Posts Tagged ‘children and nature’

Gold Award Project Begins

April 27, 2012

On March 25 Margaret Czepiel, a Girl Scout from West Hartford, started her ambitious Gold Award project here at Hill-Stead.  For those not ‘down’ with scouting parlance, “Gold Award” equals “Eagle Scout project” if you are a Girl Scout.

Margaret Czepiel-Is that a halo over her head?

There were scouts of all kinds there to help Margaret. Her goal is to transform our Pump House into a jewel-box nature center, an exhibit space highlighting the natural history of Hill-Stead. Together they removed decades of dust, repainted windows, removed brush, erected a bird house and identified future steps to take to fulfill the objective. Margaret’s family was there, as well as museum staff. Margaret carefully determined how best to preserve the historical import of the building, working with Curator Melanie Anderson, Eric Easton of Operations and Naturalist Diane Tucker. At the end of the day they all packed up their vans, picked up their equipment and were gone in a puff of dust, which I could swear was the last remaining particles of rust-laden detritus from the Pump House interior. Either that or the end of a dream sequence.  But no, they’ll be back, and soon, for Margaret plans to measure for pedestals and stands that will sit over the old plumbing fittings, providing places to showcase things as well as safety in navigating around the room free of tripping hazards.  Stay tuned for more on Margaret and the Natural History Bungalow-to-be.


All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

The Object of My Envy

March 19, 2010

It rained and rained last week. But it’s spring, and warm enough to ward off snow. So all we’ve had is submerged river banks, and some downed trees and branches. The ground is saturated, so worms flee to the surface to avoid drowning. Sadly, once up top it’s still wet and they die en mass out in the driveway. I once knew a naturalist who tried to save the drowning worms as she walked through a rainstorm, but to my thinking this is misguided. As far as I know, worms haven’t yet made it to the endangered species list, and dead ones make fine food for scavengers.

Children love worms. They love drowned worms that they can “save” by putting them in the grass, and they love the water-logged ones they find on the sidewalk because they can yell, “eeewwww!” and run away from them. Worms not experiencing a flood are also popular with kids. When I take groups around our grounds to look under bug boards, regardless of whatever else might be under there, the kids will shout, “a worm!”. There could be a rare specimen of some kind under the board, but nothing holds a candle to a worm. Mostly, kids want to hold them. If I’ve come across a mother lode of worms, I pass them out like peppermints to all the little cupped hands reaching toward me. This scene is repeated no matter how many bug boards have worms under them, and they pretty much all do. The pinnacle of worm discovery is finding worm “castings”, a polite way of saying worm poop. Nothing tops that. It really spices up a nature walk!

Charles Darwin thought so, too. He spent thirty-nine years studying the “lowly” worm. As a matter of fact, despite their choice in housing, worms are not in the least lowly. Like every single thing on this earth, worms are sensational once you get to know them. Just as we do, a worm needs air, food, an amenable temperature, and some moisture. If these elements are lacking, they up and wiggle away. Cold-blooded, these helpful though homely creatures bring fresh soil to the surface, mixing it with nitrogen they hold in the slime covering their bodies. For this gardeners prize them. The healthiest gardens are chock-full of worms. An acre of land can hold about a million, a goal for every home gardener.

If only people were more like worms! They are perhaps one of the most practical animals on earth, possessing not only the ability to reproduce (and that’s another story!), but also the ultimate party trick of self-regeneration. As children everywhere know, if you pull off a little section of a worm, you have two new worms! The replication is not completely fool-proof, depending on the species of worm and where the “disengagement” occurs on the body. It’s pretty easy to lose a tail, but not quite as easy to lose a head!

Oh, to remake oneself anew following slings and arrows of assault, to enjoy the endless approval of children, and the eager appreciation of those who tease life and beauty from the soil. I envy the worm.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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Slug Doggerel

July 11, 2009

If I were a snail and you were a slug     snail

I’d sing your praise to every bug!

And tell a tail that few could match

About how you can lay and hatch

Your eggs yourself

As boy and girl.

slugNo other critter can unfurl

 twenty times its body length.

They haven’t  got the flex or strength.

A slug can slip away inside

Through cracks and crevices small and wide.

That single foot it leaves no print,

It just sets down a slimy hint

For you to follow later when

You back track for a snack again.

A body-made road map comes in handy

When you crave some greenery candy!

Not just for you such trail is set

Your friends and family can also get

A meal from following the handy slime,

Lettuce fears your cartographic, gastric line!

Your eyes are stalks, you look like gel

You don’t even have a shell,

Or so some think, but they don’t know

That they should try to look below

The skin on your back for there it hides

Waiting a chance to ride the tides

Where your brother shellfish play and frolic

Oh what joy to be a mollusc.

By Diane Tucker 7/11/09

The slug is a fascinating creature. It is a shellfish, the cousin of a snail. Its shell is indeed invisibly located underneath skin on the back. They are hermaphrodites, having the sexual qualities of both male and female. Eggs laid will hatch only if conditions are moist.

Slugs can stretch themselves up to twenty times their original length, enabling them to fit into tight spaces. Their slime is laid down in a continuous trail that they can retrace to a satisfying food source. Their friends and relatives can follow it too. Snails have an interrupted slime line.

Snails and slugs are further a part of an animal group known as gastropods. These creatures move using a “foot” which propels the animal forward on slime, in the case of slugs and snails, and along a sandy shore bottom in the case of other molluscs. It is a single foot like any snail would have. Snails and slugs are related to octopus, clams, oysters and scallops.

This is a banner year for slugs. They love wet weather.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

You Never Know

June 15, 2009

I never thought for a moment the cocoon I picked up off the ground last winter would be anything more than a curiousity to show school children.  In fact, I wondered why I was bothering since I already had one at home just like it.  But something about this homely thing got my attention, and it couldn’t just have been the guest on the walk with me who said, “Hey, what’s this thing?”  Sometimes we  follow an inner voice.  Apparently, this particular inner voice was saying, “Pick up the cocoon, bring it home, dig out a butterfly habitat from the basement, put the cocoon in there and pin it to the side, hang the whole shebang on a shepherd’s crook from the side of the deck, wait several months.”  It must have been saying so, since that’s what I did.

The other day I looked at that cocoon, and I said to it, “If something doesn’t happen with you by the end of June, you’re out of here.”  I had that location in mind for a hanging basket.  Evidently, the moth inside there heard me, because last night he hatched out!  This was no measly moth that jumps out of the way when you mow the lawn!  This was the North American granddaddy of them all, the Polyphemous Moth!  With a wingspan of up to five and a half inches, this moth is nothing short of astounding.  The polyphemous is the largest of the North American moths.   

polyphemous moth

It has “false eyes” on each of its four wings, the better to confuse preditors.  As an adult, it may live only a few days.  This stage of life is its’ prettiest and shortest.  It doesn’t even have mouthparts, as eating is unecessary.  The remaining task is to pass on some DNA and go gently into that good night, as only a moth can do.

It is thought that there may be more moth species than butterflies.  But as the butterfly is awake essentially during the same hours as humans, the moth may be artificially underepresented in the insect census.  If the polyphemous moth is any example, it may also be that the moths are equally or still more beautiful than their daylight cousins.  If there is anything that could make you fall in love with a “bug”, it is a look at this exquisite creature.  I’m not “off” butterflies or anything, but the polyphemous moth has made me into a dewey-eyed lover of the nighttime kind of butterfly.

It’s funny how things that happen on nature walks  turn out.  An offhand question about a little fuzzy thing hanging from a branch turns into the thrill of a lifetime!  Nature can fool you so often. 

Last saturday we had record crowds at our wildflower walk.  It was the “perfect storm” of nature events.  Connecticut Trails Day intersected with our usual weekend offering, which in turn met with the Great Park Pursuit (we didn’t realize it, but we were one of the “featured” walk locations and I guess the only one in Hartford County).  Let’s just  say it was crowded and leave it there.  Next year, we’ll have the logic worked out. 

The words “Hey, what’s this?”  are music to the ears of anyone leading a nature walk.  It means at least one person is paying attention! Last Saturday one of our guests came forward with a little thing no bigger than most pebbles saying, “What’s this?”.  The “pebble” had a tail and four legs.  The tail was wedged in as close as possible to the carapace (the top shell), and the legs were frozen stiff. The head was tucked deep inside the shell.  I thought it was dead.

But I grabbed that “teachable moment” and held fast, explaining how turtles come out of the water at this time of year, and lay eggs in the meadow.  This one was a Painted Turtle, having gotten its’ name from the pretty markings on its neck and shell, which look as though they have been painted on.  I figured it couldn’t hurt to put the little guy into the water.  He seemed so dried out.  And as Tony Soprano says, you never know.  So I put him in the stream.  He sank like a stone. 

Everyone feels a little sad when that kind of thing happens.  So once I saw that turtle head for the bottom with no little legs moving, I got out of there fast.  I scrambled up and away from the stream and was trying to find something else to show the group when I heard a shout go up.  It was alive!  I had given up too early.  The baby turtle was stunned, certainly, playing dead-maybe, but it was most definitely not dead.  And we watched it  swim away to what I think is likely to be an easy living at our pond.

baby painted turtle

Is there a moral to the story?  I don’t really think there are morals in nature, except the ones we artificially assign.  But it does show how wrong you can be.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


April 8, 2009
From above and below-see the glow?

From above and below-see the glow?

“Hey, Mrs. Tucker, come quick! We found something!”

I enjoy such interruptions at my back door, and I run over to my young neighbors. They know I like “discovering” things. I tell them, “You’ll never see anything unless you LOOK”, so they’re pleased to have something to show. They herd me to a tree bathed in warm sun. Before we even get there, I know what we’ll find. Sure enough, it’s fireflies.

Fireflies winter-over in crevices and cracks. On a nice day you can find them basking on trees where they creep from their hidey-holes behind the bark to enjoy the sunshine. Recently on a nature walk at Hill-Stead, the group found about fifty on the elm tree out on the front lawn.

The group seemed surprised when I identified them, and someone exclaimed, “They’re BEETLES.” Well, it’s true, they are. These deceptively named insects are members of the coleoptera family (beetles) and not flies (diptera) at all. With a hard, black body, a pretty red head, and a distinctive body shape, it is hard to identify them as anything else.

Fireflies aren’t just bugs that can light up your mom’s old mayonnaise jar. They are fascinating examples of the many mysteries still held by nature against the peering eye of science.

Part of the allure is their ability to produce “fire”, which is not fire at all but bioluminescence. It is “cool”, though. The bugs light up, but never get hot. Fireflies have special light-creating organs which use a combination of oxygen and a chemical called luciferin to create the glow. What isn’t known is how they regulate the light. Where the on-and-off switch is located is still a mystery. Firefly light is not steady like a lighthouse beam, it looks more like Morse code being transmitted by a tiny flashlight. Unique patterns belong to different species.

Like most adaptations, the light has more than one use. For starters, the brightness is meant to advertise the bitter taste of the firefly, to deceive would-be predators. The flashing may also attract the attention of a female firefly as she waits in the grass for a male. If he has the right combination of blinking lights she may flash back. Studies show that the longer and quicker a male flashes, the more likely he is to be selected by a female.

But there’s a catch. The longer the firefly flashes, and the more conspicuous his flashing, the more likely he is to find himself becoming someone’s dinner, instead of someone’s date! Cannibalistic fireflies and other enemies can take advantage of the display, finding and killing the hapless suitor.

It sure is hard to square the true-to-life drama of sex and death going on outside with a peaceful image of warm summer nights and cheerily blinking insects!

I tell the neighborhood kids they found fireflies, and nobody is disappointed that they are not really flies. Kids don’t have so many preconceived ideas about what nature “should” be. A “fly” that is really a beetle is ok. It has a little black shell and doesn’t bite. You can hold it. Plus, it lights up. “Cool!” they say. You bet, I tell them, in more ways than one!

I welcome your nature questions and comments! See you on the trail, Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist