When the girls and I visited the pond at the university nature preserve earlier this week, a man was wading in the water, picking up trash. A woman was helping him, pointing out things from the bridge. He was a teacher there, and he picked up some of the critters in the water and held them out for the girls to see and touch.

I passed on touching the snake, but he pointed out that it had been bitten by something — probably a snapping turtle. He also explained that it was a female, and though it wasn’t poisonous, its saliva had an anticoagulant in it.

We saw a second one later. It’s striped, so maybe  it was a male.

I’ve never seen even one water snake before. It was noteworthy to see two in one day. He also picked up some salamanders and a big green frog for us to “meet.” Despite all the excellent resources available to homeschoolers, it was a real treat to be in the presence of a bonified expert who took the time to share some of his expertise with us.

The only sad thing: he found a dead muskrat in the water, one that appeared to have been shot. It probably explains why we see only one when we come, instead of the two we saw back in January. Who would shoot a muskrat? in a nature preserve? Much of nature study feels like we’re putting together a puzzle that makes more and more sense, but sometimes human behavior makes no sense in natural terms.

At the vernal pool we saw plenty of the usual suspects — frogs, salamanders, turtles, and eggs. The eggs had advanced from looking like this on April 2:

…to looking like this on April 16:

In both cases they remind me of tiny, submerged planetary systems. But they’re so much more advanced now.

This is such a great part of our nature study this year — visiting the same old places, and discovering the ways they are not “same old” at all. They change with the weather, with the seasons, with the time of day, with the attitude of the observers and how much we’re willing to look. It’s an amazing world we live in.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker



Cornell has a second nest-cam up, this one of a great blue heron nest that’s viewable from their building. It’s incredible that such a large, gangly bird starts as such a tiny egg! I can’t believe what we’ve been able to observe.

We visited Sapsucker Woods a few years ago. I can see another field trip this spring will be a necessity. Between the hawks and the herons, they have too much going on in our fields of interest to resist.

First day of spring


We went for a walk at our favorite wetland preserve to see what we could see on this first day of spring — at least, according to the calendar. I guess it depends on your preferred source of authority. Punxsutawney Phil says spring won’t be here for awhile yet. But me, I tend to believe the robins.

In any case, the great blue herons were on their way back. We saw two of them.

The fishing was good, apparently.

One munching muskrat was enjoying a floating lunch.

There were tadpoles with their frog feet already formed, doing their best to hide from the herons.

And we saw some wood ducks, perfectly identical and paddling in formation.

What are you up to on this first day of spring? It’s unusual for us to have such balmy, sunny weather to get out and enjoy the awakening world.

Tufted titmouse

Weekend sights

The girls and I took a walk in the snow the other day. Now I have shots of this path, which my youngest calls the tree tunnel, in three of the four seasons.




Lovely spot.

I also saw more critters over the weekend — this muskrat, who couldn’t figure out what the beeping and clicking of my camera was:

This tree with not one, but two, puffy red-tails sitting in it:

These pics of two different hawks in the same general vicinity:

This is its mate, at a different time of day in the same tree. We’re trying to distinguish them by their coloration.

This is their son or daughter, I’m pretty sure. It was a ways down the road, but we see it in the same territory. Its tail isn’t red yet, and it’s not as wary as its parents.

And last but not least, a few cute feeder birds — a junco,

And chickadees at work on our pinecone feeder.

That last one isn’t the greatest quality picture, but I love it. It looks like the chickadee is making a snow angel in the air. Talk about poetry in motion!


Making the most of the sun

Today promises to be rainy around here, but yesterday was sunny. We capitalized on it by taking two walks, each to a different preserve.

The first was a marsh about 5 minutes from our house. It has a primeval feel, with moss-covered, fallen trees all around.

It was cold, and the frost sparkled on everything, from winterberries —

— to goldfinches (this one’s head has frost on it) —

— to water — beautiful, blue ice —

On the way there, we saw one of our usual hawks hunting.

And on the way home, we saw another. As we watched, one crow landed in its tree, followed by a second and a third. They began darting at it, and the hawk took flight.

We went home and made our journal pages. We finished the rest of our schooling and had some lunch. By mid-afternoon we had agreed that another sashay into the great outdoors was called for. So we headed for another preserve.

It was warmer, so there was no more frost. As we made our way toward the pond, we saw a number of woodpecker trees. There were more mosses — I love this variety growing together:

But the most interesting woodland sight was this tree, which Older Daughter identified as the work of a hungry porcupine.

The critter-spottings awaited us at the pond, though. We arrived and looked out over the water…

It was Younger Daughter, a.k.a. Eagle-Eye, who suddenly saw the muskrat right next to us.

Lest there be any doubt that Younger Daughter has eagle eyes, here is a photo of something else she spotted. It’s some kind of newt, but I doubt I’d ever have had the patience or focus to see it without her.

How about you? Would you have seen it?

The irony is that we saw no deer. This preserve has been in the news lately for its overpopulation of white-tails, which eat the plants and trees. There was a plan afoot by its supervisors to hire sharpshooters to come in and shoot 90 deer. It got bogged down in a lawsuit by someone whose property adjoins the preserve, which is why we were still able to walk there. But this is the first time ever that I’ve gone there without seeing any deer. Perhaps nature has taken its course (as it’s supposed to do in a “preserve,” wouldn’t you think?); if the deer really are eating everything, maybe they’ve polished off the flora here and moved on.

At any rate, despite wishing for a little snow, escaping the housebound feeling of January and soaking in a little sunshine felt wonderful. The gray drizzle of today is easier to stomach with yesterday’s jaunts to look back on and talk about.

Wetland walk

We went to the beaver pond to investigate the beaver-gnawed tree we’ve been observing and found it felled.

At several points they have already removed branches and carried them away, and they’ve begun on another tree to the far left in the photo.

They’ve also thickened the mud on the lodge.

It’s sight I’d love to see: a beaver carefully smoothing on the mud. Maybe someday.

On our way out I was delighted to see sprays of color. Can it be forsythia — in December?

Driving home we spotted a great blue heron flying from the pond to the river. It should have gone south by now, and I felt concerned for it.

We also saw a big redtail.

After a second birthday dinner for my daughter — this one for the grandparents — we finished the day reading a book which is, by my estimation, perfect: Charlie the Tramp. It’s about a young beaver who wants a different life:

Tramps don’t have to practice swimming and diving and holding their breath under water. Nobody looks to see if their teeth are sharp. Nobody looks to see if their fur is oiled. Tramps carry sticks with little bundles tied to them. They sleep in a field when the weather is nice, and when it rains they sleep in a barn. Tramps just tramp around and have a good time. And when they want something to eat, they do little jobs for anybody that wants little jobs done.

Charlie’s parents let him try out being a tramp. He takes some Fig Newtons and some Good’n’Plenties and heads off. Trying to sleep beside a stream, the “trickling, tickling” song of the running water keeps him awake at night, so the next night he builds a dam and makes a pond. When his father and grandfather come looking for him, they find the pond and try to decide who made it:

“That’s a pretty good pond,” said Grandfather. “I wonder who made it?”

“I don’t know,” said Father. “You think maybe Harry Beaver might have done it?”

“No,” said Grandfather. “Harry always makes a sloppy dam, and this one’s not sloppy at all.”

“What about old Zeb Beaver?” said Father. “Zeb always makes a good-looking dam.”

“No,” said Grandfather. “Zeb never makes a round pond like this one. Zeb always likes a long-shaped pond.”

“You’re right,” said Father. “He does.”

“You know,” said Mother to Father, “this pond looks like the ponds you make…”

It’s a delightful story, one that offers a lighthearted glimpse of instinct and stays in perfect tune and rhythm from beginning to end. Hearing my parents read it to my daughters brought back happy memories, and made me wonder if my curiosity and admiration for these enterprising rodents can be traced in part to Charlie Beaver and his family.

A bit about beavers

We’ve been observing the beaver activity at a nearby wetland lately. Their lodge is not too far out on the pond, surrounded by water.

In the summer we would see turtles sunning themselves on the logs, and occasionally a kingfisher perched on top. But these days it’s grayish brown and very quiet.

Of the beavers themselves, we’ve seen precious little. Mostly they look like a zipper, unzipping the surface of the water — far away.

The other night we saw this guy swim over to this log jutting out of the water, and hide. We watched him. He watched us. It was a stand-off. But how can you not love a beaver who plays hide-and-seek?

Mostly we’ve seen their signs lately as they chip away at the trees. This is something we didn’t see in the summer when there were plenty of green plants around for them to eat. We’ve been observing two trees in particular, this one being the most dramatic example of beaver persistence. The leaves all around it on the ground and in the water are red oak.

On November 7
On November 18
On November 29
On December 4
December 4 closer in

My husband thought he could probably push the tree over at this point, but he wanted to leave the satisfaction to the beavers.

I look at this tree and wonder: why this one? What made the beavers select it over all the others around? And why are they (literally) chipping away at it — merely for food? The thick ring of wood chips around the base of the tree suggests otherwise. There’s no way this tree could be hauled out to their lodge… is there? Time will tell. (There is a third option, of course. The beavers may be carving a mermaid masthead for their yacht. We shall see…)

Beavers are responsible for $20 million worth of damage every year, according to one book we read. They eat only living trees, and their restless altering of their environment can create problems. The librarian who checked out our haul of beaver books last week told us of another creek nearby with beavers, suggesting that they were the reason that neighborhood flooded so badly back in September.

Afterward I remembered a story my brother told me. He lives south of us, in Pennsylvania, and the day after the September floods he took his chainsaw out to clear roads wherever he could. He went to a section of road where he knew beavers had built dams, expecting it to be flooded. But the water was cascading neatly over all three dams, as though they had been expertly engineered for just such an occasion. The water was still within the banks, and the dams were still intact. One beaver was surveying the scene like an anxious artist; he slapped his tail and disappeared when he saw my brother. The story made me wonder about the role beaver dams may (or may not) play in floods.

When I was growing up and we would visit the Adirondacks in the summer, we often encountered beaver dams across the streams. They were fun to paddle over in a canoe. You would have to gain some momentum, driving the boat halfway over so that the person in front was suspended in mid-air for a moment before the nose of the canoe plunged, see-saw-like, into the stream below the dam. Sometimes beaver dams would raise the level of certain lakes so that the beaches disappeared, and people would find and tear out the dams.

To my knowledge there is no dam on the pond we visit locally. It’s not really part of a stream; it’s a wetland that was once part of the river, till the curve of the river shallowed out and straightened. At one time a brick-making factory was located at the pond, manufacturing bricks from the mud at the bottom. The bricks rebuilt the town when the entire business district — then constructed of wood  — was ravaged by fire in 1849. Now it’s a nature preserve where countless other forms of life make their habitations — including beavers.

I have to include this puzzling picture from July 12. The two-toned face and habitat suggest it’s a beaver, but the tail isn’t visible. It may be a woodchuck, but one definitely out of its element. I lean toward thinking it’s a beaver with only the fluff at the base of the tail showing.

And this is a blurred picture of a muskrat, also taken on July 12. Definitely more rat-like, and with a different posture than the beaver. The two-tone brown described in the Handbook of Nature Study is apparent, though the muskrat itself looks shaggier than I expected.

You’d think that with the ability to locate where the beavers have been working, we’d see some tracks. But it’s all dead leaves at the base of the above tree and the bank. Near other trees, there is more mud, and we’ve seen tracks, but not beaver tracks. Just raccoons, birds, and deer so far.

I’m not sure about these next two. My father tells me muskrat tracks include a tail-drag mark. The Handbook of Nature Study says that you can see webbing on beaver tracks and toenail marks on muskrat tracks. Mostly I see just toe marks, some long and skinny, some round. So, mystery tracks.

There is a muskrat lodge at another marsh we visit, and I had my daughter compare the two animals’ dwellings for a writing assignment. She did a good job.

Muskrat lodge

All of this is commonplace to trappers and other outdoor ramblers, but the girls and I are enjoying getting to know (and sometimes being bewildered by) these various water critters.

There are plenty of great nonfiction beaver books at the library, as well as Thornton Burgess’s book about Paddy the Beaver. He has one about Jerry Muskrat too, but though we’ve met Jerry as a character in other books we haven’t read it. I found and requested Charlie the Tramp from our library system, and I’m looking forward to revisiting this book from my childhood. It’s by Russell and Lillian Hoban of Frances-fame, and they also have a book about muskrat siblings called Harvey’s Hideout. The muskrats aren’t very well behaved, but I always liked the book as a child (I thought Harvey’s secret den was very cool) and may request that one too. (I wrote about it in this post.)

So there’s my bit about beavers, with assorted other observations thrown in. I’m submitting it to the Outdoor Hour Challenge for December at the Handbook of Nature Study. Click on the link for more great beaver resources.

Beavers and other matters

Last night, we visited the wetland we so enjoyed during the summer. The flood in September curtailed our visits for awhile; we went in maybe a week after the flood, and it was depressingly lacking in the wildlife we’d seen over the summer. We hoped to see more activity after two months of recovery time.

There is a beaver house in the pond. It’s highlighted in this photo — off to the right.

We saw several of the beavers at work in the water last night, gliding about. One slapped its tail in a warning sign, making a tremendous splash.

Obviously it was getting dark, and it was difficult to see much — except for the pretty sunset.

The girls and I decided to go back this morning and see what we could see. Among our sightings were a great blue heron, a duck (wood duck, I assume, though it was a ways away and moving fast), and a kingfisher.

I expect that the herons and kingfishers will be on their way south soon. To see only one heron seemed like proof that many have left already — we’re used to seeing quite a few at this spot.

Even more interesting was all the evidence of beaver activity.

There isn’t much to be found in the Handbook of Nature Study about beavers, but our animal encyclopedia informed us that beavers eat leaves, water plants, and the inner bark of trees. This might explain why we didn’t notice any of these telltale beaver signatures on the trees over the summer; back then, there were leaves and plants to eat.

We saw this varmint back in July at the pond, and I had a hard time telling whether it was a beaver or a woodchuck. I think it’s a woodchuck because of the tail, which looks fluffy. But I can’t be altogether sure. I’d never seen a woodchuck around water like this before.

Photo from July 12

It was reassuring to see some life at the pond. We also liked the feeling that with the change of seasons we were seeing a change in animal behavior (diet). We’re looking forward to seeing more changes as the year moves on.

Meantime, we made a positive change of our own by taking some big garbage bags into the pond and pulling garbage out of the brush — paint cans, pillows, plastic bags, beer cans, deflated kickballs, cartons of antifreeze, and other things that had gotten lodged there during the flood. There is still a kind of depression resting on the area; many people aren’t in their homes yet, and may not ever go back. But here was a small way we could be a part of restoring a place we love.

Read-Aloud Thursday: Herons

We’re into herons around here this week. We saw no less than 6 of them at a nearby pond we visited the other day, and it sparked enough interest to read every word of this book by Bill Ivy, one of a series the girls are in the habit of selecting from every week.

Because of the opportunities we’ve had to observe herons, we found this book to be interesting, though it’s pure nonfiction. It even gave me something to look forward to about the fall, which is approaching all too quickly: when the leaves come down, we can look for heron nests. With as many of them around as we saw the other day, I’m pretty sure we should be able to see at least a few nests.

Another heron story is in Thornton Burgess’s The Adventures of Grandfather Frog, in which Long Legs the Great Blue Heron almost catches Grandfather Frog for breakfast. There we learn all about his patience as a hunter and feel the thrill of the drama! Long Legs actually has his own full book (pictured here), but we haven’t gotten ahold of a copy.

We sat down together to draw some herons in action, using photos we’d taken on our recent field trip. Here are the fruits of our labors, based on the sight of a heron coming in for a landing.

Younger Daughter's drawing
Older Daughter's drawing, modeled after a slightly different photo
My drawing

I like that we drew together. It’s something I always mean to do but never get to.

For more read-aloud posts, visit Read Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word.