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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wildflower Wednesday #2

All of last week's flowers are still in bloom, and despite the cool weather, more blossoms have opened at NBNC!

Bloodroot can be found all along the river at NBNC and large patches are now flowering.  Bloodroot is one of the many early-spring wildflowers whose flowers emerge before their leaves.  Most bloodroot at NBNC still have their odd-shaped leaves wrapped around their stems. 

Across the bridge, February Daphne is in flower.  This small, non-native shrub has branches covered in fragrant pink blossoms.  In my opinion, it is the best smell my nose has ever experienced!  Smell quick, because these flowers don't last long!

And tucked in an out-of-the-way spot along the river, the very first Dutchman's Breeches of the year is starting to open.  In the next few weeks, many more of these unique and beautiful wildflowers will be blooming.

Coming Attractions

The "green parts" of many wildflowers are starting to emerge around NBNC, but depending on warmth and moisture, their "colorful parts" may be a week or more away.  Here are Trout Lily and Red Trillium, growing rapidly along the river.

Bonus Bloom

It's not your typical "wildflower," but the Red Maple near the NBNC offices is beginning to flower:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wildflower Wednesday #1

Welcome to Wildfower Wednesday!  This weekly update on what’s in bloom at NBNC will track the phenology of wildflowers throughout the spring and teach you where to find some of our most gorgeous flowers.

This morning it was absent, but this afternoon it was there!  The Coltsfoot has sprung up across the street from NBNC.  This wildflower, always one of the season’s first, is commonly found in disturbed areas near roadsides next to heaps of sandy, melting snow piles left by plows weeks prior.

Beaked Hazelnut is in bloom across the bridge from NBNC, but you’ll need to look carefully for this minute flower.  Thanks to Bryan Pfeiffer for reminding us about these tiny beauties!  Check out some of his fabulous images of this flower at his blog.

Coming Attractions

One of my early-season favorites, Blue Cohosh, is growing rapidly in Hubbard Park!  If it stays wet and warm, this may be blossoming for next week’s Wildflower Wednesday.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Amphibian Crossing Surprise

Nepa apiculata crossing the road in Shelburne, VT

Amphibian migration season is here, and many people have been spending their nights helping frogs and salamanders cross the road.  While assisting these four-legged critters, it is not uncommon to see six-legged, eight-legged, or even no-legged critters, too!  At the Shelburne Pond crossing, a very unusual arthropod was recently spotted; the waterscorpion Nepa apiculata.

Despite their misleading name, waterscorpions are not scorpions, but insects in the “true bug” order Heteroptera.  What looks like a stinger on their posterior is actually a snorkel-like breathing tube that they use to get oxygen without sticking their heads above the waterline.  They have no stinger and cannot bite, so to avoid predations they simply blend in.

Most species of waterscorpions are long and skinny and resemble aquatic walking sticks, but Nepa apiculata has a highly modified body that resembles a dead leaf.  The dark brown abdomen even has a netted pattern, resembling leaf veins!  

In addition to using their camouflage to hide, waterscorpions use it to ambush prey. They grab smaller organisms with their front legs, which look like giant mandibles, and suck out the juices with their piercing mouth parts.    

A Six-spotted Fishing Spider (D. triton)
crossing a road in Shelburne, VT
While Nepa apiculata is widespread, entomologists describe it as being rarely encountered; yet four have been found during amphibian monitoring over the past two years.  People have many special experiences while helping amphibians during their migratory season.  In addition to spotting waterscorpions, other surprise encounters include hooting owls, howling coyotes, and slithering snakes. You never know what you’ll see on a “big night”!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Amphibian Monitoring & Education

A Spotted Salamander, awake at 12:45 a.m.
You wouldn’t think many people would be out walking at midnight on a Wednesday, but the amphibian crossing site at Shelburne Pond was busy with people escorting amphibians as they migrated.  A group of UVM students enrolled in a Herpetology course made careful counts of the critters they saw.  And a family moved from frog to frog, with parents watching carefully over their children, who excitedly announced each amphibian they found.

Jonan (age 6) escorts a Wood Frog
While the Amphibian Monitoring Program strives to collect data, this is only one of the program’s goals.  The other, equally (if not more) important goal is education.  This spectacle of nature is a phenomenon that goes overlooked by too many.  Every individual I have ever known who has witnessed this migration has been deeply moved by it.  The family out last night understood this profound, intrinsic value of connecting with nature in the most intimate way.  Only such a meaningful experience could justify kids staying up hours past their normal bedtime.  Pictures don’t do justice to the miracle of migration… it must be experienced in person to gain true appreciation for both the might and fragility of these creatures.  

Last night, not a single car passed in the 2 hours I monitored the roadway.  None-the-less, when crossings occur early, traffic can be moderate to heavy.  When this happens, volunteers serve a dual purpose.  Not only do they monitor and rescue amphibians, but they act as educators to all the passing motorists who take note of their presence (and hopefully the presence of amphibians, too!). 
The truth is that few people run over amphibians intentionally.  It is a lack of knowledge that fuels the road kill problem, and through our work with the AmphibianMonitoring Program, we hope to continue informing the public about our migrating amphibians.

A Blue-spotted X Jefferson Salamander (hybrid)

Ian (age 8) and Jonan (age 6) pose after a hard night's work!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Musical Musings in Moretown

I was walking down the hall at Moretown Elementary School, coming in from a shortened ECO morning with the 5th and 6th graders, when I heard the melodious strumming of a harp emanating from the school’s gymnasium.  I soon learned that representatives from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra were holding an assembly for the entire school.  During their performance, one of the presenters demonstrated to the students how the harp works through the transference of vibrations down the plucked strings and into the soundbox, where they are reverberated and amplified.
That afternoon we took Pam Dow’s kindergarten class outside and made our own harps, applying the same principle with springy sticks, twine, and shoe boxes.  The sticks were bent over and tied from end to end with the twine so that it looked like a bow.  When we placed the bottom of the bow on top of an empty shoe box and plucked the string, the sound amplified in the shoe box just like it did in the harp’s soundbox.  Some students experimented with using different lengths of string on their harps to try to produce different notes.  We discovered that just like on the harp that the presenter played in the morning, the shorter tighter strings produced a higher pitched note.  
While some students were working on their homemade harps, others were producing notes of their own by striking the dead branches of a white pine tree. They began just by whacking the dead branches randomly with a stick, but as they hit short branches, long branches, thin and fat branches, we began to realize that each branch made a different note when we struck it with our sticks.  The kindergartners were quick to realize that they could string  several notes together in successive order to create a song.  We decided to call this tree the "Music Tree" because we could play so many different notes on it.  Here is a video of a couple students playing on the Music Tree:

After playing on the Music Tree for awhile, we decided to branch out and explore the musical talents of other trees.  We beat sticks against rotten logs, rocks, wide tree trunks and thin trunks.  In our experimenting, we came across a young ash tree with particularly rough bark.  When we hit it with our sticks, it just made a sort of dull whack, but one of the students noticed that if she rubbed the stick against the rough  bark it produced a raspy, zipper-like sound.  Here is a video of a couple students explaining the proper technique when playing this tree:

By the end of the day, we had created a veritable symphony of nature between our homemade harps, the Music Tree, and all of the other musical natural materials we discovered!  Just another great example of how ECO is providing opportunities for children to build upon what they are learning indoors by utilizing the greatest teacher of them all... nature. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sapsicles: Nature's Ice Pops

A Chickadee perches next to Sapsicles in the
famous Red Maple at the North Branch Nature Center
As I travel down an old country road, the sweet smell of a wood fire fills the air.  Buckets and tubes line trees on both sides of the road, and as I near the top of a hill, I can see smoke coming from the chimney of a sugarhouse down in the valley.  Sugar-making season is here and the sap is flowing!

Anyone who has collected enough sap buckets has likely seen icicles hanging from the tap as the sap freezes on cold days.  Even non-sugar-makers can see “sapsicles” dangling from branches and trunks of maples and other trees where the sap oozes from open wounds.  The sapsicles form slowly, as drops of liquid sap come in contact with freezing air.  Slowly, they grow, trapping the sugary sap out of reach of most creatures.  

They continue to grow until temperatures warm, and then they slowly begin to melt.  The drops of sap trickle to the bottom of the sapsicle, where they hang until they become heavy enough to fall.  Other watery drops evaporate into the air, while some ice sublimes (turns directly into water vapor).  As this happens, the sugary solution becomes more concentrated.  I have watched chickadees hover at sapsicles in the Red Maple outside my office window, drinking up the sweet drops.  Red Squirrels, too, will drink sap (they actually tap their own trees!). 

Over the next week, keep your eye out for sapsicles… nature’s ice pops!

The Chickadee hangs upside-down to sip up the sweet maple sap!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Salamanders and the Midnight Rain

Last night's rains came too late for most to observe the amphibian migration, but that spelled good news for frogs and salamanders who suffer heavy casualties during the higher-traffic hours just after sunset.  It was still too cold and snowy in most of central Vermont, but in the Champlain Valley, numerous species were on the move.

I spent 2 hours at the crossing site near Shelburne Pond, starting just after the rains arrived at around 10:30 p.m.  At first only a few frogs were moving.  Then, as the rain soaked the cold ground, more began to emerge.  Activity gradually picked up, with salamanders joining the mix by midnight.  Just about the only things that weren't moving on the road were cars. 

The lack of cars was remarkable.  The last time I monitored this stretch of road for 2 hours, a total of 14 cars drove through, crushing 24 Spring Peepers, 1 Leopard Frog, 2 Eastern Newts, and 4 Spotted Salamanders.  Last night, only a single car passed by twice, resulting in one fatality.  The effects of cars on migrating amphibians is clear, and while midnight migrations may not help humans see this spectacle of nature, it is a relief to know that as we sleep and dream of salamanders, the migrating amphibians are better off.

Here are some pictures of last night's activity at Shelburne Pond, which consisted of 1 Eastern Newt, 13 Wood Frogs, 3 Green Frogs, 23 Spring Peepers, 4 Spotted Salamanders, and 1 Blue-spotted Group Salamander.