Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Wildlife Detectives: Tracking in New England Forests

Flipping pancakes with my 11-year old daughter Tasha on a cold December morning recently, we saw a group of wild turkeys outside pecking at the bittersweet berries along our stone wall. I grabbed my cup of coffee after breakfast and we headed out to watch them. We quickly found their three-toed tracks in the driveway, and we began following them through the snow. We traced their path backwards to figure out where the turkeys had come from.

We followed the tracks into the field beyond our driveway where we saw drag marks in the loose snow, left by their feathers. We crunched along through the soft snow, sun glinting off the crystalline surface. Across the field we went, following their looping path to the edge of the woods. We trudged into the trees where the tracks soon ended beneath a cluster of birch and pine. I asked Tasha where she thought the tracks went from here. She looked around for a nest or shelter on the ground. Then, finally, she tilted her head back.

"Up in the trees!" she called. They had spent the night safely roosted high above the ground, then, upon daybreak, had dropped down and started scavenging through the field until they found their favorite dining spot—the bittersweet near our house. Mystery solved.

Tracking with kids in the winter can be incredibly fun—not only learning about wildlife and their habits but actually solving mysteries—such as where the turkeys came from. Tracking is not just the identification of footprints. It is the art of reading all of the clues left behind by animals, to figure out what they were doing, where they had been, and where they were going. It is a mystery to be solved.

Tim Smith is a professional tracker who runs the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School in Maine. A modern-day mountain man and survival expert, he says that tracking is a game of finding clues to rule out certain species, narrowing down what it could be. "You're not always able to figure out what the animal you are tracking is, but you can usually figure out what it isn't," he says.

Smith recommends looking for the following types of clues:
  • Prints: Look for size, claw marks, and depth. Look for the number of toes or toe pads. Then use a field guide to identify them. 
  • Feather marks. One of the most dazzling clues you can find—feather prints in a snowy field. This might be the track of some turkeys, or the full wing imprint of an owl or hawk that swooped down to grab a mouse or mole it heard through the snow. 
  • Gait patterns: Often the easiest way to identify an animal, the track will show parallel, diagonal, bounding, or galloping foot patterns. Field guides are also helpful here. 
  • Scat: Kids will get a kick out of breaking scat open to find what the creature has been eating. Just grab a stick and start breaking it apart. 
  • Browsing marks: Deer, moose, rabbits and others are forest browsers, constantly nibbling on twigs and branches as they walk. Deer only bite from the bottom and their dull teeth leave the ends of the twigs torn and rough. Rabbits make clean 45 degree cuts with their sharper teeth. In the springtime, look for rabbit chew 3 to 5 feet high. No, the rabbits don't get that big in New England—but it will show you where the snow came up to in the wintertime.
Some fun tracking activities to try with the kids:
  • Head out in the freshly fallen snow. The easiest and best time to track is usually following a 1- to 2-inch snowfall. 
  • Make a tracking plot in your backyard. In the spring, summer, or fall, simply rake a section of sand or soil, leaving it completely clear of all leaves and debris. Dig up the top few inches of soil, sift it, dry it and then lay it back down so you have a fine layer of sand and dust. Then put an apple core, a slice of meat, or simply a feather or dead mouse in the middle of the plot. Come back in the morning to find the prints of all your nocturnal visitors! 
  • Make a scavenger hunt. List animal tracks or different types of animal homes (nests, burrows, caves, hollow trees, etc.), then everyone set off to find them first! Be sure to leave animal homes undisturbed!


AMC offers several guided animal tracking programs for adults and families. Visit activites.outdoors.org and enter the keyword "Tracking." 

Additional Reading: 
Stories in the Snow: A pro offers tips on reading winter tracks
Tracking for Kids
12 Great Outdoor Winter Activities for Kids

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Ethan Hipple.

Photo by Jerry & Marcy Monkman.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

National Bird Feeding Month

February is National Bird Feeding Month, and naturally Mass Audubon is a place I look to for ideas and activities to help celebrate our feathered friends, from bird-feeder workshops to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

Mass Audubon formerly ran a program called Focus on Feeders, but this year it phased that independent project out and asked members to participant instead in Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count, now in its 18th year. The annual four-day event engages bird watchers around the country in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations.

This year it will be held February 13 to 16. Participants are asked to count birds and report their sightings online. Anyone can take part in the count, from beginning bird watchers to experts. Last year, according to the organization, participants turned in more than 144,000 online checklists, creating the world’s largest instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever recorded.

Whether or not you and your kids participate in the bird count, a great backyard project is to build a feeder and see which birds come to visit. The North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield, Mass., is hosting a family workshop on February 7. During the hands-on activity, you’ll construct a hanging feeder that can be used all year, as well as a special feeder used to attract orioles returning in the spring. Check with Mass Audubon for other events like this one.

If you want to get your kids excited about birds in a really easy (and fast) way, all you need is a pine cone and some peanut butter. Simply spread the peanut butter on the cone and hang it up in your yard. Once the kids see its popularity, they might be ready for more ambitious projects. Keeping a log of birds’ visits or sketching the birds is another fun winters’ day project.

Bird Feeder Tips from Mass Audubon

Up, Up and Away
Birds are vulnerable to predators such as cats and hawks, and as a result, they seek feeders that offer the protection of nearby trees or shrubs. Squirrels seem to have an uncanny ability to thwart all attempts to exclude them from feeders. When placing a feeder, keep in mind that squirrels can jump 6 feet up in the air and launch themselves, from a tree or building, to a feeder 10 feet away. Feeders placed 12 to 15 feet from trees and shrubs should provide shelter for the birds but discourage squirrels from leaping onto the feeder.

What’s on the Menu?
Different birds prefer different types of seed, but black oil sunflower seeds appear to be the favorite of the most bird species. It is the preferred seed for the black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white and red-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinal, evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, and house finch and is probably the second choice for blue jays. Niger (thistle) seed, placed in feeders designed to hold this small seed, attracts American goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins, and redpolls.

Just a Helping Hand
If you’re worried that you’ll be a bird’s only source of food, don’t. Most birds depend on our handouts for only about 25 percent of their food. Feeder offerings only supplement their natural foods. When a food supply disappears in one location, they will move on and look for other sources.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Photograph by Marc Chalufour

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Snow Games

This winter, instead of telling the kids to go outside and build a snowman or grab their gear for sledding, why not provide them with some new ideas? 

Yemaya St. Clair, co-author of the AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping, says, “The beauty of winter is that many outdoor activities can be enjoyed only when the temperature falls, water freezes, and snow blankets the ground.” 

St. Clair shares some ideas for some of her favorite kid-friendly winter activities, without relying on the usual sledding, skating, skiing, or snow forts. “Whoever said snowmen are the way to go?” St. Clair asks. “Build snow sculptures. What about snow dinosaurs? Snow robots? Snow fairies?” 

She also likes to make “Sugar on Snow,” a classic New England winter dessert. Kids can easily make it with an adult’s help and supervision. Simply boil maple syrup, pour it into a pitcher, then drizzle it over packed snow. Use a fork or spoon to scoop it up after it cools off a bit and you have a sweet treat. 

Libby Stockwell Deegear, youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC’s Outdoors Rx program, offers another recipe for a snowy snack. “One thing I frequently do at Outdoors Rx programs is make snow cookies,” Deegear says. “When there’s snow on the ground, gather plastic cookie cutters and have kids make cookies out of snow. If you’re doing this in your own yard with fresh fallen snow, try decorating your cookies with sprinkles and eat them if you dare!”

It’s also fun to decorate your yard or fort with colored ice and snow. Deegear likes to put a few drops of food coloring in water, pour it into a balloon, tie it off, and then let it freeze. Once it’s frozen, peel off the balloon and the result is a colorful globe. You can make colored ice cubes in trays, too, perfect for adorning a snow castle. 

Both AMC experts agree that games traditionally played in warm weather take on a novel aspect in winter. Everything from bowling to golf can be adapted. 

“Puttbee” is like playing miniature golf, but with a Frisbee. Create the course by sinking sticks into the snow every few feet. Mark a starting place, then take a Frisbee and toss it at the first stick. When you hit the stick with the Frisbee, move up to stand beside the stick, and so on. Decide on house rules about how many times you can throw and how you add up points if keeping score. 

Another option is to submerge cans in the snow to use as holes, with hockey sticks as clubs and hockey pucks as balls. For bowling, roll snowballs to use as the bowling balls and frozen water bottles (made in advance and stored in your freezer) as the pins. 

With a little thought, your kids can probably come up with all sorts of activities not normally played in winter. Sounds like a challenge most kids would relish! 


Yemaya St. Clair offers advice on how to stay comfortable when playing outdoors in winter and ways to have a successful winter adventure.  START CLOSE TO HOME Hometown adventures feel safe to kids, and it’s always comforting to know that a warm bath isn’t far. When kids experience many winter successes in short duration, they’ll be more enthusiastic about venturing farther for longer. 

STAY WELL FED AND HYDRATED Winter adventuring requires lots of calories. A body’s warmth is fueled by food, so enjoy a high-energy meal before heading outside and pack plenty of snacks. Consider bringing a Thermos filled with soup or hot chocolate. And remember, it’s important to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. 

KEEP MOVING Once you’ve had time to rest and refuel, it’s important to keep moving in order to stay warm. If one child needs longer to rest and finish eating while another complains of getting cold while sitting around, encourage the latter to get up and dance around with you, do jumping jacks, or play tag.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Photo by Aleph Studio/Shutterstock.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Science in the Snow

When winter arrives in the Northeast, the familiar world is transformed. Animals vanish, either migrating or hibernating. Frost forms delicate patterns on your windows. Temperatures drop and days get shorter. These seasonal changes create countless learning opportunities. Teach your children about winter with a few simple science projects.

1) Make instant snow. The concept is simple: parents should boil water and toss into very cold air. Staff at the Mount Washington Observatory have recorded this on several occasions. The water vapor of the boiling water freezes faster when it’s spread out from being tossed. This process is called deposition or desublimation. For best results, water temperature should be hotter than 200 degree Fahrenheit and air temperature should be colder than -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Just make sure not throw the boiling water in the direction of people. You will wow your kids with your seemingly magical snow-making skills, and you can sneak in some facts on phases of matter.

2) Be a human sundial. Use a compass to find north, draw a yard-long chalk line on the ground or use food coloring and water to paint on snow, and label the correct end with an “N.” Then, draw a line perpendicular through it to form a giant “X” and make a circle around the “X.” When the sun is out in the middle of the day, have you child stand in the middle of the circle and help them trace their shadow. Label the shadow with the date and time. Repeat over several days to see if the days are getting longer or shorter. If days are getting longer, the sun will be higher in the sky and your child’s shadow will be shorter.

3) Freeze bubbles. When the temperature dips below zero, have your children try and blow bubbles. If you don’t have a bubble-blowing kit, make the solution with six parts water, one part dish soap, and one part corn syrup, and use a straw to blow. Bubbles are formed by hundreds of water molecules stuck together with inter-molecular forces called surface tension. Depending on the air temperature and the warmth of your child’s breath bubbles can take longer to freeze. Also, observe whether the bubble’s size affects how long it lasts.

4) Identify frost. There are four commonly seen types of frost: radiation frost (hoarfrost), advection frost, window frost, and rime. Frost forms when an object cools below zero and water vapor in the air forms crystalline structures on it. Radiation frost develops on outdoor objects, like plants, as the objects become colder than the air. Advection frost is small ice spikes that form when a cold wind blows over trees, poles, and other surfaces. Window frost occurs when there is cold air on one side of the glass and warm moist air on the other side. Rime ice forms in very cold, wet, and windy climates. This is different from clear ice (think ice cubes) because it is less dense. Each type of frost has a distinct crystal structure from lacy to spikey. See if your kids can find each type.

5) Melting art. Start by freezing a block of ice in a plastic container (like a milk jug). When frozen, sprinkle one side with salt and let your kids decorate with food coloring. As the salt melts the ice, your children can watch as the colors seep into the block. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, which is why it is used to melt icy roads.

6) Capture a snowflake. Send your children outside with a sheet of black construction to catch falling flakes. Give them a magnifying glass, and let them see for themselves that no two snowflakes are the same. A single snowflake can have thousands of water vapor droplets. Snowflakes differ based on the humidity, but all are six-sided. Tip: Cool down the construction paper in a refrigerator or porch before collecting snow to make the flakes last longer before melting.

7) Who is asleep and who moved away? In the winter time, some animals migrate and others hibernate. Go exploring with your children and see what animal signs you can find. Some small animals hide out under ground. Some, like frogs, allow themselves to freeze. Some hibernate or sleep for long periods at a time, like bears and bats. Birds migrate to warmer climates. Are there any critters they expected to see, but couldn’t find? Look up what the animal’s winter routine is.

Learn More
Check out these posts for more winter activity ideas:
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This column was written by Sarah Kinney.

Photo by romrodinka/iStock.com

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Giving the Gift of Outdoor Family Experiences

You want to spend time with your children outdoors. But except for some big vacations and the occasional hike, it doesn’t seem to be happening. If you hope to get your family outdoors more regularly in the coming year, here are six tips to help make it happen.

  1. Relax. Research has found that most children don’t actually want more time with their parents, but they do want their parents to be less tired and stressed when they’re together. Look for ways to reduce the tension and demands on yourself so that your time outdoors with your children can be a source of pleasure. This might mean turning off your phone or setting aside work, errands, or household chores for several hours, to give the experience your full attention.
  2. Build it in to your day or week. Don’t wait for vacation to get outside. Walk or bike to school with your child if it’s possible, or run errands on foot as a family. Schedule outdoor time just like you might a play date or doctor’s appointment.
  3. Encourage outdoor chores. Raking leaves, shoveling snow, sweeping porches or patios, or planting and maintaining a garden are all great ways for your kids to spend time outdoors close to home and learn responsibility.
  4. Let the kids lead. Take a break from structuring the day’s program or entertaining your children, and simply take (or send) them outside. What games will they invent? Let their creativity flower.
  5. Include friends. Whether it’s your children’s friends or your own, other people bring fresh ideas, skills, and fun to your outings—and they can help you commit to a plan and stick to it. If you want to expand your circle of outdoor-oriented friends, look to AMC or other community groups, such as Navigators USA, to meet families who share your interests.
  6. Make a trip. Visiting someplace new can revive your sense of adventure and your children’s enthusiasm. Whether it’s a day trip to hike a nearby mountain, a weekend overnight, or a destination vacation that you anticipate for months, exploring fresh outdoor surroundings together is a great gift. Try AMC’s guidebooks or trip listings for ideas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Winter Safety Tips

Winter is a great time for kids to be outdoors. Snow allows for all sorts of activities that are not possible in the summertime. However, winter conditions also introduce new risks. Here are some winter precautions you can take to safely enjoy winter with your children.

1) Apply sun protection. Even in chilly temperatures, the Sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause sunburns. Snow also reflects the rays, making it even more important to protect all exposed skin. Pediatricians recommend applying a broad-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen with a SPF rating of 30 to 50. Since children will be playing outside in the snow, look for a water resistant version. Reapply every few hours if your children will be spending lots of time outside.

2) Keep skin safe. On the opposite end of the spectrum from burns is freezing. Children lose body heat faster than adults do and thus are at higher risk for frostbite, or the milder frostnip. If a person gets frostbite, the affected area will become very cold and turn white or yellowish gray. Frostbite and frostnip  most commonly occur on fingers, toes, ears, noses, and cheeks. Dress children in warm layers and cover as much skin as possible. Use wool clothes, not cotton, for insulating, and dress them in waterproof outer layers. If you can, bring extra mittens and socks in case your child’s get wet.

3) Avoid slope side obstacles. Sledding, skiing, and snowboarding are staples of outdoor winter recreation. The rush of zooming down a hill can abruptly end if children collide with each other or obstacles. Make sure the hills they are using are away from roadways and that they are clear from rocks and trees. Be sure that children have a properly fitting helmet. Children who snowboard should wear wrist guards too.

4) Stay clear of snowbanks. Snow piled high by plow trucks looks like an amazing place to build a fort to many children. However, digging into those snowbanks can be particularly dangerous with cars and plows passing by. A better option is to pile the snow high in a backyard or park, away from traffic. Shoveling snow to build a fort may take more time, but the structure will be much safer and last longer. Try building a quinzee.

5) Make sure ice is nice. The safest ice is in rinks. If you are planning to skate on frozen natural bodies of water, check to make sure the ice is at least 4 inches thick. Avoid moving water like streams or rivers. Water currents can make ice thickness vary greatly; what is safe in one spot can be too thin in another. Local outdoor recreation retailers can help identify typically dangerous areas and you can use an ice chisel or auger to find out the ice thickness. A helpful rhyme to remember is, “Thick and blue, tried and true; Thin and crispy, way too risky.”

6) Don’t lick the pole. This seems obvious to adults, but children, particularly very young children, experience the world through their mouths. Warn older kids that getting their tongue stuck to a pole can be painful and keep a close eye on toddlers too young to understand. If they do get stuck, use warm, not boiling water to remove.

Winter recreation can be great fun if done safely. For more tips, visit the American Association of Pediatricians  or the National Library of Medicine.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This column was written by Sarah Kinney.

Photo by liveslow/iStock.com.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bio Blitzing: Be a Citizen Scientist

For kids who like nature, science, treasure hunts, and maybe even a little friendly competition, a BioBlitz is an ideal activity, one in which a whole family or even a school can participate. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a BioBlitz is essentially a 24-hour program to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible in a given area.

Usually a scientific or environmental organization plans the event. It puts out a call for volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members and sorts them into teams to discover, count, map, and learn about the living things in the targeted area. These events give scientists and the public an opportunity to do fieldwork together and highlight the biodiversity of an area. Often, food, music, games, and other social activities are scheduled as well.

In New England, organizations like Mass AudubonThe Nature Conservancy, and others hold BioBlitz events. This past July, The Nature Conservancy held one at the Green Hills Preserve in North Conway, N.H., where volunteers worked with scientists and local experts to catch moths by moonlight, look for rare birds, track black bears and coyotes, and search for frogs and turtles. There were four science blitzes in all: moths, birding, macroinvertebrates and plants.
The Rhode Island Natural History Survey has been holding an annual R.I. BioBlitz since 2000. Their first year, they had just 33 volunteers who observed 663 species in an urban park in Providence. Today, more than 100 volunteer naturalists come out to survey a different parcel every year. This year the event was held at Rocky Point in Warwick, and in 2015 it is slated to be held in Little Compton.
The nonprofit's executive director, Dr. David Gregg, says BioBlitzes draw people in for a number of reasons, from parents who want to spend time outdoors with their kids to environmental experts who want to meet like-minded people in interesting places. 
"It's a social event," says Gregg. "We have several families who come every year. Maybe it's a parent who has gotten their kid interested in what they are [interested in], or their kids just like to run around with nets." 
As for the expert naturalists, it's a chance to catch up with colleagues and spread the world about their sometimes-esoteric specialties in something like fungi or insects.
"A BioBlitz serves a number of purposes," Gregg says. "It's a good way to explore your own natural history, your likes and dislikes. You can meet people who are passionate about what you're interested in." 
Of course, the research done over the 24-hour period is a boon to the area. "You can't afford to have an expert on everything," says Gregg. "A long-term goal is to encourage and develop a community of amateurs who can contribute."
Among the many benefits to participating is the hands-on experience of learning exactly what scientists do in the field, including making observations, recording data, understanding classification, and mapping findings.
A BioBlitz can be as grandiose as the project undertaken by National Geographic, which is working with the National Park Service to conduct a BioBlitz in a different national park each year during the decade leading up to the U.S. National Park Service Centennial in 2016, or as humble as documenting the plants and animals in your local park.
While next year's National Geographic/National Park Service BioBlitz, to be held in the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, might be a bit far away to volunteer for, be assured there are plenty of other BioBlitz events families can join closer to home. Or, you could organize one yourself. On the National Geographic website, videos and tutorials explain how to get started. ″
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This column was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Photo courtesy of RINHS. 

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