Saturday, May 15, 2010

New Worlds, New Wonders

Last week I introduced a group of young people to a new world of wonder. It has been a short time since I noticed doing that, but in reality I have enjoyed a lifetime of "new world" introductions. You see, I spent the majority of my life (so far,) as a biology teacher. Though I retired from the high school classroom 4 years ago, I still teach. Sometimes I teach groups of students that visit the Lake Metroparks Environmental Learning Center (that is in Lake County in northern Ohio.) Sometimes I teach my granddaughter Maddie, and sometimes I simply teach people that happen to be standing next to me. But this week I was reminded of how exciting it can be to learn too. I work with a group of third through fifth grade honors or gifted students from a local school district. I guess they are "gifted" because they have been tested and identified as "cognitively gifted," but I think they are gifted because they show up every Tuesday afternoon, after a full day of school, with notebook in one hand, snack in one hand, camera in one hand, and usually some other artifact in one hand. They accomplish this because they are third through fifth graders, they have an almost unmeasureable amount of energy, they are gifted, AND they are curious!! This week I gave them access to the microscope. This week I gave them access to new worlds. Their energy, and their curiosity did not disappoint. I decided to start their adventure with some microscope basics. I wanted them to appreciate how special this exploration tool is. I wanted their journey to be less frustrating and more successful. I wanted them to be able to see and to measure with the microscope. They were ready, willing and very able to explore new worlds. The world I introduced them to was an import from my small, backyard pond. As I left for the Environmental Learning Center I stopped and collected a bagful of pond water and a few handfuls of hair-like

filamentous algae. The major genera in my pond is *Cladophora. (Sometimes called "pond scum," but I prefer Cladophora.) My favorite thing

to see in pond samples is, in fact the alga types. I love the green color and the ability to see into the cellular landscape. I love seeing the intercellular spaces and the the dots of color in the chloroplasts. I love trying to "notice" the nucleus in the cell. I say "notice" because that is what you do when you start a journey into the microscopic world. Often the new adventurer will fail to notice what is clearly there. "Can I get a new sample?" "There isn't anything in mine!". I go over to take a look at this "empty" field of view. "Wow!" I scream. "Look at this!". I tend to "notice" more stuff. Of course I see the algae. I describe the cellular boundaries, the cell walls, the membrane, the chloroplasts, the nucleus (if lucky and the lighting just right.) then I look beyond the strands of algae and "notice" the hundreds or thousands of euglena scooting around the filaments. They are small. We have the 10X objective employed, but visible if only you are willing to "notice." occasionally a much bigger paramecium swims by. I go crazy! By this time the young explorer wants her microscope back. They want to "notice" what's on the slide too. New worlds, new wonders! Then we load up the slide with some daphnia. Daphnia is what these scientists want. They are big enough to be easily observed.

They are complex enough to look like real pond monsters. Daphnia are small microscopic crustaceans. They have a heart, gills, a digestive system, an eye spot AND they are "see-through.". Perfect for a young scientist to get excited by this new world. They can see something happening. Thirty-four years teaching biology, four years of undergrad biology classes, two classes of biology in high school, and I still get goofy when I see a captured daphnia on it's side, heart pumping, gills waving, food moving through the intestines, living its little life on the microscope slide for all to see.

No wonder the mini-explorers get so excited! As a special treat , we gave each of the little scientists their very own "daphnia-in-a-tube" to wear on a string around their neck and to take home. Their own new world, their own new wonder!

*Recently a discovery of a new use for this pesky pond clogger has been made. This web site discusses a possible use of the cellulose abundance of Cladophora. They may be harvested for use in new, efficient , paper batteries. They can come to my pond and harvest all they want. Check out this site.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Wind In the Willows

Wind in the Willows and Oaks and Maples and all around me. This is what has been getting my attention as of late. The recent winds that rolled through Northern Ohio brought a great deal of stress and some unexpected costs to lots of folks this past weekend. What good can come from such a natural phenomena as a 50 mph wind gust? Well, not a lot of good, but lots of natural impacts. That's what I was thinking about as the big Oaks and Maples and other giants were being whipped first one way and then another Friday night and all day Saturday.

My first thought in a wind storm is "will one of the tall trees be visiting my family room before the weather front passes?". But then as I watch the trees bending back and forth, I am amazed at their strength. I know the basic biology of trees, the structure of wood, the chemistry of cellulose, but still, it is truly amazing to watch how strong these tall trees really are. As the leaves come sailing down I enjoy thinking about the ones that stay attached. The preening of the dead branches in my back woods during a wind storm will help clear out the upper reaches of the trees helping to prevent these branches from becoming "deadfalls" when I go exploring in better, calmer weather this summer.

Now that the canopy of leaves is a bit less dense more sun seems to leak through the trees. Does the extra light that streams down to the floor of my forest promote more wildflower growth? Or allow some of the treelets (or should that be treeettes?) to take hold more successfully? It is hard to say. But these are the things I think about during and after a wind storm. (Except a few years ago when a black locust fell across my deck and into the side of my house. Then I was thinking of insurance and repairs and contractors and bills. But let's get back to biology.)

As we drove past a large grassy field I saw one of my favorite natural pictures. Sheets of wind were causing the field to flow. Waves of amber grass would work as a description. The field of weeds was being turned into a pasture of soft, tumbling waves of grass. The rhythms of nature were all around me. It is often difficult to see waves. But not in a wind storm. I guess I am discussing the physics of wind and grass, not the biology, but science is science. One great big way of thinking. We are the ones that separate it into biology and earth science, and chemistry, and physics. But that is another discussion for another time.

I'm going out to pick up some of those branches that escaped the confines of my woods and settled onto the small patch of mowed grass I call my back lawn. I'll probably watch the plethora of birds that successfully "battened down the hatches" during the storm and are now attacking my feeders. I wonder how they maintained their stations in the 50 mph gusts. Were some relocated? Will I see some unusual visitors that rode the arms of the storm from up north? I guess I'll have to go outside and watch some science to find out.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Misty Ridge Dr,Painesville,United States

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Biggest Playground On Earth

Lately I have been playing around with people that think kids should go outside and play!! Well, actually I have been listening to speakers that have been promoting this idea, and meeting with lots of folks that agree with this. A week or so ago, April 13th to be exact, I attended a lecture sponsored by The Holden Arboretum (see--,) "Nature Play Matters." the speaker--Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough, Harvard University, was "speaking to the choir" as it were. From what I could see the audience was comprised of outdoor educators, outdoor education activity coordinators, outdoor program organization representatives and just plain outdoor types. (I didn't actually look, but I bet most of the footwear consisted of some form of hiking boot! But I digress!) But the message about natural play was important for all to hear none-the-less. It is not a new idea, In fact there has been legislation in Washington since early in 2009.
According to Open Congress, the bill is sponsored by Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD). Officially called H.R.2054 – No Child Left Inside Act of 2009,
This bill seeks to enhance the environmental literacy of American students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, to foster understanding, analysis, and solutions to the major environmental challenges facing the student’s state and the Nation as a whole. Appropriations would be provided to train teachers for such instruction, provide innovative technology, and to develop studies assessing the worth of these programs in elementary and secondary school curriculums.
This legislation, known as "No Child Left Inside Act of 2009," is currently in committee. Basically it amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This movement is a response to the popular book "Last Child In the Woods," by Richard Louv, and has a companion movement throughout the country in the Children and Nature Network and in Ohio in the statewide movement "Leave No Child Inside" collaborative.
This brings me to the meeting I attended yesterday--The Northeast Region of the statewide Leave No Child Inside. The organizing meeting was attended by representatives of most of the noted Northeast Ohio Outdoor organizations--Of course, Lake Metroparks and The Holden Arboretum, but also included were professors from Hiram College, and Mount Union University (new name as of August.) Also, the YMCA Outdoor education facility was represented as were the Stark County Metro parks, and a few others. Imagine that, all these folks and all this energy to get us to take our kids outside! Is this all necessary?


Our kids are turning into an "inside species." They even sit inside and watch programs about the outside. The programs aren't bad. In fact I love them. But now that we are all amazed by the "Life" that is a part of our world, lets get out and enjoy it. Get out to the Parks. Get out to the backyards. Go for a walk. Watch a pond. Plant a tree. Observe a bug. (Remember
watching a group of ants marching on the sidewalk? Well, they still march!) Feed a bird. In fact, just go outside and play. We have the biggest playground in the world just waiting for you and your kids. What do you think?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day --40 years and counting

So here it is, Earth Day 2010. 40 years and counting. A lifetime for many and yet it seems like a blink of an eye. Forty years ago, Kent State University (12 days before it became "famous" worldwide,) a freshman bio major and ready to let my voice be heard. The first Earth Day was a big event on campus, at least in the biology building, Cunningham Hall. Senator Gaylord Nelson had proclaimed the first Earth Day and we were ready. Ready to march, ready to learn, ready to teach and ready to change this ailing planet. That really was a lifetime ago. Well, a career's lifetime ago. Thirty-four years in the biology classroom. Thirty-four years with approximately 100 students a year (some years less, some more.) 3400 youngsters that learned about their world, our world, THE WORLD. 3400 young folks learning about where in the world they are and how they need to understand it and take care of it. Some years we all forgot about the health of our planet. Some years it was fashionable to care. So how are we doing now? Well, the planet is still ailing. We can make a list of the wounds, but suffice it to say that an extended
stay in the critical care ward is called for. But at least it is again fashionable to care about the health of the planet. The "Green" word is good right now. Actually it is profitable for businesses to be "Green." Maybe that is the direction we needed to go. Not "It isn't easy being green!" as my friend Kermit always said. Now we can say "It is easier being Green than it was before" and that is a good thing.

Today I worked with a group of excited students from Perry Middle School. We were learning about how to use a compass, and how to navigate through the wilderness using a hand-held GPS. The take-home lesson was supposed to be about how scientists use GPS technology to help their research. But since it WAS Earth Day, I was happy that we were able to help them understand just where in the world they were. If we all just knew where we stood in the world, the health of the planet just might start to improve. Certainly before the next 40 years go by and these students reflect on their experiences at the 40th Earth Day celebration. Let's hope. Well, let's do more than just hope, let's act.

Monday, April 05, 2010

My House Hawk

This is interesting. We ID birds 200 feet in the air, with backlight conditions, moving in circles and we are incredibly confident in our calls. Here is a bird, sitting in a small leafless tree in my front yard, “captured”, enlarged and cropped, and we have three or for pretty good birders not quite sure of it’s kind. Of course John Audubon would know what it “was”. I say was because he would have shot it, stuffed it and mounted it before he painted it and named it. Chucky D would probably not know this bird since its range does not include any areas visited by him, but he would be the first to bring up VARIATIONS. I recently enjoyed reading the new Dawkins book–The Greatest Show On Earth, and he talks of rabbitness.That is, we all try to explain what the ideal rabbit looks like, but we know deep in our biological souls that there is no perfect rabbit! There is a spectrum of rabbitness. Of course we can look at a hawk and suggest that it is a Coopers Hawk or a Red Shouldered Hawk or a Sharpy, or …….. We know there is no perfect Cooper or Sharpy that portrays all the characteristics of the Coopers Hawk species. There is Coopers Hawkness or Sharpyness that lies somewhere on a spectrum of characteristics and we deem the bird a Coopers ( or Red Shouldered, or what have you!) So how do the great birders always “get it right?” First, they don’t always get it right, and second, they use more than just field marks and colors. They combine marks and colors and patterns and maybe most importantly–behaviors. That is what my picture is missing–behaviors. The success of good bird identification is not simply knowing what a bird looks like, it is also knowing what it is doing, how it is behaving. Maybe the pinnacle of bird spotting is on the top of Hawk Mountain in East Central Pennsylvania. During the Fall migration hundreds of hawks of various species can be seen. Think about Darwin’s variations with this scene– 50 or 60 Cooper’s Hawks or over 1600 Broad-winged Hawks that were spotted last September 17th. Which one was the perfect Broadwing? How did the spotters know all 1600 were really Broadwinged Hawks? It is what Barbara McClintock called ”a feeling for the organism.” On this same day a total of 1646 hawks of various species passed by Hawk Mountain. A total of 8 different species of raptors were recorded. The total for the whole 2009 migration season was 15,592 birds, 21 identified species and 1 in the category “other”. (I wonder what “other” was. Is this the only bird they could not identify???) As I looked over this data I thought about Dawkin’s species problem, the perfect Red Tail, or Cooper, or Bald Eagle. I also pictured the bell-shaped curves that Darwin’s variation concept predicted. In fact, I even pictured bell-shaped curves soaring past the North Lookout of Hawk Mountain. Hawk Curve.001Well, not really, but now that I wrote about it I cannot get the image out of my mind!! So there it is. One hawk, one picture, a waterfall of thoughts.

DSC_2272 - Version 2

The young Red-Shouldered returned a few months later and brought along a partner

. Now I watch them both as they pick off a series of moles and chipmunks that wander along the forest edge in my backyard.

What a lesson in evolution I have unleashed because a young hawk decided to take a rest at 10437 Misty Ridge Drive!!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Springtime Trouting

So there I was -- standing in the middle of a small riffle just upstream of the confluence of Big Creek and the Grand River in Eastern Lake County, Ohio. I was in the Grand, but I could see the waters of Big Creek joining the Grand river watershed just over my right shoulder. The water was clear enough to see the river bottom AND the Steelhead Trout that were just starting their downstream run back to Lake Erie after spending the Fall and Winter upstream. Northern Ohio was having a very unusual March heatwave. A week after a quick snowfall, the temperatures were pushing almost 85 degrees (F). The last days of March in Northern Ohio are often mild (the proverbial lamb,) but mild around here in March is

usually in the 60’s, not the 80’s. El Nino weather patterns make strange shifts in lots of measurements. Some places get extreme rain, some higher temperatures and data shows a change in the patterns of tornados and hurricanes too. Here we were rewarded with a short lived summer. The rivers that flow into Lake Erie alternated between too low to be fished and too high and muddy to be fished this past year. Of course, the dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool, fishermen’s fly casters go out no matter what the river looks like. I am as much an observer of fish as I am a catcher of fish. I do enjoy the activity of fly fishing. Casting to a particular pool. Avoiding this log or that shrub. It may be as much about my fishing skills, but fish watching is pretty entertaining too. That is what I was doing while standing in the middle of the Grand River last week—fish watching. I was trying to catch a steelhead or two, but studying them was pretty good too.

I found a nice deep part of the river just beside the shallow riffle where I was standing. The shale that makes up most of the river bottom in the Grand creates shelves and ledges in the river’s structure. Some of the shelves or ledges create waterfalls, some create deep pools. The pools provide sanctuary for the big fish as they make their way up or down stream. Often, a large three or four-year old trout will be resting or logging in these pools. Sometime more than one can be seen. That is what I was watching (and casting to,) on this wonderfully warm weekday afternoon. There were a few other fisherfolk around, but not many. Most seemed to be fish-watching too. Steelhead trout on their spawning run (both up stream and down,) are not really interested in eating. Eating is what they have been doing all summer in the lake. Occasionally they will attack a floating bug or nymph (as much from habit as from hunger,) and that is what a Steelhead trout catcher is hoping for. The particular large fish I was watching did not seem to want to attack anything other that other trout that happened by. I nymphed, I egged, I streamered, but mostly I watched. But that was ok. What a scene I

was watching. The fish I was “playing” with was probably a 3 year old (maybe 2 years since the size of a fish under water is a bit difficult to accurately estimate due to the tendency of water to magnify,) 24 inches or so and wonderful to observe. As smaller fish entered the pool the “resident” cleared them out. A short rest seemed to be fine, but only a short one. If a smaller trout stayed too long, it was scooted away. If too many smaller fish entered the pool, even a short stay was not allowed. I was casting to the rest stop, but mostly I was watching the residents. Occasionally I would hear a noisy splash behind me. Not a big splash, but kind of a splatter. In fact, a series of splatters. As I turned to see the cause of the noise I saw a younger fish making its way down the riffle. Sometimes they start down a shallow section of the river instead of staying in the deeper runs. When this happens they need to “skitter” along the gravel and rocky riffle areas. This creates a splashing noise and is great to watch. Of course, if I was really just trying to get fish I could simply net the skittering fish, but I was here to watch and appreciate as much as I was to catch fish. And appreciate I did! I have been watching the tremendous new television series on the discovery Channel. This series called LIFE, is wonderful. But I was IN this “Life” episode, so I just watched. When I view the Discovery version of “LIFE” I am amazed. The photography is remarkable even if the narrator’s explanations leave a little to be desired (in the US version, Opera Winfrey is the narrator.) I have found a few too many explanations of wonderful design as the reason for a particular animal’s shape, color, structure or success to be comfortable. I’m not sure how Sir David Attenborough narrates, but I’m sure the BBC version discusses the evolutionary processes a bit more accurately. But here I stand in the middle of a river, watching my own episode of LIFE. That’s what this essay is all about. We all need to watch the episodes of LIFE all around us. Whether the tapping of a pileated woodpecker, or the hunting of a red shouldered hawk, the hunting practice of Fitzroy (my cat,) or fledging of a house wren, LIFE is all around us. Paying attention to the world around us is actually the theme of my Australian friend’s entire blog. It is called “Paying Ready Attention” and can be found at This blog is deserving of a good long look, or rather many looks since Stewart adds to this site quite frequently and every entry is worth reading.

That is what I was doing last Thursday. I was standing in the middle of a riffle, up-stream of the confluence of Big Creek and the Grand River “paying ready attention.” I’ll be back. I will search out this pool. I may ‘tease’ the resident for a short while. I may try a nymph, or a streamer, maybe an egg pattern. He (or she) many not even be there, but I will certainly be paying ready attention to the LIFE around me.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Of Blogs and Birds and Bugs and Belize

Blogs seem to be a real part of our lives now. Of course, you know that–you are reading this. But look around you. Blogs from all the national television networks…blogs from all the major newspapers…blogs about your favorite programs…blogs about your favorite politicians and even those you would rather not hear from anymore. But blogs from the jungle? Yes, absolutely ! But how is this possible? Read-on MacDuff.

I have not added much to this blog this summer. As a teacher for over 35 years, I always seem to get out of rhythm in the summer. It is not that I slow down, I seem to go just as fast, but in different directions. This summer I was “out of town” and living out of my suitcase for about 43 days. That’s pretty busy. One hunk of this time was spent in the jungles of Belize. I know—summer is not the absolute best time to visit Belize, but there were extenuating circumstances. You see, I was invited to accompany my high school biology teacher on what may be his last trip to the jungle.
Wally Hintz turns 80 this year. Our travels together started around 1962. We didn’t actually travel together back then, but that is when I first met Walt. I was in fourth grade, he was the biology teacher at our local high school. I dissected my first frog that year and needed some help. The preserved frog had a mass of blackish “stuff” in the thorax area. Naturally I went to the town’s expert–Walter Hintz–high school biology teacher. (How many of us have occupied this position through our careers as biology teachers?) The black stuff was only a mass of frog eggs. Not a big find, but it did make a connection that has lasted for 47 years and counting!!!! Over the years this connection got stronger. Of course, I had him as a teacher (not my intro biology teacher, but my mentor in a course called Science Seminar.) But we connected in many other ways too. I did an observation of his teaching techniques while in my undergraduate education program. When I graduated from Kent State University in 1973 (yes, the May 4th KSU shootings happened durring my Freshman year,) I applied for a job that opened up when Walter left Wickliffe High to become a vocational nursing program supervisor. I got the job. We told everyone that I was there to continue the legacy of Walter Hintz (some of the administrators were not so happy about this, but it turned out to be true.) Over the years that I taught biology in his old classroom, Walt came to visit. He usually carried a tarantula or snake to share with my students. In the years that I conducted a 24 hour field study with my own Science Seminar class I invited Wally to come and lead a night hike. I knew I needed to expose as many generations of excited students the best field biologist I had ever met. After I married, Wally even brought his spider to my wife’s first grade class for show-and-tell (my wife Betsy was the last one to hold the tarantula, but she did hold it.) We hooked up as a teaching team when I worked with him on a wonderful project that took a group of Ohio middle level teachers on a one week schooner adventure in Maine. We were the instructors.

Rachael Carson Salt Pond

Rachael Carson Salt Pond

We taught everything from navigation, to whale ecology, to island ecology to how to use The Voyage Of the Mimi in the classroom. What a gig. We got to go sailing, we got to go island exploring, we got to eat lobster, we got to teach together AND we got paid for it. (Isn’t teaching wonderful?) We did this two times in the late ’80’s. After I traveled to the Galapagos for the first time I knew I had to have Wally go with me the next time I visited the islands. In 1997 Wally and I lead a group of teachers on a 14 day exploration of the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador.

Wally at Post Office Barrel, Floreana Island

Wally at Post Office Barrel, Floreana Island

We returned with another group 2 years later. On these trips I get to be the teacher AND the student. When I got an email from Wally in March that he was going back to Belize (”…possibly for the last time,”) with his community college class and he needed another biologist to go with him, I knew I had to go. Belize in the summer is hot, humid, rainy, buggy, but relatively inexpensive to travel to. The trip was on.

I wanted to share my experiences in the jungle with others if possible. Over the years I embraced technology. Wally was still the consummate field biologist. I enjoyed the challenge of integrating technology with the excitement of field biology discoveries. Was this possible? Sure if you have a pretty healthy budget, but what about “on the cheap?” I explored the possibilities. I knew that our accommodations, Duplooy’s Jungle Lodge, advertised WiFi connections (at least at the main building.) I was sure that if I brought my laptop with me I could have connected to my own Benz’s Biology Blog and added my observations and reflections. (This was totally dependent upon the thickness of the cloud cover, the height of the trees and the absence of rain storms I later found out….) But I did not really want to subject the laptop to the humidity, bugs, rain storms or customs (it is a Mac, so it is not really used to bugs ; ) ) I wondered if there was another, easier way to stay in touch. That was the answer—- I figured I could bring my trusty iPod Touch.

The iPod Touch

The iPod Touch

It was small, it was light, it had music, and it had a great application “iBird Explorer Pro” for bird id reference. I knew that if I did get a WiFi connection I could send e-mails. I could not load my own photos, but I could capture pictures from the web and save these for later download or I could email the pictures to anyone I wanted. I knew that my blogging application could be set to have e-mails from me added as blog entries (most blog applications have this capability.) I gave it a try. First, I sent a plain e-mail from my home to my blog site..Success! Next I thought about the capability of sending a captured picture to the blog as an e-mail. Success !! Now, how about if I sent a captured picture and added a comment or title to the picture!! It worked. Well, what if I sent a picture with a caption that was a paragraph long? What if the caption was actually my blog entry. Bingo!!! So I traveled to Belize. I sweated, I put on insect-proof clothes, I explored new environments, I enjoyed Wally’s stories (most of which I have heard many times, but they are always great,) I took pictures (lots of pictures,) I learned about Mayan customs and shaman customs,

Mayan Dig

I watched leaf-cutter ants travel an unending path into the jungle, I paddled through caverns with Mayan artifacts, I helped university students start a new archaeological dig of a Mayan ruin in the middle of the Belize jungle, I dove the Belize Reef, AND I shared all of this with my family and friends back home via my Touch, a WiFi connection and my Benz’s Biology Blog. (

Technology and tradition traveling together –exploring, learning and sharing.

Get a Touch and stay in touch. Everyone needs to share a treasure like Wally Hintz!!!