Friday, January 23, 2015

A Naturalist's Thoughts on Animal Tracks in Winter

Winter, in the northern hemisphere, can be a hard time of year to spot mammals. Many are hibernating now or have significantly slowed their activities due to the cold. But fresh snowfall can lead to animal tracks, which is a fun way to study animals in winter. The following animals (and their tracks) are commonly found in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. My thanks to vastateparksstaff for posting - and sharing - these great pictures online via Flickr (cc by 2.0). Note the use of a ruler - it's really helpful when trying to gauge the size of a print.

 White-tailed deer tracks
White-tailed deer tracks sometimes look like little hearts!

 Eastern Gray Squirrel tracks
This squirrel was running so fast that its front feet appear behind its hind feet!

HM Winter Visitors
Raccoon tracks

The text of this entry was first posted at the Audubon Naturalist Society. Come visit Woodend!

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Naturalist's Thoughts on Tree Rings

A tree is a woody plant with a single trunk that branches out at the top. Trees are perennial, meaning that they can live for many years. Tree height varies widely across the planet. Some California redwoods are more than 350 feet high, while the world's shortest tree, Greenland's dwarf willow, grows to be less than two and a half inches.

What causes tree rings?

The outer bark of a tree trunk consists of dead tissue, while the inner parts of the trunk are alive. New yearly trunk growth is added on between the inner old wood and the bark outside. Individual rings form because tree cells grow differently from the beginning to the end of a growing season. Each tree ring consists of two layers. A light-colored layer is formed when the tree grows rapidly in the spring; slower growth in the late summer and early fall causes a second, darker layer to form. Tree rings are only found in temperate climates. Tropical trees grow year-round, so they do not form rings.

When you look at a cross-section of a cut tree trunk, inner rings are the oldest. The rings' shape and width can tell you about the tree's life. Scars in the rings are usually caused by fire; if growth is limited by rainfall, wetter years tend to yield thicker rings. Narrow rings indicate tree stress, perhaps from drought or pests.
Pacific Spirit
Photo credit: Lawrence Murray, via Flickr (cc by 2.0)

This information was first posted at the Audubon Naturalist Society. Come visit Woodend!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Become a Master Naturalist!

You'll never look at downed trees the same way again!  
Recently, I earned my certification as a Maryland Master Naturalist. As part of this program, I took 60 hours of classes and instruction covering the ecology, geology, flora, and fauna of the state of Maryland. In order to keep my certification, I have to volunteer 40 hours a year and take 8 hours of refresher classes yearly. One way that I have been volunteering is to write up a short flyer each month for the Audubon Naturalist Society to post at their trail heads on the Woodend Nature Center sanctuary. I've decided to share these naturalist thoughts here in this blog on select Fridays.

Nearly every state in the US has a Master Naturalist Program. If you like spending time in nature, I encourage you to look into the training. I think it's a great opportunity for those of us who enjoy time outdoors. Here are a few reasons why:

- Training costs are low when compared with earning a similar certificate or degree.

- You meet lots of great eco-minded folks.

- You develop a greater appreciation and understanding of natural spaces around you.

- You'll have something new to add to your resume.

I developed a new appreciation for fungi as a part of my training. I used to always think of fungi as a sort of weird exception to plants. Nope! Fungi are totally different than plants and animals and have completely different life cycles and evolutionary strategies. Thinking about fungi has fueled some of my creative writing. :)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Worthwhile diversions

Last Sunday, I went for a walk around the lake with my oldest child. Lake is a generous term for the neighborhood retention pond, but it's been in place for over 30 years and local wildlife have taken to it. 

During our walk, we crossed a bridge over a meandering stream. My son hopped down to the creek bed and began exploring. 

My first thought was that we didn't have time for this - I needed to get home to make dinner. My second thought was that we probably weren't supposed to be off the beaten path. But my third thought was hey, I wonder what's down there?

So, we went creeking. Without a dip net, it was hard to discover what lurked beneath the rocks and muck. But we still managed to find water striders, several schools of minnows, and three crayfish.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile diversion. And a nice way to bond in nature with my teen-aged son.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Website of the Week: NASA's S'COOL

If you are over the age of 5 and you like clouds, NASA's S'COOL website is the place for you. This citizen science project is designed to let student observers report cloud conditions and compare their findings with CERES satellite data (a fact sheet about CERES can be found here). Although this project is primarily designed for school classes, individuals can report their findings too. To date, over eighty countries have participated in this project!

There are some neat information sheets tucked into this website, including a cloud chart, tips for observing clouds, and more tips for observing clouds. Enjoy!  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ten Tips to Inspire Environmentalists

Climate change is profoundly and noticeably impacting the environment where I live. For the past few years, I've observed increasingly intense summer thunderstorms and accelerating tree death from a variety of causes. Despite an abundance of dragonflies this year (yay!), I've seen fewer butterflies, moths, and bees this summer. This loss has affected me deeply and left me feeling out of sorts. Discouraged about the general state of the planet's health and concerned for my eco-community specifically, I turned to a listserv of Maryland Master Naturalists for advice. Why keep plugging away at saving the environment, I asked, when things look so bleak? How do I keep my spirits up when I find myself discouraged?

Here are the ten best tips that I received for coping with environmental degradation and dealing with the feelings of loss and helplessness that can arise:

1. Remember that the Earth is resilient and will be here long after we are gone.

2. Recognize that it may take a number of adverse ecological changes before real, meaningful climate change legislation is enacted.

3. Get involved. Plant trees, keep bees, study native plants, aid pollinators. Every little bit helps.

4. Rejoice over small eco-victories.

5. Focus on what you can do for the planet and set a good example for others.

6. Speak out about climate change. Let your voice be heard and educate others.

7. Teach children to be environmental stewards.

8. Accept that some environmental change is inevitable. New, more adaptable species will arise to succession. This is part of life.

9. Know that you are part of a larger community of environmental stewards who are working to make a difference.

10. Events that we interpret as undesirable (such as tree death) have important environmental benefits too (bird habitat).

My thanks to the kind and generous Maryland Master Naturalists who responded to cheer me up. Keep fighting the good fight!

Image credit: tongdang, on

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mackerel Sky

I love clouds. There's something alluring about their ephemeral beauty. Each morning, I look to the sky to see what surprises Mother Nature has in store for me.

Today, I found a mackerel sky. This is a cloudscape that looks like rows of fish scales, or, as I like to think of it, a popcorn sky.


Technically, these rows of small puffy clouds are altocumulus, mid-level cumulus that form in the lower middle portion of the sky. These clouds are sometimes confused with cirrocumulus, although the two form in very different vertical layers. If you look through the bumpy rows of clouds and the sun looks fuzzy, you've spotted the rarer and higher lying cirrocumulus.


Over on NASA's S'COOL website (Students' Cloud Observations On-line), Lin Chambers suggests holding your hand up at arm's length when trying to differentiate between these two cloud types. If the individual clouds are the size of your thumbnail, you have altocumulus; if they are the size of your pinky fingernail, you have cirrocumulus.

Note: Since I posted this, I've learned that the term mackerel sky can be used to describe either cirrocumulus or altocumulus or both! 

[Edited 9/14/14]