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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Garden Prep!

Since the beginning of Forest School in September, students have been dreaming about gardening.  What do we plant?  When can we start?  How can we cook what we grow?  Now that it's the end of March, with the snow dripping and warmer breezes blowing, the students are finally starting to prepare for gardening in our little plot in the Community Garden at the North Branch Nature Center!

First, students filled seed flats with soil and planted pepper and tomato seeds. 

Then, they made labels for their seed trays.  This was an excellent time for young writers to practice their literacy skills!

Next, students chose which seeds they would like to grow in their "Dream Garden."  This served as an opportunity to categorize and sort, which are important math concepts for kindergarteners.

Students then wrote and drew in their journals the types of vegetables and flowers they wanted to plant.  (An excellent opportunity for more advanced writers to learn spelling and practice writing.)

After such great garden preparations, we ate lunch by the river and hung out with our friends in the springy sunshine.   What a good, full day it was!

The Big Busy World

I have the window open in my office today which is a welcomed and joyous occasion. I can hear the song of male Red-wing Blackbirds, children playing in Forest School, and the snow melting off the roof of the nature center. Drip, drip, drip.
After last weeks 12 inches of snow on the first day spring, this day brings hope of green mountains, green plants, and the much needed sunshine. Activity at NBNC begins to speed up with the running of the sap. Not that we aren't already busy, but let's add summer camp registration to our plates along with a side of public speaking engagements, grant writing, amphibian monitoring trainings across the state, and our feathered friends returning to their summer nesting grounds!
With spring also comes spring cleaning. So, I took it upon myself to tackle my desk and get reorganized before the onslaught of busyness. I found a sheet of notes from an ECO meeting on April 4th of 2011. At first glance I wondered why I kept this slightly crinkled piece of paper,...as I read it became very clear to me.
Read what teachers, parents, and community members were saying about ECO in the spring of 2011.

The purpose of ECO at our school:
- Exploration and discovery
- Building community
- Scientific method, observing and asking questions
- Developing independence
- Increasing sensory learning
- Nature as science
- Reflecting on learning
- Meaningful hands on lessons
- Physical contact with outdoor materials
- Increases language development
- Deeper thinking, time to look, time to ask, time to reflect
- Provides a chance for SILENCE
- Value of rituals
- Closure provides time to look at what they experienced
- Stress reduction, fewer strong stimuli, choosing what we engage in
- Opportunities to construct meaning slowly
- ECO gives children a chance to know where they fit in the big, busy world.

What do you want for your children?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Trip Report: Champlain Valley Birding

A small group of hardy birders with the North Branch Nature Center traversed the Champlain Valley on Saturday searching for waterfowl and other avian delights.  A harsh wind made viewing on the lake difficult, yet an impressive 12 species of ducks (and many other birds) were still seen throughout the day!  Some pictorial highlights are shown here, but our full bird list is also included below (with rare/uncommon birds in bold).

Highlight 1: Hybrid Goose!

This presumed Snow X Canada Goose hybrid was spotted by a participant at the Champlain Bridge.  At first, a dark-morph Snow Goose seemed like a reasonable ID, but after looking more closely, we concluded this bird was a hybrid.  If this were a dark-morph Snow Goose, the pattern wouldn’t be a perfect match for Canada Goose in both color and pattern (and white-edged secondaries would be visible).  If it were a Canada Goose with a pigment abnormality, the beak would not show the “grin patch” that is so characteristic of Snow Goose.  These, and other more subtle field marks, were used to support our identification.  None of us had ever even heard of this hybrid before and so we were more than thrilled to have discovered it!

Highlight 2: Raptors!

More than once, we were treated to the most spectacular views of raptors that any of us ever had.  As Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers flapped in the strong wind, they hovered motionless at eye-level giving us extended close-up views.  All told, we saw eight species of raptors throughout the day.  

Highlight 3: “Ground Birds”

For the past week leading up to our trip, a huge influx of “ground birds” had been noted in the Champlain Valley.  This eclectic group of birds includes Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, and Lapland Longspur.  All three species were seen, with spectacular views of Horned Lark feeding on a roadside just feet from our group.  Lapland Longspurs were seen only on Gage Road in Addison, with a number of individuals transforming into their spectacular breeding plumage!

Despite the wind, we managed to see all this and more.  Here is our full bird list from the day:


Canada Goose Glaucous Gull * rare
Snow X Canada Goose hybrid Great Black-backed Gull
Gadwall Rock Pigeon
American Wigeon Mourning Dove
American Black Duck Downy Woodpecker
Mallard American Kestrel
Northern Pintail Peregrine Falcon
Green-winged Teal Blue Jay
Ring-necked Duck American Crow
Lesser Scaup Common Raven
Scaup sp. Horned Lark
Bufflehead Black-capped Chickadee
Common Goldeneye White-breasted Nuthatch
Hooded Merganser Eastern Bluebird
Common Merganser American Robin
Turkey Vulture European Starling
Northern Harrier Bohemian Waxwing
Cooper's Hawk Snow Bunting
Bald Eagle Lapland Longspur
Red-tailed Hawk American Tree Sparrow
Rough-legged Hawk Dark-eyed Junco
Ring-billed Gull Northern Cardinal
Herring Gull Red-winged Blackbird
Iceland Gull * rare Common Grackle

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring is Coming! Using QFT with second graders

Happy First Day of Spring!  Although you might not guess that spring is beginning with the 15" of light snow we received over the past few days, spring is coming.  To celebrate spring's arrival, in two second grade classes at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, we used our senses to find signs of spring in Hubbard Park.  We were helped by the Question Formulating Technique, which was developed by the Right Question Institute.  First students thought of as many questions as they could in 2 minutes about the statement, "Spring is Coming!"  Here were the parameters:

1.  Only ask questions.
2.  Any statement will be turned into a question.
3.  No analysis of questions or answering them.
4.  Write questions as they are stated.  

Here is the list that we generated:

 We walked the mile through town up to our "Base Camp" to investigate signs of spring that are on their wa.  Here are a few students diligently recording their observations at their sit spots.  They found snow melting, warm breezes, soft moss, buds beginning and much more.  Sitting quietly and observing proved fruitful for generating more questions about what's going on in the little microcosm of the sit spot. 

When we returned back to school, we revisited our questions from earlier in the morning.  Can you see the extra questions we asked?  Students focused their questions and were much more specific.  In the early morning, questions were broader, such as, "Do you think it will be warm," and "Why is spring coming?" 

After being outside and everyone sharing the signs of spring that they saw, smelled, heard (lots of birds!) and felt, the questions that the questions generated were more specific and demonstrated higher thought processes.  For example, one student asked, "Why is the grass orangish-brownish after the snow melts?"  Immediately after, another student asked, "Why is grass green in the summer?"  Since we wrote these questions on the flip chart, they will be saved and teachers can return back to discuss and answer these questions!  It's a perfect opportunity for authentic, engaged learning. 

These second graders are savvy researchers, too.  When I asked how they could answer their own questions, one boy stated, "You google it!"  They also knew to look in books, talk to their parents and teachers, ask the librarian for help, and much more.  

Here's something I observed at my sit spot!  It looks like a cross between a frozen inchworm and a tiny birdpoop.  I wonder what it is?  How did it survive the winter?  How did it remain sticking to the stick throughout the winter?  Oh, the questions that arise...

Catch wind of this recent ECO lesson at Twinfield

Twinfield Elementary's kindergarteners are such enthusiastic learners that it was a breeze to get them excited about our March ECO lessons on wind.  We spend every other Friday morning taking each class outside as part of the North Branch's ECO program.  One of the teachers, Sharyn Baum, spends the month of March exploring the concept of wind and the change of seasons. The other kindergarten teacher, Rebecca Emerson, is in the middle of a unit on force and motion, which ties in well to the force and motion of wind!

As students trickled in from the bus, we set up our Nature Table.  Ken and I started with students looking in a small, covered glass jar at the "really fast thing we caught" earlier that morning. (Sorry that's the only part of the lesson I have photos of. The rest of the time, we're too busy teaching to take pictures!) They looked curiously at the jar...
 We said that the mystery thing in the jar was sometimes so strong it could tip over large trees or houses, and sometimes so gentle it just tickled their cheeks. They looked and looked to see what was in the jar. We told them sometimes it is so fast it is faster than a cheetah, but other times it can go days without moving.  They used magnifying glasses, and got really close to the jar. 

  "I don't see it!" They said. When we made whooshing sounds as a hint, they finally guessed that it was the wind.  In the last photo, you can catch a glimpse of the gorgeous amarillis flower that we brought in to talk about pollen on the wind.
At morning circle time we read a story about wind out of the classic children's book Mouse Tales (by Arnold Lobel) and talked about warm air and cold air circling each other and creating wind currents. Then we got to the main attraction--getting outdoors and experiencing the wind!
Outside, the students observed a homemade weather vane in action. There were 'oohs' and 'ahhhs' and the arrow seemed to magically move around.  We talked about the four directions and then they enacted being weather of their choice--lightning storms, clear skies, warm weather, windy weather--barrelling across the field. Then they grew extra legs and became spiders ballooning to new territory, on a gossamer silk they spun. The spiders then became maple seeds, spinning fast in the wind, and finally they were miniscule grains of pollen, floating through the air on a light breeze.
In the woods, they learned the story of Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle while snacking. Then we went on a hike to a higher spot in the woods, with a clearing. We were looking for just the right spot to release the wind that we caught in the jar. The students helped blow the wind into the air. One of the classes saw a large bird at that moment and wondered if it was the wind eagle. The other class made wishes and sent them up to the sky with the wind.
We returned to camp and drew buds, which we hope to be able to re-visit and observe as they change during the course of the spring. It was hard to find buds, since the area is so browsed by deer. Kids found lots of fresh nibble marks, deer tracks AND lots of fresh piles of deer scat! Some students even found droplets of sap coming out from where deer had recently browsed a tree.
We came inside and warmed up while reading the book, The Dandelion Seed (by Joseph Anthony) and each dreamed of where we would go if we were tiny seeds that could float anywhere in the world. Some of the answers were nearby--"home," or Keene, NH--and others were further and warmer: Florida, Arizona, and California. We also loved the creative ideas: my horse's nose, or Giant Land.

Where would YOU float if you were a dandelion seed caught on the wind?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Naturally Nicaragua

In February twelve travelers from the North Branch Nature Center ventured to Nicaragua with the Montpelier-based organization Planting Hope.

I was just thinking how comfortable our young Nicaraguan companions were in the woods, when one little girl in flip-flops tumbled head over heels down the steep trail. Led by Marvin, our host at La Hermandad, along with four Planting Hope staff and a small gaggle of young children, we were exploring the coffee plantation and cloud forest habitat on a windy, misty afternoon. The little girl, who had just taken a spill in front of me, bounced up with a smile on her face and kept marching right along.

Soon we stopped to listen to Long-billed Hermits lekking unseen in the dense undergrowth. Male hermits, a type of tropical hummingbird with relatively dull plumage, but with long curved bills and long white tips tails, often gather in loose groups to “serenade” prospective mates. We couldn’t see any of the calling males, but I was able to show the children (and the rest of the group) a photo on my iPod and play its call. A good use of technology in such a unspoiled setting?

I had also lugged my heavy spotting scope along, trusting that something special would appear to show the group. So far there was no occasion to use it. It was too windy and birds were keeping a low profile. Soon, however, I was glad I had made the effort. Marvin, our eagle-eyed guide, had spotted a sloth nestled on a branch in a tall tree. Even with binoculars, the sloth just looked like a hairy gray mass. With the scope we could distinguish its claws and occasionally its face as the sloth turned his head. I even spotted a moth on the sloth’s fur – could this be the fabled sloth moth that is only known to live on sloths? Best of all, we were able to share this strange and beautiful creature with children that were with us. 

The community of La Hermandad, with its coffee farms and intact cloud forest, is looking to establish itself as an ecotourism destination, much like El Jaguar which we visited earlier in our trip. Planting Hope is working to help them along that path and the North Branch Nature Center is hoping to establish some kind of “sister nature center” relationship. To that end we brought our hosts a nature center “care package” with hand lenses, bug boxes and butterfly nets, to use with local school children and visitors to La Hermandad. One member of our group even brought a pair of binoculars to donate.

Planting Hope is known for its service projects, and birding was ours! We started to put together a checklist of resident and migrant birds for La Hermandad. That list already includes three species of trogons, Keel-billed Toucan, and a wide variety of overwintering species from North America (including Vermont) – American Redstart, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Black-throated Green and Golden-winged Warblers.

Red-winged Blackbirds are already back in Vermont and soon our migrant warblers will be returning. I can’t help but wonder if the Chestnut-sided Warblers and the American Redstarts that frequent the riverside habitat along the North Branch have visited some of the same beautiful places we did while in Nicaragua.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amphibians Awaken in the Champlain Valley

A Wood Frog crossing a road in Essex, VT on 3/12/13
Last night marked a pivotal shift in seasons... Vermont's first amphibians have awaken from their winter slumber.  They were the first of many more that are yet to emerge from hibernation and move through field and forest towards their breeding pools.

Spring migrations of amphibians are triggered by the first warm, rainy nights of the year.  Each March and April, volunteers of the North Branch Nature Center's Amphibian Monitoring Program are ready to greet those amphibians as they monitor their populations and ensure their safety as they move across roadways.  To learn more about amphibian migration and how you can help, join one of the FREE training sessions coming up this spring, the first of which is TONIGHT!

Amphibian Crossing Brigades
For the past eight years, on the first warm, rainy nights of spring, the NBNC has coordinated teams of volunteers to assist amphibians on their annual migration to breeding pools.  All too often their journey is interrupted by roads, which can be devastating to local populations. Volunteers are trained to on how to monitor frogs, toads and salamanders at these sites and save them from becoming road kill. You can get involved by attending a training session for amphibian monitoring. No registration necessary. All programs are free.
      Wednesday, March 13, 6:30 p.m.            Phoenix Books, Essex
      Thursday, April 4, 6:30 p.m.                    North Branch Nature Center, Montpelier


Here are some other reports of amphibian activity last night, listed by location.  Thanks to Jim Andrews for collating these observations!

Salisbury - 45 Blue-spotted Salamander Group, 2 Four-toed Salamanders, 1 Spotted Salamander, 12 Wood Frogs, and 3 Spring Peepers.
New Haven - 15 Jeffersons, 8 Blue-spotteds, 6 Spotteds, 5 Eastern Newts, 4 Wood Frogs, 2 Spring Peepers, and 1 Four-toed
Grand Isle - 6 Blue-spotted hybrids
Vergennes/Monkton area - 2 Blue-spotted hybrids, 3 Spotted Salamanders, 5 Spring Peepers, and 3 Wood Frogs.
Brandon - 10 Wood Frogs (all male), 7 Spring Peepers, and 1 Blue-spotted hybrid alive, and 7 dead Wood Frogs and one dead Blue-spotted hybrid.
Essex - 5 Wood Frogs
Charlotte - Spring Peepers