Ecology Workshop at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge

Leopard-Frog-MWLooking north to Quebec with a strong wind arriving cold in our teeth from the same direction, we were ready to net fish at 7:00am on October 2. The temperature there at Missisquoi Bay had barely topped forty degrees and we had to wade into Lake Champlain.

LCMM Ecology Programs Director Elizabeth Lee and I laughed off the chill, scoped the shaley shore for aquatic weeds among which fish might be lurking, and readied the 30-foot-long seine net. The water was brown as creamed coffee due to recent rains washing down the Missisquoi River. The puffs of white and brown cappuccino foam in the shallows belied the phosphorus that that river carries to the lake.

Given the challenges, and given that one session of our NOAA-funded “B-WET” training that day hinged on identifying fish, I invoked the freshwater spirits by calling into the 20-knot breeze: “Here, fishy-fishy!” Elizabeth looked amused but skeptical. Little did she know.


Searching-for-invertebrates-MWWe made two passes with the net, grateful for the neoprene waders that kept our legs warm. First run was okay – at least we caught something – a few small yellow perch and shiners. The second netting seemed at first to be similar, bringing us some baby bluegills and a bass and then, in the very bottom of the net… a larger fish flopping angrily, splashing water in our faces…a pike! More than a foot long. Total victory for a short fishing jaunt in the littoral zone. Into the bucket of water the fish went, to be hauled off to jail for a couple of hours at the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refugenature center, where the workshop was to be held, starting in only a half-hour.

We had a wide variety of educators filter in that morning: teachers from Lincoln and Hinesburg Elementary schools; from Essex High; an environmental educator from Sutton, Québec, who works in Eastern Township schools; and two environmental educators from Franklin County. During our morning coffee break, it came out that four of us could chat with each other in French, which is not atypical of a gathering so close to the border, n’est ce pas?

The Wildlife Refuge staff warmly welcomed us, inviting school groups to explore the wetland treasures at the refuge. We used a dichotomous key to identify our several fish species. The northern pike was the star of the show. From Erin De Vries of the UVM Watershed Alliance we learned about the “River Continuum” – how stream characteristics change as they run from small headwaters to lower in the Champlain Basin and finally into the lake. Erin also led a dabble with nets in man-made ponds just outside the nature center, sharing many suggestions for equipment, activities and curricula to use with students. Despite being the recipients of the building’s grey water, the ponds were hopping with life, from mayfly larvae to diving spiders. Kurt Valenta, who runs an educational water-critter-based program called “Bugworks” – created in 2008 by the Missisquoi River Basin Association – was on hand to help identify the invertebrates that we netted and also to share his enthusiasm for discovering who lived in the muck and reeds.

After a quick lunch, it was out to the main stem of the Missisquoi for a motor launch ride to the river bank near Cranberry Pool, an impounded marsh that favors waterfowl habitat. Expert birder and wetland ecologist Jake Straub from SUNY Plattsburgh gave us a sex talk – and other behaviors, of course – as far as geese and ducks go. As he spoke to us on the dike that holds water containing wild rice and many other valuable wetland plants, we saw ducks, grebes, kingfishers, and songbirds periodically take flight. In the distance we spied a giant eagle’s nest perched in a copse of sliver maples. Someone noticed that, near where we stood, there was evidence of a mortal drama. Feathers of various hues and stripes lay scattered on the grass. After close examination, Jake guessed that a predator – either a raptor or canine – had killed a wood duck here.

Rounding out the explorations of the unique habitat features in the “Birdfoot delta” area of the lower Missisquoi, we dragged a plankton net along the surface of the water on our return trip to our launch site, and looked at the tiny critters through a very basic field microscope – just a few copepods and strands of filamentous algae showed up. We also set out with hand nets to catch leopard frogs that leapt now and then along the river bank. Participants caught a total of seven specimens, examined them closely for deformations of digits and legs, and pronounced them all normal.

We’d like to think our fellow educators, stoked up that day to see and do so many activities that would ideally enthuse young people about aquatic ecosystems, will convey their energy and new tools to their students. We plan to be in touch with participants, and hope to learn which activities worked well with their classes. Some will probably take advantage of our “loaner kit” which we are assembling this winter to be available starting in the spring. The kit will include a number of tools we used during our B-Wet workshops including seine net, plankton net, field microscope, river corridor assessment protocols, and other aquatic data collection methods.

Bottom’s Up!: Aquatic Teacher Training on Lake Champlain

It’s a great feeling when people whom you invite on an adventure say, “Sure!” and jump in the boat with you. This has been the case with LCMM’s latest on-water workshop for educators, a program we’re calling Bottom’s Up!

Bottom’s Up!

Bottoms-UpBottom’s Up! is an aquatic science teacher-training workshop that LCMM has orchestrated with the help of a number of enthusiastic partners.  It’s funded by a generous grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that brings you weather forecasts, marine sanctuaries, and coastal fisheries management, among other things. The NOAA grant is called B-WET, which stands for Bay Watershed Education and Training, an environmental education program that promotes locally relevant, experiential learning in the K-12 environment.

Our good fortune started with an invitation by Shelburne Farms to use a space in their well-appointed Farm Barn for hosting one of these training workshops. We also were delighted to find that, as we got the word out to schools and environmental education programs, over 15 teachers registered on-line for our Chittenden County-based training session. On a mid-October morning we all settled in with coffee, to an airy, wood-paneled room with plenty of natural light and excellent kitchen and restroom facilities, all in a castle-like setting – what more could you ask for?

Lake Champlain Ecology

Ben Mayock and I, co-leaders for Bottoms-Up!, were lucky to be able to schedule Lake Champlain Committee’s staff scientist Mike Winslow to come first thing that morning to speak to teachers about Lake Champlain’s ecology. Mike dived right in 100,000 years ago and brought us through the lake’s glaciation, floods, and other geologic and ecological upheavals, and then in short order opened up the floor for a fruitful session of Q&A. Participants had a lot of questions for him!


On the Water

The day’s good start was matched by fine autumn weather for launching our fleet of canoes in Shelburne Bay and toodling up the LaPlatte River. There, Ben and I demonstrated some elements of LCMM’s On-Water Ecology program: measuring water turbidity with the world-renowned Secchi disk, collecting plankton, and seine-netting for littoral-zone (i.e., near-shore) fish. The teachers clearly loved being out on the water and getting their hands wet.

Aquatic Literacy

Our goal was far beyond hawking our own wares, however, so we included Erin DeVries, theUniversity of Vermont’s Watershed Alliance Education & Outreach Coordinator, in the mix. After participating educators paddled back to shore in canoes, Erin was waiting for us to give a quick overview of the “Aquatic Literacy” she brings to schools, and the activities she leads with students so that they can investigate the invertebrates that are remarkably accurate indicators of health or impairment in streams.

Watershed Stewardship

Those outdoor morning offerings provided teachers a basic primer of some water quality assessments they could undertake in the field with their students. Next, we returned to Shelburne Farms where we were welcomed by Marty Illick, the Director of the Lewis Creek Association, and Ned Swanberg, the Mapping and Planning Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. After joining us for a localvore lunch, topped off with baguettes from the O’Bread Bakery right next door, Marty gave a passionate talk encouraging teachers to involve their students in field work that can make a difference in watershed stewardship.

Ned, who has long experience helping Conservation Commissions and other small organizations use maps to their advantage, offered a brief slide show explaining how rivers behave in their “corridors.” Although the Vermont DEC for many years has been urging communities to leave room for rivers to move more flexibly in their floodplains, Tropical Storm Irene underlined this need dramatically! Ned brought these broad concepts into concrete terms by walking the educators through an exercise that measures riparian buffers. Using maps, random number tables, and rulers, teachers bent down over their tables and got to work just like good students! The buffer-measuring exercise proved interesting and yielded results pretty quickly, so it is likely we will work with Ned and probably Erin as well to formalize this activity.


Let’s Go Fishing

Last but not least, Karl Hubbard, a certified instructor for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Let’s Go Fishing program, demonstrated some activities that kids love. The avuncular and good-humored angler sat down with participants to “construct a pond” out of felt and various cute little models of rocks, plants and critters, thus demonstrating essential parts of an aquatic habitat. He also spoke about fishing ethics, tested us on our fish identification skills, and then took us outside to try some rods and reels. Casting for plastic lawn fish was a high point!

Overall Ben and I felt it was a fantastic day filled with substance, including the lunch of chili, squash-ginger soup, salad, and the most important food group of all: chocolate.

We are extremely grateful to all the presenters who joined us in offering meaningful ways for educators to engage their classes in aquatic investigations. We hope this is just the beginning of an effort to jointly provide Vermont schools with all the tools they need to offer rigorous curricula that take kids outside to learn about their local streams, ponds, wetlands, and lakes.

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