Turtle Crossing

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the middle of June, but signs of summer are everywhere! Mulberries are putting out their berries, early flowers are going to seed, and at every pond around River Bend, female turtles have been leaving the safety of the water to make the long trek through woods and fields in order to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, sometimes, these treks become even more dangerous because of the presence of humans. While it’s not unusual to find turtles walking far from the nearest source of water during laying season, as human activity increases it’s becoming far more common for turtles to walk further than average. Pollution, lack of food, habitat destruction, among other stresses, all contribute to driving turtles of all species to travel far to find nesting sites.

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A large snapping turtle crosses Rustad Road. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

At River Bend, the species most frequently encountered are painted turtles and snapping turtles. While at the nature center, you’re most likely to encounter a nesting turtle of either of these species as she moves from the water to the nesting site as this will often require her to cross roads and other paths. This can be extremely dangerous as not all drivers will see the turtles in time to stop, and turtles are not fast enough to get out of the way. This results in countless fatalities every year across the state, and may also be contributing to the decline of several species. Unlike deer, raccoon, or other animals frequently hit along roads, turtles do not rear their young or protect them in any way, and thus hatchlings have a very high mortality rate. Because of this, even the death of one adult individual can be catastrophic for the species as a whole.

That’s great, but how can I help?

The best way we can help turtles is by being aware. Many road collisions can be prevented if drivers maintain the posted speed limits and remain aware of their surroundings. Drivers should stop if safe to do so when a turtle is in front of their vehicle, but should avoid swerving violently or any other action that may prove dangerous to others in the area.

A turtle is walking across the road. What should I do?

As stated above, if driving a vehicle, stop if safe to do so, and if time and traffic allows, allow the turtle to complete its journey on its own. Alert other drivers of the crossing turtle as well. If you’re on foot, or if you do not believe the turtle will be able to safely cross on its own, the turtle may be carried across to safety, but several factors should be kept in mind:

  1. Follow the line of travel. Always carry a turtle in a straight line in the direction it was originally traveling. If you place a turtle on the wrong side, she will merely turn around and cross the road again. Place the turtle off the road, but no further. While it may be tempting to bring the turtle to the nearest body of water, it’s bet to let instinct take the turtle to where it needs to be, rather than interfering.
  2. Handling with care. Turtles should be lifted carefully by the sides of the shell (never by the tail or a foot!). The only exception is with snapping turtles and softshell turtles—both these species have a reputation for biting without excessive provocation, and their bites can be very strong. If you encounter one of these species, call River Bend staff for assistance. After handling any reptile, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water, all reptiles have the potential to carry salmonella.
  3. Document your find. Help scientists by recording crossing and mortality areas by participating in the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally & Count Project: http://www.herpmapper.org/content/pdf/mn-turtles-and-roads-project.pdf

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Parking lots can be a daunting cross for even the largest turtles. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

I want to help a turtle across the road, but I don’t think it’s a painted turtle or a snapping turtle.

Minnesota is home to eight species of turtle, two of which are quite rare: the blanding’s turtle, and the wood turtle. These two species are terrestrial, and spent their lives out of the water. They are both listed as protected throughout Minnesota, and therefore it is illegal to handle or possess either without special permitting. If you do not recognize the species, call for River Bend staff assistance to have the turtle identified.

I think I found a turtle nest.

It’s not uncommon to find turtle nests, though they’re most often discovered after the hatchlings have already left, as their will be a sizeable hole in the ground with remnants of eggshells. If, however, you have found a nest (either having witnessed the female laying, or by other means) the most important thing to do is leave it alone. Do NOT attempt to relocate the eggs or stop the female from laying. If the nest is in a location that appears unsafe on River Bend property, contact River Bend staff for assistance. If the nest is on your property or elsewhere, the DNR may be contacted to help guide you through what to do.

I want to keep and observe the nest.

If on your own property, a turtle nest can be an exciting opportunity for observation. However, turtle nests are often subject to predation by mink, raccoons, and other scavengers, and these animals are often attracted by the scent of humans. Do not excessively visit the nest. Instead, place a motion sensitive camera or view from a distance. If you’re concerned about predation, wire fencing can be placed around and over the nesting site to keep other animals out, but be sure to check back frequently in order to let the baby turtles out when the time comes.

IMG_20170612_124123Some species have already hatched–such as this nest discovered earlier last week.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Interested in learning more about the turtles of River Bend and Minnesota? Stop by our interpretive Center Saturday, July 8th for an Animal Ambassadors program and a chance to meet our turtles up close and personal. More information can be found on our website at http://www.rbnc.org/ .

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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/

Springing into warm weather!

Hello again, River Bend friends! As you have probably noticed, Spring has sprung and we are really enjoying all the changes that are happening here. Many snakes and frogs are waking from their winter naps – if you walk by Prairie Pond or Upper Pond, you can hear the frogs croaking!  There are so many new birds out and about, and they are all singing at the top of their lungs and hurrying to make nests in the forest, prairie, and pond alike. We have even seen Turkey Vultures, and though they neglect to sing, they are another sign that the warm weather is back.

Spring is a wonderful time to look up and take notes of the phenology of our area. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, and is really cool to discover – here at River Bend, we have a monthly Phenology board, where our visitors can come and write what they saw while out on the trails, and then this gets recorded and we can compare to several previous years. We also have a great book written by our founder, Orwin Rustad, which is a recording of 50 years of natural events!

phenology book

Orwin Rustad’s A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota, a fantastic phenology read.

To give you an example of phenology, I’ll tell you what his book says about the timing of Turkey Vulture spring arrivals: over 12 years of recording their comings and goings, the earliest they arrived was March 12th, and the latest was May 30th! Their average though is April 14th-17th, so they are a bit early this year.

turkey_vulture_2

Turkey Vultures are a fun bird to spot during the spring and summer; they spend their time soaring high, looking like they are rocking back and forth in the wind on their  V-shaped wings.

One of the reasons phenology is important is that it helps us note changes through time. The reason I chose to look up the Turkey Vulture (other than the fact that they are amazing birds!) was that they were not very common birds in this area 50 and 60 years ago. Most of their sightings started in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps indicating that Turkey Vultures were expanding their ranges in that time frame to include this area! If you are ever in the interpretive center and want to know more about the natural history of this area, check out this interesting book.

You can also take advantage of the gorgeous weather forecast and come for a hike and see the spring changes for yourself. Just today, school groups spotted Garter Snakes over by Honor Point, a Bald Eagle over the Strait River, and saw the turtles that have come out at Turtle Pond too! There are also tons of frogs and birds to see and listen to, so come to River Bend, explore, and then come contribute to our Phenology board.

phenology board

As you can see, River Bend visitors have already seen some amazing sights, and we’re only a week in to April! Come add your own observations!

After hearing the frogs start up around town or here at River Bend, are you curious to learn more? Then come to our awesome program on Saturday, April 15th: Fabulous Frogs! Hop on over to learn about what’s jumping around River Bend’s ponds – We’ll be learning about what makes Frogs so unique, creating our own frog chorus, as well as meeting our two froggy Animal Ambassadors! The program fee is just $5/person, $15/family ($3/member, $10/member family), and it runs from 10-1130, so come make a day of it here at River Bend – see the program and then go for your own hike!

Hope to see you soon!

~Katie

northernLeopardFrog

Come learn all about Leopard Frogs and others at our Fabulous Frogs Program on Saturday April 15th from 10-11:30!

Happy 2017!

Happy 2017, nature lovers and River Bend friends! My name is Katie, and I am one of the four School Year Environmental Educators at your awesome local nature center. We have decided to become more active in the blog, and that means bringing you wonderful people cool information and facts about River Bend and nature in general! We will cover topics from trees and fungus to stars and survival, and much more, so keep an eye on this blog and our Facebook page for posts throughout the winter and spring!

In this introductory post, I am just going to give you some quick details about us 4 Naturalists, our passions, and fun facts!

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From Left to Right: Kara, Stephanie, Elsa, and Katie!

Kara, our Education Program Specialist, loves turtles, ants, and skiing. She coordinates the Creciendo Juntos program and Waste Education programs for all 3rd and 4th graders in Rice County! She is always smiling and loves to chat about all things nature, especially turtles.

Stephanie is a STEM School Specialist, which also includes coordinating the many amazing field trips that local schools get to take to River Bend. Stephanie skis to work almost every day, and loves talking about the stars, geology, and just about anything about animals.

Elsa is our other STEM School Specialist, and half of her week is spent at the Cannon River STEM School, helping students and teachers alike incorporate nature into their daily studies. Elsa loves all kinds of bugs, and especially enjoys teaching about edible plants and how to survive in the woods!

And lastly, I am the Community Outreach Specialist, and my coordinating focus is on our Homeschool programs, Birthday Parties, our Animal Ambassadors, and Science Club. I love talking about animal behavior and habitats, growing plants, and citizen science!

Thank you so much for reading this blog, and we’ll see you next week!

~Katie

Drunken Birds

As part of the festive past  few weeks I’ve noticed some animals also getting in the “holiday” spirit. By the time we have experienced a freeze and thaw cycle, many of the crab apples or other berries that were left on the trees have fermented. Many of us are a little too aware of the consequences from consuming fermented plant matter and actually a bird’s reactions to consuming fermented fruits are very similar to human’s-they become intoxicated. One of my early college intoxication experiences happened with a tree…… and Cedar Waxwings! While I was walking home from class (sober I might add; I was a good student!)  I noticed several crab apple trees full of Cedar Waxwings. I wasn’t as familiar with my bird species or bird behavior so I attempted to get a little closer and the birds didn’t take off. So I got a little closer and still nothing. Eventually I ended up so close that I reached out and touched one of the birds that was perched on a low branch. The little Cedar Waxwing just cocked its head and blinked at me a few times.  I may have been a first year biology student but I knew enough to know that that was weird!

As it turned out those strange Cedar Waxwings had gone a little overboard with the fermented crab apples and were just really really drunk. This last week I have noticed several species of birds hanging out in the trees munching on berries including American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and even a Ring-Necked Pheasant!

 

If you look really closely you can see a few tiny Black-Capped Chickadees eating the crab apples right outside of the Interpretative Center!

This is the closest thing I’ve seen to a Partridge in a Pear tree-A pheasant in a High Bush Cranberry!

So maybe the phrase “party animal” isn’t so far fetched! Happy 2015  and remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Wait, what month is it??

This week was a little bit disappointing…. IT WAS TOO WARM! With an average temperature of 29⁰ it was practically tropical outside. Just to give you a little comparison, last year the average temperature for the 2nd week of December was 10⁰. Regardless of the yucky warm weather I still saw some pretty amazing things and those things were owls!

Now if you’re familiar with River Bend’s programming you know that we have an OWLS (Older Wiser Livelier Seniors) program once a month and although I would also consider them full of wisdom I am talking about the feathered, silent, nocturnal type of creature.

One of our extremely amazing River Bend volunteers also happens to be an amazing birder and he took us out for an owl search and we had really good luck! We found a barred owl and a great horned owl! We accidentally scared both of them from their perches but it was still pretty awesome!

One of the coolest things about discovering where an owl perches is what the owls leave behind…their pellets!

These are two owl pellets found at River Bend. The one on the left came from a barred owl and the one on the right is a long-eared owl. Long-eared owls have a much darker, dense, and elongated pellet

So keep looking for that winter wildlife! You might find something surprising! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

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.

New Courses, 10K at River Bend’s Fun Run

Zach Hudson

By Zach Hudson, Intern Naturalist

As skiers begin to mourn the vanishing snow our thoughts at River Bend turn to maple trees and the production of maple syrup. In recent years, our maple syrup season has culminated with our Maple Syrup Fun Run 5K run and 1 mile walk event. This exciting gathering has become one of our fastest growing fundraisers, with over 200 participants last year. The year 2013 brings some exciting changes for the Maple Syrup Fun Run, with a new race distance and new courses, as well as real maple syrup for every participant.

Sumac Trail

Sumac trail on River Bend’s south side is part of the 10K course.

Walnut grove's run spectators

Walnut grove’s run spectators

As a runner myself I was especially excited about the prospect of creating new courses and adding a 10k distance to our event.  We decided early on to try to make our new 5k course slightly easier than in past years to make it more appealing to casual runners.  We quickly realized that you can’t make an easy course using River Bend’s trails, but I think what we came up with will be a fun course that should be doable for anyone.  Our 5k will leave from prairie pond and cross the prairie on raccoon to a crossing of Rustad Road.  From there the course will descend to the river along Cherry and Dairy Lane before returning to the road via Rabbit and Teepee Tonka.  Runners will cross the road and complete a rolling final kilometer overlooking upper pond before returning to raccoon to head back to the start/finish line.  A full map of the course is at this link: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/188158516

Dairy Lane Bridge

Dairy Lane Bridge looking to the south side of River Bend.

Since we made our 5k course mellower we decided to use the 10k to take full advantage of all of River Bend’s challenging terrain.  Much of the 5k course is included in the 10k, but with some added bite.  The course opens with a grueling climb up Maple to the walnut grove.  After following Walnut around to the paved section of Raccoon, racers will cross Rustad Road and descend to the railroad tracks via Cherry  and continue on Teepee Tonka to Dairy Lane.  Runners will then cross over the Straight River for a challenging climb to River Bend’s south entrance and a hilly run through the south side of the Nature Center.  After crossing back over the river runners will follow Rabbit under the railroad tracks and around to Arrowhead and Deer before rejoining the 5k course at Rustad Road.  The 10k concludes the same rolling finish stretch as the 5k.  The full course map is here:  http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/188171998

One-mile walk starting line

The starting line of the one-mile walk course.

In addition to our new running courses we have also moved our 1 mile walking route. We tried to create a walk that minimized overlap with the running courses while providing walkers with great scenery and views of the running courses. As we were developing the course we realized that moving the walk to the paved trails would make it more accessible to people with mobility issues or parents wanting to push strollers. The route also takes in some River Bend favorites such as Honor Point and Turtle Pond and offers views of the 5K course as the runners climb up the final hill. A map of that route is here: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/177012142.

Maple Syrup Fun Run

Runners coming over the prairie finish line in last year’s Maple Syrup Fun Run.

One sad byproduct of the Maple Syrup Fun Run’s rapid growth is that we have outgrown our capacity for serving pancakes at our annual Pancake Brunch out of Trailside Center. As a result the brunch will take a hiatus this year while we work at finding other facilities for the future. It is possible that a separate pancake event will be held at another time this spring. Since runners won’t get to sample maple syrup on their pancakes the day of the race, we have added sample bottles of Anderson’s Pure Maple Syrup to participant gifts. We are excited to welcome Anderson’s Maple Syrup and Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, RoadID as new sponsors of our event, along with returning sponsors District One Hospital and Reliance Bank. Thank you to our sponsors for helping us make our race possible!

Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup

Participants will get bottles of Anderson’s Pure Maple Syrup as part of their run gift.

Come join us at River Bend Nature Center to celebrate maple syrup and the coming of spring at our Maple Syrup Fun Run 10K/5K/1M. We are excited to see this event continue to grow and improve as River Bend moves into the future, we hope to see you there!

Zach Hudson 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 River Bend at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

By Caitlin Savage, Intern Naturalist

As the winter season draws near, many people are hoping for a white Christmas, especially due to the lack of snow last year. This year, however, I want to encourage you to have a “green” Christmas! There are many simple steps you can take to make your holiday season more environmentally friendly. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make your own gifts

Many people struggle to pick out the perfect gifts for their loved ones during the holiday season. What better way to express your appreciation than to put the time and effort into making a gift for someone? Come to River Bend’s “DIY Up-cycled Winter Crafts” event on December 15th from 10am—noon to learn how to make your own winter crafts to give out as Christmas presents (materials are provided). This program is open to all ages and costs $3 per River Bend member, $5 per nonmember, or $10 per nonmember family. Exercise your creative muscles this holiday season! If you’re feeling uninspired, don’t worry – a multitude of ideas are just a “Google” search away. You can find great ideas for homemade holiday gifts on the web.

Food is another great gift idea. Although college students are particularly appreciative of homemade goodies, people of all ages will enjoy this thoughtful present. If you’re not much of a cook, you could consider offering out another service. Give the gift of a free babysitting session to busy family members, or offer to walk someone’s dog for a couple weeks during the cold winter. Remember that many people would appreciate your help in an area you excel in. For example, if you’re good with cars, give someone a “coupon” for you to change their oil. If you’re talented at pottery-making, piano, juggling, or any other skill, offer someone a free lesson.

2. Use more sustainable Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Pick-Up & Recycling

River Bend’s Christmas tree pick-up and recycling program starts in January.

It is a common misconception that a reusable artificial tree is more sustainable than a real tree. In reality, artificial trees use unsustainable resources such as petroleum to manufacture, and additional resources are used to package and ship them. Since they are made of non-recyclable materials, the trees eventually wind up in a landfill, where they will remain for a long time, perhaps indefinitely.

Instead, buy a real tree from a local tree farm. Picking out a tree together is a great opportunity to spend time with family or friends! After the holiday season ends, you can mulch or recycle it. One way to recycle a tree is to bring it into River Bend so we can use them on our trails! For a $10 donation ($15 for nonmembers) we will pick up your tree for recycling, or for $5 you can drop your tree off at River Bend for recycling.

Another option is to buy a potted or balled tree to use. After the holidays are over, you can plant it in your own backyard or donate it to an organization that will plant it.

3. Use alternative wrapping paper

Gift packaging is one of the main contributors of excess waste during the holidays. Consider using alternative wrapping paper this year. Newspaper and magazine pages make excellent wrapping paper. Look for articles that your loved ones might find interesting to decorate their gifts. Brown paper bags can also be used as wrapping paper and decorated to your liking. Fabric scraps are useful to wrap gifts or to make bows and ribbons.

If you would prefer to use actual wrapping paper, purchase paper made from recycled materials. After the holidays end, recycle the used wrapping paper (keep in mind that shiny or metallic paper is non-recyclable, and remove tape from the paper if possible). If you use gift boxes or ribbons and bows, keep them to reuse the following year. You can also save wrapping paper to reuse (although when excited kids are involved, there may not be anything salvageable left!)

4. Decrease energy used by holiday lights

One way to decrease your energy usage for the holidays is by using LED lights instead of incandescent. LED lights use less energy and are cooler to the touch than incandescent lights. However, they are typically more expensive, and some people aren’t as fond of the aesthetics of the LED.  If you would prefer not to use LED lights, try reducing the amount of time that you keep your Christmas lights plugged in. Make sure that you only have them on during the dark hours, when they are most easily visible. Also, consider keeping them off while you are asleep. If you have Christmas lights indoors, make sure to turn them off when other lights in the room are on.

5. Avoid making too much food

Excess food makes up a large portion of the waste created during the holiday season. This can be tackled a few different ways. One option is to make less food. If you always find yourselves with leftovers, cut down the number of servings per dish you prepare, or remove a few of the usual items off your menu.

Many food dishes spark a rich sense of tradition during the holidays, so you may be reluctant to remove any of them from your usual menu. Good can still come out of excess food. Instead of throwing away leftovers, save them to eat throughout the next week. If you aren’t a huge fan of leftovers (you can only have turkey so many times in a week before it loses its appeal), look into donating them to a local food pantry or charity.

Couple snowshowing

Snowshoeing is one of many great ways to spend time with family and friends.

6. Spend quality time with family and friends

Go outside and embrace the winter weather! Get a group of friends and family together to experience the enjoyable and environmentally-friendly activities winter has to offer. Go sledding, build a snow fort, or start a giant snowball fight. Skiing, ice-skating, and snow-shoeing are popular, “green” winter activities. Snowshoes are available for rental at River Bend throughout the winter ($5/member, $10/nonmember; there must be at least 6 in. of snow to rent snowshoes). Or just take a walk and marvel in the beautiful winter landscapes your community has to offer.If you prefer to spend time indoors away from the cold, invite some friends or family over to enjoy some hot chocolate and remind yourself of what the holidays are truly about.

I hope you find that some of these suggestions will help you have a greener holiday season. I’m not advocating that you try all of these things, just choose the ones that work best for you. Even a small change can make a big impact. Happy Holidays!

Caitlin Savage 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.