Hello my name is Ms. Heard. Please join me as I travel to Nova Scotia to study small mammal populations!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Yesterday evening we sat for 1.5 hours near a beaver lodge and watched while the beavers came out at dusk.  We had to sit completely still and silent.  I have no pictures to show because I did not want to disturb the beavers with the camera noises.  It was very cold, so it was hard to sit still for so long.  It was fun though, because several beavers came out and swam around.  One huge beaver swam back and forth in front of us for over 20 minutes.  He was totally checking us out to make sure we were not a threat.

Today, our last day, we spent the morning learning how to analyze the data we've collected over the past two weeks. 

We checked the camera traps. The camera by the porcupine tree I found last week had a photo of a skunk.  Look closely in the photo.  Can you see the skunk?  How can you tell it is a skunk?

This was exciting because it is the first skunk that has been seen at this site since research began here in 2006!

We also had photos of snowshoe hare at that camera.


The camera trap also picked up a squirrel, and of course, me checking it!

This afternoon we went on a 5 mile walk through a coastal national park.  Porcupines are known to live there and are often seen.  However, we did not see any.  We did see signs that they are around, such as distinctive paths where they waddled through the tall grass and a tree that the bark was eaten off of.  The weather was cold and very windy.  The porcupines don't really like to sleep up in the trees when they blow in the strong wind.  In windy weather, the porcupines will sleep in underground dens.  And they don't walk around much in the cold, so we were unlucky.

However, we did see seals lying about on a rock off the coast a bit.  The seals barked a bit, but mostly they looked like they were napping.  It looked like there were a combination of gray and harbor seals.

This has been a great experience!  I look forward to returning to the 1st, 6th, 7th grades and Dr. Khan's environmental science students in person soon.

Thanks to those of you who have been reading the blog.  I won't be posting every day anymore, but I'll post again if I have more thoughts to add or if I learn anything new once I'm back.  Or if the Collegiate boys ask me really, really good questions.
Yesterday while skyping, I was asked about where in the 3-5 year cycle of population growth the small mammals are here at the field site.  Chris, one of our scientists, estimates that this is about the peak year.  Last year the numbers were very high.  So he is waiting for this summer to find out whether this year will be the peak or whether last year was the peak and this year will be low again.

I explained the population cycle incorrectly yesterday on skype.  Thanks to your question, I found out that the population cycle is not the result of exceeding the food supply.  Instead, as the population density gets higher, the animals get more aggressive toward each other.  That leads to lower survival rate, and then the population declines.

Good question, boys!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

This morning we started by checking our traps.  Out of all 100 traps, we had only 3 red-backed voles.  We also checked again at the end of the day and found only one.   Our consistently low numbers really show how this time of year is when few animals are left from a long winter.  Many died during the winter months, so those few who survived will start mating soon.  In past years, the trap counts in the fall have been many, many times bigger than the trap counts in early spring.  I got to empty the trap of one animal each time today.  Here are some pictures of me emptying a trap and then holding a red-backed vole.


Do I look like I am having fun?  I like handling these little rodents.

The voles are really soft and kind of sweet, though they are not at all happy about being caught and held.  However, they have adapted to stress.  In their lives they are stressed often, like every time a bird of prey flies overhead, so their bodies are well suited to handle the physical response to stress.  They calm down and carry on immediately after the scary thing has passed.  So as soon as we release this little guy, he'll be happy again.

It is hard to catch the vole in the plastic bag.  It wants to run away.  This little guy was hard to trap in the corner because he kept squirming.  If you grab them by the fur/skin on the back of the neck, between the head and shoulders, you can pinch there to hold them up without hurting them.  They have no nerves there, so they can be carried without any pain.  It is just like how a cat can pick up her kittens by biting them on the back of the neck to carry them.


When we took a close look at this guy, we discovered he was the one we caught this morning!  He must have been really hungry.  When I opened the trap this afternoon, he had pooped a lot from his two big trap meals!

Today we did a lot in the field.  We did three transects for deer droppings.  This meant we used four poles to stake out a measured area of 10 meters by 10 meters.  Then we stood at arm's length from each other along one side of the square and all walked or crawled through the square counting how many piles of deer droppings we found.  On Friday morning we will learn how to use those numbers to extrapolate how many deer live in the area. 

Then we made habitat piles again in part of the forest.  This is sort of a complicated thing to me:  this area of the forest is relatively new growth, but with some non-native species, and is cluttered because of human intervention about 20 years ago (before the research started here).  So the scientists decided to thin it by taking out certain trees.  Normally, whatever trees die in a forest would fall to the ground and become nice habitats for animals as they slowly decay and become part of the floor.  However, since the thinning of the forest meant a lot of trees were cut down all at once, the normal pace of forest decay and regrowth was sped up. That means that the forest floor had way more debris on it than would normally occur.  This means that the general habitat was more cluttered, and more difficult for the larger animals to get around.  So we cleaned up the debris, to get the area back to the way it was before the thinning and cutting.  However, by piling all the debris into big mounds, we created things larger animals can use to hide in, sleep in, or have babies in.  So we turned too much clutter into nice new homes for animals.  Here are pictures of team members at work and piles we built. 
It will take some time for the animals to make use of these piles.  They need to figure out that suddenly these piles exist, and it will take some time for our scents to wear off.

 Tomorrow morning the team heads back to the field to collect the traps and cameras for the last time.  I look forward to Ms. Khan's upper school class, the 6th grade and 1st grade tomorrow.  See you guys via Skype tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I had fun skyping with the 7th grade today.  If you have more questions, you can comment here and I'll try to answer them (or I will get one of the scientists to answer them).

I learned another cool poop fact from this evening's lecture:  rodents have stomachs that can only process some of the nutrients in their food.  So what they do is eat the food, process it partially, poop it out, (this is not really poop. It is called cecum, and it still has nutritional value) eat that poop, process it again and then finally poop it out as real poop.  So if rodent poop looks green, then it is probably cecum.  If it looks black, it is probably just poop.  Isn't it weird how animals' bodies work so differently from ours?

Since I was left at home to do the skyping, I did not do any field work today.  Insetead researched some information for the scientists.  So no fun photos to post today.  My team returned to report that the traps held only one red-backed vole and one mouse.  The counts are supposed to be low at this time of year, but this year they are even lower due to the low temperatures this week and last week.

Tomorrow will be my last day out with the traps and counting deer droppings.  I hope we catch some more animals or some new species.  Thursday morning I'll skype with the rest of you, while the team collects the traps for the last time, and then Thursday afternoon and Friday we have some different activities.  If all goes well, I should get to see some larger animals.  Stay tuned to see if that happens...

Monday, April 2, 2012

The day started with a visit to a managed forest.  We compared the managed forest to the new growth and old growth stands we saw in the national park yesterday.  Kevin, the forester, explained how he selectively cuts young trees to allow more desirable trees to thrive.  He has to think about many factors when he chooses:  species, how much sunlight it will need, how close it is to other trees, etc.  In most areas he cuts out 20% every 10 years.  In other areas, he clear cuts once in about 20 years. 

Often when he cuts down some trees, he leaves them in the forest.  Can you guess why?
Often he leaves standing dead wood uncut.  Can you guess what standing dead wood offers the ecosystem that cut trees lying on the forest floor do not?

Here is a picture of some balsam fir trees he is growing in an area that was clear cut.  The little one next to my camera case is 4 years old.  It is spindly and tiny - you need to look for a thin bit of green a few inches to the right of my camera case.  The bigger one behind it, but still in the center of the picture, is the same species.  First grade:  can you guess how old the bigger one is?


We also saw a tree stump that had been ripped to shreds by a bear looking for grubs.

After lunch we headed back out to our regular field site to begin a new round of trapping.  First we had to prepare the 100 traps with bedding and food.  Can you see the weather we had while preparing the traps?  Look closely at those white spots in the air - it is not a problem with my camera lens.  Come on, Mother Nature, it's April!

Tomorrow I'll be indoors so I can skype with the 7th grade. The rest of the team will head out to check traps, build habitat piles, and count deer droppings.  I hope our scientists can come up with something I can do back at our house for the day that will be useful for their research.  If I get lucky, I'll have something to report about how the information from the field is used if I can do some of that work for our scientists.

See you tomorrow, 7th grade!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

This morning we went to Kejimkujik National Park.  We did a count of deer droppings.  To do this we marked out a square 10 meters by 10 meters.  (6th graders and 7th graders, can you figure out what that would be in yards?)  Then we all lined up at one side of the square and walked straight through the square to the far side.  We counted the piles of deer droppings as we went.  A pile has to have 5 pellets to count.  By walking close together in a line, we looked carefully at all the land in that square.  We did 5 different squares in one area of the park that our scientists check several times each year.  We found 3, 9, 13, 13, and 0.  The counts matched up with the pattern of past springs:  one area always has a lot and one area never has any.  The scientists are using this information to learn where the deer like to return at different times of year.

We did a 6 mile walk through a hemlock forest.  There were areas of new growth and old growth to illustrate how a forest changes as it grows. 

Dr. Khan's students:  Can you guess which has more biodiversity:  a young hemlock forest or an old growth hemlock forest?  Can you explain your reasoning for your answer?  When we skype you can tell me what you think and we can check your answers.
Saturday was a day off.  We went to Halifax for a bit of sightseeing.  At the Maritime Museum I learned a lot about Halifax's strong maritime and naval history. 

What the Maritime Museum considers the two most fun facts: 
Halifax was the port to which the rescuers of those on the Titanic came.  Therefore, there are three graveyards in Halifax with Titanic passengers and crew in them.  They were buried according to religion:  Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish.

Halifax was the sight of the largest civilian casualty in North America in the 20th century: the Halifax Explosion.  On December 6, 1917, a ship full of explosives collided with another ship in the harbor and then ran aground in the midst of the shipyard.  It then exploded, destroying an entire neighborhood of Halifax.

What I consider the most fun fact:
The colonial governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth (who had a summer home in my home town) fled during the American Revolution.  He went to Halifax where he became the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia and built a huge mansion that is now a historical site in the center of town.

In the middle of the city there is a big citadel.  It towers over the waterfront.  Everyday at noon the main cannon is fired.

Friday, March 30, 2012

After missing a day in the field, we headed straight out to out traps this morning.  Three of the ten traps on my line had been taken apart by raccoons.  The good news about raccoons as culprits is that they are smart enough to take the traps apart without breaking them.  The traps are expensive equipment and not easily replaced here in Nova Scotia.  So a culprit breaking the traps would be a big problem.  There is no way of knowing for sure whether the traps the raccoons got had an animal in them before the raccoon arrived, but at least one of my traps had a pile of red-vole droppings in it. So that one trap would have been a successful catch if the raccoon had not gotten there before we did.

Out of our whole group we caught one red-backed vole and one bog lemming.  The red-backed vole was not one of the two we caught on Wednesday.  How did we know that? 

The bog lemming was fun to catch because we did not expect that species.  It's a bit bigger than a red-backed vole, with a rounder face and even smaller ears.  It is also incredibly soft!





Here is a picture of the bog lemming and a picture of the bog lemming being weighed by Christina, our scientist.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Snow day!

No news to report today.  We were meant to check our traps twice and do a count of deer droppings on the ground.  Not only does the snowstorm happening this morning make it dangerous to drive the 45 minutes to the field site, but it also means that, after the storm stops, we would not be able to see deer droppings and find our traps now that everything is under a blanket of snow.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Last night was extremely cold.  That meant that animals who would normally eat at night probably did not.  As a result, we had nothing in our traps this morning.  Nothing except a dead shrew that got caught in one of my traps.  Shrews are not supposed to be in the traps, but sometimes they go in.  The traps have a hole especially designed for shrews to escape, but the hole on this one trap had been taped over.  When we discovered the shrew this morning, Christina, one of the scientists, was very upset.  "It is my responsibility that this shrew died" she said.  She has worked hard to design a trapping system that not only keeps the animals alive, but also comfortable and happy.  I am impressed with her concern for the animals' experience.  It helps me feel sure that I am participating in research that is not at the animals' expense.

After checking our traps, we learned how to set infrared camera traps.  The cameras have motion sensors.  When something moves in front of the camera, it takes three still pictures.  It is important to place them in a way that they are likely to catch animals moving rather than leaves blowing in the wind.  I had to place one by the porcupine sleeping tree I found yesterday.  On my last day in the field, I'll find out whether that camera caught any porcupines.  I also had to set one near another tree favored by porcupines.  Rigging up the cameras turned out to be a challenge.  6th or 7th graders, can you figure out what conditions I had to look for in choosing how/where to set the camera, and why it was difficult?

At the end of the day we checked the traps again.  Out of the 100 traps we set, we caught 2 live red-backed voles.  Once an animal is caught, the scientist then clips a little spot of the hair.  This is a great way to mark the animal because the tips of the hair are a different color from the rest of the hair, and clipping it does not hurt the animal.  Then the animal is weighed.  Today the female we caught weighed 18 grams, and the male weighted 20.5 grams.  Then the animal is released in the spot where it was caught.  If that animal gets caught in a trap again this week, we'll know because of the clipped hair.



Phew.  I'm tired.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Today we set traps.  It turns out to be far more complicated than I expected.  These traps are designed to catch mice.  But they can also catch other similarly sized rodents such as voles or chipmunks.  Before you read any more, try to figure out what must be done in preparing a trap so that a small animal can survive a cold night in one...

The small animal needs food and bedding to stay warm and fed.  With small stomachs and fast metabolisms (first graders:  who can tell me what metabolism is?), they need to eat more often than we do, and they can't go all night without some food.  The bedding is important to keep them comfortable and warm.  Today when we set the traps it was about 28 degrees and lightly snowing.  An animal can freeze to death in that weather if stuck in a metal box all night.  So the bedding is crucial for survival.  To further ensure the animal will be ok, after setting the trap in place, it gets covered with more grass or moss. 
After preparing the traps with bedding and food, then I had to crawl around in thick underbrush setting them in place according to a grid established by the scientists.  The other members of my team and I each had a big plastic box full of traps we prepared, which we had to carry in parallel lines 10 meters apart from each other and set the traps down at regular intervals.

Today's challenge for you (both 1st graders AND environmental science students):  can you guess how to pick a spot where to place the trap once you reach the appointed area in the grid?  Hint: think about where you might catch a mouse in the wild.  You can post your guesses here for other Dutchmen to see.  First graders:  can you get the answer before the Upper School boys do?

Monday, March 26, 2012


This afternoon we went on a four mile walk along the coast as a test to see if we could spot signs of animals along the way.  We found signs of porcupines in the form of poop and trees stripped of their bark.  It turns out porcupines love to eat bark because they find it sugary.  Don't try this at home, boys.  I also got to smell some mink poop.  It turns out that mink poop is the second yuckiest smelling poop.  Can you guess what animal leaves the smelliest poop of all?  We also saw poop from bobcats and coyotes.  Can you guess how we could tell whether poop was from a predator or not?  Here are a photo of a tree that a porcupine snacked on and mink poop (with a car key to show you how big it is.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Today I had a few hours to meet the other Earthwatch team members in the Halifax airport while we waited to be picked up.  I discovered that this is a fun group of teachers from a wide range of schools around the U.S.  On the long drive down the coast to the cottage where we stay, I got some preliminary information.  As I expected, it is unlikely I'll get to see a fisher cat (oh well), but I should get lucky seeing a porcupine if the weather warms up over the two weeks.  And maybe some other fun animals like beavers.  Also, I will learn how to pick up a wild mouse.

As you all show up for school in warm weather dress code, you might get a kick out of knowing that it was snowing and sleeting here as we ate dinner.  The house I am staying in is cute, but only the ground floor is heated.  I have been assigned a room on the second floor.  So if you have put two and two together, then you now realize I am sleeping in an unheated room while it snows outside.  Brrr.  Well, as long as the road is not slippery when I run at dawn tomorrow, then I'll be happy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hi First Grade,
I enjoyed meeting you this morning.  We named some species that I might get to see in Nova Scotia.  Can you think of what signs scientists might look for when they want to find those species of animals?

Monday, March 5, 2012

While we're we all away on spring vacation, I will be packing for Nova Scotia.  I am not sure what to expect.  I know I will be doing things to measure small mammal populations, but I am not sure exactly what tasks I will be assigned in my two weeks there.  Will I get to handle animals?  Will I get to see animals like porcupines and beavers in the wild?  I will be most excited if I get to see a fisher cat.  It is possible that I will mostly be counting footprints and poop.  I really don't know.  But I do know that I'll be doing something I have never done before.  I have never been a part of scientific research. 

In the most basic ways scientists do their research just like historians:  we all start with a question; we all gather evidence; we all analyze the evidence to conclude something that helps us understand the world better.  But that's where the similarity ends.  Just exactly how and why the fields differ is what I am going to learn on my Earthwatch expedition to Nova Scotia.  It should be fun!