Many of us are waking up this morning with our kids home and our laptops open for work conference calls. We're in an unprecedented time, but with opportunities to make the most of it. Maybe during this time you'll get the chance to explore and be outside with those you are closest to, which will only strengthens those bonds and relationships. During this time, I want to share some of our favorite outdoor destinations. Rather than an extensive list of places to walk, I want to share a deeper dive into a few of these outdoor places and the hidden gems you can discover while spending time there.
Each day I'll share a new destination and opportunities you can discover if you just look a little deeper. Today first and foremost, our own gem, Acton Arboretum.
Acton Arboretum, Acton MA
Most people who live in and around the Acton area have visited this beautifully landscaped conservation area. With a couple of miles of trails, it's easy for tiny legs to complete a loop, and feel accomplished all on their own. Most people get the chance to complete the short inner loop. But did you know, that this arboretum hosts some of the most diverse spring ephemerals in our area. Between the vernal pools, and the spring wildflowers, this is the destination in March to see the reawakening of our New England landscape. As of early March, the wood frogs have emerged for the spring and can be heard early morning and evening if you're standing on the metal board walk at the bog. Even more exciting for the kids, is the search for the wood frog eggs, which are currently being laid. You can find them in the vernal pools attached to a twigs, floating at the surface. It's essential to only look at the eggs and not manipulate them in any way as they are fragile and need all the help they can since they are already at risk of survival from their numerous predators: cadisfly larvae, eastern newts, leeches and turtles.
While you're down at the bog, look for the cattails and you'll quickly find our earliest migrating bird returning: the Red-Winged Blackbird. If you don't see them right away, just stop and open your ears. You'll hear their unique call that songs like "Konk-la-ree". My girls and I think it sounds more like "Spriiiiiiiing". Check out the video below before you head out so you know exactly what you're looking for.
Right now, just the males have returned to establish their territories. You'll see his red and yellow shoulder feathers displayed as he hunches forward in song, claiming his territory and advertising for a mate. By the time the females arrive in early April, he'll have firmly established his territory. You can also often find the males fighting over territories in this critical time. They're all looking for the best "home".
Another favorite outdoor activity is geocaching which can be enjoyed while you're at the arboretum. What kid doesn't love looking for hidden treasures in the woods? Sometimes, just the idea can get kids moving and enjoying the outing. If you haven't done geocaching before, you can find all you need to know at geocaching.com. Or simply download the geocache app on your phone and start your hunt. Something the kids might love is the idea of taking a small gadget they no longer want (like a rubber bracelet, pencil, small toy) and drop it in the box. Most boxes are filled with these small gadgets and kids love exchanging them as sort of a souvenir of their treasure hunt.
If you venture out to the arboretum at dusk, you're sure to hear the owls as they have begun nesting. The Barred owl is one of the earliest species of birds to nest and it typically seeks out a tree cavity or an abandoned hawk nest. If you are lucky enough to have found exactly where these owls are nesting, look on the ground around the base of the tree and you'll find a little treasure: their owl pellets. Owls eat mice and other rodents but can't digest their fur and bones so will then be required to sort of "cough" up this material for discard. We have found several of these nesting areas at the arboretum and therefore have found dozens upon dozens of these pellets. If you listen and look while hiking the larger outer yellow loop, you may very well find an owl nesting tree. If you are feeling so adventurous, this would be a great science activity, truly for all ages. Bring a baggie with you and capture these owl pellets to bring home for "dissection". Dissection will reveal their diet and give you and up close look at the skeletons of their tiny prey.
For a detailed resources around owl pellet dissection visit:
Just as the animals reawaken in the spring, so do our plants. The first of these spring ephemerals is Skunk Cabbage. This can be found by bridge over the Mary's Brook on the yellow blazed small inner loop trail. We won't see it this winter since snow has evaded our community since February, but skunk cabbage defies logic in it's capability of pushing up through the ice and snow covered grounds that we often see in March in New England. Just think back to March of 2018. So how does skunk cabbage grow in icy conditions? Because it is thermogenic: producing its own heat. Basically, in early spring skunk cabbage increase its respiration and oxygen consumption and rapidly burns the starch it stored in its massive underground root system to produce the heat that enables it to survive the sometimes wintry conditions of March.
I hope that you get a chance to get outside and enjoy your family and all that nature has to teach us during this time of social distancing. Nature has a way of bringing peace. During this stressful time for many, may nature hold you close and ease your anxiety. Stay tuned as I'll have more outdoor destinations to come.