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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How Do We Get There?

Every ECO day at any school here in Vermont has its own gifts and challenges of getting out the door. I’m sure each teacher we work with feels the burden of piled rain pants and the reminders that snow pants go on first, then your coat.  Do you have your snack, water bottle, and journal? Someone forgot their boots and socks!?  To top it off there may be an hourly forecast for rain the three hours you plan to be out with your students. Or, the first snow squall passes through in the midst of playing games in an open field that leads to bursts of joy and the chasing of snowflakes with tongues sticking towards the sky. Then a student steps in a mud hole up to their knee on a chilly October day. The next thing you know it’s a cooperative engineering moment amongst the trapped and the rescuers.  

What has already been achieved as a lifelong lesson in the classroom is how to take care of yourself. Getting those mittens on and zippers zipped is not easy. The social modeling of watching others able to master these simple self- care tasks helps other children to believe that they can do the same.  We can do it together with positive encouragement. We can get dressed, pack our bags and walk all the way to our destination! These are the first steps to developing self-efficacy. With a strong self-efficacy students believe in themselves to accomplish tasks that are challenging and then reach their goals.

It’s unanimous that the stumbling and bumbling of laying down the habits of getting ready for ECO pays off in the field and forest. The simplest acts of climbing a steep hill, building a shelter for a mouse,  or coming together to hear a classmates story of discovery are all built off of the collective belief that, Yes, we can do this. I can do this. I am succeeding and I am learning.

It’s all about getting there. Once we have arrived, no matter what route you have taken, the learning begins to unfold in a multitude of ways.  And who is doing all this learning? I believe every one of us, large and small.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Superbowl of Birding X: RESULTS

For the fifth consecutive year, the North Branch Nature Center sponsored young birders to compete in the Superbowl of Birding in Essex County, MA, only this year something was different... there were two teams!  NBNC has coordinated youth teams for birding competitions since 1999 and these fun events have been an opportunity for kids from around New England to come together and celebrate their love of birds.  From Berkshire to Rutland, this year's participants represented all corners of Vermont. 

This Western Grebe at Plum Island
may have been the rarest bird of the day.
The first team, the North Branch Noddies, was coached by Chip Darmstadt and consisted of middle-school aged birders and adult chaperones who were participating in their very first competition.  Despite the challenges of cold weather and unfamiliar birds, the youth team had an exceptional day tallying numerous rare species.  The second team, the Chocolate-headed Cowbirds (with sprinkles), was coached by Larry Clarfeld and consisted of high-school students and young adults, all veterans of previous birding competitions.  The two teams' combined tally of 68 species highlights the diversity of birds that can be found along the New England coast, even in the depths of winter. 

The Superbowl operates on a points system, where rare birds are given a higher point value, and the combined species list below depicts the point values of each bird as follows:
1 point (plain text)
2 points (bold)

Canada Goose WESTERN GREBE Blue Jay
BRANT Northern Gannet  American Crow
Mute Swan Great Cormorant Black-capped Chickadee
Gadwall Bald Eagle Tufted Titmouse
American Black Duck Northern Harrier Red-breasted Nuthatch
Mallard COOPER'S HAWK  White-breasted Nuthatch
CANVASBACK Red-tailed Hawk Carolina Wren
Greater Scaup  SANDERLING American Robin
Common Eider BONAPARTE'S GULL Northern Mockingbird
Harlequin Duck Ring-billed Gull European Starling
Surf Scoter Herring Gull YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER
White-winged Scoter Iceland Gull  American Tree Sparrow
Black Scoter GLAUCOUS GULL Song Sparrow
Bufflehead Great Black-backed Gull White-throated Sparrow
Common Goldeneye RAZORBILL Dark-eyed Junco
Hooded Merganser  Black Guillemot Northern Cardinal
Common Merganser Rock Pigeon House Finch
Red-breasted Merganser Mourning Dove WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL
Common Loon Downy Woodpecker House Sparrow
Horned Grebe Hairy Woodpecker

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Forest School, in the winter

Forest School looks and feels much different in the middle of January than it did in early September.  For one, snow coating the landscape provides opportunities for tranquil sights.  And with the chilly temperatures, frozen water balloons with food coloring make beautiful frozen globes throughout the day.

 These globes were mysterious, magical-looking and provided fodder for lots of imaginary play.  In this game of "Coyotes and Voles," the colored spheres became imaginary vole food!  The children in the middle of the circle were in their vole den and the people on the outside sphere were the coyotes, waiting to "eat" them, by tagging them, of course, as they were trying to scrounge for food.  It's amazing how something as simple as frozen colored water can spur creativity and naturalist knowledge in kindergarteners and first graders.

After an extensive game session, we visited the Christmas tree maze that was being set up for the Ice on Fire festival this weekend.  We were lucky enough to see a Red Tailed Hawk circling above, too!

This is Christmas tree maze from afar.  Community members drop their Christmas trees at the North Branch Nature Center and talented Americorps volunteers set up the aromatic maze for children and adults, alike, to enjoy leading up to the Ice on Fire festival.  

We tucked into the barn for a snack and our morning circle before heading out to our base camp.  On our way, we searched for Nature's Paintbrushes and used them to create patterns and write in the snow.   Hello, literacy!  

On our way to base camp...

Sliding down the hill at our base camp.  Despite the cold temperatures, the children walked, played, slid, imagined and stayed warm and engaged during our 5 hour outing.  Let's see what next week's temperatures bring!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Lake Champlain Birding with NBNC

The North Branch Nature Center's trip to Lake Champlain proved to be very productive this past Saturday (1/19), with eight participants tallying fifteen species of ducks at six locations along the shore.  Land Birds (Snow Buntings, Larks, Longspurs) were notably absent, but this was made up for by the 9,000+ ducks congregating around the Champlain Bridge.  Some highlights are included below:

  • A Mallard pair courting and copulating at Shelburne Bay.
  • A Cooper's Hawk flying into the open window of a barn at the top of Fort Cassin Road.  It never exited while we were there.
  • A Rough-legged Hawk off Hawkins Road.
  • Bald Eagles in good numbers!  2 adults at Shelburne Bay.  At least 15 at Fort Cassin Bay feeding on the ice.  And another 3 near Champlain Bridge.
  • Red-breasted Mergansers... 2 males at Meach Cove and 2 more at Charlotte Town Beach.
  • A male Northern Pintail at Charlotte Town Beach.
  • Horned Grebe close to shore at Charlotte Town Beach (also seen at Meach Cove and Shelburne Point)
  • Eastern Bluebird at the Champlain Bridge
  • Continuing rarities from Champlain Bridge area, including Tufted Duck, Barrow's Goldeneye, Canvasback, and Redhead, and thousands of scaup and goldeneye.  Despite our efforts, the Pochard was not seen.  Ducks have been pushed back from the bridge by the advancing ice, and it will be interesting to see where they end up as temperatures dip next week and ice continues to displace the birds.  
This Cooper's Hawk flew right into an open window
of this barn!  We assume it was hunting pigeons inside.
A male Northern Pintail was a pleasant surprise at
Charlotte Town Beach. They are rare in winter.
These two male Redheads were hiding in the clock of
over 9,000 ducks at Champlain Bridge.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Everyone Benefits

Here at NBNC we are now fully immersed into a new year, new snow, new friends, and growing enthusiasm of the work we do with teachers in public schools. ECO, Educating Children Outdoors, began the new school year in five area schools. Our teacher naturalists work with 25 teachers on a biweekly basis getting their students outdoors to learn. That's about 320 students immersed in the local ecologies surrounding their schools. We asked teachers to take a moment to reflect on the gifts and challenges of getting out the door with a classroom full of curious minds and wriggling bodies. Here is a response that sums up the experience of children learning in a space with no walls and the sky and trees overhead.

When has the experience on an ECO day been most beneficial for your class?

  I can’t begin to choose a “most beneficial experience.”   There is the sense of independency  that children are gaining as they learn to care for themselves, others and their environment, the sense of wonder  and curiosity they bring to the woods and their explorations, and then there is the “We’re all in this together, “ community-building that is occurring.    Some children love the time just “being” in their sit spots, others are energetically creating tools out of sticks, logs, rocks, and other things found, and yet other children have become so excited about animal tracking that they are asking their parents to look online for more videos about tracking and taking them outside to search for “a story.”     Learning to carve, roasting apples or cooking bread on a stick, building rock cairns by the brook, lugging wood up to the base camp as a team, learning new tag games that support the learning about animals, life cycle and food chain, watching an adult build a fire to warm our hands and feet by, making “gifts” for the animals that visit our sit spot, and reflecting on our learning with the use of journals, are all things to be cherished and continued with children as we move through the rest of the year.    I guess the most beneficial experience for my class is that there is something for everyone----individual interests are honored and children are able to engage with their interests.  There is a great deal of planning that goes into this by the NBNC folks, and this is coordinated with classroom teachers with reflection/planning meetings  and emails after each session.   The planning is a guide, and allows for individual children to branch off from the general lesson and incorporate their own explorations.  - 1st/2nd grade teacher


That sounds like a day of school not to be missed!

The Pochard and Picnic Tables in Patagonia

The Pochard that started it all!

It all started on New Year’s day with two of Vermont’s finest birders.  “I think I’ve got a Redhead,” said Ian Worley to Ron Payne.  They had been examining a large flock of waterfowl at the Champlain Bridge at Crown Point.  It looked a little off, but with no other look-alikes in their field guide, they decided the duck they saw was in fact a Redhead.  Not until a picture was posted on the web did they discover that this bird was actually a European duck called a Common Pochard.

After its discovery was made public, three things happened.  The first was that birders flocked to the Champlain Bridge from all over New England (and beyond!)  Visitors from as far away as West Virginia and North Carolina made the trip to Vermont to see the Pochard.  The volume of visitors was so high that the state of Vermont decided to re-open D.A.R. State Park (typically closed in winter) to accommodate the influx of birders.

A group of birders from throughout the northeast
viewing the Common Pochard from Port Henry, NY.
The next thing to happen was the “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.”  This term was coined in 1971 after a group of birders passing though Patagonia, AZ discovered the first Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in U.S. history at a small rest stop off RT-82.  The slew of birders that followed in their wake to see the gnatcatcher ended up discovering the first U.S. record of Yellow Grosbeak at the same rest stop!  Hence, the effect was born.  Rare birds attract good birders who discover more rare birds.  This phenomenon took place in Vermont, with Pochard-searchers recording many more rarities at the Champlain Bridge, such as Canvasback, Iceland Gull, Barrow’s X Common Goldeneye hybrid, and more.

The final thing to happen was a great debate.  As the Pochard lifted its leg out of the water to take flight, someone noticed a metal band around its leg.  This band could have been placed by a researcher in Europe, but it could have also been placed by the owner of domestic waterfowl.  With the discovery of the band, the bird’s origin was put into question.  Was this a wild bird, the first ever recorded in the eastern US? Or was this an escapee from a backyard in upstate New York?  Whatever the bird’s origin, it has put Vermont ‘on the map’ for birders throughout the Northeast and many continue to make the trip to the Champlain Bridge to see the Pochard and other waterfowl.

Text and photos by Larry Clarfeld
For an account of the original discovery of the Pochard, visit Otter Creek Audubon Society.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Vermont Atlas of Every Living Thing Begins

Scientists and Citizen Naturalists Submit Sightings from Nature

Vermonters can start the new year with a resolution to join one of the most ambitious conservation projects the state has ever seen: an inventory of every living thing in Vermont.

The Atlas of Vermont Life  will collect sightings from citizen naturalists and professional biologists and present them online in the form of maps, photos, and even social networking. From mushrooms to maples, moose to microorganisms, everything counts.

"One of the most amazing things about the nature of Vermont is how little we know," said Kent McFarland, senior conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), which officially launches the project on January 1. "The atlas will generate excitement, discoveries and greater understanding of biodiversity across the state."

Anyone can submit or view Vermont biodiversity data at to the atlas project

Decades will pass before the atlas is complete; it may never actually reveal every last species. But it is expected to grow into the most comprehensive accounting of life in Vermont. It appears to be the first attempt to document each and every plant, animal and otherwise in an entire state.

VCE has a track record of enlisting citizens for science, creating atlases of bird, butterfly and bumblebee distribution across Vermont. The new on-line atlas project extends citizen discovery to everything from common plants to obscure lichens, even still undiscovered species such as microscopic animals called "waterbears" or different kinds of snow fleas.

Ultimately the atlas will generate research-grade data to help citizens and scientists discover, track and conserve Vermont's biodiversity. McFarland says Vermonters cannot fully appreciate and conserve what lives in this state without a more comprehensive inventory of life.

"Vermont needs to discover more about what's here and where it is," said McFarland. "This may seem to be an odd analogy, but we should be like big, national box-store chain with an inventory of every product in the warehouse."

The Atlas of Vermont Life web site allows participants to enter the name of species they discover, its exact location and an optional photograph. It also allows experts to corroborate or correct sightings, or even identify a photo of some unknown species.

VCE already runs an online bird inventory project called Vermont eBird and will soon launch a similar butterfly project called Vermont eButterfly. The new Atlas of Vermont Life will accept any species, rare or common, from anyone who joins its online community.

"We often hear about biologists cataloging the biodiversity living on a single tree in some far-flung tropical forest," said McFarland, "but rarely do we investigate the complete diversity here at home." 

Note: This post originally appeared on The Daily Wing and the VCE blog.  The North Branch Nature Center is also a partnering organization on the Atlas of Vermont Life.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Washington County still chasing 200 in year-long bird quest

A Yellow Warbler at Berlin Pond

For years, it seemed like the Holy Grail.  Always so close, yet just out of reach.  Central Vermont bird enthusiasts have been working diligently to record 200 species in Washington County in a calendar year, and in 2012, we came closer than we ever have before.  

Bird sightings throughout the year were recorded by over 100 observers using the online database called eBird.  For the most part, records are accepted based on the honor system, but for rare sightings, documentation is often required.  The final tally stands at 199 species in 2012, one away from the coveted 200-mark.  Every single species is valuable, but rarities are essential to passing the 200-threshold, and we’d like to start the new year by honoring some central Vermont’s “best birds of 2012”.

1.      Varied Thrush – Normally found along the west coast, this species occasionally gets very lost and ends up at bird feeders in New England.  This was what happened at Mountain Valley Farm in Waitsfield, where owners Gib and Sue Geiger graciously allowed birders to visit and see this unusual bird.

2.      Acadian Flycatcher On May 26, Scott & Pat Sainsbury opened up their home to nearly 50 birders from across the state for a morning of breakfast and birding.  Among the 64 species observed, the highlight was surely this southern flycatcher, last seen in Vermont over 2 decades ago. Congratulations to Chip Darmstadt for discovering this gem!

3.      Gray-cheeked Thrush – Part of why this bird, which breeds in Canada, is so rarely recorded in Vermont is because it looks nearly identical to the Bicknell’s Thrush.  When one showed up in a mist net at the North Branch Nature Center, researchers were able to closely examine and measure the bird, confirming that it was in fact the unusual Gray-Cheeked Thrush.

4.      Cackling Goose – This never-before seen species in Washington County was recorded twice this fall!  Looking like a miniature Canada Goose, “the cackler” can blend in very well to large goose flocks.  Excellent work to Craig Provost and Ken Benton for identifying these hard-to-find birds!

5.      Golden Eagle – This species is always rare in Vermont, but most frequently seen in the fall during migration.  It came as a great surprise when Eric Cannizzaro, a participant of the Plainfield Christmas Bird Count, managed to spot one soaring overhead.

Will 2013 be the year that we finally surpass 200 species? For more information on Washington County’s birds, and to help get involved in 2013’s Bird Quest, visit www.NorthBranchNatureCenter.org or call the North Branch Nature Center at 229-6206.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Naturalist Journeys Series 2013

All programs start at 7:00 pm at the Unitarian Church on Main Street in Montpelier
Donations welcomed.
Food and beverages will be available

Friday, January 18
Spectacles of Nature: A Photographic Journey
Growing up, native Vermonter Heather Forcier was inspired by the beauty of nature around her and began her pursuit of nature photography here.  Ultimately her travels took her throughout North America, to Churchill, Manitoba and the Galapagos Islands of South America.  Her presentation is a collection of images and stories of the incredible birds, animals and scenery she has witnessed over ten years of nature photography.

Friday, February 1
The Geology of the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco
The Kingdom of Morocco is assessing their natural resource potential through a comprehensive national plan of modern geologic mapping.  Mapping of over 5,000 square kilometers in the Anti-Atlas Mountains was completed by the U.S. Geological Survey from 2000-2008. Greg Walsh will present the results of this work along with a slide show and discussion of the natural history of this picturesque land on the northern margin of the Sahara.

Friday, February 15, 2013
Winter Wildlife Tracking

From mink trails, moose scrapes, fox tracks, turkey scat to squirrel taps---what can we learn from our wild neighbors? Come find out, with local tracker Angella Gibbons, who will share an inspiring slide show and stories that can help reveal many tracking mysteries! Angella has been connecting people of all ages to the wild for 25 years; is the founding director of EarthWalk Vermont and holds a Level III certificate in Wildlife Track & Sign through Cybertracker Conservation.

Friday, March 1, 2013
Caterpillars: The Art of Survival

Caterpillars in art, science, and education.  Naturalist-photographer Samuel Jaffe will present his photographs and discuss his work with native caterpillars.  Highlights will include details on caterpillar behavior as well as on caterpillar finding, rearing, and photographing techniques.  In addition, Sam will discuss how he has incorporated caterpillars into educational programming and curriculum in the hopes of fostering a new generation of aware and passionate naturalists. 

Friday March 8, 2012
Come with me to Tanzania

Little did I, Annie Tiberio Cameron, know when I journeyed to Tanzania to visit my daughter the trip would open up a completely new view of Africa, different from the one I’d held my whole life.  I got a taste of what has captivated Jenny about Africa while working and studying there, and through her fluency in Swahili and many friends, I was afforded a very personal view of Tanzania.  We traveled by local busses, stayed in homes, and went to places less common for regular tourists.  Come take an armchair journey with me on safari in 2 national parks, peek into Tanzanian everyday life, and experience Zanzibar, mysterious spice island with an amalgam of three cultures: Tanzanian, Indian, and Arabian.

Thank You to this year's sponsors!

Washington Electric Coop