Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Celebrate Earth Day! Virtual Field Trip

Our friend Garrett practicing taking care of the Earth. Photo: M. Miller

Everyday is Earth Day if you’re a young naturalist! But the rest of the world will join us in celebrating next Thursday, April 22.

On Earth Day, we like to reflect on what we love about the Earth (see: every virtual field trip we’ve done this year for some examples). Then we like to say “thank you” by doing something to help take care of it!

What is one way you take care of nature? Tell us about it on this week’s virtual field trip! Our friends share some of their favorite stewardship activities in this post.

Join the zoom field trip on Friday, April 16 at 10:30am.

Get inspired by a few of these ways our educators help the Earth.

How will you help? Share a story or picture to tell us how you will take care of nature!

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, April 16 at 10:30 am

This Friday, share how you celebrate Earth Day with us on our virtual field trip! Bring a story or object to show us. It could be something in nature that you love. Or it could be something you do to take care of nature.

Our co-workers at Upcycle Ohio recycled plastic bottles to make these pots! Photo: Zero Waste Event Productions

Our naturalists will show some ways we help take care of the earth: removing invasive plants, composting our waste, and more! Get inspired with us!

If you haven’t registered for past virtual field trips, sign up below to get the link in your email:

This will be our last public virtual field trip until May or June. We’ll announce virtual events on Rural Action’s facebook and newsletter. Teachers and groups can still contact us to schedule a private virtual (or in-person) field trip! Email darcy@ruralaction.org.

How do you take care of nature?

We love the forests, creeks, and fields of Appalachian Ohio. That’s why we take care of them, just like they take care of us. We want these places to be healthy for everyone to enjoy for a long, long time.

There are many ways, big and small, that you can help nature thrive! Rural Action’s educators shared a few things they do:

Madison: Cleaning up Litter

When I think of Earth Day, I think of a day dedicated to honoring the earth. I also think about how human actions can negatively affect the earth, or we can take action to help care for our planet. One way I like to take action is picking up litter!

As we all know litter can be anywhere: road sides, public parks, in rivers and lakes. Pretty much anywhere you can think of, if you look long enough you will find litter. All these places are ecosystems of their own, and can be negatively affected by human waste.

In this picture, I’m picking up trash from my backyard. Before there were garbage trucks that drove to each house every week, many people had a section of their yard dedicated to being their own landfills. Many houses still have remnants of these household landfills left over. 

When picking up litter be sure to stay safe! A few things you will need to get started:

  1. Gloves (thick gloves will help make sure you don’t get cut by any trash and will keep you clean)
  2. Trash bags! (If possible try bringing a trash bag for recyclables and a second bag for things that need to go the landfill)
  3. An adult (check in with a trusted adult about what you’re doing and where you’re going before you get started)
  4. Brightly colored clothes (this is especially important if you plan to do a litter pick on road sides, the bright colors help cars see you from a distance)

By helping to pick up litter you will work to prevent trash from polluting the waterways, forest, and many other ecosystems

Emily: Getting around without cars

I love walking places if it is safe for me to do so. I can see the insects buzzing around my face, the different trees I pass, and the friendly faces of my neighbors.

When places are a bit too far for me to walk to, I ride my bike. I always wear my helmet and choose routes that have the least number of cars. I like biking because I can feel the wind on my cheeks, get some exercise, and still move slow enough to observe my surroundings.

Sometimes I ride the bus. The bus allows me to go farther distances in bad weather, like from Athens to Albany or Nelsonville. I enjoy riding the bus because I get to see new people that live in my community and see a route with houses and streets I don’t always see.

I do have a car, because sometimes I go places I can’t reach by bus, biking, or walking. Most cars run on gasoline, a liquid made from crude oil pumped from a well that reaches deep below our feet. Some cars run on electricity that can come from burning coal, from the sun’s rays, or even wind turning a turbine like a pinwheel. Cars that run on fossil fuels, energy that comes from the ground and takes millions of years to form, release pollutants that are bad for our lungs to breathe in and bad for the climate. The smoky grey dust that comes out the tailpipe of a car contains greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat within the atmosphere of earth, changing the temperature of our planet over time. 

Sometimes we need cars to get around, especially in places like southeast Ohio. We don’t have subway systems or passenger train to carry lots of people efficiently like New York City. But cars are not the healthiest transportation for our environment. To take care of nature, I walk or bike to places I need to go whenever possible. I take the bus with other folks to reduce the amount of cars out on the road when I can’t walk or bike.

Try walking, riding your bike, or taking the bus to your next destination!

Mia: Planting a pollinator garden

Mia is planting a garden at the Glouster library. She is choosing plants that are native to southeast Ohio, plants that have grown around here for thousands of years.

These plants are good food for the bees, butterflies, and insects around here! This garden will help these pollinator insects thrive. Visit the Glouster library to see what will pop up in this garden!

This garden bed at the Glouster library will soon be growing food for bees and insects! Photo: M. Miller, Rural Action

How will you help the Earth this Earth Day?

Press the “+” button below to add your favorite ways to help the environment. Perhaps you’ll inspire someone to try some thing new this Earth Day!

Made with Padlet

Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Trees in the forest: Virtual Field Trip

Which trees make up our forest? Why do oaks, beeches or pines rule in your nearest patch of woods? It’s the rocks, soil and shape of our hills (and mountains, in neighboring states) that decide who grows where.

Climbing from wet to dry parts of the hil lets us see different micro-habitats! Photo: J. Brehm/Rural Action

It might seem like all of the forest is the same. But pay attention, and you’ll find completely different trees, plants and animals living in one spot than another. Animals come to feast on the acorns in a chestnut oak patch on a dry, sunny ridgetop. But at the bottom of the hill, you can hunt mushrooms in the moist shade of hackberries and blue ash.

Learn to see the many forests within our forest on this week’s virtual field trip!

Join the zoom field trip on Friday, April 16 at 10:30am.

Get inspired by a few of these ways our educators help the Earth.

How will you help? Share a story or picture to tell us how you will take care of nature!

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, April 9 at 10:30 am

On Fridays from 10:30 to 11:15 AM, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Appalachian Ohio trees we take for granted, hiking the forest from top to bottom!

As more and more people return to in-person school, we will stop doing weekly virtual field trips after April 16. We’ll continue to announce less frequent public virtual field trips through the summer, and to be available for private virtual field trips for classrooms and groups.

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

Teachers: Your class is welcome to join this public virtual field trip. You can also contact us to schedule a virtual field trip just for your class, which sometimes works better. Email darcy@ruralaction.org.

How the hills shape the trees

A brilliant botanist named Dr. Lucy Braun studied forests in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee in great detail during her career in the previous century. She published an amazing book in 1950 about her studies, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, that has really helped me to understand our forests. She called Appalachian forests “mixed” forests because of how diverse the trees can be!

How diverse are our forests?

If you were to hike through a tropical rainforest near the warm equator, there are so many kinds of trees that you may see each species only once or twice on a several mile walk. In a tropical rainforest, you can be pretty sure that two trees next to each other are different species.

Travel far north to the cold and snowy boreal forests of northern Canada, however, and there are only a few kinds of trees. The same handful of species dominate miles and miles of forest. You can be pretty sure that, in the northern forests, two trees next to each other are the same species. 

Why do you think rainforests have more kinds of trees than boreal or temperate forests? Photo credits (top to bottom): MikoFox, Forest Wander, Jaime Olmo

Southeast Ohio is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum of tree diversity. Walking through your favorite forest in our neck of the woods, you will sometimes see the same tree species next to each other. Just as often, you will see different trees next to each other, because we have many tree species in our forests (Ohio Department of Natural Resources has about 70 tree species in their common trees of Ohio field guide). 

Why are forests so different in these examples? What are some differences between tropical rainforests, Ohio, and northern Canada? We would love to hear your answers!

 Our hills create lots of diverse microhabitats: places with different temperatures, resources, and moisture than other parts of the forest. To figure out what kinds of trees will grow, look at:

What rocks and soil are there?

In Athens County, Ohio, sandstone makes up most of the bedrock (the solid stone underneath the soil and plants). Sandstone is acidic and crumbly; you might have seen sandstone rock shelters like Old Man’s Cave.

Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills is made of sandstone–just like most of the rock beneath your feet in Athens County, Ohio.

But every now and then there’s a patch of limestone, and you’ll see trees and plants that are rare here! For example, eastern cedars are everywhere around Cincinnati, where limestone is common. But I’m surprised when I see one here, where limestone is rare.

The hills also impact soil. Soil might be thin or gone at the top of hills. That’s because water washes the soil down the hill. You have to be a tough tree to grow out of rock! Virginia pine is a tree that usually grows only at the very tops of ridges: straight out of the sandstone rock, where there’s no dirt, and where the ground is very dry.

This Virginia pine at Conkle’s Hollow in Hocking Hills can grow where few other trees can! Photo: cm195902

Meanwhile, that soil and old leaves build up at the bottom of the hill. The soil might be inches thicker down there! It’s easier for many kinds of trees to use that kind of soil.

How wet or dry is it?

Appalachian forests get a lot of snow and rain. It’s wet here! But it doesn’t stay wet everywhere because of our hills. The water drains down from our hills into creeks and rivers. The top of the hill is dry. The bottom of the hill is wet (there might even be a creek). There might be flat spots where the rain doesn’t drain off as well, and stays puddled on the ground.

Some trees (like swamp white oak and silver maple) grow better in swamps or along rivers. Their roots can stand being underwater!

But other trees could not survive in such wet areas. Many of our tree species, like red oak and basswood, grow well towards the middle and bottom of these well-drained hills.  

Buckeyes (our state tree) grows best on the low or middle parts of the hill. Like Goldilocks, this spot is just right: not too dry, but not too swampy either. Photo: J. Brehm/Rural Action.

Have you ever heard a sycamore tree called a “mushroom tree”? Sycamores grow in moist ground along creeks–and tasty morel mushrooms love moist spots too!

Sycamores grow near water. They get big fast and are often hollow inside, so they’re fun to play on! Photo: J. Brehm/ Rural Action

How much sunlight does the hill get?

Some hills face south, others north, east, or west. Because Ohio is in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the south part of the sky. South-facing hills get more sunlight: they’re warm and the water dries up. The north side of hills gets less sunlight: it’s cooler and wetter.

The hills also create many different microclimates: shady ravines, dry ridgetops that get a lot of sunshine, and everything in between.

Do you see parts of the hill that face the sun in this picture? How about parts that stay in the shade? Photo: J. Brehm/Rural Action

So some trees like growing on different sides of the hill. Look for sugar maples (which gives us maple syrup) on the cool, shady north side of the hill.

On the wet side of the spectrum, species like butternut and kingnut hickory only grow very close to creeks. Between the hickory nuts and the pawpaws growing fruit beneath them, this is a tasty part of the forest too! 

Pawpaw trees (which make a big green fruit) grow best in the rich soil towards the bottom of hills.

Dominant trees

All these variations mean you find many kinds of dominant trees in Appalachian forests. Dominant trees are whatever kinds of trees are found the most often in the forest. These species include:

  • many types of oaks
  • hickories
  • American beech
  • several types of maple trees
  • sweet buckeye
  • basswood
  • tuliptree
  • sycamore
  • ashes
  • cucumber magnolia,
  • and even more–depending on where exactly you are!

Why does it matter which tree rules? Dr. Braun wrote that “each member of the forest community plays its part.” These trees and other plants form the beginning of an amazing food chain!

The cecropia (silk moth) caterpillar eats the leaves of maple, ash and other trees. Spiders and birds eat the caterpillar!

In this food chain, trees and plants feed over 1300 species of moths. Then 220 species of resident and migratory birds that eat the moth caterpillars…and so on!

Meanwhile, lots of our trees make nuts, including oaks, hickories, beeches, and walnuts. These nuts are the most important food for many animals, like:

  • chipmunks,
  • squirrels,
  • mice,
  • deer,
  • and even birds like wild turkeys, blue jays, and red-headed woodpeckers. 

Activities: Compare hilltops and lowlands 

Check out that dry ridgetop! Its trees were pretty different from the trees I saw lower down. Photos: J. Brehm/Rural Action

Next time you take a walk in the woods, try going high and low to see the differences yourself!

  1. Find a forest near a stream, wetland, or just at the bottom of a hill. Then find a forest on top of a hill. Compare them!
    1. Use your senses. How does each spot smell or look? Do you hear different birds or sounds? How does the air feel on your skin?
    2. Collect as many different types of leaves as you can in each location and compare. Are there any matches? Are there any that are different? How many different types did you find? 
    3. Grab a handful of soil from the low area and from the ridgetop. How are they similar? How are they different?
    4. Think about the questions in the post above: What rocks or soil are there? How wet or dry is it? How much sunlight does it get?
       
  2. Fold a piece of thick paper in half and get it wet. Set the paper out in the sun with one side facing the sun and the other side facing away from the sun (you can also use a compass, and face one side north and the other south).

    Watch which side dries out faster, or even time it.  What difference might that make to plants? Try taking a compass on your next hike and see if you can guess which hills face north and which face south.
Categories
Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Green Roof: Virtual Field Trip

The green roof on the new Schoonover building at Ohio University. Photo: Ben Siegel, August 2020

You may have grown plants in the ground. But have you ever grown plants….on the roof? This week, special guests from Ohio University will show us the green roof built on one of their new buildings. How does this green roof help protect water and wildlife? How does it work? And what can we learn from it?

Join the zoom field trip on Friday, April 16 at 10:30am.

Get inspired by a few of these ways our educators help the Earth.

How will you help? Share a story or picture to tell us how you will take care of nature!

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, April 2 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, students from Ohio University will show us the green roof growing on top of the Schoonover Center building. They’ll also do some experiments that show why the roof helps the environment.

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

Teachers: Your class is welcome to join this public virtual field trip. You can also contact us to schedule a virtual field trip just for your class, which sometimes works better. Email darcy@ruralaction.org.

What happens to rain when it hits a surface?

In this field trip, we will explore what happens to rain when it falls onto different surfaces.

Some surfaces let rain and other water pass through. Water can soak through to the soil, where plants use it or it is stored. Those surfaces are permeable.

Some surfaces are hard. Water will sit on them or move across them to natural water sources, such as rivers. Those surfaces are impermeable.

Can you tell which surfaces are permeable and which are impermeable in this picture?

Where in this picture can rain soak through to the soil? Where will it be trapped on top? This bioswale is on Union St in Athens, OH. Photo: Kaia McKenney.

Next time you go outside, can you find some surfaces in your neighborhood that are permeable?

Can you find some surfaces in your neighborhood that are impermeable?

Activity: Take a cup of water and pour it onto a surface. Does it stay there or soak into the surface? Does it move across the surface or get absorbed?

Plants are a good clue to whether a surface is permeable or impermeable. When it rains, water can seep through and be stored in the soil until the plant can use it. Sometimes water moves underground and might be the source of drinking water for people, if they have a well.

Why do we care about this?

Impermeable surfaces (like concrete and asphalt) can create some problems.

If there is a big storm, water can build up on impermeable surfaces and cause flooding.

When water moves across impermeable surfaces, it can carry pollution with it to rivers and streams. Some examples of pollutants are oil drips from cars on the road, or animal waste if someone does not clean up after their pet.

Using plants to protect our water

Green infrastructure means building in ways that protects water. Often plants help us do that. Rain barrels collect water as it rains, but they do not need plants. Some green infrastructure depends on plants, including green roofs!

In our virtual field trip, we will talk about how plants on rooftops (green roofs) or in other parts of our area can help store water and keep it clean.

Plants provide lots of other benefits to our neighborhoods. They keep temperatures cooler in the summer and protect our rooftops. They also support insects and other animals.

We will talk about what kinds of animals can use a green roof. Can you predict what animals you might see on a green roof?

Praying mantis on the McCracken Hall green roof at Ohio University. Photo: Megan Westervelt, 2020

Take a tour or make a model!

On Friday, we will take a trip to a green roof that was recently planted at Ohio University. But you can also “visit” the rooftop yourself here:

There is more information about green roofs on our website. You can also click “virtual visits” to watch a livestream and video tour of the roof!

You can also watch this great video of a green roof in New York for another example.

Make your own green roof model

If you want to create your own little model of a green roof, this video will help you.

How to make a model of a green roof, from the National Building Museum.
Categories
Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Waking up for Spring: Flora

Never mind March
We know you’re not really mad
Or angry or bad
You’re only blowing the winter away
To get the world ready for April and May

-“March,” author unkown

March is an exciting time of year for us naturalists! This is because the natural world is waking up from its winter hibernation and getting ready for spring. Some say if you sit quietly enough in the forest, you can hear it waking up. What do you hear?

On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll all become scientists and artists: studying how plants are waking up around us.

CHOOSE YOUR ACTIVITY:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, March 19 at 10:30am. We’ll be hiking in our favorite wildflower spots.

Learn what “phenology” is and why it is important.

Contribute to citizen science by making your own spring observations

See when and where to look for wildflowers popping up in our area

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, March 19, 2021

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, we’ll look at how the plants are changing with the spring weather. I can’t wait to hike with my camera through the woods!

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

What Phenology is and Why its Important

As most of us naturalists know, there are many kinds of organisms (living things) that live together in nature. Each organism has its own unique life cycle. Each responds differently to the other organisms, seasons, and places around it. Observing when and where organisms wake up or enter new parts of the life cycle is called phenology

I like to think of phenology as nature’s calendar. Unlike our manmade calendar with specific dates for special occasions. Nature’s calendar can change from year to year.  For example, Christmas is always December 25th. But the first day you see a wildflower popping up may change from year to year. 

The first day I noticed wildflowers where I live was February 28th. I saw a large patch of Snowdrops (Genus Galanthus) in my front yard!

This video shows the different stages plants go through in spring. Which different phases do you see in the video? These are the kinds of things I watch for.

Recording when and where these changes happen is important to scientists and land managers. It helps us make important decisions.

For example, gardeners pay attention to when the last frost happened in past years, so they know when its safe to move plants outside.

Ecologists watch to see if any plants or animals might need help. For example, if a certain flower starts blooming earlier or later, the bee or insect that pollinates it might not be around then. That bee or insect could go hungry, and the flower won’t make any seeds!

People have come up with many sayings, based on what they notice. These sayings are passed down from generation to generation. One example is:

“Look for morels when oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear.”

Morels are a delicious mushroom that can only be harvested for a short time each year. Over time, people have observed that the best time to find these mushrooms is when the oak leaves are tiny, barely out of their buds. 

When lily-of-the-valley is bloom, it’s time to plant tomatoes.

Only the bottom blossoms of this fireweed have opened so far. So there is still lots of summer to enjoy!

You can’t tell someone to always plant tomatoes on a date, like May 5th, because the weather is different every year. The other plants provide better clues!

When the top of the fireweed blooms, summer is about to end.

My friends on the west coast love a purple flower called fireweed. Its flowers start blooming at the bottom, then slowly work upward. But when the top flowers are blooming, my friends start to prepare for winter.

Try This!

Talk with your older relatives, like a grandparent or a great aunt, about what natural events they remember from their youth. This can be a fun way to learn about what was going on in the natural world in the past.

The picture above is  four generations of my family: my grandma, my mom, my sister, and my niece. I think they were talking about when my grandma remembered milkweed flowers blooming when she was a little girl. 

Try asking about what natural events they remember from when they were kids. Are they different from what you see today?

Contribute to Citizen Science

Scientists are interested in when plants and animals enter different life stages in different places. But they can’t be everywhere at once. So your observations can help them! If you pay attention to things like the first day you see a bird return from winter migration, or the first day you see a kind of flower bloom, you can share these observations with scientists.

I do this with the website iNaturalist. I take pictures of things I see in nature, then share it with the time and place I saw it. Sometimes, other people help you identify what you saw! To learn more about how to use iNaturalist, check out our post on Observing with iNaturalist

When you enter nature pictures in iNaturalist, you help scientists like  Michael Moore, a biology graduate student at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He used the information that people contributed to iNaturalist to discover that dragonfly wings were colored differently in hotter and colder places. Dragonflies with less colorful wings were not as successful at flying.

Get inspired to Make Your Own Beautiful Nature Calendar 

Making your own nature calendar can be a fun way to track what natural events are happening where you live. It encourages us to have an inquisitive eye when observing nature.

The picture above is my friend making observations in her sit spot. She plans to make observations in the same spot once a week for four weeks and see what changes over that time.

Often, nature calendars are in the shape of wheels. A student watched a willow tree all month in this one:

This student watched a willow bud grow for 30 days. Photo: Aspen Center for Environmental Studies

What is your favorite thing to watch come back to life in spring? 

Use your answer to this question as inspiration to fill in your own nature calendar.

For step by step instruction to make a nature calendar wheel, check out this website

When and Where to Look for Wildflowers in our Region 

I created this list of when and where to look for a few kinds of wildflowers by looking at the Wayne National Forest Bioblitz on iNaturalist. But don’t take my word for it. Check out these locations for yourself to see if you can find any of these flowers! Do you think they will bloom earlier or later than last year?

These are some common flowers to find very early in spring in the woods. Keep an eye out for them, or show us some others you find!

Name: Rue Anemone
Location: York Township Lat: 39.432503 Lon: -82.24631
Date observed: March 28, 2020
iNaturalist Observer: david2470

Name: Spring Beauty 
Location: Wayne National Forest, Millfield, OH, US
Date: April 3rd, 2020
iNaturalist Observer: camparker

Name: Dutchman’s Breeches 
Location: Burr Oak State Park, Malta, OH, US
Date: April 8th 2020
iNaturalist Observer: mlski

Name: Large White Trillium
Location: Nelsonville, Lat: 39.429502 Lon: -82.205244
Date: April 28th 2020
iNaturalist Observer: timniehart

Categories
Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Animals Waking Up for Spring: Virtual Field Trip

The view from Dumpling Mountain in Katmai National Park, Alaska, on the day we went looking for empty bear dens. Photo: Darcy Higgins

I climbed higher on Dumpling Mountain, scanning the nearby hills for big lumps of dirt. There was still a nip in the air, but I didn’t mind. I was joining a biologist friend on his early spring ritual here in Alaska: looking for (empty) bear dens. The giant brown bears had recently waken up from hibernation, and were leaving their winter homes behind. 

We don’t have brown bears here in Southeast Ohio. But we do have many mammals who start to move around when the cold thaws. Just as I loved watching for fresh signs that bears had woken in Alaska, I also love watching for the first clues that bats, groundhogs, and birds are moving around again here. 

On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll look for signs of animals waking up for spring!

LEARN ABOUT ANIMALS LEAVING HIBERNATION:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, March 12 at 10:30 am, for more stories about bears and other animals.

Pretend to be a hibernating animal. How do animals’ bodies change when they hibernate?

Watch for signs of animals outside. What is changing out there?

Virtual Field Trip on Friday, March 12 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, I’ll share more bear stories. And we’ll look at other animals who are showing up with the warmer weather here in Ohio.

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

When Brown Bears Wake Up in Alaska

The dens weren’t the first sign bears were exiting hibernation. The first clue was leaving my cabin in the morning, and almost stepping in this:

Do you see all the grass in this bear scat? Unless they find prey, brown bears on the Alaskan Peninsula have little to eat but sedge and grasses in early spring. Photo: NPS/Mike Fitz

Yep–bear scat. But this isn’t just any bear scat. It’s clearly the poop of a bear that just woke up. Why? Because it’s full of sedge (a plant like grass). In early spring, bears are hungry from not eating all winter. But at least in this part of Alaska, there is still not much to eat yet.

When there’s more food later in the year, their poop will start to look different:

This bear’s poop shows that it is clearly berry season. The scat was my first clue that the cranberries are finally ripe!
What do you think this bear was eating? I see evidence of two different meals. Photo: NPS

We also saw a few fresh scratches on the trees near camp. :

If there’s still sap dripping from the tree, you know the bear came by recently. Photo: NPS

So we knew it was time to find empty dens. We knew they’d be near last year’s dens, on steep hills where water runs off and dens stay dry. But these bears dig new dens each year. So we didn’t know exactly where they might be.

We scanned the open hillsides for piles of dirt, a sign of where bear dug entrances to dens. Brown bears have powerful claws and strong, muscly humps on their shoulders, which help them dig their dens. Another clue we looked for was old, dry moss. Bears sometimes use moss and plants to keep warm. The moss can get pushed out when the bear leaves.

A biologist crawling into a bear den at Gates of the Arctic National Park. See the old moss that helped keep the bear warm? Photo: NPS/Matt Cameron

We didn’t find dens that day, so my friends showed me their pictures from last year. The dens were big enough to crawl inside–so some people did!

Click on the video below to watch Katmai National Park naturalist Mike Fitz exploring a brown bear den:

Exploring a Bear Den

Could you imagine spending the whole winter in there? Where would you pee? Well–you wouldn’t!

When bears go to sleep in winter, their body slows down.

Their heartbeat is slower, and they breathe more slowly.

Their body recycles their pee and poop so they don’t have to wake up at all!

They do all this so that they can survive winter without needing food.

However, bears are ‘light’ hibernators. They can wake up in case they need to defend themselves, or to search for food on a rare warm day. Female bears even wake up to give birth in their dens!

Other kinds of hibernators, like a groundhog, couldn’t do this. A groundhog’s heart and breath slows down even more deeply, and their temperature gets colder. You could pick up an animal like this, and they wouldn’t even react.

Even though bears use less energy in winter, they still use some energy. So when they come out in spring, they are pretty skinny. The entire summer and fall are all about eating enough food to get through the next winter. Bears that get really fat will be better at surviving and having cubs.

Believe it or not, it’s the same bear in both pictures! This young bear (#812) was skinny when he came out of hibernation. Then he ate all he could to get fat before winter. Photo: NPS/N. Boak

You can understand why they might be a little grumpy when they wake up!

What’s it like to hibernate?

Try to imagine your body changing the way hibernating animals do.

  1. Make a den. Most hibernating animals dig into the ground, or make some kind of nest, where it stays warmer. What would make a cozy nest for you?
  2. Take your temperature. Our temperature doesn’t change much unless we’re sick: it’s around 96.8*F. Bears temperatures drop to 88*F when they’re hibernating. But deep hibernators, like groundhogs, can get as cold as 37*! Brrr!
  3. Count your heartbeat. Use a timer for this one. Find your pulse in your wrist or neck. Set the timer for one minute, and count how many times your heart beats. Usually, kids’ heartbeats are between 60 and 130 beats per minute (depending on if you’ve been running around!).

    A groundhog’s heart rate is only 5 beats per minute when it hibernates. Now, set the timer again. Watch seconds pass and clap every 12 seconds. Each clap represents a groundhog’s heartbeat. How much slower is that than yours?
  4. Count your breaths. A hibernating animal may breath only 1-2 times a minute. Set your timer again and count how many breathes you take in a minute. Continuing to breath deeply (like when you fall asleep), how slowly can you breath?

It’s pretty amazing that bears and other animals can slow down their bodies so much, and then go back to normal come spring. Human bodies aren’t built to do this. Some scientists think that studying how bears do it could help make new medicine for humans.

Animals waking up in Ohio

We don’t have brown bears in Ohio. But we do have many other animals that are starting to poke their noses outside their dens now that it’s March! My heart sings every time I see a sign of an animal I haven’t seen for several months.

Black bears do live in Ohio, although they are pretty rare. You’re more likely to see them in nearby West Virginia. Like brown bears, they hibernate lightly. They are even more creative with their dens: they might have spent the winter in a hollow tree, dug beneath some tree roots, in a thick leaf pile, or even underneath a neglected porch! 

Black bears use everything from hollow trees to this hole in the rocks for dens. Photo: NPS

If you are lucky, you might see black bear tracks someday!

Black bear tracks. Image: NPS

Yesterday at sunset, the first bat of the year flew over my head. Most Ohio bats hibernate in the winter, but a few migrate. Hibernating bats often gather in big groups in caves (or, around here, old mines!).

When it gets warm in summer, they’ll move to hollow trees, or even roost under the loose bark of a shagbark hickory!

Keep an eye on the sky at dusk, and you might see them swooping for insects.

This little brown bat is an endangered species in Ohio. Photo: ODNR


This time of year, I start to see more critters under logs! Many small animals have been staying warm underground, but are starting to move nearer the surface. Yesterday, we turned over a log near a pond and saw our first red-backed salamander of the year. If you find one

I frequently find red-backed salamanders under logs in southeast Ohio. They stay under logs and rocks to keep wet all year. But they burrow even deeper underground in winter. Photo: Wayne National Forest.

Some native bees have also been sleeping underneath logs. These kinds of bees are different from honey bees and live alone. If you find one while they are still sleepy, they may barely move, or move very slowly. But when they warm up, they will fly fast again. So be gentle!

If you find a slow-moving bee under a log, it may still be waking up from a kind of hibernation called diapause. Photo:  treegrow

And of course, birds that we haven’t seen for a few months will start to fly through again! Have you heard the loud calls of geese overhead yet?

Canada geese migrate north in the spring. Photo: bobosh_

When you’re outside this week, keep your eyes open for any animals you haven’t seen for a few months. Are you seeing any new tracks? Who is flying over your head? Is anyone moving around under logs or in the garden?

Have you seen any spring animals moving around? Tell us about it in the comments!

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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!

Categories
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.

Categories
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!