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

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!