use, and in the end, deeper cognitive development.
The next question we pose to the class is, "How will we do all that building and be safe near our friends?" I ask the children to raise a hand if they have ever been hurt by a stick before. All the children's hands go up. They have all had direct experience with this! The children share with a neighbor and the stories begin to pour out. (Children LOVE and need to share their personal stories. Especially when it connects to the topic at hand. Giving them a chance to share with other classmates strengthens the classroom learning culture and is powerfully inclusive) After a couple minutes of sharing we begin to make our Safe with Sticks list. In all 10 classrooms, the children agreed that sticks are not weapons and we don't hit with sticks. I never had to prompt these two ideas and it was always the first or second rule created by the children! Inevitably, a child grabs the perfectly styled stick and points it at a friend. "Bang! I got you!"
With a simple reminder we're redirected and back to our work.
" Hey friends, remember, we are in a Peace Zone. Let's keep working on that awesome shelter you started building last week!" It has become such regular part of the routine that I know hear children reminding each other of our rules. They are now in charge of their learning and their creations.
I hear children using phrases such as "bubble space" and "safety circle" when moving a stick bigger than themselves. I am also witnessing balance, coordination, development of gross motor skills, and cooperation as three children move a very large branch to add to a debris hut.
Our Safe with Sticks rules are made and students are imagining what they can do with sticks. Now the possibilities grow as the children navigate the landscape of the forest with building plans in mind. With a supportive adult to child ratio and room to roam, here are some examples of what has happened!

Class Stick Sculpture

How does it look?
Building a firewood shed!

Using a saw to cut the perfect length!

The outcomes of all this stick building? Here are just a few,.....developing spatial awareness, decision making, strengthening social and physical skills, building positive interaction and communication skills, learning problem solving strategies, appreciating what your body can do, and for some children it gives them an opportunity to develop control over their behavior and improve concentration by moving, manipulating, and orchestrating objects they have found in nature.
What if a child picks up a stick in the forest?
I guess I would be more concerned if they didn't.

A debris shelter in Hubbard Park built by 1st graders