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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Children on the Move with Sticks

Sitting in the corner of my porch I have a walking stick that was given to me as a present for my high school graduation. It's a beautifully hand painted stick that resembles a Common Loon. My art teacher made it for me upon request by my mom. I was heading off to college in the fall, north into the Adirondacks. I think my mom felt I'd be better equipped to stave off bears and conquer steep mountains with it in my hands while on my journey into adulthood. That walking stick has been so many places with me and holds many adventuresome stories. Much like the stories I see the young children creating every week in ECO.

This spring at two participating ECO schools, Moretown Elementary and East Montpelier Elementary, we decided to "branch out" and leave the safety of our warm and worn base camps. What does the local landscape have to offer a group of traveling students? We found the prompt we needed to select and carve our walking sticks.

Children searched  the forest eagerly for their very own walking sticks. Height, thickness, strength, and weight were all serious considerations. How long should it be? Just shoulder height. How thick should it be? Well,...it shouldn't be too heavy to carry! How strong should it be? As strong as your journeying spirit will take you. Interestingly enough, all the children chose sticks that in one way or another really represented themselves. Slight yet strong, curvy, gnarled and full of detail, dense and strong. All of them beautiful.
We used various tools to help craft our walking sticks. Saws for cutting. Whittling peelers for adding fine detail. A shave horse and draw knife to take off bark and bring the wood grain to life. A drill for holes to make a decorative lanyard. Some children even added a few finishing touches with paint. The students were incredibly focused on and dedicated to their walking sticks. So much that they immediately wanted to take them home. Their teachers promised, on the last day of school, they could. Hooray!

Using a shave horse and draw knife
On the last day of April, students at EMES headed to the East Montpelier Trail system for their first adventure. The chilly day proved challenging. We learned to switch hands and hold the walking stick while the other is getting warm in a coat pocket. We learned that we still need hats in May. Many children soon discovered that things are not as they seem when hiking,...no, we are not almost to Burlington!

On the Road

Staying together is safe and FUN!

Children used their sticks to poke mud puddles, climb over fallen trees, carry their snacks slung over their shoulders and draw pictures in the dirt. Our dedicated teacher team brought along Green-Up Day bags and we picked up garbage on the last leg of the journey. Leaving Vermont green for all to see.
Two hours later we were back at East Montpelier Elementary with plans for our next ECO outing. We might gather wild leeks for soup or head into a neighbors forest in search of vernal pools. What stories will our walking sticks have to tell?

Passing through a cornfield

Can't go around it, can't go under it, gotta go through it!

Earth Caretakers

Good conversation on the trail. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Choice and the Power of Play

I have a vivid memory of wandering to a dirt pile behind my house and making mud pies when I was a child. I had buckets of water from the hose to wet the dirt for molding. I distinctly remember the joy of sprinkling dry sand on top of pies as sugar and meticulously decorating with flowers. The sand was warm, soft, and white and felt so pleasant slipping through my fingers.  As I look back now, I realize how powerful that simple experience was. By playing in the dirt that afternoon, I was engaged in a self directed activity and fully in my senses. I was developing my imagination and learning about my world and myself. At Forest Preschool this April, the wee ones have been doing just the same; choosing how and what materials to engage with and learning about their world and selves through play outdoors.
The morning at Forest Preschool starts with "Loose Parts" play. A variety of objects and materials are available to choose from. Mix that with a little imagination and rich, organic play that is child centered ensues. Here budding chefs prepare a special concoction. Soup anyone?

Small animal home builders create a cozy space in a tree cavity with a variety of natural materials!

This gatherer realized her bird nest material also made a beautiful bouquet. 
An intricate obstacle course began with one builder laying down two wood blocks and then balancing on them. She realized balancing was lots of fun and quickly began to add more. Inspired by the activity, many more builders and balancers joined in until an elaborate, ever growing course was constructed and enjoyed. Choice and the power of outdoor play at its best!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Garganey in Vermont!

Garganey (right) flapping its wings in Burlington, VT.
During spring migration, birds sometimes get lost, either from being blown off course by storms or flying the wrong direction when their internal compass fails them. In some instances, they get very lost. That was the case for a Garganey, a Eurasian species of duck that ended up in a flooded cornfield in Burlington, VT this week. Discovered yesterday by Taylor Swanson at the Ethan Allen Homestead, Garganeys normally breed throughout Europe and Asia above the 45th parallel. It is a migratory species, overwintering in parts of northern and central Africa, India, and China.

Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds describes the Garganey as a “very rare visitor” with most North American sightings “mainly from March to June and mostly of males among groups of Blue-winged Teal on marshy ponds.” According to Birdwatching in Vermont, there was a sighting of a Garganey in Vermont in 1988, when an adult male spent over two week at East Creek in Orwell.  But with the flood waters receding at the Ethan Allen Homestead and an eager Peregrine Falcon on the prowl for prey, this Garganey probably won’t stick around for too long!

A map of where the Garganey was sighted via Allan Strong
Garganey (second from the left) in Burlington, VT
Map of Garganey sightings in the US from eBird.
Click the map to visit this interactive map in eBird and see more details.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Amphibian Migration Mid-Season Update

The first big push of amphibian in central Vermont occurred this Earth Day, April 22, and volunteers were out in force to help them as they migrated across roads. Collectively, volunteers spent over 25 hours monitoring 6 road crossings. Over 500 amphibians were moved off the road, including an impressive 136 Spotted Salamanders! This all despite the rain ending early in the evening, causing migration to slow as the roads dried up after dark.

Among the notable observations from the night, a Pickerel Frog was found on Center Rd (East Montpelier). The season’s first American Toads were also reported, from Center Rd (E. Montpelier) and Pond Rd (Huntington). In addition to all the amphibians, an impressive 3 Northern Watersnakes were reported on Pond Rd in Shelburne! Most reports indicated that the numerous Spotted Salamanders were all moving towards their breeding sites. The next rain could see a big movement in the reverse direction as they head back to the forest uplands for the summer.

The next opportunity for observing and monitoring the amphibian migration will be Saturday, April 26. 

Spring Bird Walk Report: NBNC #1

Our second spring migration bird walk took place this Friday at the North Branch Nature Center, and 17 participants joined Ken and Larry to see what was flying around our home base. The diversity of species observed has been growing by the day, and we managed to tally 32 species during the walk. The bird-of-the-morning was probably the Palm Warbler that was seen foraging in the field. Next week's walk will take place Friday, May 2 at 7:00 a.m. at New Shelter in Hubbard Park. 

Canada Goose  1
Wood Duck  2
Mallard  2
Ruffed Grouse  1
Turkey Vulture  3
Mourning Dove  2
Belted Kingfisher  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  2
Downy Woodpecker  2
Northern Flicker  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Blue Jay  5
American Crow  2
Common Raven  1
Tree Swallow  2
Black-capped Chickadee  8
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  3
Eastern Bluebird  1
American Robin  6
European Starling  2
Palm Warbler  1
Pine Warbler  1
Chipping Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  18
Swamp Sparrow  2
White-throated Sparrow  14
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  8
Common Grackle  7
American Goldfinch  8

Friday, April 25, 2014

April Vacation Camp

       For Montpelier schools, this past week was April vacation. And what better way to spend a few days off from school than outdoors with friends at North Branch Nature Center! Over three days campers enjoyed fun and games in the fields, ponds, and forests surrounding NBNC. On Monday our focus was Amphibians and Reptiles. We searched for stream salamanders in Hubbard Park, heard spring peepers across the bridge in North Branch River Park, and caught newts, tadpoles, and a young painted turtle in the beaver pond.

       Tuesday we celebrated Earth Day through several fun projects. Using both tools and our bare hands, we removed many small conifer saplings that had been encroaching on the nature center fields – helping to keep the fields open for grassland nesting birds like Bobolinks, Eastern Bluebirds 
and American Kestrels.

       Campers also made a sculpture of the mythical Green Man using recycled items brought from home! Ken shared some stories of his mysterious encounters with the nature-loving giant known as Green Man. On fish cut out of birch bark we wrote our Earth Day wishes and released them on the bridge. Across the river, we found Wintergreen plants growing, heard a grouse drumming and played amongst the trees.

       Wednesday we were all about wildlife as we hiked through and investigated the forest and fields. We took note of the sights, sounds, tracks and signs of animals we discovered throughout the day. Highlights included a Hermit Thrush (identified later by campers), wood frog egg masses in a vernal pool, and Belted Kingfishers over the river.

       In just three days we played countless nature games (Salamander tag, Coyote and Deer, Hawk-Snake-Mouse, Bobcat/Hare, Camouflage), listened to stories, ate outside, and experienced exciting new sights, smells and sounds of the season. As spring rolls on, consider signing your kids up for our Summer Camps - there's even more fun to be had as the weather warms up! 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Spring Bird Walk Report: Berlin Pond

Our spring migration bird walk series had a great start with 13 participants searching for birds under cold but sunny skies today at Berlin Pond! For the past few years, the pond has been open by now, but most of the pond is still frozen. This may have worked in our favor, by concentrating the waterfowl close to shore, giving us spectacular views! The loon in perfect lighting was a highlight, as were the rowdy Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Next week's walk will take place Friday, April 25 at 7:00 a.m. at the North Branch Nature Center. 

Canada Goose  9
Wood Duck  2
American Black Duck  2
Mallard  4
Ring-necked Duck  2
Bufflehead  1
Hooded Merganser  2
Common Loon  1
Belted Kingfisher  2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Eastern Phoebe  5
Blue Jay  2
American Crow  3
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  8
American Robin  1
American Tree Sparrow  2
Song Sparrow  8
Swamp Sparrow  1
Red-winged Blackbird  15
Common Grackle  2
Purple Finch  2
American Goldfinch  4

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beavers Mobilize

 To begin our Wednesday ECO days outdoors each week at Waitsfield Elementary, kindergartners hike down a field in town  to pause and play games and sing songs before entering the path toward their woodland "camp". The field is bordered by a beaver lodge and dam ~ and this week we spent our ECO time investigating the beaver's quarters from dry ground, and then tried our hands at building our own!  The children were incredibly quiet while watching from the banks of the pond. I was so proud of them! They were rewarded with a pair of beautiful Canada Geese, floating peacefully on the pond right next to the beaver lodge while we watched. I love when nature throws little "group motivators" at my ECO classes. Thank you, nature, good one!

Beavers come out on top as superior builders even when compared with human teams equipped with fossil-fueled machinery! They inhabit their lodges during the winter, snacking on the outer bark of sticks they collected last summer. When spring arrives, tracks can often be found in the last snow of winter, having been laid down during the beavers' first walk of spring! Their lodge is constructed with an entryway below water to keep predators away, and the living quarters in the dry area that surfaces the pond. Their building techniques are impeccable ~ using placement of vertical sticks, they then use the sturdy wall building technique of wattle and daub which results in a waterproof shell that deters wolves and wolverines when residing in the western part of the U.S.. In Vermont, the sturdy beaver lodge construction deters coyotes and sometimes bobcats.


Kindergartners at Waitsfield Elementary School visited a beaver lodge from the
edge of the pond created by its inhabitants.

A closer look at the beaver lodge. Snow conditions were perfect the week before for us to catch
the beaver's tracks as they began their spring wanderings after this long winter of 2013-14. 
This busy beaver begins her own beaver lodge...alas in the snow.
She realizes the lodge will be built much faster if the whole family pitches in to help!
Sometimes even when you "Become a Beaver" you can't help but fling mud with sticks instead of building your lodge. These students must have turned into beaver pups instead of beaver parents!

The last week of winter and dressing for the weather can be confounding! Yesterday's temperatures were in the 50's, but today is much chillier. This kindergartner was warm with layers under his rain gear and rain boots. Temperatures hovered around 35 degrees. Winter coats and snow boots also suffice on a wet cold New England day like this!

Winter's Treasures: A Milkweed Pod that made it through feet of snow and days of below zero, and a hopeful admirer.

Any guesses what this kindergarten detective holds?
A striated piece of bark. It may have come from the red pine trees that wave majestically near the beaver lodge. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Birdsong: Red-winged Blackbird

The song of the Red-winged Blackbird rings through swamps and meadows in early- to mid-April in Vermont. Males arrive back before females, and their distinctive conk-la-reeee is a warning to other males that “this territory is taken!” Singing their song is a full-body motion, with their bright red wing patch being flashed with each and every rendition.

Learn more about birds and their song with NBNC’s Birding By Ear Mini-Course.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Sweetness of Spring

Maple syrup made over an open fire at Forest School.
In my mind, spring mud is synonymous with sap buckets and sugaring season. When the back roads of Vermont begin to thaw, I'm always excited to see silver lidded buckets adorning many sugar maple trees. This year's winter seemed interminable with buckets waiting weeks in some cases for the first drop to land. But at last, the season shifted and Forest School experienced the sweetness. Over a span of two weeks, we embarked on an outdoor sugaring adventure, serenaded by many newly arrived songbirds.

The story of sugaring at Forest School began on a soggy Friday with a myth. Students listened to a native myth about the origin of maple syrup and then headed out to Deer Camp to get to know a sugar maple tree and learn how to identify it.

Once we found a healthy, appropriately sized sugar maple, a bit and brace were used to drill a hole.

Students took turns dripping the hole.
After the hole was drilled, we talked about other creatures that tap maples trees such as red squirrels and Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. People aren't the only ones who like to drink the sweet sap! (Sapsuckers eat bugs that are attracted to the sap.) Next it was time to put the tap in and hang the bucket. The highlight of the morning was hearing the first drops of sap hit the bottom of the bucket. The group delighted in tasting the sap with their fingers; a fabulous sensory experience. We happily thanked the tree for sharing its sap!

After lunch, we ducked out of the rain and looked up sugar maple trees in field guides. With field guide in hand, each student looked at and drew the shape of a sugar maple leaf in their journals.
The joy of checking on the sap bucket.

The following week, the sun was shining brightly, the air temperature was remarkably warm, and Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows were joyously singing. It was a perfect day to boil sap. Before the boiling began, the group delighted in drinking sap that had collected in the bucket the day before. We marveled at how water-like the sap looked. Then we poured gathered sap into a pot suspended from a tripod and moved the tripod over the fire to begin the boiling process.
Morning meeting around around the fire while while sap boils. Pot is suspended from a tripod made by the after-school group, Trekkers, the previous week. Thank you Trekkers for letting us use it!

Singing around the campfire as sap boils.
Sugar on snow!

Around the fire we watched steam rise out of the pot. This was a perfect time to talk about the process of evaporation. After boiling about a half gallon of sap for two hours, just the right amount of water evaporated and maple syrup was made! Snow was gathered in small cups and syrup was promptly poured over. Yum! What a treat to taste the fruits of our labor.

The sugaring season in Vermont will soon be nearing an end. Forest School's sugar making story concluded on Friday when we visited our sugar maple tree and brought the process full circle by taking down our bucket and taking out our tap.

This sugaring story is one of many at Forest School that makes my heart sing. It weaves together a sensory tale of observation, immersion-based learning, connection, singing, community, play, and joy. I look forward to many more stories taking shape at Forest School as spring unfolds.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Duck Bonanza in Charlotte

As we turned the calendar to April this week, it has begun to feel a bit more like spring. But March’s 15-degree colder-than-average temperatures have left thick ice over much of Lake Champlain. The narrow channel of open water created by the Charlotte ferry has continued to be a magnet for ducks as waterfowl migration nears its peak. Following up on our winter report from the ferry, here are some of the ducks that made an appearance at the ferry today:

A group of Bufflehead  were courting near the ferry dock. Their
iridescent feathers shimmered green and purple in the sun.

Several hundred Mallard were spread throughout the bay.
This species may be common, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful!

A pair of Northern Shovelers was a rare treat! Here they are resting
on the ice with American Black Ducks and Canada Geese.

Not all of the species present were easy to locate in the mass of over 1,000!
Can you spot all eight duck species in this photo? (click to enlarge)


Here is a full list of waterfowl species observed:

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Horned Grebe