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.