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Sarah’s Spring Book Corner

Our friend, Sarah the librarian, has been enjoying the changes of spring with us. She’s been watching spring plants bloom in the Glouster library garden. She’s checked on the little tadpoles growing in the vernal pools at the Trimble Community Forest. And she’s also been reading books about spring!

Whether you want to identify a wildflower or enjoy a good story, Sarah has a book for you! Next time you need to relax after a tromp in the woods, try reading one of these:

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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.
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Vernal Pools: Virtual Field Trip

Our friends exploring the ponds near the vernal pools in the Trimble Community Forest.

Have you heard the frog songs coming from ponds and puddles lately? In early spring, frogs and salamanders travel to water to lay eggs. Spring pools are a critical part of their life cycle. Join us on this week’s virtual field trip to learn how it works!

To learn about vernal pools:

Join our Zoom field trip on Friday, March at 10:30 am to see a vernal pool in action.

Read more about eggs and tadpoles in the rest of this post.

Visit a vernal pool yourself. What evidence of animals do you find?

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, March 26, 2021 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, we’ll visit a vernal pool with some nets. What do you think we’ll find living there?

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.

Amphibian Life Cycles

Last March, we wrote about vernal pools and what lives in them. But why are these pools so important for the frogs and salamanders in our forests? 

Vernal pools are small ponds that form in the spring rain. They dry up in early summer when the rain slows down. Fish don’t live in them, and they look more like puddles than anything else. But, if you approach them slowly and quietly, you’ll notice that they are full of life. 

A vernal pool in the woods. Photo: Creative Commons

A long time ago, about 200 million years, amphibians (frogs and salamanders) became the first animals to walk the earth. They grew legs and tough skin so they could leave the water. This helped them find food and less crowded homes.

Amphibians sometimes have lungs. But they mostly breathe through their skin. Their skin is smooth and covered with mucus, so they can filter oxygen from the air. They have to stay damp, even though they don’t have to stay in the water anymore.

The ability to leave the water became the blueprint for life on earth. And amphibians still go back and forth between water and land today.

Salamanders

Newts and salamanders are some of the coolest, most secretive animals in Ohio. Most species spend most of their days hiding under fallen trees or leaves. This keeps them cool and wet. At night, they come out to eat. They’ll devour bugs, shrimp, and pretty much anything that moves.

A cheeky spotted salamander. Photo: Creative Commons

On the first warm, rainy nights of spring, hordes of salamanders march to vernal pools. They meet to breed and lay their eggs. Typically they attach their eggs to sticks and plants in the pool, like in this picture.

Close-up of salamander eggs attached to a twig. Photo: John P. Clare.

Because there are no fish in vernal pools, salamander eggs are less likely to get eaten there!

Once the eggs hatch, the salamander larvae then swim around for a little while. Their limbs grow. They munch on the insect larvae they find inside the pools.

A salamander larva. Photo: Andrew Hoffman.

Once salamanders have legs, they move out of the pool and into the forest floor. Usually, they stay there the rest of their lives. They only return to water when it’s their turn to lay eggs each spring.

The red-spotted newt is special because it changes color as it grows. Once it crawls onto land, it turns bright orange. It lives in the forest for 3 or 4 years like this.

At the bright orange stage of its life, a red-spotted newt is called a “red eft.” Photo: Creative Commons

Then its skin changes color to yellow-brown. At this adult age, these newts go back to living in water! You can see them swimming around pools hunting and protecting their eggs.

You can tell this red-spotted newt is an adult because of its darker color. Photo: Creative Commons

Some salamanders do things slightly differently. Mud puppies, hellbenders, and dusky salamanders live their whole life cycle in streams and rivers. Red-backed salamanders lay their eggs on land, and they don’t hatch until the larva have grown adult legs!

For the rest of Ohio’s salamanders, though, vernal pools are essential.

Wood Frogs

Just like salamanders, many frogs use vernal pools for their eggs. Wood frogs lay their eggs in vernal pools in March. Ever hear a “quacking” sound from a pool, but don’t see any ducks around? It’s probably a wood frog!

Listen to hear what a wood frog’s call sounds like.

Wood frog tadpoles spend their first few months in the pool, growing strong.

Wood frog eggs in a vernal pool. Each mass is about the size of a baseball, and they aren’t attached to twigs or plants. Photo: Creative Commons
A baby wood frog swimmin’ around. Photo: Creative Commons

Eventually, they absorb their tadpole tail into the rest of their body. Scientists are studying the chemical that lets frogs absorb their tail. They hope humans might be able to use it to fight cancer!

Once they look like frogs, they are ready to hop out into the wild. 

Adult wood frog, back to the pool for spring. Photo: Creative commons

Gambling with weather

While vernal pools don’t last more than a few months, they are very important for the life cycles of some of our most interesting animals. 

Using vernal pools for your eggs is a gamble, though. If rain and temperatures aren’t right, you might lose your eggs or tadpoles! Climate change has made weather less predictable for frogs and tadpoles.

If there isn’t enough rain

Frogs and salamanders will find their usual pools are dry. They might have to lay their eggs in ponds or lakes, where there are more predators. This means the chance that the eggs will survive is lower.

 If there is too much rain

They might lay their eggs in a puddle that isn’t deep enough. This means the pool could dry up before the babies are able to grow.

Your turn: explore a vernal pool

Look for flat places in the forest where vernal pools can form. Slowly and quietly approach it.

If you are patient, you may get to see some things movin’ around! Check out our post last year for ideas on where to look, and what you might find:

Turn over some logs around the pools to spot some grown-up amphibians.

Look through the leaves and plants for eggs.

And share what you find in the comments!

Get your hands wet and dirty before touching frogs and salamanders!

Dip your hands in the frog’s vernal pool or pond. Remember, they breathe through that skin you are touching! Oil, soaps and other things on human hands can harm them. You should also put rocks and logs back where you found them.

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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

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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!

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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:

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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.

Seeds

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?

Roots

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:

Ingredients:

  •  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

Instructions:

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?

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Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

A Look at Landfills

Looking down on the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center.

In October, Sophie (another educator with Rural Action) and I went on a “World of Waste Tour” across southeast Ohio. We saw where our waste goes after leaving our bins: a landfill, recycling center, and compost facility. The landfill made a big impression!

Where our waste goes is often a mystery to the average person. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” really applies to what we throw away! Learning about how our waste is handled and how much waste we create helps us reduce our environmental impact.

In this blog post, we share what we learned about landfills: what they are, how they work, and what a landfill looks like here in southeast Ohio. 

What is a landfill?

A landfill is a place where we put solid waste. If we can’t turn it something new through recycling or composting, it goes to the landfill. When we throw something in the trash can, it goes to the landfill. It will never be seen or used again. (So think about if something has more uses before you put it in the trash can!)

Today, landfills keep trash separate from the environment around it. However, landfills didn’t always have environmental safeguards in place. Landfills used to just be big holes in the ground full of trash, called open dumps. No one watched out for how that trash might affect water or air.

Certain types of waste are more harmful to the earth and its people than others. Waste that is considered dangerous to human and environmental health is known as hazardous waste. Plenty of hazardous waste ended up in old school landfills.

An open dump. Photo credit: Julian Belli

An old landfill near Nelsonville on 691 used to take hazardous waste. It was not well managed for our protection. The 691 Landfill was open from 1969 to 1984. It covered 30 acres and mainly took trash from households, but a lot of hazardous waste found its way in. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled the area a Superfund Site because of all the dangerous waste in it. This fancy name just means the area needed cleaned up as soon as possible.

The EPA and its partners cleaned up the 691 Landfill from 1995-1998. Now, the hazardous waste inside shouldn’t harm us or the natural world. The 691 Landfill looks like this now, with dirt and grass on top of the trash.

The 691 Landfill outside of Nelsonville today.

Modern landfills

The 691 landfill, like most landfills of the mid-20th century, didn’t have infrastructure in place to lessen the environmental impact of trash rotting in the ground. Today, our waste goes to sanitary landfills. 

Sanitary landfills are sites where waste is isolated, or kept separate, from the environment. Professionals in fields like geology, engineering, and environmental science run sanitary landfills. The site supervisor at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center, the place our trash goes in southeast Ohio, has a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in geological engineering. You have to really know your stuff to have a job like this! Supervisors are in charge of making sure their landfills are following federal regulations. The EPA sets these intensive regulations to protect the environment around landfills.

Landfill regulation

According to the EPA, landfills have to be located away from fault lines (cracks in the earth), wetlands, and floodplains.

Paying attention to fault lines when choosing a spot for a landfill will keep us from stirring up trouble with the rock layers that make up the earth when digging out the landfill.

We choose locations away from wet areas to ensure leachate stays far away from our drinking water. Leachate is the liquid trash goop that leaks out of a landfill. Does your trash bag drip when you take it to the curb? Leachate is that same liquid, but on a larger, more toxic scale.

The location of some landfills has sparked controversy, however. Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, did a study on the location of landfills in Texas. He noted that every landfill in the state is located in mostly black and brown, lower-middle income neighborhoods. Black and brown folks make up only 25% of the population of Texas, but 100% of landfill’s neighbors. Geology and hydrology are major players in the siting of landfills, but there might be political reasons a landfill is where it is. 

Regulations now say a landfill needs a geo-membrane to hold that leachate. This is often a two foot (or more) layer of clay on the edges of the landfill. Geo-membranes typically have a plastic liner outside the clay. Geo-membranes and plastic liners keep liquid and chemicals from leaking into the soil and groundwater. Complex leachate collection systems catch and direct leachate away from groundwater. One acre of a leachate collection system costs $250,000!

Watch this video about the layers of a landfill and how it protects the area around it.

How a modern landfill keeps the environment safe. Video Credit: Waterpedia

Another system in place to ensure the environmental safety of landfills is groundwater monitoring. Underneath the soil, there are holey rocks that hold water in the ground. This is called groundwater. The groundwater around landfills is tested often to see if the water is safe for humans and wildlife.

There are several daily practices used to control the yucky smell, keep trash from flying away, and keep insects and rats out. Every time a truck dumps trash in the landfill, this trash is rolled over multiple times with a compactor. A compactor weighs about 50 tons (that’s 100,000 pounds!) and has giant spiky wheels to grind up the waste. Dirt is placed on top of the trash after it is ground up and compacted to keep water out. 

A 50 ton machine grinds up our trash.

Saying goodbye to a landfill

When a landfill is as full of trash as it can legally be, it needs to be safely closed. A two foot layer of clay and a six inch layer of topsoil to grow native grasses are placed on top of all the trash to close the landfill.

A cross section of a safely closed landfill. Photo credit: EPA

Landfills need to make enough money to pay someone to monitor the landfill for at least 30 years after it stops taking trash! This person will look closely at the effectiveness of the liners and leachate collection systems over time. Is the landfill holding all the leachate? Is the environment around the landfill is contaminated? Continuous monitoring lets us know what methods we use work well and which ones need adjusting. Through ongoing observation of landfills, we can create sites that are more environmentally friendly in the future. 

Our local landfill

My view at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center.

The Athens Hocking Reclamation Center in Nelsonville is the final destination for trash we put to the curb or in a dumpster. This landfill opened in 1983. Now that the EPA regulates landfills, the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center has to get a permit for the disposal of solid waste, their impact on water and air quality, and for the disposal of leachate that seeps from the landfill. If they aren’t doing enough to protect the air and water, these permits can be taken back and the landfill will be illegal to operate.

This landfill has 3 feet of clay beneath it, as well as a 60 millimeter polyethylene liner (the plastic liner made just for landfills). The clay and plastic together should stop trash from leaking into the soil below and contaminating it. This landfill does not have a collection system for the methane gas that is created by decomposing trash. The landfill releases methane into the air, but methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Landfills can have local impacts on air and water quality, but they also add to global climate change if the methane is not collected.

Our local landfill is 550 acres large. It’s estimated that this landfill has 50 years of trash disposal left in it. Then it will be full. According to the environmental director of the landfill, there are 11,000,000 yards of capacity left. Each day, the landfill sees about 50 to 75 trucks of household waste. Add all of those trucks up, and the landfill receives 70,000 tons of household waste a year. That’s on top of the waste they take from industry!

The trash that comes in on trucks each day is unloaded onto the daily face. This is the section of the landfill that they chose to put trash on that day. A worker runs over the daily face with a compactor at least 6 times to push the trash down as much as possible. At the end of the day, workers cover the new trash with six inches of dirt to prevent water from leaking into the trash and to keep the flies and rats down. You saw the compactor running over trash at our landfill earlier!

The daily face the day I was at the landfill.

It was sad to see so many usable items be smashed by a giant compactor. We saw plastic chairs, a dollhouse, a basketball, and many other items that looked like they were in good shape be run over and buried. Eugene and I even found a frisbee to play with! 

While landfills are designed to be the safest method for disposing of things that truly are trash, I don’t think most of the things I saw in the landfill deserved to be there. These items could have lived many more lives. Instead, they are now buried in a mound of dirt in an area that was once a stunningly pretty valley.

What can we do?

If you read this blog post and thought “Gee, landfills don’t sound all that great,” and would like to learn more about keeping your waste out of landfills, check out our previous blog posts about waste.

Seeing a landfill and feeling all the trash shake under my feet when a machine drove by was an upsetting experience, but it has opened my eyes to just how much unnecessary trash we make in this world.

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Uncategorized

Happy New Year, and see you January 8th!

We’ve been putting nature displays in local windows this winter. Take a walk past the Hive (in Nelsonville), the Glouster library (in Glouster), or the Tecumseh Theatre (in Shawnee) to see them!

We hope everyone enjoys the holiday season, and spends some time outside. We’ll be curled up and hibernating like this fox for the next two weeks. Virtual field trips will start again on Friday, January 8th.

Here are the topics coming up in January:

  • Lichens (January 8)
  • Foraging Winter Plants (January 15) (ACPL program to-go kit available)
  • Nature Show and Tell (January 22)
  • Animal Tracks (January 29) (ACPL program to-go kit available)

Do you have a topic you’d like to see on a virtual field trip? Please leave a comment or email darcy@ruralaction.org! We may use your idea in February!

Categories
Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Sarah’s Book Corner: Tracks!

Some of you met our friend Sarah–and her dog, Mabel–on last week’s tracking virtual field trip. Sarah is not only an excellent dog walker, tracker, and nature artist. She is also the youth librarian at the Glouster library, here in Athens County.

Sarah showed us Mabel the dog’s foot on our tracking field trip.

“Darcy, I know how you and the young naturalists love nature,” Sarah said to me. “There are so many great nature books here at the library. Would you like me to share them with you?”

Of course, I said YES! After a nice hike (like on virtual field trips), I love to look at books to learn more about what I saw.

Are you still excited about animal tracks? If so, try some of these book recommendations! They are all available at Athens County Public Libraries. Check your local library if you live elsewhere.

Juvenile Non-Fiction

Picture Books

Field Guides

Sarah will be sharing book recommendations twice a month, whenever Program To-Go bags are available at the library.

Do you have a favorite animal book? Share your recommendation in the comments!