Jan 182018

Exploring the characteristics of twigs and buds is a great winter pastime     

After the dramatic reds, oranges and yellows of fall leaves, it’s easy to think that the seemingly barren trees of winter offer little of interest. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy winter botanizing, the trees are anything but barren. A closer look reveals that they are adorned with buds, tiny jewels that harbour the promise of spring. Better still, they provide a surefire way to identify the tree. All that’s needed are observant eyes – a curious nose can help, too – and some knowledge of what species grow in our area.

Although we tend not to notice them until autumn when the leaves have fallen, the buds of most species have been present since summer. Stored within three kinds of buds, the tree’s entire future lies in waiting. Leaf buds contain embryonic stems and leaves – miniaturized, folded and pressed together like the tiniest and tightest of parachutes. They are biding their time, waiting for their turn to capture sunlight and manufacture food. Flower buds, as their name suggests, contain one or more flowers. We often forget that trees are flowering plants in the same way as roses and tulips. As such, they produce flowers whose goal it is to produce seeds and assure a new generation. Flower buds are generally larger than leaf buds, sometimes differently shaped (e.g., red and silver maples) and often located at the tip of the twig (terminal bud). Finally, trees also have mixed buds, which house all three structures – undeveloped stems, leaves and flowers. It’s usually necessary to dissect a given bud to know exactly what is hidden inside.

Bud biology

Although trees can usually be identified by their overall shape and by characteristics of the bark, buds provide a much more reliable means of identification. The starting point for understanding buds is to be able to recognize the twig, the part of the branch where the buds are located. The twig is the section at the end of each branch that constitutes the previous year’s growth. A twig’s point of origin is marked by a distinctive, ring-like node around the branch and a change in the colour and smoothness of the bark. The node is where the scales of the previous year’s terminal bud fell off and left several lines encircling the twig. For this reason, it is called a bud scale scar. To see how much the twig grew last year, measure the distance from the tip of the twig to the first bud scale scar. You can usually find the bud scale scars from two and three years ago, as well.

Bud arrangement is critical information in species identification. Because buds form in the angle between the stem and the stalk of the leaf, both leaves and buds have the same arrangement on the twig. In opposite arrangement, the buds on the sides of the twig (lateral buds) are located directly across from each other. In alternate arrangement, they are staggered singly at intervals along the twig. Only a few genera of trees and shrubs have opposite buds and leaves. This makes their identification easy. They include honeysuckle, ash, maple, lilac, viburnum, elderberry and dogwood. Just about all of the other tree and shrub species are alternate. The following mnemonic (memory aid) that I devised – which unintentionally sounds like a rallying call for animals rights – may be helpful in remembering these seven groups: HAM LIVED! Each genera or group corresponds to one letter in the mnemonic; lilac corresponds to LI. Start by learning the opposite buds, especially maple, ash and dogwood, and then move on to some of the common and distinctive alternate species like poplar, elm and willow.

Opposite buds (H=honeysuckle, A=ash, M=maple, LI=lilac, V=viburnum, E=elderberry, D=Dogwood) Alternate Basswood buds on far right.
















If you take a closer look at a bud, you will notice that it is covered with scales. These structures, which are usually leathery and sometimes hairy, serve to protect the embryonic leaves and flowers from the elements. The number, shape and arrangement of the bud scales are different for each species of tree. Beneath the scales, you will sometimes find tiny hairs, which provide additional protection to the bud’s precious cargo. Pussy willow buds are a well-known example of this feature.

Leaf scar and bundle scars of horse-chestnut – Wikimedia











Below each bud, you will also see a leaf scar. It marks the location where last summer’s leaf was attached. The scar therefore corresponds in shape to the base of the leaf stem. Each tree species has its own characteristic leaf scar, almost like the tree’s fingerprint. In red maples, the scar is U-shaped, while in white ash there is usually a deep notch in the scar. You may need a small hand lens to see this. If you look carefully at a leaf scar, you will see tiny markings known as bundle scars where veins passed from the stem of the leaf into the twig. These veins carried water into the leaf and food – made through photosynthesis – back out into the twig and to the rest of the tree. In some species – black walnut, for example – the leaf scar looks like a little face.

Flower bud opening on Norway Maple – Drew Monkman

Leaf buds of Manitoba Maple opening up – Drew Monkman









A primer

Let’s look at the buds and twigs of some familiar, easy-to-find species. You might want to go outside and gather these or use Google Images as a visual reference.

1. Sugar maple: Shiny, reddish-brown twigs with opposite buds. Buds are brown and conical, almost looking like upside down ice-cream cones, minus the ice cream. Covered by 6-8 pairs of scales, which are arranged in staggered rows. Large terminal bud. V-shaped leaf scar, containing 3 bundle scars.

2. Red oak: Reddish brown twigs with alternate buds. Buds are reddish-brown with 10 or more bud scales. Terminal buds form a cluster. Leaf scar is a semi-circle with numerous, scattered bundle scars.

3. American basswood: Light-brown, smooth twigs of zigzag shape. Buds are reddish, plump and opposite. 2-3 bud scales of unequal size. Leaf scar is semi-circular with 3 bundle scars.

4. Balsam poplar: My favourite winter buds! Narrow, long, pointed alternate buds with 4 leaf scales. Terminal bud larger, up to 25 mm, with 5 scales. Leaf scar roughly circular with 3 bundle scars. All buds are resinous and exude the smell of spring when rolled between your fingers.

Numerous guides for winter tree identification can be found online. Just Google “winter tree identification Ontario”. I especially like “Appendix C Winter Tree ID”, which should come up first in the search results.


1. What’s inside? Try opening some buds to see what’s hidden below the scales. Lilac and horse-chestnut buds work especially well. Using tweezers or just your fingers, try peeling back the scales and unfolding the contents. Count the tiny leaves inside. A hand lens will come in handy. Can you already see what shape the leaves are? Children are often amazed to see so many miniscule leaves are hidden inside such a small object. Large lilac and horse-chestnut buds may have tiny, pre-formed flowers inside. For small children, try cutting open some Brussels’ sprouts, which are actually large, immature leaf buds containing tightly overlapping leaves.

2. A twig collection: Collect the twigs of the most common trees and shrubs of your area. Attach these to a piece of cardboard with a glue gun, grouping them by opposite and alternate. Make sure you include twigs with both side and terminal buds. Cutting the twigs at an angle will expose the pith (the inside of the twig), which can also help in identification. Label each species.

3. Sneak preview: If you just can’t wait for spring to arrive, try forcing twigs for indoor blooming and leafing out. I’ve had especially good luck with dogwood, forsythia, crabapple, silver maple and birch twigs, but any species is worth trying. Head outside and cut off foot-long twigs with big, healthy buds. Make an angled cut at the base. Strip away buds and twigs that will be under water. Smash the woody bases with a hammer to enhance water absorption. Place in a water-filled vase in a cool, dark spot. Once the buds start to open – usually 7-12 days – move to a window, but out of direct sunlight. The cooler the spot, the longer the leaves and blooms will last. You might want to photograph or sketch the leaves, stems and flowers as they emerge. Try to identify which buds produced leaves and which produced flowers – or both!

Spring’s promise

Knowing these finer details of our trees and shrubs opens up a whole new world of winter beauty and adds immeasurably to any outing. Keep in mind that by March, sap will flow upwards from the tree’s roots, directing water and minerals to the buds and causing them to swell. With the warm days of late April and May, a new generation of leaves, shoots and flowers will emerge. The new growth will provide food for legions of insects, which in turn will become fuel for the rest of the food chain. The song of a Baltimore oriole on a May morning is directly linked to the buds of the winter forest.

Baltimore Oriole by Karl Egressy





May 122016

By any measure, birding has never been more popular. Its allure lies in the satisfaction of using one’s knowledge of season, range, habitat, field marks, song and behavior to identify and appreciate the birds around us. Birding can also become a window on environmental issues. Many environmentalists started out as birdwatchers, perhaps because you quickly recognize just how vulnerable bird popu­lations are to pressures like urban sprawl, habitat destruction and climate change.

The Sibley eBird app is an excellent birding resource.

The Sibley eBird app is an excellent birding resource.

Bird identification is about three things: Paying attention, being patient and knowing what to expect. Paying attention means looking and listening with complete concentration. Being patient can mean standing motion­less in a forest for several minutes until the bird you just heard sing eventually calls again and lets you know where it is lurking. In fact, one can often see more birds by standing in one good spot than by always moving. Finally, knowing what to expect means having a good idea of what species should be present in a given time of year and habitat. Experienced birders have a 95 percent idea of what they will probably see in a given day and place. Birds are found at predictable times and locations.

So, just who is that little brown bird visiting your feeder? When you come across a bird you can’t immediately identify, try following these steps:

  1. Take note of the bird’s general shape. Many birds can be identified by shape alone, often at considerable distances. Is it stocky and short-tailed like a starling or slender and long-tailed like a grackle?
  2. Turn your attention to the bird’s size by comparing it to a common benchmark species. Ask yourself if it is closest in size to a hummingbird, spar­row, robin, crow, or goose.
  3. Examine the plumage and field marks. Take a careful look at the wings, under­parts, rump, tail and head. If you find mnemonics (memory aids) useful, think WURTH. Start with the part of the bird you can see best, but try to look at its entire body before it flies away. Try to see if it has bars on the wing or if its chest, belly and sides have spots, stripes or a special coloration. Is there anything special about the tail or rump? Pay special attention to the head. Many small songbirds such as warblers and sparrows can be identified by characteristics of the head alone. Does the eye have a circle around it? Does the crown or throat have special markings such as stripes or a contrasting color? Take note of the size and shape of the bill.

    The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a prominent eye ring. (Karl Egressy)

    The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a prominent eye ring. (Karl Egressy)

  4. Watch what the bird is doing. Is it feeding on the ground, perched at the very top of a tree, moving headfirst down the trunk, standing motionless in shallow water or soaring high overhead? Is it alone or with others of the same species? Some common feeder birds, for example, almost always feed on the ground in small flocks (e.g., white-throated sparrow), while others are nearly always seen on feeders (e.g., black-capped chickadee). If the bird is flying, how would you describe its flight pattern? Some hawks, for example, soar in circles on motionless wings, while others have a “flap, flap and glide” style of flying.
  5. Consult your field guide or app. Don’t forget to look at the range maps, relative abundance of the species, whether it is migratory or resident, its preferred habitat and its typical behavior. The guide will also point out the most important field marks and how the bird compares to any similar species.

Keep in mind…

~ Bird identification is not an exact science and at times it is difficult to be completely certain of what species you have seen. Being “reasonably certain” is sometimes the best you can do.

~ When you are looking at an uniden­tified bird, remember that it could be a female or an immature. Although the male and female are quite similar in most species, there are birds — the red- winged blackbird, for example — where the differences are striking. Ducks, too, show a big differ­ence between the sexes. When identifying eagles, hawks and gulls, remember that you might be looking at a juvenile or immature bird.

~ The bird in your binoculars may not be in its breeding plumage. In a small number of species (fortunately!), the plumage can vary considerably between spring and fall. These birds tend to be colorful in the breeding season but drabber in fall and winter. American goldfinches are an example of this chal­lenging characteristic.

~ Many songbirds respond well to “pishing” and will come in quite close so that you can take a closer look.

Before you begin to pish, place yourself close to some trees or shrubs where the birds you wish to attract can land. Pucker your lips and make a loud, forceful “shhhh” sound, while tacking a “p” on at the beginning: “Pshhhh, Pshhhh, Pshhhh”. Make sure it sounds shrill and strident. You might want to try adding an inflection at the end, as in PshhhhEE. Do it in a sequence of three, repeating the se­quence two or three times. At first, you’ll probably need to pish fairly loudly, but you can lower the volume once the birds get closer. Continue pishing for at least a couple of minutes after the first birds appear. This will give other species that may be present a chance to make their way towards you. Chickadees and nuthatches are especially receptive to the pishing sound, but other species like warblers and sparrows will usually approach as well.

~ The habitat in which you see the bird can also help with identification. Some species are almost never seen outside of their preferred habitat, except during migration.

~ Many birds are found along habitat edges such as the edge of a woodlot, a road or a wetland.

~ Learn common bird sounds. Identifi­cation by songs and calls will really boost your birding skills and provide a great deal of satisfaction. With practice, nearly all birds can be identified by song. Start by learning the songs of the common species you see and hear around your house. Listen to recordings of their songs — in the car, for example — and learn the associated mnemonic for the species you’re interested in. Chickadees, for example, sound like they are singing “Hi Cutie”. There are many bird identification apps that include songs and calls.

~ Purchase a pair of good binoculars. Many bird-waters find 8 x 40 or 8 x 42 the best choice. They provide good magnification but also offer a wide field of vision. Look for a pair with a roof prism design.

A wide range of binoculars and field guides are available (Drew Monkman)

A wide range of binoculars and field guides are available (Drew Monkman)

~ Choose a field guide with paintings of the birds rather than photographs, and a range map right beside the illustrations. My favourite is “The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America” because of its convenient size and weight and the multiple plumages it shows of each bird. “The Sibley eGuide to Birds” is probably the best app available and includes recordings of all the songs and calls.

~ Check out seasonal abundance charts for your area. These show how the numbers of a given species change over the course of the year. With time, you will start to develop a mental checklist of what birds are most likely, given the time of year. The eBird website (ebird.org) provides these charts in the “Explore Data” section.

~ Keep track of your sightings — and share them with others — by using eBird. Subscribers also receive alerts of rare birds in your area as well as birds you have not yet seen during this year

Bird identification is one of many skills for connecting to nature. Next week, we’ll turn our attention to butterflies, dragonflies and moths. You will find more ways to develop a stronger connection to the natural world in my new “Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha. The book will be available in early June.


Mar 242016

With the arrival of spring in the Kawarthas, local wetlands will soon come alive with the calls of countless frogs and toads. This annual spectacle provides a wonderful opportunity to engage with nature. Here are three activities adapted from “The Big Book of Nature Activities” that I have written with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book should be available by late May or early June.

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Amphibian Orchestra

You’ll learn: The songs of our local frogs and toads

You’ll need: Frog song descriptions, ideally eight or more participants, internet access

Background: One of the wonders of spring is to listen to the melodious strains of an amphibian orchestra, courtesy of our local frogs and toads. Frogs sing for the same reason birds do. The males are trying to attract a mate, and many species are fighting for territory. Species like the wood and chorus frogs call in early spring, while bullfrogs and green frogs don’t start until late May or early June.

Procedure: Explain to the children that you are the conductor, and they are the various frog and toad species found in the Kawarthas. Each child will imitate the song of one species. If necessary, more than one student can perform the same song. To begin, have the children listen

to recordings of the songs by going to naturewatch.ca/frogwatch/ In the how-to-guide menu, click on “identifying frogs”. After listening to each song, ask the children to imitate it as best they can. Suggestions on how to do the imitation are given below. Decide who will perform each species, maybe based on who mimics each song best.

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

Chorus Frog (photo by Tim Dyson)

1. Wood frog – sounds similar to a quacking duck

2. Spring peeper – a high-pitched “peep-peep-peep”

3. Western chorus frog – a fast “tick-tick-tick-tick-tick” like the teeth of a comb

4. Leopard frog – a throaty “ahhhhhhhhh…” with a few snoring sounds thrown in

5. American toad – a sustained trill (at least 10 seconds) from lips or throat

6. Gray treefrog – a slow, musical, bird-like trill lasting 2 to 3 seconds. Use your lips or tongue.

7. American bullfrog – deep, resonant “rr-uum” or “jug-o-rum”

8. Green frog – “gulp-gulp” deep from the throat

As a conductor, you need to give clear signals to your orchestra. When you point to a frog species, it begins to sing. When you cross your hands and swipe them outwards (like a referee), they stop singing. When you raise both hands simultaneously upwards, the individual sound becomes louder. When you lower your hands, the sound becomes quieter.

Begin with the wood frog, which is usually the first species to sing in the Kawarthas, and add the other frog and toads songs until all the species are singing in joyous chorus. Come to a dramatic crescendo and then fade out. You will have conducted a rendition of a wetland symphony, courtesy of your local frogs and toads!


You’ll learn:  How to observe frogs, toads and salamanders as they prepare to breed

You’ll need:  Rubber boots, flashlights, camera, sound recorder (optional), amphibian guide or app

Background: The frogs of early spring usually begin calling when nighttime air temperatures have warmed to at least 8 C. Calls are usually loudest at dusk and during the first few hours of darkness. The best weather conditions for hearing a full chorus are mild, damp, windless nights that follow a period of rain. Evenings when a light rain is falling can also be excellent. These are also the conditions when many salamanders move to breeding sites.

Procedure:  Grab a pair of rubber boots, a strong flashlight and a camera (your smartphone will do) and try to arrive at the wetland before it gets dark. Take a few minutes to make a sound recording or video of the wetland and chorus. Try to identify the various species calling. If necessary, use an app like “Audubon Reptiles and Amphibians” or a website such as Amphibiaweb.org. Then slowly walk in the direction of the calls. When you first approach the area, you can expect all of the frogs and toads to stop calling. However, all you need to do is pick a promising spot and wait. Eventually the calling will start again. Softly rubbing two stones together or whistling an imitation of a call will sometimes jump-start the chorus. Try to pinpoint the calls of one individual and shine your flashlight in that direction. Scan the water, the floating plant debris and the lower stems of the vegetation. Remember that many species such as chorus frogs are only the size of bumblebees and drably colored. They are often easiest to find by looking for the shiny throat sac moving in and out with every call. Some species such as wood frogs might be floating on the water itself. Their vocal sacs are actually on the sides of the body. If you are close enough, take some pictures, either with a flash or by having another person shine the flashlight on the frog. You can always try to slowly move in closer for a better look as well.

Spotted Salamander - Luke Berg

Spotted Salamander – Luke Berg

There is also a good chance that salamanders will be on the move. They are most easily seen by driving slowly along back roads that pass through low, swampy woodlands or where there are flooded ditches adjacent to the woods. By watching carefully, you may be able to see the salamanders on the road. You should then park your car and get out and walk. Take time to photograph some of these beautiful animals. Shine the flashlight on some of the roadside pools, as well. If you are lucky, you may see salamanders mating in a sort of underwater dance.

Nature’s Amazing Magic Act – Raising Toads

You’ll learn: All or part of a toad’s life cycle

You’ll need: Toad eggs, pail with lid, pond water, terrarium, fine screening, food for tadpoles and adult toads, hand lens, small viewing bottle

Background: Raising toads allows you to see one of nature’s most amazing magic tricks: the complete metamorphosis of an amphibian from egg to adult. Some key milestones to look at are: the tiny gills of young tadpoles, the small bumps that appear on both sides of the tadpole near the base of the tail,  the appearance of the hind legs and then the front legs, the gradual disappearance of the tail, and the change in the shape of the mouth as it gradually widens.

Note: It is much more difficult to raise frogs to the adult stage. However, if you cannot find toad eggs, use frog eggs instead, but return the tadpoles to their pond of origin when the legs appear. Frog eggs look like a floating jelly-covered mass.

American Toad singing (Wikipedia)

American Toad singing (Wikipedia)

Procedure: In spring, when the toads are calling, look for long strings of jelly-covered toad eggs in the vegetation of small ponds and flooded ditches. Reach into the water and take or break off a string of a dozen or so eggs. If you have too many tadpoles, the larger ones will eat the smaller ones. Put the eggs in a pail with about 15 centimetres of pond water. At home or in the classroom, place the pail in a bright area but not in direct sunlight. Keep a hand lens and a small plastic viewing bottle beside the pail to look at the eggs and tadpoles as they develop. The eggs should hatch in 3 -12 days. Notice the external gills on the tadpoles. They will become internal after a few days. Tadpoles eat tiny algae in pond water, so change half the water twice a week, using water from the same pond (never use tap water). Bits of boiled lettuce or hard-boiled egg can also be fed to the tadpoles. Remove any old food before adding more. When the tadpoles start to develop legs (hind legs first), add some pieces of bark so they can climb out of the water. After about two months when their tails disappear, you will need to move the tiny toads to a terrarium. Make sure there are pieces of loose bark, twigs and stones for the toads to hide under. Having plants in the terrarium is not necessary. Place a shallow bowl of pond water flush with the soil at one end of the aquarium. Add a few small stones to the bowl. Continue to put in fresh pond water twice a week. Place 4-5 toads in the terrarium and return the rest to the pond. Tape a screen to the top of the terrarium to keep the toads from escaping. Try feeding your toads the smallest insects available at the pet store such as tiny crickets and mealworms. You can also try giving them the smallest earthworms you can find. After a week or so – sooner if they won’t eat – return the toads to the edge of the pond where they came from.

Be sure to take lots of pictures (e.g., the pond, the eggs in the water, eggs at home, newborn tadpoles, etc.) of each stage of the show. Make notes and sketches, too, in your nature journal and don’t forget to make regular use of your hand lens.




Sep 112014

“From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes’ sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather,
And autumn’s best of cheer”
– Helen Hunt Jackson

This week, I would like to propose some activities for people of all ages to more fully enjoy the wonderful month of September. They are part of an up-coming book on seasons-based nature activities that I am writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha.

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash  (Drew Monkman)

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash (Drew Monkman)

A September walk
We’ve known for a long time how beneficial walking is to our physical health. Now, we are becoming increasingly aware of huge benefits to our mental health, as well. Daily walking enhances concentration, creativity, mood and general psychological well-being. Here are some ideas to add a dose of nature to your daily walk.
1. Watch how a specific tree changes colour over the course of this month and next.
2. Collect leaves of different shapes and colours and try to identify them when you get home.
3. Take note of the health of the trees. Do you see dead crowns, diseased leaves, “tar spot” fungus on maple leaves, fall webworm “nests” on the branches, etc.?
4. Pay attention to the amount of fruit – seeds, berries, acorns, keys, and the like – on trees and shrubs. It varies considerably from one year to the next.
5. Listen to the steady background of the insect chorus. How many different voices can you hear?
6. Take note of the absence of bird song. Listen, however, for the calls of Blue Jays and crows.
7. Pay attention to smells such as sun-heated vegetation and fallen pine needles.
8. Keep an eye out for squirrels digging holes in the lawn to store food items.
9. Watch for flocks of birds. By September, even robins are usually in flocks.
10. On hot, muggy days, watch for swarms of mating ants milling about on the sidewalk and flying overhead.

A typical orb spider web  (Chen-Pan Liao)

A typical orb spider web (Chen-Pan Liao)

“Pish” in birds
If you’d like to see birds close up, try this activity. When you hear chickadees calling, stop and make loud “pishing” noises for a minute or two. Pishing consists of making the sound “shhhh” but adding a “p” in front. You will be amazed as chickadees and nuthatches often approach to within one or two metres of you. Don’t stop then, however, because migrating vireos and warblers are probably also present but are usually just a little slower to approach. Although some of the warblers are sporting their dull fall plumage, others look surprisingly like they did in the spring and are therefore easy to identify. Look for distinctive markings such as eye rings, splashes of colour and stripes. Don’t expect to identify everything. You can see and hear pishing in action by going to YouTube and searching “pshing!”

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

It’s feeder time
If you want a close-up look at some of the migrant sparrows passing through in early fall, September is the time to set up your feeders. Be sure to also scatter some niger seed or finch mix in small piles on the grass under your feeder and around the edge of shrubs and conifers. These will attract Dark-eyed Juncos, along with both White-throated and White-crowned sparrows. You can also scatter sunflower seeds about if you don’t mind losing some to the squirrels! Many of the sparrows will be juveniles making their first migration south. Use your field guide to learn the differences between adult and juvenile birds.

Salamander sleuthing
Hunting for salamanders is great fun. They are most commonly found in low-lying wooded areas or around country homes and cottages. Look under fallen logs, old boards, and flat rocks and even in old piles of firewood. Carefully lift up the rock or piece of wood and peak underneath. The most common species are the Spotted, Blue-spotted and Red-backed. If you find a salamander, observe the counter shading (darker on top and lighter underneath). Notice, too, how stream-lined they are – slim and flat – for fitting into tight nooks and crannies. Red-backed salamanders can resemble earthworms, so be sure to look carefully. After you’ve examined them and maybe taken a picture or two, carefully put the rock, board or log back just the way you found it. Please be careful not to crush the animal.

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Close-up with insects
Take time this month to see how many different insects and other invertebrates you can find in a patch of goldenrod. Don’t worry if you can’t identify them all; just focus on the diversity. Pay special attention to the bees. You should be able to see the large, yellow pollen baskets on their hind legs. Watch, too, for insects that haven’t moved for a long time, because they may still be in the clutches of a well-camouflaged predator like an ambush bug or a crab spider. To be comfortable, you might also want to bring a lawn chair. Don’t forget your camera, either, because you should be able to get some great pictures, especially by taking advantage of the macro settings. If you are worried about allergies, remember that ragweed pollen is the allergen to be concerned about. Goldenrod pollen is not spread through the air, being far too heavy. Rather, it is spread by insects. Don’t worry about getting stung, either. You can get right into an insect’s face with your camera with almost no danger of being bitten. BugGuide.net is an excellent on-line resource. You can even post pictures for identification purposes.

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod - Drew  Monkman

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod – Drew Monkman

Catch a spider web
Locate an easy-to-access web. Apply a spray adhesive to a piece of black construction paper or cardstock. With the black paper behind the web, slowly bring the paper towards you until it touches the web. Then, with the web on the paper, carefully cut the guy-lines holding the web in place. On the back of the paper, you can make a note of the date, location, type of web and the species of spider that made it.

A rainbow hike
This activity will help you to see and appreciate the multitude of leaf colours produced by different trees, shrubs and other plants in autumn. Try to obtain some paint chip samples (e.g., yellows, reds, oranges, greens, browns, rusts, etc.) from a hardware store. Provide each member of the group with an assortment of different coloured chips. As you are walking, try to find a leaf that matches as many of the chips as possible. You may wish to collect the leaf, photograph it or simply show it to the other members of the group.

Measure your shadow
On a sunny day close to the fall equinox, go outside at noon with a measuring tape or metre stick. Stand up straight on a flat surface (e.g., lawn, asphalt) with your back to the sun. Have a friend measure the length of your shadow. Record the length in your nature journal. Don’t forget to do it again at the winter solstice, spring equinox and summer solstice. You’ll be amazed at how much your shadow length changes!

Organize an “Equinox Experience.” Since night (black) and day (white) are of equal duration, black and white can be the theme of a party. Just use your imagination. You might, for example, want to serve sandwiches with one slice of pumpernickel and one slice of white bread, make a cake that is half-chocolate and half-vanilla, dress half in white and half in black and maybe even decorate with black and white balloons. For a table centrepiece, use dark objects (e.g., bark) and bright objects (e.g., goldenrod blossoms) along with black and white candles. Have a countdown in the last minute leading up to the Equinox. This year, it is at 10:29 PM on September 22.


May 152014


“How sense-lucious the world is.”
– Diane Ackerman

In this second article on how to use our five senses to more fully experience the natural world, I am presenting some simple activities that can add an element of fun to any nature outing. These activities, which can be done alone, with your family or with a larger group, have been taken from an up-coming book I am co-writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, on seasons-based nature activities for kids.

Palette of colours similar to paint chips

Palette of colours similar to paint chips

As Diane Ackerman wrote in her national bestseller, “A Natural History of the Senses”, our eyes are the great monopolists of our senses. In other words, it is primarily through our eyes that we experience the world. Here are three fun activities to boost our ability to really see the natural world around us.
• Rainbow Colors: Go to a paint store and ask for paint chips (small cardboard pieces each with a different shade of colour) to take along on your next outing. Try to find natural objects along the trail that match the colour of the paint chips exactly. Once you start looking closely, you will be amazed at how many colours there are in nature. To make the game even more challenging, look for different shades of each colour – especially green.
• Look-Alikes – Look for objects or patterns in nature that remind you of something else (e.g., a pattern in the bark looks like a human face). Study the palm of one of your hands. Reach up under a tree and try to find a branching pattern that exactly matches the wrinkle pattern in your lower palm. How many examples can you find?
• The Human Camera: This is an activity for a group of children. You will need coloured pencils as well as pieces of stock paper or cardboard of about 4″ X 6″. Working in pairs, partner A (the human camera) closes his or her eyes. Partner B (the photographer) leads partner A to an interesting, close-up scene such as wildflower or a mushroom and positions the “camera” to get the best view. Partner B then pulls gently on partner A’s ear lobes to “open the shutter”, namely his or her eyes. Partner A stares at the scene for 30 seconds or so, remaining perfectly still. Partner B then says to Partner A “take a picture in your mind of what you see and then close your eyes once again.” Partner B carefully leads partner A back to a central location. Without the photographers watching and using the crayons and paper provided, the human cameras must now draw the scene they just took with their eyes and their mind. Now, put all of the “photos” on display. Can the photographers identify their scene? Switch roles and try the activity again.

Cupping your ears to enhance hearing

Cupping your ears to enhance hearing

From the buzzing of bees to the trilling of toads, every natural area is characterized by a unique soundscape. Recognizing the common bird, frog and insect songs not only provides a great deal of satisfaction, but it also avoids the hard work of having to actually see the animals each time to identify them. Like acquiring a new language, however, learning to listen to our nonhuman neighbours takes some effort and a little patience.
• Sound Maps – Find a comfortable place to sit for a few minutes, preferably out of talking range of another person. Place an “X” in the middle of a sheet of paper to represent your location. Each time you hear a sound, mark it on the sheet, showing its approximate location. Name the sound if you can or simply draw a picture or write down a few words to describe it (e.g., a little horn if the bird had a horn-like call). Afterwards, discuss what you heard with the rest of the group (e.g., natural sounds, human-made sounds, something you had never heard before, etc.)
• Focused Hearing: Squeeze your fingers together, take your two hands and cup them behind your ears. At the same time, gently, push your ears forward. This simple procedure can increase your hearing by up to 10 times. In a way, your ears have become “deer ears” – large parabolic dishes that capture sound waves.
• Contrast Walk – Block out all sounds by plugging your ears with your fingers as you walk about 50 metres. Stop, and without saying a word, heighten your sense of hearing by slipping on your deer ears. With ears cupped, turn towards different sounds you hear as you walk another 50 metres or so without talking. Discuss the contrast.

From the smell of the damp earth and abundant blossoms in spring to the spicy fragrance of fallen leaves in autumn, each season has its signature scents. When you are out for a walk or hike, get into the habit of smelling flowers, buds, green leaves and needles, conifer sap, etc. By gently rubbing plant parts, more of the chemicals they contain are released, which greatly increases the smell. In addition, take the time to think about how certain smells make you feel. The nerves that sense smell are directly connected to the emotional part of your brain, making smell a strong trigger for a flood of emotions.
• Lick, Rub and Sniff – Next time you go for a walk and want to smell something, try licking your upper lip. As with dogs and their cold, wet nose, wetness under the nose helps to distinguish more odours. Try a little “rub and sniff.” See if you can notice a difference between smelling with your upper lip dry and then again with it wet.
• Smell Cocktail: You will need some Dixie cups and small twigs. As you hike, encourage everyone to selectively harvest tiny “bits” of the forest and place them in the cup: a small pinch of leaf mould, a part of a rubbed leaf, etc. When you have a four or five items, stir them with your twig. This is your smell cocktail! Give each creation a name – perhaps “petaltopia” and let everyone smell each other’s concoction. Can you identify the smells?

Taking time to "smell the roses"

Taking time to “smell the roses”

When you are out on a walk, or just in the backyard, take a moment to think about what you are feeling – not just with your hands, but with your entire body. Feel the breeze, the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the shade. Run your fingers over the bark and leaves of different kinds of trees and notice how different they are. Compare, for example, the texture of oak leaves (thick and leathery) to those of maples (thin and more fragile).
• Barefoot Walk: Take off your shoes and socks and, wearing a blindfold, have a friend guide you as walk across a lawn with patches of sun and shade or through shallow water with a sandy bottom – anywhere that is safe and free of sharp objects. Change roles. Talk about how the temperature and the texture of the ground changed.
• Meet a Tree: This wonderful activity works best in an open area with lots of trees. You will need one blindfold for every two people. To demonstrate, blindfold a volunteer and say, “I’m going to introduce you to a special friend.” Gently and carefully guide the person in a circuitous route to a pre-selected tree – preferably one that isn’t too big. Have him or her feel the texture of the bark, the arrangement of low branches, the shape of the leaves, the girth of trunk, etc. The more tactile clues you offer, the better. Now guide the volunteer back to the starting point – but not the same way. Gently spin him or her around a few times and remove the blindfold. Say, “Can you find your tree?” Often this is easier said than done. Now, let everyone try it.
• Simple challenges: While walking through the woods, challenge group members to find objects in nature that really awaken our sense of touch. To get started, these could include the smoothest, roughest, softest, furriest, bumpiest, slimiest, spikiest, warmest and coldest!

Introduce kids – and maybe yourself, too – to the edible wild and the wonderful tastes to be experienced from the landscape. Some plants with edible leaves (generally the young leaves taste best) and flowers include Chicory, Dandelion, Fireweed, Wood Sorrel and all of the different violets. A delightful and familiar-tasting breath freshener can be had by chewing on a leaf or berry of Wintergreen. Simply spit it out when the taste starts to fade. WARNING! As always, be sure you absolutely know what you are tasting.
• Forest Tea: As you walk, harvest a handful of Eastern White Cedar and White Pine (long soft needles in bunches of 5). When you get home, toss these in boiling water and let steep for at least 10 minutes. The resulting tea will be bitter but refreshing, and your tongue will dance with the evocative taste of the forest!


May 082014

Do you ever wonder why some people come back from a hike with colourful stories of close encounters with interesting plants and animals yet when you return, all you’ve seen are mosquitoes, trees and a couple of annoying crows? Why do some people observe so much? Granted, seeing nature is partly knowing where and when to look and knowing what to be looking for. However, it is also all very much about venturing forth with a healthy dose of curiosity, activating all of your senses and having your patience primed.

Hints for Paying Attention
Seeing birds, mammals, insects and even plants depends to a large degree on minimizing unrelated “noise” in your head and truly paying attention to your surroundings. In many ways, paying attention is not unlike the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.” Try to minimize the noise of extraneous thoughts and conversations and strive to be in the moment. Here are a few hints:
• Be patient. Paying attention requires looking and listening with complete concentration. As the Black-capped Chickadee suggests in his three-noted, slurred springtime song, “be-pa-tient”. This might mean standing motionless until the sparrow you thought you saw in a brushpile finally shows itself again or sitting quietly in your car at dawn scanning a meadow and fenceline, until the coyotes you’d been hoping to see finally make an appearance.
• Shhhh! To really pay attention, you need to be quiet. This doesn’t mean just talking in a low voice but rather keeping all unnecessary talking to a minimum, especially if your goal is to see birds or mammals. In addition, by minimizing noise, you’ll get that much closer to any animal you eventually do see. Be aware, too, of where and how you are walking. This means choosing where to place your feet so to avoid brittle branches or piles of noisy dry leaves. When you do see or hear something of interest, avoid the urge to yell out. It is just as easy to whisper, or better still, to slowly raise your arm and point at what you have seen or heard. By doing so, the bird or other animal will likely stay put for everyone to enjoy – including you.
• Avoid sudden movements. Sudden, jerky movements will scare animals away as quickly as loud noises. You therefore need to get in the habit of moving slowly, smoothly and deliberately, especially as you get closer to whatever you are stalking. Avoiding rapid movements can also be important when you bring your binoculars up to your eyes.

Our eyes are our most precious asset for enjoying nature.

Our eyes are our most precious asset for enjoying nature.

Engaging all of the senses
In today’s modern age, it is easy to be seduced by technology – whether it is a 3-D TV set, the surround-sound of a home theatre system or the amazing graphics of the latest computer game. However, we tend to forget that evolution, too, has endowed humans with remarkable sensory capabilities that can rival or surpass even the latest in technological innovation.
Take our eyes for example. As human beings, we have the sight capabilities of a predator. Stereoscopic vision helps us to see in three dimensions and to gauge depth and position. With the help of special “cones” in the back of our eyes, we can distinguish over 10 million different colours! Our ears are able to hear frequencies between sixteen and 20,000 cycles per second, which is sensitive enough to be able detect wind gently moving through grasses. We can also hear sounds from different locations simultaneously – one could say we even hear in three dimensions. And it doesn’t stop there. With every breath in and out, we also detect a myriad of scents. In fact, recent research by Dr. Andreas Keller at Rockefeller University in New York City has demonstrated that our sense of smell is sensitive enough to detect a trillion different odours! This wonderful sense is evocative enough to bring back distant childhood memories of everything from freshly baked pie to the smell of the spring air. Let’s not forget, too, that we are enveloped in amazingly sensitive skin. Special receptors in the skin called Meissner’s corpuscles can respond to pressures as gentle as the sweep of a cool breeze. Finally, some 10,000 taste buds in our mouth help us to detect the faintest of flavours, including bitterness in concentrations as small as one part per 2 million.
We therefore need to take the time to unplug technology and “plug in” to the natural world through the wonder of these highly-developed senses that we often take for granted. In a way – this is our green conduit – the most basic and arguably, the most powerful way to connect to nature. But, as we’ll see, to drink the world in through our senses takes practice.

More than anything, humans are visual animals. In other words, we have evolved to make use of sight more than our other senses. We therefore need to take full advantage of this amazing gift of evolution. Here are some activities that can help to maximize our use of sight.
• Use “splatter vision” – When we walk in a natural setting, most of us cast our eyes downward. This makes sense, for our inclination is to avoid stumbling. However, by focusing primarily on our feet, we are missing so much of what is going on all around us. Practice being an “all around watcher” and use what naturalists call “splatter vision”. This means not keeping our eyes in one place for too long. As you walk, remember to look up, glance to the sides, scan what’s happening off in the distance and occasionally take a look behind. By continuously sweeping your eyes in all directions, you are more likely to pick up animal movement in the landscape – perhaps a distant Fisher crossing the road or a hawk soaring overhead. When you arrive at a body of water, look for any dark objects (e.g., ducks, a beaver) swimming or floating on the surface. Also, make a special point of checking out telephone poles and wires, dead branches in the crowns of trees, fence posts, etc. – anywhere a bird might perch.
• Use binoculars – Our sense of sight can be greatly enhanced by learning to use binoculars properly. Many naturalists find 8 X 40 or 8 X 42 binoculars the best choice. They provide good magnification but also offer a wider field of vision. This makes it easier to actually locate a bird our insect with the binoculars and follow it as it moves around. Most serious birders purchase a roof prism design, because they are the lightest, most durable and most waterproof. Good nature-viewing binoculars should also have what’s known as “close focus”. This means that they will focus on objects only a metre or so away. Not only will you be able to study birds up close, but you will also be able to watch butterflies and dragonflies. Remember, too, to hold your binoculars with both hands. For added stability, brace yourself up against a tree trunk, car or building. When you do see a bird or other object you want to check out with the binoculars, begin by locking your eyes on the object. Then, slowly raise your binoculars to your eyes. If you have done this correctly, the bird, insect or mammal should be right in the middle of your field of vision. Don’t make the mistake of simply scanning randomly with your binoculars in the general vicinity of the bird in the hope of stumbling upon it.
• Use a hand lens: A good hand lens can open up an entire new world when used properly. Hold the lens as close to your eye as possible. Bring the object you are looking at towards the lens (or vice versa) until it is in focus. This usually means getting as close as a couple of centimetres away. For most nature study purposes such as examination of insects, plant parts and rocks, 10 X is an excellent magnification.

hand lens - Wikimedia

hand lens – Wikimedia

Next week, I’ll provide more suggestions and activities for getting the most from our five senses when exploring the natural world. This series of articles is part of an up-coming book I’m co-writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, on seasons-based nature activities for kids.