Weight Gain

On Monday December 1st if you had exposed skin for more than 12 minutes outside you were susceptible to frostbite! Luckily, I had very minimal skin exposed and just got a little frosty!!

Seasonal staff member Emily’s frosty eyelashes after her bike ride at River Bend

What a wonderful and perfectly Minnesotan week! Our average temperature was 17 ° but the beginning of the week had a -20° wind-chill! Gotta love Minnesota!

I got to experience the balmy -20° weather for the first time in a long time and with that cold snap I was forced to adapt! The first adaptation I made was weight gain. This was the first week that I wore ALL of my winter clothing. Which means wool socks, heavy snow boots, snow pants, winter jacket, neck gator, mittens (with hand warmers), and my rabbit fur-“can’t hear a thing” hat. I was not prepared for the amount of mass I put on when I am fully geared up for the winter. By the time I had made it to the Interpretive Center, I was tired! This got me thinking about the creatures living at River Bend that aren’t able to take off their heavy winter coats until spring.

Most humans are pretty good about knowing when to put on their winter coats (with the exception of middle schoolers who would rather be cold than “uncool”) but what triggers an animal to start growing its winter coat?? The answer is sunlight. Animals living in cold winter climates have evolved to grow thicker coats as the amount of daylight decreases. Many people would think that they are developing a thinker coat as a result from the dropping temperatures but as Minnesotans are well aware, our weather is very unpredictable. The development of a winter coat is based on sunlight rather than temperature so that the animals will be ready for any winter weather that gets thrown at us!

So put on some layers, head outside, and get to know Minnesota in all its snowy, cold glory! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Amber Brossard is the Education Coordinator for River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Snow Stories

November 15, 2014

One of the views exclusive to winter mornings

Another view of the prairie and woods in the distance. Notice the sparking snow 🙂

Spending time outside is an essential part to most people’s well-being. I am lucky in the fact that my job consists of daily outside time but I wanted more so I started walking to work. My 25 minute walk is not only a great way to start the day but it also provides me with the opportunity to see nature at its most incredible moments. I have been contemplating starting a blog to share my experiences with the community for several months but for me facing the elements on a daily basis is much less intimidating than committing myself to sitting at a computer indoors once a week.

This week’s walk contained several new experiences.  With an average weekly low of 10⁰ the biggest change from last week is the snow and single digits temperatures.  IT WAS GREAT!! Snow is something we really take advantage of and tend to complain about but for the handful of us that have grown to appreciate and accept Minnesota for its longest season we know that winter is something to be treasured. Besides the breathtaking beauty (and cold) that comes with winter, there is also what I like to call snow stories.

Animals aren’t able to communicate in the way humans can but their tracks easily tell stories.  Snow stories tell you a little bit about what the animals are up to when we are spending our time drinking hot cocoa and sitting under blankets. This week I saw one of my favorite snow stories: The bird and the mouse.

A little rodent highway right into their hole

Another well traveled mouse path into a hole. Mice and other small rodents will spend a lot of their time digging tunnels under the snow. This protects them and also helps keep them warm.

Tunnels under the snow can’t always protect the mice. Many predatory birds (such as owls) have an excellent sense of hearing and can detect their next meal from under the snow! That is exactly what happened here. You can see the marks from the bird’s wings and the area that the mouse was grabbed from. My favorite type of snow story 🙂

Please take some time to admire this underappreciated season! Bundle up, bring a warm drink and take a little time to discover (or make) your own snow stories! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Amber Brossard is the Education Program Specialist for River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

‘Til Death Do Us Part — Nature’s Five Most Romantic Couples

Sarah Shimek

By Sarah Shimek, Education Coordinator

5. Bald Eagles

Bald Eagle Pair - adults   Photo by Len Blumin

Bald Eagle Pair – adults
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   ByLen Blumin

While bald eagles are known for their fantastically acrobatic aerial mating rituals, it is actually the nest-building that cements the bond between mates, building on the same nest season after season. Bald eagles are among the estimated 95% of birds that are socially monogamous – meaning they cooperatively raise their young over the course of a mating season and in most cases, will return to the same nest and mate year after year. One nest, used by an eagle pair for over 3 decades, measured 9 feet across, almost 12 feet high, and was estimated to weigh over 2 tons.  While genetic testing shows that they may engage in a little fling on the side now & then, known as “extra-pair copulation,” only several years of unsuccessful clutches or the death of one eagle will break up these super-couples.

Sandhill Crane Parents with baby By Matthew Paulson

Sandhill Crane Parents with baby
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  By Photomatt28

4. Sandhill Cranes

Another bird renowned for their elaborate mating dances, the sandhill crane is also known as a symbol of long-term fidelity.  Bonded pairs call in unison, spreading the word that they are in a committed relationship.  During the massive breeding-ground migrations in the spring, their synchronized “kar-roo” is thought to be a bonding activity, kind of like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing and singing their way across the stage. Unlike Fred & Ginger, crane pairs will stay together until one of them dies, even if they have a couple nests that flop.  Philandering among crane pairs is so rare that when a single extra-pair copulation event was witnessed in 2006 it was big news; in fact it was the first one ever documented.

3. Black Vultures

Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus   By Martha de Jong-Lantink

Black Vulture – Coragyps atratus
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  By Martha de Jong-Lantink

For black vultures, enforcing monogamy is a community affair. These ominous birds seem to be deeply serious about their commitment to a chosen partner. The pair will hang out together year-round and share parenting duties.  Individuals caught engaging in extra-pair copulation will not only be attacked by their mate but by neighboring vultures as well. Genetic study of 17 different vulture families found no evidence of extra-pair fooling around, giving new meaning to the phrase “It takes a village…”

Prairie Vole

Prairie Vole

2. Prairie Voles

Mammals – rodents in particular, are not necessarily known for their fidelity.  But the little prairie vole is a notable exception. Once they have lost their virginity, males will prefer to mate exclusively with that female, even going so far as to attack other females.  Scientists have traced this behavior to a hormone in the brain, which triggers lasting bond formations and aggression towards potential home-wreckers.  Once mated, these “high school sweethearts” share parental duties, groom one another, and appear quite affectionate. When presented with “unfamiliar, virgin females” in the wild, less than 10% of male voles succumbed to the temptation. Even more unusual, less than 20% of committed voles sought out a new mate if their partner died.

1. Diplozoon paradoxum (parasitic worm)

As unattractive as it sounds, this worm takes the prize for most committed among Nature’s couples. I’ve spared you pictures of this particularly homely couple. This fish parasite practices an extreme form of monogamy. Individuals meet as virgin adolescent larvae and literally fuse together at their midsections. Sexual maturity is not reached until the worm fuses with a mate. Once fused, they remain together until they die sometimes several years later, when even then they are not parted.  As Dr. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle noted in an article in the New York Times, “That’s the only species I know of in which there seems to be 100 percent monogamy.” The only heartache here is in the unfortunate fish that hosts this epic romance.

Sarah Shimek is the education coordinator for the River Bend Nature Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in Faribault, Minnesota that specializes in nature and environmental education.  The Nature Center property includes 743 acres of original and restored natural lands with over ten miles of trails that are open to the public 365 days per year. River Bend Nature Center relies on donations and memberships to fund its operations, please join and give today. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Sources:

Fall Programs Recap & Wrap-up — From the Rookie’s Point of View

By Dahna Kreger, Intern Naturalist

For the River Bend naturalist staff, early November can bring either a much welcome break from long hours of wall-to-wall programming; or it can signal the beginning of a lengthy period of down-time that for some may elicit an uprising of pending doom from the gut.  I feel that this primarily applies to me, because of my complete and total inability to sit still for any length of time.  Nonetheless, I am excited to see what projects we will create to keep occupied when not entrenched in the few programs that we’ll be working on during the winter months…

In light of the recent change in our office atmosphere, moving from cyclical chaos and relative calm to one of more consistent calm and placidity, I have luckily been able to complete a blog post during the latter period.  And perhaps because I mourn the end of fall programming, that is the subject to which it is dedicated.

Recap – here is a run-down of the programs we have completed in the last two months:

  • Kindergarten:  Seasons and Senses
  • First Grade:  Homes and Habitats
  • Second Grade:  Seeds of Life
  • Third Grade:  Nature Pyramid
  • Fourth Grade:  Prairie Biome
  • Fifth Grade (Owatonna):  Soils and Erosion
  • Fifth Grade (Faribault):  Aquatic and Ecosystem Research
  • Sixth Grade:  Decomposition

Each brought its own set of challenges, and more frequently, rewards!  As a total greenhorn, I found myself plunged face-first into the fast-paced flow of fall programming at River Bend.  Nervous and stressed at the onset, I quickly built my confidence as a public speaker and group manager.  At least, I think I successfully managed to grow in these areas… my greatest joy of all however- other than the breadth of content and material I learned, in addition to having a fantastic opportunity to work with some wonderfully knowledgeable and exceptionally bright people- was being able to hang out with kids every day, and once again be able to see life through the fresh and curious eyes of a child.  Although I don’t think I had much of a problem doing that anyway, some might argue.

I like to start with favorites, so I’ll begin with my favorite of the fall programs.  I found that I had the most fun with younger kids, and I had a blast working with the kindergarteners during their “Seasons and Senses” program.  For this one, the kids come to River Bend with their class during the fall, winter, and spring; each time visiting their special “kinderspots” which are small areas of either forest or prairie that the groups will track changes with over time using their senses of sight, sound, touch, hearing, and even taste (within reason!).  Each group had an opportunity to visit Turtle Pond.  The clever names always got the kids extremely excited, and it was so fun to see their reactions during the introduction.  The spots were called:  Fuzzy Bunny Boulevard, Raccoon Hollow, Spiderweb Square, and Butterfly AlleyI can’t wait for them to come back in late January!

Another program I found very enjoyable was the Fifth Grade Aquatic and Ecosystem Research.  For this program, students learned how to identify and analyze the different factors that impact the health of an aquatic ecosystem and how to test for them.  The students got to perform some very legitimate tests – including dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH, and even building filters that might help clean up dirtied water.  A collective favorite though was critter catching, where the students would use dip nets to capture insects and other small animals inhabiting each of the ponds where we conducted the testing.  It was always a highlight to find exceptionally large water beetles in Turtle Pond, or tiny fish swimming around in the hidden ponds tucked away in Owl Valley.   That one really shocked us, since no one really thought that fish could grow in such a small space with very few resources.  We naturalists did encounter a rather intimidating water beetle with one of the groups – it must have had a length of about 3.5 inches, including its pincers.  We kept it in a small container to show the classes coming later that afternoon, but it had escaped into the building at Trailside while we were away at lunch!  I still wonder where it might be lurking…

At this point it becomes very difficult for me to choose favorites, so perhaps continuing in chronological order might be best…

Fourth grade marked the beginning of our fall programming in early September with their study of the prairie biome.  The students were split up into pairs within small groups, and each pair was assigned to a square-shaped plot out in our prairie to conduct some basic scientific tests; such as temperature of soil and plant mass (both in the actual prairie and in the mowed trails), identifying plants and determining how common they are at River Bend, and finally catching insects in nets and jars to see what kinds of critters thrive in our mixed-grass prairie.  Again the students tended to most enjoy the critter-catching.  Sometimes, though, complete and total pandemonium would ensue whenever a bee was found and even caught in a jar… it would often become difficult to restore order after this happened, but we always managed to get everyone back on track.  To achieve this, one of the naturalist staff would “dispose” of the offending bee far off into the woods, or just release it back into the air when no one was looking.

Prairie

The River Bend prairie that the fourth graders surveyed.

Nature Pyramid

The nature pyramid helps us organize the different levels of the food chain. In this program students learned how to categorize the animals they found.

Third graders came next with their study of the Nature Pyramid.  This one was very enjoyable for the children, since it too involved a lot of log and rock rolling to search for insects.  The goal of this unit was to help students better understand each living thing’s place in nature, how abundant they are, and comprehension of the idea that nature is sustained through food chains such as the Nature Pyramid.  My personal favorite was looking for insects in the forest – since we frequently found very large millipedes that children interpreted as freaky and cool.  While they are completely safe to handle, some children opted out of that since it does feel a little funny to have a thing crawling on you that has a hundred tiny little legs, and will likely poo on your hand since it’s scared.  Overall the children did very well at categorizing where each animal belonged on the pyramid, and they especially got a kick when they realized that they too belonged on there – we’re the top dog at the highest tier!

Second graders came to us next for their Seeds of Life Program.  This one was always enjoyable to do – especially early on when we had lots of “poppers” and “hitchhikers” for the kids!  In this unit, we introduce the kids to the idea of adaptations.  That is, things that help a plant or animal survive in its habitat.  We use seeds as examples of different adaptations.  There are four different types of seeds:  hitch-hikers stick to fur, feathers, or clothing to later fall off at a new place; droppers simply fall to the ground, however animals usually carry them to other places; poppers burst from their seed container to spread away from the plant; and flyers are carried through the air by the wind by their wings or feathery parachutes.  Pretty much across the board everyone loved milkweed pods the best – finding the downy fluff scattered across the ground or still encased within the pod.  Of course, there were always those few children who would pluck a whole pod right off the plant and pocket it, and maybe one of the group leaders would discover it later on, or parents much later on at home… but I never really minded this because they loved it so much; how soft and feathery they felt, and how easily they blew away in the wind!  I remember loving that as a child, and even still today it brings me irrational amounts of joy.

Milkweed

Milkweed – flyer
*This is a tricky one; many believe that it is a popper, and while the pod does pop open, the seeds themselves fly out of the pod to distribute themselves.

This brings us to the concluding weeks of our fall programs, in which we had sixth graders and first graders coming to visit us!  The two programs did end up overlapping just a bit, however I always appreciate a little variety in the workweek, so I didn’t mind this at all and I am sure that none of the other naturalists did either.   At this point though I think we were all beginning to get a little tired, and were more or less looking forward to having a break coming up…

Beginning with sixth grade — this unit was all about decomposition, and introducing/reinforcing the concept behind and importance of using the scientific method.  In this unit, the goal was to have students be able to distinguish between producers, consumers, and decomposers; identify the non-living parts of cycles in natures (air, water, sunlight, rocks), and to review a food chain/web — either theoretical or observed that incorporates all the components of a nutrient cycle.  I had a total blast with this program!  I had been anticipating grumpy cantankerous pre-adolescent children giving me attitude and spewing out negativity about whatever I’d try to say to them.  And, I ended up with slightly cantankerous pre-adolescent children who got surprisingly excited about things like moss, lichen, and fungi.  For the program, the students were split up into pairs and groups — of which we had a total of four.  These included fungi, moss, lichen, middens and arthropods.  Of course being the leader of the midden/arthropod group often proved to be a significant advantage when it came to keeping everyone engaged and interested in what you were doing, I found.  On the first day of this unit, my group found a wolf spider and a unique species of millipede that still had a predominantly black body, but yellow and orange legs!

Nerstrand First Graders

Nerstrand first graders – showing off their pretend “squirrel” food caches of hickory nuts and basswood seeds!

Finally this leaves the first graders and their homes and habitats unit.  I know that I’ve said this about pretty much every program so far, but this one was really a lot of fun!  For this unit, the goal was to get the children to understand that a habitat is more than just where an animal can build its home. It is also a certain area where an animal prefers to live, and can find everything that it needs to survive.  An integral part of this program was reinforcing the four things that animals need to survive in their habitats – food, water, shelter, and space.  We went out in groups to investigate “evidence” of an animal’s presence – we asked them, “What would the animals have left behind in their homes or habitats?”  We were looking for things like tracks, scat, fur, feathers, scratch marks from claws, hollows in trees, and even bones.  We did have a couple of places where  we had intentionally hid animal bones – everyone really got a kick out of that!  And just because the kids are so adorable, I am including a few snapshots of some of the groups who came for this program.

Caitlin & first graders

Naturalist Caitlin Savage leading a group of first graders from Lincoln through our prairie!

As I finish this write-up, I have to say that thinking about all these programs that have passed us by has made me a little sentimental… but at least the naturalist staff gets to see everyone again in the spring!  And, after already halfway through the first week of no programming, I am doing well with the decreased activity levels of hectic-ness, and I have to say I think everyone else is too.

Dahna Kreger is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Give to the Max For River Bend

It’s just hours away: Give to the Max Day in Minnesota! Give to the Max Day is one day dedicated just to giving, to making monetary donations to your favorite nonprofit organizations. We hope that River Bend makes it on that list of your favorite nonprofits and that you are making plans to donate on Thursday.  We think River Bend Nature Centeris a tremendous asset to our community but maybe you’d like to know a bit more about us before you make a financial commitment to our organization? Then, read on and we’ll tell you a bit about ourselves and how your support makes our work possible.

Students explore the river

River Bend students hike down to the Straight River to discover what happens when the ice breaks up in spring.

The dream of a nature center in Rice County started with Orwin Rustad, a Faribault native, St. Olaf College grad, and long-time field biology teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Orwin spent his youth exploring the lands that then belonged to the Faribault Regional Center and his explorations taught him a deep love of the natural world. When the state made plans to close the Regional Center, Orwin wanted to preserve the land he loved and so he enlisted the help of other Faribault citizen-leaders to help him bring his dream to fruition. Orwin believed strongly in connecting students to nature, in getting them outdoors to make first person observations of the plants and animals that live there, and didn’t feel that a true appreciation of nature could be cultivated in a classroom.  From Orwin Rustad’s vision for a nature interpretive center to the nature center that exists today, River Bend has at its core a mission to teach people of all ages an appreciation of the natural world so that they can enjoy it and preserve it.

Students discover wildlife

These preschool students at summer camp observe a small toad discovered in the prairie.

One major way that River Bend Nature Center fulfills its educational mission is through partnerships with area schools. Thousands of students visit River Bend every year including kindergarten through sixth grade students from Faribault schools who each visit us two to three times during the year as part of their science curriculum. Students get hands on field experience learning about a diverse array of topics. Kindergarten students explore nature with their senses and watch how nature changes throughout the school year. First graders learn what an animal needs to survive in its habitat and they look for signs of the animals that live at River Bend.  Second graders learn about adaptations by discovering seeds and their different methods of dispersal, whether it’s hitching a ride to a passing animal or catching a breeze and sailing away.  These are just three examples of the topics students learn about at River Bend. Many other schools visit River Bend each school year and our talented program coordinators tailor programs to meet each groups’ educational needs. There is so much to find out about nature that the possibilities for learning are endless!

Recreation at River Bend

River Bend offers everyone the chance to discover nature by being open to the public free of charge every day of the year. We have trails for hiking, walking, running, biking, skiing, and snowshoeing.

Another way that River Bend helps people discover the natural world is by providing public access to our lands. We have miles of trails that are multi-use, we want people to enjoy nature in whatever way appeals to them most, so we encourage walking, hiking, running, biking, and (leashed) dog walking on our trails. In the winter many of our trails are available for cross-country skiers and we rent snowshoes so people can go off-trail to make new nature discoveries. Our Windows on the Wild backyard feeding area is an area accessible to anyone who wants to watch wildlife up close in the comfort of our Interpretive Center.  There is something about being active in nature or just being observant in nature that appeals to something in the human soul, it reminds us we are part of something so much bigger than any individual, and allows us to learn about and appreciate the natural world in new ways.

River Bend Nature Center was intentionally configured to be an independent nonprofit, supported by donations and memberships and not dependent on the whims of city or state financing to support itself. What this means is that to accomplish our educational mission we need your support.  Please contribute whatever amount you are able to help us continue to provide educational opportunities for area school children allowing them to make first-hand scientific discoveries in our forest, prairies, and wetlands.  If you enjoy the recreational opportunities that River Bend offers free of charge every day of the year through access to our trails and lands, please make a donation.  If you can help us fund the upkeep and maintenance of our important but aging buildings, please make a donation.  If you or your children have enjoyed an educational program or special event at River Bend, please make a donation and tell your children why you’re donating so they have your example to follow when the next generation is entrusted with supporting our nature center.  River Bend will continue to be a vital asset to our community if you give your support on Give to the Max Day and every day!

To schedule or make a Give to the Max Day donation, please visit: http://givemn.razoo.com/riverbendmn.  To find out more about River Bend Nature Center, visit us on the web: http://www.rbnc.org, on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/riverbendMN, and on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/riverbendmn.

The Ever-Changing Prairie

By Garrett Genereux, Intern Naturalist

One part of River Bend that I feel is sometimes overlooked is the prairie. The prairie here, although small compared to the forest, has a great diversity of plant species. Not only does the prairie have a variety of plants but it also contains an assortment of animals.

Swallowtail Butterfly on Wild Bergamot

This includes many kinds of insects, deer, 13-lined ground squirrels, several other mammals, and quite a selection of birds. Despite all of that perhaps my favorite part of the prairie is that it is always changing. One week you may take a walk  on the Prairie Loop and notice several beautiful species of grasses and flowers blooming, then two weeks later see a whole new set of plants in bloom.

White-tailed Deer

Showy Goldenrod in bloom

Already this year we have seen lupine, butterfly weed, penstemon, wild parsnip (definitely not my favorite plant), purple coneflower, yarrow, golden alexander, and wild bergamot come and go. Right now we are perhaps in the “peak” blooming season. Currently big bluestem, daisy fleabane, snakeroot, tall bellflower, yellow sweet clover, Indian grass, purple prairie clover, bird’s foot trefoil, prairie coneflower, sage, side oats gamma, white prairie clover, thistle, showy goldenrod, black eyed susan, and rattlesnake master are all in bloom! If you are too busy or would prefer cooler weather to go for a hike do not worry! There are still more blooms to come. In the coming weeks several species of aster, gentian, goldenrod, and round headed bush clover will all come into bloom.

Later in the fall, prairie plants will get ready to scatter their seeds. This is summed up beautifully by American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale:  “For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.”

Another way that the prairie changes is through controlled burns that mimic the fires from pre-settlement times.  These fires burn the grasses and plants to the soil, but do not damage the extensive perennial root systems that native prairie plants have. This has many benefits. For one, it returns essential nutrients to the soil. Another is that the fire removes invasive species who often do not have as deep of a root system compared to the native plants. Lastly, the fire also keeps trees in check in the continuous battle between the forest and the prairie. Here at River Bend we typically burn sections of our prairie every other year. It is likely that we will be burning this upcoming spring!

Purple Prairie Clover blooming

Please come out for a visit and see the prairie! Walking from the Interpretive Center up and around the Prairie Loop will allow you to see most of the prairie that we have here at River Bend Nature Center. Also please check out the informational brochure on prairie plants, so you have a guide for your walk. There is also a display of current blooms with names and color pictures on the backside of a divider just beside our kitchenette in the Interpretive Center. If you wish to learn more about prairie burns, come to our public program on September 15th, from 9:30-10:30 am, aptly titled “Fires on the Prairie.”

Garrett Genereux is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.