A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Let's Talk about Poop

What secrets can you solve from the stool?
Stool samples, really, a small part of Susie Spikol Faber's
scat collection. She has all the creatures from
around here, along with kangaroo. Spikol Faber
uses the collection in her environmental
education lessons in area schools.

To be clear, let’s talk about animal poop. AKA wildlife scat.

Sure, you can tell a lot from tracks, browse and other wildlife sign, but finding a single scat is like a reading whole chapter in a critter's daily diary.

How many times, for instance, have you gone for a hike and spotted in the middle of the trail a perfectly prominent poop, obviously not a dog's, but coincidentally canid and captivating.

Coyotes like to poop in an obvious place, alerting other coyotes and animals that they've been here, like leaving a business card.

I've encountered coyote scat on a handkerchief that had earlier apparently fallen out of some hiker's pocket. It's the kind of thing that makes you stop and think about not just the species that left the deposit, but also the individual.

I had modestly enjoyed deciphering scat secrets years ago, thinking that those tricky trail treats were interesting, but then my thoughts would quickly turn to less poopy matters. 

The Princess of Poop

And then I met someone who would forever encourage an enthusiasm for nature's nuggets. Susie Spikol Faber not only knows those nuggets well, she celebrates them, like a wine connoisseur would cherish a vintage merlot.

As a teacher naturalist for the Harris Center for Conservation Education, Faber has often led school groups through the snow, following a track. On a lucky day, it might be a fox. Susie’s group might follow that fox footpath for a few feet, until they come upon an exciting yellow find in the snow: fox pee. Susie will stoop down, give it a good whiff, then rise smiling and speculate with the kids on the canine’s gender. Ahh, the noble life of a naturalist!

Her outings might yield otter scat, with scales shining like sequins, a reminder of this fish-eater’s menu. Or a pileated woodpecker’s ant-speckled feces at the base of a battered tree.

Black bear scat.
As Susie has told her students: “If you really want to know what an animal eats, take a good, hard look at what it excretes.”

The Treasure Trove

To make the case in the classroom, Susie might pull out her scat collection, a box of jars – stool samples, if you will – a varied and wondrous assemblage from fauna’s unwitting donors.

When the pupils’ poopy hysteria dies down, they start solving riddles. Usually part of a unit on predator/prey or evidence, the samples beg questions, like: Was this an omnivore? A carnivore? An herbivore? How can you tell?

Scientists look to scat to answer many more riddles. Using DNA analysis, they can identify individual animals. They can determine the health of not only the animal in question, but also its prey.

Biologists in Asia studying the imperiled snow leopard seek scat to determine gender, one’s relation to another, movement patterns and population structure.

Off the coast of Washington state, dogs trained in sniffing out killer whale scat can give scientists a load of information. Like, are the orcas getting enough of their favorite prey, Chinook salmon? Are there signs of contaminants, like PCBs? Are there stress hormones in the scat, which can point to issues of boat traffic, among others.

What They Left Behind

Closer to home, in the Gulf of Maine, scientists studying the colossal blue and humpback whales have found not only the world’s largest poops, but also a phenomenon called the whale pump. Whales feeding from the depths, discharge their fecal plumes at the warm surface, stimulating the growth of plankton, thus helping the rich marine cycle of life.

And yet even closer to home, here in our woods and fields, what secrets can you solve from the stool? Was it a fox? A coyote? A black bear, all full of bird seeds or acorns? Was it a weasel, leaving it all twisted and tightly wound? Was it a snowshoe hare’s perfect little pellets? How about a moose, with its summer plops or winter marbles. Or was it from a bobcat, all segmented and full of bones and hare?

Even if you don’t solve it, enjoy the riddle.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Exploring the Outdoor Classroom at Otter Brook Farm

“This is the experience of real science.”

The Harris Center's Laurel Swope shows students
how to look for hemlock woolly adelgid.
On one of the coldest mornings in December, a bus from South Meadow School in Peterborough stops along a remote stretch of Old Greenfield Road and unloads a few dozen 8th graders. From the warmth of the bus, they move straight into a small clearing in the cold, snowy woods.

No stalling and no complaining among these teens. Like the morning a day earlier, they circle up for introductions to the next few hours’ schedule, all outside.

South Meadow and Great Brook Middle School’s 8th graders have been coming here to Otter Brook Farm’s 1,800 acres for six years now, from pleasant fall days, through winter coldness and into spring sunshine, mud and black flies. While the land may be called Otter Brook Farm, only part of it is actually farm; the rest is forest, streams and wetlands, an outdoor classroom and much of it protected from development.

The youths split into three groups with their proxy teachers, all gifted and experienced naturalists. With Laurel Swope from the Harris Center for Conservation Education they’ll look for signs of a non-native invasive pest that threatens New Hampshire’s hemlock stands, the insidious hemlock woolly adelgid.

Another group follows Rick Van de Poll of Ecosystem Management Consultants, a veteran ecologist and remarkable environmental educator who leads them through a fun, breathless game exploring the world of coyotes, bobcats and other predators and their prey.

The third group follows Bryn Dumas from Otter Brook Farm in Peterborough. Dumas leads his animated group through powdery woods seeking sign of white-tailed deer, like buck rubs, scrapes and browse.

Hands-On Learning

Each group’s exercise follows the spirit of fun and inquiry, keeping students so occupied that they may not even realize what and how they are learning. But soon enough, it sinks in. Some even forget how cold it is.

After closely checking hemlock boughs for nearly an hour, 8th grader Lexi Hill of Greenfield stops to explain the value of learning in this open-air classroom.

“It’s hands-on learning,” Hill said. “We get to see and touch actual things. We learn things here we can’t really learn in a classroom.”

Otter Brook Farm’s varied lands are well-suited to the partnership with local schools and the Harris Center, according to Rick Van de Poll. Roughly half in Peterborough, half in Greenfield, the 1,800 acres in several lots offers regular learning sites like Bogle Brook, where students study stream life. There’s Otter Brook, a great site for studying amphibians and reptiles. Other sites are perfect for fall mushroom forays, spring maple tapping,

Van de Poll completed an exhaustive natural resource inventory on the lands a few years ago, giving the owners and educators a sense of what the land offers as an outdoor classroom. Since then, the program has expanded to include 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th graders in the Conval Regional School District.

Great Brook 8th grade teacher Emily Wrubel likes how her students’ regular visits to Otter Brook Farm helps them develop relationships with mentoring educators like Swope, Van de Poll and Dumas, and also with the land itself.

Rhythm of the Seasons

“They see change through the year and a sort of rhythm of the seasons that those of us who spend a lot of time out-of-doors get,” Wrubel said.  “They get their hands dirty. They find where the mushrooms grow themselves, discover just how much life is lurking under the surface of the stream, and actually make holes in trees to get the sap or count the rings.”

Another teacher joining the frigid walk in the hunt for the hemlock woolly adelgid is language teacher Lori Grolear. She said the school’s visits to Otter Brook Farm provide a valuable leaning experience that students simply can’t get in the classroom.

“When we come here, it’s an intense amount of time on one topic, in one place,” Groleau said. “They just don’t get that during the normal day at school. Plus, it’s outside.”

The trips produce something you can’t replicate in the classroom, according to Wrubel. She recalls a visit one April day years ago, when her students were standing by Bogle Brook. One student turned to her and asked, ’Why does it keep coming?’ He was marveling at the stream, wondering about where the water came from and how it could just keep flowing,” Wrubel said. “You can't produce that sense of wonder in the classroom.”

Lessons from Otter Brook Farm vary with the seasons. Forest types in the fall to acquaint them with the place. Then mushrooms. Then tracking in winter, along with invasive pests, like hemlock woolly adelgid.

As the school year’s conclusion approaches in June, students create their own research project, based on scientific principles and their own inquiry and investigation. In June, they present their findings to their peers, who will within a few months, be their classmates at Conval Regional High School.

The Experience of Real Science

It’s also a chance for students to give back to Otter Brook Farm, with some doing trail work or projects around the farm.

This is the time when students really shine, according to Wrubel. “After the year of investigating various questions posed by adults, collecting data in ways set-up by adults, my students really step it up and put together excellent student run investigations.”

Harris Center teacher-naturalist Susie Faber has seen the Otter Brook Farm experience instill a sense of wonder from the beginning six years ago.

“What’s great about the Otter Brook Farm program is that it gets kids outside, giving them real experience with hands-on science in a real-world scenario,” Faber said. “They’re working together, solving problems. And it’s all outside. This is important now, especially, because children in middle and high school experience less time outdoors for learning. So, when they’re at Otter Brook Farm looking for hemlock woolly adelgid, they’re really looking for it. This is the experience of real science.”

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.