Natural History Mystery

Today is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – Imbolc – the Gaelic traditional festival that marks the beginning of spring. Here’s an early sign of spring to look for now: marks of red and yellow liquid against the snow. Elongated oval tracks with fine claw marks nearby give a clue to who left the marks. What is the story?

Coyotes are now in the peak of their breeding season. The red mark is the female coyote’s urine tinged with blood – a sign that she is coming into estrus. A female coyote is in estrus for only two to five days in a year, but courtship often begins two to three months prior. The yellow mark is likely a male scent marking with urine. Usually the female initiates the scent-marking, and the male will smell her urine and add his own. At this time of year, also keep an ear out for duet coyote howling!

Larry Lamsa, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reminiscing on 27 years of volunteering

Here is the perspective of David Rodgers, Nature Program volunteer for 27 years at Lakeview Elementary School in Greensboro, VT: 

“I vaguely recall joining this nature study program around 1995, at the same time I started other volunteer activities at the Lakeview Elementary School in Greensboro, Vermont. Susan Sawyer was our excellent teacher and four towns were covered (Greensboro, Walden, Craftsbury, and Woodbury). 

I have enjoyed connecting kids to the endlessly amazing world of nature here in Vermont, and have simultaneously expanded my own personal knowledge greatly. The hands-on approach and getting children outside is very effective, as the more of our senses are used, the better we remember. To see and encourage the curiosity and enthusiasm of students to learn about plants and animals as well as the energetic forces all around us is a constant delight and hopefully will be formative experiences for their later lives. Teaching the scientific way of observing, experimenting and thinking is particularly important in developing the kind of critical intelligence and ability to question everything necessary to becoming a responsible citizen in a functioning democracy and a well informed problem solver.”

Adventure Walk

“I try to do a Forest Friday where we go out and explore the woods. I have a spot that I found on our nature trail around the school, and it’s a fun space for kids to explore. So we’ll go there and I have little flags that I set up for boundaries and then we just let them play. There are no toys, it’s just nature. We try to do that once a week. The Forest Friday is for a few hours in the morning … but I’ve found that even just having an hour or an hour and a half outside is fun. I call it the adventure walk, and they just love it.

There are a lot [of benefits], but one of the biggest is that they are learning to play using their imagination, more so than using fancy toys that you might have in your classroom. Being able to use your imagination like that is really important for developing higher-level thinking, higher-level brain functioning. When kids are doing that, in their pretend play out in the woods, and they’re having to maintain in their brain things like – this stick is actually a fishing pole, and that rock is a fish – there is lots going on there that’s really great for their development. Also I think experiencing nature like that helps them appreciate nature more as they grow older. It’s the best way for them to learn about science. Today they were putting snow in water to see what would happen. I could teach all day about how water will melt snow in my classroom, but they are doing it, and they’re going to remember that.”

–Sybren Spensley, Rutland Town School Pre-K

Snow Experimentations, Ice Creations, Bird Observations: Ideas for Families Exploring Nearby Nature Together in Winter

Look at winter
With winter eyes,
As smoke curls form rooftops
To clear cobalt skies.

Breathe in winter
Past winter nose:
The sweet scent of black birch
Where velvet moss grows.

Walk through winter
with winter feet
On crackling ice
Or sloshy wet sleet.

Look at winter
With winter ears
The rustling of oak leaves
As spring slowly nears.

-Douglas Florian in his children’s poetry book Winter Eyes

Looking for outdoor activity ideas this winter? Four Winds has created a guide with play prompts, materials to have on hand, recommended gear, and non-fiction and fiction books. What will you try?!

Natural History Mystery

Who has been here? They’ve left a sprinkling of bean-like curved, fibrous scat and munched hemlock branches, but no tracks. They must have been feeding from up above in the hemlock tree.

Here’s another clue: a snow-plowed-looking path through the snow. There are distinct prints in the path, so the animal wasn’t belly sliding, rather the animal’s stocky body made a trough in the snow.

Along the trough trail was some bright fresh chewed bark with many parallel teeth marks in all different directions. The animal must be in the rodent family with chisel-like incisors.

Eventually the trail led to a crevice filled with scat and a few quills. 

Putting all the clues together and this mystery animal is a…


Fostering a can-do attitude

“One student discovered they could climb up the stump and jump off – that was the inspiration,” says Katherine Brown, Director of Little Peaks Preschool in Keene, NY. Other students would venture over and climb up and didn’t quite dare to jump off. One boy tried and tried, desperately wanting to get up on the stump. Katherine and the staff encouraged him to figure it out, and one day he was ready and did it. Katherine explained, “You could just see his pride puffing up. And then there was no stopping him. He really became so much more confident and had an ‘I can do it’ attitude.”

“I really think it’s biological, the connection that we have, when we’re in nature because we’re more part of it,” says Katherine. She sees fewer conflicts outside, with the time to just be in the moment and follow curiosities. Also there are the benefits of gross motor skills, fresh air, seeing the seasons, and learning how to be out and safe and have fun in all kinds of weather.

Here is the structure of Little Peak Preschool’s morning:

  • Nature museum: Exploring while everyone arrives
  • Circle:  Songs and sharing 
  • Chores: Meaningful tasks that help others, like cutting branches for a backpack tree, picking apple drops, or collecting kindling for community members
  • Bathroom: A five gallon bucket sunken into the ground with a hole cut out of the bottom and a toilet seat that snaps on top serves as their toilet. There’s also a bucket for toilet paper, one for garbage, and one for wood chips. 
  • Snack
  • Hike/Play Time: After voting with a leaf or stick where they want to explore, a student leader is in charge of navigating along with everyone periodically counting the number of kids
  • Storytelling/Read aloud
  • Quiet spots: Observing and recording on clipboards with blank paper
  • Sharing Circle: Sharing noticings from quiet spots
  • Closing Song

Happy Winter!

The winter solstice marks the first day of winter today – the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. The sun rises today at 7:22am and sets at 4:13pm (in Montpelier, VT). Tomorrow the days will begin to get longer (up until the summer solstice where we’ll have 6 hours and 40 minutes more day length!). Today, enjoy this transition point in the year from darkness to light.

Here are some ideas to celebrate:

-Decorate a solstice tree for the birds with garlands of popcorn and berries. Read The Night Tree by Eve Bunting for inspiration. 

-Play with shadows! With the sun reaching its lowest point on the horizon today, how long does your shadow get? Can you make your shadow touch another shadow? Can your shadow disappear inside another shadow? 

-Head outside with some hot chocolate; listen to the sounds and look up at the stars on this longest night. Read the book The Longest Night by Marion Dane Bauer.

-Have a bonfire and learn about other solstice traditions in the book The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer.

Birds on the Wing

“If I were a bird, I’d be a cardinal and I’d stay for the winter!”

“If I were a bird, I’d be a bald eagle and I’d migrate for the winter!”

“Look, look, there’s a chickadee in the bush!”

These were some of the excited calls coming from the 2nd graders at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden as they studied bird migration this fall. Students learned about the many challenges that migrating birds face, and the adaptations they have that help them make such long journeys. Using true-to-size silhouettes, tape measures, and their own bodies for scale, the children marveled at the size of some of the “great migrators” like the Osprey, with a wingspan of 5-6 feet, and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, who weigh little more than a penny and yet beat their wings over 3,000 times per minute. The kiddos were astonished at the speed of the Peregrine Falcon, who can reach over 200 miles per hour when diving for prey, and the stamina of the Arctic Tern, who has the longest migration in the world – from the Arctic to Antarctica and back every year. 

 Photo taken by David St. Germaine

The children also learned about many of the feathery residents who call Vermont home all year long. These birds have many strategies to survive the cold winter, like chickadees, who flock up for warmth and grow more brain cells to remember where they previously stashed seeds. In one activity, students were each given a card with a specific food source illustrated on it and asked to imagine: if you were a bird who eats this food, would you migrate or would you stay? “I’d stay because I’m a bird who eats mice,” one student said, “I know mice are around all winter because they like to live in our house.” Another student exclaimed, “I’m a bird who eats fish from ponds, so I’m out of here!” reasoning that because ponds freeze in winter, he wouldn’t be able to catch any fish.

Chickadee in winter, Erik Karits, Pexels.

At the end of this Four Winds workshop, students were excited to receive a quick reference sheet of common winter birds and a spreadsheet for recording their bird sightings. 

Whether at the feeder or on a snowshoe through the woods, keep YOUR eyes open this month for some of these common winter birds!

Natural History Mystery

What is this white blob nestled in a pile of woodchips?

Pileated Woodpecker scat! Pileated Woodpeckers spend the winters prying open dead and dying trees with their chisel-like beaks. They are looking for their favorite winter food – ant-cicles (hibernating carpenter ants who are virtually frozen). While Pileated Woodpeckers are excavating a meal, they will often drop scat packed with indigestible ant exoskeletons and washed in white uric acid (concentrated nitrogen waste).

If you don’t happen to see Pileated Woodpecker’s crimson crest or hear their uneven piping calls, you can look for their scat underneath large excavation holes as a sign that they are around in the winter woods. 

November Rainbow

The leaves have fallen, flowers have transformed into seeds, many birds have swapped their vibrant mating plumage for duller winter tones – the outdoor palette is now muted. 

Yet, there is still a rainbow of wonders to be discovered. 

Look closely, how many colors can you find outside!? 

Now you are ready for a winter rainbow walk with a read-aloud: