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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Look What We Found!

The following conversation was recorded this spring in Harrison Field during an ECO day with children from Union Elementary School.  

"Look! Another one! You can pick it up."
"Woah, I found one! On the leaves,..I don't know."
"Guys, we keep finding them! We better have a big pack to put them in."
"Yeah, you can find one for it!"
"Oh! You almost stepped on this one."
"Oh. Sorry."
"Is it alive? Look, more."
"They are not alive, but they have fur."
"Come on guys follow me, I saw some more. I found another one!"
"Same over here. I found the baby!"
"Put it in my hand."
"Oh you got it,... the baby. Here's the baby. Here's the baby."
"Awwwww. Their cute. Isn't that a baby?"
"Hey look. We found the baby one. Come and see the baby. Put it down."

At this point I am discovered and the young child focuses on what's in my hand.
"What's that?"
"Well, it's a tool. It's a way scientists can record what they are learning about."
I am holding a small audio recorder, documentating this unfolding of intrinsic wonderment.
The child looks back up at me and with a very serious face and voice says,
"We should record this. Can we record this? Can we use that tool?"
Now the child designated to hold these babies proclaims,
"Journals! We need our journals!"
"We need red pencils."
"Some are purple. And they have green stems."
"They are pink too!"

My audio recording ends here. But I guess you could also say this is where it begins. This is where all learning begins. By asking questions and following a mystery. Developing language, social skills, moving and talking, shouting, pausing, observing, wondering. Curiousity is a powerful drive in a young child that can lead to some of the deepest learning. I never answered these kindergarteners questions. They never even asked me to tell them what it was that they were finding all over the forest floor on that early spring morning. Instead, I joined them in their world of imagination and discovery. I knew what it was that they were bubbling over with excitement about. But my knowledge of the mystery is really quite boring compared to their 30 minutes of active engagement. You want good inquiry based learning? Then don't answer their questions. Answer their curiousity with another question and then another. For strong cognitive development to occur we need to offer children new knowledge just on the edge of what they already know. In educational psychology terms it's called the zone of proximal development. By not answering right away we allow children to master new tasks such as language, cooperation, empathy, and how to use tools to further their knowledge. Just like the two children in the dialogue above. No adults needed. So even if you know the answer, pretend like you don't. In an age where answers are literally at our finger tips, it's important to slow down, relax and enjoy the sense of wonder with the children around you.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hummingbird Moths

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then there is an insect that holds great admiration for birds: the hummingbird moth.  A small subset of the family of Sphinx moths actually mimics hummingbirds in their appearance and behavior.  Their broad bodies, fast-beating wings, and hover-feeding during daylight hours cause many to think that they are in fact tiny hummingbirds, visiting flowers across the continent.   

To the contrary, these moths start their lives like any other moths: as eggs affixed to leaves of a host plant (which can include honeysuckles, heaths, roses, blueberries, thistles, and others).  Caterpillars look much like others of the Sphinx moth family: large, mostly green, and bearing a pointed “horn” on the posterior end.  It is not until adulthood that their bird-like tendencies become apparent.  Before emerging from their silky cocoons, they are just moths, but after their metamorphosis they become the birds of the lepidopteron world.  

For the past month, hummingbird moths have been flying in Vermont.  Look for them near gardens, meadows, and other open areas where flowers flourish.  Their rapid movements make them difficult to photograph, but they are seemingly oblivious to human presence and allow for a close-approach.  Watch for their long proboscis (hollow, straw-like tongue), which they keep furled in a tight spiral when not in use.  When they approach a blossom, the proboscis unravels, stretching nearly the length of their bodies to extract nectar.  They are a thrill to see, a delight to observe, and a highlight of any warm summer day. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rare Bumblebee Resides at NBNC

A sighting of the Yellow-banded Bumblebee (Bombus terricola) would not have raised eyebrows 20 years ago, but today, the presence of this species at the North Branch Nature Center is cause for celebration.  The once-common species has been in sharp decline since the mid-1990’s and now exists in only isolated pockets of its formerly extensive range.  This species is just one of many (there are around 20 species of bumblebees in Vermont alone) that is rapidly disappearing across the country.  

Bumblebees are important pollinators of both native and agriculturally significant plants, and easily recognized by their large size and furry bodies.  But only upon more careful study can their many varieties be distinguished.  Some species need to be examined under magnifying lenses to be identified, but the Yellow-banded Bumblebee has a distinctive pattern that can be seen from a distance.  Its thorax is fronted with yellow and reared with black, and its abdomen has a series of black and yellow bands that set it apart from others in our area.  While this description may sound too complex for an amateur to pick out, it is surprisingly easy to detect even when the bee is aloft.

The Yellow-banded Bumblebee pictured to the right was photographed at NBNC on July 2, visiting the Milkweed that is in full blossom throughout the Nature Center’s fields.   Renowned Vermont author Bernd Heinrich studied bumblebees extensively leading up to his publishing of Bumblebee Economics in 1979.  At sites where Heinrich had commonly encountered the Yellow-banded Bumblebee in Vermont and Maine, he recently went many years without finding a single specimen.  

We’re still just beginning to understand why some bumblebees have vanished, where they still remain, and how to best conserve and restore their populations.  NBNC educator Larry Clarfeld is helping with this effort, and will present a lecture on Vermont’s Declining Bumblebees on Tuesday, July 24, at 6:30 p.m.  Please join him to learn more about the perils that bumblebees are now facing and what is being done to help them.

For more information on identifying Yellow-banded Bumblebees, visit the Xerces Society's page.