April showers bring more than May flowers, and birds aren’t the only creatures producing fantastic choruses in the springtime. While birders will set their alarms for 5:00am in order to catch the rainbow of spring migrants arriving in Vermont, herpetologists – that is, aficionados of amphibians and reptiles – will spend the wee hours of the night up to their knees in muck and water to glimpse the bizarre courtships of frogs and salamanders.
Beating wings fill my view. The snow geese are stark white, and the black tips of their wings pulse in contrast with their bodies. Hundreds – no, thousands – of these meaty birds move in unison. They squawk and honk, thousands of calls melting into an urgent and persistent roar.
At least that’s what I envisioned.
I had never seen snow geese, but I set out confidently to find the birds. I wanted to feel the wind from a thousand birds taking off at once. I wanted to feel their thunderous calls in my chest. Continue reading
There are many ways to rate a day. Perhaps you determine a day’s merit by how many to-do items you’ve crossed off, how many hours you spent outside, how many friends you ran into around town. My personal favorite rating system is the tangle test. By this measure, the best days leave me with bits of the field tangled in my braid as I untwist it in the evening.
Take February 20th, so good I couldn’t even wait until evening to untangle the mess and try to force my hair back into some semblance of order. As our van pulled away from the LaPlatte River Natural Area in Shelburne, my fingers battled a bird-worthy nest of twigs. Apparently that’s what happens when I, in true naturalist form, try to be a bobcat. Continue reading
Staying warm in the winter is hard. Chickadees eat constantly in order to survive long, cold winter nights. Squirrels spend precious time and energy creating complex insulated nests. Deer browse on nutrient-poor twigs to get as many calories out of their surroundings as possible. Yet compared to fish and other aquatic organisms, terrestrial wildlife breathe easy – literally. As fish battle the cold through the long winter, they are steadily running out of oxygen.
During this arctic grip on Burlington, when almost anything outside seems to groan or crunch or crack, when the cold itself seems evil, a drama begins each morning in frigid waters off Perkin’s Pier. In Lake Champlain, Common Goldeneyes are getting hot.
These perky ducks bob and dive, lunge and flutter, cavort and compete. Nearly four months before our woods will glow with a rainbow of migrating songbirds, Common Goldeneyes are already courting – proof that icy water doesn’t necessarily put a chill on carnal desire. Continue reading
I stopped running because I was surrounded by hundreds of crows. It was dusk on the bike path along Lake Champlain. Great masses of crows were flying in from the east to roost on the cottonwood trees along the shore. They fed on sumac fruits along the train track; they mobbed the tree-tops and hop-flew from one twig to the next; they perched all over the bare branches of the trees. In the light of the setting sun, their black feathers shone glossy and strong. More kept arriving almost continuously from the east, flying in over the barge canal. As they flew in they gave these weird, multiple-part calls, not at all like the usual “caw-cAW-CAW!” What were they saying and why were they gathering here? Continue reading
by Danielle Owczarski
I am standing on a deserted public beach in Burlington, VT, situated west of the bike path and the Burlington Electric Department. My husband and I, dog in tow and cameras in hand, are in pursuit of stories told by the natural world; those neglected by people behind weatherproofed door jams. During the winter months, protected by the shelter of my apartment, I cannot tune out the arctic breeze whooshing against my door. I imagine the biting wind flowing through my veins, breathing life into my limbs, pushing me to be a part of the world beyond my warm, snug box. Once outside, the indoor fog in my mind lifts and my periphery expands initiating a new awareness. I enter the natural world to feel alive. Continue reading
by Audrey Clark
My stepbrother lounged in front of the television watching a reality TV show about mining in Alaska. I sat on the couch, facing away from the television, drinking tea and reading a book on visionary scientists.
After a while, I started to wonder what my stepbrother wondered about.
“What questions do you have about nature?”
Then, in an outpouring I wouldn’t expect from a non-naturalist, let alone one who was watching TV:
“Can plants feel pain? How does a woodpecker not get a concussion? How do you tell how old a tree is without cutting it down? How long does it take ants to build an ant hill? Where does honey come from? Like what part of the bee? What’s the best way to survive a bear attack? Can animals get sick from drinking bad water like we can? Why do monkeys have better immune systems?”
In honor of my stepbrother, here are my best attempts at answering these questions: Continue reading
I came in to my cubicle at school last week to find a maggot squinching across my desk. After a moment of shock and disgust, I thought, “Ooh! What a nice present!”
You know you’re a naturalist when finding a maggot among your things makes you happy.
I’ve been collecting insects, so I naturally thought that one of my classmates left the plump grub for me to add to my collection. Surely it hadn’t come from the pile of soil samples I had on my desk, nor the cache of snacks I had in the cabinet. But yes, it had. I had collected a handful of red oak acorns and left them in an open plastic bag on my desk. Later, when I was working at my computer, I looked over and saw a pale yellow grub with a red face squinching around inside the slippery plastic among the acorns. I examined the nuts and discovered a hole in one of them, about 3 millimeters across.
That was when I got really excited. All I had to do was feed the little creatures and keep them happy, and I’d eventually find out what species they were. So I dug around in the faculty kitchen for a plastic takeout container, poked some holes in the lid with a pen, dumped my soil samples into it, and dropped the acorns and grubs on top. The grubs promptly burrowed out of sight. I labeled the whole thing with a permanent marker, “Happy Maggot Land, Please do not disturb.”
Then I started to worry about my maggots. What if the soil wasn’t enough to make them happy? Did they need something to eat?
I visited Jeff Hughes, the director of the Field Naturalist Program, who recommended I look in Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, a recent book by Charley Eiseman, an alumnus of our program, and Noah Charney. I thumbed through and found the name of my maggots: long-snouted acorn weevils.
The female of this beetle species saws a hole in the shell of a red or white oak acorn and lays her eggs inside. The eggs hatch in a few days and the larvae eat the acorn meat. Beetles undergo metamorphosis like butterflies do; caterpillars are butterfly larvae, maggots are beetle or fly larvae. They molt five times inside the acorn and then leave their nutty shelter and burrow into the soil to pupate. Pupation in beetles is analogous to the caterpillar cocoon: a usually immobile stage of metamorphosis just before emergence as an adult. In the spring, adults emerge from the soil and fly off to mate before beginning the cycle again.
I have named my maggot friends Weevil Kneevil, Do No Weevil, and Axis of Weevil, but I have no intention of keeping them. I plan on releasing them back into the forest to continue to parasitize on oaks. It’s not because I don’t like oaks, but because I like ecology. These weevils create food for other species: one genus of ant lives inside acorns abandoned by weevils and eats the leftover meat. Squirrels eat acorns sometimes just for the grubs inside—that’s one reason why you might find partially eaten acorns.
Having maggots as pets helps me see more when I go outside. I see potential Happy Maggot Lands everywhere—inside plant stems and fruit, in dying tree trunks, and in the soil under my feet. A new way of knowing the world around me has opened up.