Monday, September 26, 2005

Random Thoughts On a Drive To School

Sometimes I wish I lived a bit closer to school. As it is, I have a 25 minute drive to school and a 30 minute drive home. Why the difference? Well, going to school I take a pretty direct route via Interstate and main roads (except the day it was really snowing hard and I didn't make one of the turns because it was difficult to see the road and realized I was lost about ten minutes into the trip. This is a very strange feeling and might be the subject of a later wandering blog.) On my way home I take the back roads. You might think I would be in a hurry to get home, but actually this is a nice time of the day. I drive on a variety of backcountry roads that remind me of my travels through the countryside of rural Vermont. (Those of you that live in rural Vermont might not think that this is so special, but believe me, it is.) The extra 5 minute drive is a small price to pay for a daily Vermont vacation. I also get to “hunt” for biology as I make my way through the country. It is not unusual to see small groupings of whitetail deer, along with any number of soaring and perched red-tail hawks. I also have to watch out for the occasional wild turkey or two. One day two years ago I turned a corner near the Holden Arboretum (one of the largest arboretums in the world,) and saw a field filled with over 50 wild turkeys. Certainly worth 5 minutes out of my day!!

Actually, I think the 25 minute drive is a good thing. On the way to school, it provides me with the time to switch gears, to remember what happened the day before, and to create. We are teachers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but sometimes our thoughts are focused on other things. The drive to school allows me to refocus. Most importantly, is the time I take to create new stories. I am sure that the reason I have been able to stay in this profession for 32 years is that it has provided me the opportunity to be creative.

On Friday (1/28/05) it was -3 degrees F. on the outside thermometer when I got up and got ready for work. I looked out into my woods and wondered about the wildlife. How did the birds do? How about the rabbits and deer? Just a passing thought. I went out to get my paper and felt the cold. Now I really wondered how the animals were fairing. But the hour was getting late and I needed to get on the road.

The creative part of my drive was about to begin. How could I use the cold temperature in my classes? I have been thinking a lot about evolution over the past few weeks. It HAS been in the news quite a bit (the Dover, PA. schools decided that the students in their biology classes needed to have the district administrators read a short non-science statement regarding evolution at the start of their unit on evolution and natural selection.) But also, I have been putting together some thoughts about how I teach about evolution since Darwin Day is coming and I am speaking at our local natural history museum's Darwin Day celebration. So naturally, I thought about the effects of our current weather on the survival of the wildlife. Well, what I really thought about on my cold drive in was Darwin's thoughts after a similar icy blast in Downe. It is told that Darwin saw dozens of dead birds on his own property at Down House (note the town is Downe and the house is Down.) In Chapter Three of The Origin Of Species, Darwin writes that nearly 4/5's of the birds on his property failed to survive the winter of 1854-1855. Now how can I slip that bit into the students' inevitable complaints about having school when the temperature was so low????? Simple, I start my class talking about how I decided if it were two degrees colder I was rolling over and pulling up the blanket. (This way I can say it was actually a bit too warm for me this morning.) So that’s what I did, I taught a little about natural selection to a group of sleepy, crabby, cold 9th graders. I got in a little history of science and even a bit of how birds actually do stay warm on such cold nights. As part of the story (see Judy, I’m just a storyteller too,) I threw in the expression that it was a “three dog night.” Of course I thought they would instantly recognize the expression because of the music group by the same name. You guessed it–I’m showing my age. No one knew either the expression or the band !!! I had to add to the story a bit, but I threw in some biology about body temperature and animal size. I even ventured into thermoregulation and body covering. I finally got around to a dog’s body temperature and the insulating qualities of fur verses feathers verses skin. I could have gone on and on, but the point was made. Animals have evolved strategies to survive the extremes in their environments. Also, if it is -5 degrees I’m rolling over and pulling up the blanket.

See what can come from a 25-minute drive to work!!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Finding Delight At the Old Dead Tree

What good is an old dead tree? As a biology teacher of 33 years I know the answer to this question, but none the less I need to be reminded from time to time. I spent a wonderful September Saturday afternoon at home recently. I'm afraid most people would think that a day at home, Saturday or otherwise is a wasted day. But when you have an opportunity to experience the wonders of nature and the beauty of life all at the same time you consider it a treasure, not a waste of time. Sometimes I think that a day that begins with no meetings, no appointments and no place you have to be is a day that needs to be treasured, even if nothing happens. But something did happen.

A leisurely cup of blueberry coffee, time to read the newspaper and no place to go is how I started the day. Then I heard it. There he was again. The screech of pileated filled the September chilled air. Throughout the late summer I have been hearing both the tapping of the bill and the screeching call of a pair of nesting Pileated Woodpeckers. A year and half ago I had the opportunity to watch the pair of beautiful birds for an hour or so in my backyard. I shot a number of pictures and was amazed that one of the world's largest woodpecker species was making my backyard their territory. I had seen the characteristic rectangular hole in a Cherry tree near the back of my property a few months before, but had only heard the loud tapping in the distance until I looked out my back window that February morning. I saw the pair other times since that day, but not recently. Then in August I started to hear their characteristic screeching calls again. Each time I scooted out to the back deck, field glasses in hand and searched the trees. I saw them on the wing a few times, but couldn't find them in the trees. Saturday I heard the screech again. No answer, but the definite screech of a Pileated Woodpecker. Coffee in one hand and binocs in the other I quickly and quietly went outside. It was a bit chilly. One of the first cool mornings of the new fall season. It felt good, clean, natural. And I looked through the trees again. First without the binoculars the then with the glasses up to my face. Nothing. As I lowered the field glasses I saw movement in my neighbor's old dead Oak. Of course, why didn't I look there first? This is a woodpecker. Their favorite place to be is an old dead tree. That's where breakfast is. The bugs, the grubs, the ants......that's a mighty good feast for a hungry woodpecker. Being the largest woodpecker in the world means they need lots of bugs and grubs and ants each day. (The Pileated is considered to be the largest of the North American woodpeckers with the exception of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was considered extinct until a recent sighting in a remote swamp in Arkansas this past year. There is still a bit of controversy about the sightings, but it looks like the Pileated has been shifted to second place once again. But it is still a pretty big woodpecker to see in your backyard.) There he was (it was the male of the pair, so "he" is the right description here.) As I raised my glasses to my eyes I saw him. Red cheek patch, a long stiff tail and the telltale topnotch of a Pileated. He was busy. I watched him shred the bark of the tree. Piece by piece the long branch was being cleaned of its outer covering. He turned his head to get an angle on the bark. The long beak was more of a stripping tool than a digging tool this morning. It was incredible to watch how much bark was lifted every time he angled his head and drove it under the loosened the bark. What a beautiful bird!! His sharp claws dug in, his long stiff tail feathers pressed firmly against the branch, he was well positioned to do his work. Then he hopped up the branch a few inches and started to shred another section. I gazed up the branch and was amazed. The big branch was being transformed into a Shagbark Hickory (in looks anyway.) This tree is enormous. In fact, it towers above most of the other trees in our back woods. It has been losing its battle to survive over the past few years and my neighbor has been talking about taking it down for over a year. Now as I looked at it it was being transformed into a totally different kind of tree. If not a Shagbark, then a old southern Oak with long strands of Spanish moss hanging from it. At least that's what it looked like at first glance. Through my binoculars I saw different. The work of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers over the past few months was incredible. They have been literally "hunting and pecking" the tree bare of its bark. Branch after branch, up and down the tree, the bark was hanging in tattered shreds. What a job they have done. Almost before my eyes I was seeing a three story tree stripped of its outer covering. It is quite a thing to see such small creatures (they are big woodpeckers maybe 14 inches , but small compared to us and tiny compared to the tree,) making such a big change in this towering tree. Certainly other woodpeckers have been helping. I have seen Redheaded, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers in the branches of this tree and at my suet feeders through the summer. Watching the bark being lifted and tossed to the ground by this bird convinced me that he and his mate were the primary excavators here.

Great viewing indeed, but I soon went back to my newspapers. Fifteen minutes was enough for me to learn about the work of the Pileated Woodpeckers and to appreciate how much work these small birds can accomplish.

About a half hour later I was finishing up and I heard the cries once again. What's going on out there? This time I took my spotting scope out. I can focus at 15 x and then zoom into 60 x to see much more detail. I set it up, raised the tripod and angled it to the same branch on the big dead Oak. He was still there, a little higher, but still angling his head, wedging the beak under the bark and lifting. Piece after piece was being lifted and thrown down again. I zoomed into his head. I was looking into his eyes this time. Black, glossy beads. He turned his head each time there was a noise. I saw a Fox Squirrel running away from the Oak. It was on the upper branches of a tree that was a bit further in the woods. I wondered if the screeching from the woodpecker was because the squirrel had gotten too close? At any rate it was making a fast retreat. What a picture. Here I was, standing on my deck watching the eye movements a truly magnificent bird. Then I focused on his bark activities. What was he actually getting? What bugs was he finding under the bark of this old tree? Then I saw it--a small white grub was visible. Then wham, it was gone! I watched for a while more. Another grub. And then I saw his beak open slightly and a long black tongue flicked out and got the grub. Wow! I wasn't watching Nova or reading Audubon Magazine. I was watching a bird in my back yard, in an old dead Oak, on a Saturday morning that most people would consider wasted.

My friend Stewart from Melbourne doesn't have woodpeckers in his back yard. He lives in Australia and there aren't any woodpeckers in Australia (they have parrots and Kookaburras , but no woodpeckers. ) To show his son a woodpecker he has to look in a book, go to a zoo, or travel in an airplane for 20 hours. Here I was standing on my deck, coffee in hand, scope angled up and watching one of our largest native woodpeckers flick his tongue and suck in breakfast. Not a waste in any possible definition of the word.

You never know what delight you can find in an old dead tree.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Father's Day Observation

Just a little observation I made last June---

What a day I had last Sunday. It was Father’s Day and the weather in Northeast Ohio was magnificent. I took the opportunity of a lazy afternoon to sit on my back porch and while listening to the music of WKSU (my local Public Radio station,) to read a new history of evolutionary thought that I had recently purchased. Evolution, the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward Larson, it is called. Reading about the powerful arguments and discussions that resulted from Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origin Of Species is always a pleasure for me. But especially when sitting in my back yard on a lazy afternoon. It is a wooded lot and I have had the pleasure of watching a nesting pair of house wrens all spring. Sunday was a special day for the House Wrens, and for my wife and I as well. It was a day that reminded me about being a teacher and also about being a parent. Sunday was the day that the young wrens first left the nesting bottle that had been their home for the past 15 days or so. Betsy first noticed them early in the morning. (I was out playing golf too early to even want to remember.) She told me that she saw four small wrens, First two then the next two. They were flitting around the garden. They would fly from the hanging nest bottle to the garden fence. Then to the branches just above the bottle, then back to the bottle. First two, then the other two. Then she said she saw the bigger “parent” birds leave the bottle for a while. By the time I got home the routine was being repeated over and over again, but by noon they were adventuring out much farther a field--to the split rail fence we have maybe 50 yards away--to the branches of more distant trees--then finally back to the nest. But as the afternoon wore on and I kept glancing up from my reading I noticed that there was a ruckus at the nest. The parent birds were not to be seen, but the young were still flying about. When they landed you could see them flutter their wings. Possibly getting feathers into place? Maybe getting used to the new skill of flight? Who knows? But I kind of thought that they were pretty amazed at this flying thing. Of course I was reading a book on the history of evolution, so I was really trying to be more scientific, more objective in my interpretations. Then I noticed what the commotion was at the nesting site. When the young landed and tried to get in there was a loud distress sound coming from the opening and the young bird would fly away. The noise was the same one I had been hearing for three weeks whenever I walked near the bottle, when I mowed the lawn or checked the holes in my garden fence that the local rabbits created when they breached the security of what I thought was an impenetrable barrier around my 5 tomato, four cucumber and 3 zucchini plants. But that’s another story for another time. This distress call was pretty effective. It got my attention and I tended to move away from the nest. Pretty much what was supposed to happen. But now it was being used for another reason. I was nowhere near the nest, only the returning young. I started to wonder about the sequence of steps in the raising of a young house wren, and since it was Father’s Day, in the raising of a young daughter or son (I’m a step-dad to two daughters, but I have an imagination.) Then I thought about being a teacher. It’s pretty much the same, and I have been doing that for 31 years now. I imagined the house wren parents’ thoughts.

“We have worked for almost a month to get to this day. We flew in to the yard, we scoped out the best nest site. We checked the big wooden apple that hangs in the Maple tree near the wooden fence. We looked at a nest we built two years ago in a bottle that is mounted on the shed and even looked at the new bottle on the other side of the shed. We found the hanging bottle that we used last year and started to “fix-it-up.” I added more twigs and some soft grass. Then I lined it with feathers from my own chest. That’s when I started to mark the territory. I marked it with sound. Calling out my bubbling, chatter song at each of the corners of the yard. I did this to attract the mate too of course. Since I had the best nest sites I guess the selection was rather easy. Nonetheless, we got down to the business of creating the new lives. We had four new eggs to care for and we did care for them. Every minute of every hour, one of us was there. Sitting-on or turning. Watching and protecting. Calling out when danger came near them trying to distract any intruders. We took turns getting food for one another and watching and turning and just waiting. The eggs hatched and that’s when the work started. Food, food, food. Both of us getting food for the chicks—four of them!!! Bringing it in and stuffing it into the biggest open mouths in the nest. Get food, fly in, stuff it in and then go get more food. For twelve to fifteen days. Soon we were also cleaning up. Fly in get the white fecal sack and take it out. We did not just drop it. That would make finding the chicks too easy. We flew it away and then dropped it. Fifteen days and then the day of flight came. We taught you to fly. We taught you to catch the winds and to land. We taught you how to look for insects, to feed yourself. Later in the day we started to repeat the song, the song for territory marking and for courting. We repeated it at the four corners of the yard. We sang it by the garden and by the big maple. But we also let you hear another sound. The distress sound. You heard it when you tried to return to the nest. You were tired from your lessons and wanted to come back to the nest. But we have given you gifts. We have taught you how to fly, how to hunt and how to sing. We have given you all the tools you will need to succeed, to survive. You can’t come back home now. That is what the distress sounds mean. Now you need to go out, to go out to find a new yard with your own wooden fence, your own maple tree, your own nest bottles and ultimately your own lives. This is the gift we gave you. We gave you knowledge, skills, tools. We were your parents and we were your teachers. Now you hear the distress sound when you return because you are ready to go off and be house wrens yourselves. Fly now, sing your songs.”

Of course I didn’t hear any of this conversation, but I’m sure it what was being said Sunday afternoon. It made me think about being a teacher (and a parent.) We work hard to get the site ready—the classroom, the unit, the lesson, the special project. We study, we prepare, we devise and we plan. Then we work to give the students the skills they will need to succeed and to survive. That’s what we do; we get them ready to survive. Sometimes they don’t want to leave, but they are ready. They can succeed and they move on to fly, to sing their songs, and we start all over again with a new brood the next season.

So I sit here and listen to the song lessons and to the distress sounds when the young birds try to get back in and I think about doing that for 31 years and then I smile.