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.