Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How do you know it is spring?

(In some places spring is coming!)

I hope you are doing well and getting out and enjoying the places around where you live. Even if you are still deep in winter, getting outside and exploring, even if it is for a short time, is a worthy pursuit. I have been busy getting ready for and going to few conferences so that is why I have not posted in the past few weeks. I was up at Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side, in the middle of the month for a conference of Residential Outdoor Environmental Educators. A small gathering of 45 or so folks from all over including 3 Canadians! It was a wonderful venue overlooking Lake Tahoe from the eastern side. One of my fun moments was joining the Tahoe Tessie club one morning. The Tahoe Tessie club involves jumping in lake early in the morning. WOW was it cold; 38.9 degrees to be exact. Yes I had a water thermometer with me. It was also good to drive up and over the Sierra Range and to see a bunch of snow.

Anyway, one of the workshops I went to was called "How do you know it is spring?". It was a great workshop in which I learned about a great civil science project called Project Bud Burst. It is a great project where you get to help collect data for your area and send it to the project. I wanted to let folks know about the project because it can be a wonderful long term environmental project for you and your kids. Even if you do not officially get involved with the project, they provide you with some great tools to help you expand your awareness of plants progressing into spring. They also provide a whole host of resources for studying plants all around the country.

The main focus of the project is to look at Phenology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring biological phases, the causes of their timing with regard to biotic and abiotic forces. It also explores the interrelation among phases of same or different species. Phenology is an interesting study because the timing of plant growth, up to including fruiting, determines Food Supply, can affect the survival of plants and animals in their environment, and can provide you with yearly data changes in the plants around where you live. Phenology is also being used to help determine possible climate changes.

If you get involved with the project officially, thanks for providing useful data. If you do not, I encourage you to get involved in a more personal manner. Here are some suggestions on how you could do a plant phenology project of your own. Simply start observing the plants in your own yard or nearby park. Maybe even in your Anchor Spot. Keep a watch on plants that interest you and watch for the first buds, leaves, flowers, and fruits as spring progresses. You can use the tools on the Project Budburst site.

If you have other families in your area that have kids, or if you work at an outdoor school, get a group together and make observations over time and compare them. At home you could even compare data from your house with data and observations from other house in areas that are either close by or maybe even a little farther away and see what differences emerge. Where I live the progression of spring growth varies greatly from one side of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the other, a distance of about 15 miles.  At an outdoor school, keep weekly data observations and then refer to them next year and create a timeline of plant growth on your site for this spring. 

Even if you do not keep notes on how plants are progressing in your area, keep some mental notes on what you are observing in the plants you see. You can also keep an eye out for spring animals as they arrive. There are bird migrations you can keep an eye on, and even a bird phenology program. I hope you enjoy looking at the upcoming changes that spring will provide us! Have fun , and get out there!

Nature Nugget:
A wonderful NPR piece on insect migrations! 


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Happened Here?

(Headwaters of the Mississippi-Itaska State Park, MN)
Today we are going to explore some of your local history. No matter where you live people have had an impact on the Earth in many ways. In many cases there are still reminders of those events from long ago. Part of developing a Sense of Place and developing a greater sense of Ecological Literacy, is learning more about the historical impacts humans have made to the place you live. For this posting, lets go explore some of the unique areas where you live.

Every developed area has some history to it. In some cases it can define the area. Where I grew up, in Storrs CT, many if not most of all the fields had stone walls, and many would have 1 or 2 large trees left in the fields. The stones were often collected by farmers clearing their fields to plant, and used to keep livestock in specific places and to define land boundaries. The trees where left to provide shade for livestock. In addition to copious stone walls, there were numerous mills dotting rivers and streams. In some cases the mills were still in wonderful condition and were museums, and others are simply foundations left to the woods. Much of the forests had been logged beginning in the 1700's, and had been logged several times. Really old trees were rare to find. Here is my favorite in Storrs:

I spent 9 years living in central Missouri on a large 5000 acre YMCA camp that was heavily influenced by human behavior. Our 300 acre lake was manmade, there were 13 filled lead mines on and around the property, the spring on property had been used for years as a meeting place for early settlers, and I found an arrowhead and partial knife point in nearby fields. The area had been clear-cut during the civil war to help power iron smelting operations and build wagons and boats.

I now live in the Santa Cruz Mountains and here the area has a little less, only slightly, impact. This area was very busy with the logging of coastal redwood and douglas fir trees during the 1800's gold rush in CA, and then the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. When walking around in the redwood forests you can often see wedges cut out about 6-10' above the ground where lumberjacks cut slots to fit cutting boards into the trucks to get above the hardest part of the trunks on these massive trees.

In every case, some of these historical remains are easy to find, but looking for the less obvious ones is much more exciting and rewarding. When I was a kid I would find old stone walls and walk them for hours. Just wandering. In Missouri, finding great limestone caves and drinking from natural springs was a wonderful treat. And here in California finding fallen 200' redwoods that were left behind or the remains of old logging camps is a wonderful adventure.

So head out and do a little exploring of your areas human history. Some things might be easy to find, so start with those. Others may take some work. Contact local historical societies, ask friends, go visit a museum. Learn more about the history of human impact and development of the place you live. Enjoy! 

Nature Nugget:
One of the animals that makes its "living" on the fringes of human society is the Coyote or Canis latrans. They are wonderfully resourceful animals and incredibly adaptable. In many Native American cultures they Coyote is a mythical character who is often a grand trickster. Teaching humans lessons through a round-a-bout method.

Coyotes, both eastern and western, are smaller than wolves. Although eastern Coyotes can be much larger than western ones and are sometimes mistaken for wolves. Unlike wolves, which hunt in packs and live mainly on large game, Coyotes are often solitary and can live on everything from grass and grasshoppers to deer mice and deer.

Usually pups are born in the spring, and both the male and female help to raise the pups. For the past two years a female Coyote would come up to the house during mating season and yip and bark playfully at our dogs. It was really cute. Dogs and Coyotes can breed, but it does change the offspring's behavior.

Coyotes have had a very difficult time interacting with humans in the last 100+ years. On average there are 87,000 Coyotes killed every year in the U.S. Often these are state sponsored kills or during specific hunting seasons. However, the reputation of Coyotes as attacking humans is over-rated. The Coyote was given the same reputation as the wolf. The reality is that the best estimates show that there have been 30-40 coyotes attacks on humans that resulted in injuries. In comparison, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 4.7 million people are bitten by domestic dogs every year, and over 300 people have been killed by dogs in the U.S. since 1979. And as far as the concern about Coyotes being a major threat to livestock populations, the highest number I could find for how much of a Coyote's diet was from domestic sheep, was .2% in British Columbia. They will take carcasses if they can find them.

Coyotes are very shy and keep a low-profile. I have seen Coyotes along major highways here in California, in Connecticut, and Missouri. I have seen and tracked Coyotes in parks in St. Louis, and encountered them on running trails in many states. They can be beautiful animals. And remember, they are WILD animals and distance should be given to them when you see them in the wild.

And now you know.

Websites to visit:
A Website run by a friend of mine. A wonderful site to explore more about coyotes and how humans treat and mistreat coyotes. A warning for folks, there are some pictures and videos of coyote killing on this website.

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