Small, Slimy Signs of Spring

The start of spring has brought swaths of yellow to the Nature Center--daffodils, forsythia, and the intrusively ubiquitous celandine all are in glorious bloom. Also, highly anticipated in the spring is the revival of Nanderwhere Pond, the Nature Center's largest standing body of water. Despite its surface stillness, the pond begins to seethe with internal life as the months get warmer. 

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Some of its first inhabitants are Spring Peepers, small frogs that, much like the robin, signal the beginning of spring with a song. These frogs spend most of their lives in the forest, but return to the ponds each year to mate and lay their eggs in water. These eggs will bring another coveted pond discovery . . . the tadpole. Tadpoles are small, orb-like and gooey, with a showy fin making up most of the body. If not consumed by a predator, they will eventually grow legs to assume their final frog form. In addition to Spring peepers, the Nature Center's ponds are home to green frogs, bull frogs, and wood frogs.

Salamanders are another common sight during the early spring. True to their name, meaning "both kinds of life," most amphibian species go through some form of an aquatic life stage. However, a salamander species commonly found at the Nature Center, the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander, skips this developmental stage entirely. 

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Red-Backed Salamanders will lay their eggs under dark, damp logs. These eggs then hatch and immediately become small salamanders, which must continue to reside in moist environments because they do not have lungs (they absorb oxygen through their skin). Red-Backed Salamanders love to eat worms and insects. With a little luck, these guys can be discovered under leaves or logs on a wet morning.

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Amphibians live alongside insects and crustaceans in Nanderwhere Pond. The pond, like a vernal pool (a body of water that cyclically dries up), has few large predators. This means that the defenseless fairy shrimp, a fish food delicacy, can makes its home at the Nature Center without fear.Fairy shrimp are as pretty as their name. They have eleven delicate sets of legs and swim upside down to filter feed on plant growth. Though defenseless in their adult form, fairy shrimp can form impenetrable egg structures called cysts. Cysts can last for years, and the shrimp will emerge only when conditions become satisfactory--for instance when a dried up pond refills. 


-Clio Walton, Environmental Educator

A Day to Reflect on the Past, Present, and Future of Our Earth

Earth Day was established on April 20, 1970. This annual event was created to draw attention to environmental issues and create meaningful, legislative action regarding our natural resources.  Shortly after the first celebration, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. As a result, key changes were made in environmental policy, including the creation of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. 

The impact of Earth Day spread to a global scale in 1990, as a way to mark the 20th anniversary of the holiday. Today, almost 200 countries participate in Earth Day, with 1 billion people working to impact global strategies and individual behaviors to protect our planet.
All actions we take affect the world around us, from the resources we use to the waste we create. Want to make some positive changes? Here are some we do at FRNC and you can too!

  • Cut down on single-use plastics: Single use plastics create a lot of issues and use a lot of resources. Participants in our preschool programs bring their lunches in reusable lunch bags or boxes. Refillable water bottles are also a great way to cut down on your plastics.

  • Start composting: Not sure where to start? Our garden contains a few examples of composting in action. We can also help with kitchen composting pails and tips on what can be composted. If you're a resident of Rye, sign-up up for City of Rye's pilot composting program. Visit the Rye Sustainability Committee's website for more information.

  • Plant native, remove invasive: Our Forest Kindergarten students are doing their part to remove invasive plants. Invasive species are the second largest threat to global biodiversity (second to habitat loss). By removing patches of Lesser Celandine, this group is giving native species a chance to reclaim the areas where their competitors once dominated the space, soil, and sunlight our natives need to thrive. Do your part by removing non-native plantings and growing species that reflect the native landscape. You'll save money on watering, too!

This year's celebrations theme is "Protect our Species". We're ready to help you make that move with our "Naturalist in Your Neighborhood" program. On Friday, April 26, between 10 AM - 4 PM, we can visit your property for free and help you with ideas to make it more welcoming to wildlife. You could help Rye become one of New York State's Community Wildlife Habitats™. Contact ajjohnson@ryenaturecenter.org to arrange your visit or for more information!

Happy Earth Day!

-Amanda Schuster, Environmental Educator

Native Planting for Wildlife

With spring finally here, many of us are eager to begin sprucing up and planting in our yards. For the most robust and environmentally friendly yard you can have, it's important to remember to plant native. There are a variety native flowers, grasses, and shrubs that homeowners can plant to ensure the health of their yards and the wildlife that visits it.

One of the most important visitors to a yard's springtime bloom are our local pollinators. Butterflies, moths, bees, hummingbirds, and bats may be visiting your yard during this time of year to feast on the new bounty that spring offers. By planting native in our yards, we prevent these animals from being exposed to toxic pesticides, while planting plants that are already adjusted for our soils and environmental conditions. A wide variety of native plants will attract an array of pollinators, turning your yard into a must-see stop on these animals' journeys.

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Research has shown that specific colors of flowers tend to attract certain types of pollinators. For a yard buzzing with bees, purple flowers are the ones to plant. For butterflies and moths, pink flowers win them over, while our beetles and ants tend to favor white and yellow. Therefore, a mix of butterfly weed, coneflower, milkweed, penstemon, and sweetspire could be planted to please all these pollinators needs. The more colors you plant, the more of a chance you'll have to attract different pollinators to your yard.
In addition to our wildflowers, our yards may need some additional grasses or shrubs. Native grasses and shrubs, just like our wildflowers, are adapted for the soils in our community and are resistant to conditions such as drought and excessive heat. Switchgrass, fescue, and little bluestem can help bring a wild meadow feel to your yard, while also helping with stormwater runoff and erosion. Native shrubs, such as elderberry and chokeberry, provide valuable food for our flying feather friends, while also providing additional color and shape to a yard's landscape.

When preparing to plant your yard this spring, remember to plant native. It's important for the health of our community, wildlife, pollinators, and watershed. For more information on native yard planting you can visit the Rye Nature Center or check out the wonderful resources that the Rye Sustainability Committee has compiled here!

Happy Planting!

-AJ Johnson, Director of Strategic Initiatives 

Spring Brings New Life to Our Forests

We are in that time of fluctuating temperatures that heralds the approach of a new spring season! Just as flowers of early bulbs peek through the frozen ground and the Maple sap works its way up to the tree buds, we notice the warmth of the March sunlight.

The last snows melted quickly and fed into the Blind Brook and adjacent wetlands. Robin calls now accompany the sunrise and migrant birds like the Great Blue Heron are seen overhead.

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One of my favorite spring signs is the silent emergence of the Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, from its winter hibernation. This butterfly is a fairly large insect with brown wings bordered in gold. It can be found sipping tree sap dripping from a broken branch or a recently fallen tree. As the days edge into April, the females seek out mates and then lay eggs on leaves of willow, cottonwood, and birch.

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The noisy emergence of Wood Frogs, Rana sylvatica, in our ponds is also an early spring event. The male frogs have a song that can be confused with the quack of a duck. In addition to their call, these frogs are identified by their brown color that camouflages perfectly with the leaf litter and a dark eye patch. The females are attracted to the water by the male chorus and after mating will lay their cache of eggs in shallow water near the pond's edge. The spawn will hatch in approximately one to three weeks as the sunlight warms the water. The adult frogs return to the forest to look for insects while the young tadpoles feed on the spring flush of algae.

Enjoy the longer days with a hike through the woods and keep an eye and ear out for our hidden friends!


-Mary Gillick, Program Director

Making Science A Walk in the Woods

Are you interested in observing, documenting, and learning more about plant life and the outdoors? Wish you could spend more time outside, walking around in the forest?

That's what's on the agenda for our Phenology Network team. Simply put, phenology is making yearly observations about the ways in which plants are changing. It's vital to record these observations in order to have an idea of what's going on ecologically, which is why Nature's Notebook was developed. 

Nature's Notebook is a Citizen Science program run through the USA Phenology Network that compiles natural observations from across the country. These observations are used to track changes that may have occurred because of climate change. For instance, someone might examine one particular red oak over ten years. They would record when it starts to bud, when it establishes full leaves, and when it drops its leaves. Once several years have passed, we can compare these seasonal occurrences to determine whether the tree perhaps bloomed earlier or later at some point during the recorded time period--information vital to naturalists, environmental scientists, and climatologists.

There is a phenology program at the Rye Nature Center that's been collecting data for about ten years. This program is composed of citizens with varied interests who participate on a volunteer basis. Some of these volunteers have a background in science, while others just have a passion for the natural world. The meetings involve walking in the woods and having conversations with other nature enthusiasts.

photo credit: wordpress.arkansasmasternaturalists.org

photo credit: wordpress.arkansasmasternaturalists.org

The Phenology Network team is open to anyone who is interested, all skills levels welcome! The Rye Nature Center is committed to conservation and the encouragement of active community involvement to better our environment.

Phenology observations can be taken at any time during the spring, summer, and fall. If you're interested in joining the core Phenology Network team or to learn more contact our Director of Strategic Initiatives at: ajjohnson@ryenaturecenter.org

You can also stop by the Rye Nature Visitor Center Monday through Saturday between 9:00 am-5:00 pm.

-Chris Hendershot, Land Steward

The Geese Are Back in Town...But Did They Ever Leave?

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Signs of the season changing to spring are all around us. One of these signs, bird migration, involves making the voyage from southern regions where they winter, back north to their traditional breeding areas. One of the most familiar migrating birds in New York seems to confuse us. The Canada goose, Branta canadensis, has two distinct populations that live in NY. One population is a seasonal migratory bird that spends its summers in northern Canada and its winters in the central to southern U.S. The other population breeds in southern Canada and the U.S. and spends most of its life in that same area.

The resident Canada goose population has risen dramatically since the 1950s. There are multiple factors credited with the increase: a lack of natural predators,  the combination of a continual expansion of grass lawns and golf courses, and New York State Conservation officials released "giant" Canada geese in attempt to establish local flocks for game. The current number of resident geese in New York is estimated to be around 200,000 birds. The resident Canada Goose can live more than 20 years and begin breeding around 2 to 3 years old. A single goose may produce more than 50 young over her lifetime. With the Canada Goose being listed as a federally protected species under the Migratory Bird Act, it looks like we will be seeing this bird around for many years to come!

Here are some fun facts of other migratory birds:

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The Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus), a native to Asia, has the highest migration path. Each year they migrate from Central Asia to Southern Asia over the Himalayan Mountains. These birds have been recorded flying at an elevation of 29,000 feet! 

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The Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) has the longest migratory path in the world, approximately 25,000 miles each year! They see two summers a year as they migrate from their northern breeding grounds to the coast of Antarctica for the southern summer before flying back north about six months later. 

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The Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) has the shortest migration path in the world! During the winter months this bird inhabits the mountainous pine forests of Western U.S. and Canada. When summer comes, the Dusky Grouse descends a mere 1000 feet to the deciduous woodlands at the base of those very same mountains! 

-Kris Karpinia, Environmental Educator

You've Walked In Our Forest, Do You Know What You've Seen?

If not, come to the Rye Nature Center, look over our herbarium, and learn what it was that you saw. Just in case you don't know what a herbarium is, it is a library of pressed plants, often used for scientific study. 

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Our library contains over 200 pressed specimens of plants, which we have found in the forest that surrounds the Rye Nature Center. There are specimens of trees, shrubs, ferns, wildflowers, vines, and grasses. All of which we are still collecting. 

As soon as the weather warms up and things start growing, we'll start hunting for plants missing from the collection. We don't even know what they may be, but, ironically, we'll recognize them because we won't recognize them. Know what we mean? 

You may be wondering, why do we have an herbarium? It's education. It's the same reason you visit a museum, read a new book, study a language or take a new class...to learn and continue to learn. We love the Earth and all its inhabitants (plants and animals alike) but can you truly love something you've never met or cannot call by name? 

So we would like to introduce you to the plants that surround you...each by name. We encourage you to stop in and look at our herbarium. Call for an appointment and we'll have a naturalist there to show it to you or if you find yourself free on a Wednesday or Thursday morning, drop in, and ask for Michael. Then the next time you take that walk in the woods, you'll know what you're looking at and can greet them by name.

-Michael Penziner, Volunteer

Science is Not Just for Scientists

Professional scientists do not collect most scientific data. Did you know that? "Amateurs" compile most of the accumulated information on the natural world and members of the general public who contribute to that sort of scientific work are called Citizen Scientists. Citizen Science is a great motivator to develop a more observant eye of the natural world and become a participatory member of the scientific community. 

Want to get involved but don't know where to start? We can help you dip your toe into the world of Citizen Science.


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FRNC participates in Project FeederWatch, a program run through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we monitor our feeders from November to April, with weekly observations on Friday and Saturday. Your efforts will help us to understand "long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance," creating a more holistic view of bird populations in the United States.

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Due to the Blind Brook's connection to the Atlantic Ocean, Rye Nature Center is also part of an initiative to study the American Eel, a species that hatches in the Sargasso Sea, yet needs freshwater in order to mature into adults. Using materials distributed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, staff and volunteers survey the Brook in order to understand the migration patterns of this species while they are in the glass eel or elver stage of their life cycle. You're invited to collect data when the monitoring begins. Early March is the best time to start, so don't waste any time if you want to get involved!

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Want to continue your passion for Citizen Science in the summer? The Firefly Watch Citizen Science Project, facilitated by Mass Audubon and Tufts University, gives individuals a chance to observe the diversity of fireflies in their backyard. If you have 10 minutes once a week, then this project is for you! A handy chart provided by Mass Audubon gives you insight into the flash patterns that help distinguish the various Photinus (the most common) species.


Of course, there are many more options to choose from. National Geographic has a large list of projects that will expand your knowledge of our planet and the solar system!

Please keep us in mind for starting or continuing your involvement in Citizen Science--we have options throughout the year. We'd love to hear your stories of participation and see any pictures of you in action!

-Amanda Schuster, Environmental Educator

Maple Sugaring at Home

If you are looking for a sign of approaching spring, look no further than the maple tree and its sugary sap.  The season of sugaring begins when the daytime temperature in midwinter rises above freezing.  The sap or "lifeblood" of the deciduous maple is stored below ground during the cold winter months.  When the sun begins to climb higher in the sky in February and March, the ground thaws and the water is drawn up through the trunk.

If you would like to try sugaring in your yard, you must first identify if you have a maple tree on your property.  You can "tap" sugar maple, red maple, and silver maple trees, but if you have a choice, sugar maple is the way to go!


How Do You Identify a Maple Tree? 

Maple trees have opposite arrangements of their buds. This means the leaves on the stem alternate sides rather than directly across from one another. 

Photo Credit: Brooks Cole - Thomson Learning

Photo Credit: Brooks Cole - Thomson Learning

Leaf color in the fall is also a good way to identify the type of maple. Orange leaves indicate a sugar maple, yellow for a Silver maple, and red leaves for the red maple.

The last thing you need to consider before you begin tapping your tree is the size of the tree. The tree must be at least 12" in diameter for you to be able to tap the tree and get results. This also ensures no damage will be done to the tree itself. 

What Supplies Do You Need?

Once you have identified a tree with a diameter of at least one foot, you need a hand drill, a spile, a bucket or sugaring bag, and a hammer or rubber mallet.

Hardware stores may have spiles, or the spouts that are inserted through the bark. However, Leader Evaporator in Vermont is one of many suppliers that offer equipment for small sugaring ventures. You can visit their website here.

How Do You Tap the Tree? 

First, you want to find the side of the tree that faces south. This ensures that the tapped side will get the most exposure to the sun. To extract the sap:

1. Use a 7/16 drill bit and corresponding spile. 

2. Drill about 1 ½ to 2 inches through the bark. 

3. With a hammer or rubber mallet, tap in the spile deep enough to seat the spile but no so far that you        plug the end with wood.

4. Attach a milk jug, bucket or collection bag. 


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When the daytime temperature creeps above freezing, the sap should begin to drip or "run." If the run is quick and you collect more than a couple of gallons, you should boil it down as soon as possible. If the weather turns cold, you may store the sap in the refrigerator for a couple of days. 

You need 40-45 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup--but don't get discouraged, you can still get a quarter cup syrup or more from a few gallons of sap. 

You Have Sap, Now What?!

Once you have a few gallons of sap, you are ready to boil it. First, pass the sap through cheesecloth netting to remove any debris collected during the extraction process.

Next, put your sap into a pot and, using a candy thermometer, boil off the water until the golden liquid boils at 219 degrees F. If it begins to foam, place a drop of vegetable oil or butter into the container to prevent it from boiling over. Remove from heat and allow the liquid to cool before pouring it into a clean glass jar with a lid. 

Now you have maple syrup, enjoy your hard work with a waffle, a pancake or whatever your "sweet" heart desires!


Mary Gillick, Environmental Educator

Coffee and Conservation

Did you know that you can help the environment every day just by drinking coffee? The National Coffee Association reported that over 64% of individuals drank coffee on a regular basis in 2018. However, most of the coffee consumed was farmed in ways that negatively affect our environment. 

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Coffee comes from tree species in the family Rubiaciae. These plants grow best in warm climates with rich soil and steady temperatures. The coffee we typically drink is imported from farms located in these ideal environments in regions of South America, Africa, and Asia. These same regions are also known as hot spots for biodiversity of plant and animal species in our world.

Left: Heart-spotted woodpecker, Ramki S.  Right: Coppersmith barbet bangalore, Shashank Dalvi  Two species of woodpeckers that have been affected by poor coffee farming practices.  Photo source: New York Times

Left: Heart-spotted woodpecker, Ramki S.

Right: Coppersmith barbet bangalore, Shashank Dalvi

Two species of woodpeckers that have been affected by poor coffee farming practices.

Photo source: New York Times

Many farmers believe that the best way to maximize coffee production is by cutting down nearby trees to provide the most sunlight possible. By enacting this farming practice so close to these biodiversity hot spots, the coffee industry is causing major environmental damage and destroying habitats used by many of the species that live there.

To prevent the coffee industry from furthering the destruction of key habitats, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center developed a standard of farming practices that protects species and identify "bird friendly habitats." The initial practice was to protect native songbirds in coffee growing areas by providing them suitable habitats to occupy. To earn this certification the Migratory Bird Center requires that coffee farms utilize shade-grown farming practices with at least 40% of the farm has canopy cover, a minimum canopy height, and a minimum number of native trees and plants. The certification supports habitat protection of songbirds as well as supports the habitats of all species living near the coffee farms.

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How do you know if you're drinking bird-friendly coffee? 

Look for the label on your coffee package. By drinking more coffee that is certified bird friendly, we can maintain the biodiversity of our planet and conserve our endangered species. 

You can find a list of vendors here.



Katie Jamer, Environmental Educator

The Science of Snow

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While it may not be high on the list of people's favorite weather events, snow is a fascinating phenomenon. Yes, it can make for treacherous travel, but think of the snow day! There are many scientific facts about snow that may make you look at the next storm differently.

Why Does it Snow? 

Snow can only form when the temperature in the atmosphere is at or below freezing and there is a certain amount of moisture in the air. Snow crystals form in a moisture-filled cloud and bounce around until they attach to a particle of dust, sand, or something solid in that cloud. Like rain, when snow crystals become too heavy, they fall from the clouds. 

When Does Snow Accumulate?

For snow to accumulate or stick to the ground, the ground must be 41 degrees or colder. Wet snow happens when the ground is too warm, which usually occurs in early winter. When snow accumulates under the right conditions, it traps air inside. A fresh snowfall is 90-95% air but will compress as more snow falls on top. When you walk on the snow and hear the familiar "crunch" noise, you are hearing the air "pop" as ice crystals rub against each other (National Snow & Ice Data Center).

Why Are Snowflakes Shaped Differently?

As snowflakes fall through the atmosphere, they change their structure or shape many times depending on the temperature. A snowflake can start shaped like one crystal, melt slightly, and refreeze into a new shape, combine with other snow crystals or go through another temperature change and so on.

Why Is Snow White?

Snow gives off the white appearance because it reflects almost all visible light. Most natural materials absorb some light which gives them a color, but not snow!

It Can Be Too Cold To Snow?!

It's "too cold to snow" when there is not enough moisture in the air because cold air is denser than warm air and holds less moisture--as a form of precipitation, no moisture means no snow. 

What Is Thunder Snow?

Thunder is generated when turbulent air masses of different pressures collide, which can happen when atmospheric temperatures are cold enough for snow. Under these rare conditions, we get thunder snow!
Snow is one of the many fascinating events of our natural world that can give us the time to enjoy it for what it is - a day to slow down and enjoy the snowfall!


Chris Hendershot, Land Steward

Let Nature Be Your Teacher

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"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." - Baba Dioum, 1968

I am sure many of us have fond memories of spending time outdoors as a child. Personally, I spent my childhood days wandering around the woods behind my parents' house. I would splash in the stream, turning over rocks to search for crayfish and salamanders. I built forts from logs, went fishing, caught fireflies at night, and would frequently camp out under the stars. I did not realize it then, but these experiences shaped my life and my connection to the natural world.

Today, many children do not have this exposure to nature. Children have moved indoors both at home and at school. Many children can identify a piece of technology before they can identify a chipmunk or a squirrel. The lack of access to nature along with the push for children to excel in technology, is changing how children play, interact, and even develop. In Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods," he introduces the term Nature Deficit Disorder. This is not a medical diagnosis, but rather describes the growing gap between human beings and nature. This gap is not only impacting how we view nature, but also affecting our overall health and well-being.

In the past few years, there has been a push in schools, nature centers, community organizations, and households throughout the world to get children outdoors. Many parents are realizing the benefits a connection with nature can instill in their children. They are also becoming aware of the amount of time children are spending "plugged in" and the effects that has on their physical and mental health. Studies show that spending time outdoors can decrease the risk of many mental and physical health issues our youth face today. With more studies coming out each year, the push to get children outdoors will continue to rise. 

At the Rye Nature Center, Nature Deficit Disorder is not a new term or a buzzword. All of our programs are designed to connect individuals to nature. We believe that the best way to foster a lifelong connection to nature is by engaging in meaningful outdoor activities as a child. That's why in all of our programs we spend as much time outside as possible and use nature as the primary teacher. Our classes help children to develop socially, gain confidence in the outdoors, and encourage physical activity through nature-based learning and exploration. 

By giving these experiences to children at such a young age, we will hopefully instill a lifelong bond with nature. They will hopefully remember their childhood days spent splashing in mud puddles, building forts, exploring under rocks and logs, and most of all the connection they made with nature.

Emily Embick, Environmental Educator

What's all the Hoot About?

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Venturing outside at night is not particularly appealing during January, but those who brave the cold and dark may be rewarded with a glimpse into the world of owl nesting. This is the best time of year to hear the deep, rich calls of male owls seeking a mate or defending their territories--you may even hear a slightly higher-pitched responding hoot from female owls!

Beginning in the late fall and early winter, owl courtship consists of the male calling and a female eventually joining in. The male will swoop down and bow to the female, offering her food. If she accepts him as a mate, she will hoot back, bow to him, allow him to move in closer, and they will preen one another. Once a female chooses a male, they will likely remain mates for life.

January may not seem like the best time for a breeding pair to begin raising their young, but the fierce great horned owl defies expectations. The biggest species here in New York, the great horned owl, stays here year-round, choosing to brave the cold instead of migrating. They are built to withstand chilly temperatures, as they are covered in a thick layer of downy feathers from their heads all the way down to their big, powerful feet. They are also built to begin breeding during months that are too cold and extreme for most other animals in the Northeast. Owls in general are early to nest, and great horned owls tend to be the first to begin laying eggs, sometimes beginning as early as December.

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Owls do not usually build their own nests. They prefer to take over nests left behind by other large animals or find a suitable cavity in a tree or other structure. With a mate and nesting site selected, a female great horned owl may begin laying her eggs in late January, usually laying each egg a few days apart. She incubates the eggs starting when the first one is laid and stays on the nest using her body heat to keep the fragile eggs warm while her mate is responsible for hunting and bringing food back to the nest.
The eggs will begin to hatch after about thirty days, and the down-covered nestlings will spend the next few weeks in the nest eating all the food delivered by their parents. The owlets will fledge six weeks later and begin exploring the world outside their nest potentially as early as February and March, meaning that they leave the nest long before many other animals in the northeast even begin breeding.

As you make your way outside during the night this month, keep an ear out for the haunting hoo-hoo-hoo, hooo hooo of the Great Horned Owl looking for a mate or a pair duetting together, and know that they are preparing to accomplish an amazing feat and welcome their young into a cold, wintry world.


Siobhan Prout, Outreach Educator

Permission to Celebrate the Longest Night of the Year

Photo credit: time.com

Photo credit: time.com

Though it feels cold enough already, winter only truly began today. December 21st marks the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year, with a depressingly few nine hours of daylight. Thankfully, once it's over, the days will start to get longer and we'll be back to a full twelve hours of light on March 20th, the spring equinox.

Here's some basic science about why December 21st is so briefly lit. The Earth's axis is tilted, so for about half the year, the Northern Hemisphere faces further away from the sun. On December 21st, the Northern Hemisphere is the furthest away from the sun, making it the darkest day of the year--especially for the North Pole where there is an entire 24 hours of darkness!

Photo credit: express.co.uk

Photo credit: express.co.uk

Solstice celebrations, though taking place on the darkest day, are notoriously bright in atmosphere. Stonehenge is a prime example of this tradition. Built around 2,000 to 3,000 BCE, the constructors of Stonehenge took the sun seriously. The alignment of the stones perfectly frames the ascent of our closest star during the winter solstice. While Stonehenge is still a mystery, remains and artifacts found at the site, make it clear that Stonehenge a burial site and a place of celebration. Feasts and parties took place in recognition of the solar event for many years and thousands of people still flock to Stonehenge every year to observe the midwinter sunrise.

Photo credit: newgrange.com

Photo credit: newgrange.com

Stonehenge isn't the only of prehistoric solstice appreciation. Nearby Ireland is host to the vast passage tomb, Newgrange. During the winter solstice, the sun passes directly through its single doorway, creating a stream of light through the site. Newgrange dates to around 3,200 BCE and like Stonehenge, human remains were found on its grounds. Perhaps early civilizations found some value in framing their final resting places in light at a particularly dark time of the year.

The winter solstice is a time to celebrate the working of the world and our planet's motion. It's a good opportunity to take a little time out of the nine-hour day to find comfort in the precision and consistency of the Earth's cycles, as a respite from the ups and downs of one's own routine.



Clio Walton, Environmental Educator

Monarch Migration

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What comes to mind when you hear the word migration? How about monarch butterflies? Every October, monarch butterflies leave their homes in Canada and parts of the northern United States to head for warmer weather in Mexico and southern California. Once the butterflies arrive at their destination, they overwinter until they return to their northern homes in spring. While in Mexico and California, the monarchs will gather together in eucalyptus groves. They usually return to the same groves their ancestors gathered in the past.

This cycle is like clockwork, but can be affected by the weather, particularly the temperature. Since monarchs cannot fly if the temperature drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, they work against the clock to make sure they have migrated before a drastic temperature drop. As current weather patterns continue to change, and temperature and weather greatly fluctuate, some monarch populations are slow to migrate. This can ultimately lead to greater causalities when there is a sudden drop in temperature.

The monarch cycle comes to an end in the spring when the monarchs who migrated in fall, return north. Upon returning north, they will lay eggs and begin the next generation. This return trip must occur to complete the cycle because monarch larvae feed on milkweed which does not grown in southern regions. Therefore, without the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies, the population wouldn't survive. 

Jeni Vogel, Associate Director of Preschool & Camp