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.

The NEW Outdoor Adventures Program

By Garrett IMG_6382Genereux, Outdoor Adventures Coordinator

Summer is getting closer and closer every day, and this means that we are getting closer and closer to the start of Outdoor Adventures programming here at River Bend. The Outdoor Adventures Program (OAP) is a new and exciting area of programming that seeks to engage people in the outdoors through outdoor recreation activities. The OAP is a resource for beginners and experts alike. We will be offering programs in camping, climbing, slacklining, archery, fly fishing, and canoeing. The OAP will also be renting out gear related to those activities.

Our programs are designed for participants with a range of experience. If you or your family has never tried a specific activity then we will do our best to make sure that you have an exciting and enjoyable first experience. Even if you have some understanding of an activity, you are still going to have an awesome time with us.camping

Our camping program takes place here at the nature center. Learn how to set up a tent and talk about some basic camp craft. After setting up camp, cook a delicious meal that is easy to make while camping. Of course we’ll roast s’mores over a relaxing campfire before we hit the sack. In the morning we will have an awesome breakfast before we break camp. The food, tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are provided.

Our climbing program is the perfect opportunity for you and your family to try outdoor rock climbing in a safe and fun environment. Staff will provide basic climbing instruction and will belay you as you reach for the top! Our climbing programs take place at Barn Bluff Park in Red Wing, MN. The climbs are typically about 40 feet in length and on a top-rope setup. Participants will mYoung Man Rock Climbingeet us there in the parking lot and we will get you on the rock! Climbing shoes, harness, and helmet will be provided. We will also be offering climbing programs that are for adults only.

Slacklining is a relatively new sport that involves walking on a length of webbing that is stretched between two fixed objects. For our programs experience does not matter! Come join us and we’ll give you tips and tricks of how to walk on a slackline. It is a great way to work on balance and core strength. There will be plenty of time to practice and have a blast on the lines.

Come try the challenge of shooting a bow and arrow with the archery program. Staff will give instruction on shooting technique and safety. The bows we will be usarcherying are compound bows suitable for all sizes and strengths of archers. We will leave plenty of time to practice! Who knows, maybe you will become the next Legolas or Katniss! All necessary equipment is provided.

First the beautiful casting motion, then the effortless landing of the fly perfectly on the water. Ever wonder how people do it? Come to our fly fishing programs! We will start by going over some fly casting techniques and practice on dry land. If time allowsfly-fishing, we will head down to the river and see if we can lure any fish into biting. Fly rods, reels, and flies, are provided.

This is going to be an awesome, action-packed summer! I hope to see you out for one of our programs. We are going to have a great time!

For program dates, times, registration and more information, please check out the Outdoor Adventures Program website at www.rbnc.org/outdooradventures.

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.

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

Sarah Shimek

By Sarah Shimek, Education Coordinator

5. Bald Eagles

Bald Eagle Pair - adults   Photo by Len Blumin

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

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

Sandhill Crane Parents with baby By Matthew Paulson

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

4. Sandhill Cranes

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

3. Black Vultures

Black Vulture - Coragyps atratus   By Martha de Jong-Lantink

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

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

Prairie Vole

Prairie Vole

2. Prairie Voles

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

1. Diplozoon paradoxum (parasitic worm)

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

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

Sources:

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.

Five Questions and Answers About Snow

By Zach Hudson, Intern Naturalist

Freshly groomed ski trails

Freshly groomed ski trails

Winter is my favorite season of all, and my favorite part of winter is the snow. Snow can be quite interesting for a naturalist or anyone interested in nature. There are many things about snow that can help us understand how nature works in the winter, including when, where and how much of the white stuff we can expect to get. So without further ado here are five facts about the stuff that makes winter so great!

1. When does it snow first in Faribault?
River Bend founder Orwin Rustad kept a detailed journal for over 50 years recording the timing of a variety of events in the natural world, including the first measurable snowfall of each winter. According to his journals the earliest snow has fallen here was on September 30 all the way back in 1961. On average though, we can expect to see our first snowfall sometime in early November. Once that first snow falls Faribault receives about 40 inches of snow total over the course of the winter concentrated in the months of December and January.

2. What are some of the historic snowstorms that have hit Faribault?
In addition to recording the start of the snowy season each year Orwin Rustad also kept records of major storm events that occurred in Faribault and other locations in Minnesota. Many people remember the 1991 Halloween Blizzard but, this is far from the only significant blizzard to strike Faribault. Bishop Whipple has accounts from the 1800’s of riding his horse through a horrific snow to reach some of the mission outposts he visited. In addition Faribault saw a single storm that dropped 20 inches of snow in 1982, one of three large storms that year in Rustad’s journal.

3. Where are the snowiest places in the U.S.?
While Faribault and Minnesota in general do receive their fair share of snow we are far from the snowiest places in the USA. Valdez, Alaska averages over 300 inches per year which is about the equivalent of the height of a football goalpost. Excluding Alaska, cities near mountains or large bodies of water have a tendency to get pounded with the white stuff. My hometown of Lander, Wyoming gets over 100 inches of snow every year and Ironwood in Michigan’s upper peninsula receives an average of 180 inches of lake effect snow.

Hoar Frost

Hoar frost on tree branches in 2010.

4. How do snow crystals get their amazing structures?
The structure of individual snow crystals is quite fascinating, and arises from various properties of water. All snow crystals have six-fold symmetry or something close to it. The six-fold symmetry arises from the molecular nature of ice as it freezes. The uniqueness of snowflakes has to do with the varied paths they take to earth from the time they begin to form up in the clouds. Every snowflake starts its life as a simple hexagon and grows branches of various shapes as its external conditions change. No two snowflakes experience the exact same conditions as they fall resulting in unique structures for each flake. You can find more information including some amazing images at this website run by physicists at Cal Tech.

5. What is a true blizzard?
We often think of any major snowfall event as a blizzard, but is that really correct? The answer is no, a true blizzard combines heavy snowfall with strong winds. According to the National Weather Service for a storm to receive blizzard designation it must meet the following criteria: for a time period of at least 3 hours there must be wind to 35 mph or greater and considerable falling or blowing snow, such that visibility is reduced to a 1/4 mile or less. According to these requirements true blizzards are rare; however blizzard-like conditions can be relatively common for shorter time periods.

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 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.