Snow...What It Means for All of Us

By Bob Engel
Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science

Is it safe to say humans regard snow in the same way that the other species do: as both friend and foe? In my case, being from a warm western state (42 years ago) I’ve never come to terms with snow. The fact that some people prefer the winter has always left me mystified.

The majority of the other species here are more strongly affected by snow than we are and with good reason—it can be the difference between life and death.  

Let’s consider the potential benefits of snow first. Snow, especially fresh, dry snow, is full of air and is, therefore, a great insulator. Anybody down belowand this would include all herbaceous plants, lots of invertebrates, “hibernating” amphibians, and small mammals like shrews, voles, and micecan benefit from that. All of a sudden, two feet of snow takes your thermal environment from the teens and twenties to the thirties and low forties. Who needs to go to Florida! A spring peeper under the leaf litter is much better protected from freezing solid with the snow.

That said, recent discoveries have indicated that some frogs tolerate partial freezing. What’s the big deal with freezing? Think of cells as soda bottles. When a cytoplasmic solution of mostly water freezes, it occupies about 10 percent more volume than it did as a liquid. So off goes the bottle cap and “pop” goes the cell!

Active small mammals, living in a now warmer microclimatethe subnivean spaceare given an eating reprieve. Higher ambient temperatures mean less heat loss, which permits less food intake. Even black bears, who go to den about now, appreciate the layers of insulation. Bears do not really hibernate, dropping their body temps only a few degrees, but down there they stay until the end of March. So by all means, how about a blanket of snow?  

There are occasional mysterious appearances by this small-stature crew. For instance, several times a winter I either see the short-tailed shrew itself, or its strange, twisting, insect-like trail above the snow. I can't fathom why it surfaces. The heat loss must be huge.
Overall, I imagine that these small mammals, who are food for almost everyone (foxes, fishers, weasels, coyotes and owls), feel pretty smug down there. Only weasels have any chance at getting them under the snow. But it’s got to be a deeper snow: one winter day, I watched a red fox work our field for meadow voles. There was maybe a half-foot of snow down, with some ice on top. The fox stopped periodically, twisted its head from side to side to listen to small sounds, and hearing what it wanted to hear, jumped up in a tight arch, broke through the ice and snow, and caught a vole 5 of 9 tries. With that success rate, I assumed I’d see it every day after that. Nope.  

And here is the other side of the coinwhat do large, active animals, especially the predatorsdo for food when the snow piles up? Owls in particular are in a bind with a lot of snow. That’s why they turn up at bird feeders. Their primary prey (small mammals) are often there to get discarded seed, exposing themselves to trouble as they do.
“Oh, but isn’t our biota adapted to all of this cold and snow?”

Yes it is, but only to a point. 

Imagine three or four months of deep snow that increases the cost of travel, reduces food availability, and may include the metabolic costs of still more heat loss. Day after day, the winter grinds on. Your fat reserves slowly dwindle, then, with food harder to get, you start breaking down some of your other tissues. And then it snows again. The old go first, but even healthy stock may be pruned by a really snowy, cold winter.  Some game animals like turkey and deer catch our attention first, but most populations might decline. 

I used to teach a course called desert biology. Deserts can also be challenging environments; there are three options to consider when living there: escape, retreat, and tolerate.

As far as I’m concerned the same ideas apply here. The migrants (most birds and a few insects) have escaped. Our five true mammalian hibernators (including jumping mice and woodchucks), seeds and herbacious plant meristems, reptiles, and insect eggs and pupae have retreated.  So have bears, and for periods of time, things like chipmunks. Everyone else tolerates winter. Some winters are more tolerable than others. After bad ones, it’s up to the tough survivors and a sometimes generous spring to replenish the world.

Twigs and Stems // December 2016

Here are a few links from around the web that caught our attention in recent weeks. Have you seen something that stuck with you that you'd like to share? Post it in the comments! Love what you see here? Follow us on Facebook, as we often post these goodies as we find them. 

New for 2017: Kindred Spirits

The Nature Museum will ring in the New Year with an exciting slate of engaging and illuminating Saturday events for families, along with the opportunity to visit the museum by donation.

Our newest program, Kindred Spirits, will run monthly and will be open to all ages. Each program will be presented by a knowledgeable Environmental Educator and will focus on a different natural science theme. Come for the program and stick around after to explore the museum’s natural science exhibitions. 

Join us on Saturday, January 14th for our first Kindred Spirits program; we'll be up to our elbows in art-making that uses natural materials and inspiration from nature. Fairy fans will also have the opportunity to build fairy structures if their heart desires. We welcome drop-ins, but an RSVP is appreciated so please feel encouraged to let us know if you can make it! 

As an important side note, we are proud to offer affordable programs like Kindred Spirits; participants’ donations, as well as the donations of those that give to the Museum throughout the year, make these programs possible. 

Consider participating in this year’s Annual Appeal, going on now, by making a donation to support our efforts to engage and enlighten our audience of all ages and inspire stewardship of the natural world. Your contribution is critical in enabling us to serve our full community. 

We look forward to the year ahead and our pursuit with you in being in kinship with nature! 

#GivingTuesday: Giving Back for Future Good

#GivingTuesday is about ordinary people coming together doing extraordinary things. Join the worldwide #GivingTuesday movement on November 29th and help redefine the giving spirit this holiday season! 

Next Tuesday, The Nature Museum will be a part of a call to action called #GivingTuesday, which encourages smarter giving during the holiday season. #GivingTuesday channels the giving nature of people all over the world to pool resources for the greater good of the planet. 

You can do more with your wallet than just shop. By making a donation to The Nature Museum, you help us continue our important work of connecting our community to nature through transformative experiences. Contributions of your time are appreciated as well; we welcome volunteers. Join us on #GivingTuesday to become a part of a larger worldwide movement that promotes generosity. 

Follow us on Instagram!

Come hang out with us over on Instagram; we just signed up this past week. Follow along! Tell us who we should be following; any favorite nature photographers or feeds that you find inspiring? We are looking forward to connecting with others that love commemorating the natural world in their everyday. See you over there!

New to Instagram? Download the free app for Android phones and iPhones.

You can also check out our photos without signing up online at:

Year in Review | Donate to the 2016 Annual Appeal

Though we may be a small museum, the impact of The Nature Museum stretches far beyond our home base of Grafton.

This is not by accident. It is the result of a concerted effort several years ago to increase our outreach to the greater community so that we could serve as a significant regional resource for environmental education. And with your help we’re making it happen!

If you consider the impact our public programs have in the lives of everyone from toddlers to seniors, you realize that the work the museum is doing is invaluable and worth supporting.

It takes attention from all of us to grow new ways of living; with this understanding, we are constantly creating new programs and experiences. We strive to deliver different opportunities for our community members' to experience their personal “AHA!” moment within nature.

This year people traveled from near and far to learn about bears, cougars and wolves; bees, fungi and birds. They grew their understanding of climate change, wild edibles, survival skills, and the tiniest critters that call their local pond home. They were of all ages. Many experience our programs indirectly through the joy on their children's faces when they return home, beaming that they have learned how to erect a fort, build a fire, or set off into the woods in a pair of snowshoes.

Our participants don't take these moments for granted; we don't take for granted the people and the support that make them possible. 

Your Impact, By the Numbers

Your generosity is critical; your generosity defines our impact.
↠ A donation of $50 helps with supplies like pelts, dipping nets, children’s binoculars, and art supplies.
↠ A donation of $75 helps us offer a reduced-ticket or free local family program.
↠ A donation of $100 purchases a new observation bee hive for our pollinator exhibit.
↠ A donation of $500.00 gift keeps ticket prices reasonable for a presentation by one of our nationally-known speakers. This can educate over 150 people in two hours.

New information, experiences, and skills—these are the things that drive change not in only our personal lives, but in the trajectory of our community and the larger planet we call home. 

Were you there for Bridget Butler or to learn about cougars from the legendary Susan Morse? Or one of the 1200 folks who frolicked at The Fairy House Festival? Maybe you were one of the lucky folks whose mind was ignited by the incredible Ben Kilham. Almost 500 people came to these three programs. This kind of overwhelming response keeps our minds whirling—who might we invite next year? Help us get over our next big hurdle and let's together raise the donations necessary for another year of spectacular nature programs and events.

We hope you will take the time today to donate to the Museum to ensure the strength of our programming as we move into 2017. Thank you in advance for your support!

Donate Today



Citizen Science This Fall

By Bob Engel
Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science

How can a non-scientist do science?  It’s actually pretty easy. Go somewhere that makes sense, collect data in a prescribed and systematic way, and (preferably) do it for a lot of years. Sounds easy enough, but I can’t tell you how many times this fails. A good example is what the State of New Hampshire did years ago with a study of plankton diversity and abundance in the many, many ponds in the state.

I had a student working on phytoplankton diversity in South Pond up here in Marlboro. We were drooling over the New Hampshire data. But when we got our hands on it, we found it useless because there was nothing systematic about its collection. Each pond was sampled in different ways and at different times of the spring and summer. And then the same mistakes were made the next year. There was no continuity, even for the same pond, year to year. What a waste of person hours! 

So that’s the primary issue with citizen science: people doing wonderful things — on top of their day jobs — without clear organization, orientation, or oversight.
There are two wonderful examples of citizen science that have gotten rid of most of the kinks: one is the deeply committed effort on Putney Mountain to monitor raptors as they sail south for the winter; the other is the Audubon Christmas Count held each year on a Saturday in December. Both have been going on for years, and both are invaluable because of this longevity.

Very few “real” scientists can study the same thing over the long haul. The money they need to work is doled out for new approaches, new subjects, new ideas. New is the operative word.

Ironically, however, “old” often tells us a lot more. In a changing world, either because every year is just different from every other or because there is strong directional change underway (think climate change), longterm studies produce. If done systematically, they point to unambiguous changes and can separate a signal from its attendant noise. That’s why weather norms are reviewed each thirty years. The normal high temperature in Albany (as I write this on 10/2/16) is 67 degrees F. That’s an average for the date over at least a couple of decades.

Do you think that number is going to change as we move ahead for a couple of more decades? I do.

So there are the brave soles on Putney Mountain counting and identifying birds of prey to species every day. They know, for example, with a high degree of confidence, that Broad-winged hawk movements show a strong peak about 9/16. The date might vary a bit because some weather event might motivate a bolus of birds to move — say after the passage of a cold front, where a northwest tail wind would save the birds some energy. The peak, however, is invariably somewhere in the middle of September. They can say the same kind of thing for most other raptors on the move in the fall. Because they have done this study for many years, they will be the first to know if the Broad-wing peak changes or if any number changes dramatically. Further, if their observations jive with similar observations at other watch sights on the birds’ path, then we have very strong evidence that things are changing. A three or four-year study of any kind would not allow this conclusion.

Scientists make mistakes, and so do citizens.  So, at times, citizen science has limitations. Will we know how many mallards are in greater Brattleboro on December 17th? No. But if we see a mallard, even that is significant. Presence/absence data, by itself, can be very useful. For example, years ago a paper appeared in a very prestigious science journal that used the Audubon data (just presence or absence) and showed southward eruptions of seed-eating boreal forest finches as far south as Arizona and New Mexico (frequently, these birds don’t leave Canada all winter). These eruptions occurred about every two years. The long-term data showed this. What would a one or two-year study have shown?

Want to see this process or get involved yourself? Walk out (one mile) to the north end of Putney Mountain to see these people in action, or contact your local Audubon group to participate in this year’s December count. If you don’t want to “rough it” out of doors, you can sit in your toasty living room and score the events at your bird feeder.

Twigs & Stems // November 2016

Here are a few links from around the web that caught our attention in recent weeks. Have you seen something that stuck with you that you'd like to share? Post it in the comments! Love what you see here? Follow us on Facebook, as we often post these goodies as we find them.