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:

Time to Breath In and Out

The “noticing rock” is part of the morning routine at Nature’s Niños Nature-based bi-lingual Pre-K in East Montpelier. The boisterous group that ran up the hill gathering piles of grass all settled into silence for a moment on the “noticing rock.” Facing all directions the youngsters noted different colors of grasses, the lighting, and a few last leaves. Teacher Betsy Barstow has built this quiet reflection into the routine as a balance to active play, or as she says, “time to breathe in and out.” Active play in the forest mud kitchen, the rope “spider web”, and games of hide and seek are balanced with stories and sharing gratitude. Leaving the forest, the children again take a quiet moment of reflection to look back on the forest, remember their time there, and say thank you and goodbye.

“Spider web”

Betsy allows time for the group to “Go slowly, be open to what happens. Let children take the lead.” One day her students spent the morning following a turkey, closely observing and wondering where the turkey would go next. She says, “I wish every child had the opportunity to be in the moment and follow a turkey!”

Male Wild Turkey. Mcvoorhis, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Giving children the time, space, and opportunity to figure it out for themselves

Here is the perspective of Ellen Putnam, Four Winds Nature Program volunteer and coordinator for 22 years in Piermont, NH.

Once, during a Four Winds Nature Program Calling All Owls lesson: “There was a little one who said, ‘I am not touching that!’ when she realized that an owl pellet was something that an owl had hacked up. She was very clear that she would have no part in touching it. She said, ‘I’ll look, but I’m not touching that.’

Very gradually, as other students around her were saying, ‘Look what I found, look what I found!’ she kept leaning closer. Before too long she said, ‘I want to put the bones on the paper where they’re drawn.’ Then she wanted to help with removing some of the fluff from the bones. She ended up participating completely because she saw how much interest her classmates were showing and how fun and really cool this activity was. 

When we got all done and we were sharing what we had learned or what felt special for us in that lesson, she said, ‘I am a brave girl, and I touched the bones!’ and she went on about what she had found. 

We all have our limits, and one of the things that I try really hard to do is to not share with the students the things that make me squeamish, like snakes and spiders. I really don’t want to be around them. They’re fascinating, but I don’t really want to look at them, and I know I don’t want to touch them. I don’t tell the students that because I don’t want to visit my feelings on to them. 

It’s about giving children the time, space and opportunity to figure it out for themselves. It makes a huge difference for them.” – Ellen Putman

Speaking of owls, see if you can spot the barred owl in this photo!

Hunting and Gathering

“Let’s find sea urchin flowers!”

This autumn as chipmunks stash seeds, red squirrels store cones, and beavers stockpile sticks, we can also foster these gathering instincts in children’s play. Hunting and gathering is one of the seven play motifs, or recurring play patterns, that David Sobel has identified from observing children playing freely outdoors around the world. Have you had a rock collection, a jar of fireflies, a bouquet of dandelions, or a pocket full of shells from the beach? 

“From a genetic perspective, we are still hunting and gathering organisms. Gathering and collecting anything compels us; searching for hidden treasure or the Holy Grail is a recurrent mythic form. Look at the success of Where’s Waldo. How do we design learning opportunities like treasure hunts?” –Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators by David Sobel

Here are some books to spark Hunting and Gathering ideas:

What’s in Your Pocket? by Heather L. Montgomery

In a Jar by Deborah Marcero

Acorns Everywhere! by Kevin Sherry

Natural History Mystery

Delicate threads push up from the soil at this time of year. What are they? 

Needle Ice! The water, soil type, and temperatures all have to be just right for these frosty pillars to form:

-The soil needs to be somewhat porous (tightly packed enough to retain water and loose enough so there is space for the water to move up through the soil – usually this is silty soil). 

-The soil must be saturated, so all the pores are full of water.

-The soil temperature must be above freezing and the air temperature must be below freezing (this is usually in the late fall/early winter as soil takes longer to cool than air).

-The ground is usually bare, such as a hiking trail.  

Under this perfect combination of conditions, water at or just below the soil surface reaches the colder air and freezes. Capillary action brings up more water from the soil, which then freezes and expands, freezes and expands, pushing up from the soil in fragile tubes. The dirt is lifted up as the needle ice grows!

Thinner columns of ice (about as thick as our hair and aptly named hair ice) grow from wood with Exidiopsis effusa fungus on humid nights when the temperature is just below freezing. See a timelapse here

Interconnected

Here is the perspective of ReTribe co-founder and mentor Julia Hunt:

“The main message is that we are all interconnected – that’s all humans and all beings. When you actually feel the realness of how the weather is affecting you, the same as the animals – you’re out all day. When you get to hear the sounds of the forest and become attuned to what’s happening in the world around you outside. The more that you feel like you understand it, the more that it feels like your friend and you’re part of that. It feels less like humans and nature, and more like, ‘Oh, we’re another part of this cycle.’ That means that our actions have to work within the cycles. Just like all the other beings’ actions have to so that we can all coexist here.”

“Part of our school is that the community overall has to help to make this fire. You don’t get the firewood and we won’t, all of us won’t, be warm. It helps build empathy and compassion … it makes it feel like they’re home and that they belong there.”

“It feels less about all the detailed information we give. And it’s more about the feeling that they remember later in life. They can remember that feeling of peace, and then they know it’s possible to get back there.”

Natural History Mystery

What is this gooey growth along a driveway?

The remains of this mushroom! What would you name this mushroom? The cap looks shaggy all around, like the mane of a lion – the most common name is Shaggy Mane Mushroom. Other names include Shaggy Ink Cap and Lawyer’s Wig. As the mushroom matures, the gills and cap deliquesce (liquify into a black slime).

Notice the black goop forming at the rim of the mushroom cap – from the bottom of the gills. This liquefaction is a strategy to help spread the spores – with the cap curled up, the gills are opened and the maturing spores are free to disperse.

Look for shaggy mushrooms around lawns, woodchips, and compost piles, especially when they pop up seemingly spontaneously after rain. These mushrooms rise with such force, they can break through asphalt! Keep an eye on a certain one, make a note and/or draw a picture every day – how long until the cap completely transforms to black goo? This ooze was used for writing ink in the past, try it for yourself!

What Makes Ferns Special?

“I really liked the time when we were at the outdoor classroom, discovering what makes ferns special. There were a bunch of different types of ferns and we had to guess what types they were. We got the answers correct and it was super duper fun!” -Eamon’s, 2nd grader from Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, favorite Four Winds memory

We asked Eamon, what makes ferns special? “The leaves are all different shapes and sizes and they look really cool. Ferns spread through those little brown thingies — oh yeah, spores! — which float in the wind.”

How were Eamon and his classmates able to tell one fern from the other? While the leaves of most ferns have a narrow stem and broad triangular blade, the lacey nature of fern fronds comes from divisions of the blade into leaflets and subleaflets. Some ferns have an “entire” blade, with no divisions or lobes. But in what are called once-cut ferns, the blade is divided horizontally into many smaller leaflets. Twice-cut ferns have leaflets further divided into subleaflets. Thrice-cut ferns are the laciest of all the ferns; every subleaflet is further subdivided into tiny lobes.

Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Entire” Walking Fern
Björn S…, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Once-cut” Polypody Fern
Twice-cut” Long Beech Fern
Thrice-cut” Lady Fern

At this time of year, you may begin to notice ferns browning in the forest and along roadsides, but keep your eye out in winter for evergreen ferns (Intermediate Wood Fern, Polypody, Christmas Fern, and Marginal Wood Fern) whose green foliage remains all year long, even under a blanket of  snow.

Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas Fern under a blanket of snow