Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alien Creatures at the Audubon Center

As Heather noted in the previous post, the Audubon Center has been enjoying the company of local students including those from as close as Blue Creek Elementary all the way out to Laurel.Their field trip to the Center includes many new discoveries. Every class brings in new questions, new ideas and a new set of eyes.

It was a cold day with a crisp wind, but rosy cheeks were not going to keep us from spotting a few birds on Wednesday.
Winter is a great time to take a look at birds. The leaves on the trees have fallen making it easier to catch a glimpse of a nest or two along with the birds that reside in Montana all year long.

Yet, it was not a bird that we spotted! We had made it to Wendel's Bridge and were looking at the water. It was iced over and I did not expect to see much of anything when an excited shout caused me to look closer. One of the students had noticed something moving under the ice.

To my best judgement it is a giant water bug.A giant water bug is a true bug.

The insect we saw moving in the water was large. Bo, an intern with CampusCorps at MSU-B, and I believed it to be about the size of our palm! It was a camel-tan color and had a distinct X-marking on it. We stood there with the students looking over the rail down at the water for sometime. The insect seemed to be crawling from one bank to the other with relative ease under the thick ice.

I became more confident in believing this to be a giant water bug as I found out that the insect is most active in the fall, but will move to deeper, slow-moving freshwater in the winter and be able to survive the whole year. It can range in size from 1.5 inches (3.8cm) to 4 inches (10cm) in length.

Even more interesting is that these insects are attracted to light and so will also be found on land near light poles or other sources of electricity which gives them the name "electric light bug." These insects are quite good at flying and use the light from the stars and moon to porch lights, to direct them through the night which is when they most commonly fly.

Additionally, the giant water bug has a powerful bite; using "piercing, sucking mouth parts, and a short, pointed beak on the underside of the head" to inject toxic enzymes which not only poison, but begin to digest the prey. Although not dangerous, humans have also experienced this bite and have named it "toe-biter" as well. The giant water bug is an adept predator. It will lay motionless, looking much like a leaf, until prey arrives and will ambush it. Or using its strong rear legs will scuttle through the water with ease and quickly grasp at small fish, tadpoles, or even salamanders and deliver its bite.

It really seemed like an alien experience to see such a large insect during the winter, but without the fresh eyes of our students a discovery like this would not have been possible. Getting to go outside and explore your surroundings with a new friend can bring a discovery that you were not expecting. So, make some time to do some birding and you may find more than you anticipated!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Winter Field Trips

Students from Canyon Creek Elementary School recently spent a day at the Audubon Center learning about winter twig identification, animal adaptations to winter, and basic bird identification. Canyon Creek's 4th grade is part of our year-long Audubon Naturalists in the Schools program, which introduces students to phenology (the study of seasonal changes in nature) and how to explore the outdoors with the tools of a naturalist. During yesterday's visit, they learned how to use binoculars, bird field guides, and dichotomous keys.

In the photo on the right Mattie Clark, a Teacher Naturalist and Big Sky Watershed Corpsmember, is showing students how to tell whether a plant's branches grow opposite or alternate from each other. Students then use a dichotomous key to determine the twig's identification. The first step on the key asks students to determine whether the plant is coniferous or deciduous. In identifying winter plants, the coniferous ("cone-bearing") plants stand out because they are still green with their leaves (which are needles or scale-like leaves). Deciduous plants lose their leaves in the winter and appear naked in comparison.

After the students decide which major group the plant is from, they continue answering questions with two choices, working their way down the dichotomous key until they arrive at the correct answer. Here, the students are looking at a branch from Red Osier Dogwood. Later, during a birding hike, they identify the dogwood because of its bright red branches, which stand out against an otherwise brown background of dried grasses and woody twigs. They also learn to identify the Ponderosa Pine, whose needles grow in packets of three, and the Rocky Mtn Juniper, with its scale-like leaves and blue-green berries. As a demonstration site for vegetation that is found across central and eastern Montana, the Audubon Center hosts a variety of tree and shrub species that are native to Montana.

After practicing how to focus binoculars in the classroom, students went in search of winter resident birds. Together we spotted 13 different species of birds, including an immature bald eagle, male and female downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, and black-capped chickadees. Upon glassing the waters of the Yellowstone for a few minutes, we noticed some black and white dots that kept appearing and disappearing into the cold river water. These turned out to be a flock of common goldeneyes, diving into the water in search of invertebrates for lunch. These ducks are named for their bright golden yellow eye, visible in the photo of the male duck below (female duck eyes are a paler yellow). Interestingly, their eyes are gray-brown when they hatch. They change color over the first few months of their life, from purplish to bluish to blue-green, and finally to green-yellow by five months of age! They are winter residents in Montana, and will migrate further north into Canada come springtime. For more fascinating facts about the goldeneye, or to hear the unique sound of their wings whistling in flight, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's bird guide website.

Posted by Heather Ristow, Education Director