Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Core elements of Crow's Path: Wandering

Casey found a barred owl feather with a near perfect snow flake on it. Can you spot it? How did we know it was a barred owl?
As promised, over the coming weeks, we'll be giving an in depth look into the core elements of our programs. We'll do this anecdotally to give a sense of what we do during a typical day at the Field School while providing context and insight into why we take the approach we do.

Core Element #1: The Wander
Wow oh wow what a glorious week. With warm weather and fresh snow, the tracking has been glorious. The warmth brings out many mammals who aren't true hibernators, but who will sleep for long periods at a time when the temperature drops. When these skunks, raccoons, possums, and others wake up, they seem to be in a daze. Tonight I followed the meandering trail of a possum as it explored its world. Possums are intensely curious and have a strong sense of smell. Almost completely oblivious to the world around them, they'll follow their noses in search of food, which is pretty much anything they can chew.

I joined Anna's guild on Tuesday. Like Possums awakening from a deep sleep, our goal was to follow our curiosity. Anna was inspired by by the smell of skunk over at Knob Hornbeam, an outcropping of bedrock sprouting gnarled old hophornbeams, and a pileated woodpecker she had seen on the walk in to set off on a wander to explore the woods southeast of camp. We started with a spark of inspiration, but without any particular agenda of things to learn or or places to talk about. The world was a blank canvas waiting to see what we might draw upon it.

While heading over to check out a tree with fresh pileated woodpecker feeding sign, I heard Josie remark about deer tracks she spotted. A key element of the wander is to pursue an observation rather than letting it slide away into the past. This transforms a walk into an endless mystery where our attention is consciously directed towards our immediate surroundings. I followed up with Josie's passing remarking, and asked her to show me the tracks. We decided to follow the trail. The tracks ended at a sapling then jagged to the right before disappearing into a small tunnel. What started as a "deer trail" turned into a red squirrel trail that ended in a mystery. How deep was the tunnel? Where was the squirrel? What are they up to this time of year?

We're at the tail end of breeding time for red & gray squirrels. Both use scent marking to attract mates and fend off competitor suitors. We found scat and urine right next to the tunnel, and a short distance away we looked at the bark of an ash tree that had been chewed off by a gray squirrel.

Josie spotted the fungus above at our lunch spot.I brought my camera with me and we were able to take some close up pictures of it. We described what it looked like first and then were able to get a better sense once we zoomed in all the way. The little orange knobs are the "fruits" of a fungus. Each one erupts out of a lenticel (the little mouth holes along a trees young bark where gas exchange occurs). I brought Josie over to a glossy buckthorn, which has prominent lenticels, to show her what these look like on a healthy tree. And then we went back to check out the orange knobs again. 

Miles and I were checking out this sugar maple twig (technically a branch, as a twig refers just to the most recent year's growth). At the end of each twig is a terminal bud, which holds a cluster of eager cells that will form this spring's new growth. Terminal buds leave a ring of scars where the scales on the bud formerly attached to the twig. Each of these clusters of rings (properly: annular rings) represent one years worth of growth. We counted back the annular rings to the trunk of the sapling and counted 7, one year shy of Miles. How old is the branch in the photo above? 

The author and inspiring naturalist Bernd Heinrich (and Huntington resident) wrote is his book, Winter World, that he would go around knocking on old trees with pileated woodpecker cavities in the hopes of drawing out flying squirrels. Like possums, flying squirrels are not true hibernators and will sleep through most of the cold. They're also whole-heartedly curious. A knocking at their tree will occasionally bring them out to investigate who's come to visit. Bernd and I successfully drew out 3 squirrels once at his cabin in Maine. 

So without any particular agenda, we made an amazing adventure of the day, learned a ton, and even got to see two hairy-tailed moles tunneling through the snow! The wander is certainly an art. It takes a healthy sense of curiosity (suppled endlessly by the kids), some great questions (supplied skillfully by the staff), and a commitment to having fun.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Journal challenge

Robins feeding on crabapples at entrance to Centennial Woods

The city is alive with the dramatic return of robins. A good fall for crabapples means heaps of food for the returning birds. Caught in the mix were starlings, goldfinches, and cedar waxwings galore. Spring is just around the corner. As the world jumps to life, changes on the land happen so fast and dramatically. We wanted to offer a series of weekly challenges for kids to tune into and track these changes on the land.

For this first week, we'll be challenging the kids to make their own journals to track changes in their backyard. Journals can be simple (pages stapled together) or more complicated (birch bark cover with pages stitched together using dogbane). We'll post challenges each Monday and remind kids each week. 

Lake closure and the Burlington Phenology Guild.

Tai out at Rock Point. 
Anyone who has been within ear shot of me over the past month knows that I've been obsessing over the ice on the lake in the hopes that it will freeze. Last week the lake did indeed freeze over. Records have been kept since 1816 on lake freezes at the widest part (Burlington Bay to Corlaer Bay). This is the first time since 2007 that the lake froze over (from Wild Burlington).

To celebrate, with the Burlington Phenology Guild we trekked out along the edge of the Rock Point peninsula marveling at the beauty of the ice, the bizarre meanderings of what appeared to be a red fox (at one point it ran out about 100 yards perpendicular to the shore line). We also spotted mink tracks and enjoyed the sounds of house finches, goldfinches, cedar waxwings, and hundreds of robins. Here comes spring!!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


ESS participants demonstrate a walk, trot, and bound.

This week for Earth Skills Seminar we took advantage of the beautiful snow and continued our discussion of tracking. Our theme for the day was trailing - how to interpret a string of animal tracks. All animals can do all gaits, though some animals prefer to do move in particular gaits when traveling from A to B (people walk, dogs trot, cats stalk, squirrels hop, weasels lope, raccoons lumber). The best way to get familiar with these patterns is by pretending to be them.

We had the good fortune of running into a friend out with her dog. Trevor demonstrated for us a trot, gallop, and walk. He even gave us a pronk! Along with imitating animals, seeing the animal make tracks and then studying those tracks is one of the best ways to learn.

Below is a quick survey of our investigative questions when looking at tracks. While the list is incomplete it shows a trend towards deeper level questions. As a tracker, I was trained to first distill facts and details from the animal's footprints. These pieces, taken over a longer period of time and wider geographic range begin to fit together into coherent patterns. This is where the evidence begins to become a story. And then, as a reporter would do, we tie it all together by explaining why and how the scene occurred as it did.

Below I've combined the Pieces Patterns Processes framework Jeff Hughes taught me with Jon Young's six arts of tracking questions.

   1. Who? The question of identification (species, gender, age of animal, etc.)
   2. What? The question of interpretation (gait pattern)
   3. When? The question of aging (time of year, seasonal behaviors)
   4. Where? The question of trailing (landscape patterns, where is it not, where is the animal now)
   5. Why? The question of ecology (why did this happen, deep ecological time explanation)
   6. How? The question of empathy (how is the animal feeling)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The lake and our first week back!

What a gorgeous first week back at the Field School. On Monday we had beautiful blue skies and warmer temperatures. A cold front blowing through brought us beautiful beautiful snow. The star of the week has certainly been the lake. With Birdie Goose Bay (aka Appletree Bay) frozen over with more than a foot of ice, we took the opportunity to walk on water and play along the shoreline. It felt like exploring the arctic circle.

Please subscribe to the blog (on the left). Over the coming weeks we will highlight a different feature of our field school to give parents insight into the different elements of the Field School and how they contribute to the overall education of their education.

A camouflaged Aurora bundled up from the cold. She looked an awful lot like when Elliot dressed E.T. up like a ghost. With the cold weather, we've been staying warm by keeping a solid fire going as well as by playing lots, which also means lots of tired kiddos at the end of the day.