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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Caterpillars & The Art of Survival

At first glance, the life of a caterpillar seems simple: eat, grow, avoid predation, and transform.  But in order to live this simple life, caterpillars have evolved a huge variety of adaptations and employed countless strategies.  One example is camouflage.  Few insects exhibit such an extraordinary ability to blend in as caterpillars.  The caterpillar below was found on a White Ash tree near the NBNC community garden.  Can you spot it?


Despite being several inches long and feeding out in the open, even during mid-day, this caterpillar seems un-phased by the many birds that fly within feet of it, looking for a meal.  It is called a Laurel Sphinx Moth.  As it feeds, it positions its body so that the black-and-yellow lines on its abdomen are parallel to the veins of the leaf on which it feeds.  A picture of the adult moth is shown below.

To learn more about caterpillars, please join us TOMORROW for the Naturalist Journeys!  Program info below:

(c) Photo by J.D. Roberts, via bugguide.net

Caterpillars: The Art of Survival
Friday, March 1, 7:00 p.m.
(at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier)
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.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Gnomes and scavenger hunts

When the students arrived yesterday, we got our brains and bodies warm with a "Winter Scavenger hunt."

A partner pair scoping out the scavenger hunt list

While searching for animal signs, she tried to crawl along the top of the crusty snow.  Success!

We had our morning meeting and snack and then started our crafty project for the day: felt gnomes!

The necessary supplies: scissors, needles, thread, stencils
Felt and wool roving for stuffing the gnome

First, gather the materials.  Then, trace the stencil onto a piece of felt with a pencil or fabric marker.  Next, cut out the felt piece and sew the two sides together.  The pointed part will be pointed up.  Imagine that this is the gnome's hat!  Lastly, fill the gnome shape with wool roving and make friends with your new, little friend.

Careful sewing

After each student finished her gnome, she chose to build a home for it or draw and write in her journal about her gnome. 

Here is what this student's shared about her gnome:

"I'm going to name my gnome Roberta!  I love my gnome.  She looks almost exactly like yours, except for the stitching.  '(in a singing voice) Roberta, Roberta...' Guys, when all of our gnomes are done, want to play that its a gnome town?"

Gnome town

Our gnome posse

We spent the second half of the day eating lunch and playing at Deer Camp. 

Mustaches never get old!
With the temps in the mid-thirties, we could have stayed outside building, exploring, smelling, feeling and listening all day!  By the time we come back from February break in two weeks, the weather will probably be warmer and spring will be on its way, but you never really can tell in Vermont!  Zach and I envision less time for indoor craft projects and more time outdoors playing, exploring, learning, and gardening!!  (Stay tuned for more on that fun development soon.  Hint: it involves Home Depot...)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Why I build fires.

Each day we meet for Forest School, we make a fire.  It is a warm and welcoming ritual in the snowy, deep winter of central Vermont.  


But I have to admit, I wasn't always so keen on having a fire.  The pre-fire logistics of gathering kindling, requesting firewood donations from parents, checking the weather forecasts for wind and snow and rain all seemed too daunting.  Plus, with my poor circulation, the thought of having to take off my expedition-style mountaineering mittens to start a fire seemed worse than sitting for a few hours without a fire!  I would relegate the fire responsibility to my co-leader and supervise free play and tell stories instead. 

But earlier this week, when my co-teacher offered to join the group for free play, I somewhat ambivalently accepted the role of "Fire Tender."  It was a relatively warm day for mid-February (mid-20 degrees F) and Zach had already started the fire.  All I had to do was add more wood and stir the coals when the fire started to dwindle.  The crackling fire and the sounds of children laughing and shouting in play was comforting and I found a pleasant rhythm to my task.  I came to appreciate that task of tending fire really requires one to cultivate tenderness - attentive, patient, alert and observant.  In essence, being with the fire was quite similar to how I strive to be with my students.  The hour of tending fire passed surprisingly quickly, interspersed by visits from children to warm their hands, dry their mittens and share an interesting observation, and there was a welcoming fire for our end of the day Thanksgiving circle and closing rituals.  

This afternoon was a pivotal moment for me.  I used to skeptically approach fires as something too "crunchy" for me and a practice that was too time consuming to meld with my teaching style.  But I have really come to appreciate the immeasurable value of teaching with a fire.  

After going over some basic safety expectations with your fire guests, the fire is an amazing management tool.   The students naturally gravitate towards it, they are focused and thoughtful around it.  We eat lunch around it, share stories while gazing into its depths, and have it as a gathering point to return to after play and exploration.  

There are countless science lessons that flow from it. Hello, states of matter!  Not to mention cooking, change over time, social studies, tool use, and the list goes on.  It is fun to see what these kindergarten and first grade students know about fire and what preconceptions they have about how things burn and what the difference is between steam and smoke.  I am lucky enough to have colleagues with myriads of experience teaching with fire and who have created lessons involving safe practices with fire.

Plus, the very act of gathering around a fire is powerful and is something that has been practiced for centuries. In a culture that is ever-more focused on deriving pleasure from staring at screens, there is something peacefully rejuvenating that happens when you're staring into a fire with beloved students and colleagues. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Footprints in the Snow

Raccoon tracks at NBNC

Every time it snows, it is as if a blank canvas has been strewn across the landscape.  As animals move across the carpet of snow, they are writing their stories onto the canvas.  Those stories lie there waiting for us to find and interpret.  It may be a day, or a week that these stories remain, but with the next snow or thaw, those stories will be erased never to be read again. 

It is this ephemeral nature of animal tracks that makes them so special.  Hiking through the forest the day after a snowfall, the tracks you find may have been left just a few hours earlier.  Be it bobcat or mink, fisher or fox, animals we seldom see in the flesh make their presence known with their footprints.

One of the biggest mistakes a beginning tracker will make is to look at just one print.  This may be enough evidence to determine which species left the track, but a single print fails to capture the story.  Was the animal moving swiftly across the land, as if just passing through?  Was it stalking prey?  Trying to escape from a predator?  The patterns left by animals will reveal their behavior and tell their story.  Follow the tracks (backwards so that you don’t sneak up on and startle the animal) to extend the story and see where that animal has been and what it has done.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a fascinating tale and a hidden glimpse into the lives of some of our hardiest and hardest-to-see forest residents.

To learn more about tracking, please join us for the Naturalist Journeys lecture by Angella Gibbons TOMORROW NIGHT!

Winter Wildlife Tracking
Friday, February 15, 7:00 p.m.
minkFrom 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. See more lectures.

All presentations take place at the
Unitarian Church of Montpelier