Growing up Monarch – 3

“Growing up Monarch” is an on-going segment in the River Bend blog that follows the lives of several monarch butterflies as they grow from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult. We’ll be updating with photos and fun facts and observations throughout the summer!
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All three River Bend caterpillars are 5th instars. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Another week has gone by and our three resident monarchs have grown an immense amount! When last we checked in, they were all what is known as 4th instars, meaning that they had shed their skins three times, and would have several distinct features: bold yellow triangles on their heads, “chunkier” bodies with dark banding, and long front tentacles (antennae) that go beyond their head capsules. By Friday the 9th all three caterpillars had shed once again and become 5th instars.

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When shedding and during windy days a monarch caterpillar will produce silk (similar to spiders) in order to anchor itself to the leaf. Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers and it’s thought that pound for pound it is stronger than steel. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

As 5th instars our caterpillars are in their final stage as larvae. This means that within just a few short days they’ll be preparing to pupate. The 5th instar stage is marked as being the largest of all the stages, and their front tentacles will be extremely long, becoming noticeably “droopy” past the head capsule. Another key feature though sometimes more difficult to distinguish is a velvety appearance to the black stripes along their bodies.

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The black stripes on 5th instars are very large and almost velvety in appearance.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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The front tentacles of 5th instars are extremely long and are distinctively droopy towards the ends. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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The facial markings of 5th instars are bright and clearly visible. Note the large triangle in the center. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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Between May 30th (2nd instar) and June 10th (5th instar), just 12 days apart, our caterpillars have dramatically increased in size. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
And while the caterpillars at this stage are very close to completing their time as larva, they still have a little bit of growing to do and a little bit of weight to gain and so of course that means…more eating! They have continued to feed almost nonstop (except to molt and produce frass). However, this constant feeding is noticeably slowing compared to their feeding habits as 3rd and 4th instars. More often they can be seen resting on the leaves—perhaps preparing their bodies for the big changes that are about to occur. In fact, scientists have dissected caterpillars at this stage to discover that several butterfly organs are already starting to form. And so even though these changes are not visible to us, we can imagine the amount of energy it would take to go from an animal that crawls on the ground to one that is capable of flying up to 2,000 miles (anyone would need a nap!).
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Although nearly full size, the 5th instar caterpillars can still be seen feeding fairly frequently. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

With three caterpillars sharing an enclosure it’s never a surprise when overnight entire leaves will be consumed—not a single scrap being left (not even the stems)—leaving an empty tank with three very hungry caterpillars looking for seconds, thirds, and fourths. For this reason, rearing monarchs can be a very demanding job, requiring frequent trips to collect fresh leaves no matter what the weather may be.

 

 

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Being larger doesn’t make you invincible. While 5th instars are notably more bold and more likely to explore their environments than their smaller counterparts, they will still consistently take shelter on the undersides of leaves, perhaps to prevent being spotted by predators. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

And while rearing caterpillars can be an immense amount of work, it is also a very rewarding process, allowing you to view them at every stage, and also witness infrequent or short-lived behaviors that would be difficult to spot in the wild if not impossible. One such behavior that the author witnessed on Saturday the 10th was especially interesting. With three large caterpillars all relatively close together it soon became apparent that this species is by no means gregarious, and has no instinct for companionship. Quite the opposite actually—they are notably aggressive towards those of their own kind, behaving in a manner that you would expect to see exhibited towards potential predators and not towards other caterpillars (who are so similar in size and appearance they may as well be identical). When one caterpillar wandered too close to its neighbors, close enough to brush up against them, the former responded by violently thrashing their head towards the intruder. This motion was repeated several times with a clear “back off” message similar to that of a lunging dog, but the recipient of these “attacks” appeared completely oblivious and merely continued on its way. Eventually the trespasser moved along far enough, and it would seem that touch was the catalyst for this behavior, for as soon as contact was removed, all normal activities of feeding resumed as though nothing had happened.

 

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The caterpillar in the center wandered too close to its neighbors and was punished for doing so by both individuals on either side of it. When touched, the caterpillars will rear their heads and lunge at the intruder—perhaps to drive them off.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

It’s likely that this behavior is completely instinctual, rather than decision-based. It would seem that caterpillars are “wired” to rear up at unexpected physical stimuli, that is, to throw themselves at things that touch them. This would effectively make them look larger (and probably less appetizing) to would-be predators. It’s behaviors such as this that allow these caterpillars to survive their long lives in this vulnerable stage. For while they are toxic, not all animals have learned to associate the bands of black, yellow, and white, with danger, and will therefore feed on monarch larva before finally understanding that they all are unpalatable. This defensive behavior may also tie in with the necessity to roam. As the caterpillars continue to grow they will soon cease feeding altogether, just as they had when preparing to molt. This time however will be different, and the caterpillar will be searching for a very special location.

 

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The large tentacles of 5th instars may be useful in sensing the environment, especially when exploring an unfamiliar location. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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When large enough, the caterpillars will stop eating and begin to move around more—even leaving their host plant entirely in search of a safe place to pupate.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

It’s important that the location chosen is perfect—protected both from the elements as well as from predators, as the next stage, the chrysalis, is by far the most vulnerable of all its stages. As a chrysalis, the monarch will be completely unable to move or defend itself in any way as it goes through the difficult transformation into butterfly. For this reason, it is immensely difficult to locate monarch chrysalises in the wild. They are often not placed on milkweed plants, and also camouflage well with their surroundings.

 

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Over the course of approximately two to three weeks, a monarch caterpillar will increase its total mass 2000 times. Seen clearly in comparison between a 5th instar and a newly hatched 1st instar.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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A 5th instar puts on a lot of weight in order to pupate—and their body segments will become especially pronounced. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Once they have found the perfect spot, the caterpillar must do several things in order to pupate. First, it must start laying down a mat of silk. It would have done this every time it molted as well, as this mat of silk provides a surface on which to grip and adds extra stability. This time the mat is noticeably larger and thicker. The caterpillar will also create a small wad of silk that is much thicker—this will be the point at which it attaches itself during pupation. Caterpillars produce silk similarly to spiders—through an organ known as a “spinneret”. On monarchs it is located beneath the mouth. Silk begins as a liquid produced in the salivary glands after which it is excreted through the spinneret. Upon coming into contact with air, the liquid silk will turn into solid strands which the caterpillar may then place down. Throughout its life as a caterpillar they retain this ability, and it is most often used as a mat when molting, or as a “life line” if the caterpillar were ever to fall off its host plant. After pupating they lose the spinneret, and also the ability to create silk as it will not be needed in the adult stage.

 

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The silver-white strands of silk are clearly seen crisscrossing underneath the caterpillar. Once finished laying down this mat, it will then begin work on a silk pad, visible here as a small white ball located beneath the caterpillar’s head. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

 

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Once the silk pad is completed, the caterpillar will turn around and grip the pad with its back prolegs. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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As of the afternoon of June 11th, both larger caterpillars were in the distinctive “J” of pre-pupation, while the third, smaller caterpillar, was still feeding.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Upon completion of its silk pad, the caterpillar will use this as a gripping point as it moves into the next stage of pupation. In order to form a chrysalis, the caterpillar will drop its head so that it will be hanging upside down by its back prolegs.  They will remain like this for anywhere between 10 and 24 hours, completely unmoving and unchanged—at least on the outside. It couldn’t be further from the case inside. As the hours tick by, the caterpillar will start to move again, appearing to almost be doing sit ups as it will move its head up and down repeatedly. Next, it will appear to grow tired of this movement and hang more loosely, looking less like a J and more like an I. At this point, if you look at its front tentacles carefully, you may notice that they appear shriveled—this is a sign that pupation will soon occur, as there is no longer any “caterpillar” inside that part of its body any longer, and it is ready to molt for the last time. The last sign will be a small tear along the caterpillar’s back, right behind the head. This tear will reveal the bright green of the chrysalis underneath and will grow larger and larger as the skin is worked upwards. This entire process once the skin splits takes just about a minute to complete, so viewing this phenomenon takes not just patience, but also luck and good timing. As the skin continues to come off, more of the chrysalis will be revealed, and many butterfly features will be clearly visible—such as the wings and antennae. When the skin has reached the rear legs, the chrysalis will start twisting around in circles—this serves a duo purpose: one, to remove the old skin completely, and two, to firmly attach itself to the pad of silk. This transition needs to occur quickly, as the caterpillar no longer has back legs to hold onto the silk with. Instead, it must use the cremaster (the black peg on the chrysalis) by hooking it onto the silk. The twisting motion increases the number of strands that hook on, similar to how Velcro works.

By the evening of the 11th both larger caterpillars had pupated and the smallest of the had begun work on its silk pad. Overnight, the smallest caterpillar pupated as well.

 

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The two first chrysalises were carefully removed from where they had originally pupated in order to be relocated. If you raise your own monarchs, do NOT attempt this without prior experience. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

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The morning of Monday the 12th both chrysalises were safely transferred to a new location for easier observation. The 3rd chrysalis had pupated overnight and was still too soft to move. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Want to learn more?

Stop by our interpretive center this week to talk to a naturalist and see the monarchs for yourself! The monarchs will be available to view:

Mon-Fri     8:00-4:30
Sat              9:00-4:00
Sun             9:00-2:00

 

Interested in getting more involved?

River Bend will be offering MLMP trainings to teach interested members of the community to become certified MLMP volunteers! Monitor at home or at River Bend, and help save this amazing insect from extinction.

Register online to attend the training scheduled for July 29th 100-4:00pm.

For more information, see our website at: http://www.rbnc.org/

Growing up Monarch – 2

“Growing up Monarch” is an on-going segment in the River Bend blog that follows the lives of several monarch butterflies as they grow from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult. We’ll be updating with photos and fun facts and observations throughout the summer!

 

It’s been a week since we last looked at the monarchs that River Bend is raising, and a lot has happened in those seven days! In the life of a caterpillar, change happens quickly, and with just about a month to go from a tiny egg to a full-fledged butterfly, there’s no time to waste in putting on those growth spurts, and our resident royalty has been doing just that.

1The smallest of the three caterpillars remains a “1st instar”, though its larger cage mates have already molted. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Ever since day one, these larvae have been professional eating machines—spending most of their day chowing down on the provided milkweed leaves. You’ll recall from our last post that monarch larva feed exclusively on milkweed—refusing any other offered vegetation. They do, however, start their lives off with a slightly different meal: their own eggshell. And unfortunately, in some cases, the eggshells of other caterpillars. Such was the case for our River Bend monarchs.

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Skin clings to the back of a newly molted 2nd instar caterpillar.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Last week we had a total of three caterpillars and one ready-to-hatch egg, but since then we’ve dropped by one, as one of the caterpillars made a meal out of the last egg before it could hatch. This cannibalistic behavior may be another reason for why female monarchs lay only one egg per plant, as the larvae appear to have no qualms about siblicide. With that being said, we now have a grand total of three healthy caterpillars, and all danger of competition between them has passed. Since then, they have continued to feed voraciously. They no longer eat in the characteristic circle pattern of newly hatched caterpillars, instead they now chew all the way through the leaves, creating small holes as they do so.

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While nearly the same size, the caterpillar on the left is a recently molted 2nd instar, while the caterpillar on the right is still a 1st instar, preparing to molt—indicated by the dropped head capsule and the white silk holding it in place. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

With all that eating, it’s no surprise that they’ve already increased in size. As of Tuesday May 30th, one caterpillar had already molted into its 2nd instar stage, with another preparing to do so as well.

4Rearing its head may help this 3rd instar navigate its surroundings. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

The third caterpillar is slightly smaller, and took longer to be ready to molt its skin. This molting, or “ecdysis” as it’s referred to by scientists, will occur several times during the caterpillar stage and can be predicted by several behaviors as well as physical changes—the most obvious being a lack of appetite. Our caterpillars would stop eating and stop moving completely as they prepared to shed their skin. Prior to molting, the caterpillars will lay down a layer of silk that helps hold them in place.

5Upon completing its molt, the caterpillar’s new skin is soft and light colored—obvious in this photo as seen by its yellow head and legs. These parts will darken over the next few hours, but until then the larva is at its most vulnerable, similar to a crab without its shell. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

By Saturday, June 3rd, all three caterpillars had shed twice, and were officially “3rd instars”—the largest even preparing to molt again to become a 4th instar.

The smallest of the three caterpillars was once again the last to prepare to molt, though on Saturday it was in search of a location to do so as it roamed its habitat, occasionally rearing its head up—which may assist sensing its environment, as well as start loosening the older skin and head capsule.

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Two third instar caterpillars, with the individual in the foreground preparing to molt. Note the dropped head capsule, with the newer, lighter colored skin above it. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

It takes caterpillars roughly two weeks to go from 1st instar to chrysalis, and our three caterpillars, having hatched on Friday, May 26th should be preparing to pupate late this upcoming weekend. They still have some growing to do however, and will continue feeding every day in order to do so.

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“Frass happens”
This 3rd instar expelled some of its waste during observation. Caterpillar poop is known as “frass” in the scientific world, and this caterpillar displayed an odd behavior as it promptly turned around, and picked the frass up, moving it around several times before leaving it behind.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Today, Monday the 5th, all three caterpillars have shed their skin and are officially 4th instars. They have bold stripes along their bodies, large banded heads, and front antennae that droop down past their head capsules—all key characteristics of 4th instar caterpillars. Within the next few days they’ll shed again to become 5th instars, and then finally, they will shed their skin a final time in order to transform into a chrysalis.

 

unnamedA view of all three caterpillars as viewed on Monday, June 5th. All three are considered “4th instars” at this stage, despite the differences in size. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

 

Want to learn more?

Stop by our interpretive center this weekend to talk to a naturalist and see the monarchs for yourself! The monarchs will be viewable  as follows:
Fri 8:00-4:30
Sat 9:00-4:30
Sun 9:00-2:00

Interested in getting more involved?

River Bend will be offering MLMP trainings to teach interested members of the community to become certified MLMP volunteers! Monitor at home or at River Bend, and help save this amazing insect from extinction.
Register online to attend the training scheduled for June 10th from 1:00-4:00pm.

For more information, see our website at: http://www.rbnc.org/

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.

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.

Five Fun Fall Things to do at River Bend

By Jill Engle, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

Broad-winged hawk

A broad-winged hawk is easier to spot once the trees drop their leaves.

Now that the temperatures have started to get frosty and the landscape’s palette has turned to shades of brown and tan and is no longer orange, red, yellow, and green, it must be time for me to admit that the fall season is here. While some of us may start to have that animal instinct to hide away in our homes hibernating until the warm weather returns (me!), we should resist our instincts by zipping up our polar fleeces, reminding ourselves that in spring this will be shorts and flip-flop weather, and heading out to enjoy some of the autumn activities that nature and River Bend have to offer.  So here it is, my top five list of fun fall things to do at River Bend Nature Center.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed juncos are “snow birds” that overwinter in Minnesota.

5.  Wildlife Walk: The majority of River Bend’s trees have dropped their leaves and that makes this a perfect time of year to take a wildlife-spotting walk in the woods. Owls, hawks, and other birds of prey are easier to spy high in the barren tree branches than when they were camouflaged in summer leaves. Salamanders are a common sight this time of year as they move away from their summer habitats in search of safe spots to hibernate this

Salamander

Salamanders are a common sight this time of year as they search for safe spots to hibernate.

winter. Keep an eye out for flocks of smaller birds who are preparing to migrate; groups of robins are around and many sparrow species are stopping by feeders on their way south. Just so we don’t feel abandoned, the dark-eyed juncos have returned to our area for the winter, we’re “south” for them! Go figure.

4.  Fossil Hunt: With recent lack of rain now is a great time to take your family down to the Straight River to explore its banks. A nice place to start your exploration is just below the Honor Point overlook. Discoveries along the river include interesting rocks, shells, bones, driftwood, and fossils.  You’re not likely to find a T-Rex bone

River bank shell finds

Shells found along the banks of the Straight River.

but River Bend was once located on a very different part of the planet and was covered by oceans so you are likely to find the fossils of ocean creatures like gastropods, brachiopods, corals, and more. We have a helpful brochure available that describes the different types of fossils you may find on your river search.  Please remember everything found at River Bend needs to stay at River Bend and cannot be taken home for your collection so be sure to bring your camera to take pictures of your finds.

3.  Go to a Public Program: River Bend public programs happen all year, cover a range of topics, and often have a seasonal theme. If you love birds, our free Bagels & Birds program is held on the first Saturday of each month. Beginning November 3rd and continuing into

Milkweed seeds

Milkweed seed pods open to spread their fluffy seeds across the prairie.

winter is a three-part cross-country ski series taught by Zach Hudson, intern naturalist and assistant coach for the St. Olaf ski team. Program coordinator Elaine Loranz will lead adults in a hike to learn to identify and arrange “Winter Weeds” on November 17th.  Crafty types will enjoy “DIY Up-cycled Winter Crafts” with program coordinator Sarah Shimek on December 15th.  Finally, to celebrate (or mourn) the end of fall and beginning of winter you are invited to attend the “Winter Solstice Celebration” on December 21st.  Details about all of these programs can be found on our web site.

2. Glowing Prairie Stroll: Our prairies are a little bit past their prime in terms of blooms and new growth but many prairie plants are fulfilling their biological imperative and are spreading their seeds. Take a stroll

Glowing grass on the prairie

Prairie grass lights up in the low afternoon sunshine across the prairie.

through the prairie and you’ll notice the fluffy white seeds of quite a few different plants like milkweed, thistle, and goldenrod. When I walk along Prairie Loop trail, I love to grab a milkweed seed pod, pull out some seeds, hold my hand high in the air, and then watch the seeds fly away imagining the plants they will become next summer. The prairie grasses are also worth stopping to see in the late afternoon hours as the low sun shines

Horse-drawn wagon rides

Horse-drawn wagon rides at Bats, Bones & Bonfires.

across the prairie because the grass seed heads light up like thousands of tiny little chandeliers glowing on beautiful red and brown stems.

1.  Bats, Bones & Bonfires – October 27th, 4-8pm: The top spot on my fun fall things list has to be reserved for our annual Halloween festival Bats, Bones & Bonfires. This event is designed to be fun (not scary) for all ages of Halloween aficionados.  Attractions include horse-drawn wagon rides, a yucky nature

Jack O' Lantern Contest

Help us fill our Jack O’ Lantern trail with pumpkins by entering your Jack O’ Lanterns in our contest.

haunted house, a bouncy house, and much more. New this year will be belly dancers,  fire spinners, and costume portraits by Katie Brien Photography. Enter your pumpkin in our Jack O’ Lantern contest for a chance to win a prize. Buy hot dogs and s’mores to cook over our campfires (or buy pre-cooked). Other yummy food and drinks will also be available. Before you head home be sure to stop and pick up free goody bags for your kids!  Admission is $4 per person with kids 2 and under free. River Bend members get in free with their member card. This enjoyable, budget-friendly event should be on every family’s “must-do” list this fall.

Jill Engle is the marketing & communications coordinator 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 her at engle@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

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.