Friday, May 1, 2015

A Walk in the Woods for K-2 Students

There was lots to see as Denise Troxel's class of K-2 students left Stone Hill Church and headed into Herrontown Woods. We saw big beech trees with smooth gray bark that looked like the feet of elephants where they touch the ground, and the yellow flowers of spicebush just beginning to open. We saw the prickly "gum balls" of sweetgum trees, and jumped from rock to rock, root to root, when the trail got a little muddy.

Then, as we were crossing the little stream flowing out of the headwaters, we peered down into the clear water. What grabbed everyone's attention? One of the special things about Herrontown Woods is that a whole little section of the Harry's Brook watershed is preserved. We were in the headwaters, a big flat expanse that catches the rain and slowly releases it into the beginnings of a stream unspoiled by development. The steady supply of clean water provides habitat for a creature found nowhere else along the Princeton ridge--the marbled salamander.

The young salamanders were first discovered earlier this spring by Tyler Christiansen, a remarkable naturalist who was featured in the documentary "Field Biologist".

We also saw water striders walking on the water, and the tiny red flowers that had fallen from a red maple just upstream.

Then we headed off-trail, past boulders made furry and speckled by moss growing on them. Dodging an occasional wood briar with its little thorns, we found the woods otherwise open and easy to walk through.

The kids scanned the woods for a vernal pool like this one, made when rainwater fills the hole left by a tree toppled years ago by a storm. It's called a vernal pool because it holds water in the spring, then disappears in the summer. Because fish don't live in them, these pools make a good place for insects to live, and for frogs and salamanders to lay their eggs. We found a few that didn't contain much life. Maybe they dry out too fast to make a good home.

Then we found a vernal pool that had all sorts of life. Water striders dimpled the surface with their legs, predatory beetles scurried about.

We found a dragonfly larva, which didn't seem to mind posing on my hand for a minute, and a spider trying to walk on the water. Spotted salamanders, rarely found anywhere else in Princeton, had visited this pool weeks earlier and laid their white clusters of eggs.

And over in the corner were clusters of wood frog eggs, made green by algae that grow on the eggs and help supply them with oxygen.

After checking out the hole high in a tree where raccoons live, the students found the trail again and headed back towards Stone Hill Church, newly acquainted with some of their little neighbors living and growing in Herrontown Woods.

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