Field (Camp) Notes

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can't quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree.  Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a waypoint to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can’t quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree. Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a way point at which to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

For the past three summers I have been overjoyed to help teach two weeks of the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center summer field camps, which I would modestly, yet accurately, describe as the Best Camp Ever.

By The Numbers

Ten kids ages seven to nine, two teachers, two dogs, and one 12-passenger dually van, “Big Bertha”, ride out into the local wilds every day for a week, spending 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. hiking, wading, swimming, catching, identifying and enjoying nature to the fullest.

This year the record for most species (plant, animal, and even fossil) identified was 104.  104!  (The other camp “only” got 87.) Sure, there were thousands more that we could have looked up, but this wasn’t a BioBlitz, these identifications came from the things kids noticed that they wanted to look up.

Lessons Abound All Around

There is so much to be learned and taught in nature, but the teaching often requires only the direction of attention toward something that Mama Nature will perfectly illustrate and channel into the child’s brain through some fantastic magic by which we all gain a “sense” of things.  These are a few that I can put into words:

    1. Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you'll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you’ll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look!  No, really look. – Observation skills are paramount in nature.  Since humans are such visual creatures, we practice looking closely and noticing detail, whether it’s an edge, a texture, a color, the placement of a fin, the shape of a wing, the pattern of scales, or the number of legs.  When you look closely, the opportunity to be amazed grows by orders of magnitude.
    2. Are you listening? (And smelling, and feeling, and tasting?) – We use all five senses to observe nature, knowing not just by the look of things, but, for instance, black birch trees by the spicy wintergreen smell of a snapped twig, an Eastern Towhee by it’s “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee” song, or the presence of microscopic diatoms by the extreme slipperiness of the rocks in the creek.
      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      Sometimes we have to refrain from using some senses, such as learning not to touch poison ivy and never eating an unidentified mushroom or plant.
    3. Nature does not want to hurt you.  – Everything in nature is just trying to go about its life, preferably without getting eaten too soon to create the next generation.  We are the big, clumsy, scary ones that often cause a fight-or-flight reaction in animals.  Don’t want to get stung?  Don’t step on or poke the bee.  Be careful where you put your hands and feet; look first.  We are not afraid in nature, we are aware.  We can be curious and cautious at the same time.  For instance, we learned that bright colors (red, orange, yellow, and black among the insects) and patterns (the white and black of a skunk) in nature are often warning signs to predators:  “Try to eat me and you’ll be sorry!”
    4. This bracket  or "shelf" fungus could be Artist's Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).  I didn't look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      How beautiful is this?!  This gorgeous bracket or “shelf” fungus could be Artist’s Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). I didn’t look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      Superlatives are appropriate. – Nature is awesome.  Recognizing that fact, out loud, inspires greater learning about and deeper respect for nature.  One of the very few rules of the camp was “If you find something cool, show Ms. Dee!”  The kids would shout “Rule 4!” and I would come straight over to see whatever insect they’d caught or wildflower they found or the shocking size of the crayfish in the net.  Nomatter how many times I may have observed that species before, there’s always something new to notice, something cool/neat/awesome/interesting/intriguing/fantastic/amazing/incredible to make note of and discuss.
Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock above Craig Creek.  Catching the rain, finding nutrient from fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock high above Craig Creek. Catching the rain, finding nutrient from decaying fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

  1. Nature is everywhere. – Whatever we learn out in the “wilderness” areas also applies in our back yards, school yards, driveways, parking lots, towns, and farms.  Once the sense of nature gets inside you, it’s a lasting framework for understanding that never fails.

I could go on and on (and on and on) about the student-directed learning opportunities in nature, and chances are that throughout the life of this blog, I will.  For now, though, I’d rather take the time to direct you to some of the great places we went  – check out the links below:

Not-So-Dismal Falls

About an hour west of Blacksburg in the Jefferson National Forest in Giles County, the Falls of Dismal Creek make the perfect place to splash and picnic.

I was lucky enough to get to spend the afternoon there on Wednesday, with 10 kiddos participating in SEEDS Field Camp.

The Falls of Dismal trail is a scramble downhill; just a tenth of a mile brings you from the roadside parking to the creek.  There are plenty of semi-dry boulders to sit on and creek access is easy as long as you and your kiddos are careful of slippery spots.

The falls are about 15 feet high, made of many stepped ledges of bedrock.  The falls can be climbed even by the elementary school set (with an adult) if the water flow is low.  Several campers made it to the top with my camp co-teacher helping them along the way.

Reaching the top is far from the highlight of a visit, though, as there are fish, crawfish, and salamanders to be caught, mushrooms to be found, butterflies to be watched, and cold water bathtub-style swimming to be enjoyed.

(Just don’t overtire yourself.  What was a downhill scramble is a short-but-painful slog on the way back up.)

Here are some pictures from our recent Dismal Falls visit:

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful.  The "dismal" moniker comes from the settlers' pessimistic judgement of the area's rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

The Falls of Dismal are just beautiful. The “dismal” moniker comes from the settlers’ pessimistic judgement of the area’s rough, wild country, short growing season, and poor soils (shale bedrock).

This is the view downstream from the falls.  Dismal Creek runs clear and cold.  The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown.  The creek is not muddy or cloudy.  Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it!  (And even then, there's little silt to kick up.)

This is the view downstream from the falls. Dismal Creek runs clear and cold. The water appears brown because the underlying rocks are brown. The creek is not muddy or cloudy. Well, at least not unless you have 10 kids playing in it! (And even then, there’s little silt to kick up.)

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulis) that was captured with a small, rectangular neck of the variety usually used in fishtanks.

This small creek fish is a blacknose dace (Rhynicthus atratulus) that was captured with a small, rectangular net of the variety usually used in fish tanks.  It is swimming in our collection basin, a rectangular bucket of the variety usually seen containing dirty dishes.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net.  It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin.  The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary).  Still, freedom is better.

This is a dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) also captured with a small fish net. It is eager to crawl out of the observation basin. The basins we use for observation are always kept in shade and at the temperature of the stream to maintain the high dissolved oxygen levels in the water (so as not to stress out the stream creatures more than necessary). Still, freedom is better.

We weren't the only ones doing some fishing in the creek!  This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks.  About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as "big, not bad".  Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers.  They don't frighten me, but I'm not dumb enough to poke them, either.

We weren’t the only ones doing some fishing in the creek! This is a fishing spider (Dolomedes spp.) staking out a good crack between rocks. About as big as my hand, fishing spiders are sometimes described as “big, not bad”. Found near water, they prey on aquatic insects, tiny minnows (the kind seen in the observation bucket with the salamander) and other minuscule stream dwellers. They don’t frighten me, but I’m not dumb enough to poke them, either.

Looking Under Logs

I volunteer at the local nature center on Friday mornings, teaching preschoolers all about nature.  It is the highlight of my week, surrounded by the chaos of toddlers and tiny-legged runners, all ready to absorb and love whatever I enthusiastically share.

So, of course, in return for this love and mutual enthusiasm, I make them hold creepy crawlies.

Well, I don’t technically force them, but I do encourage and help (and cajole and convince) a lot.  In fact, I’ve gotten so many kiddos on board the “Creepy Crawlies are Cool” train that it’s become an expected part of our Friday mornings.  We play lots of different games in the nature center yard, but we never, ever forget to roll over a few of the logs and have a look underneath.

And here’s what we find:

Earthworms

A girl less than two years old holds an earthworm for the first time.  She was mesmerized!

A girl less than two years old holds an earthworm for the first time. She was mesmerized!

I love worms.  There, I said it.  Worms are amazing creatures not only for what they do – decompose organic matter such as dead leaves and turn it into rich soil – but also for their kid-friendly pick-up-ability.  (It’s my blog, I’ll make up whatever words I want.)  Worms do not bite or sting.  Worms do not even look like they could bite or sting.  They are not covered with scratchy scales or poky hairs; they are smooth and cool and wiggly.  And, when you put a worm in the hand of a little kid, it’s practically guaranteed that their eyes will grow wide and a joyous grin will spread across their chubby cheeks.  They’re doing it!  They’re holding a wild animal!  And it is awesome.

Wonderful worm facts:

  • There are hundreds of species of worms and they live in practically every environment on Earth.  The red worms we find in our backyard soil in North America are round, segmented worms, called annelids.
  • What’s that darker brown strip that runs through the middle of the worm?  It’s their gut!  You’re seeing through the body of the worm and all the way to those pieces of dead leaf that they’re turning into soil.  Yes, soil is made up of a lot of worm poo.  If you’re lucky; gardeners go dreamy eyed over high worm counts and will buy “castings” (that’s the science-y word for worm poo) to add to the soil because their plants will grow so much better.
  • Earthworms breathe through their skin.  This is why you often see earthworms on sidewalks and streets during heavy rain – the soil becomes saturated with water (soil is usually about 25% air) and the worms must tunnel up and out of the dirt to breathe.
  • Earthworms are hermaphrodites (I don’t usually share this fact with the preschoolers), when mating, two worms exchange sperm and both are fertilized.  Mating occurs on the surface of the ground, at night.  I think of it as “Earthworms After Dark” – cue the seductive lounge music.  Their “mommy and daddy parts” are located in the belt-like swelling around their body and eggs are produced there after mating.  The the eggs and sperm are later deposited into a vaguely lemon-shaped egg sac, from which tiny, fully-formed worms,

Ants

I have not yet captured a satisfactory picture of the ants we find under logs, so instead I'm sharing this photo I took of ants on a peony blossom.  Ask any gardener - if you want a peony bud to blossom, you'd better have ants attending it!

I have not yet captured a satisfactory picture of the ants we find under logs, so instead I’m sharing this photo I took of ants on a peony blossom. Ask any gardener – if you want a peony bud to blossom, you’d better have ants attending it!

Sometimes when we roll over a log we’ll find a colony of ants or termites busily moving around their underground nest.  Usually they are busy moving eggs.  Here in Virginia, we don’t have the invasive, biting fire ants that are common throughout much of the deep south, so we can feel fairly safe to squat down and observe the ants up close.  I would NOT have attempted that in our previous homes in Texas, Florida, or Louisiana!  A few amazing ant facts:

  • More than 10,000 different species of ants have been identified around the world.
  • Biologist Edward O. Wilson has made studying ants the majority of his life’s work, and his discoveries about ant society and behavior are mind blowing.  He’s also written an insightful novel centered around ants, Anthill, which I highly recommend for tweens and adults.
  • Ant colonies share some similarities with bee hives; both have just one queen who lays thousands of eggs and all of the workers are females, males have one job:  mating with the queen so she can keep laying those eggs.
  • Ants communicate with one another by means of chemical scent trails that can lead to a potential food source or alert the colony to danger.

Millipedes

This great close-up of a millipede on an adult hand was captured by Darkone and provided via Wikimedia Commons.  To hold a millipede, pick it up by gently pinching it between two fingers and place it on the open palm of the holder's hand.  The millipede may coil up, a natural defense mechanism, but will soon uncoil and walk all over the hand.  I like to have the preschoolers count seconds till the millipede opens.

This great close-up of a millipede on an adult hand was captured by Darkone and provided via Wikimedia Commons. To hold a millipede, pick it up by gently pinching it between two fingers and place it on the open palm of the holder’s hand. The millipede may coil up, a natural defense mechanism, but will soon uncoil and walk all over the hand. I like to have the preschoolers count seconds till the millipede opens.

The millipedes we find under logs in the yard are almost always much smaller than the millipedes featured in my previous post, A Moment for Millipedes.  They vary in size from about a half inch to one and a half inches, are about the width of a piece of acrylic yarn, and are so light that usually you can’t even feel them walking around on your hand.  Millipedes do not bite or sting, and are incredibly important to the ecosystem because they eat and break down dead vegetation such as fallen leaves and rotting logs. Some memorable millipede facts:

  • Though the Latin origin of the word millipede, milli for 1,000 and ped for feet would have us believe that all millipedes have that many legs, that’s a wild exaggeration.  Most millipedes have less than 100 legs (always two pairs per body segment, though) and the record-holder has just 750 legs.
  • Millipedes are long-lived among the arthropods.  They can survive up to seven years.  Sounds like a great pet – an aquarium with a lid, regular meals of rotting food, and you’ve got a friend for half of your childhood.
  • The fossil record leads us to believe that millipedes were the first animals to live on land.  A 428 million year old fossil of a millipede (Pneumodesmus newmanii) found in Scotland in 2004 is the oldest known animal to have body parts called spiracles (tubes that connect the inner body to the outside air) for breathing air.

Centipedes

This looks most like the centipedes we find under logs.  Not much bigger than the millipede, but with that orange/brown color and legs that stick out to the side.  This photo was taken by Thomas Quine and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

This looks most like the centipedes we find under logs. Not much bigger than the millipede, but with that orange/brown color and legs that stick out to the side. This photo was taken by Thomas Quine and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the difference between centipedes and millipedes?  There are many differences, but as a children’s nature teacher, the one I find most important is that centipedes can bite.  I have never been bitten, though I’ve had them crawl over my hand, but I still don’t advise picking them up.  The gentle pinch required to lift them may feel like an attack to a centipede (much like when King Kong picked up Fay Wray) and they may bite in defense.

Centipedes we find under logs also looked markedly different from the millipedes, so it’s easy to know which creatures to leave alone.  The centipedes have a decidedly orange tint to their exoskeleton, and their legs (one pair per body segment, if you’re counting) stick out from the sides of their bodies, whereas millipedes legs are neatly tucked beneath their bodies.

Centipedes are the hunters of the under-log world, and therefore move much faster than herbivorous millipedes.  (Carnivores need speed to attack.  A good comparison for centipede vs. millipede speed would be a wolf vs. a cow.)  Centipedes will eat small insects, snails, slugs, and worms.  A celebratory collection of centipede facts:

  • Just as millipedes don’t have 1,000 legs, centipedes don’t always have 100 legs,  though the number is usually between 30 and 360.
  • Centipedes can regrow legs that have been lost to birds or other predators with each new molt (shedding of the exoskeleton as they grow).
  • Over 3,000 species of centipede have been documented worldwide.

Slugs

In my greedy hand I hold not only a slug with partially-extended eye stalks, but also a light brown millipede crawling around the slug and a June beetle grub curled up next to it.  Yes, I am one lucky nature teacher!

In my greedy hand I hold not only a slug with partially-extended eye stalks, but also a light brown millipede crawling around the slug and a June beetle grub curled up next to it. Yes, I am one lucky nature teacher!

Ahh, the invasive leopard slug (Limax maximus).  Foe of the gardener and friend of the toddler who doesn’t mind slimy hands.  (The look on their parents’ faces when the tots joyfully hold up a palmfull of slug is excellent.)  We find lots and lots and lots of leopard slugs under logs.  These non-native creatures have done incredibly well here in the U.S., despite my mother’s valiant attempts at trapping them with old margarine tubs half full of my father’s Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I don’t grow veggies, so they don’t bother me much, and I have to admit to even liking them a bit after falling in love with the slug character Mub in the animated kids’ film Epic.  (Mub’s friendly insult to one of the human-like “leaf men”, calling him a “flat-face” was, in itself, epic.)  I encourage the kiddos to hold the slugs until they relax and extend their eyestalks.  Eyes at the end of long, antennae-like, telescoping appendages are just plain cool to kids of all ages.  Some super slug facts:

  • Slug eggs look like tiny tapioca pearls, and are frequently and easily found under logs or between the bark and core of a rotting log.
  • It’s plain to see that slugs and snails are related, but did you know that they’re also related to marine cuttlefish?  (Obviously the cuttlefish don’t react to salt the same way . . .)
  • Slugs are soil janitors, eating both live and dead plants as well as dead animals (omnivorous decomposers ain’t choosy) and digesting them into nutrient rich castings that enrich the soil.
  • The banana slugs that live in the Pacific Northwest of North America are the second largest slugs in the world, growing up to eight inches long!

Salamanders

Queen of the Salamanders holding three Eastern red-backed (Plethodon cinereus) salamanders in her hand.  She and her BFF, whose hands are just beneath hers, spent the morning catching the slippery fellows and sharing them with the younger kids.  They were very careful to put the salamanders back in the moist leaf litter before their skin dried out.

Queen of the Salamanders holding three Eastern red-backed (Plethodon cinereus) salamanders in her hand. She and her BFF, whose hands are just beneath hers, spent the morning catching the slippery fellows and sharing them with the younger kids. They were very careful to put the salamanders back in the moist leaf litter before their skin dried out.

In wet, cool weather, rolling logs and lifting the leaf layer on a forest floor may get you a glimpse of a salamander.  They are fast little creatures, and sunlight means danger in their world (a number of predators find them quite tasty, and to be seen is to be lunch), so it takes practice to snatch one up before it darts off and hides again.

I am, as I’ve said, very lucky when it comes to nature, though.  In this case, it’s because my daughter is a nature girl, too:  my daughter is Queen of the Salamanders.  She finds and catches them all over the place!  In one day at the Nature Center she caught a half-dozen!  I am one puffed-up, proud mama.

A selection of superlative salamander facts:

  • Salamanders are amphibians.  They breathe through their skin, and their skin must stay wet in order for them to breathe.  Though their cousins, the frogs, have lungs as adults, they also breathe through their skin when submerged in water.
  • Salamanders can regenerate limbs and tails that have been bitten off by predators within just a few weeks.  The hunter gets to eat the leg, but the salamander gets away.
  • Virginia is very special, salamander-wise, home to 49 different salamander species.  Many of these species are found in mountain woods, and the Virginia Appalachians are considered a salamander hotspot.  Check them out at the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website.

There are many, many more species to be discovered in and under rotting wood (this is why woodpeckers are always pecking holes in dead trees – there’s a buffet under the bark) but I think we’ll leave it here for now.  Today is National Get Outdoors Day, and that’s exactly what I’m going to go do!