Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Maple Syrup: Virtual Field Trip

Jars of homemade maple syrup. Photo Credit: Chiot’s Run.

If I had to choose a favorite day of the week, it would be Sunday. I roll out of bed in my homemade pajamas with breakfast on my mind. I have more time to make breakfast, so I make French toast, waffles, or blueberry pancakes. It’s hard to pick my favorite. But the same thing always goes on top: maple syrup. 

Sticky and sweet, maple syrup adds a soft golden flavor to any food. You can buy it in glass bottles or plastic jugs to deck out your Sunday breakfasts. But before it reaches the store, maple syrup starts in forests like ours in southeast Ohio. Maple syrup and honey are the only local ways to sweeten your food!

On this week’s virtual field trip, educator Joe will show us how to get the sweet liquid goodness out of maple trees and into your belly.

Here are some options for getting to know nature’s sweetener:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, March 5th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

On your own, inside: Read an indigenous story about the origins of maple syrup.

On your own, outside: Practice identifying sugar maple trees and watch for sap.

Virtual Field Trip, March 5th at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:15 AM, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, Joe will show us how he makes syrup and how to identify maple trees.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

What is maple sap?

A maple is a kind of tree. Syrup is made from the sap that flows in a maple tree.

Sap is a liquid that moves up and down inside a tree, just behind the bark. Sap moves water and nutrients to parts of the tree that need it. It makes trees strong and healthy. If you’ve ever seen sticky, clear globs on the outside of tree bark, you were likely looking at that tree’s sap.

Sap that has hardened dripping from a tree. Photo credit: Pfly

When leaves photosynthesize, they turn sunlight into sugar. That sugar is in the sap. The tree uses the sugar for energy–unless we tap it for our own energy!

All maple trees have sap inside them. The best sap for making maple syrup, though, comes from sugar maple trees. The name doesn’t lie: a sugar maple has more sugar in its sap than any other species of maple tree.

Sugar Maples

Good news for us: sugar maple trees call southeastern Ohio home. Sugar maples lose their leaves year after year, making them a deciduous tree. Most trees in southeast Ohio forests are deciduous, so sugar maples fit in.

Many other states in the eastern United States are lucky to have sugar maples, too. The green parts of this map show places with the right climate and habitat for sugar maples to grow. Notice that the green extends into Canada, too.

Sugar maple distribution map. Photo credit: USGS.

Your turn: Find Sugar Maples

Take a walk to see if you can find any sugar maples! They are common even in parks and neighborhoods. Joe likes to find them in the spring and summer, so he’s ready to tap them when February comes.

Sugar maples often grow on the middle or low part of hills, or near old farms (where people planted them). They do better in backyards than near the street, where cars and salt bother them.

Here are some ways to recognize a sugar maple:

  • Look for opposite branching. The twigs on any maple always grow directly across from each other. The leaves do this too. Only a few trees in Ohio do this.
Maple trees will look like the twig on the left.
  • Look at the buds on the end of the twig. There’s one long bud in the middle, and two short ones on either side. You can identify a maple even when there are no leaves with this trick!
Count the three buds on the tip of a sugar maple twig: the long one in the middle, and the short ones on the side. Photo: Tgalos90 

Sugar maple buds are brown (like the picture above). If the buds are red, you have a red maple instead (like the picture below)

What are some differences between this red maple bud and the sugar maple bud above? Photo: jon.hayes
  • The leaf looks like the flag of Canada. A sugar maple leaf has 5 lobes (or sections). Red maples have only 3. Another way to think about it is that sugar maple leaves are pointed, not round at the bottom. What differences do you see between the red and sugar maple leaves in this picture?
The sugar maple leaf is on the right. The red maple leaf is on the left. Photo: BlueRidgeKitties

Maybe picturing the Canadian flag will help you remember!

The Canadian flag shows the sugar maple leaf. Gotta love that tree pride!

From sap to syrup

Sap dripping from a tap in a maple tree. Photo credit: Hamilton Conservancy

Maple syrup can’t be made year round. Sap only starts flowing when the weather is just right. The best time for tapping trees for sap is right now! Cold nights below freezing and warmer days create a freeze/thaw cycle that pushes the sap through the tree. But how do you get to the sap?

Watch this video from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to see how to “tap” a sugar maple tree to collect the sap.

Sap isn’t the same thing as syrup, though. Buckets of sap have to be boiled for a long time. Boiling evaporates the water and leaves behind the sugar. It takes 30-40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of syrup!

Below is a photo of Joe’s sap boiling station. He has a thermometer to measure the temperature of the sap.

Voila! Boiled sugar maple sap makes maple syrup.

Who first made maple syrup?

It certainly wasn’t Joe! Indigenous folks have been making maple syrup to flavor their food long before Europeans colonized this land. The first Europeans to make maple syrup in the 1500s learned from the Native Americans.

Here are some early ways Indigenous people used to make maple syrup:

  • Repeatedly freezing the sap and getting rid of the ice. The water in the sap will freeze, but the sugar won’t!
  • Boiling the sap on hot rocks to evaporate the water out.

The Anishinaabe have a story about why it takes so much sap to make just a little syrup! Listen to an educator at Cumming Nature Center tell it:

This educator’s story comes from Keepers of the Earth by Joseph Bruchac and Michael Caduto.

Other Indigenous groups in the Great Lakes region, like the Chippewa and Ojibwe, have similar sap stories. If you are interested in reading more Indigenous lore about maple syrup, this page has two other short stories to share.

The maple syrup economy

Humans have long depended upon the natural world for food and trade. Maple syrup is no exception. Not only do we use maple syrup as a sweetener on our pancakes and in our teas, many people make their living from processing sap into maple syrup.

Sticky Pete’s Maple Syrup is an example of a producer in Athens County

Twelve states in the US produce maple syrup to sell. In Ohio, 900 people boil sap into maple sugar to sell in stores and at farmers’ markets. Those 900 producers make 100,000 gallons of maple syrup each year. Maple syrup contributes $5 million to Ohio’s economy each year. Sugar maple trees provide us with a natural sweetener, but it also provides many folks with an income to house and feed their families. Where would we be without sugar maple trees?

Next time you jump out of bed for a Sunday breakfast, thank sugar maple trees and Indigenous people who inhabited this land before us for maple syrup. And maybe after this week’s Virtual Field Trip, you can make your own like Joe.

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Sled Dogs: Virtual Field Trip

How would you send help in an emergency if you couldn’t drive or fly?

Imagine you live in Alaska in winter, 1925. There’s a pandemic: children in Nome are getting sick with a disease called diphtheria. Your town needs medicine fast. But the closest medicine is over 600 miles away.

Boats can’t sail there, because the sea is frozen. 

Trains can’t move, because ice blocks them. 

Planes can’t take off, because they are covered in snow. 

There is only one kind of transportation that you know will work. Alaska Natives have been traveling this way for thousands of years:

Sled dogs.

Me (Sophie), hanging out with Balto, who lives forever in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

To get the medicine there as fast as possible, 20 mushers (people who run dog teams) and about 150 dogs worked together to travel the 674 miles to Nome. They took turns, like a relay race, taking over when one dog team got tired. Two heroic dogs, Balto and Togo, led the team that brought the serum to Nome. 

To celebrate this brave journey, mushers from all over the world gather yearly to follow Balto’s footsteps. They run a race called the Iditarod–a 1,049 mile race that runs in Alaska from Anchorage to Nome.

On this week’s virtual field trip, I’ll share what it’s like to grow up with sled dogs, and you can meet a musher–my mom! It may change your ideas of what dogs and humans can do together

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, February 26 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll meet a musher, a person who runs teams of sled dogs.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

What makes these dogs so good at pulling sleds?

It’s tough to travel by land in the arctic. Animals need to stay very warm and move over deep snow. They have to find food when no plants grow for months.

There are wild animals that can do these things. But dogs were the only Alaskan animal that listen well to humans! Alaska Natives and Siberians were the first to use dogs to pull stuff around. Some people still use them for everyday life today.

So what makes a sled dog different from other dogs?

  • They have two layers of fur:
    • A short, thick, fuzzy bottom layer close to their skin. This keeps them warm. 
    • A slick, oiled top layer. This keeps the snow off their bodies.
  • They can eat lots of blubber and fat, just like polar bears and in traditional Alaskan diets.
  • They have stout, strong bodies.
  • They can do well even with low oxygen. That means they can run longer without having to catch their breath!

When you think of a sled dog, you probably picture something like this:

Siberian huskies are great for pulling things. But most people use faster dogs for racing.

This guy is called a Siberian husky. They have big, thick coats to keep them warm, and are often seen in movies about sled dogs. These pups are really smart and strong. They are still used today for transportation in winter. But they are a little bulky for going fast.

In the actual racing sled dog world, we use dogs called Alaskan Huskies. They are smaller, sleeker, and have bodies shaped for running long distances.

These Alaska huskies are the kind of dog most people use to race. Notice their body shape, which is strong and good at running a long way.

These dogs aren’t technically a “real breed” of dog. Although sled dogs have been distinct for a long time, they also are mutts mixed with other good working dogs, like german shepherds, greyhounds and other huskies. Any smart, strong, and fast dog breeds are probably distant cousins of Alaskan huskies. 

How to race a sled dog team

This is a picture of my step dad at his last race in Wyoming. Look at those happy pups! I particularly love the guy in the back with his tongue flopping around (that helps them cool down).

Hooking the dogs up

Look closely at how the dogs are “hooked up” to the sled. They wear harnesses (like some pet dogs wear for clipping to leashes). The harnesses connect them to one long rope by their necks and backs. 

The main line is called a “gangline”. The gangline connects to the sled. The “neckline” connects each dog’s neck to the gangline. The line that they pull with their backs is called a “tugline”. 

They sometimes have to wear “booties”, which are basically puppy socks, if there’s a lot of ice or if they are running a very long way. But usually they are happy to have their bare feet in the snow. They have plenty of extra toe fur and special toe fat to protect them.

Sled dogs wearing booties. Photo: JLS Photography-Alaska

Before you get all the harnesses, lines, and booties on the dogs, you almost always have to tie a “snow hook” to your sled and bury it deep in the snow. This is like an anchor. The dogs get so excited to take off, they run the risk of pulling the sled away without you!

And they’re off!

When you’re on your sled and ready to go, you pull out the big snow hook, bend your knees, and shoot off down the trail.

To race, teams start at different times. They are timed during the race, and given updates at checkpoints. (Can you imagine if it was like a human race, and a bunch of dog teams all took off at the same time? It’d be a huge mess).

The trails are clearly marked. But how do the dogs know which way to go? 

The best listeners of your team are placed in the front. They are called “leaders”. They learn terms and phrases from their mushers to know which direction to go in:

  • “Gee” (pronounced like “oh geez” without the z) -means to turn right.
  • “Haw” means to turn left.
  • “Woah” means to slow down and stop.
  • “Let’s go” “get up” or “hike” means to get up and start running! (You don’t always need that one. They are usually really excited to do what they love: running really fast). 

Next time you are walking with friends, pretend you are a musher: to make each turn, would you shout “gee” or “haw” to your team? 

Typically, dog teams run about 9-15mph. That means, when you’re on the sled, you’d better hold on real tight! It may seem like the dogs do all the work. But you have to be very strong and quick to keep track of your team.

When going uphill, you have to step off the sled and run next to the dogs. When going downhill, you have to bend your knees and press on your brakes a little. If you don’t, the dogs could get tangled up in the lines.

You have to use your whole body to turn the sled around curves. Otherwise, you could shoot into a snowbank, like my mom did in this video: 

Doing all this in heavy warm gear, while keeping tack of your team and trying to go really fact, is a LOT of work!

 At the end of the race

At the end of the race, you unhook and feed your dogs. Then you run inside for cocoa and chili to wait for the awards ceremony. Prizes vary, but the person who comes in last always gets the same thing: a red lantern, in hopes that in the next race you will find your way.

My mom, proud of her first and only red lantern.

 People and their dogs

So why do we do it? Sometimes I think my mother is crazy for investing so much time and energy into this sport. But when you think about it, people have evolved with dogs for a long time. Sledding is a very traditional, natural form of transportation. Mushing lets us preserve this history and relationship with animals.

My step dad, lovin’ up on his lead dogs.

There are a lot of myths about mushing. People worry about the dogs staying outside. Movies and TV shows have displayed mushers whipping, beating, or abusing their dogs in other ways. 

As someone who has grown up around mushers and sled dog races, I have to say, this could not be further from the truth. The people who choose to do this sport love their animals dearly (how could you not?). They spend countless hours and resources protecting, feeding, and taking care of them. 

Little me talking with Crackers, one of my all-time favorite pups

These dogs are quite literally built for doing what they do. I like to think of them like very nice coyotes: wily, smart, and loving of the outdoors. Living outside all year round makes them happy and healthy! Playing in the snow in the winter, rolling around in the mud in the summer, tracking down whatever small animals they can find. They love it! (Just a heads up, chickens and sled dogs do not go well together. We have tried many times).

 Some people even build really intricate trailers to take their dogs to races, like this one:

In trailers, the dogs all have their own little warm beds, and there’s enough room to store their gear and food. 

There are also “dog boxes”, like this one my mom used to use when she first started out. 

The dogs hang out in their little beds for the ride! (Except for Big Brown in the front, who always liked to ride shotgun). 

Mushers typically have someone with them to help them take care of the dogs. These people are called “handlers”. They are in charge of feeding, scooping poop, and harnessing the dogs before the race. Sound fun? 

Sled dog racing is very dependent on teamwork between dogs and people. The mushers have to work with their handlers. The dogs have to work with their mushers.The dogs have to work with each other. Everything depends on a good, supportive team.

Your turn

Your life vs. a sled team

1. If you have a dog at home (or know one), compare it to a sled dog. What kind of fur does your dog have? What does their body make them good at? Could they and other dogs their size pull you on a sled through an icy blizzard? What are their favorite activities?

This dog is probably better at something other than pulling sleds. Photo:  A.Davey

2. Mushers spend a lot of their time training their dogs, figuring out which place in the team works best for them. Each member of the team has a very important role.

If YOU were a sled dog, where do you think you or your family members would fit best? You might be…

  • a leader: smart and good at following directions
  • one of the hind dogs: strong and steady, pulling most of the weight of the sled
  • a middle dog: fast and good at keeping your team on track

3. Think about all the things you would need in a sled. What would happen if you got lost or stranded? What materials do you think you would need to have? We will go over them in the virtual field trip, but try to come up with a good list and compare it to what we talk about.

 Working as a team: Sled dog game

Next time you are with your friends, imagine you are a sled dog team. Hold onto a rope together. Work together to move smoothly dow na path or pull something. Where would everyone fit in the team? Are you struggling to keep the rope straight, or are you able to move something? 

If you only have two people, make an obstacle course by placing a few harmless objects on the ground. One person is blindfolded. The other is the “musher,” giving instructions. The musher must help the blindfolded person walk past the objects without stepping on them. Try using the words sled dogs hear when they are running: “gee,” “haw,” “woah,” and “let’s go!”

Watch a race

 On February 26th, the “Copper Dog” race is happening in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We would usually participate in this race! If you’d like to see a race in real time, they have a livestream of the teams taking off. You can watch it here.

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Winter Wetlands: Virtual Field Trip

The Rutherford Wetland near Carbon Hill this winter. Photo: Emily Walter

A frozen lake, pond, or wetland might be a tempting ice-skating rink. But a thick layer of ice on top doesn’t stop aquatic life from calling these places home. This week, we explore how animals survive when their home freezes into ice. You can:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 19th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

Find a winter nature spot to make observations. The more you visit, the more you’ll notice!

Virtual Field Trip, Feb. 12 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be investigating frozen ponds and those who live in them.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

The birth of a wetland

By Emily

Last week, Sarah and I visited the Rutherford Wetland at the Ora Anderson Nature Trail outside Carbon Hill. I have visited countless wetlands in my life, both near my home in Athens County and far. I am always struck by how beautiful and calm these places can be. I love to see waterfowl like ducks and blue herons. But, this wetland is especially interesting to me.

The Rutherford Wetland hasn’t always been water. It used to be woods along Monday Creek, and sometimes the woods flooded. Then, all the trees were cut down to make farms. And a railroad was built right through these low-lying farm fields.

In the 1990s, the Wayne National Forest took over the land, and it began to change again. Beavers moved in. The beavers dammed up the farm fields, flooding them. That created the diverse wetland I saw last week.

Beaver Dams

A beaver dam blocks a stream, creating a wetland on the right. Photo: Fred Dunn.

Beavers create or change wetlands with their dams. The dams are walls of sticks and mud. These walls block streams from flowing freely. The water usually gets deeper and spreads out into a pond or wetland. Plants change, and animals are drawn to the habitat. This is how a bunch of fields turned into the Rutherford wetland!

I find the Rutherford Wetland so interesting because its story shows how wetlands can adjust to new conditions. This land was stripped of all its trees, heavily farmed, and had an industrial railroad running through it. But now it’s a healthy ecosystem for beavers, fish, ducks, and songbirds.

Wetlands get to work

All wetlands have ways to deal with flooding and pollution. Wetlands soak up extra water that human concrete keeps from soaking into the soil. They absorb lots of rainwater, too.

Wetlands hold onto that water and release it more slowly. This prevents floods when it’s too rainy. And when the weather is too dry, wetlands keep streams flowing with all the water they saved up.

The quality of our water is improved when it goes through a wetland. Wetlands filter out pollutants from our lawns, cars and factories. This makes our drinking water safer and better for animals to live in. This isn’t an excuse to dump our waste in wetlands, but they do a good job cleaning up what mess we do make.

A wetland comeback story

Madison shared with me a great story about a wetland in New Jersey that was mistreated. But like the Rutherford wetland, it bounced back with human help. Now it provides habitat to fish, crabs, and seabirds. Listen to me read it, if you’d like:

A picture book about why we should protect wetlands.

Wetlands, and the critters inside them, also adapt to winter. When Sarah and I were at Rutherford last week, the whole wetland was frozen. The best way to start understanding these changes? Make your own observations!

Outdoor activity: Watching the seasons change

A beautiful winter pond Sarah observed. Photo: Sarah Haney

You will need:

  • Paper or a notebook
  • Something to write or draw with

Now is a great time to observe winter changes—Athens County is currently in a level 2 snow emergency. This is some pretty beautiful winter weather, but it’s also recommended you don’t drive. So pick an outdoor area near your home to make your winter observations.

Your nature spot doesn’t have to be big. A pond, little stream, or small garden is nice. But even a patch of grass or bushes is fine.

At your spot, observe nature and take detailed notes or drawings. Do it over and over and over and over and over again! Why? If you watch day after day, you’ll be an eyewitness to the wonders of the changing seasons. Winter into spring is a magical time when little details change each day. Some things you can only see at this time of year.

You might write or draw:

  • What you see
  • What you hear
  • What the weather feels like
  • What stands out to you about the area
  • How has snow, ice or cold changed the area?
  • What are plants and animals doing during this cold time? Do you see any evidence of them?

Here is an example from my time by a pond:

Feel free to add drawings or pictures to your observations!

It’s okay if you can’t identify all the plants or animals you see. Describe them the best you. If you want to, you can look for them in field guides later.

Now that we know more about wetlands, let’s look at the animals who live in them in winter.

Animal adaptations: Tools for Survival!

By Sarah

How do humans adapt to winter? You may think of putting on coats, mittens and hats to stay warm.

Now imagine that you live in a frozen wetland. How could you keep yourself warm while being wet? This might be difficult for us people, but animals have many adaptations to handle it.

What are adaptations? Think of adaptations as tools that animals are born with that help them survive in their environment. Living in the wild is a rough life. You are exposed to wind, storms, and heat. So animals have adaptations to help them live in harsh weather conditions. The wild also has predators and no grocery stores, so animals also have adaptations to help them hide, fight, and get food.

Temperature difference in frozen ponds. Graphic: Emily Walter

How might an animal adapt to a pond freezing? The water is chilly, there’s less food, and ice keeps you from the surface. Yet the layer of ice on top actually helps keep the water below warmer.

  • Fish survive the winter by hanging out near the bottom of the lake, where the warmest water is. They enter a winter rest state, when their heartbeat slows down. They need less food and oxygen.
  • Turtles burrow into the mud at the bottom of the pond, where it’s even warmer. Like fish, their bodies slow down, and they switch to breathing out their butt!
  • Wood frogs leave the pond, and bury themselves in the ground in the woods nearby. They have a special chemical in their body that lets them freeze solid, like a popsicle! They thaw out in sprin and hop off.

Let’s look more closely at how one species in particular is adapted to life in the winter wetland. It’s the species that built the Rutherford Wetland: the beaver.

How Beavers Have Adapted

The American beaver, sitting right up! Photo: Wikipedia

The arrows point at unique features the beaver has to live in wetlands! Such wild wetland areas are vast and you need to be able to swim well throughout the water. How does the beaver do this? How do you make a house on the water? You need to have some good tools to start. All these adaptations the beaver needs to live in a wetland!

The green arrow: two big teeth for chewing wood. The two square teeth at the front of beavers’ mouths are called incisors. This adaption is a tool for cutting! Remember this by thinking…

“I use scissors to cut paper and beavers use incisors to cut trees down!”

Beavers need these incisor teeth to cut down trees. They use these to build lodges, their homes. The beavers need lodges to stay warm during the winter. Lodges also are a safe place to be, because their entrance is underwater. There aren’t many other animals who can swim underwater, then crawl up into a dry lodge.

Beavers also use the incisors to gnaw on the outer layer of sticks. Beavers eat the just the bark of sticks and vegetation in the water. They don’t eat the full-sized trees they bite down. Before winter, they store lots of these sticks in the water. The cold water acts like a refrigerator, keeping their food fresh all winter.

Beaver chew marks eat away at a standing tree. Photo credit: Sarah Haney

The red arrow: feet for swimming. Beavers feet remind me of a scuba diver’s flippers. While a beaver is quite slow on land, they move quickly through the water. Did you know beavers can hold their breath and swim underwater for up to fifteen minutes? That’s pretty impressive!

The blue arrow: a wide tail. A beaver’s tail has many uses! Like their feet, their tail makes them good swimmers. Beavers also use their tails for communicating. If they think a predator is nearby, they will slap their tail against the water. The slap warns each other of danger, and hopefully scares off any predator, before they dive into the water.

Beavers wouldn’t survive winter if it wasn’t for their tails. In the summer, beavers stock up on snacks to build extra fat to keep them warm and well fed in the scarce, winter months. This fat is stored in their tails. When winter rolls around, the fat will trickle out of their tails into the rest of their body. Beaver’s tails are almost like their pantry and coat closet in one, stocking up on food and warmth.

Look at the shape of a beaver’s tail. How do you think that shape help the tail work well? Photo: Tobyotter 

Of course, fur also keeps beavers cozy, even when there’s ice on the pond. Beavers have two layers of fur. The inner layer keeps their body heat in and the cold out, like a parka. The outer layer of fur makes water roll off, like a raincoat. The drier you are, the warmer you are.

Indoor activity: Design like a beaver!

Beaver Lodge covered with snow. Photo: Sarah Haney

Beavers build lodges similarly to how pioneers built log homes: by cutting down the trees around them. Pioneers used axes to cut down a tree. The beaver use their own tool, their large incisor teeth, to cut down the tree. Beaver lodges are also made with grasses, mosses and mud!

Beaver lodges come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the key elements of the beaver lodge include…

  • An entry point (You can see how beavers enter and leave their lodge in this picture )
  • A place to store food, sticks and twigs, for the winter
  • A dry spot to sleep

Get a piece of paper and start drawing! Imagine you are a beaver living in a wetland: what does your lodge look like? Where is the dam? Do you live with a family of beavers? Where do you keep your beaver snacks? What other animals and plants live there?

We’d love to see your drawings in the comments or at the virtual field trip this week!

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Virginia Opossum: Virtual Field Trip

A Virginia opossum, commonly known as a possum. Photo credit: Paul Hurtado.

With its beady eyes, hand-like paws, and taste for trash, some people think opossums (commonly spelled “possum”) are giant rats. Maybe you’ve seen a possum lurking in your backyard at night and thought something similar. I thought raccoons and possums were the same animal for a while.

But possums aren’t rats or raccoons. They are a special type of mammal called a marsupial. And they are the only marsupial in all of North America! If that isn’t enough to make them special, possums also:

  • eat ticks. Ticks latch onto our skin to suck our blood, and can give us Lyme disease.
  • are highly resistant to rabies.
  • are immune to certain types of snake venom.

Pretty cool for such a common critter, huh? Want to learn more about the Virginia opossum? Here are some options for exploring our backyard buddy.

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 12th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

Experience what it’s like to be a possum mother by doing this activity.

Read about possum in the rest of this post, or skip ahead to a puppet video summary!

Virtual Field Trip, Feb. 12 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be investigating Appalachia’s favorite backyard critter.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

What’s a marsupial?

A marsupial is a category of mammals that carry their young in a pouch on the mother’s belly. It’s like having a built-in sweatshirt pocket on your tummy, made just for carrying your babies around.

The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial on this continent. Other continents have marsupials that look very different from a possum. Kangaroos, wombats, and koalas are marsupials that live in Australia.

A young kangaroo peeking out of their mother’s pouch. Photo Credit: Tatters

Welcome, baby possums!

A female possum will give birth to up to 25 babies, but not all of them will survive. That’s because the babies aren’t ready to enter the world as possums right after they are born. When a mama possum gives birth, her babies are the size of honeybees! They need to grow bigger to survive.

These tiny babies have to crawl inside their mother’s pouch to one of her thirteen nipples. Twelve of them are arranged in a circle, with the thirteenth in the middle. If a baby possum doesn’t make it to one of the nipples, it won’t get enough food to grow big and strong. When a baby starts suckling on a nipple, the nipple will swell in its mouth. This pins the young possum in place until it grows large enough to let go!

Our friend and educator Sarah rescued some baby possums whose mother had died while they were still in her pouch. She shared this photo. It shows what a young possum looks like before it’s ready to leave the pouch.

A baby possum sleeping. Notice how much paws look like our hands? Photo Credit: Sarah Haney.

Think about how you came into this world. Did someone give birth to you and 20 siblings and hope that half of you survived? Possum mamas spread out care and resources between many offspring, knowing that only a handful will survive. Humans put all of our attention, care, and milk into usually one baby. Sometimes we have twins, or triplets, or even quadruplets! But we take care of smaller numbers of babies, working harder on each one. This makes our reproduction different from possums.

Life as a young possum

Once the baby possums grow big enough to let go of their mother’s nipples, they can crawl out of the pouch. Young possums still need their mother, but they’re ready to see the world. To do so safely, they climb up on their mother’s back and take a ride.

Young possums attached to their mother’s back. Photo Credit: Anne Davis.

Eventually, this litter of possums will get too big to cling to their mother for a free trip across town. When her back gets crowded and the young possums fall off, they will start their own lives as adult possums. It only takes ten months for possums to reach an age where they can have babies. Quick turn around time, huh?

Your turn: Pouch pretending!

If you want to know what it’s like to be North America’s only marsupial, this activity is for you. Only a few steps stand between you and being a possum:

  • Step 1: Put on a hoodie or shirt with a pocket on your stomach. If you don’t have one of these, make sure you have pants on with pockets.
  • Step 2: Find out how much you weighed when you were born. You can ask your grown-ups if they know what you weighed. (If you can’t find our how much you weighed, you can use 7.5 pounds, which is the average weight of babies born.)
  • Step 3: Multiply how much you weighed by 13. You can do this by hand for a math challenge, or use a calculator. A grown-up can also help you with this. Multiplying your weight by 13 will represent how much a mama possum would have to carry if she had babies your size.
  • Step 4: Now you have a number. This is how much weight you have to carry as a mama possum with 13 babies. Find items around the house to carry in your hoodie or pants pocket. How much do they weigh?

Can you carry the weight of 13 babies in your tummy pocket? I doubt it. But it’s fun to pretend we are possums, isn’t it? They must have strong bodies to carry that many little ones around.

Possum preferences

Possums are nocturnal critters, sleeping during the day and moving about at night (the opposite of most humans). They choose secluded, dark places to sleep.

Opossums are scavengers, like turkey vultures, so they’ll eat roadkill and other decomposing animals. They’ll also visit our houses to check out trash cans for treats. Last year, I found three possums in my trash can next to my porch at once!

A possum looking for goodies at night. Photo Credit: Urban Woodswalker.

Possums don’t only eat our trash and dead animals. They will also eat grass, nuts, and fruit, and they hunt insects, mice, snakes, and birds. Some people have reported possums eating their chickens.

When possums are awake, they like to spend most of their time high in the sky in trees. Possums are fantastic tree climbers. Their sharp claws dig into bark. And their tail can wrap around branches to hold them, like an extra arm or leg.

A possum making good use of its gripping tail. Photo Credit: California DFW.

But they also like to spend their time asleep in trees. Possums can nest in hollow parts of a tree. They can also sleep in dens in the ground made by other creatures. As long as it’s dark and safe, they’re home.

Possum defense

Have you ever heard the saying “playing possum?” If you haven’t, it means you’re pretending to be dead! Which is exactly what possums do when they’re really scared. The hope is that whatever is trying to hunt it will lose interest if it thinks the possum is already dead. The possum will flop in its side and stick out its tongue. They’ll stay this way for an hour or so.

In this video, a man and his dog come across a possum pretending to be dead:

Did you hear the man say the possum could get up and hiss at him? Well, it could! Hissing and showing off their sharp teeth is another way possums defend themselves from threats. They’ll hold their mouth open to hiss and snarl at predators. This is called alligator mouth.

Another way possums can deter predators is through drooling. Possums can drip spit and blow bubbles out their nose to appear sick and unappetizing. This past summer, I was asleep in my hammock under a cherry tree and woke up because liquid kept hitting my face. I turned on my headlamp to see a scared possum drooling all over me! The next day, I drew this.

How do you protect yourself when you’re scared? Hopefully you don’t drool on people!

Let’s review!

Watch this possum puppet show for a speedy review of all things opossum!

This was a lot of possum content! But if you’re hungry for more like a possum digging in trash cans for a snack, come to the virtual field trip this Friday, 2/12 at 10:30 AM.

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Sarah’s February Book Corner

With all this snowy weather, I love to curl up with a good book! Sarah the librarian has picked out some great books for us about:

  • possums,
  • turkey vultures,
  • and wild plants!

These books pair well with our recent or upcoming virtual field trips. They’re all available at Athens County Public Libraries, or check at your own local library.

Book Recommendations for Young Naturalists:

Children’s non-fiction:

Picture Books:

Field Guides:

You can also check out Sarah’s previous book corner about tracks!

Did you read any of these books? Leave a review or your own recommendations in the comments!

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Turkey Vultures: Virtual Field Trip

“Nature’s Clean-up Crew”

What do you think of when you hear the word “vulture”? Some people may think they are scary or gross. But vultures are unique and important creatures that play a critical role in the ecosystem: cleaning it up. Join us on this week’s virtual field trip to meet these magnificent animals!


Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 5 at 10:30. Featuring live vultures!

Listen to a Navajo story that includes a brave deed by vulture.

Learn to identify vultures. We have suggestions for where to find them, and all you ever wanted to know about their life and behavior!

Clean up litter. What better way to learn from nature’s clean-up crew than to help clean up?

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, February 5 at 10:30am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll have a special guest: a real, live turkey vulture and her caretaker!

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

Can’t make it, or can’t wait? Read on to learn about vulture’s special way of recycling and incredible flying abilities. Hopefully you’ll gain a new appreciation for the amazing turkey vultures!

Hello, my name is…

Like most plants and animals, Turkey Vulture go by many names:

  • Scientists call them Cathartes aura, which is Latin for “cleansing breeze.”
  • In North America, some say “buzzards” or “turkey buzzards.”
  •  In the Caribbean, people say “John crow” or “carrion crow.”

Today I will simply call them turkey vultures.

Turkey Vulture Adult (Tropical) (with Southern Caracara)
Thompson Ian took this photo and submitted it to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The common name Turkey Vulture was formed because some think the birds look like wild turkeys. Take a look back at our “Turkey Talk post”, and let us know if you agree.

Vultures in Stories

Navajo actress and author Geri Keams narrates from her book “Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun”.

Listen to the Navajo story “Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun” in the video above. This is an old story of how darkness was turned to light and the animals that helped.

What is the buzzard character like in this story? Is the buzzard in this story different from how you’ve seen vultures in other stories or movies?

Picture by George Blankenhorn

My favorite part of the story is when Buzzard tries to catch a piece of the sun in his large crown of feathers, but ends up burning off all his feathers leaving him bald with a bright red head!

How to identify a turkey vulture

“Turkey Vultures are large, dark birds with long, broad wings. Bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors, they have long ‘fingers’ at their wingtips and long tails that extend past their toe tips in flight. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a ‘V’ when seen head-on.”

All About Birds
A turkey vulture has white feathers along the edges and tips of its wings. A similar bird, the black vulture, only has the white tips. Photo: George Blankenhorn

When you see turkey vulture from underneath, like in the picture above, the feathers on the tips and edges of its wings are white. This is a key clue that it is a turkey vulture, not another large bird.

Another key clue is the iconic red, bald head. Like the story Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun explains, turkey vultures have no feathers on their heads. This helps them to stay clean since they feed by thrusting their heads into the body cavities of rotting animals!

You might see another kind of vulture in our area: the black vulture. Like its name says, its bald head is black instead of red. Black cultures also have black feathers along the edge of their wings instead of white, with just a few white feathers at the tip.


A large part of identifying animals is learning where they spend most of their time, so you know where to look for them.

Part of what animals look for in habitat is a place to have babies. Turkey vultures don’t make nests for their eggs like other birds. Instead, they find a dark crevice to lay their eggs. Sometimes, they use other birds’ abandoned nests to lay their eggs in. Turkey vulture eggs and hatchlings have been found in rock piles, caves, and hallowed out tree stumps.

The video above was taken at a former abandoned root cellar at Wisteria in Meigs County. In this video you can see a white and fluffy baby turkey vulture!

Adult and juvenile turkey vultures can be found on roadsides, suburbs, farm fields, countryside. They also gather near food sources like landfills, trash heaps, and construction sites. One of my favorite places in Athens is The Ridges, because I can always count on seeing turkey vultures or black vultures there.

Take A Vulture Hike

To see these marvelous birds soaring through the sky, try visiting these places people report seeing them often:

  • Dairy Barn Lane near the Ridges in Athens
  • Highland Park, and the nearby hillside above Grosvenor St, in Athens
  • The hillside with the big white cross in Nelsonville (the cross is accessible by car or walking!)
  • The “Athens” sign by the Richland Ave round-about.

Try checking out these locations, or tell us about a spot where you regularly see them!

One reason people see vultures in these spots might be that there is a nearby vulture roost, or group resting place. Groups of cultures often rest on big, dead trees. That’s because these trees have the height and space vultures need to take off in flight! With their 6-foot wing span, turkey vultures need a wide, clear peak to allow them to open up and catch a thermal current.

We’ll talk more below about thermal currents and how turkey vultures use them to soar through the sky.

One man’s trash is another man’s… dinner?

In the picture below, you can see an adult (red head) and a juvenile (dark gray head) turkey vulture scoping out a dumpster.

Remember how I said in some parts of the Caribbean, people call them carrion crows? Well, that’s because carrion is what they eat! Carrion is a word used to describe the rotting flesh of dead animals.

Turkey vultures often eat roadkill and other carrion. Photo: George Blankenhorn

Turkey vultures are scavengers. They cannot kill their own prey. Instead, they depend on their keen sense of smell to find animal carcasses. They actually have the largest olfactory (smelling) system of all birds. Its been reported that turkey cultures can smell carrion from over a mile away!

This excellent sense of smell not only helps them find their food. It also lets them know how long the animal has been dead, and if it’s good to eat.  

Structures and their functions

The structure of an animal’s body parts can tell us a lot about the function, or what they use that body part for. Think about your body’s structure: its parts and how they work. What does it allow you to do that other animals can’t, or what are you limited by?


One way to tell that turkey vultures can’t kill their own prey is by taking a look at their feet. Let’s compare their feet to birds that do kill their own prey.

Try finding the differences and similarities in the feet of a red-tailed hawk (left) and a turkey vulture (right). What do you notice?

Keep in mind that ted-tailed hawks, like most raptors, kill their prey using the strength of their talons. Turkey vultures use their feet to help them rip flesh off carcasses.


The beak of a bird can tell you a lot about what it eats!

Take a look at the pictures below of the hummingbird’s beak( left) and the turkey vulture’s beak(right). How are they the same or different?

Hummingbirds use their long, needle-like beaks to probe into a flower. This lets them to lap up nectar with their special tongues. Turkey vultures use their thick strong beaks to rip flesh off of dead animals.

Taking flight

Watch turkey vultures soaring in the air: they almost never flap their wings. This is because turkey vultures find thermal currents, or rising columns of warm air. They use their large wings to float on the warm air, lifting them high into the sky.

Though their wings are 6 feet across, the vultures only weigh 2-3 pounds. Floating this way, they can use very little energy while soaring through the sky. Aircraft pilots have reported seeing vultures as high as 20,000 feet and soaring for hours without ever flapping their wings!

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The picture above is of my friend and a dead Turkey Vulture found in Athens County. My friend was impressed by the bird’s large wings!

Turkey vultures are not the only birds that catch these thermal currents. Other birds look for turkey vultures to help them find the rising columns of air. I often look for them above highways, where the warmth of cars creates thermals.

Humans have also looked to vultures to learn how to fly! Check out paraglider Bianca Heinrich and others competing in the world paragliding championships in the video below. Parasails catch thermal currents, letting people fly the same way as turkey vultures!


Many turkey vultures use southeast Ohio as their summer breeding territory. Then they fly south for the winter months. During their migration, they can fly over 200 miles a day!

In early spring and late fall, you can find large groups of turkey vultures preparing to leave or return. These large groups of turkey vultures are called kettles, because they look like water boiling in a kettle as lots of them make wobbly circles in the sky.

File:Turkey Vultures Hovering.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Turkey vultures kettling.

Recently, fewer and fewer turkey cultures bother to leave in the fall. Turkey vultures are slowly becoming year-round residents in Appalachia Ohio. Changing climate may explain why these birds no longer need to leave for the winter. With warmer winters, the long migration to South America is less necessary.

Celebrating turkey vultures

This video celebrates the time of year when turkey vultures would typically gather together before their long migration. The beginning talks about celebrating turkey vultures because they are unique and important creatures that are critical to the ecosystem.

One way we can help our ecosystem and honor turkey cultures is by helping them clean up waste! Turkey vultures help clean up the roadsides in their own special way by eating roadkill and other dead animals. You can help in a special human way by picking up litter outside. Take a bag with you on your next walk and help clean up!

How will you celebrate turkey vultures this week?

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Turning tracks into stories: Virtual Field Trip

“Nature’s storybook is everywhere and always open…. such happy experiences based on interest truly enriches life.” – Adventures of a Nature Guide, by Enos Mills, 1920 .

The ecosystem is a web designed to hold all of us together, whether we are as small as an ant or as large as a black bear. Tracking gives us clues to understand more about the ecosystem that we are part of. How can you follow the clues of tracks to find the hidden story?

Join us on the virtual field trip this Friday January 29th at 10:30 to learn how to turn tracks into a story!

If you’ve registered for virtual field trips since the fall, your same registration link will continue to work.

Or, practice solving tracking clues with these activities:

Go on a tracking challenge. What clues do you when you visit wildlife habitat? What questions do you ask?

Read tracking stories. Our friends shared their stories of reading tracks. Use your own thinking skills as you read to see if you agree with them!

Two creatures’ tracks met here. How do you think they interacted? Photo: Joe Brehm, Rural Action.

Tracking is like being a detective and looking for clues of life! So much happens in nature when people are not around to see it. Tracking wildlife signs like footprints or scat gives us a look into the recent past.  

Mini Tracking Challenge: Explore a wildlife habitat

You might have heard the saying “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” We may never know the answer to that age-old question. But we do know that our freshly fallen tree will provide a new home for several native Ohio species.

This week, Rural Action invites all young naturalists to look for tracks around an old fallen log. The best places to go tracking are good wildlife habitat, which means places where animals find food, shelter, or other needs.

If you don’t find an old log, what other wildlife habitat could you explore?

Once you have found your wildlife observation spot, time to look for signs of animal activity.

  1. Start a list of what signs of wildlife you have found. Here are some signs you might encounter:
    • Animal tracks
    • Animal fur or bones
    • Plants/mushrooms that are eaten or disturbed
    • Animal scat (scat is another word for animal waste/poop)
    • Disturbed ground or leaf litter
    • Marks on trees or logs
    • Wildlife sightings
    • Wildlife calls (Sometimes you might hear an animal but not see it)
  2. Make sure to note where you found the signs.
  3. Write down any questions you might have or curiosities.
  4. You might wonder what type of animal you are finding signs of. That is okay! Bring your questions to the virtual field trip this week and we will go over them. Or try some of the field guides below.

Need help identifying your finds? There are free field guides available from ODNR, or check out one of these books from the Athens County Public Libraries.

True stories of tracking!

Here are some personal stories from locals in Southeast Ohio about how tracking gave them a deeper understanding of our natural world! Turning your nature discoveries into stories can make your exploration deeper.

Note: These tracking stories mention animals that have died. Death is an essential part of our local ecosystem, and doesn’t have to be scary or gross. These animals provide new life for the ecosystem in more ways than one.
Bite marks on the raccoon’s skull made Sarah curious. Photo: Sarah Haney.

Sarah’s story: The skull

“While exploring a piece of land in Southeast Ohio I noticed an animal skull on the ground. As I approached the skull and examined it closer, I noticed tiny teeth marks near the base of the molars.

After research and measuring the skull, I determined that it was a raccoon. The tiny teeth marks, they were most likely from a mouse or other small mammal. The grooves left in the skull from the small mammal teeth show the many uses that each animal provides. That one raccoon provided a meal for coyote, and nutrients and minerals for small mammals.

This one single skull tells a story, evidence of multiple wildlife that live in the wood. This delicate story would not have shown itself if I had not looked at the signs around the forest floor. When I started following the well-traveled animal path, then I found the skull. Through this tracking experience I found beautiful evidence of life in Appalachia.”

– Sarah H, Millfield, Ohio.

Another view of the raccoon skull. The penny helps Sarah remember the size. Photo: Sarah Haney.

Joe Letches’s story: What did the fox drag?

About 15 years ago, I came upon a red fox trail in the snow that appeared to be dragging a leash. The only two scenarios I could come up with was that it was dragging a leash, or it was dragging a really big snake. A fox with a leash does not make sense, and a snake in the middle of winter also does not make sense.

I backtracked the fox for at least 2 miles and found that it had dug a big hole in the side of a bank, and that is where the drag mark started. At that point I suspected the fox had dug a big snake out of its hibernaculum. So, I got back on the trail and fore tracked.

Sure enough, I came up on a big black rat snake cached in the snow. I looked up and saw the red fox coming towards me, apparently coming back for its snake. As soon as it saw me, it did a literal backflip in the air and took off in the other direction. That was an interesting track!

 – Tracker Joe Letsche, Chillicothe Ohio

Photo description: Mountain lion scat photographed by Joe Brehm in Montana

Joe Brehm’s story: A Hunt

Hiking with a friend in Montana many years ago, we walked up a well-traveled path only a few miles from the nearby city. The ground was covered in snow, and the path was packed down because of all the hikers and cross-country skis from the past few days.

Only a few minutes into the hike, my friend noticed a “drag” in the snow–it looked like someone had taken a sled down a steep and forested hillside. We followed the drag mark to the right of the trail, through young douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees.

It led us to a set of mountain lion tracks, and we were able to see where the lion had waited and then ambushed a whitetail deer. The lion killed the deer instantly with a bite to the back of the neck and then dragged it back towards the path and across the well-traveled trail.

We followed the drag trail up the steep hillside–we had to climb on hands and knees–through thicker forest, and came to the deer carcass. It had mountain lion tracks all around it, including the smaller tracks of baby mountain lions. It is likely the mother lion and her kits were watching us from a safe distance while we quickly examined the scene and then slid back down to the trail.

The reason I love tracking so much is that it helps you read stories like this in the snow, mud, sand, and dust that you would otherwise miss completely.”

–Tracker Joe Brehm, Millfield, Ohio.

Largest mountain lion track Joe has ever seen in Montana. Photo: Joe Brehm

What did you think about while reading the tracking stories? Do they remind you of any time you’ve been in nature? What is one animal you would like to find evidence of in the forest?

Just like the Joe Brehm said in his story, tracking is like reading a book. You can learn to look at the woods and read a story about life. Go outside, explore, be curious, follow the signs that you see. You will be amazed at the story’s nature will tell you.

See y’all on the virtual field trip!

Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Nature Show and Tell: Virtual Field Trip

Our friend Zella showed us these signs of beaver activity. We love sharing our discoveries with each other!

Nature show-and-tell is back! We are calling on YOU to be part of this week’s virtual field trip!

Bring your nature objects, pictures or stories to the zoom call on Friday for show and tell. We will take turns sharing, kids and adults both!

Exploring nature is part of how our team stays healthy and happy. Learn some ways we use our outside time in this week’s “Nature and Self-Care” blog post.

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, January 22, 2020

Prepare for this week’s field trip by finding something to share! You could ‘show’:

  • something you found outside, like a plant, rock or mystery item
  • a picture of a natural object
  • a story about an experience you had outside
  • something about nature you’ve been learning a lot about lately

There are no wrong choices. We welcome any nature-related shares!

Join us at 10:30am on Friday, January 22.

If you’ve registered for virtual field trips in the past, your same registration link will continue to work.

Sarah found this morel mushroom last spring. It was a great day!

What will you ‘tell’ about your nature object for show and tell? You might share:

  • Where you found this nature object
  • Why this nature item is interesting to you
  • Something you’ve learned about the nature item recently
  • Questions you have about the nature item (the other people on the virtual field trips are really smart!)

If you don’t want to share anything, that’s okay too. You can listen to other people.

How Nature Helps Us Be Happy and Healthy

How do we discover most of our cool nature finds? Usually, we just stumble across them when we spend time outside!

Most of us here at Rural Action go outside almost every day to play, walk, or just sit and listen. It’s part of how we take care of ourselves. We each have our favorite way to relax outside. Read about some of ours in our latest post:

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Nature & Self-Care During a Pandemic

Do you ever notice a feeling of well-being after you do certain things? If so, these activities might be part of your “self-care.” Self-care might look like:

  • running and playing so your body feels healthy,
  • sleeping enough so you feel rested instead of grumpy,
  • or calling a friend when you feel lonely.

Self-care helps us manage stress. It’s especially important times like now, when we are out of our normal routines of going to school or work, seeing friends and family, and socializing.

So can nature time be a way to take care of ourselves? We think so!

According to Herb Broda, PhD and well-known professor and author at Ashland University,

“Going outside is vital to our health.”

A mounting body of research agrees that spending time outside is essential for everyone’s mental, physical, and social health—children and adults alike.

The Children and Nature Network shares research on how nature benefits children’s health. Here are a few of their findings.

For more research on how nature makes you smarter, stronger, happier and more productive, visit this National Park Service page.

How is nature a form of self-care for you?

Five of our environmental educators share how nature plays a role in their self-care routines. Then, they suggest some of their favorite parks and trails to visit. Read on!


Becoming more tree-like

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One of the most valuable characteristics of the natural world for me is that it is both consistent and surprising. For example, when I was in high school I would wander through a nearby forest to get away from everything else. I would sit with my back to a white oak tree high up on a bluff overlooking the river and think quietly. The trees and the river were always there for me, but they were also never the same.

Every visit to that place was a little different, but the feeling of being there was much the same. Some pleasant side effects for these walks included exercise, breathing fresh air, beginning a lifelong study of the natural world, and becoming a little bit more tree-like and river-like.


Using all five senses

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor, nature and water

For me, taking a walk outside in nature, whether it is on the bike path or hiking in the great outdoors, is like hitting the reset button. I immediately feel an increased awareness and connectedness to the natural world and more present in my own body.

When I am walking, I try to pay attention to my five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch.

Sight: What can I see around me? What colors do I see? Are there plants, trees, or animals I can identify by sight? If you slow down long enough, you might even start to notice the smallest of creatures, like bugs!

Smell: Can I smell anything? On a recent hike in Sells Park I found a mushroom that smelled just like black licorice!

Taste: Are there any identifiable plants that I can safely taste? A couple of my favorites are sour grass, which I think tastes a lot like a sour candy, and spice bush.

Touch: Finally, what can I touch? I love any opportunity I get to feel something with my hands or feet. When it is safe and the opportunity presents itself, one of my favorite things to do is take my shoes off! Have you ever walked on a blanket of moss with your bare feet? It is incredibly soft!


Nature journaling

Short days and grey skies can get me down pretty easily. Staying inside on days that feel yucky out often makes me feel even worse! On these winter days when I am restless at home, I like to venture into nature with a notebook and pen in hand. I don’t always go far; sometimes I just walk to the end of my street to an open field by the Hocking River. Other days I trek into the woods. 

When I get to a spot with a good place to sit (against the trunk of a tree, on a rock or a stump, in the grass), I’ll open up my notebook, grab my pen, and settle in. 

I like to be a good observer of all the happenings of the natural world around me. If you focus closely, you’ll notice animals, insects, details and sounds you’ve never encountered before! I try to focus on nature by using four of my senses, one at a time. (Just like Mia described, though we’ll leave out taste for now to be safe. )

I start with closing my eyes while I sit still, paying extra attention to all that I can hear. I sit and listen for a minute. Then, I write in my notebook all that I heard in that minute:

Here is what I heard the other day at Sells Park.

I close my eyes again and move on to touch. What can I feel with my hands around me in one minute? Do I feel acorns? Sticks? Something soft that I can’t identify? Bugs moving? I open my eyes, and write down all I felt. 

Everything my hands felt when my eyes were closed.

I do the same with smell and sight. I save sight for last, because ordinarily, I use my eyes so much that I can forget my other senses. I want to make sure I don’t miss out on cool parts of our world that I normally don’t catch with my eyes. 

My nose caught these scents at Sells.
I saw a lot of things in one minute!

Observing nature closely feels like a game to me–how many new things can I discover each time I do this activity? I get giddy when I touch a new bug or hear a new bird call while sitting with my notebook. My notebook helps to keep track of all the amazing new things I have sensed!

But, I like to do one more thing before I put my notebook away: draw!

One day, I saw the caterpillar of a question mark butterfly, so I drew the butterfly!

I pick one thing surrounding me and try to draw it. My notebook is full of drawings of tree bark, what I think the birds I heard look like, boulders, particular plants, and bugs! I don’t worry about how “good” I think the drawing is. Drawing anything is a better visual than a blank page, so pick something and doodle away! 

I love to flip through my nature notebook and remember all the neat things I experienced despite the dark, cold winter days. I hope collecting your observations outside in a nature notebook will help you keep the winter blues at bay!


Running and playing with mud

Running through the woods is one way I like to play outside!

When I run through the forest I have to be very aware of where I’m stepping and what’s ahead of me. Running forces me to only think about what I’m doing at that moment, not worrying about the past or future.

Another reason I like to run through the woods, or trail run as some people call it, is because it doesn’t require much. The only thing I need is a comfortable pair of shoes. I can go as fast and as far as I want and I can stop to take a break whenever I want! Trail running is a great way for me to clear my head and be present. As a bonus, I get to get covered in mud!

This is Madison in early spring after she tilled a plot for a garden. Muddy and happy!

Speaking of mud, whenever I have a chance to touch the earth, I feel happier and rejuvenated. And I’m not the only one. So many other people felt the same way that scientists decided to study why playing in the dirt makes us feel happy.

What they found was a living thing in dirt called Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil microbe. When we dig into the soil, we kick up these microbes and breath them in. They seep into our skin. Once we are exposed to the microbes, they work in our brains to make us happy and relaxed. When I garden is usually when I am happiest!

Mud Kitchen

Mud Kitchen is one of mine and my friends’ favorite activities. We were found some old pots, pans, buckets, and utensils to use outside. We make all sorts of recipes out of dirt, water, leaves, and whatever else we can find. I think one reason why Mud Kitchen is so fun is because there is no single way to play. We can use our imaginations to come up with endless ways to play. 


No weather is bad weather!

Sometimes, people think we have to stay inside when the weather is cold or wet. I used to think so too–after all, it’s hard to have fun when you’re uncomfortable.

But then…I got rain pants. With not only a rain coat, but also rain pants and rubber boots, I could run through a downpour and be perfectly dry!

Suddenly, going out in the rain was even more fun than going out in the sun. I could walk through anything! I was undefeatable!

Now I agree with a friend who told me, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Tips for staying warm outside in winter:

  1. Wear several warm layers. Air gets trapped between layers to keep you warmer. So two layered shirts might be warmer than just one heavier shirt. My clothes have at least three layers:
    • Inside layer: Long underwear or ordinary shirts close to my body.
    • Middle warm layer: Something warm and puffy, like a sweater or fleece.
    • Outside protective layer: a heavy coat, rain jacket, or shell to keep out wind and rain, and add warmth.
  2. Don’t wear cotton next to your skin–wear wool or synthetic fabric instead. Cotton gets damp from your sweat, then actually makes you colder! But wool and synthetics stay warm even if you sweat. Wool socks can make boots more comfy.
  3. Wear mittens instead of gloves. Keeping your fingers together helps them warm each other up. If you are able to, replace those little knit cotton gloves with heavier mittens–as soon as cotton get wet, they stop working so well.
  4. Bring a thermos of a warm drink. Heat yourself up from the inside, and you can stay outside longer!
  5. Run and play! The best way to warm up is to MOVE! If you start to get cold, it’s time to start a game or hike somewhere new.
  6. If you’re still cold–where can you add more layers? Did you forget a scarf, or not wear any long underwear under your jeans? Do you have a coat but no snow pants over your legs?

For more ideas on enjoying Ohio’s parks in winter, visit:

Places to Explore…

Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills is one of the more famous parks nearby. But have you heard of some of the ones below?

Here are some of the Environmental Education team’s favorite places in Athens County to get into nature! If you have the chance, try visiting a new place.

Where is your favorite nature spot? Share your photos with us by leaving a comment!

Want more ideas for natural areas to visit? The Athens Conservancy has a great guide to outdoor areas. They also manage 11 nature preserves that are worth a visit.

Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Foraging for Plants in Winter : Virtual Field Trip

Looking at plants at Burr Oak State Park.

Winter…everything has turned from green to brown, and seems quiet. But if you know how to look, you’ll see how plants are surviving the cold and darkness. And you can also gather plants to help you have food and warmth, even in winter!

On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll show you how plants survive the winter–and how plants can help people through winter too!

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, January 15 at 10:30am on Zoom.

Gather information about plants by reading this post.

Play a matching game to practice identifying plants in winter vs summer.

Gather winter plants. We share four ways you can eat, drink, or make fire from plants in this post.

Virtual Field Trip, Jan. 15 at 10:30am

Teasel is a prickly plant I see often in fields in winter.

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be foraging in the winter woods.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

How Plants Make it to Spring

Cold is a problem for plants. When water freezes into ice, it gets bigger. When water in plant cells freezes, it can burst apart the plants cells.

Photo: pmhudepo 

But cold is not the only danger! Winter means less water. If water is frozen, plants can’t get to it. So plants also have to survive without much water until spring.

There’s also less sunlight. So plants are getting less energy from the sun, even as they have to work harder to survive.

So how do plants survive the cold, little water and little sun? Two common strategies are making seeds and making fat roots. A few plants, like evergreens, have special leaves that can stay alive.


Some plants die in the fall, but not before making lots of seeds. The individual plants might not survive, but their children will grow when spring comes! These plants are called annuals, which means ‘yearly,’ because their life cycle lasts just one year.

This plant has died, but its fluffy seeds may go on to grow. Photo: Stevesworldofphotos.

Seeds can wait a long time before they sprout, waiting for a sign that it’s safe to grow: they might wait for sunlight, more water, or even a bird pecking them open before they start sprouting.

You can learn to identify plants even in winter, by the shape of their seed heads! Because seeds come from flowers, a plant’s summer flowers often have a similar shape as their seed heads. I love watching plants change through the season. It is fun and helps me find useful plants.

Practice matching winter and summer plants with this game:

Make fire with seed heads

Humans have strategies for surviving winter too. One is fire!

To start a fire, you need light, fluffy, dry material called tinder. People today might use cardboard or paper. That works well if you have matches. But what about before paper or matches existed?

Joe shows us how to start a friction fire on a virtual field trip.

 One way to start a fire without matches is using flint and steel to make a spark. These sparks only last a second, so they need to land on something that catches fire very easily. Another way is to make a friction fire with wood (see the video above). Friction fires make a small, delicate coal. Those coals also need very light tinder to catch fire and grow.

Goldenrod seed heads can be used to start fires. Dry them out first!

Fluffy winter seeds are good tinder for these fires! We like to use goldenrod, like in the picture above. They usually need to dry inside for a few days before they will catch a spark.

Your turn:

Collect some goldenrod seed heads and dry them out. Next time you build a fire, try using them as tinder. How do they work? How fast do they light?


Some plants live multiple years. They are called perennials, which means something that comes back over and over. One way to do that is to make a fat, sugary root!

Ginseng is a plant that can live 100 years by growing back from its roots each spring. Photo: Sam Droege

Underground is a safe place to be in winter. The freezing and frost on the surface only reaches a little ways underground. Leaves, mulch or snow can also protect the ground from getting too cold. Deep in the soil, it feels more like a refrigerator than a freezer.

Plants make food from the sun. In the fall, some perennials put the food in their roots, saving it for later. If you’ve ever eaten a potato or a carrot, you have benefited from this! Those tubers were the plants’ way of saving food for spring (or your belly).

When it’s safe to come out in spring, fresh stems and leaves will sprout from the root.

Make Fire Cider with Horseradish

Horseradish is one plant that makes a big root. Its root can be good medicine for fighting winter colds! Try making this spicy plant medicine. Next time your head feels stuffy, it will help clear it out. Try it as a salad dressing or in water.

Preparing the ingredients for fire cider. Photo: Multnomah County Library

Fire Cider Recipe:


  •  3 cups  apple cider vinegar
  •  1/2 cup grated horseradish or garlic mustard root 
  • 1/8 cup garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup wild leeks, chopped (or chopped onions)
  • 1/2 cup of grated ginger
  •  1 tsp.  cayenne


Place all ingredients in a 4 cup mason jar and fill with apple cider vinegar leaving some space. Be sure all ingredients are mixed well. Cover.

Steep for 8 weeks in a dark, cool location.

Strain into clean jar. Then store in a dark location up to one year.

Our friends at United Plant Savers recorded this class if you’d like more detailed instructions:

Staying low

A few plants stay alive and green by keeping their leaves low to the ground. Cuddled up to the warmer earth, they might be sheltered by dead leaves. Less cold air reaches them. These plants often only live for two years or so.

Mullein can keep its leaves alive in winter by huddling down on the ground. It’s also called “lamb’s ear” because it is so soft and fuzzy. Photo: waldopics.

Gather chickweed for winter salads

This little plant grows in yards and gardens. Some people think it is a weed. I think it is delicious!

Chickweed is an annual, but sometimes you see it grows anyway. Its seed sprout quickly, and it is so low-lying that it can be protected by the cold by hills and leaves.

Try gathering chickweed to add to your salads. Here’s how to recognize it:

Leaves: pointed and oval shaped, opposite growth pattern (that means they grow directly across from each other)

Flowers: Chickweed flowers are very small, they have 5 double-lobed white petals. Double lobed means divided in two, so it might look like they have 10 petals 

Parts to eat: leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible and can be eaten raw. Try adding them to your next salad. 

Evergreen trees

Most plants stop doing anything in winter. They stop photosynthesizing, prepare their seeds or roots, and wait. But not evergreen trees!

It takes a lot of energy to make leaves and needles. Evergreen trees don’t want to waste that energy by dropping leaves. So they make special needle-shaped leaves that are protected from cold and dryness.

White pine is an evergreen tree in Ohio. You can make tea from its needles.

Needles are a better shape for holding onto water. Why? They have less surface area.

Think about hanging up a towel to dry. You want to hang it flat and spread out. More of a flat towel is exposed to the air, so it dries faster. But if you ball the towel up on the bathroom floor, it will stay wet for a long time! Less of its surface is exposed.

A typical leaf is like the flat towel. An evergreen needle is like the balled up towel.

Evergreen needles also have a special wax on them that keeps water from evaporating. It’s like covering food with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. If you’ve ever touched an evergreen needle, you’ve felt this wax! It’s why needles feel heavier than typical leaves.

Make Pine Needle Tea

Historically, plants and vegetables were the hardest food to find in winter. Humans ended up eating more meat (because there were still animals to hunt) or more grains (because you could store grain for a long time). But we need the nutrients in plants to be healthy. 

Sailors used to have this problem too, because there are no plants at sea. Without enough vitamin C from vegetables, they got a disease called scurvy that made their teeth fall out. They started bringing limes with them to stay healthy.

Teas are a great way to get plant nutrients in winter! The garden might be dead, and pine needles don’t make a great salad. But boil the pine needles in water, and you’ll get a tasty tea with plenty of vitamin C. You can add lemon and honey, too.

Here’s how to identify white pine:

Needles: come in bundles of five, 3-5 inches long, bluish green, with fine white lines also called stomatas. 
Cones: 3-6 inches long, thinning out near the tip, with cone scales without prickles and light tan to whitish in color on outer edge of the scales.

Your Turn

Try collecting some winter plants for warmth or food! In this post, we’ve showed you how to:

Choose one and try it! How did it go? Was it hard or easy to find the plant? How did it taste?