Natural History Mystery

Who’s been spitting in the field? Stick your fingers into the frothy mass to find out!

You’ll likely discover a tiny moist creature with dark red eyes. This is the nymph (or immature form) of a spittlebug.

Spittlebugs begin their lives in fall, as their mothers lay eggs in hollow plant stems. When the temperature rises in the spring, those eggs hatch into nymphs and create their characteristic spittle, also known as cuckoo spit. Spittlebugs use their syringe-like mouthpart to tap the plant’s sap. It takes a lot of this ever-so-slightly-sweet water to satisfy a growing spittlebug’s appetite. They pump around 150-280 times their own weight every day!

Despite what their name suggests, all of the excess water is excreted not through their mouth, but through their bottom. The nymphs move their abdomens up and down, forcing air into their watery excretions and creating bubbles. The bitter-tasting foam provides a moist haven from predators and from temperature extremes. After continually renewing their frothy home for a few months, the nymphs form one large bubble and metamorphose into adult froghoppers, now able to jump 100 times their body length in a single bound! 

Read more neat functions of insect bottoms in the book Bug Butts by Dawn Cusick.

Strawberry Season

“You could smell ripe strawberries before you saw them, the fragrance mingling with the smell of sun on damp ground. It was the smell of June, the last day of school, when we were set free, and the Strawberry Moon, ode’mini-giizis. I’d lie on my stomach in my favorite patches, watching the berries grow sweeter and bigger under the leaves. Each tiny wild berry was scarcely bigger than a raindrop, dimpled with seeds under the cap of leaves. From that vantage point I could pick only the reddest of the red, leaving the pink ones for tomorrow.” – Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

We are entering strawberry season! Here are some ideas to celebrate:

🍓Watch the full Strawberry Moon rise on the evening of Saturday, June 3.

🍓Search for tiny treasures of wild strawberries and telltale signs of rabbits, chipmunks, mice, deer, ruffed grouse and others munching on them. 

🍓Attend a strawberry festival.

“In Potawatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry. We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit. Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.”- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Celebrating the Natural World with Four Winds Volunteers

At Killington Elementary School, the Four Winds Nature Program fits right in amongst a culture of exploring the outdoors. When speaking with volunteers Katy Forgues and Beth Sarandrea, they exchanged grins when asked about their favorite ways to spend time outside. “We laugh because we do a lot of these things together,” said Katy, “Killington is a very active community. A lot of the kids and parents get out biking and hiking…” Beth added, “Skiing and snowboarding!” Katy shared the joy of being in the woods in the early morning, hearing the ruffed grouse drumming, and feeling part of something really special. For Beth and Katy, sharing this love and appreciation for the natural world with their own children and peers is pretty much second nature. 

“I love science and being involved in the classroom,” Beth shared, “and my dad was a science teacher. It’s fun to share the wonder.” 

Said Katy, “I’m a scientist and former teacher. I can’t not do it!”

Both volunteers started participating with Four Winds when their kids were in kindergarten, and they’ve been able to see the progression of learning as they entered the third and fifth grades. Katy shared about teaching the Galls Galore unit in her daughter’s third grade class. “I love the perception of the younger kids, how they get into their imagination and run with it.” And the learning sticks. Katy received a text from a fellow parent and friend saying that her son had come home with “something” [a gall]. He told her there might be a wasp inside and that he wanted to keep it until it hatched out! 

“Kids are really interested in these secret worlds, small things – like galls, or digging in the dirt, getting nitty gritty,” Katy said. That fascination extends outside of the school day when children share what they’ve learned in Four Winds with their parents at home, helping them learn about topics they’ve never heard of before. 

Beth and Katy really see the benefit of Four Winds, especially in getting kids outside. “Kids love having parents in the classroom,” Beth said, “They’re excited to go outside and learn because otherwise they’re not doing it too much.” Katy noted that at the beginning of the pandemic, many classrooms moved outdoors, which was great, but now they’re back inside. “It’s sad to witness kids not getting outside as much anymore. Parents notice too. I’m glad Four Winds is getting them outside more.” 

Sunflower Houses

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden—in all the places.” -Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden)

Here is the perspective of Heather Durkel, Four Winds social media coordinator:

You can create your own magical secret garden for the little ones in your life. Children. Grandchildren. Daycare or summer camp kiddos. Ours is growing and evolving this very moment, even as I write. I hope this post inspires you to create your own! 

Truly, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach to creating a sunflower house- it will be special no matter what! That said, I am going to share with you one approach just to get you started. 

You will be creating a rectangle or square out of sunflowers and climbing flowers. The sunflowers provide the structure for the climbers to vine onto, but we like to add some additional support in the form of stakes or branches. 

Here’s what you will need: 

  • Some fertile ground. As little as 4’x4’ or as big as you have room to spare! 
  • Posts, tall strong branches, bamboo stakes 
  • Sunflower seeds or starts 
  • Morning glory seeds or starts 
  • Scarlet runner bean seeds or starts
    • All the plants above (sunflowers, morning glories and scarlet runner beans) are fast growers! This means that you will have a happy sunflower house by the end of summer, surely. BUT if you want to hurry the process along, support a local farmer and purchase some seedlings from them to get a head start on things. 

Here’s what’s next:

  1. Begin by making sure the site of the sunflower house is weeded, the topsoil loosened slightly (you could use a tiller, broad fork, shovel, etc..) and amended (we use composted manure.)
  2. Pound the stakes or branches into the ground, forming a rectangle or square. This will be the perimeter of your sunflower house. 
  3. Plant the sunflowers around the perimeter of the rectangle or square, following the outline of the stakes. These sunnies will become the wall. Make sure to leave a small opening for the door! 
  4. Plant the morning glories and / or scarlet runner beans between every second or third sunflower. 
  5. Water well and continue to water well throughout the summer. 
  6. Weed and water on repeat 
  7. We like to take the mulch from our lawn mower and put it on the ‘floor’ of our sunflower house. This makes a nice, soft spot to sit throughout the summer. 
  8. If you want to make the house super special, you can tie twine between the posts to create a roof. When the climbing flowers reach your roof, they will climb length-wise and create a colorful ceiling.
  9. Enjoy the process!! 

Throughout the summer, my boys and I care for our sunflower house together. We add grass clippings. Water it. Watch the sunflowers emerge and then observe them as they grow taller and taller and taller. 

We notice everything. The color of the leaves, texture of the sunflower stalks, the first buds and blossoms of the morning glories. We bring snacks and lemonade, books and blankets out to our house throughout the season. We sit and watch and feel the embrace of the tall sunflowers and colorful flowers. We love when the sunflowers start to bloom, and when the petals fade and the seeds appear, we watch bird after bird after bird land on the open faces and feast on the seeds. When the whole sunflower begins to die and the leaves turn brown, we feel the dry leaves and crumble them between our hands. 

We experience the whole cycle of this little magical place. Creating it. Nurturing it. Celebrating its growth. Enjoying it in its full summer beauty. Then watching it fade, change colors, shift purpose and shape and eventually become compost and soil. 


Shad Blooming and Running

As shadbush blooms, their namesake shad (and their close relatives, the river herring) are running!

These anadromous (from ana “up, upward” and dromos “a running”) fish run up the river to spawn. They are born in freshwater and migrate to the ocean when they are 6-8 months old. After three to five years of maturing, the river herring return to their natal stream to lay tens of thousands of eggs themselves. They then head back to the ocean to continue the cycle.

The herring run is often best viewed from fish ladders (a series of step-like pools to help the fish around an obstacle in the river) where the herring (and their predators!) are concentrated for a close look. 

John Hay describes this fish ladder viewing  in The Run: A Chronicle of Migration and Survival in the Waters of Cape Cod, “A continuous long line of fish kept swimming through to the bottom of the ladder, where they would vainly skip and twist and strain through the water’s force. Then they swung back in a semi-circular arc across the basin and re-formed at its edge. There was a wide shiver on the water. They wheeled as in a dance, or like the planets in pursuit of light, where they ran up again into the flood. It happened time after time, in this futile but concurrent motion, a beauty to watch–its tension, effort, and relief were exactly coordinated with the water. These fish were the water.” 

Herring Run Resources:

-Picture book When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz

-Guide to viewing the herring run in Maine

-Guide to viewing the herring run in Massachusetts

Celebrating Mud

Squishing, oozing, splashing, gushing! Transforming into pies, paint, and magic soup, mud has limitless opportunities for play. Playing in mud promotes creativity, stimulates the senses, and cultivates joy.

How do you and the children in your life engage in mud play? Send us your favorite muddy photos and be entered in a drawing for one of three kid-sized Muddy Buddies! Email photos to by April 30th. Four Winds Nature Institute assumes the right to use any submitted photograph or image on our website, on our social media, and in our other print or electronic materials. This contest is open to everyone. We’re super excited to see your pics!

Here are some books to foster mud play:

Mud by Mary Lyn Ray

Mud! by Annie Bailey

Mud Puddle by Robert Munsch   

My Mud Kitchen is Rad! by Allison Bakkum

Mudkin by Stephen Gammell

Time for Timberdoodlin’

“PEENT!” The nasally exclamation sounds from the field at dusk. “PEENT!” booms into the twilight again and again from the same spot. Then comes a high-pitched weedling higher and higher into the sky. The twittering transforms to emphatic chirps as the sound returns to the ground. Finally, the familiar “PEENT!” rings out close to the original spot and the concert repeats. 

This is the soundtrack of the American Woodcock male’s flight display – keep your ears open and explore becoming Woodcocks this spring! 

-Try out different tools (clothes pins, tongs, tweezers, chopsticks, ect) as your long woodcock bill to probe for food (mostly earthworms) in soft dirt

-Make a pair of wings and create your own version of the male woodcock’s song and dance – here’s more information about their flight display.

-Go out in early spring evenings and see the flight display in action – here’s some Timberdoodlin’ Tips.

Natural History Mystery

Who left all this scat on and around this log? The scat is around an inch long and tan with a whitewash of uric acid (the concentrated form of nitrogenous waste birds deposit). 

A drumming male ruffed grouse! In spring (and less often summer and fall) male ruffed grouse use their drumming stage to attract females and defend their 6-10 acre territory from other males. The stage is often a 10-12 inch high log or rock surrounded by dense cover. The drumming, which sounds like an engine starting, is made by fanning their wings. The drumming starts slowly and eventually accelerates to the speed of the wing-fanning sound waves – causing the sound waves to stack up into a penetrating shock wave, or miniature sonic boom!

Listen and watch the drumming in action here.

Natural Playscapes

Dirt, water, a few stumps and boards, some old pots and pans and spoons. It doesn’t take much to spark hours of wonderful nature play. 

To be sure, this will look very different depending on where you live or work and what space is available. 

Maybe you’ve got a nearby woods to play in. There, children will discover the seasons – snow and ice for building, branches and sticks for fort making, trees for climbing and hills for sliding, mud and leaves as loose parts. You might bring along a child-sized shovel, some pieces of rope or twine for fastening, a tarp or sled for moving materials – there are countless ways to provision for children’s various interests and projects. 

But what if your outdoor play space is an empty lot, a corner of the playground, or a small grassy yard? 

Add a mound of dirt or sand, a rain barrel or water spigot, some stumps and boards and other loose parts like sticks, tree cookies, big rocks, cones, etc. Then watch as the children’s imaginations take off!

Two milk crates, a board, some pots and pans and spoons, a spray bottle, plus snow or a bucket of dirt, and you’ve got a simple snow/mud kitchen that will inspire plenty of play no matter where you are.

With regular time outside, youngsters will become more and more confident and creative in their unstructured play, and the adult role then is to stand back, watch, listen, and connect with the children’s curiosity and wonder.