Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Will Not Be Silent Spring

I just had the most WONDERFUL experience of Bioblitz, where scientists, artists, and lay people get together to identify as many species as possible to record the biodiversity of a selected area.  This year it was at Snake Den State Park in Johnston, RI.  There were the usual teams: The "birders" who can identify birds by sight and sound, even if it's a mockingbird singing like a lark, the mammal crew, the moss seekers, the lichen table, the mushroom hunters, the creative writers, the artists, and more.  This year, I went to collect bees and help out with the litter bugs.  I did a bit of drawing and photography as well.

Walking down Brown Ave., I found a butterfly I had never seen.  I caught it with my net and took it back to identify.  It stayed on the cup long enough for me to get a picture.  Red-spotted purple.

Then, following the dragonfly team through the fields (in long pants, of course!), I found over a dozen of these guys chewing on the plantain.  I was told they used to be rare, until they diversified their food choices.  Baltimore butterfly.

The dragonfly team identifies another one!

The beetle guy always has such interesting finds, as beetles are such a diverse order.  I found this one near the base of a tree and a whirligig in one of the many small ponds.

This is of course a spittle bug, one of the "true bugs" among many.

The many moths found at Snake Den:

And many ants as well.

No final numbers yet, of course.  I collected bees by hand and found six species, which I tentatively labeled as the genus Bombus impatiens, Bombus sp. 2, Ceratina, Perdita, Sphecodes, and Apis mellifera.  The ant collector found an Agapostemon, I believe.  Another person used "bee bowls", placing bowls with sugar water ever ten? feet for a 150 feet and found bees mostly different from mine.  Most appeared to be from Family Hyalictidae.  We went back and forth trying to identify them, comparing body proportions, abdomen and wing patterns, length of antenna.  I'm only fairly certain of the Ceratine because of it's size and white mark on its face.  It is a difficult task, and the specimens will be going to an entomologist at URI to identify species.

As always, there were amazing varieties of lichen, moss, and mushrooms:

Other unexpected finds were what must have been a 6 foot snake skin and a skeleton of what I was told was a fox.  One of the highlights for me was finally finding a tardigrade!  I found rotifers and nematodes as I often do.  But thanks to Leslie on the Litter Bug team, she found this little guy from a scraping I had taken off an oak tree:

Here's the video:


An more pics of this cutie!  Next time, I'll bring my microscopic camera and hope it works. 

It's a 24 hour experience.  Camping out, I walked to my tent under a full moon, adjusted my sleeping bag so I wasn't facing down-hill, and fell asleep in minutes.  Next year, I'm coming with friends!

Oh, one more thing.  I also collect data for Frog Watch.  Three years ago, all I heard from this man-made pond in an urban spot near 295 were spring peepers.  Last night, there were bull frogs, green frogs, and gray tree frogs.  They were not being quiet.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bioblitz 2017

I am very excited about participating in Bioblitz at the Snake Den in Johnston, RI this year!  I am part of the art team and will also be collecting bees for identification and looking for microscopic critters in moss.  Stay tuned...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Wheels to Woods

What happens when you take 63 (occasionally rowdy) fourth graders on a bus to the woods?  We recently found out on our field trip to Stone Laurel Farm.  During the 40 minute drive there, kids pointed out cars they likes, restaurants we passed.  Some were already eating their lunches.  Fidget spinners were out.  They kept asking what they were going to do there.  I jokingly told them we were going to learning how to forage and start a new society.


Then we got there, greeted by Jeannine Silversmith of RI Families in Nature and RIEEA, Paul Dolan (who has great knowledge of trees), Mr. Boudreau, and owner Rich St. Aubin.  We split the group by class and rotated them through three stations.  I was in Mr. Dolan's station first, as we learned about the trees in the area.  We were shown a stump that had sprouted, a winter moth, and a gypsy moth, and told about the struggles and rebounds of trees in the face of drought or severe insect damage.  

The kids got to explore a wood pile - recycling of nutrients in progress.  I found a blueberry gall while Mr. Dolan pointed out the high bush blueberries, raspberries, and sassafras.  One of the highlights of this station was smelling the sassafras and the cherry wood under their bark.


We saw a tiny sassafras sapling that would one day be 80 feet tall.  Mr. Dolan also had the kids guess the age of a dead tree then took a core sample.  Approximately 66 years old!

In another station, the kids got to learn about the workings of a tree by acting out and chanting the roles of the heart wood (supports the tree), xylem (carries up water), phloem (carries down nutrients), cambium (makes xylem and phloem), leaves (make food for tree), bark (protects tree), etc.  They loved the movement and getting loud.  It soon became apparent that the winter moths they had learned about were everywhere!  One took notes and made sketches of everything.  Another collected the shed shells of last year's gypsy moth pupas.  A few others cupped the green inch worms of the winter moth in their hands and watched them move.


We also learned about lichen, a symbiotic relationship between an algae and a fungus.  We found different kinds and passed them around.

Lastly, the kids got to imagine the competition for food, sunlight, water, nutrients, and space as they were told they couldn't move from where they were standing, but could get any poker chips they could reach.  Some had several blue chips (water), but no red (sunlight).  Others had different mixes.  I found a tiny bittersweet vine and pulled it out, showing them the orange root and explaining how the vine was invasive and would crowd the trees out of space and literally pull them down.  They played with the poker chips again, this time with black ones added.  The black ones were revealed to be worms, helping recycle and aerate the soil.  But they could have been contaminants.  The tree cannot always choose what it gets out of the soil.


Then there was the ride home, still noisy, still silly.  But now, "Look, I saw a horse!  Look at that tree!"  The stores and restaurants were not remarked on, but an occasional car was as we drove back to school.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Adventures Among Ants (and Other Insects)

This is my own photo, taken of an ant herding aphids on a rhubarb stalk.
Okay, I stole this title from Mark Moffett's excellent photo safari that you should definitely purchase.  He inspired me to get better at photography, especially of one of my favorite subjects: Insects!  I've been photographing insects from all 12 orders of insects.  (Some have been a lot harder to find than others!  It took me over a year to find an example of Neuroptera, or lacewing!)

I've also returned to my previous art forms, drawing and painting.  After breaking my thumb last year in my "drawing hand", the first thing I drew was a Megachilid bee.  Now I'm photographing as many bee species as possible, crouching by my blueberry bushes to watch bumble bees buzz out the pollen or an Anthidium chew off some hairs from the fuzzy mullein I also keep in my garden.  I'm drawing bees as playing cards and having my 5th graders choose one of 19 Genera to illustrate in their own card design, then search for in the garden.  In June, I will be collecting bees and wasps for the RINHS BioBlitz.

Meanwhile, back to the ants.  I've seen "animal behavior" lists for nature explorers that cover such actions as preening, flying, eating, etc. for birds and running, burying, carrying, etc. for squirrels.  These are great for teaching individual children about animal behaviors, but with a class of 25, birds and squirrels take off.  So I made my own behavior list and illustrations for ants.  We tested them out with kindergarten and first grade.  They gave me great ideas for improvements too!

Below are the behaviors we noted, along with how many times each were tallied.  Although it's not a reliable count, as many ants were counted more than once and some behaviors were misunderstood, the students really enjoyed the experience.  Some got frustrated that the ants moved so fast and they couldn't draw them.  I instructed them to sit on the sidewalk, observing the ants in the bare soil and in the freshly planted annual bed along the walkway into the school, and let the ants come to them.  The ones who were able to sit still the longest saw the most behaviors.  When we returned to the classroom, many had stories to share of ants they've seen at home, some even IN their home!

Grooming (ant cleaning itself) 16 times
Carrying (we saw two ants carrying worms or caterpillars in one of the classes) 15 times
Herding (this is seen with ants herding aphids for their honeydew and I doubt this was actually observed) 15 times
Fighting (rival colonies may fight, or ants may fight ladybugs over aphids) 24 times
Swarming (more than a large group of ants, this is usually seen when a choice food is found or a colony is moving) 16 times
Building (there were numerous ant hills present) 43 times
Running (added by students) 260 times
Eating (perhaps carrying food?) 4 times