Just as we’re putting in the fence, up pops another predator: a big wild turkey, right in our front yard! I think it was munching the buckwheat, which is succulent right now. So just a few yards away from the vegetable garden (luckily, at that side, the fence was already up).

It’s bittersweet to spot it: a flutter both of fear and joy, because the turkey is of course another element of wildlife, along with the foxes and the deer. And it was very pretty, a shiny russet brown, and graceful too. The way I figure is that I can afford to be ambivalent about it as long as the fence will keep it from the vegetables, as long as that one lone turkey doesn’t bring its flock to decimate the buckwheat.

Speaking of birds, Saturday morning at 6 am I met one of my neighbors who is an avid birder. He took me around the neighborhood and told me all about the birds that live here. He pointed out their songs, then we stood very still (aargh, forgot the mosquito dope!) and he made a funny whistling, swishing sound, and the birds appeared, sometimes only a few feet away. They were curious what that noise was all about. “What kind of birds are those?” and more importantly, “Are they a threat tom nest”.

And so I saw (* indicates for the first time):

  1. 2 Eastern bluebirds*
  2. 1 oriole*
  3. 2 yellow warblers, Mr. and Mrs.*
  4. 1 bobolink*
  5. 1 red-tailed hawk*
  6. flock of cedar waxwings (7?)*
  7. 1 tree swallow*
  8. 1 tree sparrow*
  9. 1 catbird*
  10. flock of cowbirds*
  11. several grackles
  12. 1 wood duck*
  13. Canada geese

And I heard, for the first time consciously:

  1. 1 vireo (forgot which)
  2. 1 scarlet tanager

He showed me where some of them nest, so I can take Amie there and “call them”. And I got to discover another nature reserve, tucked away right in my backyard!

No pictures. We had binoculars, but since the birds came so close, we hardly needed them. I’m happy I didn’t have a camera on me: I really could enjoy them so much better. I think I’ll keep the camera for the birds who come ot the feeder, and those that “pose”, of course.

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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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I decided to combine this week’s Outdoor Hour and Winter Wednesday challenges. For the first we observe a tree throughout the seasons. Those who have followed the challenges from the beginning have done this three times already and will be completing the year. But as Amie and I have just joined the Outdoor Hour, this will be the first season in which we observe “our tree”. The season being  winter, and our attention having turned to tree bark, we also fit the Winter Wednesday challenge.

But first, to choose a tree!

  • Choose Your Tree

We have many trees on our property, and of many species: Beech, Gray Birch, Red Oak, White Oak, Maple, Hemlock, Pine and some immature Spruces. I have been wanting to do a serious count for months now, but I never get around to it – when you move into a new place there are so many other, “more urgent” things to do. I would say that we have a stand of several generations of trees going, with the oldest a good 50 years old, the youngest still a sapling.

Too many choose from! But we’ll choose the American Beech in our front yard. It is one of the oldest trees on our property, probably about half a century old. Its trunk rises stately and straight as a ruler, then it forks, way up high, and develops a beautiful crown that shades out any other tree in its vicinity. To me it’s a symbol of strength and endurance. To Amie its a BIG tree.

  • Trees in Winter: Snow and Ice

Until a couple of days ago the trunks of the bigger trees were encased in ice. Snow had fallen and lay packed on the branches and against the trunks. The picture below shows those layers of snow clinging to the trunk of one of our oaks (the tree lists about five degrees away from the camera, so it’s not totally vertical). If you click on the picture to make it larger, you’ll see the intricate layers in which the snow was laid down against the tree: a right marvel!

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Then the snow thawed and it all came dripping, trickling, flooding down. Then it froze, hard. This picture is of another oak:

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Here’s “our” chosen beech, slick with ice, gleaming in the sunlight:

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Makes you feel cold, no? But it turns out that cold is not a problem for our trees, in winter. It’s heat.

  • The Problem of Winter Heat: Frost Cracks

One of my favorite nature study books is Reading the Forested Landscape. A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels (*). Wessels discusses (p.79-80) how trees are adapted to the cold New England weather, particularly by their bark, which protects the cambial tissues (“the vital part of the trunk; it builds on its outside a layer of bark, and on its inside a layer of wood around the trunk”, Comstock, p.620). What they protect against is heat from fire and heat from the winter sun.

As Wessels writes, it seems counterintuitive that a tree needs to protect itself against exposure to winter sunlight. You’d think some warmth and sunlight would do them good. But most of our New England trees are impervious to the cold.

Wessels conjures up the image of a tree on the edge of a meadow on a cold January day. It’s -5 F. The sunlight falls directly on the dark trunk, heating the bark and the underlying wood to over 70 F, making them expand.  Then the sun dips below the horizon. The bark begins to cool and contract, but the underlying, insulated wood takes longer to do so. And so the bark doesn’t fit around the wood anymore: it’s too tight. So it cracks open. The resulting wound is called “frost crack”. This weak spot grows larger and deeper with each such temperature fluctuation.

I’ve yet to find a tree with such a crack. That’s because most trees have been around here for many millennia and they have foun ways to adapt to the winter sunlight.

  • Bark to the Rescue

There are four kinds of bark texture (just counting the deciduous trees):

  1. scaly (maples and cherries)
  2. ridged (ashes and oaks)
  3. plated (black birch)
  4. smooth (beech, birch)

We explored these thoroughly, by sight and touch, and Amie can make out the smooth barked beech most easily. It’s good fun, running your fingers over the bark with your eyes closed, trying to guess which it is.

The first three of these kinds of bark allow the heat trapped underneath the bark to escape faster, so that the underlying wood can cool at the same rate as the bark.Result: no frost cracks.

The smooth-barked beech lacks this capacity. So how does it protect itself from frost cracks? It is lighter in color. When I asked Amie what color the bark was, she automatically said: “Brown” (just like she automatically reached for the brown pen when drawing her tree a couple of days ago, even though “I really don’t like the color brown. But oh well [sigh] I will have to use brown, because it is brown, after all!”)… I asked her to look again, and she said: “Gray!”

The lighter color of the Beech’s bark reflects the sunlight. This is an adaptation of this originally tropical tree to the exposure to winter sun in the high and not-so-high North.

One day I will tell this story to Amie again – my three-year-old adaptation of it, I must admit, falls woefully short – and we will marvel at the great resilience of this tree, and at Nature’s meticulous inventiveness and perseverance.

I also wanted to share with you another marvelous tree, in the back of our property. We call it the Tuning Fork Tree. I believe it’s a Pine, but shall go back to verify some day.

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~

(*) Reading the Forested Landscape is a detective book, really. At the beginning of each chapter there is a beautiful etching  of a wooded landscape (by Brian D. Cohen). The chapter then deciphers the clues to disturbance histories,  the impact of logging, forest fire, beaver activity, blowdowns, blights, changing climate and human handiwork. As you read, you learn about forest succession, ecosystems, and the history of New England’s forests. It’s fascinating and beautiful.

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Amie and I spotted the first Robins of the year on 21 January. One of them was climbing the cranberry bushes underneath our feeders and kept falling off. He looked clumsy, groggy. Our neighbor – who can tell us which bird settled in our gardens in which year, going decades back – told us that when Robins eat fermented berries, they get drunk. I would tell the story to Amie but she has no idea what “drunk” means, and I don’t know if I want to clue her in on that one yet. (having a deep abhorrence for drunkenness)… It was a sight to behold, nevertheless: funny and (for me) worrisome too.

I was looking for more information about the migrations of Robins and found this neat website for children and teachers about seasonal change called Journey North. There are pages about plants and the seasons and migrations of birds, worms, butterflies, frogs, etc. The ultimate goal is to help kids understand that all living systems are driven by the sunlight in a dynamic ecosystem that connects them.

Kids can enter their observations – we did so with our Robins – and then see maps, their own observation included. It’s like the Mass Audubon eBird, only more child-focused.

winterwednesday

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?

winterwednesday

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.

We had another snowstorm today. Preschool was closed. Amie and I sat ,in our PJs, at her table and decided to draw something. She chose her favorite book of animals, an older edition of the Visual Encyclopedia of Animals (DK). I think she likes this book because it is small, but thick and compact with stiff and shiny paper, and it looks like “a grownup book”.

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She opened the book to the first page and I suggested she draw the beetle, since it was the simplest. Declining to take this opportunity to read some in my own book, I decided to make it into another seeing lesson. I thought the fact that she would copy from a book was interesting. It is after all something she will be doing often and another good way to learn seeing and drawing.

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It took quite a bit of talking by me and concentrating on her part to get the beetle down on paper. I could see she was struggling with certain preconceptions of how she should draw such a thing (round body, head attached, four legs) and what it actually looked like in the book. Then we parsed the sounds in BEETLE and for a moment I thought of letting her write it like she heard it: BEETUL or BEETOL. But then I pointed out how it was written in the book, and could she copy that, because that’s how it is really spelled? She found that quite interesting.

The ammonite was her second choice and easier. She is quite confident  drawing spirals. She liked it so much she added a bigger one and called the first the baby and the second the Mama ammonite. She spelled out AMMONITE, from the book, and I wrote it down, and then we discussed whether to add a S, because there were two of them.

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The flamingo was the most interesting shape. Again she battled the urge to reproduce the traditional preconception of what a bird looks like. So together we described the shapes, in detail. How the flamingo has such long legs and a long neck, and a large beak. And how this one was turned away a bit. And where was its eye? I really like how the flamingo turned out! I think she captured its shape very well. She also enjoyed copying FLAMINGO as we parsed the sounds. There’s a B there because she was going to write BIRD first, but then she changed her mind and took on the challenge of the larger word.

Then she water colored all them and this is the result:

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I also instituted what I hope will be a tradition: beside the date we’ll also add some details about the day. I asked her: “What is so special about this day so far?” “Snow storm!” she said, and “School is canceled.” Duly noted.