August 15, 2013

Natural History Comes Alive for Homeschoolers

We are all school masters and our schoolhouse is the universe.  To attend chiefly to the desk or schoolhouse while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed is absurd.
-- Thoreau, Journal (October 15, 1859)

With Thoreau at Walden Pond, our muse and mentor
For the past two years I have delighted in guiding children and youth in discovering the ways and wonders of Concord's wild and historic landscapes.  Monthly and weekly field programs, offer each student the opportunity to learn about the natural world that surrounds their daily lives and to cultivate their own sense of place wherever they may live or travel.  Concord's incomparable natural history legacy, its breadth and depth of philosophical perspectives, and its preserved tracts of important ecological and historical lands provide an enriching context for this exploration and communion.

Honing confidence, cooperation, and observation skills while exploring an old heron rookery in White's Pond reservation
Whether feeling wonder from below, while lying under one of Concord's largest old growth pines, or finding perspective through a spotting scope high above the marshes at Great Meadows NWR, students come to recognize their own unique sensations and enthusiasms, learning styles, and creative responses to the encounters they experience within a living and dynamic environment.

During each field foray, we respond to whatever the moment and season offers us...  Walking like herons so not to disturb intently feeding birds during spring flooding, teaches much about balance, patience, and respect for fellow creatures.

Investigating blowdowns after Hurricane Sandy and experiencing the land's geologic history in Estabrook Woods, students learn about the impact of short and long-term changes on the landscape and how all inhabitants, including themselves, adapt to those changes.

Caterpillars, butterflies, and dragonflies are mentors of individual change and growth cycles and very close relationships between animal life and plant communities.  Caterpillar expert and educator, Sam Jaffe, lead us on a caterpillar foray last spring...a memorable experience of the wonders that are hiding in plain sight.

In winter, Concord's watery landscapes become a wonderland of ice forms and light paintings. Young winter explorers experience incomparable beauty while learning about crystal formations and the variety of conditions that produce the myriad patterns they encounter.  It is a season to appreciate the daily cycles of light, the lush growth of lichens on trees, and to marvel at earth star fungi and pink earth lichens adorning barren ground.  By the end of those cold months we're filled to the brim with their treasures.

The understanding of ourselves and our environment is nurtured through early heartfelt engagements with the natural world.  As our sense of intimate connection is deepened and our sense of wonder expanded, so too is our resolve to be mindful stewards.  Hope for the future may be fueled by these children's wild epiphanies.

For information and registration instructions for upcoming homeschool programs, please go to Natural History Programs for Homeschoolers.

August 12, 2013

Spotted Sandpiper Dines at Playscape

Spotted sandpiper stands in the sandplay area
While weeding around the new plantings at the nature Playscape at Ripley this evening, I was joined by a lively, bobbing spotted sandpiper, a trait characteristic of spotted sandpipers.  Not expecting such a novel dinner guest, I left my real camera at home and did my best with my iPhone.

This delicate and nimble sandpiper is a quick and able hunter.  It spent much of its time cruising the stonedust trail which is littered with fermenting black cherries and opportunistic insects.  It kept one eye on me for almost an hour as it worked the paths, the bark mulched beds, and the freshly mown grass borders.  As I became more still, trying to get some photographs, it approached more boldly unprotected by covering vegetation...another spotted sandpiper trait.

While choosing each next foraging spot, it would daintily bounce its butt, then zero in on its target, stretch its body forward in a straight line, then spear its prey and display it proudly before gulping it down.

There was some initial confusion about this bird's identity, spotted vs. solitary sandpiper.  With the feedback of experienced area birders the Spotted ID was confirmed.  Spotted sandpipers breed in Massachusetts, often near small and insubstantial wet areas and will boldly forage in a variety of open areas.  It's ID challenge was a perfect lesson in cultivating a sense of place on the very landscape that is being designed to help children and the community foster a deeper connection to their wild roots and companions, wherever we are.  For more about the Playscape project, see Playscape at Ripley.

August 11, 2013

Caterpillars - The Art of Hiding in Plain Sight

On August 3, caterpillar maven, Sam Jaffe,  joined me at Great Meadows to lead a magical mystery tour through the refuge, hunting for the subtle clues of caterpillars who were hiding in plain sight.  Another Caterpillar Foray will be offered on September 7.  See end of this post for details.

Marj Rines assists a Cecropia moth caterpillar onto a cherry leaf
Large and colorful Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia)
Caterpillars thrive in the diversity of edge habitats, so we spent considerable time exploring the borders of the refuge parking lot for munching inhabitants.  

During Sam's introduction, a hummingbird clearwing moth flew into the foliage of a nearby Viburnum shrub.  Sam announced that "she" was looking to lay an egg, and that instant she did!

Hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) egg on arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
Here is a sampling of other parking lot marvels that we discovered, first in the forested areas...

Yellow-shouldered slub caterpillar covered with just hatched parasatoid wasp larvae
Red-spotted purple caterpillar (Limenitis arthemis) on mid-vein tip of cherry leaf.  Note detritis "packet" below caterpillar and vein tip extension (from cemented line of its own fras or excrement) above
...then along the marsh at the base of the observation tower...

Tented enclosure of a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) caterpillar on leaf surface of the ubiquitous showy tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense), with an early stage caterpillar inside
Hog sphinx (Darapsa myron) caterpillar, just prior to shedding, on the underside of fox grape leaf
Galls on small quaking aspen made by larvae of poplar petiole gall moth (Ectoedemia populella)
Heading out the Dike Trail, we encountered two more understory caterpillars...

Four-horned sphinx (Ceratomia amyntor) caterpillars
Sam returning caterpillars to the underside of their preferred elm leaves
Smartweed caterpillar which becomes the smeared dagger moth (Acronicta oblinita)
While Sam highlighted the search images, or visual cues, for many of the caterpillars we were seeking, we had a sharp-eyed group of explorers who spotted many of the camouflaged creatures.

Red-humped caterpillars (Schizura concinna) eating false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)

Vertically folded enclosure of the red admiral butterfly caterpillar (Vanessa atalanta) found on false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
The most beguiling caterpillar one can meet, along the Dike Trail, hides disguised as a flower.  The camouflaged looper, caterpillar of the wavy-lined emerald moth.  These tiny loopers adorn their backs with flower petals, then take position on that same flower looking first like a fresh and then fading bit of the blossom.  The slightest irregularity in a flower's characteristic pattern is the clue to its presence.  We spotted several on both fleabane and blue vervain flowers.

Exciting find!
Adorned looper completes the blooming sphere around a blue vervain spire where it harvested flowers for its costume.  Photo © Kristine Ferrigno 2013
Another looper takes position on a daisy fleabane blossom

Finally at the river, along the edge of the floodplain forest, we found blackberry loopers, posing as short stems in the goldenrod flowers...

Two blackberry loopers (Chlorochlamys chloroleucaria) pose as green vertical stems on goldenrod.  Photo © Kristine Ferrigno
Our caterpillar foray was punctuated by a few additional wild highlights rarely seen when walking the Dike Trail...

Tiny gray tree frog clinging to rough surface of elm leaf
Black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) with wrapped prey
Eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), photo © Kristine Ferrigno
Join us on our next Caterpillar Foray at Great Meadows with Sam Jaffe on Saturday, September 7, from 1-3:30 pm, $25 registration.  For registration details, email or call Cherrie at 978-760-1933.

August 9, 2013

Clearing Storm at Great Meadows

Fox grapes and autumn olive berries
Silky dogwood berries (Cornus amonum)
Off shore clouds retreating
Red-humped caterpillar (Schizura concinna) on false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)
Blue dasher dragonfly on purple loosestrife
Red admiral butterfly sipping while wings dry
Spotted several tiny viceroy butterfly caterpillars at the mid-vein tips of a pussywillow

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Tiny spider repairing her web after the rain

As the clouds parted from the day's heavy rain, I dashed over to Great Meadows to catch the evening storm light on the bathed marshscape.  Everything was glistening and creatures great and small were coming out to feed.  The setting sun highlighted every detail and set all the droplets glistening.  Migrating shorebirds, who were waiting out the day's weather stirred in the marshes.  Concord's Willy Hutcheson reported an incredible list of shorebirds just before I arrived, including 17 Stilt Sandpipers, who flew off to the SE soon after the rain stopped, along with 2 short-billed dowitchers, 3 pectoral sandpipers, 6 solitary sandpipers, 2 Semipalmated Plovers, 8 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 16 Least Sandpipers, 4 Lesser Yellowlegs, 1 Spotted Sandpiper, and 2 Killdeer (posted on MassBird).  And as I headed out for my dinner, 6 calling, greater yellow legs flew overhead adding the perfect last note to this beautiful August evening.