Sunday, April 14, 2013

Selu outing- wild mice, a cat, trees and bats, oh my

                                 Dr. Karen Francl with a wild white footed mouse

    This past Saturday the wind was a bit cool, but it didn't dampen the spirits of the students and few brave naturalist souls who went to a property owned by Radford University for some early spring nature hunts. Dr. Francl, from the R. U. biology department, had set traps to catch some critters in the brambles and fields that are part of the Selu Conservancy property. This property is unique in that it has an old 1930's style farmhouse with no electricity (with battery powered radio, to boot), woods that may get a bit of harvesting, a wonderful, modern retreat house, and a gravel road that will take you to a parking area where you can walk a winding road to an overlook. It makes a grand outdoor classroom, and on that day that is just what we did.
    Dr. Francl and some students set out to set "up" these tiny little tiny traps, the kind that have food at one end. Once the little critter gets in it, the open end closes. It does have the food and breathing holes, so they should be okay. They set out hundreds of these little traps and mainly obtained for their work white footed mice, which I understand have a shorter tail than a deer mouse, and are the common wild mice of the area. The adult normally is a brownish color with a white bottom; young mice are gray, which you might see in your neighborhood if your cat decides to pounce on something (just recently my 8 year old cat showed she'd still pretty fast and laid a very small gray and white mouse by the front doorstep-- bad kitty).
     I was rather preoccupied with getting a picture and should have been brave enough to grab the "scruff" of the mouse (in back at the shoulder blades) as she maneuvered the little buggers from the rectangular tin trap to a lingerie bag with various holes so that they would be measured and weighed and not escape. But then she did the "scruff" action and took the lingerie bag off mouse and you could really see it. They have these big, shiny black eyes and white whiskers and I think were a little bit afraid. But one of her students I guess had a poor grip and the little bugger hit deep into her finger, bringing up a big circle of blood!
    While there we also learned that in our area is a lot of calcium carbonate in the form of dolomite and limestone. There's also sandstone on our "faulty" mountain ridges. In our valleys because of these stones you find sinkholes and near them--- salamanders! At Selu we  found a red backed salamander, with a red line going down its sleek black back, and another dark salamander, the slimy salamander, so-called because if it feels threatened it can give off a sticky substance that doesn't smell great either. Salamanders are secretive critters, but you can find them under rocks and very close to streams. They need to keep moist as most of them "breathe" through that moist skin. I didn't find any myself but a fellow naturalist pointed out the somewhat fat, striated leaf of what he called an "Adam and Eve" orchid. They produce a small flower in late summer. This was the first I'd hear of them.
    But the early spring and edible plants I did know about I showed a handful of people around the old farmhouse. We took note of the Pennsylvania bittercress, edible just like watercress and wintercress, as well as the few wild mustards, with their tiny yellow flowers on top. The seed is not much bigger than a period at the end of a sentence. They say if you have the faith of a little mustard seed then you can move mountains. I hope that is so. Blackberry/raspberry brambles were also in evidence -- did you know they are related to the rose family?
    They set up one bigger cage in hopes of catching a raccoon-- they got someone's pet ginger colored cat instead, and it didn't look too happy being in that big birdlike cage!
    Dr. Francl also had some students talk about our Virginia and national bats. The Indiana bats travel here, and our little brown bat might be endangered, depending on who says so. They had some expensive echo-location bat-tick meters, but I didn't get to try them out. I don't believe there were any bats nearby, but you can never tell!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Spring snow when you least expect it

     The other day was atypical: as I was going to my class in early April I found myself dealing with snow on the ground. And in the air and swirling around me and into my face! Was this April Fool's Day 3 days late? It sure seemed as though nature was playing a trick on us, giving us severe climate change over last year's record warm winter weather.
  I informed my class I felt this was an example of climate change and was glad it hadn't snowed on our little walk on campus a few days earlier. Then we really would have had to cancel, as we would have had to fight the elements in order to see any trees or wildlife around us.
  But this was very unusual. The weatherman had NOT predicted this patch of cold air in the New River Valley and so we were socked with snow, and more snow and even more! By that evening we had over 4 inches of snow, the most in one day! For Christmas we didn't get snow, and now we are deluged with it in April! Our daffodils that were planted in the fall have, thankfully, not totally come up yet. They say daffodils can survive 32 degree temperatures so I'm hopeful they will actually bloom. They are supposed to have white outer petals and the inner "bell" shape will be a strong red-orange color.
  So while I was in class teaching the students get a "text" that classes and the campus are closed as of 4:30! So they left! And it was still snowing very heavy. I printed out a few things students had emailed me, at my office, and then got to a car that already had over 2 inches around it. But there were lightly covered tracks,like in the above picture, and I stayed in the tracks in the parking lot and onto Main Street, and even going up the streets to the house.
 I think the students enjoyed the evening off. But there was class the next day and now most of the snow has melted away and gone. What freaky weather!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Exploring nature with students in early spring

                                           This is  barely opening "saucer" magnolia blooms

     It has been an overly, overly long winter. So I was glad to get out with my college students and show them a bit of nature on campus. I actually informed them they needed to send a final text and put away their cell phones (some toward the back probably still didn't listen, they are so addicted to those things, like they're actually attached to their sorry wrists). I wanted them to be "in the moment" and enjoy nature.
    Although it was sunny and a cold wind was blowing, the 3:30 class did better than the 5:00 class when it came to observing and enjoying nature. After 5 it was beginning to really get cold and I put on a jacket on (back over my hoodie). But I think they all enjoyed some of it, a big difference from being lectured to in class!
    We began at the "alumni garden," which has two peeling bark maples and an old bell a former college president donated. In one class they tried to ring this old black painted bell that stood in the center of where they usually have petunias, but there isn't much in early April. Student Jade couldn't find the "clanger" underneath so it didn't make much sound at all!
    Then we went over to the science hall, which has a murky fish pond in back. The earlier class spied two big tailed squirrels run up a tree hanging over the pond, which had a big squirrel's nest on top, and the later class actually saw a goldfish and koi fish move in the murky water till they escaped back under a mossy grate and disappeared. It was really neat walking out of there-- saw several cedar waxwings flock into a tree (I think it was a bare cherry tree). Their light brown backs and black and red lines by the eyes really stood out among all the grayness.
    In front of the alumni garden I pointed out that the only "saucer magnolia" I knew of on campus was just beginning to bud--- actually it was all budded and nearly opened and blooming, even less so than the picture above. I said in 5-6 days it would be the absolutely prettiest tree on campus with its wine red and white striped flowers, shaped like an oblong tulip, somewhat. And the cherry trees were a long ways from blooming.
    I knew they were most surprised by our having a bald cypress and redwoods on campus. The cypress is supposed to be a "swamp" plant and the redwoods are supposed to be on the California coast. These "dawn" redwoods are Asian and won't grow to 300 feet like the American cousins you could drive a car through in California. And the cypress shows some trees are individuals and can adapt to odd situations. We also tried our hand at looking at handbooks.
    On their walk I showed them three places where they could be by themselves and sit, relax, maybe even meditate. Early spring is a good time to see what is out in the woods or in your park. So go out and enjoy nature!