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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tracking at NBNC Winter Camp


With a fresh dusting of powder atop the hardened snowy crust, conditions were perfect for tracking at NBNC today. Shortly after arriving at the Winter Wonders February Vacation Camp, our group headed outside to put our tracking skills to the test. A fresh set of tracks had been laid the night before, right next to our education barn. After using our newly acquired tracking skills, the group determined that these tracks came from a member of the weasel family due to their ‘bounding’ pattern. And after measuring their size (about 4.5 cm) we determined them to be Mink tracks! But where did the Mink come from and where was it going? We began to follow the trail to find out.

Studying Snowshoe Hare tracks
After following the tracks through the snowy field, we came across a junction between another set of tracks, which we learned to be fox.  But which kind of fox? A scent mark we came upon gave us a clue.  The pungent, skunk-smelling pee is a tell-tale sign of Red Fox!  We kept following, and came to some deep tracks, sunken at least a foot into the snow.   We determined them to be deer, a much heavier animal capable of sinking so deep.  We continued on.

After following the tracks into a small grove of hemlocks, we found even more tracks criss-crossing around.  Red Squirrel had been busy running from tree-to-tree.  And to our surprise, we found a nice set of Snowshoe Hare tracks!  Later, we located the hare’s path through the fields, and measured an astounding 15 feet that the hare had covered in just 2 jumps!
measuring the stride of the Snowshoe Hare

All this was seen within 100 yards of the NBNC building. We got a glimpse into all the animal movement that takes place at NBNC while we’re not looking.  After arriving back to the barn for snack, the group mapped the path of these animals as they traveled about.  It was an exciting start to our day of camp!
Our tracking map

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Frozen Lake + Open Ferry = Ducks

The very rare Tufted Duck at the Charlotte Ferry,
identifiable by its black back and white sides.

An innovative new formula: frozen lake + open ferry = ducks!  As a student of mathematics, now spending the bulk of my time in natural history studies, I crave opportunities to put my math knowledge to practice.  While this won’t impress my math professors, the arithmetic adds up!  For the first time in almost a decade, Lake Champlain is almost entirely frozen.  The regular movement of the ferry from Charlotte, VT to Crown Point, NY has kept a narrow channel open, even in the coldest temperatures, and the few remaining ducks on the lake are taking advantage.

It’s a who’s who of ducks right now in Charlotte.  Anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousands ducks have been congregating for almost a month now at the ferry landings on both sides of the lake. On Sunday March 23, I had a total of 16 species of ducks visible from one spot!  Most were Greater and Lesser Scaup, as well as Common Goldeneye. These species made up the vast majority of the ducks present.  But many other species were represented.

Some of the rarer species had sole representatives, including singles of Canvasback (female), Redhead (male), White-winged Scoter (female), and Green-winged Teal (male).  A pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye was a treat, as was a flock of Northern Pintails.  But the crème de la crème was a male Tufted Duck, a European species that only seldomly appears in the US.  

In the next few weeks, as some species begin their northern migration, more odd ducks may show up at the ferry.  I’d highly recommend a visit for anyone seeking an opportunity to observe and study waterfowl.  This unique situation isn’t likely to be repeated for a long time, so as the mathematical formula states, frozen lake + open ferry = ducks!  

a flock of male and female Northern Pintails

A lone White-winged Scoter was a rare member of the flock
Green-winged Teal are common spring and fall migrants,
but are very rare this time of year.
The Barrow's Goldeneye, identifiable here by its tear-drop shaped
white mark on the front of its head, is a rare treat in Vermont, present only in winter.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What We Do After School

Almost everyone has at least one thing that they look forward to every week, be it a yoga class, pizza night, or that one morning that you get to sleep in.  What ever it may be, we all have something that gives us a little extra boost to help get through the rest of the week.  For me, my boost comes every Thursday afternoon.

Why Thursday afternoons?  Well, that is when North Branch Trekkers after school program happens.  For a few hours every week, I get to rekindle some of my favorite childhood memories of playing outside while I explore the fields and forests of Montpelier with a group students who are creating memories of their own.  To give you an idea of what we do after school at NBNC, here are just a handful of the activities we did this past fall:

Shelter Building - The challenge was to build a shelter that all of 10 of us (8 kids, 1 high school student, and 1 adult) could fit under that would protect us from the rain.  We decided to build the shelter at Deer Camp so that the Forest School and Forest Pre-School programs could use it as well.  First we tied our cross beam to our two support trees and then we gathered saplings to lean against it to  act as a roof.  Then we piled on the leaves as thick as we could, hoping that they would shed water and keep the rain out.  Once the shelter was built, it was time to test it out.  Here you can see that it passed the first test, we could all fit underneath it.
Under the shelter

Next came the water proof test, a.k.a. The Five Gallon Challenge...

Water proofing test,... with Trekkers inside!

   Unfortunately, we did not have quite enough leaves!

Wet Trekkers

Tracking:  We also spent plenty of time with our eyes to the ground as we practiced our tracking skills.  One afternoon, we followed one set of deer tracks as far as we possibly could.  It led us through the woods, across creeks, and along the edge of a beaver pond.
Following a deer trail

Investigating a GIANT beaver chew

Celebrations:  Every semester in Trekkers, we have at least one feast to celebrate our time spent together.  This past fall we had a Thanksgiving Feast with everyone bringing their own contribution to be cooked over the fire.  Much to the delight of everyone else, one of our Trekkers happens to be an excellent baker!

Homemade apple pie for our Thanksgiving Celebration!

 Games:  Every session of Trekkers begins with a game or challenge to complete before everyone arrives.    Once we finally had some snowfall, we busted out the sled and held human sled dog trials.

The human dog sled

 Outdoor Living Skills:  Of course, with the cold comes a need for warmth and during Trekkers, the kids are the fire tenders.  We practiced making tinder bundles and experimented with different materials to see which ones would light the easiest and burn the longest.  After discovering the wonders of steel wool and birch bark, we challenged ourselves a little more by using only materials that we could find in the field.  It was much more difficult, but with some persistence, we got the fire going!

Fire starting with flint and steel

 Wildlife Monitoring:  One of the most interesting things we do during Trekkers is monitor wildlife through the use of a game camera.  We would pick a location to set it up by finding an area that would likely have a good deal of wildlife traffic, so near food sources, bodies of water, and game trails.  The camera has a motion sensor on it so whenever something moves in front of it, it takes a picture.  Each picture is stamped with the date, time, moon phase, and temperature.  Of our many photos collected, these two are possibly the coolest.  The first one is of a young fawn with its mother taken on the last day of September.  The second is of the same fawn (presumably), taken 40 days later!  Only time will tell if it will still be there in the spring!

Fawn at the end of September

Same fawn 40 days later!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snow, Glorious Snow!

After a frigid and nearly snowless January, a freshly laid blanket of white was a welcome addition to winter at Forest School last Friday. The fluffy white powder provided students with ample opportunity for fun, cooperation, and learning. Excitement brimmed when the group discovered they would build a winter shelter together; a snow cave or quinzhee as it is sometimes called.

But first, given that making snow angels is a favorite winter activity among kids, a large circle was laid out in the snow and students conducted an experiment to find out how many snow angles it would take to fill the space. Children delighted as they got right down in the fluff, flapped their arms and legs, and checked out the multitude of interestingly textured angle prints. Over 27 prints made by 7 people big and small were tallied.

At snack time, students listened with wide eyes to a story, Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and discovered fascinating things about the formation and properties of snowflakes. This lead to an “I wonder” discussion about what happens to snowflakes when they’re moved or disturbed and why do snow piles made in this way seem to “freeze” and become easy to carve after being left for a while? The very cool word "sinter" was introduced, meaning the product of something naturally fused together

In the spirit of play, exercising cooperative social skills, and using a multitude of creative methods, the children set to work amassing a large pile of snow close to deer camp to create their snow cave.

Several students chose to bring a wheelbarrow along thinking it would be a fine tool for moving snow. Indeed!
Assessing the pile.

While we waited for the pile to sinter during lunch, we talked about hibernating animals and the insulating properties of snow. In particular, we imagined black bear mothers giving birth in their dens to blind, nearly hairless cubs in the middle of January (brrr!) and the cubs making their way to their mother’s milk source.  One child asked, “How does a cub find the milk if it can’t see?” Great question! We then turned our attention to the mounted black bear beside us, looked at its rather long nose, and imagined the cub sniffing its way. Some children then acted out the process! What a great way to embody learning.

Back at our snow pile, we transformed the mound into a “porcupine” by pushing in foot long sticks gathered previously. The sticks would enable us to maintain the proper wall thickness and stability when carving from the inside.

Everyone took turns digging out the mound with feet or hands.
More digging!

As the group patiently took turns excavating and looked on with eager anticipation, their eyes grew round as I shared a story of building and sleeping in a large 6 person quinzhee deep in the Adirondacks during a blizzard. 

When the quinzhee was complete, the entrance was deemed the porcupine’s mouth and eyes were promptly fashioned out of snow.

Hibernating bear emerging from her den.

After a great day of cooperative engagement, everyone got to reap the reward of hard work, snuggle up inside, and imagine themselves a bear sleeping for the winter.