Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Backyard Field Trip

We're caught on the cusp of a changing season. The last drops of maple sap are being collected and the maple moths are getting bolder.

This week is the perfect time for a backyard field trip. Head outside to see what sort of critters you see on the snow, or under the snow, or around the snow. Check for bird tracks in the mud, greening grass and crocuses, and stuff the snowplows left behind.

This week will be a good one for watching stars - the quarter moon is waning and by next Sunday it should be completely dark. The geese have been migrating north, but will there be as many flying on a moonless night?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Follow the Season - Spring

Despite this evening’s forecast – 20 degrees and snow – today really is the first day of spring. The vernal equinox. One of two magical days where the length of day is balanced by the length of night. From here on out the days get longer.

The last few days the air has smelled like spring – well, that and hot maple syrup. Chickadees have added upbeat songs to their repertoire; sparrows and juncos cluster on the lawn picking millet out of the dead grass. Spears of daffodil leaves have pushed up from the lawn and the soil smells fresh, sweet.

It’s noisy, too. In addition to the cooing of mourning doves there’s the sound of water running down hill, the gentle hum of honeybees stretching their wings, the schlook of mud beneath my sneakers.

Now is the time to grab a notebook and document the changing season. Maybe you want to map where the sun rises each morning, or keep a lookout for the first bumblebees. Or maybe you want to document when the first flowers bud and bloom.

There’s a whole field of study that documents the timing of biological events in plants and animals such as flowering, leafing, hibernation, reproduction, and migration. It’s called “phenology”, and scientists involved in this field are interested in the timing of such biological events in relation to changes in season and climate.

You can contribute to this research by getting involved in Project Budburst.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Big Night for Salamanders

Big Night for Salamanders
by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, illustrated by Carol Benioff
40 pages, for ages 7 – 9
Boyds Mills Press 2010

Every spring Spotted Salamanders migrate from their winter homes in the forested hills to their breeding ponds, where they mate and lay their eggs. It’s a long and dangerous journey, especially when the tiny amphibians – obscured in the rainy dark of night – must cross roads. Fortunately, children (and adults) show up on migration night, slowing down traffic and carrying salamanders across the roads.

Sarah Lamstein captures the excitement of this annual migration well in Big Night for Salamanders. Evan, racing home from the school bus, asks his parents: Is this the Big Night? He covers his flashlight with pink plastic so as not to hurt the salamanders’ eyes, and heads out to warn motorists to slow down.

A few weeks ago I asked Lamstein what inspired her to write the book – aside from her own experiences helping tiny amphibians across the road. “It’s the magic of the event,” she said – not just the yearly phenomenon of salamanders migrating to the pond en masse, but the magic of vernal pools. They’re present in the spring, but by the end of summer the seasonal pools are gone. Dried up. Disappeared.

“Then there is the magic of the Spotted Salamanders,” Lamstein said. “Their loveliness and their vulnerability.” The final bit of magic, she says, is in the children who help the salamanders cross a road on Big Night. 

Big Night alternates between two points of view. Part of the story is told through Evan’s voice, the child who can’t wait to put on his boots and head out to help his salamandery friends. The other half narrates an up-close-and-personal amphibious viewpoint about emerging from winter sleep and feeling the pull to head pondward.

“The most remarkable thing I learned,” says Lamstein, “is that they find their way to the vernal pool through remembered scents.” When the baby salamanders complete development and leave their pool for the upland forest, they remember the scents of the soil, plants and rocks along the way. This sensory map guides them back to the pool each year.  “It’s remarkable!” says Lamstein.

Lamstein’s deep appreciation for the spotted salamanders and her own involvement with Big Night give her story authenticity. No wonder Smithsonian listed Big Night for Salamanders in their 2010 Notable Books for Children.

This post is part of the Nonfiction Monday Round-Up hosted this week by Chapter Book of the Day; book provided from the local library.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Map the Shifting Season

March is an uncertain month. This morning it was raining – now there’s so much snow falling that the weatherman says we’ll get close to a foot on the ground. Sure the groundhog promised spring soon, but sometimes we need proof that the season is changing.

Here’s a few ideas for mapping the change in the seasons:

Keep a journal. You can write or draw your what you see outside: how many birds show up at the feeder, how long it takes to shovel the driveway, how the color of the sky changes, how deep the snow is and how fast it’s melting.

Keep a photo-journal of pictures showing one particular area over the next few weeks.

If you like to draw treasure maps you might try mapping the change of seasons. For example, where does the snow melt fastest in your neighborhood? Where are the sunny spots, the shady spots, and the places where the squirrels hang out on a snowy day? When spring comes, where does X mark the spot?

What other ways can you collect information about the shifting season?