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Friday, November 30, 2012

The Energy of Boys

What could be more fun on a rainy day than getting muddy?
Every Thursday afternoon I watch as the boys filter in one by one for the North Branch Trekkers afterschool program.  The first couple quietly set their packs down, bashfully bid their mothers farewell for the afternoon, and softly take up conversation while fiddling with the contents of their packs.  Two more boys arrive, toss their packs in the pile, and dispassionately wave goodbye to their moms as they jog off to join a game that has just started.  The last boys to arrive don’t even make it to the sign-in table… their packs are cast aside haphazardly in the field as they run full force to join the game that has now reached full tilt, parent left in their wake.  Something magical seems to happen with each arrival.  With each addition the energy of the group seems to grow exponentially.  You can almost see it as it bounces between and touches every boy in the group, pulling them closer together - carrying ideas, challenges, and discoveries with it.  For adolescent boys, this is where real learning takes place. 
The trekkers examine scat to see
which mammal has been here
One of their favorite games to play is a game called “Coyote and Deer”, where the coyotes are working together as a pack to track down the hiding deer.  It is an interesting game to watch them play because watching a group of young boys roaming the woods is much like watching a bachelor herd of young bucks, figuring out how to interact with their environment and each other.  Like young deer sparing with their antlers for the first time, they challenge each other to feats of strength and courage as they chase each other down hillsides and across ravines, using the rough terrain to build coordination and dexterity.  They can also be much like a pack of young coyotes figuring out their individual roles within the pack, learning their strengths and weaknesses as they work together to overcome challenges.

At “Trekkers,” we use the forests, creeks, and fields as tools to help children learn not only about the natural world but about themselves as well.  These are lessons that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, lessons that we all must learn one way or another.  It is of no small significance that they are learning these lessons in nature.  The young buck may not know it, but those early years of playful exploration help shape him into the regal patriarch of the woods.  Much like the young buck, these boys represent our future.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pine Grosbeaks Invade!

Vermont has been invaded by mysterious flying objects! They’re not aliens, although they might look unfamiliar to many.  They’re Pine Grosbeaks.  These medium-sized, parrot-like birds breed hundreds of miles to our north, and don’t venture south every year.  In fact, over the past two years (2010 & 2011), only four Pine Grosbeak sightings were reported in Vermont eBird.  But in the past two weeks, there have been dozens of sightings in every corner of the state. 

It is thought that Pine Grosbeaks travel south in winters when their favorite food, fruit, is in short supply on their breeding grounds.  They are most easily found in fruiting trees such as ornamental cherry and crabapples.  In addition to their vibrant colors, these birds are easily observed because of their audacity around humans: they will often tolerate our presence, feeding along busy downtown streets.  

If you haven’t seen this bird already this fall, there is a good chance you will.  All sightings can be reported to eBird or directly to the North Branch Nature Center.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Waterfowl: Before the Water Freezes

November is here, and frosty nights are no longer the exception: they’re the norm.  Our lakes and ponds are beginning to freeze, but before their liquid surface disappears, late-migrating waterfowl can still be encountered basically anywhere around central Vermont.  Unusual ducks could be coming soon to a pond near you!

Long after many birds have already left or passed through Vermont on their journey south, some species of waterfowl actually peak in November and our largest water-bodies are revolving doors for ducks and geese this time of year.  Even some mediocre-sized ponds can harbor rarities in November.  Here are some water-birds that are frequently seen this month:

Long-tailed Duck, 11/17/10, Berlin Pond, Berlin, VT

Long-tailed Duck, formally known as Oldquaw, is most numerous in Washington County in the third week of November.  This species is an uncommon but almost-annual visitor to Berlin Pond, and has already been sighted this month on 4 ponds in Washington County (the bigger the pond, the more likely they’ll visit). 

Hooded Merganser pair, 4/12/11, Berlin Pond, Berlin, VT
Hooded Merganser is a fairly common breeding species in Vermont, but is most numerous as it migrates through the county this month.  The stunning breeding-plumage of the male can be observed year-round.  Their clean-white hood is erected as they court females on their southward migration.

American Coots with Pied-billed Grebe, 11/15/11, Berlin Pond, Berlin, VT

Coot are an unusual visitor that are more closely related to Virginia Rail than to ducks.  While they haven’t been sighted in Washington County yet this fall, they are most likely to occur in November, so keep your eyes peeled for this black-bodied, white-billed bird.

Ring-necked Duck (male), 4/21/11, Berlin Pond, Berlin, VT

Ring-necked Duck reaches its peak in Washington Co. in November, and when viewed well, looks far more like a "ring-billed" than a "ring-necked" duck, which readily distinguishes it from all other ducks.  An uncommon breeder in Vermont, this species is easily observed at Berlin Pond most days in November, as long as there is open water.

Common Goldeneye (male & female), 3/4/12, Shelburne Point, Shelburne, VT

Goldeneye can be found all winter long on Lake Champlain, and until the smaller inland lakes freeze solid, are a good winter potential anywhere in the state from November on.  Keep an eye out for this arctic-breeding species throughout the month.

American Wigeon, 11/7/11, Berlin Pond, Berlin, VT

Always expect the unexpected, as nearly any species of duck that occurs in Vermont could show up in November.  On 11/7 last year, an American Wigeon appeared at Berlin Pond for just a single day, observed and photographed by 2 lucky birders.  This is currently the only fall sighting for this species in Washington County, but that could very well change in the next few weeks.  Keep a close eye on your local pond, because some cool and unique birds are still passing through as winter is hot on our heels!

Text and photos by Larry Clarfeld

Friday, November 9, 2012

Insect Hotels, Potato Peelers, and Spy Cameras?

Collecting materials
Children are scampering about collecting materials along the edge of the field for an Insect Hotel. Arms and backpacks are overflowing with dried grasses, pieces of bark, handfuls of soil, sticks, leaves, and stones.
"I see something red for the hotel! It's a stick! Insects would like that in their hotel. Oh, it's a living a tree. Can we pick some Amy?"
The students have found a large stand of redosier dogwood. They are fascinated by the color and the flashing of red on a bleak November day. I explain it would be okay for us to take a small sample since there is so much. I cut a branch and divide it amongst them. They know this is special and they carefully slide their red stick into their pockets.
The collection and wandering continues for an hour. Many discoveries are made by these scavenging 1st and 2nd graders. A dead poplar tree being visited by woodpeckers, balsam pitch that makes your fingers stick together, and the "AH - Tree" that when it's buds are crushed smells spicy and good.

We haven't even started building yet! And what is an insect hotel anyways?

Insect Hotels are heavy
Many 1st and 2nd graders in Vermont study insects as part of their science curriculum. Within the medium of science students also wrote, sketched, read, and sang all about insects. Lets not forget about math as well! On this ECO day students from Moretown Elementary and East Montpelier Elementary Schools are building winter homes for their insect friends.
Where do insects live? What do insects need in order to survive?  Where do insects go in the winter? Do they hibernate or do they die? By creating a cylinder out of chicken wire students fill the hotel with their collected materials. Through the process of actively building many of these questions get answered and empathy for these small and amazing living creatures deepens.
Students were also guided in safely using potato peelers to whittle green elderberry branches. Safety is taught in small groups and the privilege of using such a new tool is taken seriously by the children. Children become immediately focused on whittling windows and spy cameras for their insects. Their is a comfortable hum of busyness while new motor skills are being practiced. It's peaceful and purposeful. Another hour passes of child led learning and inquiry.

Peeling safely

Soon the hotels are opened for business and a tour begins as each group describes their creations. Hotels with roofs, elevators, porches, 4 floors, dining rooms, windows, beds and indoor pools! Where would you like the stay tonight? How about an Insect Hotel!

A future architect

Open for business!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Red-bellied Woodpecker visits NBNC!

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male) seen at
NBNC on Nov. 7, 2012
"Look!  It's a Red-bellied Woodpecker," shouted Chip from his office in the North Branch Nature Center.  Lots of interesting birds have been seen from the office windows at NBNC, but it came as a shock to find this beautiful male clinging to the trunk of the big Red Maple tree next to the NBNC building.  If you go birding in southern New York, it is hard to avoid seeing this bird, but as you travel north they become scarce.

Just a few decades ago, a Red-bellied Woodpecker in Vermont was extremely rare.  With temperatures slowly rising, the range of this species has expanded and today they are encountered regularly in the Champlain Valley (although still very uncommon in central Vermont).  Data from the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) support this trend.  Only one CBC record exists from before 1980, but the species has now been recorded annually since the mid-1990's (see graph below).

As climate change continues, it will be interesting to see if the Red-bellied Woodpecker becomes even more prevalent in Vermont.  Perhaps a decade from now, we'll peer out the windows at NBNC and remark, "oh, look... another Red-bellied Woodpecker. That's the fourth time this week!"