All Sorts of Insects – Background

The world is full of all sorts of insects. You can find them everywhere you go, whether swimming in a pond, weeding your garden, playing on the playground, or enjoying a picnic lunch. It is said that there are 200,000,000 insects for every person on earth. Scientists have identified more than a million different kinds of insects. And they think there are millions more species still waiting to be discovered.

Insects belong to a group called arthropods. Unlike you and me, with our bony internal skeletons, an arthropod’s body is covered with a tough outer shell, or exoskeleton. This exoskeleton is divided into segments that allow the critter to move. In fact, the word arthropod means “jointed legs.” Arthropods include not only insects, but also centipedes, crustaceans, and arachnids like spiders, ticks, and mites. Continue reading All Sorts of Insects – Background

Leaves – Background


Leaves are all around us. They are a welcome sign of spring, brightening the landscape with fresh green. They give us shade in summer and color fields and hillsides emerald. Every fall they dazzle us with their fiery display of color. Leaves come in a variety of shapes and sizes, yet a close-up look reveals patterns that help us identify them. Despite differences in form, all leaves perform the same vital function – capturing sunlight and turning it into food for the plant. Continue reading Leaves – Background

Conifer Clues – Background

Follow a shaded trail through a northern forest on a warm summer’s day, and the warm rich scent of fragrant conifer needles fills the air. Though we tend to refer to all conifers as pine trees, a closer look reveals a wide variety of cone-bearing species in our woods. Plants are classified by how they grow and reproduce, the type of flower they make, how the seeds are formed, and the structure in which the seeds are contained. Conifer is the scientific term for trees with seeds in cones and, generally, needle-like leaves. Conifer trees are part of a larger group, called gymnosperms, which includes plants with seeds considered naked, not enclosed in a fruit. Continue reading Conifer Clues – Background

Snowflakes – Background

When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” W.A. Bentley, 1925

Snow is magical, renewing our sense of wonder, transforming a barren landscape into a winter wonderland, and drawing us outdoors. When we look closely at falling snow, we marvel at the beauty of snowflakes. Each snow crystal is a unique, ephemeral work of art – yet its symmetrical, harmoniously balanced design is not random but created through a combination of physics, math, and chemistry. Continue reading Snowflakes – Background

Track Detectives – Background

Animals live secret lives all around us – yet their tracks and sign can be found everywhere, starting in our own backyards. Winter is a great time for tracking as snow makes a great surface for animal tracks to register, leaving imprints for us to study and interpret. Becoming a track detective is like learning to read; in fact, it is reading, but with a different set of symbols. Every set of tracks tells a story. When reading these stories, consider the place where the tracks are found, the track pattern left behind, and the shape and size of the animal’s foot print. Continue reading Track Detectives – Background

Feathering the Nest – Background

It is illegal to collect birds’ nests, feathers, or eggs without federal and state collecting permits.

Birds’ nests, hidden behind leafy curtains in the summer, often surprise us in the fall when they appear among the newly bare branches of trees. After the first snowfall, nests stand out as little snow-capped baskets perched on limbs or tucked away inside hedges and thickets. Although the birds that built them are probably far away, the size and shape, materials, and placement of nests can often give us clues about their identity. Birds build their nests without any prior instruction, and yet each builds a nest that is characteristic of its species. Continue reading Feathering the Nest – Background

Animal Disguise and Surprise – Background

Insects in leaf litter, birds in thickets, frogs on the pond’s edge – all around us animals are hidden in plain sight. They have evolved a myriad of different disguises in response to constant pressure from keen-eyed predators. Animals can be variously colored, patterned, or shaped to blend into their surroundings, their disguise being most effective when they remain perfectly still. While some animals are concealed by camouflage, others warn off predators with bright colors, announcing danger in the form of bad taste, smell, or poison. While avoiding being eaten is an obvious benefit of effective camouflage, the ability to go unnoticed helps predators, too. It allows them to get closer to their prey before attacking, thus increasing their chances of success. In the end, whether predator or prey, those with the best disguise or surprise increase their chances of survival so that they might pass along these important characteristics to their offspring. Continue reading Animal Disguise and Surprise – Background

Frogs and Toads – Background

The warm rains of spring awaken an explosion of activity in our nearby pools, ponds, and muddy puddles. If you visit at dusk, you are sure to be greeted by a chorus of many and varied voices as one or more species of frogs comes a-courting, in a celebration of sound. This singing is an important part of their yearly breeding cycle and provides the music for spring and summer nights.

Frogs and toads, along with salamanders, are classified as amphibians. The word amphibian is from the Greek words meaning double life and refers to the fact that these animals have “two lives” – a larval stage and an adult stage that are often very different from each other. Most amphibians begin their lives in water but as adults are able to live on land, often returning to water to breed. They undergo an amazing transformation, or metamorphosis, from aquatic larva to terrestrial adult, involving physiological, anatomical, and behavioral changes. Continue reading Frogs and Toads – Background

Ferns and Fiddleheads – Background

Nature made ferns for pure leaves to see what she could do in that line. Henry David Thoreau

Ferns surpass other plants in the varied and graceful designs of their leaves. Like other green plants, ferns capture sunlight and turn it into energy to grow and reproduce. But, unlike many other kinds of plants, ferns do not produce flowers or seeds. Instead, they reproduce by means of spores, particles so small that they float in the air like so many specks of dust. Carried by wind and storm, the spores of ferns have reached every part of the globe; nearly every habitat on the earth, from tropical jungle to icy mountaintop, is home to some ferns.

Although there are only 10,000 species of ferns in the world, compared to 300,000 species of flowering plants, many ferns have worldwide distribution. The lovely bracken fern of our northeastern forests is also found in Britain and Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. The tropics have not only the largest number of ferns, but also the largest in size. Tree ferns can reach heights of forty feet. Even in New England, 100 different species of ferns are found, and it’s not hard to find a dozen species living within a short distance of each other. Continue reading Ferns and Fiddleheads – Background

Sunlight and Shadow – Background

The sun gives a rhythm to our lives – day follows night, shadows grow shorter and longer, the seasons follow a regular progression over the year. We are adapted to these daily and seasonal changes, and our lives are structured around them. Bats hunt at night and dragonflies in the daytime, leaves turn colors in the fall, buds swell in the spring. Whether plant or animal, diurnal or nocturnal, all living things depend on the sun for providing heat and light and making our planet habitable. Continue reading Sunlight and Shadow – Background