Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Identifying creatures in vernal pools

Fairy Shrimp in action. Credit: Jack Ray
We’re still trying to figure out if the ponds we are visiting are true vernal pools, and Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, continues to be a great help. When I told her I’m not finding much sign of life around the ponds we’ve been searching, she said not to give up hope: It may take a few years of observation, through heavy rains and dry springs, to figure out what is happening at a location.

In the meantime, here are some more tips for spotting wildlife at a vernal pool:

  •     Look for egg masses early in the season, from around mid-March to mid-April. They shouldn’t be too tough to spot in small and unvegetated vernal ponds, which offer clear views of the entire pool, Leppo says. We might have to look around a bit in  pools with a lot of vegetation.   
“Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders (the two most common vernal pool indicator amphibians) have large egg masses that are usually floating at or near the surface of the pool,” Leppo says. She suggests checking out this handy guide for identifying different species by their eggs. 

  • By May, many of the larvae have hatched, and some egg masses, like that of the Wood Frog, have fallen apart. But that doesn't mean there aren't interesting things to find. Leppo says we still might be able to locate egg remnants of the Spotted Salamander. “The egg matrix is very durable,” she says.

 The smaller long, thin creatures are mosquito larvae, and the larger
fluttery ones are Fairy Shrimp. Credit: Betsy Leppo

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tips for protecting vernal pools

Vernal pools are rare but important habitats to many species of amphibian, reptile, crustaceans and insects. They require our protection, as they are under threat from development, motor vehicles, lawn chemicals and other human activity. So should curious parents and their children stay out of them?

It’s a question I posed to Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. My son and I had been splashing through mud and water around a small pool in the woods, looking for frog and salamander eggs. I want him to explore these places, so that he can learn about them and to value them. But I don’t want to wreck them.

It turns out there is plenty of damage we might accidentally inflict on a wetland  -- killer fungus and sunscreen contamination, among others. But if we take a few easy steps to be careful, it’s absolutely okay to explore, Leppo assures me.

 “I think it’s great to take kids out to vernal pool so they can learn about them,” Leppo says. Part of the learning experience can be “just being aware of the potential impacts you can have.”
It’s a great teachable moment. Here’s how to handle things gently, here’s how to handle an animal carefully. They have to be taught that. It’s a great chance to teach kids how to approach wildlife,” she says.  It’s also an opportunity to help children to get past fears and squeamishness.

Here’s what we need to do to help protect the vernal pools:

Be mindful. Leppo advises to take care where you are stepping to avoid egg masses and creatures in the water. It’s best to remain on the edges of a pond and avoid stirring up the mud too much.

Rinse your hands. Antibiotic soap and sunscreen can be deadly to developing creatures, so avoid these before heading into the water. If you wash your hands, rinse them thoroughly.

Clean your gear. There are two diseases that are devastating wetland animals in some places around the country. They are Ranavirus and Chytrid fungus. (Read more about these diseases here.) Although they aren’t known to be widespread problems in Pennsylvania, they are a concern. Leppo says the way to avoid spreading disease is to wash gear between uses.
The other benefit of washing gear is to avoid spreading invasive plants like Japanese knotweed, reed canary grass, mile-a-minute, purple loosestrife and others, Leppo adds. Seeds can get on our boots just from walking through a yard. She recommends scrubbing all mud off of boots, nets, buckets and the like in a tub of soapy water and rinsing them clean. Conservation professionals use farm-grade antibacterial soap, which can be found at farm supply stores.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Meet a Vernal Pool

I’ve been obsessed with finding vernal pools, those mysterious ponds that appear in early spring where salamanders, frogs and many other critters lay their eggs. Why does this excite me? I’m a nature geek, of course. The other reason is that it’s another way to get my kids just a little more interested in what’s going on outdoors.
Late winter hike -- Will we find a vernal pool?

I’m constantly saying things to my boys like, “Do you hear that jingling sound? It’s the Spring Peepers!”, and we’ve muddied a lot of shoes walking around ponds looking for eggs. I got really excited when my younger son and I went exploring in the woods across from the school bus stop and realized we were ankle deep in water. I was sure we’d found a vernal pool.

But because I wasn’t 100 percent sure, and I like to be accurate, I went looking for a guide. I found one in Betsy Leppo, zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, who created this webinar for the Penn State Extension. It gives a detailed description of species, geology, vegetation and soil of vernal pools, and how to protect them. More for conservation professionals than nature moms, the presentation left me with a few questions. So I contacted Leppo and she kindly agreed to help.

What fascinates me about vernal pools or ponds is that they appear like magic in spots that may be bone dry by late summer, or at least much less wet. They are created from ice melt and rains, Leppo explained, and a true vernal pool has no permanent inlet or outlet of water. They can be found in a land depression in the middle of the woods, as part of a swamp or marsh, among small shrubs or in a field.

A vernal pool can be as small as “little leafy puddles you can jump across,” Leppo says, or “large wetland thickets where you can easily fill your hip waders.” 

These conditions mean there are no fish, making it a great place for amphibians, reptiles and other creatures to lay eggs without fear their babies will be gobbled up. Many species depend upon these unique waters, in fact. Some salamanders and frogs return to the same vernal pool from which they hatched.

In late winter, creatures begin emerging from the nearby woodlands where they spend the rest of their adult lives, sometimes crossing snow and ice to arrive at a pond to breed. In March and April – long before leaves are on the trees and much at all is sprouting from the ground -- a vernal pool is a busy amphibian baby nursery.

Taking a mud break. 
So how do we know when we’ve found a vernal pool? Leppo says the sure way is to locate one of the species that breed almost exclusively in these waters. In Pennsylvania, that would be four types of mole salamanders, as well as the Eastern Spadefoot frog, the Wood Frog and two crustaceans – fairy shrimp and clam shrimp.

Shrimp?! I had no idea there was anything that could be called a shrimp in the water around here! And I’m not at all sure how to identify species of salamander or frog. First you have to find a salamander or frog, which can pretty hard to do. This is where a field guide is really handy, especially an online guide that also features sound clips of frog mating calls, like

There are many other animals that live around and breed in vernal pools, including species of toad, turtle, frog and newt. The noisy Spring Peeper is another one. Many insects and tiny crustraceans tend to thrive in these waters, creating what Leppo calls a “vernal pool soup” that feeds the larger animals as they develop.  

My original hope for a vernal pool – the puddle across from the bus stop – turned out to have been only a puddle that had pretty much dried up in a few days, which isn’t long enough for creatures to hatch and grow. A nearby marsh seemed like another good possibility. We did find squirmy black mosquito babies and other teeny spots swimming around. And lots of snails. But no tadpoles yet.
Not sure what this is, but it looks cool.

We will keep looking. At the very least, we are having fun squishing around in the mud.

More Vernal Pool Resources:
Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Join the revolution: Play outside!

My children are outside right now playing with other kids in the neighborhood.  It’s the kind of thing that supposedly never happens anymore in America, kids playing outdoors on their own. The game appears to be a soccer/kickball/war/superspy combo, very creative. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about my parenting right now.

Except that they won’t be playing like this tomorrow, and maybe not the day after that. My kids might head out into the yard after school, but before they get too busy I will be calling them to the car to go to music lessons. Their friends across the street might be off to sports practice and dance class. And there’s always homework to do.

The links between a healthy child and outdoor play are well documented, and the evidence for more play time in general just keeps building. Simply being outside is one thing – connecting to nature and breathing fresh air. There’s also the special kind of play that can happen when kids gather outdoors, beyond parental interference, with the time and space to organize themselves and their ideas. They enter the Land of Kids.

I know this, I believe in it, I am blogging about it. I understand the dangers of an over-scheduled, over-supervised childhood. But it can be really hard to do things differently. Fears of stranger danger, the pull of organized activities, demanding school work, too little recess and car-centric communities all are real forces pushing our families indoors, into rigid schedules. I encounter these pressures every day.

This day, with the kids outside on their own on the same day that their friends are free, with nothing to do but play, feels revolutionary.  In a way it is. Fortunately, I'm not alone. My neighbors, the parents to my kids’ playmates, want their children outside, too. We all send them out when we can, kind of like the moms of old who wouldn’t permit their children indoors again until they rang the dinner bell.

I used to feel guilty about a free day, worried my kids were missing out, fretting that I just didn't have it together enough to fully maximize their experiences. That finally started to seem crazy. We've cut back, not entirely but enough to have more free time each week. Sometimes I say okay to my kids leaving homework to last on a fine day, and maybe staying outside so long it doesn't get done at all. And then I have to be okay with the resulting grade.

Often our neighborhood is empty of kids playing outdoors, and I think of the block-wide kickball and war games kids played when I was growing up 35 years ago. I met someone recently, a few years older than me, who claimed that as a kid he would ride a raft 10 miles down a creek and then jump on a passing train to get back home. I don’t advocate kids riding the rails, and frankly I wouldn’t go back to the good ‘ol days, even if we could. For one thing, it would likely mean all of us mothers would have to stay home all day, as well.

But we can make little changes around the edges of our lives, revolutionary or not. On this day, the kids have been outside for hours now, having a blast. If I had a dinner bell I’d ring it to call them in. Today it is enough.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It's a Great Time to Clean Up a Creek

It’s amazing in early spring to look into the woods and see beyond tree trunks and thickets, that in summer are covered in leaves, all the way to the ground.  We like to walk in the woods at this time of the year, when you can follow the outline of the land and explore without poison ivy and bugs. It’s also a great time to pick up trash.

I carried a plastic grocery bag with us on a walk to our neighborhood creek this week, and filled the bag in about two minutes. It’s a beautiful place, and when summertime foilage is fully grown you see almost no trash. Now, I see it tangled with dried cattails and among the stubs of wilted grass. Most of it ends up there, I think, accidentally when wind knocks over trash cans. 

Whether it's noticed or not, garbage that collects in and around streams pollutes water. This creek feeds into a larger creek and eventually a river that supplies regional drinking water. It also is home to fish, frogs and a large blue heron. I picked up plastic bottles, a rusting can of silly string and an empty engine oil container – I wouldn’t want any of that in my drinking water. 

I could’ve easily filled two extra-large garbage bags with what was still on the ground. As we walked home, I started plotting a neighborhood creek cleanup party. Get lots of  families involved, offer incentive prizes, have a picnic afterwards. It still sounds like a great idea. But Younger Son wanted me to play Legos, and I had laundry to do and dinner to start. So the plan got shelved for now. In the meantime, I will keep carrying bags on our walks. I bet I fill a few more this spring.

Tips for Cleaning Up Your Creek:

  • Protect your hands with gloves or "wear" a plastic bag on your hand like a glove. 
  • Carry a bag for recyclable materials and another for trash, and deposit in appropriate bins.
  • Parks need help cleaning up, too. Check out trail associations and park events around you for organized cleanup days.
Not my creek, fortunately. I'm not sure where this is, but yuck!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Outdoor Play Spring Gift Guide

I belong to an online parent group, where a recent post asked for ideas for alternatives to candy for the Easter basket. It made me smile to see how many parents responded with toys and gadgets aimed at outdoor play. I started thinking of some of our favorite get-out-there toys, many of them given at Easter or for the spring birthday we celebrate. Here's our list:

For Littler Kids 
Bubbles, Bubble Toys, Giant Bubble Wands * Sidewalk Chalk * Chalk Paint * Swim Suit * Goggles * Snorkel & Mask * Bug Collecting Kit & Critter Cage * Sunhats * Balls Of Any Sort * Kid's Gardening Tools * Garden Bucket on Wheels * Sunglasses * Seeds & Starter Pots * Rain Boots * Umbrella

For Older Kids
Pool & Diving Games * Helicopter Flyer Toys * Boomerang/Disc-type Toys * Foam Bow & Arrow Set * Water Guns * Beach Towel * Foam Rocket Toys * Bike Helmet * Bike Light or Reflectors * Water Bottle or Canteen * Caribiners (for attaching gear to pack)  * Camping Headlamp * Compass * Swiss Army Knife * Flint & Steel/Firesteel Kit * Walkie Talkies * RC Vehicles * Build A Birdfeeder Kit

Bigger Than the Basket Ideas
Scooter * Swing Set accessories * Rope Ladder (for a tree or swingset) * Zipline Kit * Slack Line Kit * Play Tent * Giant Inflatable Balls

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Profile: A Family that Maple Syrups Together

The K Family hard at work.
Since we just don’t live at a time when kids spend large chunks of their days outdoors on their own, it helps to have an outdoor hobby if you want your family to spend time out of the house. In late winter, when other people are finishing up a ski season or watching at the window for spring to arrive, my friends Jason and Susan K. of Baden, PA, are in their backyard with their two young children making maple syrup.

From about mid to late January through late February, the K Family collects about 250 gallons of sap from maple trees in their yard and over the properties of four neighbors.  They spend many days and evenings boiling it down over outdoor stoves into thick, delicious syrup.

 “It gives us something to do before we start fishing again,” says Jason, who started making syrup just four years ago. “We wanted to have something to do to get the kids outside.”

Just one of several stoves cooking syrup.
Needless to say, Jason and Susan enjoy being outdoors and keeping their hands busy. They hunt, make their own sausage and tackle impressive DIY home improvement projects, among many other activities. Their home feels like a place where the adults are having fun alongside the kids, with the syrup making operation and building projects progressing next to the sandbox, a toy truck parade and preschool art creations.

The kids help out a lot, walking through the yards to check the containers at the taps on 30 maples and pouring the clear watery sap into a collection bucket two or three times a day.  When the weather is right – cold nights and warm days – the sap runs fast. That means the K’s have to keep the propane stoves burning to cook off the water in the sap, leaving the rich, sugary stuff behind. The early sap runs produce light, honey-like syrup, while later in the season the syrup gets darker and more intensely flavored. By the end of the season, the K's will have made about 5 gallons of syrup. That’s a lot of pancakes.

When I first learned how simple it is to tap a tree, and that the sap is just cooked down to produce the same syrup I buy at the grocery store for nearly $20 a quart, I was ready to order my own tap from Amazon and sink it in my backyard maple tree. But maple syruping is a serious commitment – did you get that the ratio of sap to syrup is at least 45 to 1?!  For a significant harvest, you are talking hours, days, evenings of cooking sap. And it all depends on the weather.

The kids help collect the sap.
And that’s why I admire the K Family so much. They’ve decided this is important for their family, and they involve their children in the process, too. It creates plenty of time for playing outside with the kids and dogs and working on other projects while keeping an eye on the sap.
Late season syrup dark and rich.
And, perhaps my favorite part, maple syrup time draws neighbors and friends, especially the ones contributing sap, who stop by to check on the progress, share a beer or just chat. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the gathering was like a neighborhood block party. Not something you always see in late February. And of course everyone leaves with a jar of syrup.
Thank you for letting me join in the fun, K Family!