Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know . . . By the Tracks They Leave Behind In the Snow

by David A. Martin

The Pueblo Mountain Park was blessed with a wonderful amount of snowfall in the last two months, at times accumulating quite deep.  The children from Pueblo arriving at the Mountain Park were quite excited when they saw all that snow.  Several weeks of light snow prior to the heavy snow made it a real joy to teach Earth Studies as the subject of Session Four is Mammals and Tracking.  There were plenty of animal tracks to follow through the snowy woods; squirrel, rabbits, deer, fox and even bobcat.  In the periods between snowfalls there were often short period where there were plenty of tracks to be found in the frozen mud.

Indoors, the classroom delves into the subject of mammals with the explanation of the special traits which differentiate mammals from other animals and how these traits are advantageous to their success.  Exploring the various roles mammals play in the food chain and the interdependent complexities of the food web lead children to speculate about how the plants and animals within an ecosystem are connected and to understand the precarious balance of the natural order can easily be destroyed when any one part is missing.

After outfitting them with snow boots and any other cold weather gear they may have needed, the outdoor classes would often begin with explaining what to look for as far as signs of animal activity and how to determine which animals were making the tracks we would find in the snow.  The hiking portion of this session is a blast with children laughing and “falling” into the snow as well as exclamations of joy at the many winter wonders of nature.  A favorite spectacle occurs as the morning sun begins to warm the snow laden branches of the trees, suddenly releasing the snow to fall in a slow motion cascade sparkling in the sun.

Following the animal tracks through the snow can be quite entertaining as students attempt to cognitively recreate the events of another creature’s morning by observing it’s journey and the deciphering the signs of its activities.  This was especially rewarding for a group of children being led by Ranger Sandy following fox prints up a hill before they suddenly noticed the fox they were tracking peering at them over the crest of the hill.  It is encounters like this that these children will retain for a lifetime.  It’s just the type of  magical encounter we as environmental educators hope for knowing it will instill a sense of mystery and beauty to these wild places in the minds of tomorrows decision makers.

The heaviest snows came in February at the end of Session Four and the beginning of the next session, Birds and Raptors.  Each day during the session five a spokesperson from the Pueblo Nature and Raptor Center gives a presentation on birds of prey.  The presenters bring live raptors, often a Falcon, a Turkey Vulture and a Screech Owl to demonstrate the various adaptations they have and how they relate to the birds special skills in hunting and flying.

After the presentation the students head outside where environmental educators lead them to outdoor classrooms to discuss feathers and migration, bird calls and bird songs and on a bird watching hike.  A lovely donation from the Woodmen of America gave us the opportunity to grant each of this year’s Earth Studies students a pair of collapsible binoculars of their very own.   They truly add to the ease of enjoying this session when we spot a bird and can examine it at a distance.

Students look for identifying attributes which will help us determine which species it is.  Hiking quietly allows the students hear bird calls and bird songs of many birds in the park.  There were many days when the snow and wind prevented us from hearing or seeing birds, but there were other days when birds seem to be all around us.  In the early days of this session students often see many of the birds which do not migrate such as several Nuthatch, the Pygmy and Harry Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Stellar’s Jays.  As spring come closer more and more birds will be arriving. Many will be only passing through on their return trip north in their yearly migration while others will find the park to be a perfect habitat and choose to nest in the park.

Students often point out the nesting holes in old snags on our hikes as well as a few old bird nests on the grounds.  Many began to also notice and comment on small signs of the seasonal changes on warm days, the nearly dormant grasses beginning to green, a wasp struggling to move about on a sunny tree trunk, a caterpillar crossing the road.  It was becoming evident that the winter world was waning and we would soon be looking at spring.  There are so many things flying in the park at this time of year; snow, birds . . . and time.

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