Eastern Skunk Cabbage, a Sign of Spring

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E. Skunk cabbage flower bud (Photo: Wiki commons)

A Plant With Eau-de-skunk

A Quick Note Before You Begin: Many of you have commented that my spelling and grammar is often atrocious, and that is inexcusable for an educator! So, I'm taking steps to remedy the situation. I wanted to say WELCOME to Sally Parker and Anne Littlewolf, my new editors for the blog! Of course, all mistakes are my own, but they are going to try to help me on that score. Thank you ladies and welcome on board!

On To The Smelly Blog Post For Today!

One of the early harbingers of Spring, even before all the snow melts, is skunk cabbage. The variety I'm going to talk about today is the Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). There is also a related western variety. Eastern skunk cabbage grows East of the Mississippi, into New England, and as far south as Tennessee (where it is protected) and South Carolina. It is one of the first buds to appear in Spring, and one of the first bright green leaves you will see with the spring leaf-in.

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E. Skunk cabbage along a waterway in Spring (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Eastern skunk cabbage is a low growing and soft bodied perennial herb that you can find around low lying streams and wetlands. It is in the Araceae family, along with lilies and the familiar Jack-in-the-pulpit (when you see the flower, you'll know why). In the early spring, it sends out a flower bud called a SPATHE (4-6" tall) that grows up through the ground. Inside the flower is a SPADIX (2-5") which is a fleshy stem of flowers coming up through the center (think of your typical lily). The skunk cabbage flower is a mottled maroon color with whitish-green streaks, a spiral curvature, and a noticeable hood. The spadix (flower stalk) is whitish yellow. The flowers on the spadix are tightly packed. If you look closely, they don't have petals, but modified sepals and reproductive bits sticking out.

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E. Skunk weed flower, notice the spadix or flower stalk in the center. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The spadix releases a rotting meat scent that attracts early spring pollinators such as flies, bees, and carrion beetles which emerge earlier than most butterflies and moths. You know a plant is rather pungent when its Latin name includes foetidus (fetid= rank or smelly). Once pollinated, the seeds of the skunk cabbage look like round balls (2" diameter) about the same color as the flower petals. The balls have multiple berry-like seedlets that eventually fall apart from each other in late summer. Skunk cabbage doesn't spread through any other means than its fruits.

Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage)

Skunk cabbage fruit. (Photo: Tom Potterfield, Flicker Sharing).

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Tardigrades: Learning About Water Bears and Resources for Teaching

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Water bear in active state (Photo: Flicker, SaguartoNPS).

Tardigrades in Your Own Backyard!

One of my favorite invertebrates is the water bear or tardigrade. It is arguably the most extreme animal on Earth in the unassuming cute and cuddly form of a moss piglet with bear like claws. In this post I'm going to share with you some of the amazing natural history of tardigrades and some teaching resources that you can use for an indoor or outdoor classroom. If you're like me (and love exploring things like this) then you probably will also want to check these cool little guys out at home too, though you'll need a compound microscope to see them.

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Tardigrade in active state (Photo: Wiki commons)

Tardigrades belong to the phylum Tardigrada. They're aquatic invertebrates commonly found in the base of mosses and lichens; though they can also be found around the world, from the heights if the Himalayas to the depths of hot springs. They are known as extremophiles, meaning that they can live in places on Earth that most creatures couldn't handle. They can endure temperatures of absolute zero, pressure higher than that of the deepest oceans, radiation that would kill all other animals, and they can go without food or water for more than 10 years! Now you'd think a creature that can handle these extremes should be the large and flashy  but they're actually not much bigger to 1/2 a millimeter, about the size of the period made by a .5 mm pen.

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What To Do If You Find a Baby Bird

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Rescue or Not To Rescue, That Is The Question

It's that time of year again, with birds courting, laying eggs, and soon to be hatched fledglings hopping everywhere. This is the season I dread the most because it's when people start calling about baby birds and often dump the babies on my doorstep. For this blog post I thought it would be timely to cover what to do if you find a baby bird.

Before we begin, I want to caveat this post by saying that it's always best to leave wildlings in nature if you can, even if it means their demise. I  know this is a hard thing to hear. After speaking with rehabilitators I've come to accept that survival during and after rehabilitation for most species of birds is very low. They just can't endure the stress of captivity. Put yourself in the shoes (over-sized feet?) of a baby bird bird. You're captured by giants, shoved into a cave with bars, fed food through a plastic syringe, you expect to be eaten by said large predatory giants that have taken you, your family is gone, and you are surrounded by new smells in a frightening environment with people oogling you. It makes sense for something as fragile as a 6 to 10 day old baby bird to be stressed to death. By leaving baby birds in their environments and providing some minimal amount of help if necessary you are giving the bird its best chance at survival. If it gets eaten or passes on then it becomes a part of the cycle of life, as food for something else, and its genes are not passed on. This is how nature works. For those of you with children this may be a bit difficult to convey without lots of tears but I'd suggest the story book "Everybody is Somebody's Lunch" by Cherie Mason. I do want to stress that I have great respect for bird and animal rehabilitators. They are under-paid and truly are wonderful people that are dedicated to wildlife. They do a great job when called upon.

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Baby sparrow in the nest (Photo: Wiki Commons)

On that note, let's discuss what you can do to help you asses the situation when you do find a baby bird. First, what did you find? Often times you'll see baby birds in various stages of feathering that have either fallen out of the nest, been pushed out by their more aggressive siblings, or jumped out on purpose. Begins with these steps;

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Leopard Slug Mating is Well....Strangely Beautiful

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Leopard slugs can be quite large, this is a beautiful specimen (Photo: Flicker Sharing, NorthDevonFarmer)

or "Ewwww, I Can't Look Away"

So once in a while I have to veer off track and bring you something completely different (much like my previous post on 50 foot cockroaches). Today I want to share with you something so gross and disgusting that it's almost beautiful (sort of like hairless cats and Shar pei dogs), leopard slug mating. Now for those of you that are gardeners you probably find leopard slugs (Limax maxiumus) a great nuisance that eats your vegetables and leaves slimy trails everywhere, but they are really much more complex (and a good cup of stale beer put out at night will take care of the problem).

Slugs 101

All slugs and snails are in the phylum Mollusca, along with squid, clams, and octopi. Slugs are gastropods, literally meaning "foot mouth". Leopard slugs have a noticeable mantle on their backs and in almost all species it's black spotted. They also have two optic tentacles with eye spots on the tips and two below them for feeding and tasting. Their anal opening is under the mantle (on the right side of the head) and they are hermaphrodites with both male and female genitalia.

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Anatomy of a slug (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Also on their mantle is a large hole or respiratory opening (called the pneumostome) that leads to lung-like tissue for respiration. Their respiratory opening opens and closes at regular intervals to prevent dehydration. Slugs glide along on a large muscular foot. The leading edge of the foot is called the "skirt."  Mucus is produced in glands on the "sole" of the foot. This mucus has specific pheromones that attract other slugs and also acts as a signal, trail marker, and travel lubricant. Underneath the smallest pair of tentacles is the rasping and chewing mouth part that are used to chew plants and vegetation.

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Natural Egg Dying for Easter

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Naturally dyed Easter eggs (Photo: Wiki commons)

Do-It-Yourself Egg Dying At Home

It's Spring, and with the emergence of the crocus and daffodil it's also time to think about Easter and egg dying. If you're like me then growing up then you probably used the little colored pellets dissolved in vinegar and water to dye your eggs. It was the tradition. Long before there were pre-made dye pellets people used natural coloring for eggs. Today's post is all about how you can make your own dyes from foods and household objects. The nice thing about natural egg dying is that you can compost all of the materials you use to make the dyes and it's OK to eat the eggs after they are dyed.

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Here are some examples of naturally dyed eggs (Photo: Karen McDonald)

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Introducing the American Woodcock, or Timberdoodle, the True Sign of Spring

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Timberdoodle Natural History

One of the sure signs of Spring in this region is the "speent" of the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) calling at night, and their silhouetted flight with spiraling sing song wings as they ascend and descend against the slowly falling dusk. The American woodcock has many  names but the most popular is the timberdoodle. These birds are stocky brown and mottled to match leaf litter coloring, about the size of a pigeon but with a rounded stocky body and broad chest with a tapering and barely noticeable tail. They are actually shorebirds that have converted their hunting methods from using their short necks and long curved beaks to probe in the mud for clams, to probing in the mud for worms, insects, and other creatures in leaf litter. Their beak is flexible and can bend slightly to allow it to move around in worm burrows and under ground (check out "speenting" video below, you can see the beak flex slightly while the male is calling).

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The Case of the Disappearing Naturalists

220px-Beatrix_Potter1Beatrix Potter was a children's author, naturalist, and mycologist (studied fungus and mushrooms).

Those with Naturalist Skills Are Becoming Few and Far Between

During an interview I was asked about why I represented this blog as a resource for naturalists and educators. The interviewer was driving at the idea of, “What is a naturalist?" Because you rarely hear the term anymore. I started really chewing on this idea because it’s something that has been rattling around in the back of my head for a long time. I’ve noticed that naturalists seem to be a dying breed. Anecdotally it appears that there is a clear decline in those dedicated to natural history. Why are naturalists disappearing?

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Identification Tips for Brown Spiders of the Eastern US

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A wolf spider carrying its egg sac. (Photo: Wiki commons)

Knowing What is and is Not A Brown Recluse or Wolf Spider

I'm often amazed at the number of times I've been outdoors with someone and we see a brown spider immediately someone says, "Look, there's a wolf spider." I have to admit, I hate identifying "little brown jobs" or LBJs (a term we use commonly for brown sparrows when birding) because it's hard to find the fine distinctions between species, especially when the creatures are moving  or you're just skeezed out by the hairy eight legged creature crawling across your floor. However, it is important to understand that not all brown spiders are wolf spiders. There are many different types of brown spiders and this blog post will help you begin to differentiate between them. I'm going to be writing mostly about the spiders common to Eastern and Mid-western North America, because this is my home range, but there is some overlap with Western species.

A great starting place to learn spider ID and to become familiar with their body parts, names, and  the eye placement of spiders is on the website "Spider Identification Guide." I am particularly fond of their great graphic on the 25 different eye patterns you can find on spiders (I wonder if they make this in poster form?). Begin with the basics of spider anatomy on their website if you need a refresher. They also have a great guide for finding spiders by region and color. Check out their page on "Brown Spiders" for a quick browse of the diversity out there.

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Distinguishing the Differences Between Rabbits and Rodents: Why Rabbits are Not Rodents

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Photo: Wiki Commons

It's All In The Teeth...Well, Actually There's More.....

The iconic image of spring is that of rabbits and bunnies, and for those with a chocolate penchant the Cadbury bunny and his chocolate eggs.  In honor of Spring I decided it's time for a post on the confusion I commonly find, when leading programs, about why rabbits are not rodents. First, there's a wide range of rodents living in the world, in fact it's the largest class of mammals. They're everywhere and on nearly every continent. Rodents can range in size from .25 oz (the African pygmy mouse) to the capybara which can weigh from 150-200 lbs!

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Notice in this drawing how the rodent's incisors don't have a root and grow continually. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The order Rodentia, from which rodents get their name, derives from the Latin meaning "to gnaw or chew." This is what makes them unique, their teeth. Dentition is a commonly used feature for biologists to sort animals into families and orders. Rodents are specialized gnawers. They all have one set of upper and lower incisors (front teeth) and varying numbers of molars and per-molars (flat teeth in the back of the mouth) with a gap in-between called the diastema. Rodents lack canine teeth. The outer surface of rodent incisors is covered with enamel which ranges from orange to orangish-yellow in coloring (If you find a skull with these colors on the incisors it's always a rodent). It's thought that this coloring is due to strengthening by the addition of iron and minerals. The front of the tooth is very hard compared to the back of the tooth which is covered in dentin, a soft pulpy material. Unlike humans, whose teeth stop growing when they reach a certain stage, a rodent's incisors erupt/grow continually. This is called indeterminate growth. The tooth can continually grow because the base of a rodent's incisors is rootless and open so the tooth keeps growing. Human teeth have roots and are mostly closed off because the teeth do not need to grow anymore.

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An Introduction to the Teaching and The Citizen Science Website Journey North

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Journey North, a Citizen Science Website for Everyone

Journey North is a Citizen Science Website That Tracks Phenology (life cycle changes in plants and animals) and Seasonal Changes

Spring weather has briefly visited us this week, though the cold is coming back soon. But invariably we're seeing the first signs of Spring everywhere. This weekend the first osprey was spotted locally, geese are migrating, red-winged blackbirds are singing out their territories, and I heard a lone spring peeper. With thoughts of spring it's a good time to make you aware of a wonderful resource for citizen science. The website Journey North is designed as a tool for individuals and classrooms, as well as informal educators, to use for tracking seasonal changes and migrations. The term for tracking the seasonal life cycle changes of plants and animals is called phenology. This website provides the tools to track the phenology of robins, humming birds, whales, barn swallows, worms, first leaf-out, eagles, flowers blooming, caribou, whooping cranes, and so much more. They also specialize in providing tracking maps and information for recording seasonal changes in sunlight and weather.

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Examples of projects found on the Journey North website and "teaching" pages.

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Want to Learn Frog Calls? Resources for Mid-West to Eastern North America

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Cricket frog (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Where To Find Helpful Frog Call Resources

As Spring nears It's time to consider brushing up on your frog calls, either for personal fun or so that you can help with amphibian surveys. There's nothing like being able to pick out specific species of frogs by their calls. It's like learning the notes of music. Now I'll admit that I'm rusty, every year Spring rolls around and I find myself dragging out the ear buds and MP3 and practicing. I usually get a whole bunch wrong, but it's fun relearning.

Let's refresh on the basics. Most often it's only the male frogs call, and calls are species specific though there are dialects by region (croak, croak, croak yall). Dialects allow males to self-sort and avoid competing with males from other areas that are far away or outside their region. Male frogs call to attract mates and to advertise their fitness to females. Mostly mating is done at night under cover of darkness so frogs use vocalizations instead of visual displays. Calls are produced in the larynx and are amplified by one or more vocal sacs. These sacs are thin membranes of skin that are either directly under the chin or extending from chin to mouth. Female frogs may respond to the males to encourage their advances with short croaks or other sounds (some females object quite vocally if they don't find the male's advances desired).

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Northern Leopard Frog (Photo: Wiki Commons)

When many frogs call at once it's called a "chorus."  Choruses can be quite loud, and the pitch and loudness may increase if there is heavy traffic or noise nearby. Male frogs conserve energy when rivals are not near-by and they have "low energy" calls that simply establish their territory. When competition is high they expend more energy to call more loudly, but what is unique is that they call in a species specific pattern with the other males. This allows all males to be heard without being completely drowned out. This type of cooperation is a unique strategy in the animal kingdom shared by vocal insects and frogs (for those with a mad pash. for reading scientific papers check out this doozy on the call-timing algorithm of the white-lipped frog).  There are probably multiple reasons for this strategy but most likely it has to do with increasing fitness by decreasing energy expended calling, because everyone gets a chance.

Now let's get on to the resources you need to brush up or even learn frog calls for the first time. There are a few things you might find useful before you start.

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Winter Searching for Paper Wasp and Yellow Jacket Nests

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An aerial paper nest made by yellow jackets. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Exploring Paper Wasp Nests (and yellow jackets too!)

Winter is the perfect time to look for things that are typically hard to see when trees are in leaf. This includes birds, mistletoe, and wasp nests. It's not unusual to see yellow jacket nests that are grey, round, and large in the upper branches of trees, but how much do we really know about paper wasps and yellow jackets? Are they still in there over the winter? Is it safe to approach? Let's look at these fascinating creatures in more detail.

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Salamander Emergence is Coming Soon, Reptile and Amphibian Hunting Tips

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Spotted salamander (gravid) found during nocturnal survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Herp. Hunting Etiquette Tips for Safe Nocturnal Searches This Spring

Spring thaw is just around the corner, and although it's hard to believe the salamanders will be moving soon they will be coming out withing the next few weeks. Conditions have to be just right for salamanders to migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding ponds. Some of the earliest movers for the Eastern US region are the spotted salamanders though marbles and others are close behind.

To view these early emergent visitors you should look for the the perfect conditions (often nocturnal, including at least 45-50 degree temperatures (Celsius), light rain, and lengthening days. Usually these conditions in our region (Maryland) are met around the second or third week of February though this can be variable from year to year. It's not unheard of to see salamanders moving through snow piles to reach their ponds.

There are environmentally friendly ways to look for salamanders and early herps (meaning the study of reptiles and amphibians, short for herpetological), and methods that can cause major harm to an ecosystem. This post is about spring herp hunting etiquette.

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Changing Consciousness from Consumerism to Gift-Thinking Awareness

braiding sweet grass coverThe Possibility of Deviating from "Ownership" to "Responsibility."

I like to diversify my posts a bit, and I thought it would be interesting to share a new, yet old, idea that I came across in a book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman, botanist and ecologist. I haven't made it all the way through her book, because it's so full of wisdom and ideas that I enjoy savoring each chapter, reading it, putting it down, absorbing it, and then coming back. It's a slow process, but one I enjoy with good books.

The most recent chapter that I read was, "The Gift of Strawberries." In this chapter Kimmerer discusses the bounty and joy of picking wild strawberries and the gift of fruit.  As a child she picked wild strawberries and then gave them to their mother to bake as a special gift for their father. In the chapter she states, "Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate." The idea that she develops is that the way that an object comes to you, the relationship of how you acquire it,  colors how you use and own it. In modern store bought consumerism, objects that are bought do not have an "inherent obligation" to them because the reciprocity ends when you pay for that object. There is no relationship established between the manufacturer and the buyer. However, the author goes on to explain, when the relationship changes, from producer and consumer to giver and receiver, then a bond is created between the two people. In a "gift economy" there is no capital, or collateral. What develops instead is not "something for nothing" but a form of obligation between individuals. The gifts are not free because they come with an obligation to reciprocate by either giving back to the giver, giving the gift to someone else (thus increasing the value), or not asking for "too much" because what you are receiving is a gift.

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Guest Blog by Teacher Ann Johnson Part 2: Inquiring Minds Want to Know-- What is Inquiry Based Science?

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Dragonfly being held during a hands-on science inquiry class (Photo: Karen McDonald)

An Exploration of the Characteristics of Inquiry Based Science

If you didn't read Part 1 of Ann's series  you may want to start by reading her first article about Inquiry Based learning, otherwise, read on!

Picture the following scenarios.....

In a classroom discussion about magnets, one student wonders, “Will magnets work under water?”  Over the next few days, the class debates the question and designs and executes an experiment to get some answers.  Okay, yes, they will work underwater. But then they continue, “What about this statement in our text that says some materials WILL block magnets?”  If water won’t do it, what about plastic, or glass, or wood, or rubber, or cloth, or another magnet?  And they are back to the drawing board, designing more experiments to test these materials, wondering if magnets work through gases and liquids, but not solids, trying ice in place of water and on, and on, and on.  Finally, as a class we cry uncle – we can’t find anything that will block our magnets, and a very eager class is finally given permission to do a little research on the topic.

Another class is looking at a chart in our science text which illustrates the classification of animals by using the example of a wolf.  It starts at the kingdom level and works its way down, gradually dropping all the organisms that don’t cut it as a wolf. After a few levels, we’re left with the cats and the wolf, the dog, and the fox.  The cats get dumped in the next round.  Makes sense.  But in the next level, the fox is dropped with the explanation that this level contains only “dog like” animals. Now we’ve used this chart for years and years, and most of the time, the students smile and nod, and we move on.  But this class is different – they’ve been “inquiring” all year long, and are used to questioning their text, their teacher, and themselves!  When it seems like the fox has just been ousted from the club randomly, they start to wonder. “What is it about the fox that makes it less doggy than the wolf?”  “If it’s not a cat, and not a dog, what is it?  Where does the fox fit in?”   For the next several days the class passionately debates the issue and delves deeply into the process of scientific classification. What specific traits make a dog a dog, and a cat a cat?  Where does the fox fit in with these other animals?  What traits make the cut into “dogginess” or “catness” and who decided all these rules?  It is a fascinating journey

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How Do Birds With Long Necks Keep Their Feathers Clean? The Answer, Pectinate Toes with Built in Combs In Their Toenails

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Great blue heron feet (Photo: Judy Bissett)

A Short Description of Pectinate Toes

Nature is full of wonderful adaptations that answer questions that we as humans haven't even thought to ask, but that concern the animals they involve daily. One of those questions, that led to this blog post, was, "How do birds with long necks and beaks preen their heads to keep them looking good and the feathers aligned?" After a quick bit of digging, and checking out the stuffed and mounted great blue heron in our education center, I came up with the answer. They use their toes. More specifically they have what are called pectinate toes.

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Pectinate toe of a great blue hear, notice comb like structures (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Pectinate toes are usually found in birds of the Order Ciconiiformes and the family Ardeidae which includes herons, egrets, and bitterns. There are a few other species of birds that have pectinate toes, such as barn owls and night jars such as common night hawks. A pectinate toe is usually the longest forward facing toe on a bird's foot, and can be found on one or both feet. This toe has a special toenail with serration or ridges on the inner edge that closely resemble a comb. The comb is thought to help with preening, cleaning and straightening feathers, removing feather sheaths, and helping to keep the bird aerodynamic. I think it's probably also for a really good scritch on those itchy bits that are out of reach by the beak.

Photographing the pectinate toe, or even getting close enough to see one, is nearly impossible. However, if you can find mounted specimens of the birds or a friendly wildlife rehabber that doesn't mind showing you bird toes you might be able to sneak a peek. One of the best ways to see the toe in action is to watch the birds during a grooming session and see how they use their feet and toes.

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Pectinate toe of a great blue heron (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Check out Dan Tallman's Bird Blog for some more great pictures of pectinate toes on herons and a nighthawk. Check out Owl Foundation website for a picture of a barn owl pectinate talon.

Why There Are No Fifty Foot Cockroaches

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American Cockroach (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Sorry B-Flick Movie Lovers, 50 Foot Cockroaches Can't Really Exist!

I absolutely adore good B-flick movies, especially those with giant lizards, killer tarantulas, man-eating mole rats, and destructive turtles. However, the biologist in me always has a running commentary in the back of my head when I watch those films, I can't help it. So, just because it's useless fun knowledge, here's why it is impossible for fifty foot cockroaches to exist:

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Cockroach (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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Step By Step Instructions for Making Suet for Bird Feeders Backyardbirds flicker

Making Suet For Your Feeders is a Great Family Bonding Activity

This time of year many people choose to feed birds, which is a great way to support local native populations. I don't know about you, but the row after row of seed choices at the hardware store are intimidating. There are a wide variety of seeds available out there to choose from. Black oil sunflower is a favorite, but can be expensive. I've also found that the millet based seed is often just wasted. What you feed the birds really depends on where you live (an apartment manager may not like all the black oil shell husks) and the types of birds you want to feed. I'll cover choosing seeds in a later post, but for now here is a great reference page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Today's post is all about suet, another form of food to feed birds.

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Yellow rumped warblers feeding at suet feeder. (Photo: Bobistraveling Flicker commons)

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Part 1 of 2: Inquiry Based Science in the Classroom by Guest Blogger Ann Johnson

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Students Discover Scientific Principles through Inquiry Based Science And Learning

“Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson!  THIS is exactly what I was talking about – right here!  See this: D-e-p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n.  This is EXACTLY what  I was talking about…you know when the really fast water moves all those pieces of  rocks and all those little rocks fall out of the water and end up somewhere new…this is EXACTLY IT!  This is EXACTLY what I said!”

I was hooked.  For the first time in my teaching career a student was excited about “deposition,”  “erosion,” and “weathering” - topics that I approached each year with a sense of dread. As amazing as those forces might be, my yearly earth science unit never failed to induce a state of drooling or daydreaming in my 4th and 5th grade students.  I taught with the usual suspects: photos of the Grand Canyon, the standard multi-syllable vocabulary, text passages loaded with main idea and detail, rock and soil samples and those cookbook “experiments” that dominated our curriculum.  It bored my students to death and frustrated me: I love earth science, and that love (not to mention the key science concepts) was not being transmitted to my students.

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A Photo Gallery of Ice and Water

Frozen in Time: Pictures Ice and Water by Karen McDonald

One of the reasons I love being a naturalist is that I find beauty and wonder everywhere outdoors, from the smooth patterns of a salamander's skin to the bulging textures of dripping rain drops. I thought I'd change pace a bit and share with you photo gallery of ice and water, inspired by the beauty I found when taking a walk along a forested trail and returning by the road side. These are images from a melting frozen puddle. The ice cascaded colors and refracted light in such an amazing way. Be sure to look for the carefully choreographed reflections, you can see the forest and trees reflected in the pool of water. Hopefully this will inspire you to get outside and remember to look in places you may not have thought to look for beauty in nature. All Photos by the Author.

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A Short Comparison of Hibernation and Brumation

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The Difference Between Hibernating Mammals in Deep Continual and Physiological Sleep and Brumating Reptiles in Dormancy with Punctuated Activity

When I teach outdoor programs in the winter it's easy to slip into the habit of suggesting that those animals that don't stay awake and active all winter "hibernate," but this term isn't the most accurate to use. In fact, I wasn't even aware of the fine distinctions of hibernating mammals and brumating reptiles until pretty recently so I thought a blog post might be in order.

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An Introduction to Bats and Echolocation (and Tools to Use in the Classroom)

Bats Can Be Identified Through Their Unique Echolocation Patterns, They Even Have Dialects

Chirp, Chirp, Chrip Yall'

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Desert long eared bat (Wiki commons)

As an undergraduate my introduction to field research was through bats. I studied under Dr. John Leffler, a student of EO Wilson, and spent countless hours recording bat sounds and trying to match their sounds to visual patterns that were species specific. If my life had gone differently I might still be studying bats and hanging from ropes welding bat gates. Even though I moved on from bats, to birds, and then outdoor education, I still have a mad passion for them and bat programs are one of my favorites. Thus, I'll do a series of posts on bats in the coming months in tribute to these amazing flying mammals. Today let's start with echolocation.

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Rose Mosco Captures Nature Humor and Art in Her Drawings

Educational Humor and Art for Nature Lovers

If you're like me you may find that your sense of humor is somewhat esoteric and "nature-nerdy." I can't help it, I find nature funny, from the giant eye spots of butterflies to the funky way that male turkeys strut and puff and their snoods get bright red (what's not to love about a body part called a snood?). I truly enjoy intelligent nature based humor, and how better to present it than in art and drawings? The artist and naturalist Rosemary Mosco has combined just these features to create wonderful nature cartoons. Her website is called "Bird and Moon, Science and Nature Cartoons."

bird and moon logo

The Bird and Moon website logo.

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Visit National Parks in 3-D Pop-up With the new National Parks Pop-up Book

1930s Style Posters Illustrations Bring Parks to Life in 3-D National Parks Pop-up Book

I have a love and appreciation for all that our National Parks do for conservation and protection of wild-lands in America. And as an outdoor educator that has worked in National Parks (yes, I wore the Smokey the Bear hat) I also respect how hard the Rangers and staff work with very little resources and pay. These parks have been tasked with excellence in service, collaborations, citizen science, heritage education, employee development, management, research, technology, and more (http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/mission.htm). Of the 59 parks under NPS there have been over 282 million visitors  each year, and the numbers are growing. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw over 10 million visitors in 2012 alone. The golden Gate National Recreation Area had over 14 million visitors, and the Blue Ridge Parkway had over 15 million visitors (National Parks Traveler).

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Distinguishing the Features of Antlers V. Horns

The differences between antlers and horns is greater than you think.

Often when guiding hikes outdoors in the fall we'll see a deer with a nice rack of antlers on their head. One of the common misconceptions is that deer have horns. This post will help you learn the difference between antlers v. horns.

caribou antlers wiki

Caribou with Antlers (Wiki Commons)

Antlers

Antlers are found only on members of the deer or Cervidae family. Members of this family include white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, moose, elk, reindeer, and antelope. Mostly it's the male deer that have antlers. Female caribou are the only female cervids that have antlers.

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An Introduction to Black Widow Spiders

Check Your Firewood Before Bringing It Inside

black widow

Common North American Black Widow Spider, Female (L. Mactans)

Every year around this time I'm reminded that it's important to check firewood carefully before it comes inside. We keep our wood under a tarp outside near the house. Many different invertebrates, and even salamanders and other reptiles, will overwinter in a wood pile. Be sure to shake off the wood you bring inside because the warm interior of your house is a perfect place to "wake-up" and start crawling around if you're an insect!

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Walking Poles Are Good For Your Health and For Hiking

800px-TrekkingPolesCarbonWoman Wiki

Trekking poles, carbon fiber (Wiki commons)

Scientists and Researchers Support Using Poles To Hike and Walk 

Working outdoors, in a variety of terrains and situations with kids, I find that my hands are usually taken up with field gear, children's hands, or pointing out objects along the trail. However, when I'm hiking alone or on a longer trek I find it useful to take along a walking stick or poles, especially because I have bad knees. I was curious if there really was a benefit to my knees and health, or if it was just anecdotal. After some digging I found out some surprising results that I thought I would pass along to you for consideration.

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Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) Freeze Solid Over Winter and Then Come Back to Life in Spring

Flicker DAve Huth Wood Frog

Wood Frog (Photo: DaveHuth Flicker common use)

Here in North America there are a wide variety of toads and frogs but perhaps none are so unusual as the wood frog. These frogs are found in Eastern North America, Canada, and up into Alaska. On a warm spring night you might hear them singing(click her for sound clip) near bogs, vernal pools, or upland forests but something remarkable happens to them this time of year in the winter, they freeze solid. Now freezing solid isn't remarkable by itself, but what is remarkable is that the frogs will literally come back to life in the Spring after having no heartbeat or brain activity, and they don't breathe, for up to eight weeks! This baffles and amazes scientists, who are actively studying them even now.

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Dr. Seuss Nature Books and TV Show on PBS for Children

Science and Nature in Verse

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss books of Science and Nature.

Growing up I always loved the Dr. Seuss books, especially the "Cat in the Hat," which is why I'm excited to say that there is a set of Dr. Seuss nature books for the next generation of kids. PBS has teamed up with Dr. Seuss artists and writers to create a series called "The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That," which is a science and nature series of books, animated short films (30 minutes), and lesson plans for elementary school students.

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Outdoor Education and Working with Home School Groups

A Guide To Help Other Information Education Venues work with Home School Students

Thomas Galvez flicker

Photo: Thomas Galvez Flicker

After conducting informal science education programs (outside of the classroom) for over thirteen years I have found that the number of home school groups attending my programs has increased exponentially. With an increase in this audience I've found myself in conversation with other educators trying to forge a way to best meet the needs of the varied ages, rates of learning, and abilities that present themselves with home schoolers. In this post I'll attempt to share a bit of what I've learned that in turn might help others.

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