2020 Notes from a Naturalist

Scroll down to see each month's note

January 2020

What the Size of Snowflake can tell you

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

 

In winter we can still find beautiful moments taking place around us. One of these beautiful moments is a snowflake! Its common knowledge that each snowflake is unique, but a single snowflake can tell us a lot about what is happening in the atmosphere around and above us. Why are some snowflakes smaller than others? Why does snow sometimes fall when it’s above freezing?

 

Snow needs moisture and humidity to form, so very dry places will not accumulate snow even if it is below freezing. This includes areas of Antarctica! Since warmer air holds more moisture, it tends to be less humid the further the temperature falls below freezing. Snow is formed simply by the combination of ice crystals in the atmosphere combining until they become so heavy that they fall to the Earth.

 

When the air temperatures are warm enough in the atmosphere, the snowflakes melt a little around the edges, combining in the air before reaching the cooler layer below. Once they fall down into a colder layer of air, they refreeze and form large clumpy snowflakes.  In order for this to happen there has to be a layer of warm air in the atmosphere between the clouds and the ground for the snowflakes to fall through. Otherwise the snowflakes will not combine and they will stay relatively small.

 

Snow requires the air in the atmosphere to be below freezing (0o C or 32o F), but the air near the ground surface does not need to be at freezing. In order for snow to accumulate, the ground needs to be less than 41oF. This is because the snowflakes have the ability to cool the air around them through evaporative cooling. This is when heat energy is taken out of the air around the snowflake to produce the melting. So if it is balanced just right, this process can cool the air enough to actually stop the snow from melting once it hits the ground.

 

There are many signs in our environment that clue us in to what is happening around us. Even a simple little snowflake has a story to tell.

Sources:

https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/snow/science/formation.html

http://www.baltimoreaircoil.com/english/what-is-evaporative-cooling

February 2020

Natural Hearts

Shapes in Nature

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

 

Sight is one of the most important senses we rely on as humans. We are good at noticing colors, patterns, and shapes. In the month of February, people tend to have love on the mind, and a popular shape to represent this is the heart. Can you find heart shapes in nature? Here are some examples of hearts in nature and how they came to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strawberries

Strawberries are a beautiful and tasty fruit that are a favorite of many, including our turtles at the nature center. When strawberries come into season again this summer, keep your eye out for individuals that are in a heart shape. (Of course the vibrant red color adds to the resemblance!)

 

Many people don’t know that strawberries aren’t actually berries. A berry is a simple fruit that has seeds on the inside. Berries also form from a single flower. So if you look at a blooming blueberry plant, each flower you see will become one blueberry. Strawberries, on the other hand, are considered aggregate fruits because multiple fruits form from a single flower. And of course their seeds are on the outside of their flesh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deer Footprint

Winter is an excellent time to find deer footprints. Snow-covered ground reveals the secret paths these animals traverse all around us. Sometimes you’ll see a very well-made deer track in the form of a heart. Deer walk on two hooves, which leave a heart-shaped impression. The direction that the bottom point of the “heart” points is the direction the deer was traveling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Damselflies mating

Damselflies are funny-looking insects that have been around for a very long time: around 300 million years! You can recognize them by their big eyes, four wings, and their long abdomen — the hind part of their body. They are often mistaken for dragonflies, but are much smaller. When damselflies mate, they create a heart shape as their two bodies join together. The male attaches the end of his abdomen behind the female’s head, and the female attaches the end of her abdomen (which contains her reproductive organs) to the male’s thorax, where he has deposited his sperm. It is very common to see damselflies flying together in this shape, but not until the summer.

Sources:

https://www.thekitchn.com/strawberries-arent-actually-berries-but-some-unexpected-foods-are-221969

https://www.livescience.com/43206-animal-sex-dragonflies.html

http://www.loyno.edu/lucec/natural-history-writings/dragonfly-swarms-summer-delight

March 2020

Why Do Rivers Bend?

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

Have you ever noticed the difference between a natural flowing river and a man-made canal? Canals move straight to their destination while rivers wind back and forth along the landscape as the water journeys towards the ocean. Humans make canals to travel the shortest amount of distance between two locations, such as between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean at the Panama Canal. If efficiency is so vital in ecosystems, why would nature increase the distance water has to travel to get to the ocean?

One’s first thought might be of course water must wind and bend around obstacles such as mountains, but rivers that flow through flat grasslands and fields show the same behavior. It’s actually small disturbances in topography that set off chain reactions that alter the path of a river.

Any kind of weakening of the sediment on one side of a river due to animal activity, soil erosion, or human activity can draw the motion of the water towards that side. When the water flows more strongly to the weak side of the river, it carves out the land on that side of the river through erosion. Meanwhile, the water on the other side begins to deposit more sediment along its banks. This back and forth motion continues all the way down the river as long as there are no obstacles blocking the process. Interestingly enough, the length of the S curve in the river caused by the bends tends to be about 5-6 times the width of the river. 

Keep your eye out for each bend in the river. Over time the layout of these streams changes and sometimes disappears. We can even see evidence of this type of stream behavior on Mars in the remnants of stream erosion on the rocks and landscape. This behavior is literally out of this world!

Sources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8a3r-cG8Wic

April 2020

Forest Bathing

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

Have you taken a bath in the forest recently? A new practice originating from Japan called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is not a physical bath with water and soap, but more of a mental and physical cleansing that arises from spending time around trees. You don’t even need to be in a forest. Just near trees.

 

Spending time in forest environments has many benefits for our physical and mental well-being. Forest bathing can reduce stress and improve mood, as well as boost our immune systems, reduce high blood pressure, and accelerate recovery from illness. Reducing stress and improving mood can help us block away distractions.

 

Our bodies have five senses and it really likes when we use them. Being out in nature and in the forest engages all five of our senses. Studies have found that hospital patients who have a window looking out to nature -- or even just a poster of a tree – have better pain tolerance and shorter recovery time. The smell of conifers (evergreens) can reduce the stress hormone cortisol and reduce blood pressure. Hearing the sounds of birds or rainfall does the same thing. For touch, there are many benefits to walking barefoot. We have a lot of sensory nerves in our feet and hands and it feels good to use them. Take a few steps barefoot in soft grass or sand and see how good it makes you feel. (As for taste, perhaps its best to play it safe and avoid testing that sense out in the forest.)

 

For those of us who may not live near a forest, we can get similar effects from being near even just a single tree in a local park or our backyards. All trees give off oxygen that we can breathe in. We in return give back the carbon dioxide we expel from our bodies. We are all connected to each other and the earth and when we find time to relax into that relationship it makes for a beautiful system.

Sources:

https://www.forestholidays.co.uk/activities/forest-bathing/benefits/

https://www.pulse.ng/lifestyle/beauty-health/the-health-benefits-of-walking-barefoot-are-incredible/zkee63s

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494405801847

Williams, F. (2017). The Nature Fix. New York: Norton Paperback.

May 2020

Loving Our Lawn Weeds

Broadleaf Plantain

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

 

Every year people spend lots of time removing the weeds they find in their yard to create a beautiful lawn. Many of these plants that we call weeds have benefits for us beyond just the aesthetics of a front yard. “Weed” is a word we use for a plant that is unwelcome and unwanted and perhaps grows a bit out of control. But if we can learn a little more about why they are so successful at growing and how they might benefit us, we can perhaps change our perspectives and respect these beautiful plants a little more.

One of these pesky “weeds” is called plantain. Although it shares a name with a popular fruit, it is a different plant. Plantain is a plant that was introduced to New England by the original European settlers. It earned its nickname, “white man’s footprint”, because the plant seemed to grow wherever the settlers went. Plantain, like many weeds, survives well in areas with a lot of foot traffic, which is why we see them a lot in our lawns. Our delicate blades of grass ironically can’t handle being trampled on all the time even though that is what we use a lawn for. When blades of grass die from being stepped on, plantain moves in to fill the gaps.

Although you may find plantain to be just an unpleasant blemish in your yard, this plant has some nutritional and medicinal benefits. These nutritional benefits include vitamins C, K, and E, as well as iron, potassium, and calcium. When the leaves are young in the spring, they can be used in a salad. Once they grow more, they harden and become unpleasant to snack on. Medicinally, the leaves also have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory benefits to help disinfect wounds and reduce swelling for cuts, burns, and insects bites.

When it comes to foraging for plants, make sure that if you decide to eat plants from your yard, you do not use any pesticides or fertilizers. Plants absorb all that and if you eat the plants, you also eat the poisonous chemicals. Also avoid eating plants from along roadsides. But otherwise -- munch away! These plants are very healthy. I pick them from my backyard all the time!

Sources:

https://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/how-to-forage-for-plantain/

June 2020

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

 

In June it’s common to find turtles crossing the road. Unfortunately, roads are a major cause of death for turtles because of the fragmentation of habitat along with increased risk of car strikes while crossing the road. So why do turtles cross the road? It’s not just to get to the other side.

In early summer it is common to find mother turtles — including painted turtles, snapping turtles, and eastern box turtles — walking across streets to lay eggs in their favorite nesting sites. People driving by often pick them up and put them back on the side of the road they came from, especially if that is where the pond or body of water is. Although this is done with good intention, it only means the turtle will have to start her journey across the road again. Remember: They are crossing the road with a purpose and that won’t change after your attempt at a rescue. The best thing to do if you want to move a turtle is to bring it to the side of the road it’s facing — that helps it complete its journey!

The next time we see turtles crossing the road is about a month and a half later after the babies hatch. This time they want to be moving back to the body of water their mother came from. Again, if you see a baby turtle crossing the road it is best to put that turtle on the side of the road it is walking toward. They where they’re going, so let them do their thing.

Some turtles don’t even live in ponds. Eastern box turtles are terrestrial (land) turtles that live in woodlands. Their territories are very small and they won’t survive if you remove them from their territory. With that in mind, it is not a good idea to relocate a box turtle. They know all the best spots for hiding and hunting in their territory and if you move on, it will simply try to find their way home… which could involve lots of dangerous street crossing.

You should always be cautious when handling turtles. They can carry bacteria and some — like snapping turtles — can be dangerous. While helping them cross the road it is best not to touch them. Perhaps gently using a tool such as a stick to entice them to continue walking themselves. If you find you do need to lift them up, it is best to cover the face with a cloth before lifting, and grab from the sides of the body as far away frrom the face as possible. Snapping turtles can be deceivingly quick and their necks are very long. Of course, also keep in mind that your safety comes first: If the road is not safe for you to stop on, don’t stop.

 

Thank you for keeping our environment and yourselves safe!

Sources:

https://www.matts-turtles.org/helping-turtles-cross-roads.html

July 2020

Teachings From a Praying Mantis

By Allegra Jacobs, Animal Care

I’ve always thought of myself as a very spiritual person. I was raised spiritually, with a love for Earth, nature, animals, and the presence of peace and quiet. I fall back on this when times get tough, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to admit that 2020 has been a very tough year so far. 

 

One of my favorite teachers and advisors that I always turn to when I need peace and clarification is the late Ted Andrews: author, storyteller, teacher and mystic. A fellow animal educator, who wanted nothing more than for the world to know that not only animals, but all of nature brings us gifts, messages, and advice every single day. “Nature is the most powerful realm of magic and spirituality upon the Earth,” he writes in his book, the Animal Speak Workbook. “Through Nature we learn respect, nurturing, and trust in our perceptions. It is a reminder of our greatest possibilities….The problem is, that most people have forgotten how to listen,” (Andrews 9). 

 

We think of big, strong, spiritual animals as the eagle. The tiger. The cobra. But why stop there? 

 

My dear friend and colleague Sarah (Miss Sarah as you all know her as) one day last year gifted me an amazing deck of cards: Animal Spirits and their meanings. Every so often I like to spread the deck, pull a card out that’s calling to me and see who has a message for me. Yesterday, I pulled a card of a cloaked figure. Long draping dark wings covering the body like a cape, with a triangular head and large, curious eyes. The Praying Mantis. 

 

We were fortunate enough to share our time and space at the nature center with a very gentle Mantis last year, who I affectionately called Manny after Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Everyone who knows me knows I’m not really a big fan of insects. We respect each other’s boundaries, and leave it at that. Despite this, I always had a fondness for our little Manny and enjoyed getting to take care of him. I had never had much time with this powerful hunter before - just as powerful as any other totem, like the eagle, the tiger or the cobra. 

 

I flipped the card over. “Insects are the most plentiful of beasts, consisting of more than 800,000 species. Their ability to metamorphose and fly has led to frequent symbolic associations with the spirit world and spiritual renewal,” the card reads. “The praying mantis has long been associated with feminine power, as the female is larger and stronger than the male. (Pomegranate, 1994), a story by Ursula K. Le Guin with illustrations by Boulet (Nagiecki, n.p.).”

 

I felt a soft spot for my little Manny because the mantis has a close relationship with feminine power. The Mantis card appeared to assure me that despite times being tough, I have so much power in my own body, mind, and spirit and I will be just fine. 

 

I wouldn’t be surprised if I bumped into a mantis at some point later today. What animals have you seen lately? In your dreams, in person? Really think. Even that fly buzzing at the window, or the woodpecker noise that appears every morning on the back deck. What are they trying to tell you? What is nature trying to teach you about yourself, every single day? 

 

Sources:

Andrews, Ted. The Animal-Speak Workbook: Explore the Spiritual Wonders of the Animal World. Dragonhawk, 2003.

 

Animal Spirits Knowledge Cards. The Susan Eleanor Boulet Trust. Text by John Nagiecki.

August 2020

Compass Trees

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

Have you ever been on a hike and lost track of where you are? Luckily we have our phones to help us find our way, but we cannot always rely on these devices — service can be poor or battery levels can be low. Luckily nature is there to help guide us, as long as we are tuned into her signs. One of these signs comes from the trees, who are reliable companions, helping us orient ourselves and find our way.

All plants need light. It is the catalyst for the process of photosynthesis, creating sugar for energy. Plant know this; they grow toward the light. Any plant lover with indoor plants sees this clearly with their plants leaning toward the windows. The primary light source in nature, and one necessary for photosynthesis, is our sun. The relationship we are looking for comes from the position that sun takes in our sky throughout the day.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The most important time to plants is midday, when the sun is in the south (at least here in the northern hemisphere) and providing the most amount of energy. This relationship is flipped in the southern hemisphere where the sun is in the north at midday. As trees grow, they angle their branches to capture as much light from the south as possible.

This manifests itself as more horizontal branches on the southern side of the tree and more diagonal and vertical branches on the northern side of the tree. You may also find that there are simply more branches on the southern side of the tree. This is very common with trees that grow alone in a field of meadow, or older trees in a new forest. But this angling towards south can be seen up in the canopy as long as south is the direction where the most light can reach the tree.

See if you can spot this pattern. Find a tree growing by itself or along the edge of the forest. Look at the angle of the branches, and try to find where south is. Then you can check yourself with a compass. You may be a few degrees off but you still should have the general idea. Now you can call yourself a natural navigator!

Bonus: Can you tell what direction the photo above was taken in? Comment on the facebook post  or email snunes@woodcocknaturecenter.org with your answer

For more information on natural navigation, check out books by Tristan Gooley 

September 2020

Planetary Show

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

All through my life the stars have fascinated me. Looking up on a clear night and seeing the infinite number of stars in the sky is both humbling and inspiring. It’s not only the stars that can be found in our skies: Depending on the time of year we can also see the planets with which we share our solar system.

Two planets that put on a good show this September are Jupiter and Saturn. Look to the southern part of the sky this month and you will see two bright “stars” relatively close to each other. The planets stand out more than the stars around them even when there is a lot of moonlight because they are many times closer to Earth. This makes them relatively easier to find. Jupiter looks a little bigger than the surrounding stars and Saturn has a bluish hue. If you are fortunate to be in an area with little light pollution, you will see the Milky Way as their backdrop.

 

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system but does not have the conditions needed to support life. It is a gas giant, meaning it lacks a solid surface. The gas is made of mostly hydrogen and helium, similar to the makeup of stars, but Jupiter is too small to burn like a star. Its days are very short — about 10 Earth hours — but its year is very long, about 12 Earth years. People also talk a lot about the Great Red Spot, which is a storm the size of the Earth which has been going on for over 100 years!

 

Saturn is also a gas giant, easily recognizable by its eye-catching rings. Saturn’s day is about 10-11 Earth hours long. A Saturn year is even longer than Jupiter’s — about 29 Earth years. Saturn is about 9.5 times farther from the sun than earth is, at a distance of 886 million miles. Both Saturn and Jupiter have moons that might have conditions to support life.

 

Take a moment this month to look at the sky this month and find Jupiter and Saturn. They really do stand out amongst the stars!

Sources:

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/jupiter/overview/

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/saturn/overview/

October 2020

Can You Sense It?

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

October is a time of great change in nature. The northern hemisphere prepares itself for winter in a spectacular way, especially in the temperate forests of New England. When out on a hike we always have an excellent opportunity to engage the senses we were born with, but even more-so in autumn.

To notice our surroundings more fully we have to engage all our senses, which luckily have evolved to help us do just that. Humans rely most on our vision. But have you really noticed all the colors around you? October is arguably the best time of the year to look for color as nature gets painted with warm hues of red, yellow, and brown. How many different colors can you find? You can also notice the shapes of the leaves falling. Trees have evolved differently shaped leaves to help give them subtle advantages over each other.

Next I’m going to ask you to smell the dirt. (Yes, for real). It shouldn’t smell bad. If you pick up some of the leaves and debris on the forest floor and give it a whiff it should smell like… well, like the earth! The process of decomposition creates healthy fertile soil that the forest uses to nourish itself. We have evolved to be able to identify healthy soil with our noses because it benefits us, too. They are many beneficial microorganisms in that soil. Scent is very important in identifying healthy objects in our surroundings, including pinpointing when food has gone bad.

 

Since we are with the dirt, stick your hands down into it. What do you feel? Do you feel the moisture in the ground? Even when the world looks dry around us (and this year it is very dry), we can still find water in the ground. The leaves and brush scattered around the forest floor help to retain moisture. This is important for supporting the lives of many different species, from might oak trees, who can drink hundreds of gallons of water a day, to worms, who need to stay moist to survive. In years like this one when there is a drought, water is especially important.

 

Now close your eyes. (I would also recommend you stop moving because humans in general are not good at walking with their eyes closed.) What do you hear? Many people first hear the birds chirping in the wind. There are many different bird species and each has many different calls, so it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who in the chorus of chirps. In October, many birds have begun their migration, which helps narrow down the list. If you hear simple little chirps, those are called companion calls; birds use them to keep track of their mates as they forage around.

 

As for taste, foraging and gathering food from nature — including from a garden — adds to the beautiful relationship we have with our environment. When foraging for food in the forest, it’s best (and safest) to learn from an expert. That way you can have a pleasurable experience.

 

Next time you go outside, engage as many senses as you can. Stretch your body’s ability to experience its surroundings. Even on well-traveled trails you can always notice something new! And you’ll feel good while using your senses.

November 2020

What Even Is a Mushroom?

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

We have finally been getting some much-needed rain in Connecticut. This water plays an important role in the environment, including as the catalyst for the reproductive cycle of a mostly unseen organism: the mushroom. There is so much more to a mushroom than what you see emerging from the ground or trees. So what role do they play?

 

To start off, a mushroom is not an organism itself. The mushrooms we see are the fruiting bodies of unseen fungi that live in the ground and in trees. A fruiting body is a fancy way of saying the reproductive parts of a mushroom, similar to an apple on an apple tree. Unlike many fruits, mushrooms don’t have seeds -- they have spores. Spores are tiny single cells used for reproduction, where fertilization happens after they drop from the mushroom. Other organisms that make spores include bacteria, ferns, moss, and algae.

Fungi are important decomposers in the forest ecosystem. We know that matter cannot be created or destroyed, so organisms like fungi contribute to the task of converting matter like trees and other dead material back into fertile soil for plants to use.

Some fungi actually kill plants and trees and decompose them. Although this sounds bad at first, every species needs some kind of limit on its population growth in order to live in balance in its ecosystem. Trees that die fall over and create openings in the forest canopy, allowing for more trees and other plants to grow. This increases biodiversity.

Fungi also provide food for other species like slugs, turtles, and even humans. Humans have learned over the centuries about all the nutritional and medicinal values of eating mushrooms. Adding mushrooms to our diet is good for our immune systems and provides fiber and necessary vitamins and minerals, including B Vitamins and potassium. Humans have also learned which mushrooms are poisonous and which are edible. Please do not eat any mushroom you find in the wild unless you or someone you know is knowledgeable in how to identify edible mushrooms.

So when you’re out exploring the forest in the fall, keep an eye out for all the differently shaped and sized mushrooms that sprout up after it rains. Remember it is only the tip of the fungal iceberg that you’re witnessing.

Sources:

https://apps.fs.usda.gov/r6_decaid/views/fungi.html

https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/are-mushrooms-good-for-you#Nutritional-benefits-of-eating-mushrooms

December 2020

Why Do We Bring Trees Inside in the Winter

By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator

It is common for those who celebrate Christmas to go out, chop down a tree, and bring it into their homes for about a month. Whether or not this should happen after Halloween or Thanksgiving is a topic for another discussion. Why do we do this? It seems like a strange tradition. But when we learn about the roots of this yearly practice, we can see early interpretations of evergreen tree’s medicinal effects on our bodies and minds.

Evergreen trees have been sacred in many cultures throughout history because of their ability to stay green in the winter. Ancient cultures including the Egyptians and Romans attributed this to the power of the sun or good spirits held in these plants. So around the winter solstice, people would bring evergreens into their homes to celebrate the return of the sun.

Our modern idea of the Christmas tree comes from a Germanic Christian tradition of bringing a tree inside for Christmas. This practice became more popular globally after Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert were sketched sitting around a Christmas tree. Although it’s widespread in the US now, the tradition did not become popular in this country until the early 20th century.

Evergreens can stay green throughout the winter because of their morphology or shape, as well as some other cool adaptations. Evergreen trees have small, skinny needles instead of large leaves like maples and oaks. Each little needle is covered in a waxy coating that helps to prevent water from evaporating and freezing; this coating allows photosynthesis to continue all winter. These trees are also very flexible, allowing them to carry the weight of the snow.

In early Scandinavian culture, people believed that evergreen trees were filled with good spirits. They brought them into their homes for protection. We know today that evergreen trees are good for our physical and mental health. Trees produce chemicals called phytoncides, which help protect them from insects, fungi, and bacteria. The same chemicals help to improve the human immune system. Phytoncides help our bodies produce anticancer proteins, increase natural killer cell activity to fight viruses, reduce heart rate and stress hormones, and improve mood. All trees produce phytoncides, but evergreen trees produce the most

Cultures throughout history have recognized the magic and splendor of evergreen trees. Our interpretations and traditions have changed over the years, but they still play an important role in our holiday season. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can still bring these plants into your home in whatever form you’d like. Better yet — take a winter walk in the forest, where the trees will continue to live on and grow. Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Sources:

https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

https://www.alehorn.com/blogs/blog/christmas-traditions-from-the-vikings

https://www.fs.usda.gov/inside-fs/out-and-about/walk-woods-wellness-health-benefits-forests

Woodcock Nature Center

56 Deer Run Road, Wilton, CT 06897

P (203) 762-7280

F (203) 834-0062

wnc@woodcocknaturecenter.org

Our mission is to connect people to the habitats, plants and animals of Southwestern CT through programs that build awareness, nurture understanding, and advance conservation. 

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