Will you answer the call?
Why the River?
So what’s going on down by our rivers and streams? There is so much happening as rivers have totally shaped our world. They are constantly moving along the earth—creating habitat, moving mountains, building webs to connect us all. We have built our communities near them—as well as our farms; rivers were the “highways” of our ancestors, and today they still help us travel and navigate. They are such an important place for all wildlife’s food and shelter as well as migration routes for birds. Rivers also help generate power for our homes and industry. All of this helps connect us as a community…we even have festivals involving rivers! We learn valuable lessons about all of nature because it is all connected. This carries with it an importance of conservation, restoration and stewardship to take care of our wild neighbors and also ourselves. Let’s not forget all the fun we have too. We play and recreate on rivers–paddle our canoes, kayaks and inner tubes, swim, fish and even renew our spirit. These waterways create so much on so many levels. So let’s go down to the river together and see what is happening.
As we walk through the woods, we hear the sound of the water as it flows through the land and draws us in to get a closer look. We may hear the rustle of the leaves under our feet, feel the sand or hard-packed soil along the banks. There are all kinds of bird songs, and perhaps, one in particular that hunts the rivers—the Kingfisher is making a head-first dive, fishing with its beak. As we get close to the edge, we move slowly, so as not to startle any of the wildlife because we know that even the fish in the water can see our approach. We see the signs of our neighborhood beavers and how they may have shaped this part of the river, and there are raccoon or mink tracks in the mud. We are walking on all the stones that have been placed at our feet by the power of the river. Ahh…we have arrived; let’s take off our shoes and feel the warm stones and cool water and mud spread between our barefoot toes. We look up and around, and notice the branches leaning over the waterway to get full light; it creates a natural shady spot for many creatures from which to retreat the hot sun…and for us too.
What we notice
Surrounded by trees—sycamores, alders, basswoods and willows—we are reminded of the amazing diversity of plants in and around the water—like cardinal flower, Japanese knotweed, cattails, watercress and many algaes—in these important watersheds. Looking around, we see the riverbanks covered in many sized stones—from boulders all the way down to grains of sand and even smaller particles, such as clay, are present too. As the earth is transformed, there is a natural sorting that happens along the river bottom and the banks that we see.
Getting a closer look
As we look closer, we notice things have patterns. We are tracking the water, time and weather to understand the river ecosystem that we are currently seeing. Think of the channels of water—through rain, runoff, snow and flooding–that created the Grand Canyon. We are standing and witnessing a microcosm of that wonder of the world right in front of our eyes!
Reading the water
The water flows through in shallow areas called “riffles,” and it runs where you see turbulence in the water; this also is where the water has the most oxygen and can be the coolest part of the river in the summer. It is where the aquatic invertebrates such as caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies and others are very active in their day-to-day lives.
The miracle at the river
There is a display of nature, and it is one of the most amazing things you can experience seeing on a river as the aquatic insects spend between several months to several years under the surface of the water, feeding and living their lives. There is a term called an “emergence.” This is where there is a constant journey of insects—from being underwater for their whole lives up until the point of cresting the surface of the water and starting their adult lives, flying for the first time and experiencing the gift of flight above the place they lived before. Being able to witness this miracle is truly breathtaking and is one of the reasons to go to the river often to “Catch the Hatch.”
Don’t miss the action
These are great spots to watch just above the surface of the water and see the insects dancing, mating and falling, creating a concentric ring that signals the fish to feed. This is where you see a phenomenon called a “rise”–the trout rise, coming to the surface; you see the cresting of the water, and if in a clear pool, in middle or the tail of it, you can actually see the fish itself…size, color and grace as it moves.
Time for a river trip
So put visiting the river on your schedule and experience this miraculous occurrence with friends and family. What kind of values do you think are instilled in your children when you create experiences and opportunities to have nature astound them? I am feeling grateful, and hope I see you down by the river.
A Beautiful Hike in the Foothills of the Berkshires…
It’s a beautiful spring day, and the sun is going in and out of the clouds. It’s cold at night and warm during the day…just right for the maple sugaring season. It’s been a cold winter, and I look forward to being able to get into the outdoors, and now is my chance.
I decide to go into the foothills of the Berkshires to go for a hike. I think I’ll take with me some basic essentials: a day pack, water bottle, bag of gorp, lunch, a way to make fire and light, heavy duty trash bag and a small first aid kit.
I tell my wife that I’m going for a day hike. I tell her I’m going to park the car at the trailhead…just in case. I always plan ahead like that.
When I get to the trailhead, I notice that the temperature has really changed; it’s a lot warmer, possibly mid-40’s. I’m wearing hiking boots, quick-dry pants, a fleece and the wind/rain jacket.
As I enter the forest, the tall trees, like pines, oaks, birches and beech, are all around me. I feel a sense of peace wash over me. As I walk on the trail, I start to let go the details in my head and about the things I need to take care of—at home or for work, like returning emails, making phone calls; it all seems to get further and further away from my mind as I keep walking deeper into the forest.
I walk for a few hours or so, and I begin realize my body is starting to heat up now. I need to take off a layer; it’s really important not to sweat. This is a really good principle to follow in the outdoors—the no-sweat principle. As I walk I pass several streams, and I see the spring wildflowers, hear songs of the birds as they fly overhead, it is quite serene.
I journey on for a good part of the day stopping for a light snack and then a hearty lunch, drinking water periodically. Continuing on, as I head deeper into the woods, I hear the call of the red tail hawk above (“keer!” pause “keer!”); we all know this sound (the movies have played it over and over…it is often heard, especially when a wilderness scene is shown on the screen). I love that sound.
I thought I would be able to tell where the trail is, but as I get deeper into the wilderness, the trail is marked less and less. I take a few steps closer to one of the blazes. Normally it has a white painted marking between 4 to 6 feet high. When I look really close, I notice that part of it has painted over brown.
So I’m able to tell for about a half an hour but then all of a sudden, I can’t seem to find the trail. I look around and it all seems to look the same. It doesn’t look like there’s been any maintenance out here for quite some time.
I try to retrace my steps; backtracking is something that I’ve read about where you try to follow the path that you came in on. But it is really difficult to see. I try to remember the key parts of tracking: notice a crease in the leaves from the weight of the foot, the area that was dug up by the heel or possibly the drag marks of my hiking stick or the tired footfalls. None of these things worked.
There’s a moment when you have to decide to cut off any other possibility, and take action and allow yourself that recognition that you’re lost!
Once you decide you’re lost, it becomes easier psychologically; you know you need to do something…some kind of lost protocol…but as you decide that you’re not lost, you keep telling yourself “oh it’s gotta be right up here.” “I know the trail is just up ahead.” “No, I’m not lost, just a little disoriented.” It’s thoughts like these that have you get farther away from the last place where you knew where you were…thoughts like these can keep you getting deeper and deeper lost in the woods.
When lost, this is an important acronym to memorize: S. T. O. P.
Stop: This means do just that. Don’t go any further. This has been an emergency protocol and has been very effective. It’s used by the Scouts, outdoor organizations and guide services, search and rescue and many others. When you stop, you also need to calm down; you may want to sit down and take a few breaths and get centered. This is important. Not only are you not going any further, you are also creating what’s called a “scent pool.” This is the term for when particles of scent flakes are falling off your body, onto the ground and the trees around you. It is a concentrated area where, if search and rescue are using dogs for searching, this will be really helpful for the dogs to locate you. This is also why you hug a tree when lost.
Think: A lot of things can be going through your mind at this time. You’ve accepted the fact that you are lost. This is very important step. You need to prioritize your thoughts. Think of your basic needs: shelter, water, fire, signal, food and first aid for the first 72 hours. You may have to spend the night.
A wilderness guide used a good analogy–the first hour or so, the search area can be represented by the size of a business card on a map, and a few hours later, it is the size of open newspaper!
Observe: Use your senses. Do you smell the smoke of a fire; listen for the sound of a roaring river; see the direction of where the sun is traveling across the sky; notice where you are; look for catching features on the landscape, i.e. rivers, streams, trail junctions, dominant boulders or trees, a ridge that you can get a bigger view to see a field or lake in the distance, or a road, a fire tower.
Plan: It is important to create a plan for yourself and know your plan and take ACTION.
This could be marking your area with bright clothing, create a visual signal that creates a contrast to the environment (red coat, orange poncho, etc.). You want to come up with some “what if’s” scenarios, such as “if I hear a vehicle, helicopter or people yelling, what do I do?”
Do you have a way to make noise or a bright light if it is dark and they are searching at night? Sometimes it is easier for the rescuers to see fresh disturbance of tracks at night with lights at a low angle (tracking tip).
It is now late afternoon, and as I make my decision and it begins to slowly sink in that I am here for the night…perhaps longer…I begin to take action. Although it is warm now, I remember the nights have been cold. Before I launch into creating an insulative layer up off the ground and sheltering me from the elements, my first action is making some noise. I get a good solid stick and look for a dead tree that is close by for a better resonance when I hit it. A solid live tree sound will not carry. I also have a skill of whistling with an acorn, and that is extremely loud. I know there is no one searching for me at this moment, however I may find another hiker or a farm house or logger in the area.
By Arianna & Frank Grindrod
Spring is in the air; in the yellow spotted salamander’s feet marching across the snow; in the trill of the Spring Peeper announcing his space and his availability as a mate; and the quiet patience of the Fairy Shrimp waiting between the mud and ice for their home to thaw.
What Is a Vernal Pool?
A vernal pool is a small woodland wetland that is created by melting snow in an earthen depression which has no inlet or outlet; basically a “wicked big puddle”. These “puddles” are nurseries for several species including mole salamanders such as the yellow-spotted salamander, wood frogs, spring peepers, fairy shrimp, and fingernail clams. Vernal pools are usually temporary and dry up as the season progresses. For the animals who them as a nursery, it is essentially a race against time for the babies to grow up enough to be out the pool before the water is gone. Some pools are semi-permanent but that is not a guarantee so ether way, the salamanders and frogs are crawling or hopping away come summer. The invertebrates, those who cannot fly or crawl away, but are obligate to the pools such as the fingernail clams and fairy shrimp must squiggle down into the mud and wait until next spring to emerge again.
Who Might you Meet at a Vernal Pool?
Mole salamanders live underground which is why you don’t tend to see them any other time of year…except for the Marbled Salamander who lays her eggs in the fall in autumnal/vernal pools. She hoovers over her eggs until the rains fall and then she leaves them. These little ones are the first to hatch and will eat other species of mole salamander eggs in the spring when the pool has then been filled with Jefferson, Yellow-Spotted and Blue-Spotted Salamander eggs. All mole salamander species eat invertebrates and will use mole-excavated tunnels, hence why they are called mole salamanders. In the Spring, when the first rains tickle the ground and when above ground temperature reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the Yellow-Spotted, Blue-Spotted, and Jefferson all come on down to their home pools. The males arrive first, forming what is called “congress”, a group of salamanders. They may travel up to a half mile away from their upland forest underground homes to mate in these vernal pools. After they mate they return to their woodland homes. Watch for them on rainy spring evenings as they cross the road.
If you live near a vernal pool you may hear a din of sound that is caused by two vernal pool visitors – the Wood Frog and the Spring Peeper. The Wood Frog is one of our black-masked bandits (can you guess the other two? One is a mammal and the other is bird.); a woodland, territorial amphibian that has a very distinctive call – the singing males, who are calling out to alert everyone in the vicinity that this is their space make a “qua-ack” sound, vaguely reminiscent of duck. The Spring Peeper is a very tiny tree frog who bears an “X” on his/her back. The callings males make a high-pitched “ree-deep” sound.
There are a host of invertebrates that you can find in a vernal pool – from Predaceous Diving Beetles and Whirligig Beetles to Damselflies to Backswimmers and Water Boatmen to Mayflies to Amphipods, Isopods, Daphnia and Copepods to Fairy Shrimp to Fingernail Clams to Caddisfly larvae. These are species worth getting down and dirty with as each sport their own unique adaptations of locomotion, feeding and general survival. For example, Whirligigs have split eyes so they can see up and down at the same time; handy when watching for predators. Mayflies have fanlike gills on their abdomen to take in oxygen from the water. Predaceous Diving Beetles have their own scuba gear so to speak; they carry an air bubble at the base of their abdomen as they swim through the water. Caddisfly larvae make their mobile homes from debris they find in the pool and their silk. They have a little hook on the end of their abdomen so they really do hitch up to their home and crawl along the bottom of the pool. They keeps their soft bodies protected and camouflaged.
Exploring a Vernal Pool
You and your youngster can gently explore these nurseries using a simple dip net and a holding pan. Fill the pan with water from the pool being careful to obtain the clearest water so that your temporary holding container is not muddy. Now gently slide your net through the pool and along the edges to catch a critter. Gently put it in the pan using a plastic spoon. If you have a magnifying lens and an identification guide book so much the better. Watch how the creature moves. It is recommended not to place predators and prey species in the same holding container at the same time else you will be setting the stage for the prey to be on the losing side of the chase. Please also do NOT collect eggs as this action may destroy the embryos.
When you are through studying these amazing creatures please return them to their home in the pool. To emphasize to your young naturalist the importance of respecting wildlife you can end with a simple “repeat-after-me” releasing ceremony such as this one that I (Arianna) learned from Kim Noyes at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center many years ago.
“Run away, crawl away, swim away, hop! You are free to go. I am not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free; but thank you for spending this time with me.”
Suggested Field Guide: A Guide to the Animals of Vernal Pools by Leo Kenny & Matthew Burne.
Amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders, breathe through their skin. Their skin is very sensitive to many things (salt, chemical toxins, soap, bug repellant, chlorine in our drinking water, sunscreen, etc.) When handling our wild friends, please remember to create a micro-habitat between you and them. Create this layer by putting your hands in their water source (vernal pool, pond, bog, stream, etc.) if they are aquatic or by using soil and leaves if they are terrestrial. When holding an amphibian make sure you keep them low to the ground and be mindful that the temperature of your hands can raise theirs, and this can create stress for them. Always return them where you found them. Or, if you are helping them cross a road, always remember their direction of travel and place them on the proper side of the road according to their direction of travel.
Fingers of twilight etch the sky
the landscape is a slumbering body bruised purple
from holding the sweet weight of the sun’s warmth.
Day bids a lingering farewell to the mountains
illuminating grassy mounds in hot gold and pink.
As the landscape slips into darkness
wind blown flickers of lightning taste the tall grass.
Summer-night holds its own light
luminescent beings it borrowed from the stars
small reminders of their brilliant cousins
kissing the evening breeze.
I watch these tiny creatures etch the mysteries of life across the lawn
as they seek food shelter companionship.
Fireflies create a pattern in their dancing
that is the chaos of being alive.
I will not profess to understand what these patterns mean
only that they exist amid the lightning flashes and tumble of wings.
© 2006, Arianna Alexsandra Collins
Winter has come and gone, and spring is clearly unfolding: the birdsong, the wildflowers, the bursting of shoots braking through the Earth’s surface in fertile ground, the trees leafing out, the warmer days as frogs sing, and then in the spring, showers are coming as the ice melts off the mountains, bringing it down through the rivers. It’s a powerful time of change.
My daughter and I–with binoculars in hand and our favorite walking stick, backpack filled with food, water and a couple of field guides, map and first aid kit–venture into the forest, as the sun rises, with a goal of seeing wildlife and not being seen. We move quietly through the deep forest, moving like a ghost, invisible as best we can while using the Indian sign language we have been practicing.
We are so blessed to be in the middle of a magical place with such a rich diversity as we are in southern New England…a world where the boreal forest and the northern forest meet, giving us the best place to be immersed in nature. The boreal forest, also known as “the spruce-moose forest,” has mainly evergreen trees and a few select hardwoods like poplar, paper birch, tamarack and others. The northern hardwoods have such a vast amount of trees like yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, eastern hemlock, white pine, northern red oak, cherry, and those are just a few—there are many more.
As we trek deeper into the forest, we notice the dense canopy not letting in much sunlight as the sun rises out of the east, giving us a sense of direction, but our awareness tunes into a subtle change, and as we enter, there is more light shining down on us than just a minute earlier. This is a track on a large scale that is affecting how much light which helps to make a more rich forest in vegetation and brings with it many animals and birds and the like. With our senses honed, there are signs of the animals all around us. We notice claw marks and bites on trees, stunted growth where it looks like a nursery of Japanese bonsai trees, and when we look down in the leaf litter, there are many footfalls showing worn-in paths on the forest floor, weaving in and out of the cliffs.
Passing through different habitats, we see the many deciduous leaves and all the light that shines creates a dappled look under our feet and in the area between the wetland and the cliffs. There is a lot of feeding sign called browse (little 45-degree angle cuts), taking the end of the branch clean off, almost like clippers.
As we expand our awareness to the area high up on the cliff, we see a good hiding place opposite of the spot we want to watch. Scanning for signs of movement, we hope to get a glance of this very elusive animal who chooses the south-facing, hard-to-access areas in the cliffs. We have already done our research; we know this animal is crepuscular, which means it is active at twilight hours (dawn and dusk). It is diurnal (day) and nocturnal (night).
Its primary food source has left sign with the angled cut that we found earlier, so we know there is a feeding area in close view. One of the traits of this animal is the ability to be motionless for long periods; even in winter, being able to lay in the snow where you can find a sphinx-like “hunting bed” while it waits to ambush its prey. To discover this body print melted out from the heat that is generated while it remains still as a shadow is inspiring! As we get down low, we find sections of hair frozen to the ice; however this time of year, you want to look for “resting beds;” places where you can make out where it has been laying down, usually under a rock overhang on a pile of leaves insulating from the ground.
The forest is so quiet. My daughter and I take turns to scan the cliffs with our glasses. We have been watching, quietly, for almost an hour and a half. We know that patience always pays off. We also know that this animal has a very small heart and it travels a very short range compared to others of its size. By knowing this, we also could watch it hunt as it stalks its prey since it is primarily a carnivore.
While looking near the top where we have been looking all morning, in the best rays of light, we see movement–a very camouflaged tawny color with dark shades and beautiful markings, big eyes and graceful movement as we watch it stretch basking in the suns glow. It has been there all this time…watching us watching for her. So who’s watching whom? While studying us, perhaps, she senses we are not a threat.
It is time to hunt. Her preferred prey, the rabbit, helps to sustain her but also helps raising her kittens. If you haven’t guessed by now, the mystery animal is the bobcat.
As we watch our cat in her natural rhythm, we are excited because we may be able to watch her hunt. Earlier we mentioned how she lies in wait in “hunting beds.” Once the prey is close enough, there is an explosion of energy–a POUNCE! From her ambush spot, bursting forth after the rabbit who has zigzagging motion to avoid capture. There is a very small window of time because she needs to not burn too much energy; if the hunt lasts longer than just minutes, she will stop rest, find another spot and start again and continue that cycle.
This bobcat needs to eat and feed her new kittens, and when she has the rabbit, she will take it to a place close by to hide it and take parts of the animal and “cache” (cover and save for later) the rest, using her front paws very much the same as our house cats. She will travel back and forth to feed her young if she has gotten a good amount of food. She will continue to hunt this area because of the success.
Thanks for joining us on our adventure into the outdoors.
Until next time happy trails…
Look, Listen, Feel, Touch and Taste
Deep Listening, There Is More Going on than You Think
The sounds of spring are all around us. There is a BIG difference in hearing and listening. Hearing can be passive. Listening causes us to reach out with our senses to become more present in the moment. We may hear the chorus of frogs calling in the Vernal pools, flooded meadows, temporary ponds and sometimes in roadside puddles. Usually the first songs we hear are the spring peepers, tiny tree frogs identifiable by the “x” on their back. Their most common call is a long drawn out P-E-E-P, but this year listen to the other call that is a type of whistling trill, which is a sound signaling that these frogs are agitated by something. In order to find out what, we need to get closer and be quiet, slowly stalking over to the edge of the water to get a closer look. This trill may mean a couple of male peepers are competing for a female; it could also mean there is a predator in the water, overhead, or it could be you.
Also listen for wood frogs, the ones wearing the black mask. Though they are frogs, their call may be confused with the call of ducks – “quack, quack, quack”. Wood frogs are predators of spring peepers so if you hear the quacking, investigate to find out if there are peepers in the pool also.
Listen for the S-I-L-E-N-C-E. This speaks volumes to what is happening as you approach or if you happen to walk by and everything stops. If you are quiet, you can get really close and observe this behavior that you might not otherwise be aware of. The gift you could be rewarded by is seeing the natural rhythm of this place. A red fox could be observing your approach or perhaps a raccoon could be dining on frogs’ legs.
Deep observation is another way to develop a rich relationship with the land and your wild neighbors, the frogs and salamanders and everything that is connected to this strand of web of life that takes place here.
It’s Spring Time, It’s Spring Time
There’s a certain feeling in the air. Everything is waking up, blooming, blossoming, hatching. Smells are wafting on the winds, and the leaves are unfurling and are becoming fully developed. This is the perfect stage for them to be edible. There are many edible trees that are around and available; basswood, in particular, is one of my favorites. It’s like having salad greens, and you just pick it off, like our wild neighbor, the deer…no processing necessary—just pick and eat (and don’t forget, give thanks for the bounty, like our ancestors have shared since the beginning).
There’s a lot going on as it starts to get warm…as the snow melts and the streams start to overflow. The waters are intense with the spring freshet from the thaw from up in the mountains where the snow is melting, coming down all the way into the valley and pushing out into the ocean. It’s such an amazing display of Nature’s power. The wetlands and flood plains in the fields and forests are bursting with life. During this time, the frogs and turtles are becoming very active. Watch for the turtles as they line up on logs and bask in the sun. Observe the red-winged blackbirds filling the cat-tail edges of the wetlands; notice the red and yellow field marks on the wings of the male as they display their dominance for prime real estate.
The birds are singing their springs songs. The wildflowers are growing up and coloring the landscape. The insects are hatching. In the stream, watch for mayflies, dragonflies and caddisflies emerging. And watch for those red-winged blackbirds ready to snatch up a flying meal.
The snakes are coming out of their hibernaculum–the place where they spend the winter…sometimes it’s under a culvert or in a pile of rocks. We see them moving around, sometimes 12 to 14 snakes all at once, soaking up the sun and basking. They’re endothermic, which means they’re cold blooded, and they cannot generate their own heat like we can; they need the warmth of the sun.
What the Mammals Are Doing
These warm days are great opportunities to be able to see the animals raising their young; fox and weasels have kits while coyotes and bats have pups; rabbits have leverets; porcupines have porcupettes; bobcats and beavers have kittens; bears have cubs and deer have fawn.
In their multiple color phases like sandy and charcoal gray, red fox kits are developing their black boots, black ears and their white-tipped tail (which distinguishes them as a red fox); they begin to learn how to adapt to their forest home with their amazing camouflage and all their senses being fully developed. The young bears are learning how to forage, turning over logs and feeding on insects, and they are learning how to use their new claws as they learn to climb trees for safety and fun. Have you ever seen a cub climb a tree—it’s very cute to watch!
There are so many things happening: squirrels and otters, coyotes and beaver–they all have young to raise and feed. Some of these animal babies are born with their eyes closed and their ears not being able to hear and the only thing they can do is smell, while others are born with their eyes open, furred and are ready to go, like a snowshoe hare.
So off you go “into the outdoors” either by yourself, or with family and friends, to connect deeper to where we live in this exciting explosion of activity…the springtime. See you in the woods.