Late bloomers

In spring and summer as I’m tending my gardens at home and at school, I click into keep/discard mode. It’s usually pretty straightforward: keep what I planted, discard the rest. But inevitably I pause at the same spot every year, stymied: What is this rangy, tough-stemmed plant that’s pushing upward with such determination? I’m sure I didn’t plant it. A friend wanders by, sees me studying it, and offers an opinion. “A weed, for sure.” I’m not so sure. There are no visible flower buds, nothing that promises to enhance summer’s blossoming and entice insects and hummingbirds. Just some thin, jagged leaves, a reddish stem, and a branching pattern that suggests…something. Something that convinces me to let it be, to wait and see.Eupatorium serotinum

I’m glad I did. The plant that I decided to ignore all summer just waited as the sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans burst into bloom, flashed their gaudy petals (or were eaten by the deer), and then became food for the finches. Finally, as I was contemplating spreading compost and putting the beds to bed for the winter, I noticed it. Actually, what caught my eye first were its visitors: sulphurs, monarchs, skippers, buckeyes, wasps, bees, ants.

A stunning array of insects worked over the inconspicuous, delicate white flower heads. I hardly knew where to look first, much less how to focus my camera lens to capture the abundance. Only then did the identity of the plant finally enter my consciousness: late boneset, also known as late thoroughwort. Eupatorium serotinum. Pollinator magnet.

This is not the only “weed” that waits until late summer to attract pollinators. Goldenrod, aster, ironweed, blazing star, and a host of other plants welcome visitors through September and into October in this region. Why so late? Many late-season pollinator species overwinter as larvae or use the nectar derived from fall flowers to fuel migration southward.

E. serotinum won’t be forgotten next year. I’ve submitted photos to the Maryland Plant Atlas, which has no formal record of it for either the Cockeysville (Jemicy LMS) or Reisterstown (my house) quad, in spite of its ubiquity. Better late than never!



Can’t make (some of) this stuff up

The JE science classes focused on insects this spring, studying the life cycles of cockroaches, mealworms, silkworms, and other 6-leggeds. Their final project was to create a unique insect species in suitable habitat, depict its life cycle stages, and tell a story about an adventure that it had.



The invented insects were fantastically diverse, both morphologically (though they did follow “insect rules” with 3 body parts and 6 legs) and in their adaptations to their living conditions. In response to the questions, “What do you eat?” and “How do you keep from being eaten?” responses ranged from blood-thirsty  – “It can and will eat every other insect” – to benevolent – “Does it have to be a predator? This insect just wants friends.”



What struck me was that in the description of every seemingly invented insect, there was more than a hint of reality. Insects can be voracious and indiscriminate predators (praying mantis). They can also display behavior that we might encourage students to emulate: cooperation and care for young (social insects), and dogged determination (dung beetle). But frequently insects interact with their environment in ways that are just… bizarre.

  • One damp morning I was crossing a side street near my house when I saw what looked from a distance like a snake, and judging by its ragged shape maybe one that had been hit by a car. But there was movement, too, an undulating forward motion. It was only when I got within a few feet that I could see that the creature was actually hundreds of larvae woven together like rope fibers, moving determinedly as one toward the opposite side of the road. A few had lost contact and dropped off the back, but they were still aiming in the same direction as the mass of their fellow larvae.


This, it turns out, is the preferred migration method of dark-winged fungus gnat larvae.

  • Down in the woods during recess one day, someone pointed to a large, colorful, spidery insect repeatedly appearing to sting a rotting log.

I knew this must be a female of some species laying eggs, but I assumed it was one of the ichneumon wasps that has the uncanny ability to deposit eggs through its mammoth ovipositor into rotting wood directly over the tunneling larvae of its favorite beetle prey. The eggs hatch, and lunch is served.


This new insect, however, turned out to be a fly – a cranefly that lays its eggs in the dead wood that its larvae will later feed on.

  • On one of our many searches for new insects in the milkweed patch, a student pointed to a minuscule gold dot on a leaf. “Is this something new?” I could barely see the bug, but I dutifully took a picture, and when I enlarged it, saw that it was an aphid.

aphid mummy

Or was it? Turns out, it was an aphid mummy: the skin of an aphid hosting the parasitic larva of a braconid wasp.

  • Another day, a tiny, dance fly perched on a leaf near the stream, her enormous eyes glowing fly

Little did we know of the drama that awaited her that evening. According to Bugguide,

Adult females congregate in a swarm above vegetation near water around sunset, and inflate abdominal sacs in an attempt to fool males into thinking the swollen abdomens are full of ripe eggs. The hairy legs are held alongside the abdomen in flight, supposedly to accentuate abdominal size. Males hunt small insects and bring the dead prey as “nuptial gifts” to females in exchange for a chance to mate. Males prefer to mate with the fattest and hairiest females, but the cost of being hairy is an increased chance of being caught in spider webs.

  • And then there is the strange insect that I have not yet seen, but that is making its way in our direction: the spotted lanternfly.

    spotted lanternfly
    Spotted lanternfly – USDA photo

This introduced fly is wreaking havoc with fruit crops in Pennsylvania, just north of us, and several other states. It’s been found in one county in Maryland so far. Fortunately, it seems that we may have native fungi on hand to counter its spread – fungi that glue the fly down and prevent it from moving while it’s being consumed.

Truth in these cases is almost stranger than the fiction kids come up with.





City Nature Challenge 2019

On the morning of April 26, I gave my students a challenge that I knew they would embrace enthusiastically. Showing them a world map with real-time data, I explained that just past midnight on April 26, citizens of cities all over the world had begun to photograph and identify their local species in a global competition called the City Nature Challenge.

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City Nature Challenge 2018

The goal is simple: Observe and identify as many species as possible between April 26-29. Upload them to iNaturalist where they will be counted toward your city’s totals. Observations are approved by others in the iNaturalist community, which acts as quality control for the data coming in. As residents of Baltimore County, Jemicy’s totals would count for Baltimore, which competed in the challenge for the first time in 2018. Last year, out of 68 participating cities, Baltimore came in 24th for the number of observations made and 22nd for total species identified. We looked at the stats that were already coming in, from countries in eastern time zones: Christchurch, NZ already had 2500 observations, while Capetown, South Africa showed over 5,000.

“Well?” I asked. “Do you think we can help Baltimore out?” The kids answered by racing for the door, fanning out over designated areas and calling to me to photograph whenever they found something that they thought would count as a new species. Because of our affiliation with the Maryland Biodiversity Project, spotting and identifying unique species has become second nature to the Jemicy lower school students.


In the space of only a few hours, we made over 100 observations of plants, animals and fungi, most of which were able to quickly be identified to species. This placed us momentarily at the top of the Baltimore leaderboard, which itself was just more incentive to keep hunting. Ringneck snake, phantom cranefly, common angle moth, jack-in-the-pulpit. By the time school was over, I had shared the app with numerous kids who were clamoring to keep looking, encouraging them to continue hunting at home over the weekend.


By the time Monday came, I had added observations from my own backyard and local excursions. It was unseasonably cold, and many of the expected invertebrates remained hidden. Still, we continued to observe species at school: eastern bluebird (with a nest of new hatchlings), crayfish, dryad saddle mushrooms, a tiny eastern tailed blue butterfly. Most of these were species that we had already added to our MBP checklist in the past, but some were welcome newcomers.

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When the observing part of the challenge was over, we took a look at the thousands of observations others had made to see if we could help verify their identifications. Many were beyond our capabilities, but others were identical to species that we had seen and studied on our campus: white oak, red maple, garlic mustard, American robin. It was exciting to see other people jumping in to help verify our sightings or to steer us to more accurate identifications.

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The final totals from the 2019 challenge will arrive on May 6, after images taken during the challenge window have been uploaded and as many as possible identified. So far, Baltimore appears to have increased its number of observations by several thousand since last year, while the global total is nearing 1 million.

The City Nature Challenge was exhilarating on several levels. Joining a worldwide effort with thousands of other citizen scientists bolsters our sense of belonging to a global community. Every observation made, regardless of which city it belonged to, supported a joint effort to recognize and document biodiversity through direct engagement. Considering Jemicy’s small size in terms of numbers of observers and physical geography, we were still able to provide an inordinate impact on our region’s total observations. This image of our sightings from the challenge makes two facts clear: 1) Our campus is loaded with biodiversity, and 2) Jemicy kids are some of Baltimore’s keenest spotters.

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We can’t wait until City Nature Challenge 2020!




Spring’s arrival heralds many joyous returns: migratory birds to their local nesting sites, kids to their favorite haunts in the woods, crayfish, amphibians and reptiles to the flowing stream, butterflies and bees to sources of pollen and nectar.

It also means – for better or worse – the return of parasites. It’s an age-old way of life, a survival strategy employing amazing feats of deception, stealth, straightforward attack and seemingly innocuous liaisons with unwitting hosts. Just the thought of parasites that target large, warm-blooded creatures – the ticks, leeches and lice that we can see; the worms, protozoa and mites that we can’t –  makes us shudder. Those that can deliver severe illness while feeding, like ticks, require hyper-vigilance, physical clothing barriers, chemical deterrents. They may not be out to get us specifically, but we serve their purpose.

Lone Star tick

Parasitism among other animal species, however, can take many forms beyond direct feeding on a host. Brown-headed cowbirds, a species originally of short grass plains and now found throughout Maryland, are notorious brood parasites.

brown-headed cowbird
Brown-headed cowbird

They sneak into and lay their eggs in other smaller birds’ nests, letting the unwitting host parents raise their large, hungry, and dominant offspring. In mainland New Zealand, the shining cuckoo (riroriro) has similar behavior, targeting the tiny grey warbler as its host.

shining cuckoo
Shining cuckoo

Certain plants demonstrate parasitism as well. The Maryland Native Plant Society has declared 2019 the Year of Parasitic Plants to highlight this often overlooked group and their survival strategies.  Included are plants such as Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as Indian or ghost pipes, that gain nutrients from attaching themselves indirectly to the roots of trees.  Lacking chlorophyll for photosynthesis, this species is hosted by mycorrhizal fungi that themselves derive food from tree roots (and aid the tree’s nutrient uptake in the process). 


When Jemicy’s I Groupers take their annual trip to Echo Hill, they meet another variety of plant parasite that occurs widely in Maryland’s coastal plain. Walking on the boardwalk through the swamp, their guide will point out red maple trees that have not yet leafed out, but display large green masses in their branches. These are mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpuma parasitic plant that embeds itself in the living vascular tissues of a tree’s branches. 

Mistletoe, Wikimedia commons

Parasites can themselves be a source of food for humans. I remember as a child staring in disgust at misshapen, discolored ears of corn in our garden that had contracted a smut fungus. This parasite could ruin a corn crop in short order. But the same fungus is prized as a traditional southwestern delicacy known as huitlacoche.

Ustilago_maydis_Wikimedia Commons

This week in the Jemicy woods, we came upon a most amazing parasite story. A student who was catching frogs with a net called out, “This one has something wrong with it!” As we examined the young green frog, we found that it had an extra hind leg jutting out from behind one of its two normal back legs. The extra leg didn’t move and seemed to impede the frog’s motion as we released it. What pathogen could have caused this? Was some chemical introduced into our stream that caused mutations?

Searching for an answer to the mystery, this video popped up.

In some nearby wetland, the tadpole that became this frog was beset by a parasite that had been hosted by both a bird and a snail in other stages of its life, confounding the normal development of the frog’s limb buds. One of the young discoverers of the parasitized frog offered a succinct summary after seeing the video, “That is so disgusting. And also really cool.”

Out of trees

Trees are easy to take for granted. Standing leafless in the Jemicy woods, dark trunks braced resolutely against the wind, ice, and snow that winter throws at them, they are part of the background landscape. It’s also easy to forget how much of what we deem essential comes from those same solid trunks. 32855191774_f1f3a773c3_oWhile we wait for them to end their dormancy and reveal the first buds of spring, late winter is a good time to look around and acknowledge the presence and value of trees in virtually everything we do. I challenged my classes, as we went about our normal routines and special projects in the last few weeks, to give a shout out to items derived from trees. Some uses were immediately obvious: the classroom furniture, the paper we write on, the wood chips in some animal habitats. But others were more unusual, or creatively Jemicy-esque:

  • A paper Valentine delivered to a rat, who added it to her shredded paper beddingratvalentine
  • A hamster maze made of re-purposed paperIMG_0837
  • A scrap wood bench custom-built for a stuffed animalIMG_0705
  • Trebuchet frames


M Group students, learning about the layers of a tree’s trunk and vascular system, created “tree cookie” pendant necklaces from slices of branches that allowed them to see the annual rings formed in the xylem.

tree cookie

We examined different kinds of fibers and spent a week recycling paper scraps collected from around the school, turning them into our own paper creations.

The best part of learning about the xylem and phloem layers of the tree trunk, though, may be getting to taste what they produce. As the late winter sap began to move from the roots up the tree, carrying sugars formed in last year’s leaves, it was time to see what we could harvest. Once again, we repurposed plastic containers into buckets, drilled holes and tapped in spiles, and hoped for a stretch of cold nights and warmer days.

We managed to collect a few gallons and boiled some of it down over a bonfire (naturally, toasting marshmallows while we waited). Almost everything around us there, it seemed, came from trees: the wood for the fire, the marshmallow sticks, the logs that served as benches, the sap, the leafy mulch beneath our feet.

Once the sap run ended, we turned to our final tree-based winter project: birdhouse construction. Since we do this annually, we first checked previously installed boxes, cleaned out old nests and composted any wood that had rotted.trees-5 For the new houses, we examined the boards that we would use, learning about their grain, the knots where branches once attached, the way pine trees are grown and milled. In teams, the kids measured, cut, decorated, and assembled the birdhouses.

Amid the sounds of cardinals and woodpeckers announcing their spring territory in the woods, we installed the new birdhouses. Nearby, we are marking off an area to establish a small forest restoration project, with new tree plantings and the replenishment of understory biodiversity: an opportunity to give back to a patch of woods that we have taken for granted.







“An egg, because it contains life, is the most perfect thing there is.”

EB White, “The Trumpet of the Swan”

Many years ago while trying to come up with new ways to teach children about animal migration, I wondered, “What activity could simulate sending a fragile, minimally protected creature on a long voyage fraught with hazards, with the ability to track its progress and ultimate fate?” Coincidentally, I had just decorated and mailed off some eggs to far-flung friends and family, and was anxiously awaiting news of their arrival. To my relief, the eggs survived, their journeys across the country creating a joyful web of long distance reconnections.


Thus the Great Egg Migration was hatched.

Every winter, Jemicy 4th graders research animals that migrate, learning about their geographical range, food needs, and breeding grounds. We examine eggs, test their shells, discussing the variables that could cause them to be weaker or stronger. Students decorate an egg with an image of their migrating animal and carefully blow out the contents leaving the eggshell intact.

Students then construct a box, package the egg (meeting a 4 oz. maximum weight requirement), and enclose a note to the recipient requesting an email response with photos when it arrives.  Using maps, we plot possible routes and predict arrival times. We mail the packages from a local post office. And wait.

In the first few years of this project, we encouraged the migration of eggs overseas. We have records of eggs arriving safely in Australia and Japan, Uganda and Uruguay, Sicily and South Africa.

Some of the enthusiastic recipients kept the egg migrations going by carrying them to new destinations: into the Alps, on a Balkan cruise, across the English Channel. One lucky egg – the Mandarin Fish – traveled quite literally around the world and to every continent except Antarctica in the luggage of a student’s friend, who (we surmised) had the enviable job of previewing celebrity accommodations. For two years, Greg sent us travelogues, with descriptions of the view and photos of the egg enjoying the local sights.

Customs restrictions and soaring postal rates now prevent us from sending our eggs overseas, but even within the US, our eggs are managing to find adventures. This year, one egg mailed to a ski resort in Pennsylvania got to go skiing, while another egg migrated to California and then took a road trip up the coast.

Given the minimal packaging that the eggs receive for their travels, their success rate has been amazing. And everywhere the eggs migrate, they seem to bring extraordinary pleasure to the recipients, who proudly display them in their new locale.

Although most of our migrating eggs have enjoyed remarkably healthy journeys, one not-so-lucky traveler (a whale shark egg named Eggbert) that arrived in Thailand several years ago inspired a picture book featuring visits with his “cousins” to see elephants, a temple, and even a fish spa. The following letter that we received from Thailand remains unrivaled in the annals of the Great Egg Migration, evidence that even a cracked egg contains the life of a story, and can still be, as EB White noted, the most perfect thing there is.

“I must admit, Eggbert is a little worse for the wear – apparently he didn’t travel over easy and was bedeviled by all the air turbulence, but looking at the sunny side, at least he arrived in one major piece (and several smaller ones).image

His arrival was a surprise but we scrambled and quickly hatched a plan to get a welcoming party together and, as you can see from the picture, quite a few of his Thai cousins came out to greet him, I believe it was over a dozen!  At first his mood was a bit fowl but it soon brightened!  He definitely had a great timer.

You may have thought Eggbert was a hard-boiled sort of fellow, but underneath that shell of his, he’s an old softie!  I think I even saw his eyes get a bit runny.  Don’t misunderstand me, he’s quite brave and definitely not a chicken.  And smart!  What an egghead!  Not to mention funny:  he cracked us all up with his many witty yolks!

For now, though, Eggbert simply needs a break.  He’s a bit fried from all the activity and just wants to lay low.  I assure you though that we will take wonderful care of him and show him all the sights.  He really is a good egg.”

On the move

Last weekend’s entertainment was watching geese attempt to land on the ice-covered quarry lake. They sailed in toward the surface as if it were a normal water landing, fanning their wings to slow down, tails spread in black and white chevrons, feet aimed to brake. Only at the last second did they seem to grasp that something was different, but it was too late – they were off in a wild, uncontrolled skid that ended only when they collided with another goose.

goose ice landing

This activity was reminiscent of the JE kids this winter, during a unit spent learning about simple machines, gravity, laws of motion, and friction.

After practicing and illustrating these concepts in the classroom with pizza box pinball games and wooden cars, we wanted to test them outdoors. Gravity pulled us down the hill into the woods, where we searched for surfaces with reduced friction. Sure enough, along the stream several patches of ice proved large enough to slide and spin on.

Just a week or so before this, we had received enough snow to blanket the steep hillside above the playing field. Jemicy’s long tradition of sledding during recess was quickly revived, with all manner of sleds racing down the hill.

During aftercare, we set up tests to see if we could extend our runs by changing different variables: running first for momentum, sitting vs. lying down, saucers vs. rectangular sleds.

We watched with regret over the course of the week as the snow eventually melted into muddy tracks and the ice into puddles. But today a new storm system pushed more snow our way, school closed early, and one six year old left the science room singing, “Inertia, inertia – I’m gonna go play with inertia!”

goose landing







The theme of adaptations has dominated science room projects for the past month. On the walls hang displays of different fungi models made by C Group, dioramas by M Group depicting birds that they have invented, and a colorful array of prehistoric creatures made by the JE kids.  Though each of these focuses on a different group of organisms, they share the concept of demonstrating a specialized fit within a particular environment – one that allows them to survive and succeed as a species.

It is a hot topic not just at Jemicy, but everywhere right now as we try to understand how different species are faring in a rapidly changing climate. The recent article below describes how the Galapagos, the place that sparked our understanding of evolution, faces its own unique challenges of adaptation.

Adaptation can refer to a relationship with – and adjustment to – an immediate environment (like our classroom tortoises’ seasonal behavior changes, likely triggered by the amount of daylight they perceive) or the natural selection of certain traits that aid survival over time (like the formidable jaws of a Tyrannosaurus rex). T rex

The 7th graders studying fungi focused on certain mushrooms’ striking appearance. I urged them to delve deeper, to ask questions: “Why is this mushroom blue? Why does that one glow in the dark? What’s up with this one’s weird shape?” While the blue mushroom derives its color from methyl stearate, we discovered, it has no obvious adaptive benefits – or at least none that we have discovered yet. Glowing green mushrooms, on the other hand, may or may not attract nocturnal animals that will eat them and disperse their spores. The lattice fungus has a structure that allows the dispersal of its spores by animals attracted to its powerful odor.

The 4th graders’ mission was to create a bird that would demonstrate adaptation to a particular chosen habitat, including unique ways of getting food, evading predators, and successfully raising a family. To accompany this project, we watched videos of birds with incredible adaptations for displaying, feeding, raising young, and surviving extremes.

Then I decided to share one of my favorite books with them. It features such rarities as the Blue Dart (that pierces its prey in flight with its needle-sharp bill), an owl that roosts upside down like a bat, and a bird that uses its curved bill to swing from tree to tree while calling like a famous vine-swinging human.

After reading several descriptions and receiving only expressions of amazement, I told the class the story of one of my students years ago who fell for an internet hoax about the endangered tree octopus. Slowly, it began to dawn on the kids that the bird field guide was fictional. After all, isn’t the crosscut sawbill’s limb-lopping ability nearly as believable as the pileated woodpecker’s ability to excavate huge holes in tree trunks? They noted ruefully that each “species” could never have survived for more than a single generation with these incredible adaptations.

But who knows – maybe somewhere out in a deep, vast ocean there really does lurk a Yeti bird with a beak adapted into a lengthy snorkel or a purple and blue pelican gliding silently through the bayous.




An afternoon carpool ritual: I walk with a student to her parent’s car, open the door, and call, “It was a good day!” while gesturing toward the child’s muddy shoes and picking a leaf out of her hair. Fortunately, most Jemicy parents will smile and agree wholeheartedly that a day well spent leaves plenty of evidence to clean up later.


Kids work hard and play hard, and, like many other creatures, are naturally drawn to elements that they can dive into. While most other animals might use these primarily for bathing, there is no doubt that there is a simple delight in feeling completely covered in something other than air. Our classroom chinchilla and button quail love regular dust baths, flipping around in every direction to coat their fur and feathers, while the zebra finches hop into their freshly filled water dishes and splash energetically.  I especially enjoy watching waterfowl, who are meticulous, thorough bathers.


Water, dust, mud, snow – all are attractive in their own way, even if not for purposes of cleanliness.


Kids who play in the woods know the best spots to sink into what they call “quick mud” – irresistibly oozy, sticky mud pits along the stream that have claimed many a boot.


The puddles that appear on the playground during wet seasons are also magnets for the younger students. Unplanned but highly popular features, they support numerous fun activities, from rock fishing to impromptu water ballet.

Before fall gives way to winter and the delights of snow, we also celebrate one of the briefest, yet crunchiest and most aromatic of immersive experiences: the gift of leaves.

All of these activities are just that – active. Their purpose is to surround oneself with new sensations, to encounter and manage the unknown for pure pleasure – in other words, to play.303047_190595997684573_439728440_n

In Japan, a different kind of outdoor immersive activity has emerged: Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Recent research suggests many positive benefits from this stress-reducing, health-promoting practice of spending time relaxing in a forest setting.

At school, we call this “recess.”


November brought Jemicy its first snow of the year, along with some species that we had never seen at school before. Purple finches crowded into the feeding stations along with the usual house finches and goldfinches.

purple finches

There was some jostling for position, but all the finches seemed able to gain access – until a blue jay showed up. With a raucous squawk, the blue jay dove down from a branch, scattering the smaller birds.

Once the blue jay finally left, the smaller finches wasted no time returning to feed.

Late fall is a season that tests an animal’s readiness for winter survival. Will the groundhog evade the hungry coyote long enough to fatten itself sufficiently before hibernating? Will the bluebirds find enough berries to compensate for diminished insect numbers?

A predator like an eagle holds a position at the apex of a food web, allowing it to survey meal options relatively unperturbed.  For smaller animals, though, the drive to find food, establish feeding and breeding territory, and simply survive the threats of predators can result in what looks (to human eyes) like either virtual disappearance or a major in-your-face attitude.

bald eagle 2

Waterfowl spend considerable time and energy signaling their attitudes toward others of their species. At the small quarry lake that I visit regularly, male hooded mergansers will seem to be feeding or bathing peaceably near each other, and then in the next instant, one lowers its head and attempts to drive another off.merganser chase

Canada geese put on elaborate shows to claim a favorite vantage point on a protruding rock near the shore.


I was accustomed to seeing these overt, tongue-sticking-out displays with larger birds, but was surprised to find a diminutive field sparrow using the same tactic to chase a bluebird away from its bounty of berries.field sparrow 1

The opposite strategy – becoming invisible – is one of the most frustrating aspects for me while trying to observe birds in the fall.  Some diving ducks are masters of the art. I think of them as “quantum birds” for their seeming ability to exist and disappear in the virtually same instant.

Sparrows, too, have this quality. A walk along a trail can flush 20 small, brown birds which manage instantly to vanish into the brush. The collective noun for sparrows is a “dissimulation.” It wasn’t until I saw the other meaning of the word – the act of concealing one’s feelings –  that I grasped how perfectly it suited the adaptation of foraging sparrows to disappear into sameness as opposed to expressing a strong, visible attitude toward intruders (though if you look closely, this sparrow clearly appears to be mocking me).sparrow hiding

Last week in the woods during recess we discovered a creature whose change in attitude precisely served its intended purpose. It was an adult garter snake taking advantage of one last sunny day to forage along the stream. Startled by kids coming along the trail, it had tried the vanishing trick of coiling itself underwater. When this failed and I drew it out onto the bank, its response was unusually fervent.

Its defensive adaptations – the flattened head and simulated strikes – were impressive, making it clear that this snake had no intention of becoming someone else’s meal. It was an attitude whose vehemence spoke to the lateness of the season and the narrowing window of opportunity to find sustenance and safe winter quarters. We left it minutes later in its power pose, still flicking its tongue and weaving its head warily back and forth, sizing up our retreat before vanishing for good.