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.

The Top 5 Scary Animals (That Aren’t Really That Scary)

By Garrett Genereux, Intern Naturalist

Assassin Bug

An assassin bug having a bee for lunch! Photo credit Dave Wilson Photography.

During this spooky time of year it is popular to post lists of scary things. Often times these lists feature animals such as the Great White shark or the Grizzly bear – animals that are actually quite frightening when encountered in nature. The five animals I am going to write about are “scary” but they will not get your instinctual-adrenaline pumping. These animals either appear scary or have some type of behavior that is scary, but in reality they pose little threat to us humans.

5. Assassin Bugs

These small (less than 40 mm) insects from the order Hemiptera (true bugs) are real-life vampires. Like their name suggests, they are highly-skilled predators. Assassin bugs employ camouflage coloring, dust, and sometimes even the exoskeletons of previous victims to hide and wait for their prey. They have also been known attack while flying. Once they have caught their prey, they use their straw-like mouth, called a rostrum, to inject saliva into their victim’s body. This isn’t just ordinary saliva; this saliva dissolves the inner tissues of their prey into liquid which the assassin bug then sucks out through the rostrum. There are 7,000 species worldwide. The Assassin bugs that can commonly be found in the prairie here at River Bend are quite benign. However, there are several species that inhabit parts of Central and South America that do feed on the blood of humans while they are sleeping. A few specific species of these blood-sucking Assassin bugs carry Chagas disease which can be fatal.

Wrinkle Faced Bat

It is hard to forget a face like that! Photo credit Evets Lembek.

4. Wrinkle-faced Bat

This fruit-eating bat truly has a face that only a mother could love. Wrinkle-faced bats can be found in several Central and South American countries. The face of the male bat typically has more wrinkles than the female. These skin growths are thought to help direct sound waves to their ears. Also quite strange is that the male bats have a flap of skin on their neck that they can tuck their whole head into. Very interesting to note is that the wrinkle-faced bat’s head is wider than it is tall. This adaptation allows the bat to increase the strength of its bite. Some scientists have conjectured that this allows the Wrinkle-faced bat to eat tough-skinned fruit when soft fruit is not available.

Tailless Whip Scorpion

Just remember it can’t hurt you! Photo credit Brujo.

3. Tailless Whip Scorpion

Although not a scorpion, this arachnid is perhaps more visually startling than its relative. Besides its six walking legs and two pedipalps (the two claw/pincer type legs near the animal’s mouth) it has a long appendage on each side of its body which is the “whip”. These appendages are not actually used as whips, but they do help catch prey. Typically the Tailless Whip scorpion walks sideways with its whips probing in front and behind as it walks feeling around for prey. Once it finds its prey it catches it with the pedipalps which have thornish spikes to ensure the prey does not get away. These arachnids do not have spinnerets or venom. There are 155 species that live in tropical and sub-tropical areas (so nothing to fear here in Minnesota). These animals prefer a humid environment.

Pistol Shrimp

For being so small it sure packs a punch! Photo credit Debby Ng.

2. Pistol Shrimp

Yes, a diminutive, plain-looking shrimp is at number two on this list. So if it doesn’t look frightening, then why is it on this list? Because it can do something quite spectacular that makes me thankful that it is fairly small and lives on the ocean floor far away from here.  The Pistol shrimp, also known as the Snapping shrimp, is a predatory shrimp and has a very unique way of catching its prey. The shrimp has asymmetrical claws, with one of the claws being able to produce very loud (190 decibels) snapping noise that it uses to catch prey and communicate. When there are great populations of these shrimp they can actually disrupt sonar and cause noise pollution in the ocean due to their incredibly loud snapping. Now to the interesting part, how they catch their prey. Typically they feed on small fish and other shrimp. They lay in wait until they sense movement with their antennae. Then they cock back their snapping claw and aim it at their prey. Next it releases the claw (hence the pistol name) and it creates a cavitation bubble (the loud snapping noise creates a pressure difference in the water) which travels towards the prey at upwards of 100 km/hr and at a temperature of 9000 ⁰C. Yes you read that correctly. Nine. Thousand. Degrees. Celsius. And yes, that is hotter than the surface of the sun. This cavitation bubble eventually implodes, effectively and severely stunning the prey which allows the Pistol shrimp to grab it and bring it back to its burrow to feed. This shrimp lives in oceans worldwide.

House Centipede

So terrifying!!! Photo credit AussieBotanist.

1. House Centipede

This centipede is only five centimeters long, which is dramatically smaller than its largest cousin, the Amazonian Giant centipede, which can be up to 35 centimeters long.  However, this centipede can be commonly found in your house, it moves uncommonly fast, and is not pleasant to look at. It may be of consolation that if this centipede is found in your house, it means that it is getting rid of other pests including ants, silverfish, small spiders, and even bed bugs. To catch this prey it moves very fast- up to .5 meters per second. Like many other centipedes, the house centipede uses venom to kill its prey. This species has specialized legs near its mouth that inject the venom instead of using mouthparts. House centipedes have been observed jumping onto their prey, lassoing them with their legs, and even bludgeoning their prey with their legs. Another adaptation that makes this centipede a great hunter is that it has highly developed eyes which are unusual among centipedes, although it still uses its antennae quite a bit. If you are quick enough to squash this arthropod, you better be accurate. House centipedes are notorious for being able to drop appendages that are trapped. However, if you squash too hard the centipede may drop all of its legs and essentially explodes. Originally from the Mediterranean, the House centipede is found almost worldwide. Just hope that the next time you move a piece of furniture you don’t see this creepy crawler speed away to its next hiding spot.

I hope that these animals did not scare you too much. Just remember that most of them don’t live here in Minnesota and that you as a human are much larger than they are so in reality they are probably more scared of you than you are of them. Enjoy Halloween!

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.

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.