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Spring in the Mountains Educator Trek

May 18, 2012

“I am not a teacher but an awakener.” ~Robert Frost

There is so much in the natural world to awaken curiosity. There are scientific questions to be answered, there are amazing organisms to marvel at, there is peace to be found. This weekend, 16 educators took time to immerse themselves in the ecology of the Smoky Mountains to reawaken their curiosity, and to bring new eyes and new ideas back to the students they teach every day.

View from Purchase Knob

All of our field work on Saturday took place at the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob.

Collecting Soil Invertebrates

Erin skipped the sifter box and looked under the leaf litter for small invertebrates to collect with her aspirator.

Driving up the mountain to the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center (AHLC) was like driving back in time. Though trees are almost fully leafed out and it feels like summer in the Piedmont, on the high peaks of the Smoky Mountains it’s still spring! One focus of the ongoing citizen science projects at the AHLC is observation of phenology – the study of the changing of the seasons. As global climate changes, it’s important to understand its effects on the plants and animals of an ecosystem. For instance, if a migratory bird eat a species of caterpillar, and that caterpillar eats the newly emerging leaves of a particular tree species, the timing of the leafing out of the tree, the hatching of the caterpillar, and the arrival of the migratory bird are all interdependent. A change in one can greatly affect the other two. Our group collected phenology data to add to a large data set being collected by students and teachers at the AHLC site. We observed the phenological phases of 20 trees that are being monitored, we collected data on bird species we observed or heard, and we collected data on leaf litter invertebrates present in the soil. Each group collecting data follows specific protocols to maintain the quality of the study. Citizen science projects like these are a great way to become involved in the scientific process.

Vasey's Trillium

The beautiful red Vasey’s Trillium was in bloom along the trail we hiked to the salamander collection site.

The group also took time to slow down and observe and reflect on the beautiful surroundings. We spent time recording observations and writing creatively about wildflowers and learned to identify some of the common species. As we walked a stream-side trail in Cataloochee Valley, we slowed down to find all sorts of interesting things along the way – from a spider carrying her egg case to a 90 foot Carolina Silverbell tree that was shedding its blossoms. It was amazing to see the variety of things we found on one short stretch of trail when we took the time to slow down and look closely. And we took time to share a few quotes and reflect on the importance of connecting with nature.

Wolf Spider with Egg Case

This female wolf spider was carrying around her egg sac. When it hatches, the baby spiders will ride on her back for a time.

” You can see a lot by just looking.” ~Yogi Berra

Post by Melissa Dowland

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