Monday, July 21, 2014

New "Simple" Dichotomous Key

I made a new, improved simple key for tree identification. It's geared to narrow down some of the common types of trees in Vermont, in a simple, kid-friendly way. Print off a copy, try it out, and let me know what you think! If you have trouble with it, let me know and I can help you out.

Then, once you get good at using the simple dichotomous key, you can continue to improve you tree identification skills with a more detailed key. There are many available in book form and online, I would suggest trying a few out to see what style works best for you.

Happy identifying!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Solarfest Workshop

Hi all!
I'll be doing a tree identifcation workshop at Solarfest (July 18th-20th 2014). Come on out for some great music and environmental education. There's tons of workshops for kids and adults!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Animal Tracks

The other day while walking in the woods I stumbled across an area completely covered with complex patterns of animal tracks. The conditions were perfect to see the tracks, since the older snow had hardened, from exposure to sunlight and then re-freezing, and a fresh dusting had just fallen the night before. You should have seen me bounding around in knee-deep snow chasing after the new tracks I saw!

I saw many MANY snowshoe hare tracks. I could tell this is what they were by looking at the pattern of the tracks. Hares have much larger back feet than front feet. When they hop, their front feet land together and then their back feet land IN FRONT of the front feet. So the hare in the picture below is hopping to the left.

This hare is hopping toward us.
I could tell it was a hare and not a rabbit based on the size - hares are bigger! The rear foot of a rabbit can be from 1-3 inches long, where the hare can be 3-6 inches long.

The other really cool thing tracks can show you is what the animals did while they were going about their business. In the above picture you see a hare track that leads to a spot where the hare stayed for a little while (see how there is a big spot where the snow was packed down). What was the hare doing? I can't say for sure, but I know it spent some time here before continuing on.

I saw more than just hare tracks, I saw human tracks, bird tracks, dog tracks, and skiier tracks as well. Some tracks I wasn't able to identify, such as the ones below. I do know they are some sort of rodent because I can see the tail dragging between tracks!

There is a quarter for scale.

These rodent tracks end at this tree, so the
rodent's home must be under the snow here.

Due to the size of this next track, and the fact that there are little claw indentations, I say that it is a sort of weasel. If I'd had a book on me at the time then I might have been able to narrow it down further.

A weasel moves in a bounding pattern. This means that when the weasel leaps its front feet land first, then its back feet land in the same track as the front feet before it launches forward again.

They can get really good distance!

As I continued walking, I saw another track that seemed to appear out of nowhere. At first all I saw was another hare track, but suddenly a short, much smaller hare track appeared beside it. Then it vanished again!

Until I looked closer!

A baby hare was following an adult hare, hopping in the adult hare's tracks!

The last type of track I saw that day showed a walking pattern. If only I'd seen a porcupine track! Then I'd have seen all 4 types of track patterns - walking, hopping, bounding, and waddling.

See how the track is almost single-file? That's characteristic of a walking animal.
Because of the 4 toes and arrow-head like foot pad, I'd say that this track is canine.
Due to the size, I'd say fox.
But that was not the end of my tracking experience. The next day we went out to a different part of same natural area and found these beauties!

I put myself in for scale.

Based on size and surrounding habitat, my best guess is that these were made by a young Tyrannosaurus Rex. However, I am not well-versed in palentology, so I will have to do more digging to determine which dinosaur made these prints. 

Next time you're out walking in the snow, what do you notice about your own tracks? Can you tell which ones are yours from the tread on your shoes? If you jump, or run, or turn around does that change how your track looks? I'd love to know what you find!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this beautiful butterfly while at work in Shelburne, VT recently. The species is "Giant Swallowtail" which is fitting since it is the largest butterfly in the U.S. The wingspan can be about 4-6 inches! I find this butterfly striking due to the big, black patches on its wings and the large spoon-shaped tips to its wings. For comparison, the Tiger Swallowtail, which is a species more common in this area, has vertical stripes of black on yellow wings.

This is an exciting siting because this species is very rare in Vermont. They appear to be coming north into our area in recent years. It's also just exciting to see a butterfly this big, especially for kids. The children I was with were very enthusiastic, happy to sit there and watch wherever it flitted.

*NOTE* Butterflies can be attracted to an area based on the types of plants they like to eat. If you are planning a butterfly garden, it's probably best to stick with plants that are native to the area. This is because plants that come from other places might not have animals to eat it and keep it from taking over. Even if you only plant it in your garden, it can spread to nearby areas and keep going from there. Species that do this are labeled "invasive" and can make it harder for native plants to grow.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Today we biked to a little natural area by the Winooski River, and then let the Little Lady run about to see what she could discover. This is my favorite part, when we let the scientific discoveries come naturally! We wound up discovering many things we couldn't explain right away, so we had to use our powers of observation to form and test hypotheses. For the record, the way the Little Lady defined a hypothesis is an "educated guess", so that means it is based on the information we found, rather than just an off-the-cuff guess.

The first thing we found was some beaver damage on a tree. We made the educated guess that it was beaver damage since we were next to a river and we happen to know beavers live nearby. The beaver hadn't felled the tree, but just nibbled on it. The beaver might have done this to get a snack. They only eat the layer of a tree just beneath the bark (the cambium), not the main wood. Another reason for gnawing this tree might have been to file their teeth. Beavers teeth never stop growing, like our fingernails, but they don't have nail clippers!

Other animals create similar damage. This picture is actually porcupine damage.
(I didn't have my camera today, so I'm using this picture I took earlier.)

We also found some fire damage. The Little Lady was concerned about our hypotheses for this, because "hypotheses must be testable." She's right of course, but we discussed how you can test a hypothesis through research, rather than experimentation. One way to do this would be to ask the people who manage the natural area. However, while we were there we used our powers of observation to see if we could make our hypothesis stronger, or disprove particular ideas. For example: since we didn't find a lightning strike, we don't think it was naturally caused. It might have been a controlled burn by people who are experts in that field.

The biggest part of the adventure was spent studying water current in the river. It was a completely self-designed experiment by the Little Lady herself. She threw a stick and a hollow reed into the river to try to see if the hollow one would get waterlogged and sink faster. They were swept downstream too quickly to tell that time, but then something else happened. She threw a tiny piece of reed very close to the bank, and it started moving backward! Lucky we had a friend with us today who is an experienced canoe paddler. He told us about how directly downstream from a point where something, like a rock or log, juts into the river, the steam will create an eddy behind the point. In an eddy the water moves upstream because of the faster water moving in the main stream channel. This difference in current means that sometimes at the edge of an eddy you can see tiny whirlpools.

Image borrowed from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website

We saw waterfowl in the river; a pair of Canada geese and two pairs of black ducks. We also heard birds. The Little Lady identified the crow call. I tried to point out the red-winged blackbird call, but there was also a black-and-white warbler calling, and she kept thinking I was referring to their squeeky-wheel sounding call. We also heard a mourning dove. I'll have to come up with a better system for incorporating bird calls into my lessons now that I'm getting better at them (I've been practicing!)

The best part of today, for me, is that I had no plan for this outing, I was just thinking a quick bike ride to the end of the road and back. You really never know what you're going to find to learn from when you walk out your front door! That's the amazing part about working with kids in nature: you can quite literally never run out of new things to learn about. Who knows what the next post will explore!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spring Walk

I am certainly getting geared up for spring and summer, so get ready to bring your kids out for some fun times and natural education! Now that spring is springing make sure to check here (and on Facebook) for events. As it is I've been having some adventures of my own. The other week we got a dusting of snow which was just perfect for tracks. I saw these, anybody know who they belong to? Comment if you do!

And this bird's nest. I'm not sure of the answer yet, but I have my top guys and gals on it!

Last but not least, I was mesmerized by this little stream of meltwater cutting through the ice. I love the way it back-tracks on its own path, making a perfect Z. This shows a great example of how moving water erodes its surroundings, and how the surroundings affect the movement of water. I also really liked seeing the movement of the sediment on the bottom, how it is deposited by the water on the upstream side, and then picked up and carried along with the current on the downstream side.

Hope to see you all soon in the woods!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Woodpecker Rescue

One of my Environmental Science students arrived at school Tuesday morning with an unusual package for me. In it was what I believe to be a downy woodpecker who had crashed into a window. He was relatively motionless, but still alive and breathing. We noticed that it looked as if it had hurt its neck pretty badly.

I called several local licensed wildlife rehabilitators, to no avail (I can't blame them, it was the middle of a work day!) Then I decided to call VINS (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) which is located in Queechee, VT. I know that they have connections to help rehabilitate many animals, and are especially famous for their raptors (you can go visit the owls, eagles, and other birds of prey at their nature center!) so I figured they could at least give me advice.

They did better than that! They arranged a transport to get the bird to them so it could get the help it needed, and told me what to do in order to keep the bird comfortable while we waited. I was supposed to keep the bird in a small box, lined with a towel or pillowcase (a pillowcase is better for a woodpecker since they can get their beaks stuck in the loops in a towel.) The box should be kept in a quiet, dark place. When I told them the bird was starting to act more lively, they suggested I open the box outside and wait for 20-30 minutes to see if the bird would be well enough to go back into the wild on its own. In our case, the bird hopped out of the box, but then did not have the energy to go anywhere. It still needed help, so we sent it on the transport to VINS.

Today at around 2pm when I hadn't yet called to check on the bird, VINS called me! I am so pleased with how easy it was to get help from them, and how nice they were to me and how much they care about our wildlife here in Vermont. If you ever have a chance to visit their nature center with your kids, it is well worth the trip. Especially if you go to the Montshire Museum of Science the same day! This is exactly what my friend (of Lunches Fit For a Kid) and I did one Saturday this summer. To give you an idea what it's like, I'll attach some of those photos here.

First, the science museum:

A Rube Goldberg-like machine
Part of the outside play area

Playing with air

And the Nature Center:

She showed us this bird in flight!

Screech owl. They have such an interesting call (we got to hear it!)

Barn owl. So beautiful!

Our national icon

A sculpture that shows how a birds wings move as it flies
(if you aren't standing on it!)
View from the bridge over the nearby Queechee Gorge