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The temperatures have soared (in the low 50s today) and all the snow is melting. Funny, how all the stuff that fell on the snow but was covered up again is now showing on top: dust, twigs and leaves, tiny seeds… whatever snow is left now is no longer purely white.

But last week, before the thaw set in, Amie and I went for a nature walk with the intention of finding animal tracks. It was cold, but each time we spotted a track in the snow, we grew magically warm. We followed the trails wherever they went, up and down the slopes, underneath the bushes, around the trees, sinking in up to our knees (snow got into my boots: gack!).

We were on the trail of one creature in particular. I had found its tracks on an earlier walk and had had a tough time identifying them, because only the trail (the pattern of walking/trotting) was clear, but not the tracks (individual footprints), in the old snow. Still, going by Murie’s Animal Tracks my best guess was that they were the tracks of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). I’ve seen this beautiful creature in person only a couple of times, long ago in the summer, so suspecting its signs was exciting. I was keen on getting a good footprint, though, in the freshly fallen snow.

We didn’t have to go far, for there they were: that same pattern, right behind our garden fence. “It might be the fox, Amie!” I whispered, and as we walked along the meandering trail, we kept quiet, for maybe he was still around…

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This trail is one of a “perfect walker” or an animal with a “direct-register track”: when at a trot, the hind feet step into the tracks made by the fore feet and their trails often form a nearly straight line. Their trails look like the trails humans leave behind – the human animal having only two legs can’t help but be a “perfect walker”! But the fox’s tracks are smaller and closer together: made by a smaller animal. Also, they go places where a human wouldn’t go, like underneath bushes.

Domestic cats, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, foxes, deer and moose are perfect walkers. Domestic dogs are not: their trails are more irregular. We don’t have wolves, bobcats, or moose. That leaves deer – of which we’ve seen a few right behind our house – domestics cats, foxes and coyote.

Time to look at the tracks themselves. This time the track hadn’t disappeared in the snow and I got some nice photos!

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Well, that rules out the deer, which has hooves, and the cat (or bobcat, had one wandered quite far out of its range), because cats usually keep their claws retracted, and here the claws can clearly be seen.

Fox, then, or coyote. Coyotes have been spotted in the area, but not in our neighborhood that I know of, and I haven’t heard one. Also, the coyote’s direct register tracks are about 14″ to 15″ apart, whereas these were much closer together, about 8.5″ apart. The coyote’s print, with nails, are usually almost around 3″ long, whereas these are only about 2″.

The unique and therefore distinguishing feature of a fox’s track, the one that will make all your doubts disappear, is the line or bar that runs across the heel pad of the front track (it can be straight, or chevron-shaped). None of my tracks were clear enough, though.

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The snow was very powdery and quite deep, which may account for “slurring” of the tracks in those pronounced lines from one track to the other. Sometimes they seemed to have been foot drag, sometimes they seem to have been made by the fox’s tail.

I explained all of this to Amie, some of it at a whisper, while we were walking, but most of it back at home, while looking in the track books from the library together. I was interested in identifying the track, of course, and talking about how the signs of animals make them alive for us, even though they’re not present.

But I also wanted to show her how an argument works, but which path of deduction I emphasized the words “caused” and “causes”, “so” and “we conclude”, and “it can’t be this because” and “it must be this because”. She was interested in the detective work and clearly grasped some of the easier steps. For instance, she told me herself, looking at the pictures I had made and the drawings of deer tracks, that it couldn’t be deer.

She loves to pore over the images in the track books, and soon I’ll ask her to make some drawings. At the moment we’re swamped with Valentine’s cards, however. Of course we’re doing a Home-Made Valentine’s, just like we did a Home-Made Christmas: 20 cards and 100s of hearts out of construction paper, 20 envelopes out of scrap paper, 20 signatures /tracks painstakingly coaxed from my daughter’s tired hand…

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We returned to the Winter Wednesday tree challenge yesterday (read our first entry here), which is about tree silhouettes. Amie decided to draw the large pine trees in our  neighbor’s yard (all the trees in our own yard are too close to see in their entirety from the window). (The picture below was taken a month ago, when there was still snow on/in the trees.)

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It was a pleasure and also slightly mystifying to see her draw those trees. You’ll see what I mean when you see the drawing…

First we decided which tree to draw: the large pines in our neighbor’s yard? Yes! I pointed out they’re actually two or even three pines clumped together. Okay.

In the spirit of observational drawing, I made sure we discussed our subjects. First we talked about how they are not leafy but “needle trees” and about how all the leafy trees have lost their leaves, but how the trees she was about to draw were still so green.

We discussed the colors (I suggested we forgo the colors and draw just the shape with a pencil, but Amie insisted on using her brand new color pens – and who could blame her?). The crown, she observed, is dark green. And the trunk? “Dark brown!”

We talked about how the trunks are long and how the green crowns sit on top of them, sort of clustered together into one single, huge triangle in the sky.

After getting all this straight, Amie started drawing.

She drew one very long trunk, all the while commenting: “I really don’t like the color brown. But oh well [sigh] I will have to use brown, because it is brown, after all!” She really talks like that.

I asked if she would draw the other trunks too, and she said no, she’d draw just one.

When the trunk was done, I asked if we should tape an extra page on top for the crown?” She said: “No, there’s enough space, see? Here?” and she pointed at the blank space next to the tree. Then she reached for the light green pen.  I reminded her of the dark green color of the needles, but she said “I really don’t like that green, I’ll use the light green instead.”

Then she drew a flattened circular crown on above and next to the trunk. I suggested that its shape is triangular. She said: “There’s no space for that”.

Then she started drawing the leaves, taking special care with the ones squeezed in on top. I said: “But doesn’t our tree have needles?” she said: “I’m drawing leaves instead.”

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Mmm. I asked her which tree she was drawing. “That one,” she said, and she pointed at the tree in the foreground of the photo: the oak. I said, bewildered: “But that tree has no leaves. The leaves all fell off in the Fall.”

“But I’m drawing the tree in summer, Mama!”

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To follow up on yesterday’s Outdoor Hour Challenge on Squirrels, here are some of today’s nature pictures.

Squirrels, of course. Even though I dug out the snow around the bird feeder, they are still attempting to get up onto the baffle. The prickly bush approach must have been too painful, and it wasn’t working anyway:

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Climbing up the pole?

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Baffled again… But not for long.

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Beautiful animal:

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This is a tiny one. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. At first I thought it was a chipmunk, it’s that small. It’s very reddish brown: is it a young Gray Squirrel (do they turn gray as they get older?), or is it another species? It didn’t venture far from the tree.

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The Carolina Wren, who was really the hero in this photo and this one.

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And later on:

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The Moon and Venus below it.

And even later, just now as I am writing this – O my! – I can hear the Great Horned Owls who come here every year, in the coldest of winter, to breed (r have they been here all along?). I hear him, a low “Hoo, hoo-hoo” and her reply, a higher pitched “Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo”.

So unbelievably beautiful, magical!

I was told about these owls by a neighbor. I wonder, if he hadn’t told me about it, and if I hadn’t been waiting to hear this for the past month (at least)… would I have heard it?

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This challenge is really called “Tree Silhouettes,” but as the trees on our property and in our neighborhood are so crowded together, most of them haven’t grown into the typical shapes they would have had, had they been in an open space where they didn’t have to vie for sunlight with others. Except for the towering pines, most of our trees are hard to identify by  their silhouette.

So we decided to turn our attention to the bark – the leaves, in the middle of this wintry season, being long gone. The book focuses on birch, the bark of (most species of) which is of course quite amazing. I showed Amie a small roll of paper birch I collected long before she was born, and we talked about how you can use it for writing.

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We have two birch trees on our property, but going by their gray bark that hardly peels, and their black “eyebrows”, they’re the the Gray Birch (Betula populifolia). They grow right next to one another, so probably from the same root system.

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I showed Amie the other barks from my collection. I never took notes about where I got them – live and learn. I don’t remember where I got the one on the left, but as it is scaled, it is probably from a cherry or, more likely, a maple.

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The other pieces of bark I remember picking up from the ground, where they had fallen off the small trees lining my old street in Brookline, MA. They look like beech, being so smooth, but next time we’re in that neck of the woods we’ll try to identify the tree. They’re very pretty, and I hope they don’t indicate some tree disease.

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I am really liking the book, Discover Nature in Winter, which I’m loaning from the library. The book is quite basic (at 196 pages), and I do wish some there was some more about mammals in winter, but the information and challenges are novel and inventive.

Read aobut our next Winter Wednesday-Tree Silhouette adventure here.

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Outdoor Hour Challenge #45 is Squirrels. We have plenty of them, three at least, all Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). They come out when the sun is bright on the snow.

Comstock writes charmingly about squirrels, and she quotes from Thoreau, which I find always makes for captivating reading. They both seem to describe exactly the three squirrels I know! I also followed her suggestion of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Bannertail. I enjoyed Seton’s Two Little Savages, and I like Bannertail even more. It’s the kind of book I wished I had a first, signed edition of…

I’ve reported on our resident squirrels before, when we did an experiment leaving an apple outside and when the squirrel got hold of our Indian corn. On that last occasion the gorging squirrel sat still long enough for me to drawn it from life.

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We’ve had many occasions since then to observe “our” squirrels. I often save scraps of food out of the compost bucket and leave them on the balcony ledge, right in front of our window. Oftentimes I just know that they are studying us as much as we are studying them!

  • Squirrel Tracks

We’ve gone out and investigated squirrel tracks.

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They are vague because old and because the snow had melted a bit, but these are definitely (two sets) of squirrel tracks.

  • What They Eat: Everything

But his morning was surely a high in our squirrely studies. Amie yelled: “Mama! The squirrel is eating the birds’ food! Shoo! Go away, squirrel!”. You see, yesterday we had a short thaw followed by a hard freeze, so the snow in our garden, two feet high, is now capped with a hard shell from which the squirrels can jump onto the top of the baffle.

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I call this picture “Unbaffled” (the baffle is that black cylinder: it’s supposed to stop the critters from climbing up via the pole). From the baffle, the squirrel lunged for the hanging suet basket. It was a sight!

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We witnessed a lot of acrobatics, and a lot of suet being consumed.

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As you can see the intrepid Carolina Wren wasn’t afraid at all, and ate from the same block of suet the squirrel was grasping. The other birds hung back.

I let them eat some, then threw out some cut up apple cores, then shoveled the snow around the feeder. Party’s over. Amie wanted to put out one of the “experiment pine cones” for them, but I explained they only eat the seeds inside the cones, not the cones themselves – which led to some discussion of what a cone is made from and what its function is.

  • Where They Live: In Trees

After preschool Amie and I went into our yard to look for squirrel nests. She was surprised that our squirrels (Gray Squirrels) live in trees in nests much like birds, only bigger and not so well constructed. We also found out that a squirrel is not attached to any one home, and often has half a dozen where he can bed down.

We found three nests that we suspects are squirrel’s nest (click for larger).

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I’m not sure about this one, there aren’t as many leaves:

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  • Squirrel Bones: A Missed Opportunity

We found a dead squirrel many months ago. It had been attacked by a fox, maybe a cat or smaller dog (though I doubt that), who had taken a chunk out of its thigh. I dropped it over the fence so the meal could be finished, but now I wish I had buried it somewhere. I could have dug it up and cleaned and mounted the bones… I remember once, as a child, after we had rabbit stew, we put the skull in formaldehyde (?) and kept it. It would be neat for Amie to do too. Maybe when we’re a bit older.

UPDATE on the Squirrel Shenanigans here.

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The theme of last Winter Wednesday was snow and well, no shortage of snow around here: a whole lot fell last night and more is on the way.

I requested the book, Discover Nature in Winter, from the interlibrary loan, but it hasn’t arrived yet. But Barb mentioned the following experiment: melt and filter different kinds of snow (new and old), then look at the particles left behind, through a magnifying glass or a microscope.

We were in luck today: the snow that fell was the fluffiest I’ve seen so far – it was a joy to shovel. I scooped some up into a glass, taking care to compress it as little as possible. Then I filled up another glass with some old snow that was underneath – the difference between the two layers was very pronounced. That made two glasses of snow:

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And one interested little girl who came a-peeking:

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6:07 pm

- What are you doing?

- Experimenting!

- O can I help?

We talked about how these glasses of snow looked exactly the same. What would happen if we let the snow in them melt? And what would happen if we packed it down?

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Strange, the new snow was very easy to push down. Its volume was reduced drastically. Not so the old snow. So we got to talk about “compact” and “dense” again. The new snow was very soft and fluffy. That meant there were many air pockets or empty spaces in between the snowflakes or ice crystals, lots of air that was were squeezed out as Amie packed it down.  The snow crystals in the old snow were already packed much closer together, with less air or empty space between them, so it was harder, much less easy to compact even more.

- So (I asked Amie when she had packed both glasses as much as her little fists could stand), is there as much snow in one as in the other?

- No! she said. (It was plain as day, looking at the one glass, still 3/4 full, and the other, only 1/4 full.)

- But, remember, at the beginning they were as full, no?

- Yes.

- How come?

- I don’t know, she said.

I have to laugh at this point. Really I’m not going to pretend that my 3-and-a-half-year-old gets all of this! She just likes playing with the snow. But she did listen, and we did continue our explanations, because we want her to get an idea of this experiment, and of how important and fun it is to experiment, and of how much we value her opinion and think she is capable of understanding.

So the glass with the new, fluffy snow had been filled with more air than snow, and the glass with the old, hard snow had, in effect, a lot more actual snow in it. It also weighed more.

But nothing explains it like a picture, and she and I sat down to make one.

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We returned to our melting snow throughout the evening – Amie often pulling on my sleeve to drag me over. Very soon it was obvious that the new snow was melting much, much faster.

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Why would that be? There had been much less snow to begin with. And even after compacting there had probably been a lot of air in it still, which warmed up and melted the snow from within. By 7:14 the new snow had all melted. But the other glass was still half full:

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By 9:30 that the old snow too had melted. By then Amie had gone to sleep. I kept the two glasses, with saucers on them, in the kitchen for her to see in the morning. So… to be continued!

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Bad weather and illness delayed our second Outdoor Hour challenge – we did Challenge #1 over a month ago and it’s supposed to be a weekly challenge!

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But yesterday we were – and we still are (knock on wood) – healthy, and the temperature deigned to rise above freezing (though only barely), and the sun shone so brightly on the fields of snow. We were sitting at Amie’s desk, looking out her big window and practicing writing, when I couldn’t resist the urge to go for a walk. Amie is always up for a walk in the snow, so we went out for about half an hour, until our fingers grew numb inside our gloves from the cold wind and the chunks of snow we were carrying…

I love the (apparent) paradox of the second challenge: it is about keeping quiet in nature but also about “using your words”. The idea is to be quiet while out there, and to use the words once you’re back inside for discussion.

Now, keeping quiet is hard to do with Amie, indoors or out. Ever since she could, she has talked nonstop. She can whisper, and does so with a lot of theatricality, but she can’t keep it up for long. Also, part of our walk, around the block, is via a street that gets busy with cars and buses around that time, when school ends.

I decided not to initiate talk but to let her talk if she wanted to, and then to guide the conversation toward words (adjectives and verbs) for what we were seeing and hearing and feeling.

Snow was, of course, the main attraction. It was everywhere!

  • The snow looked white and clean or dirty and brown/gray.
  • It sounded and felt either crunchy and icy or slushy and wet.

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  • It looked and felt either frozen and slippery, or melted or something in between. We discussed what made the snow melt and how one thing (water) can  look and feel so different! We studied tiny rivulets underneath thin ice sheets. I mentioned – totally off the cuff ;) – that dark things get warmer in the sun, absorbing more heat, than white things, which reflect the sun rays.
  • We deplored that the snow wasn’t fluffy like before and that all the snow has hardened into rock solidity. This made for interesting track-making: you could stand on top of it, making hardly a dent, or crash through the frozen surface taking whole chunks down with you.

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  • Also, we discussed how throwing a snowball made from this kind of ice-snow would hurt if you threw it at someone, because it was as hard as stone.
  • And that brought us to what kind of snow you need to make a good snowman (unfortunately not a snow Amie has experienced yet: a couple of weeks ago it was too light, now it is too hard). We talked about “dense” and “condense”.

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  • We brought two “snowballs” home, though they were more chunks than balls and more ice than snow. Amie declared one a boy and the other a girl, adding that “it’s nice to be a girl” and that she would ask Baba if it’s at all nice being a boy.  Keeping in mind the melting  danger, she hurried me up as I transferred them from outside to the freezer.

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We immediately indulged in some hot chocolate and some “honey cake” that my parents brought from Belgium (I need to find a good recipe for it, it’s always gone so fast).

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Then we sat down to draw and Amie drew herself picking up snowballs (lo-ong arms) and holding hands with Lumpy (the Heffalump from Pooh). Nothing to do with the snow, that one, but she got the trunk right. She also gave herself some “earmoths”. “You mean earmuffs?” “No, ear-moths, Mama!”

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Barbara, who started and runs the Outdoor Hour Challenge, just added another challenge specifically for winter, called Winter Wednesday, using the book Explore Nature in Winter by Elisabeth P. Lawlor as a guide. I’m thinking of joining that too, for obvious reasons.

We had two experiments going on here yesterday and part of today.

  • First: dunking cones

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When we found this cone on our Outdoor Hour walk last week, we identified it as a Norway Spruce cone. It was wet and cold when we brought it in, and we (I) had observed that the scales were slowly opening as it was drying out, or as it was warming up.  Then I read  Michelle’s cone experiment, which suggests it is the water that closes the scales. This makes sense: so the seeds won’t get washed or washed out. Yesterday we got to reproduce the test. (The stone on top was to keep the cone down in the glass.)

Amie was very into it as a Game With Water, in the living room no less!

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I took the lead, going on an on about seeds etc. But Amie really got the point once we had a wet and a (as yet) dry cone one next to the other. When her Baba came come she could tell him the link between wet and closed.

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Isn’t it amazing? I mean, the cone is dead, right? it has been severed from its tree, even its tiny seeds have long gone… Yet it still moves, it still functions. Maybe something to do with the construction of the scales: contact with water produces a chemical effect that makes them contract in a certain way… Gotta find out exactly how that is.

{UPDATE} “The scales open when dry because their outer halves shrink more than their inner halves, and they pull away from the cone. When wet, the scales swell shut.” (here)

  • Winter apples, winter animals

Our second experiment involved an apple that had gone mildly bad. We ate the good part and rather than throwing the bad part into the compost, I cut it up and put the segments out on our balcony, right in front of our big living room window.

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Who would come and eat it?

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Bird? Or mammal?

Not one animal touched the apples all afternoon, all evening, or all night! Then, today between noon and one, our resident squirrel picked up piece after piece, moving some to we-don’t-know-where (his nest? a “cupboard“?) and munching others in plain view on our balcony. We talked about how squirrels don’t hibernate, but chipmunks do (sort of, to some degree). We haven’t seen a chipmunk in over a month.

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What a treat, to have been kept waiting and then to see the happy squirrel eat the apple made of the bright winter sun!

I also happened to read Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early yesterday. There’s this line, in “Something”:

and sometimes I am that madcap person clapping my hands and singing;

and sometimes I am that quiet person down on my knees