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Monday, March 31, 2014

Marching into Spring at Forest Preschool; Snow Paints the Picture

I am always excited to flip the calendar page from February to March. The days lengthen and the sun climbs higher in the sky. Even though March can bring significant snowfall in Vermont, temperatures often moderate, bringing spring-like weather and returning migratory birds. We have seen record amounts of snow this March but deep winter temperatures held fast most of the month, painting a different picture this year

Animal forms; making tracks in the snow!

At North Branch Nature Center, March marks the beginning of Forest Preschool's spring session. Here at Forest Preschool, we have embraced the weather, the thick blanket of white, and large, plowed piles of snow! The barn on-site offers a safe, cozy space to warm during mid-morning meeting and snack. Time outdoors experiencing the winter world has allowed youngsters opportunity to build resilience while playing, exploring, and learning through their senses. When winter is hard pressed to make way for spring, snow and ice inspire wonder and is just plain old fun; even in March! 

Here’s a peek at our immersion-based creative play and exploration in the frozen landscape this March at Forest Preschool:

Developing a sense of place; looking for signs of life while voyaging through the snow to the bridge.
Exploration and discovery; finding animal track stories in the snow.

Promoting healthy movement; climbing "Pirate Mountain."
Creative self expression; drawing and writing in the snow with dried goldenrod stems!
In addition to Golden Rod stems, Preschoolers enjoyed creative self expression outside by dipping paint brushes into glittery, magic winter paint and making strokes on the snow! Children were fully engaged in the process and experimentation, making lines and shapes and watching how the color seeped into the snow. A large pile of plowed snow was transformed into a climbing mountain and pirate ship, complete with climbing rope, pirate flag, and sleeping dragon on the other side. What fun!

Eventually the snow will melt and give way to new life and the return of many songsters. Clothing layers will be shed and a spring world will slowly emerge, beckoning the little ones to make new discoveries and experience wide eyed wonder. I'm excited!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Where are the blackbirds?

“This is getting old,” said everyone in Vermont. “We’re ready for spring!” This is a conversation that has been repeated for weeks throughout the state as winter refuses to abate. The colder-than-average temperatures have certainly had their effects on wildlife, including here at the North Branch Nature Center.

One of the first signs of spring at NBNC  is the arrival of the Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows. They are among the first avian migrants to return. While sightings from other locales are beginning to trickle in, we’re still waiting at NBNC. How late are they? We went to the record books to find out:

We’re already a week past our 5-year average arrival date with no sign of our early-spring migrants. That could change any day now, and we hope it does! When do you think we’ll hear the first “conk-la-reee!” of the Red-winged Blackbird? Have you seen or heard Red-winged Blackbirds or Song Sparrows yet?

Friday, March 21, 2014

FISHER caught on Trekkers Cam!!!

With several days of warmer weather in a row, the North Branch Trekkers decided that it was time to move their trail camera to a safer location, off of the frozen (but slowly thawing) river.  So we strapped on our snowshoes, crossed the bridge, and bushwhacked through the beaver marsh and forest to reach our camera on the other side of the river.  Once we made it to our camera location, we discovered that we had captured 92 videos since our check the week before!  However, we also noticed that there was very little left to the deer carcass, with all of the ribs fully exposed and picked perfectly clean.  This coupled with the river beginning to show signs of softening ice, we were able to confirm our decision to switch locations.

The long snowshoe hike back to the nature center side of the river, along with the resetting of the camera along a game trail, left us with little to no time to review our videos.  So, I took the card to upload at home.  When I plugged the card in and began scrolling through the thumbnails, my eyes lit up and my heart skipped a beat when I saw what looked like a large mustelid standing between the camera and the carcass... It was a FISHER!!!

It certainly didn't linger long, taking only a few seconds to sniff here and there before realizing that there really was not much left to scavenge.  In making predictions of what we would catch on the trail cam, the Trekkers listed off many different animals, but not one of them predicted that we would have a visit from a fisher, including myself!

The fisher may have been the most exciting visitor this past week, but it certainly was not alone.  In addition to our resident crows and ravens, we also had a chickadee hopping from rib to rib, nibbling on marrow, 2 different foxes, a raccoon, as well as a cross country skier and a man on snowshoes!

This raccoon may have only visited one night, but the length of his stay and his tenacity was truly admirable.  He (or she) first triggered the camera just after 7 p.m.  The camera is set to take a 20 second video and then pause for 5 minutes before enabling the trigger again.  This raccoon continued to set off the camera every five minutes, over a span of 3 hours, for a grand total of 36 videos!  This camera hog wanted to be certain that every piece of sinew and grease had been licked clean and that any crunchable bones had been munched.  It even stayed through a snow storm that moved through.  In the final video you can see the snow building up on the camera lens as well as the raccoon's coat!

We also had a return visit from a familiar canine with crumply ears.. the gray fox from our first week of surveillance.  As predicted, he was easily recognized by his oddly misshapened ears.  There was also video of another fox with normally shaped ears, so we know of at least two gray foxes frequenting the area.

We are truly grateful for all of the fantastic teaching moments that this deer has provided for us.  Even in death, nature still finds a way to reveal beauty and inspire awe.  It has showed us that the death of one living thing (in this case the deer) has the potential to sustain the life of many.  Everything is recycled.  Life begets life.  Nothing is wasted.

We'll continue to monitor the nature center fields, forests, and streams over the next few months as Father Winter slowly gives way to Lady Spring, so stay tuned for more updates.  Who knows what lessons Trekkers Cam will uncover next!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kindergartners Track Mammals Into their Classroom

Tomorrow is Spring Equinox. The lengthening daylight hours tell a different story than the two feet of snow on the ground. It is often this way in Central Vermont - and this year I reflect on how the temperature outdoors this March is welcoming to a 6-year old tracker, unlike many of the past weeks of winter. How does ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) happen when the ambient temperature is zero degrees or lower? This winter, we faced 6 weeks in a row of this temperature reality with the kindergartners at Waitsfield Elementary. We spent snippets of our day together outdoors, but mostly, it allowed us to sink into the art of tracking comfortably right in the middle of the kindergarten classrooms! It was as though we were sitting on a sandy lakefront beach during a perfect 68 degree day. 

Students moved their bodies in the four common tracking gait patterns. Students divided into four groups and practiced either walking, waddling, hopping or bounding. We set out four yoga mats, with a template of the gait pattern drawn on it in marker. Afterwards, they created journal entries of the gait pattern different local mammals most often used to move comfortably through the forest. I was amazed to see how accurate their drawings of the four gaits were as they illustrated their understanding of the tracking lesson they had just embodied in class. 

A few frigid January weeks later, we learned about tracking animal sign in the woods from the front lines of the circle rug. Students used plaster casts they had made of mammal tracks (from rubber molds) to

create a story in a long sandbox including two animal signs. The signs we were introduced to included: bed, den, midden, scat, and browse. In these sandboxes, I saw stories that included snowshoe hare tracks hopping to a pile of scat and a browsed upon raspberry patch. I saw red fox tracks walking to his den to bring food for his young, and marking his territory just outside of the den. Students embodied the movement of the animals with the plaster casts and recognized that many different signs are left along the way by each animal. It is all a part of the science and art of tracking.

In retrospect, I am so thankful for these indoor days of “tracking”. Six year-olds learn best with play based and kinesthetic experiences. In order to have fun, their basic needs must be met. Our best bet is that if they are having fun, they are also committing what they are learning to the long term memory bank. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of need reminds us that our basic needs must be met before we can expand beyond them to higher needs on the hierarchy. Lower on the hierarchy are security of the body and of resources. These lower needs were met indoors on  frigid Vermont days. When these and other basic physiological and safety needs are met, children are able to advance up the scale to problem-solving, creativity, self-esteem and confidence, all factors in play-based learning. I’m hoping that this "Spring's" weather welcomes our students’ big curiosity, now that they have had all of that time to play with the tracks inside! 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Winter Salamanders

Winter salamander habitat

Spring may officially begin in a few days, but in Vermont, we know all too well that winter lingers well past its welcome. Despite the cold, some unexpected creatures have been going about their active lives all winter long: the stream salamanders! In Vermont, those include the Northern Two-lined, Northern Dusky, and Spring Salamanders.

Deep underground, where temperatures never dip below freezing, liquid-water can bubble up to the surface through springs even in the depths of winter. In these places, even under the snow, there can be wet soil and flowing water. Here, there is no reason to go dormant for the winter… if you look in the right place, you can find active salamanders 12 months of the year!

On a February hike in Essex, VT I kept my eye out for places to search for salamanders. The air was a comfortable 43 degrees, but a 6” blanket of snow covered the ground. I found one gap in the snow cover where a seep had melted away the surrounding snow. And there, in the middle of the seep, was a single flat rock that looked perfect for salamanders. One flip, and sure enough, I found a half-dozen Northern Dusky Salamanders, as content as could be!

If you go searching for salamanders in winter, be sure to observe them in their natural environment. Don’t pick them up, exposing them to the frigid air. In the next few weeks, as spring triumphs over winter, salamanders will be undertaking a great migration, and we’ll be tracking their activity closely through the Amphibian Monitoring Program. Stay tuned for more amphibian updates in the months ahead! 

I didn't notice the larvae in the lower-right until looking
at the picture blown up on the computer!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tracking with the Trekkers!

Nature has a way of surprising us when we least expect it, revealing mysteries and inspiring awe in everyday occurrences that often go unnoticed.  It could be a flock of robins that converge upon some late season crab apples or a beaver gnawing on a tree under a bridge in town.  At NBNC, we call these "teachable moments" and a few days ago North Branch Nature Center was blessed with something that will provide teachable moments for weeks to come.  That something is a dead white-tailed deer.

The deer was first reported this past Tuesday, near the same location as the Bald Eagle sighting last week during our winter vacation camp (perhaps the eagle was feeding on the carcass).  When first seen, the deer was already more than half eaten but was surrounded in fresh tracks.

Yesterday, the deer provided its first of many lessons when we visited it with the North Branch Trekkers after school program.  We set out with the goal of finding as many different animal tracks as we possibly could near the carcass and in the surrounding area.  We also set up the "Trekkers Cam", which is a motion sensing game camera that will take photos and video of any animal visiting the carcass in between our visits.  After the first night, we captured this footage of our first visitor.

The camera was set to take a 20 second video every time the motion sensor was triggered and then rest for 5 minutes.  This Gray Fox triggered the camera 3 times that night, all between 10:07 and 10:19 p.m.  We could tell that it was the same fox due to the oddly misshapen ears.  This fox will be easily identified if it returns due to this abnormality.  In this next video, you can see what we believe to be a burdock attached to its tail as it walks away from the camera.


In addition to the gray fox footage, we also captured multiple recordings of Common Ravens feeding at the carcass throughout the day.  More interesting than the actual video footage of the ravens was the wing and tail impressions that the birds left in the snow.

American Crow wing print

Primary feathers... crow or raven?

We have started a list of animal tracks found near the carcass and the surrounding area.  So far we have gray fox, coyote, bobcat, mink, ermine, otter, long-tailed weasel, red squirrel, mouse, crow, raven, chickadee, and house cat. Below are photos of both the mink and bobcat tracks.

Mink tracks

Bobcat trail

As the weeks roll on, the Trekkers will continue to monitor the carcass, checking the camera and looking for new tracks once a week.  So expect an update a week from today.  Who knows what else will show up!

P.S. -  If this sounds like something your children would enjoy, it is not too late to sign up for Trekkers!  Both boys and girls are welcome to join!