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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

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!

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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!