Plan your Link Trail hike!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Short and Oh So Sweet!

I only had time to take my niece and nephew on a ninety minute hike. As it turned out, that was plenty of time for them to bombard me with questions, and for me to saturate their little heads with information.

I parked on Nelson Road, and moments after stepping out of the car I got my first reward: Dylan reminded me of the inchworm on my dashboard. I'd seen it when I first got into the car, and made a point to say that I'd take it out when we got to the trail so that it wouldn't die in the car. I took it out and thanked Dylan for reminding me. It's gratifying to instill in kids a respect for life.

The act of depositing the caterpillar on a plant turned out to be a conversation starter. It fell off the leaf, but then dangled in the air on a strand of silk that it must have anchored on the leaf as it skidded past. I told the kids that caterpillars spin silk like spiders spin webs, and one of the kids asked about caterpillars turning into butterflies. I told them about chrysalises, and when Abby asked if all caterpillars turn into butterflies, I said I didn't know. I must remember to follow up on that question; it's important to teach the kids a dual lesson of admitting when you don't know something, and educating yourself about what you don't know.

We started walking east, and I was pleasantly surprised that we didn't have to turn around. I hadn't been hopeful about continuing far on this section of trail, because it's usually thick with blood-sucking insects. But somehow we got lucky. I explained this to the kids, and took the opportunity to give them a sense of one small piece of the food chain: where there's water, there are insects; where there are insects, there are spiders; and where there are insects and spiders, there are birds.

As usual, the first thing I noticed along the trail was a folded leaf. After years of training my eye to see them, they leap out at me. The folding agent is usually a spider or a caterpillar, and on this trip I only saw evidence of the latter. I kept unrolling leaves and finding either a caterpillar and its feces, or just the feces.

I saw a butterfly, and Abby asked if that was the caterpillar we saw! I explained that caterpillars take months to turn into butterflies, and repeated that I don't know whether all caterpillars turn into butterflies.

Before we got far, we noticed a peculiar blanket of fluff on the trail. I didn't recognize it, so I started wondering out loud what it was. Dylan asked if it was milkweed fluff, and I told him that milkweed plants don't release their seeds until around October, so it couldn't have come from there.

Soon I found a strand of half-open seed pods on the trail. I couldn't recall seeing anything like it before. Clearly the fluff was coming from pods like these, so I took it as an opportunity to give the kids a lesson in deductive reasoning.

I told the kids that there were no other low-growing plants in sight that were releasing fluff, so I was looking higher. I saw some fluff on a small tree near the trail, and for a moment I thought that was the source. But when I compared the branching structure of the pods I found on the trail to that of the pods on the tree, I saw that they were very different. So the fluff couldn't have come from the tree either. This gave the kids a quick and dirty introduction to taxonomy.

Since the fluff didn't seem to be coming from any of the shorter trees, I had to look higher still. I saw maples, elms and poplars along the trail, and I knew that maples and elms didn't produce fluff. So I began to suspect that it was raining down from the poplars. I tried to convey this process of elimination to the kids.

A few minutes later, I found a branch on the trail that confirmed my hypothesis. It had both poplar leaves and a strand of the same fluff-bearing seed pods. Mystery solved!

As we continued east, I taught the kids about some of the flora along the trail. I showed them Jack-in-the-Pulpit and trillium, and pointed out that though the leaves look very similar, the trillium leaves are radially symmetrical but the Jack-in-the-Pulpit leaves aren't. I showed them a huge vine and pointed out how high into the trees it climbed. And I showed them the light green patches on a rock, and told them about lichen.

As I kept unrolling leaves and finding only caterpillars or caterpillar leavings, Dylan asked a very good question: "Why are there no spiders?" I used this as an excuse to tell him about the spider life cycle, and how other organisms need building materials with specific qualities, just like humans do. We weren't seeing spiders for two reasons: first, they won't be laying eggs for another month or two, so they're not building shelters for their egg sacs; and second, they can't just use any leaves for their shelters, and there don't seem to be many of the berry bushes they like along this section of trail.

Before we got too far, Dylan started finding railroad spikes. He's quite fascinated by the iron artifacts from the old railroad, and I'm encouraging that fascination. So I started finding spikes for him, as well as a reinforcing plate. I made a throwaway comment to him about how one could make some strong armor from plates like these, and a bullet would just bounce off it. He got curious, asking "Why don't people make armor like that?" This led to a conversation about medieval armor, and protection vs. speed in medieval warfare. Thus I laid the groundwork for introducing him to some educational programs.

Soon after we reached the scenic slope down to Canastota Creek, a big black fly with a brilliant yellow thorax landed on my right hand. It was nearly the size of a horsefly, so I suspected it might be about to painfully draw some blood. But as I told the kids, I really wanted to get a shot of the thing. I kept my hand still and asked Dylan to grab the phone out of my pocket. I got some great shots, I didn't get bit, and I taught the kids a lesson about risking some pain for the sake of intellectual curiosity.

On the way back, one of the kids spotted a curious-looking little grey mass with two narrow tubes sticking out of it. At first I thought it was a piece of a carcass with a long worm running through it. It took us a few seconds to figure out that it was the rear end of a mouse: one end of the "worm" was the mouse's tail, and the other was a strand of its intestines. There was a slug a few inches away that appeared to have been feeding on it. Dylan said that a fox must have eaten the mouse, and I thought that sounded about right. One of the kids asked what ate the fox, and I said that there probably wasn't anything around here that eats foxes. It occurs to me that I was wrong; coyotes probably eat foxes. I'll have to look it up and follow up with the kids.

During the hike, I had several opportunities to educate Dylan about arachnids. At one point he saw a "big spider" and I came to look. It turned out to be a daddy longlegs. I told him that daddy longlegs are arachnids but not spiders, and that they are ancient, like sharks; fossils of daddy longlegs that lived hundreds of millions of years ago look like daddy longlegs of today. I also had an opportunity to show him the "boxing gloves" on a spider, and tell him that those are pedipalps, which means the spider is a male.

I saw a large insect on a low leaf, and tried to show the kids. It dropped off just before Dylan got there, but it turned out to be a lesson in following your curiosity and being open to what you find, instead of what you expected. As we looked for the insect, we found a slug, and then I saw a spider crawling right over it. I believe it was Enoplognatha ovata, the same leaf-folding species I'd been telling Dylan about!

Here are a few more tidbits I got to teach the kids: those squiggly whitish lines on the leaves are from tiny leaf miners tunneling between the layers of the thin leaf with their little mouths; we can't walk on this side trail because it's private property as opposed to public property; that slope is bare because of erosion, which means wind and rain wearing away soil; leaves with this particular shape are touch-me-nots, whose seed pods we'll be popping in a few months; and the water running in that stream fell as rain miles away a few days ago, and trickled down plants and through the ground before ending up in the stream.

All this, in an hour and twenty minutes. I'm a lucky guy to have a nephew and niece who are receptive to my enthusiasm.

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