Monday, November 3, 2014

A Learning Adventure

Recently I attended a regional conference for Project WET, Wild, and Learning Tree facilitators at Beavers Bend State Park in Oklahoma near Broken Bow. 

It was a LONG drive from my home but well worth the trip.  I have always loved the Projects as an exceptional way to teach environmental topics, but this meeting was about what we, as the facilitators for these national environmental education programs, could learn. I was NOT disappointed.

We stayed in the group camp area in cabins built in the 30's by the CCC.  It is phenomenal how much was accomplished for the good of the public during those depression days!

After the first night of meeting new people and becoming familiar with the area, we delved into a learning experience relating to each of the projects the following day.  First, related to Project WET, water activities......we sampled for macroinvertebrates at the river to determine water quality..

While I have done this type of sampling many times, the river was beautiful, and so I enjoyed the activity and briefly explored the banks of the river.

This stretch of the river is cold water, due to the hydroelectric dam's release of water, and supports cold water fish like trout.  Due to the temperature, waders were used while in the steam. I like doing this activity with kids because they do like to "get their feet wet!"

There were many trout fishermen along this river, so the second activity of the day was appropriate--learning to cast a line for trout.  Of course this is something I have never done and I was a little timid to try.
                                                                                                      Our instructors were so reassuring that I picked up the practice rod                                                     
(a wooden stick with string attached) and tried it! 
Soon I was ready for the real rod.....
and the line was humming!  What a great experience.

After lunch we headed for an experience related to Project Learning Tree....forestry activities. For this, we went to a fire tower.  We heard about fire contol problems and successes, and met two women who have "manned" the towers for several decades!  Then, those who wanted to had the chance to climb the tower....100 feet above ground level.

Few states have operational towers these days, and I believe Oklahoma only has two, but what an experience....what a view! Our guide related many of her experiences in the 4-6 hour shifts in this tiny space.  I think I would quickly become claustrophobic or dizzy with the height.  What brave souls these people are.

For the final learning experience of the day (related to Project Wild...wildlife), we headed to the 14,000 acre wilderness area that the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker calls home. This endangered bird requires a specialized habitat of Short-Leaf Pine and Bluestem.

The wilderness we visited was virgin forest; the woodpecker requires large (old) pines for nesting.  The wildlife biologist that met us on the property impressed us with his enthusiasm and hard work to monitor and manage habitat for this species.  He also noted that the management was beneficial for many other species including deer, turkey and quail.

The arduous task of climbing over 45 feet in the large pines was demonstrated, much to our awe!

 All too soon, we headed out of the wilderness, toward civilization and the pizza place for dinner.  It had truly been a wonderful day, learning through a variety of experiences.  I wish all learning could be this way.  Certainly it was a trip I won't soon forget!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Which is Your Favorite Season?

I have been away from this blog and my home for the last couple of weeks exploring our national parks in Utah.  (more about that on a later blog post)

When I returned, I was amazed to see the change in our woods.  Fall is here!!

This photo is from our trip; it seems that fall is everywhere.  This got me thinking about the changing seasons and which season I preferred.

Fall has always been a favorite of mine.  It was always a time of change in my life--the school year started-- and big changes to observe in nature.  The fall color transforms the natural world into a sensory treat. Although many painters try to capture the fall colors, nature's palette is so superior.  Photos can't capture the beauty either, so it is best to stop and enjoy the view.

Winter has always been a hated time of year for me due to the cold and dark days that come with this season.  Add in a snow storm, and I hunker down inside. However, last winter I found joy in following animal tracks after a new fallen snow or in hearing the owls hooting.  Even the trees that were once adorned with colorful leaves seem beautiful as their branches are now exposed. Now that I can avoid the hassle of "getting to work" on icy streets, I know I will gain a new appreciation of this season.

Spring has never been on my radar.  This is probably because it is such a busy time of year.  The season's beauty has escaped me in the past, but this year I hope to focus on those early harbingers of spring....migratory birds.  Last year I watched as geese flew north; this year I hope to focus on those that come from the south to spend summer here in the Midwest. The spring woodland wildflowers are also a welcome site of spring.  When the Dutchman's Breeches, Mayapples, Spring Beauties, and others appear on the forest floor, I know nature is waking up....I just need to pay attention to it.

Finally, there is summer. Although I love the warmth of the sunshine and the long daylight hours, it has never been my favorite season.  I'm not sure why.

  Last summer I rediscovered   the joys of gardening and hope to expand this year, planting enough for me and the turtles!

Watching the bats flying erratically overhead and listening to the croaking of the frogs provide great summer entertainment. I can't wait for the "reruns" this summer.

Bottom line: I think there are things to enjoy about all of the seasons.  This year, as I begin a new season in my life--retirement--, I hope to embrace them all more fully.

What will you find to enjoy as the seasons change?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Catching a Thief

I love tomatoes more than any other food.  Which is why I was disturbed to see that "something" had been eating the tomatoes in my garden.  The suspects were many.  After all, we live in the middle of the woods full of squirrel, raccoon, opossum and others that would love such a free meal.  But it was not until one morning last week that I caught at least one of the culprits red-handed.

I had heard other gardeners lament the loss of tomatoes---one bite at a time--to turtles, but now I had proof.  In reading my field guides to reptiles and amphibians, box turtles are supposed to eat berries, fungi and a variety of invertebrates.  Someone should tell the turtle!

Of course these turtles are omnivores and like most animals will capitalize on any opportunity for a free meal.  In trying to determine what to do, I decided that next year I will plant more tomatoes---some for me and some for this thief and any others that may come my way.

What Scat is That?

How good are your "scat skills"--the ability to identify an animal's presence by scat alone.  I thought I was pretty good at it.  I even have a scat collection.  Eww! But last month I was stumped by the presence of some pretty distinctive scat on the deck.

The top photo was over two inches long and the bottom photo was about half that size.  Seeing the whitish area in the scat made me think of birds, but if a bird flew over and dropped the scat, it would be circular shaped. Plop! Plus the most logical choice, a hummingbird, would not have this large of a dropping.

So this quickly became a mystery to solve.  Over several days, I kept sweeping away this type of scat of varying sizes.  That became a clue.  Whatever it was, the adult and juvenile at this time of year (late summer) must be of vastly different sizes.  Again, that would eliminate birds.

I then focused on the whitish area, similar to bird droppings.  The white is the uric acid excreted from the body with feces.  This occurs in birds, but having eliminated birds for the reasons stated above, I thought of a closely related group--reptiles.

So was this a snake or lizard?  I don't often see snakes on our deck but have seen lizards, so this seemed more likely....but which one.  Here is where observation comes into the story.  After observing the scat, our family was watching the deck for other signs or the animal itself.  Finally, we saw the culprits---Five-lined skinks.  We saw the adults and the smaller, blue-tailed juveniles.
From Wikipedia

In an effort to verify our scat identification, I consulted two comprehensive reptile field guides.  Neither contained information about scat.  So I went to the internet, and of course found scat photos similar to mine.  The photographer guessed it was a reptile but did not cite any evidence or identify the species..

Being "into" scat, I think more should be reported for all types of species.  This is one thing the animal leaves behind that can indicate its presence.  I do have field guides to scat. Most focus on larger mammals, and I have never seen lizards listed.  Since this is a gap in our knowledge, maybe I'll start my own field guide someday!

Scat is so interesting, and it is fun to name all the synonyms...which I shall not list here...another project for another day!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Final Stop in My Quest to Find Nature

The last stop on my quest to find nature while on my European vacation was Germany.  Here we would spend time in a small village and in Berlin.
Upon landing in Berlin and heading to the countryside, it already seemed promising that I would find nature here.  We drove past wooded areas and pastures that reminded me of home.  Our hosts had a plot in a community garden which was well manicured, and many of the villagers had yards with ponds and various ornamental plantings.  Here I heard frogs and saw them hop into the ponds before I could identify them.  They sounded similar to the green frogs at home. And I heard several birds calling, but certainly not nearly as many as I can hear from my deck at home.

One day we accompanied our host to a local school.  I was impressed with the grounds of the school (very green) and the large bank of windows in each classroom.  After teaching without any windows for much of my career, I appreciated the calming effect the view of green has on students.

What impressed me most in Germany was the transportation system....rail lines serve the small towns and bring some of the students to school.  There is also a "fast train" to Berlin, which we took. 

In the cities of Europe, there was a large presence of bicyclists commuting to work. Here is a bike rack in Berlin.

Energy sources seem to be diversified as evidenced by the fields of solar collectors and wind turbines we passed along the highway.  Many buildings had solar collectors also.

We stayed in an eco friendly hotel in Berlin.  Its mission was to create a peaceful environment; one way it did that was to make the elevators seem like you were in a forest, complete with bird sounds.  That really was relaxing.
All in all, I was impressed with conservation efforts in Germany.  These are probably in place out of necessity....when you have little in the way of resources, it is wise to conserve.  But still I was not impressed with the biodiversity when compared to the US.

I looked for controversial issues in conservation (and I am aware that solar and wind power both have detractors) but found little to report as environmental issues.

The biggest controversy: who would win the World Cup game between Germany and USA. 

We were interviewed by a TV news crew in front of the US Embassy in Berlin the day before the match.  Being on TV in Germany was something we never imagined would happen, but when you
travel, you have to expect anything!

We had been to many places and had many great experiences, but after nearly a month abroad I was anxious to come back home where the search for nature would not be so difficult.

As our journey wrapped up, I realized how fortunate we are to live in the USA.  There are many things to be thankful for in this country, not the least of which is our abundant natural resources.  So as the custom agent said to me, "Welcome home", I replied, "It's good to be back."  And it is.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Is there nature in Paris?

That was the question during my European vacation.  Where would I find nature?  I wasn't expecting much in Paris; after all, it is a huge city with 83 million visitors annually.  And I wasn't disappointed.
The view was spectacular...and I viewed the city from the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower (shown here).  You could see some parks and tree-lined streets, but when you saw these at street level, they were highly manicured.  Even the trees were pruned to create an effect.

Of course, a city this size had the usual "wildlife".  A pigeon in the park----or should I say, many.  And most disgusting was the rat I saw near the Louvre.

But inside the Louvre and other museums, I finally found nature:

This looked like the Coca-Cola bear!

I most enjoyed the mythical creatures on Notre Dame:

My goal was also to become aware of environmental issues in each place I visited.  Besides the rat issue--apparently some don't want them killed---I was aware of the lock issue.  Many tourists have bought or brought locks, attached them to these old city bridges and thrown the key in the river.  There is some romantic notion behind this, but I was only aware of the pollution to the river and the damage to these bridges.  Apparently the government spends lots of money taking them off to ensure the integrity of the bridge.
The cost is borne by the taxpayers of the city.  As I was explaining the problem to a visitor, this rationale did not seem to quell the romantic drive to place a lock on the bridge.  Later, though, I learned of the visitor's change of heart when a facebook friend had said a fine of $300 could be imposed on the visitor.  With this I learned a valuable lesson in human behavior and environmental change.  If costs are shared, it does not deter negative behavior, but if a cost is borne by the individual, behavior does change.  Interesting.

So much for my adventures in Paris.  Next we would go to Germany.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A National Park in a Different Nation

This blog is a continuation of my report on looking for nature during my summer vacation in Europe.  Up to this point in my travels, I had seen little of nature compared to the US. I was most excited to schedule a trip to Italy's National Park...Cinque Terre.
Surely, if nature were to be found, it would be here!  This park is along the rocky coastline in northern Italy and had become a national park only in 1996.  A baby compared to the National Parks, like Yellowstone, that I have visited in the US.

On our bus tour to the park, we learned of the love-hate relationship between tourists and residents in the 5 small villages that are found within park.  This designation has been a boon to the economy but has also brought changes that are negatively viewed by some of the older residents.
The quaint, picturesque villages nestled on the steep slopes of the Mediterranean face harsh winter weather conditions as well.  We saw houses that had large rocks on the roofs to hold them down during windy times.  They can survive the winters, but will the villagers survive the deluge of tourists?

Another controversial issue we learned of involved the Apuan Alps marble quarrys we passed on the way to the coast. This area, while being used as a quarry since the second century BC, is being threatened by the sheer number of quarrys (300) that take 1.5 million tons of marble and 2 million tons of crushed stone each year.  This creates a threat to the picturesque beauty of the region along with ground water pollution and heavy traffic issues.  These mountains are where Michelangelo chose the marble for his sculptures, so there is historical significance to this area as well.

Back to my quest to see nature:  I hiked some of the trail that connects the five quaint villages.  The trails are steep; the drop off into the Mediterranean quite dramatic.

You can see the rugged countryside with scrubby looking plants.  We walked through olive groves, saw yucca--the symbol of the park--and those wonderful yellow flowers (see previous post).

Besides the scenic beauty and rugged slopes with hardy plants, I saw little in the way of "wildlife".  But it was a hot day, even by Italian standards.  And perhaps I was so taken with the scenery that I missed some opportunities to see wildlife.
A highlight of the trip was soaking my tired, hot feet in the Mediterranean.
My quest to find nature would have to continue on my next stop...Paris.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing Nature in Europe

I have been away from this blog all summer--my how time flies! Now is time to write about "What I did on my summer vacation"---remember all those grade school prompts!  I spent much of June in Europe with three traveling companions.  It was a marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  During the adventure, my goal was to find nature and find out about conservation issues in other countries.  The problem is, there was so much to see and do, and so little nature in my estimation, that I often forgot that goal until reminded by the companions. So what follows (and the next couple of blogs) is what I observed on my summer vacation.

We flew into Rome on an overnight flight (I didn't sleep), checked into the hotel and lined up for our first tour of the Colosseum and Roman ruins.  I know I was bleary-eyed but saw little to speak of at first.
Then we went to Palatine Hill, the birthplace of Rome, and immediately I noticed this tree.  Its familiar leaf shape and sheen was apparent to me.  An olive tree!  I am familiar with the autumn olive that is the invasive species in the midwest, and this tree was so similar.  We would see many groves of olive trees and vineyards in the landscape of Rome and Tuscany.

As it so happens, we stayed in a B and B overlooking the countryside.  Across the road was a grove of olive trees and I noticed the farmer cultivating these fields like mid western farmers would for a corn field.  As I walked through the grove, I saw many beautiful flowers....some resembled the roadside plants (wild carrot and chickory) in the U.S., but I don't know what any of them were.

Notice the bright blue sky.  It was rather warm in Italy, much like home.  This leguminous plant was growing wild everywhere.  If you know what it is, let me know. 

And I like the way the sun is shining on this purple flower.

Also in the grove were insects and spiders.  I soon spied this web.  The bowl and doily web contained a small spider which I could not identify.  I did not take field guides on the trip because I packed so light--just a small backpack. 

From our B and B I heard a few birds, not many, and this was surprising to me.  We were a couple of miles from a small medieval village, and there were plants all around.  Where were the birds and other animals? I heard the collared dove, which is an invasive in the U.S. and probably in Italy as well.  It's loud coo tends to cover up any other birds.

We saw pigeons in the village....many of them, around a polluted fountain. 

And I finally was able to photograph a lizard.  I had seen many, but they scurried too fast.  This one had lost part of its tail, perhaps slowing it down..

In general I had been disappointed in the amount of wildlife I could easily observe, but it made me appreciate what we have back home.

Soon, we would go to Cinque Terra....the National Park in Italy.  Maybe that would lead to more animal sightings!