February 1, 2016

Tracks in the Snow

By Dave Erler, Senior Naturalist

Skunk tracks in the snow.
A week ago I was out in the woods behind my house. To get to the woods I have to cross a stream. The stream is fairly small, too small to paddle a canoe on, but just a little too wide to jump across. To surmount this obstacle I always cross in the same place where I constructed a couple of crude bridges about three decades ago. As got to the first bridge I noticed that a thin coat of ice had finally formed and was coated with a dusting of snow from the night before.

Looking down from the bridge I could see two sets of small tracks. I stopped and looked a little closer and it was clear from the patterns and size of tracks they were from two different animals. One set had smaller footprints paired side by side with about a 12 to 13 inch gap between sets of tracks. The other prints were also paired, but a bit rounder in shape; more definite comma-shaped claw marks and a longer gap between the sets of prints. From that evidence it was clear a Long-tailed Weasel and a Mink had passed through. Both sets of tracks were heading in the same direction, but knowing these two species don’t socialize I began to wonder. Which one had come through first? Was one following the other? Where were they going and where had they come from? Had I just missed an opportunity to see one of them?

I followed the tracks as best I could along the bank, but the dense growth of alders made it difficult and I gave up the effort after a few dozen yards. But even from following them that short distance it seemed clear they both were on a mission. If someone were to follow my tracks it would be clear I was randomly rambling about. In fact if someone followed long enough they would have been led in a large irregular circle eventually coming back across the bridge and to my doorstep. Once there they would have found me enjoying the warmth of the wood stove. As for the mink and the weasel, they have no such luxury. For them survival depends on using energy efficiently at a time of the year when food is hard to come by and the conditions are brutal. They have no time to wander about aimlessly.

Winter often seems devoid of life with so many of the birds having gone south and so many other animals lying dormant until spring arrives and awakens them. For those creatures that remain active and take on the challenge of winter I am thankful. I am thankful for the tracks they leave in the snow to give me reason to wonder and wander through winter as well.

January 28, 2016

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival Comes to Plymouth February 9

A Celebration of Our Environment 
The Wild & Scenic Film Festival comes to Plymouth 

Holderness, NH – Join Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, Plymouth State University’s Office of Environmental Sustainability and other Plymouth State University sponsors when they host the Wild and Scenic Film Festival On Tour at The Flying Monkey in Plymouth on Tuesday, February 9.

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival is a collection of films from the annual festival held the third week of January in Nevada City, CA which is now in its 14th year! Wild & Scenic focuses on films which speak to the environmental concerns and celebrations of our planet. “Films featured at Wild & Scenic give people a sense of place,” says Tour Associate Director, Amelia Workman. “In today’s busy world, it is easy to disconnect from our role in the global ecosystem. When we realize that the change we need in this world begins with us, we start making a difference. Come get inspired!”

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival was started by the watershed advocacy group, the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) in 2003. The festival’s namesake is in celebration of the SYRCL’s landmark victory to receive “Wild & Scenic” status for 39 miles of the South Yuba River in 1999. The main 4-day event features over 100 award-winning films and welcomes over 100 guest speakers, celebrities, and activists who bring a human face to the environmental movement. The home festival kicks-off the international tour to over 150 communities around the globe, allowing SYRCL to share their success as an environmental group with other organizations. The festival is building a network of grassroots organizations connected by a common goal of using film to inspire activism. With the support of National Partners: Patagonia, CLIF Bar, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Orion Magazine, Klean Kanteen, Earthjustice, and Barefoot Wine & Bubbly, the festival can reach an even larger audience. 

The festival in Plymouth will feature eleven films including Osprey: Marine Sentinel. The film stars what is arguably the world’s most iconic and significant raptor: the osprey. Exclusive access, cutting-edge technology, and innovative cinematographic techniques provide a unique perspective and unprecedented intimacy into the dramatic story of a life-long pair, and the intrepid scientists who have spent a lifetime discovering what may be one of the most significant success stories of environmental conservation. Another featured film is Nature Rx, an award-winning comedy set in the world of a spoofed prescription drug commercial. It offers a hearty dose of laughs and the outdoors. 

One of the longer films of the evening is The Little Things, which follows professional snowboarders who have chosen to be outspoken and make positive changes towards a sustainable environment. This film is an initiative taken on by one of snowboarding’s most influential riders, Marie-France Roy, in hopes of inspiring others towards sustainability through inspirational speakers, positive ideas, and leading a healthy lifestyle. They keep it positive and showcase some of the little things that people can do to contribute to positive changes for the future of our environment.

 The festival is a natural extension of PSU’s Office of Environmental Sustainability and Squam Lakes Natural Science Center’s work to inspire people to act on behalf of the environment.

All proceeds go to Plymouth State University’s general scholarship fund.

Event Details:
Date: Tuesday, February 9 at 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
Location: The Flying Monkey, 39 Main Street, Plymouth, NH
Tickets: $10 per person, $5 for PSU students. Purchase online at flyingmonkeynh.com or call 603-536-2551. Tickets may also be purchased at the door on the day of the event.

January 7, 2016

About River Otters

River Otter

Lutra canadensis
River Otter tracksKingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidae
Genus: Lontra
Species: L. canadensis

Fast Facts

River OtterLifespan: 8-10 years in the wild (up to 20 years in captivity)
Size: 35-50 inches long, weight of males 15-20 pounds, females about one-third less
Offspring: 2-3 kits
Status: Common in parts of southern Canada and populations increasing in the eastern United States
What do river otters look like and what animals are their relatives?  River otters are dark brown, fading to tan on the underside and on the muzzle and throat. Their coats consist of two kinds of fur – a dense, short, oily underfur and long, shiny guardhairs.  Streamlined for swimming, with cylindrical bodies and long, tapering, round tails, otters are never far from water. Eyes, plus a flattened dark nose and small rounded ears are towards the top of the skull. Webbed feet greatly enhance an otter’s swimming abilities.  Otters are members of the family Mustelidae and thus are related to mink, fisher, weasels and martens.
What kind of habitat to otters prefer?  Masters of the waterways, otters are found in the moving water of rivers and streams as well as in marshes, ponds, lakes, and saltwater.  The home range of an otter is typically 3-10 square miles, but may be as large as 60 square miles. A male otter has a larger territory that usually overlaps that of several females. Dens are used in raising the young and may be an old beaver lodge or bank den, a spot under the roots of fallen trees or in hollow logs close to water.
What do otters eat?  
While fish make up the major portion of their diet, otters also prey on crayfish, frogs, small mammals, aquatic insects, turtles, water snakes and even eat some plant material like blueberries.
Do otters have some special adaptations?  Otters have special adaptations for living in water that give them to ability to dive to a depth of 60 feet and stay underwater of up to three or four minutes. As they dive below the surface, otters automatically slow their heart rate and concentrate blood flow to the brain and vital organs, thus conserving oxygen.  Valves in their ears and nostrils close to exclude water and a clear nictitating membrane (third eyelid) covers and protects the eyes while allowing for good vision. Whiskers two to four inches long are sensitive to underwater vibrations from prey.

Fun Facts!

  • Otters can swim at six to seven miles per hour both above and below water.
  • Otter slides? Yes, otters will slide down muddy, grassy or snowy slopes and these slides may be up to 25 feet long, usually ending in water.
  • Otters are very playful, wrestling and chasing each other and rolling in the water.
  • An otter’s fur is waterproof because the oily underfur is so dense and is structured in an interlocking pattern, keeping water away from the otter’s skin.  
  • Clean water is essential to otters so seeing one indicates a healthy waterway.

October 26, 2015

Volunteer Update: Parsons Volunteer Recognition Dinner

By Carol Raymond, Volunteer Coordinator

Volunteers enjoy dinner and visiting at Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant.
The annual Parsons Volunteer Recognition Dinner was held in September at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant in Meredith. Almost 80 volunteers and staff attended the dinner, which was generously sponsored by Cross Insurance Agency, Patty Stewart Associates, and Hart’s Turkey Farm.

Dave Erler talks about the Blue Jay research study.
At the dinner, Senior Naturalist Dave Erler recognized a volunteer group of 23 Blue Jay Observers for their help during the three-year project, which was completed at the end of 2014. Volunteer observers were: Shaun Flynn, Elizabeth Fortson, Pat James, Mary Kahn, Kathy Letsky, Dom Marocco, Irene Marocco, Don Margeson, Peggy Martin, Missy Mason, Denise Moulis, Ron Piro, Nance Ruhm, Bill Sharp, Ashley Spooner, Pam Stearns, Susan Stepp, Rob Stewart, Carol Stewart, Lisetta Silvestri, Jan Welch, Marc White, and Betsy Whitmore.

“Volunteers Complete the Picture” in the Trailhead Gallery is updated each year to show cumulative hours of volunteer service. Volunteers who achieved 200 hours in 2014 were Bob Gosselin and Liz Hager. Lisa Davis, Dan Kemp, and Steve Hackett advanced to the 500 hour level. Pat James, Karin Karagozian, Denise Moulis, and Susan Stepp reached 1,000 hours. The staff extends its thanks and appreciation to all volunteers for their tremendous gifts of time and dedication.
Natalie Parsons

The Presidents Service Awards is a nationally program honoring Americans who inspire others to volunteer through their example. Executive Director Iain MacLeod awarded pins and certificates to those volunteers eligible for the President’s Volunteer Service Award for service in 2014. Jim Barry received the Silver Award for donating over 250 hours. Bronze Award recipients who donated between100 and 250 hours were: Lisa Davis , Nancy-Jane Duncan, Kenneth Evans, Dennis Hager, Pat James, Barb Laverack, John McRae, Elaine Melquist, Denise Moulis, Gary Robertson, Nance Ruhm, Judy Sniffen, and Lea Stewart.

Volunteers in action:

October 21, 2015

Citizen Science Blue Jay Project Results

By Dave Erler, Senior Naturalist

Over the past three years (2012-2014), many of you visiting the “Celebrate Birds Exhibit” may have noticed some research going on. If you were there early in the morning, you might have visited with volunteers as they intently watched the coming and goings of Blue Jays at the feeders inside the aviary. The volunteers were helping with the Blue Jay Project, which grew from a question I had pondered for 30 years while watching Blue Jays at my home. Blue Jays are intelligent social birds and I often watched them jockey for position on feeders I could see from my kitchen table. Occasionally, I put “leftovers” in a wire mesh basket near another feeder. I grew curious about which jays would be the first to try the leftovers. Was it the bully at the tray feeder or one the birds that had been chased off?

In 2011, the aviary population of non-releasable songbirds exhibited over the previous 15 years had been reduced to one Mourning Dove. Sensing an opportunity, I made a proposal to the staff with my idea to answer some Blue Jay questions. With no opposition, I proceeded to plan the project. The project had three goals:
  • Give visitors an opportunity to observe Blue Jays up close. 
  • Include an accompanying exhibit on Citizen Science. 
  • Conduct research to determine if social hierarchy in Blue Jays affects their use of novel foods.
The first hurdle to cross was to obtain research permits from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department to capture and color-band Blue Jays. Once the permits were secured, work began to modify the bird exhibit aviary. Additional perches and roof panels were installed and two 24-inch by 9-inch tray feeders were suspended 30 inches from the ground using light chains attached to the aviary roof. Pictures of the color-banded jays were put into the exhibit panels that formerly identified the various songbirds in the aviary. Two exhibit signs were created and placed alongside the observation windows. One explained the project and the other explained the role of citizens contributing to real science.

In April of each year volunteers were trained and 10 Blue Jays were captured in funnel traps. At capture the Blue Jays were aged, weighed, and measured. Blue Jays can be aged as either first year birds or after first year (adult) by looking at the markings on the outer wing coverts (small feathers overlapping the primary flight feathers). Half the Jays captured were first year and half were adults. We were unable to determine the sex of the birds since male and female Blue Jays are not dimorphic in their plumage and they were not in breeding condition at the time of capture. Before releasing the jays into the aviary each bird was color banded. The color bands consisted of two colored plastic bands placed on the right leg of each bird. The different combinations of color bands allowed us to identify each bird. Once in the aviary the birds had time to acclimate to their new surroundings. Observation periods began on May 1.

The project had two phases. The first phase was to determine which Blue Jays were dominant and which were more submissive. This was determined by which bird displaced another at a feeder that contained a commercial songbird seed mix and pelletized commercial captive bird diet. After two months of observations the hierarchy was established and the second phase began. Over the three years of the project, the first phase covered a total of 162 days with 13,988 observations.

The second phase focused on determining the order in which the Blue Jays arrived at the feeder and how often they utilized a novel food. A novel food was introduced during each observation period on one feeder, with the second feeder containing the regular diet. A coin flip determined which feeder received the regular diet or novel food. Fifty novel foods were used each year, including different sizes, shapes, and colors of dyed cooked pasta, large parrot pellets of different colors and shapes, tropical nuts and fruits cut into various shapes and sizes, strips of raw fish, ground horse meat rolled into small logs, a variety of breakfast cereals, snack crackers, and pet kibble. Over the three years of the project, the second phase covered 140 days with 3,062 observations.

In the second phase there was very little interaction between jays at the novel food feeder. Most novel foods were larger in size than the regular basic diet offering, and as a result were usually picked up and taken to another perch before being eaten. There was little aggressive behavior displayed at the feeder, but after flying to a perch, occasionally one bird would attempt to steal the novel food from another one that had acquired it. Novel food was also occasionally cached (stored) and another jay would recover the food item, but the identity of the “pirate” stealing the cached food was seldom determined. The use of novel foods varied widely. Generally, smaller sizes of novel foods were preferred over larger sizes. Surprisingly, the color of novel foods did not seem to be a factor, but texture was. Novel foods that were slippery or sticky (dried fruits, banana slivers, marshmallows) were picked up but rejected more often than they were eaten. During both phases, the Blue Jays were observed capturing insects that had flown or crawled into the aviary. Several species of bees and moths were taken while flying. Caterpillars of unknown species were picked off the aviary mesh and larva of the Viburnum leaf beetle were gleaned from the leaves of an Arrowwood shrub.

Weather data was not recorded, but overall activity was greatly reduced during periods of rain as the birds tended to stay under shelter. Another factor that reduced activity was the presence of predators outside the aviary. Cooper’s Hawks were a particular concern of the Blue Jays. On nine occasions when a Cooper’s Hawk perched outside the aviary, the jays showed one of two behaviors. Most jays would remain quiet and perfectly still, while one or two would sound the familiar “jay, jay, jay” alarm call. Within seconds of the intruding hawk’s departure, activity would resume. Unfortunately, the identity of the vocalizing jay(s) could not be determined.

What did we learn? After all the data were compiled and analyzed, the results showed the following:
  • There was little size difference between the most dominant birds versus the most submissive birds based on weight and length of wing chord (wrist to longest flight feather). 
  • Adult birds were twice as likely to be dominant as younger birds. 
  • Dominant birds were slightly more likely to feed with other birds than feeding alone. 
  • The submissive birds were slightly more likely to feed alone than with other birds. 
  • There was no significant difference between the most dominant and least dominant in their total use of novel food, but dominant birds were nearly four times more likely to be the first to investigate a novel food.
As with most research projects, more questions were generated than were answered. One question that arose was if parasites influence the aggressiveness of Blue Jays at feeding stations? This premise assumes a bird carrying an internal parasite load needs more food to maintain itself and thus will be driven to seek out more food to compensate. During the study, several of the most dominant birds died, and their necropsies determined that they were carrying a high load of internal parasitic roundworms. Before being placed in the aviary, the Blue Jays had been quarantined and treated for parasites with the drug ivermectin. The medication may have been ineffective or the jays may have contracted the parasites from dormant eggs in the aviary soil, shed from birds previously housed there. There is a slight possibility that wild birds introduced parasite eggs by defecating through the mesh of the aviary’s roof. In either case the jays could have ingested the parasite eggs when food was cached or dropped to the ground and came in contact with the soil.

Another question came up was whether Blue Jay populations are affected by Gray Squirrel population levels. This question resulted from the number of hours it took to capture the Blue Jays before each year’s study period. Over the three years of the study, the number of hours it took to capture the Blue Jays increased exponentially each year as the number of Gray Squirrels near the capture sites increased. Blue Jays and Gray Squirrels do compete for some foods, including mast like acorns. It is possible that Gray Squirrels out-compete Blue Jays for important food resources. Other studies have also noted that during periods of higher squirrel densities, squirrels can be important nest predators on many bird species, including Blue Jays.

Clearly, there is no limit to the number of questions that can be pondered when we consider the complexity of the natural world. For my part, I want to thank the Science Center for allowing me to try to answer one small question that I had often wondered about. I also want to thank the terrific volunteers who gave so many hours to the project. Without their help, I could never have pursued the answers to my question.

September 28, 2015

Picking Cranberries

By Dave Erler, Senior Naturalist

Mountain cranberry. Courtesy Jonas Bergsten (wikimedia)
Cranberries are one of the strangest fruits to find and pick in the wild. Traditionally they are thought of as a Thanksgiving side dish or beverage option. Most people, think of them only as growing in commercial bogs harvested by flooding and floating the berries (think of the Ocean Spray cranberry juice commercials).

In the past three weeks I had the opportunity to pick wild cranberries in three very different locations. The first was at the top of Mt. Eisenhower. I had a day off and decided to do a hike and take advantage of the perfect weather. Once above tree line I found plenty of Mountain Cranberries, Vaccinium vitus-ideacea, (not to be confused with High Bush Cranberry, Viburnum tribolum, which is a popular landscape shrub). Like the bog cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, Mountain Cranberries are low creeping woody-like vines with small ¾to ½-inchevergreen leaves. Mountain Cranberries are about half the size of bog cranberries, but what they lack in size they make up for in flavor, tasting a lot like apples. Although it takes a bit of crawling around to pick them I found enough to fill my lunch bag On returning home I put some of them to good use making my all-time favorite dessert cranberry pie cake. See the recipe below.

The second location where I picked was closer to home. Along the road less than a mile from my house, cranberries grow in the ditch. These are bog cranberries and although the berries are larger, the plants are small and easily overlooked. While I only picked a handful some passers-by stopped upon seeing me stooped over and inquired if I was picking blueberries. They were surprised when I told them it was cranberries. They drove off with a puzzled look in their faces.

The most recent cranberry picking occurred while I was hiking with one of my daughters in the beach dunes on Cape Cod. After slogging through a mile of sand going up and down over the dunes, we came to a low spot and found a large patch of large just ripening cranberries. In about 20 minutes we picked a gallon. Right now they are in my refrigerator just waiting to be made into a few more cranberry pie cakes.

Cranberry Pie-cake

  • Line a 10" pie plate with your favorite pie crust.
  • Into this put 2 cups of cranberries, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup chopped nuts.
  • Make Batter: Cream 3/4 cup softened margarine and 1 cup sugar. Add 2 beaten eggs and 1 cup flour. 
  • Pour batter over cranberries and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes. 

Recipe Credit: Cape Cod National Seashore 1980

September 7, 2015

Loons on Squam

By Maggie Gaiero, Program Intern

Many people are fascinated by these amazing animals swimming about on Squam Lakes. Sharing the waters with other birds like the Blue Heron, the Common Loon stands out with its recognizable black and white plumage. The Common Loon is one of five species of loon. Both Squam Lakes are blessed to have this bird call it home. Loons claim territory on the shorelines around the lakes, spending the majority of their lives in the air and swimming in the water. The Common Loon only comes ashore to lay eggs in early summer, but there is great danger to doing this. Eggs may become prey to animals like raccoons and turtles. Both parents stand guard on the nest and incubate the eggs as they try to prevent the loss of one of their precious chicks.

From the fall of 2004 to the spring of 2005, 44% of the loon population on Squam Lakes was lost. Out of the 16 pairs that flew south in 2004, only 9 pairs returned to lay eggs in 2005. More recently in 2014 there were 12 pairs of loons creating homes on the beautiful shores of Squam, and this summer 13 pairs were spotted. What caused such a dramatic drop from 2004 to 2005? Loons face many stresses in the wild even here at Squam. In 2001 with the reopening of the public boat launch, it was noted that human recreational use of the lake went up. Such acts can disturb nesting loons. Other stresses such as lead fishing tackle, extreme temperatures, and a high number of contaminants also have a negative impact on loons.

Here in New Hampshire the Common Loon is considered a threatened species. What exactly does this mean? A threatened species is characterized by a dramatic change in population – based on how many individuals are able to breed and the number of offspring that survive. The Loon is characterized as critical, meaning it is unable to sustain its population by itself in the wild in New Hampshire.

Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is concerned about this, so we have united with the Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) to offer Loon Cruises twice a week each summer. These cruises take visitors around Squam Lake. Participants see some artificial loon nest platforms made and monitored by the LPC. They also hear about conservation ecology for the Common Loon. The boat trip lasts for 90-minutes. It is a great way to spend an afternoon while learning about one of New Hampshire’s most recognizable birds!

Learn more about our Loon Cruises. 

August 24, 2015


By Melissa Proulx, Marketing Intern

Have you ever heard of StoryWalk®? It is a project which supports literacy and a love of nature, and it spans across 48 states and 5 countries. According to the Kellogg Hubbard Library, “StoryWalk® is an innovative and delightful way for children — and adults! — to enjoy reading and the outdoors at the same time. Laminated pages from a children's book are attached to wooden stakes, which are installed along an outdoor path. As you stroll down the trail, you're directed to the next page in the story.” The StoryWalk® Project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT and developed in collaboration the Kellogg Hubbard Library. Storywalk® is a registered service mark owned by Ms. Ferguson.

Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, Holderness Library, and Holderness Recreation Department have collaborated to bring StoryWalk® to Holderness. StoryWalk® can be found in the meadow along the bike path that leads to Kirkwood Gardens. It is a mowed trail with posts at various points. Each post has a couple of pages of the children’s book, Eliza and the Dragonfly, written by Susie Caldwell Rinehart and Illustrated by Anisa Claire Hovemann. I attended the opening of StoryWalk® on July 2. I was impressed and intrigued.

StoryWalk® provides a unique, educational experience for children. The story teaches about the life cycle of a dragonfly, and therefore offers some science education. It also uses the dragonfly’s growth as a metaphor for Eliza’s, allowing kids to learn about figurative language. It gives children a chance to practice their reading skills. The walking-between-pages setup allows children who may have a hard time sitting still to practice those skills as well, which makes it a special opportunity. Additionally, StoryWalk® helps kids stay active, both in body and mind, with suggested activities at each post. Examples include pretending to slide out of a dragonfly’s shell, and deciding what color they’d be if they were dragonflies.

I enjoyed StoryWalk® even as an adult. It was nice to be outside in the sun and get some vitamin D. As someone who likes to paint occasionally, I liked looking at the illustrations in Eliza and the Dragonfly. I appreciate the time it must have taken Hovemann to be as detailed as she was with what looks like watercolor paints, a medium that can be hard to work with.

I was fascinated by the live dragonfly nymphs, predacious diving beetle larva, and other small, aquatic creatures brought to the opening by Education Director Audrey Eisenhauer. There were some that I’d never seen or heard of, and it’s interesting to realize these creatures are common and live nearby. I’ll be the first to admit that I find insects a bit creepy, but I was still amazed to learn about the dragonfly life cycle. I would definitely recommend StoryWalk® to others, as it’s a free chance to learn and enjoy the outdoors.

StoryWalk® was generously sponsored by Meredith Village Savings Bank. The 2015 StoryWalk is closed but the 2016 story will open in July 2016. Check back for details.