Empty nesters

Pipe-organ mud dauber nest under a bridge

They catch my eye this time of the year, the shapes that hang from or perch on or adhere to their supporting structures. They are exposed on tree or bush limbs that used to shroud them in foliage, and in the absence of other living or colorful visual distractions, even the smooth surfaces of walls and roofs give up their secrets.

These artifacts, so crucial to a particular stage of an organism’s life, linger on – maybe to house an opportunistic spider or to be recycled into next year’s nest-building. It’s never certain how long they have been abandoned by their original builders; their structure resists weathering and decay, persisting years beyond their use as a nest.cocoon2 I found this slightly worn cocoon the other day suspended from a holly twig.  It dangled and swayed on a thin silken strand. What made this?  Who might still be inside? I submitted the photo to Bugguide and soon had a response: Charops annulipes, an ichneumon wasp. It was the first record of the species for Maryland on that site. and a new species for the Maryland Biodiversity Project as well.

I love the fact that an animal’s distinctive creation is sufficient enough evidence of its existence that it counts as a sighting.  Work and worker are one and the same.

Making marks

Back in my teenage years, I attended a school that had a lovely, ancient beech tree with a full crown extending well out over the edge of an adjacent sports field.  In the late fall, hockey balls would get lost in drifts of yellow leaves. The trunk of the tree was a graffiti wall, its bark inscribed by hundreds of students over possibly a hundred years to reaching height, with names and dates and hearts and the rare epithet, including one that I carved there. It was a challenge to find an empty space. I gave only a moment’s thought to the marks that I would carve, but not to the fact that they would be there until the tree’s death, a tattoo on another’s skin bearing testimony to my brief emotional state.

In the Jemicy woods, we have several American beech trees, none nearly as old as that one from my high school.  Their diameter is a foot or so, their bark still relatively unscarred.  These are the trees that I can’t help hugging whenever I take kids out there.  I get funny looks, but sometimes they try it too, and then they understand.Mayabeech The beeches are so reassuringly solid, so accepting of human touch, and when you spread your palm across the thin, smooth bark-skin, you can almost feel the active vascular system beneath it. “Like squeezing an elephant’s leg,” is how one student tried to describe it. One of the trees nearest the stream bears an inscription: “Jesse.” When I point this out to my students, they are horrified.  “Who would ever do that?”

Some trees scar and recover almost without a trace of trauma, like an elm sapling planted as a memorial to a friend, that was shredded in its first fall by buck antlers.  Only a thin strip of bark was left intact and we were sure it would never survive.  Somehow it rallied, that thin strip grew new tissue, and today the elm stands 30 feet tall, the original scars now buried in healthy wood. I use this tree as an example when teaching my students about the amazing power of the cambium to regenerate new tissue. But beeches are different.forever

Yesterday I hiked at Oregon Ridge, past an old tree clinging to the side of an eroded path. Within the human-high band of scrawlings on its trunk, none of the marks looked fresh. The old ones still hurt.


It happens all too often this time of year. A student runs in, breathless: “Emily, there’s a hurt/dead bird!”  A crowd has likely already gathered around a tiny still figure.  Or maybe it’s still fluttering a bit, but its head is cocked awkwardly to one side, one eye barely open. Usually it lies beneath a window.  Today, there were two casualties, a junco and a cardinal. Sometimes I bag and label birds that die and put them in the freezer with the frozen mice.  I pull them out when we are learning about bird adaptations, and we compare feet or bills or plumage.  Or we may bury it, its grave marked with an elaborately decorated stone.

Other times, it is just a scattering of feathers that we find, the plucked remains from a hawk’s meal.  These feathers usually make their way into someone’s fort collection, become decorations, or are attached to a whittled arrow.fort4

A pileated woodpecker with a neck injury appeared mysteriously on the soccer field after a game recently.  No one saw it land there; it was seen struggling to get upright, and was brought to the science room. It was eventually taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center.  No word has yet come as to its condition; we expect it did not survive.

There is something especially poignant about bird strikes, especially when they are committed by an invisible, deadly barrier.  Adaptations to aerial predators are no match for glass.

Watching TV

On sunny late fall days at school, as the aftercare kids busy themselves with fort business, or whittling, or a tag game on the playground, someone invariably pauses, points up, and cries, “TV!” And sure enough, there they are, circling in the late afternoon thermals on the pale blue screen of the sky above us.  We watch, we count, we speculate as to why they are there and how long they might stay, or what they might be sensing.  The TV’s command attention, and then they sail away.

408547_226774150733424_1858972515_nIt is one of the first acronyms that kids learn in science, when we are taking a walk outside and I suddenly say, “Let’s watch TV!” They pause, puzzled.  Some cheer, thinking that we will be going inside to see SpongeBob or whatever it is that kids like to watch these days. “Look up!” I tell them, and then they spot the enormous wings sailing overhead, the heads bent low, the effortless gliding grace.  “It’s just a vulture,” one student will usually inform me, and I will add, emphasizing the sounds,”But it’s a Turkey Vulture.  Here we are, outside, watching TV!” Then we will sit or lie down and spend the next few minutes watching TV, noting how they will tip to one side, then right themselves, how they seem to have fingers that help steer, speculating what dead thing they might be looking for, are are they just having fun up there, looking down at us?

I have seen kids get into their car at carpool and announce to their baffled parents that they watched TV during aftercare.  I smile, nod, close the car door.  Let them wonder.

Risky tools

It is time for aftercare.  The youngest kids rush outside for an hour of play, but I have a small group bouncing with excitement whose turn it is to whittle.  I hand each of these 7-9 year olds a utility knife with a retractable razor blade.  They don safety glasses and sit along the edge of the stone patio, carefully and patiently slicing slivers and chips off sticks that they have collected from the woods. I sit with them, sometimes whittling a piece of wood myself.  They are quiet, concentrating on their work with an intensity that I rarely see in any other activity.  Finally a boy says, “This is so relaxing.” The others nod in agreement but don’t look up.  They spend the full hour there, getting up only to find a new stick.  A teacher asks what they are making, and they take some time to think about this, examining the now very sharp tips on their sticks.  They know that certain responses may be unacceptable here in school.  “A trash picker-upper,” says one of the girls, demonstrating. “A spear?” asks one of the boys cautiously, examining his stick. “Yes, a spear for target practice,” he announces.  The others chime in, “Yeah, an arrow for target practice.” “A knife to practice throwing at a target.”  Another boy holds up several pale peeled sticks: “These are wands.” He demonstrates with an incantation. The first boy has continued working during this commentary, but finally says, “I’m just enjoying whittling.”knives1

A primary goal of My Fulbright project is to create a toolkit – a meaningful collection of objects that enhance our knowledge and support for sustaining biodiversity.The thought of energetic 8 year olds using razor blades might concern some people.  The same goes for saws, drills, and matches –  more tools that my students use under supervision. My philosophy of giving kids “dangerous” tools is that if they have the desire to learn to use them correctly, they will  gain competence that will serve them for a lifetime.  I don’t regard this use as “playing with knives;” rather, it is a child’s form of work, with as much meaning as learning to use a ball, a ladder, a pencil, or any other tool. Just as important is the confidence and trust in them that I have.  Learning to handle tools competently means that you have experiential knowledge of the hazards of using them unwisely.  Not that I wish for any of my students to hurt themselves to learn a lesson – of course not.  But, just like acquiring the balance and sense of motion required to ride a bike – and hoping that you will never suffer a crash – gaining the trust and dexterity to use a tool like a knife gives you confidence to handle all sorts of things.

In my biodiversity backpack, I would include a pocketknife.  I still remember the one that I was given at eight years old, and how it fit in my hand.  At the time, it went everywhere with me, including into the woods, where I fashioned bows and arrows and dug open rotting logs to see what was inside. Now, I use a pocketknife to collect fungi or part of a plant for identification.  Sometimes, as I walk the woods paths during recess, I cut away bittersweet or honeysuckle vines that encircle young trees. But mostly, I just like having it along, this tool that feels like a natural extension of my hand.

For another perspective: http://trackersearth.com/blog/kids-should-play-with-knives/


The stream at Jemicy has no official name.  Sometimes after a dry summer, it is barely a stream at all – just a rocky, damp ditch winding from a sporadic seep at the northern edge of the school’s property and under a broken-down corrugated fence at the southern end.  At some point in the land’s history, well before the original farmland was developed here, the stream must have been a far more powerful force to carve out the deep, narrow valley that now forms the recess play area.  You can still get a sense of this force after a heavy rain, when the banks are scoured clean, the grasses in the narrow floodplain are flattened, and debris gets deposited in unexpected spots.

boysstreamBut most of the time these days, the stream is a benign and beguiling place, its waters an attraction unlike any other. Right now, the stream is strewn with fallen leaves, the water glimmering in the small spaces between them. Many animals are still active in the extended warm spell we’re having.  Every day during recess, I find two new middle school students hanging over a log across the stream, searching for crayfish. Downstream, another group of boys dares each other to vault across the water with a long bamboo pole; at least one always manages to land squarely in the mud to the cheers of his friends. When I introduce children to the woods, we go first to the stream, where I show them that they can orient themselves from its course to all other places.woods3

Disputes over water rights happen here too.  Children with forts downstream frequently accuse those upstream of blocking the flow of water, or of contaminating it with mud.  There is no official policy as to what can or can’t happen in the stream, but when  activities seem to be having a detrimental impact on the ecosystem, they are curtailed.  The discovery of clay deposits after a spring flood scoured a bank launched a frenzy of digging and the creation of a pottery business.6996_394811800596324_1086335970_n  This had to be closed when the fragile bank collapsed.  Just this week, I informed a group of middle school boys that the fort they had held for several years in the middle of the stream would be designated a recovery zone in a few weeks. This came as little surprise to most of them, as they had been asked numerous times over the past year to scale back their dam-building and other activities. “But why?  We’ve been working here since we were 6 years old!  Can’t you please let us stay?” they begged.  I pointed out that when they were six, their activities had little impact, and that with each passing year, they had managed to alter the landscape and stream ecosystem more significantly. It was time for them to acknowledge this and move to a location that was less sensitive to disruption – away from the stream. One tried to argue that they needed water “to do anything fun,” but one of his friends nodded. “No, there’s a lot more things that need that water more than we do.”

The next day at recess, the boys were gone from the fort.  I thought perhaps they had abandoned the woods altogether, but at the lunch bell, as I was leaving the woods, I found them in a new location near the top of the hill.  It was an old fort that had been worked on and left last year, a jumble of old concrete foundation pieces, gravel, and a few perimeter trees.  I complimented the boys on their new location, and pointed out a deep gully worn through the middle of their territory. “Looks like you may have water after all,” I said, and explained that this ditch was an erosion problem caused by storm water runoff from the middle school wing and had never been adequately managed.

“So, it would be a good thing if we tried to fill it in!  Or caught the water to make a pool in our fort!  Or piped it into an irrigation system!”  They headed off to lunch talking excitedly about their plans.

New life for the lifeline?


O10669154_743124215765079_3058852150826401368_one late October I was hiking at Soldiers Delight, enjoying the remnants of fall leaf color, but missing the flowers and pollinators of late summer.  I paused by a stream to search for lingering invertebrates among the rocks, and my eye caught a flash of blue on the bank.  A clump of tall, slender plants stood just before me; most bore brown seed capsules but a few waved showy blue-purple petals edged in delicate fringe, revealing their identity: Gentianopsis crinita, fringed gentian.

They were stunning in their audacity.  This is a serpentine barrens, rocky and sparse, with soil uninviting except to the most tenacious species.  And yet, it hosts several of the rarest plants in the state and even region, which appear to thrive in these deprived conditions. The fringed gentian is an endangered rarity that is only found here, and in one other spot in Maryland.  In mid-summer, it is not uncommon to find the rare sand plain gerardia blooming unconcernedly and abundantly along the path.  This lovely pink fuzzy wonder, too, always brings me to my knees.gentian1

Ever since that first encounter with the fringed gentian, I look forward to meeting it again.  This plant is a biennial, its seeds not widely dispersed unless they are carried away by the stream. There is an official information sign posted directly beside some exposed clumps along the stream on on a lesser-used trail, but I enjoy trying to find the patch that I first met by chance downstream. I bend down to the water, just as I did then, let my attention rove the gold-green substrate, to be grabbed by those beckoning blue fingers.