Nature Notes: Citizen Science – Get Involved in Nature!

Spring has sprung and we’re all antsy to get outside and enjoy the nice weather. But what to do?  Find a bird nest? Observe the bees busily visiting flowers in your garden? Listen to the frogs? Watch your favorite pair of loons out on the lake? Did you know that you can do all these things while providing valuable information to scientists around the world?

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The last of the ice left our lake at the end of March.

 

Citizen Science Programs use ordinary people – like you and me – who volunteer their time to make observations and share their experiences and/or data.  Programs collect this data, which provides way more data than any one scientist or a team of scientists could hope of collecting. This huge data collection can then be used by a variety of scientists, studying a variety of topics, in a variety of locations all over the world!

Let’s back up for a minute.

Phenology is the science of the seasons. It is the study of the biological timing of events in nature as they relate to climate and/or weather. It is something that you probably study quite frequently, and you don’t even realize it! Ever catch yourself thinking “I see open water, I wonder when the ducks will be back” or “Fall is in the air, I bet our maple tree will start to change color soon” or “Brrrr! It’s cold! I bet the pond will freeze over this week.” All of those observations are based in phenology. Continue reading

Nature Notes: Singing Sandhills

Last weekend I took a road trip to south-central Nebraska to try to catch a glimpse of the migrating Sandhill cranes, a task I thought would be much more challenging than it proved to be.  Once you’re there, they’re extremely hard to miss! I’ve always been fascinated by migration events, and I could have died happy last year after taking a once in a lifetime trip to Africa and witnessing the wonders of the Wildebeest Migration. But I have good news! You don’t have to travel that far to see a spectacular migration event! The Sandhill crane migration was far more remarkable than I could have ever imagined. It’s often referred to as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent. The sheer number of birds and the noise they produced were both astonishing. I had no idea we had anything like this left in our country. It was beautiful. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

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A New Year in Nature

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Happy New Year! Did you make your New Year’s resolution yet? We often use this holiday as an opportunity to recommit to living a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, overzealous plans for dieting and gym memberships quickly turn into abandoned resolutions. Want a resolution you can commit to? Plan to spend more time in nature! There is an ever-increasing amount of research that provides evidence of the myriad of mental, physical, and emotional health benefits of spending time in nature.

Time spent outdoors increases/enhances:

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Read a book by the lake!

  • Energy levels
  • Your mood & self-esteem
  • Creativity
  • Vitamin D levels
  • Physical activity/calories burned
  • Productivity
  • Mobility in aging populations
  • Overall feelings of positivity
  • Impulse control
  • Academic performance
  • Feelings of happiness
  • Immune system function
  • Memory function & ability to focus

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    Watch a sunset!

  • Natural circadian rhythms (responsible for regulating sleep)
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Workout intensity (exercising outdoors is more physically demanding on the body)
  • Social skills/relationships
  • Motor skill development
  • Enthusiasm/engagement for learning

Time spent outdoors decreases:

  • Stress, anxiety, & depression
  • Seasonal allergies

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    Relax in a hammock with a loved one!

  • Inflammation (the bad kind that contributes to autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, & cancer)
  • Risk of eye conditions such as myopia, computer vision syndrome, & dry eye syndrome
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, hip fractures, & pregnancy complications
  • Aching bones in aging populations
  • ADD/ADHD symptoms
  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Blood pressure & heart rate
  • Fatigue & sleep disturbances/insomnia

The best benefit? Getting outdoors and into nature is often free or very low in cost. We are very fortunate to call Minnesota our home. Our state has a high percentage of publicly owned land, providing a multitude of outlets into nature! The Minnesota DNR manages over 5.5 million acres in 67 state parks, 9 recreation areas, and numerous state forests, wildlife management areas, scenic and natural areas, and more. As Minnesotans, we have access to over 1,234 miles of state trails! Federal lands in Minnesota provide more public land resources for us to explore, including Voyageur’s National Park, Superior National Forest (including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area), the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), the national North Country Trail, national monuments and more.  In addition, Minneapolis, followed by Saint Paul, has consistently been ranked the number one city in America for ease of access to outdoor/green space!

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Boundary Waters Canoe Area at Sunset

Committing to the outdoors is something that will look different for everyone. You can start whenever you want (though considering spring is months away, winter would be preferable), however you want, at whatever level is the best fit for you! If the outdoors is new to you – perhaps simply taking a 15-minute hike in nature is the place to start. Once that feels comfortable, build up from there – a 30-minute walk, a 30-minute walk twice a week, etc. If nature is a familiar setting for you, challenge yourself to something new! Have you tried fat-tire biking? What about going on a snowshoe snow-fari? The opportunities for exploration are endless!

Here are some resources that may be helpful!

I know the cold temperatures and short days of winter can be a daunting factor to overcome. Don’t let these small obstacles thwart your New Year’s resolution! As the saying goes, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing”. So bundle up and get outside! In the winter, I leave for work before the first light and head home from the office at sunset. As a result, I’ve learned to love walking on cold winter nights with my furry companion.

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A walk at night is a fun challenge for your furry friends to utilize their naturally keen sense of smell and impeccable hearing.

A walk in the neighborhood woods in winter can be just as thrilling as other excursions. The cold, fresh air rejuvenates your lungs and awakens your senses; your eyes adjust to the darkness and you find you can see quite well with the moon’s reflection off the snow; your ears strain to hear far-off sounds drowned out in busier months – the hooting of an owl, the distant bark of a dog, or the cracking of trees as they freeze. Our current snow conditions add the thrilling adventure of tracking to your night hike! Click on the photos below to find out what made the tracks. 🙂

So don’t miss the opportunity to begin the year the right way… outside! Bundle up and go! We’ll see you out there!

Nature Notes: Caching Chickadees

As winter approaches, we are seeing many changes in our bird populations. Some birds, like robins, have formed large flocks and are slowly moving south. Others, like our juncos, have just recently arrived but are only passing through on their journey from northern Canada to southern Minnesota and beyond. Others who will remain here all winter are busily visiting our feeders.

Birds essentially have two options when it comes to winter: they can migrate or they can stay. If they stay, they need a way to stay warm and a way to gSparkyStensaasSnowyOwl.jpget enough food to make it through the harsh winter. Again, they essentially have two options: they can wander widely to find food or they can cache food during times of high food abundance. Owls are a good example of a bird species that stay but wander widely to find food. They have large territories they move around in to search for food. Sometimes, when no food is available, owls will leave their territories and widen their search area. In the last two years, we have witnessed an irruption (a sudden increase) of snowy owls in northern Minnesota as a result of food scarcity in their more northern habitat. Continue reading

Nature Notes: Busy Beavers

Last week, we took a look at how squirrels are tirelessly preparing for winter by collecting and stashing food away for the harsh season. This week, we’re focusing on another MN native that caches food for winter – the beavers! They are the largest rodent in North America. While most adults weigh-in at about 45 pounds, beavers can weigh over 70 pounds! Historically, beaver fur has been important economically (trading), which led to beavers being introduced in other regions of the world.  A few years back I traveled to Teirra del Fuego, Chile at the southern tip of the Americas. Beavers were introduced to this region of Patagonia in the mid-20th century in hopes of increasing economic prosperity. However, beavers have no natural predators in Tierra del Fuego and have run rampant ever since, causing millions of dollars in damage to the ecosystem. There is now a widespread campaign to eradicate this nonnative species in this region of Chile. In Minnesota, beavers are not only a native species, but also a keystone species, meaning they play a very important role in their ecosystem as timber harvester, architect, and engineer! Here habitat modification by beavers creates aquatic habitats for many other animals, helps prevent flooding and erosion, and aids in filtering and cleaning water. (Note: Click on a photo to enlarge.)

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Nature Notes: Fall Feeding Frenzy

This month is known as Binaakwii-giizis, or “Leaves Changing Color Moon”, to the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe. The beautiful weather over the first couple days of October made for some breath-taking scenery of brilliant yellows against a bright blue sky and dark blue waters.  Soon the yellow of our aspens will be replaced by the golden shimmer of our tamaracks. Enjoy the view now, for by the end of the month, we’ll be greeting the barren landscape of winter.

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The animals that remain in our cold environment for winter are busy preparing for the season. Throughout the next month, we’ll focus on three animals that uniquely prepare for winter: squirrels, beavers, and winter birds.  We’ll kick off our fall feeding frenzy by taking a look at how squirrels are preparing for the season ahead. Continue reading

Nature Notes: Fall Foliage

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Fall has unofficially arrived and with it has come cool evenings, dewy mornings, jeans and sweatshirts, fall harvests, pumpkin spice everything, and yes, the first leaves to change color! This month is known as Waatebagaa-giizis to the Fond du Lac Ojibwe, a name that literally means “Leaves Changing Color Moon”. The brilliant colors of autumn are one of the most beloved phenomena of the season, but do you know why the trees change colors?

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Nature Notes: Feathers are Flying

During the last few days, I feel like I can notice fall slowly approaching. The decreasing day length and dropping temperatures are a signal to birds (and even some humans!)  to start preparing to head south. Despite the misconception that birds don’t like the cold, many birds can survive freezing temperatures, so it’s not necessarily the cold that drives them away. It’s our waning resources. It’s hard to find food – whether that be seeds, worms, mice or something else –  when everything is covered in snow. Migration can be defined as a movement from areas containing few resources to areas containing abundant resources. In the spring birds head north in a hurry, following the emergence of insects, prey, and plants that are important to their diet. The Northwoods provides an abundance of insects throughout the summer, which is a crucial source of protein for nestlings. Now, as fall slowly approaches with winter right behind it, many of these resources are beginning to disappear and our local birds have one foot out the door. But how can they fly hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles? How can they sustain themselves? Their flight? How do they even know where to go? While many aspects of migration still mystify scientists around the world, light has been shed on some of the secrets of migration.

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Photo Credit: Cartoonist Group

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Nature Notes: A Magical Micro-Realm

As you look for ways to get outside this month to enjoy the last days of summer, I challenge you to take a closer look at a world we typically take for granted and tend to ignore.  It’s easy to admire a nest of baby birds, a fawn following its mother, a snake slithering through our garden, or any other larger animals that easily catch our eye. But this month, take a closer look at the micro-realm of insects and spiders.

Insect and spider abundance is at a high this month, as we reach peak temperature and vegetation abundance. There is  an overwhelming diversity of species filling every habitat in Minnesota! Giant swarms of moths, caddisflies, and a myriad of other small insects are attracted to our porch lights, facing the danger of lurking spiders, frogs, and toads eager to catch meal.  Mosquitoes, deer flies, ants, and orb weavers fill our forests. Our meadows are alive with butterflies, grasshoppers, grass spiders, crickets, bees, leafhoppers, cicadas, crab spiders, and beetles. Our ponds, lakes, and wetlands are spotted with dragonflies, damselflies, horse flies, whirligigs, water striders, and fishing spiders.

Many of us think of these “creepy crawlies” as the worst part of summer. Sure, we might enjoy a beautiful butterfly fluttering by, but wasps, mosquitoes, gnats, ants, and flies? No, thank you.  During our time spent despising their annoyance, we are missing out on an opportunity to appreciate an incredible diversity of life, an unimaginable array of adaptations, and most importantly, a fundamental source of energy for much of the Northwoods wildlife we love!

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Nature Notes: Spring Ephemerals

May is a month of treasure hunts.. I like to explore the outdoors with a specific treasure in mind. How many butterflies can I find today? How many turtles and frogs can I count down at the pond? How many bird nests can I see in our yard? My favorite treasures to find are the ephemerals – the earliest of our spring wildflowers. So where do you look to find these blossoms? First you have to know a couple of things about our flowers.

Our native trees typically bear the first flowers that we see in the spring. This is because most of our native trees are wind pollinated, so their flowers must emerge before their leaves, otherwise the leaves would get in the way of the wind moving the pollen around. Tree flowers  don’t always look like your “typical” flowers, so take a peek because their flowering period is coming to a close!

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Quaking Aspen flowers – not  a “typical” flower. 5/4/16

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