Discovering Ashland’s Habitats

Happy April nature friends! Have you all been outside lately? The weather is warming up, the birds are merrily singing, and the spring flowers are starting to bloom! Isn’t it wonderful? As the Ashland School Programs Coordinator my absolute favorite part of each spring season is getting the chance to be outdoors everyday introducing hundreds of students to nature and helping them get their hands and boots dirty while making some awesome discoveries. Unfortunately, due to this bizarre time we are in, a lot of our school field trips are cancelled, and I am truly bummed that I cannot be outdoors guiding students through the process of discovery making. Luckily, our trails remain open and available for anyone who wants to explore them on their own, and the nature discoveries that can be made are endless!

A boardwalk trail through the Ashland Marsh.

But where to start you might ask? Exploring nature can be a daunting task if you don’t know what to look for. That is where I come in! Below are some of my favorite simple nature activities to help you explore some of Ashland’s habitats. Before getting started, try downloading the Seek app by iNaturalist (Type “seek by iNaturalist” into your app store search bar). This is a great app to help you identify organisms that you aren’t sure of. Simply point the Seek camera at an organism such as a plant or animal and take a picture! The app will tell you what it is.

Box Turtles have shells that they can hide in to avoid predators!

Now that we are ready to make some discoveries, we need to answer the big question; what is a habitat? A habitat is a place where an animal finds everything that it needs in order to live. Think: food, water, shelter, air, and space! Just like our homes. From a log on a forest floor to a tree branch high in the sky, Ashland has hundreds of places for animals to make their homes. But how can you safely discover them? Most animals will hide or protect themselves when they hear noises, like footsteps, or sense danger. For this reason, you may not find an animal in its habitat, but you might notice signs that they live there! A sign might be something like a footprint or track made in the mud, a feather, a nest, or my personal favorite SCAT! (Scat is a more science-y name for poo). Can you think of any others? In order to safely discover the food, water, shelter, and signs of an animal’s habitat you will want to walk quietly and leave everything the way you found it. This means if you turn a rock or log over, put it back where it belongs! If you decide to pick any small critters up, handle them very gently and return them to the same place you found them. Just think, if you were the size of an ant and a giant human came along and moved you or your home, how would you feel? If you see any large animals in their habitats do not get too close or try to touch or feed them. Keep your distance and quietly observe them. See below for a printable version of common tracks and scat of animals in the area.

Now for the fun part! Below are four different habitats that can be found at Ashland Nature Center and a few ways to discover what is living in each one. You don’t need any special tools or equipment for this, but if you would like to collect and view any small critters feel free to bring along a container such as an old peanut butter jar, yogurt container, or coffee tin (all washed out of course), and after collecting the critters make sure to put them back where they belong! You may also want an Ashland Trail Map to help you locate some of these places and an optional notebook and pencil to write down your observations. If you are unable to make it to Ashland, these are also activities you can do in your own backyard!

The Meadow:

A meadow, or a field, is a large open area of grasses, wildflowers, and very few trees or shrubs. What do you think makes its home in a meadow? Locate Ashland’s Hawk Watch or Sledding Hill on the Ashland trail map. Both locations have very large meadows to discover! 

A wildflower meadow at Coverdale Farm Preserve

Activities to do in a meadow:

  • Stand or sit quietly on the mowed trail and close your eyes. Count how many different sounds you start to hear in the meadow. Are they coming from insects? Birds? The plants themselves?
  • While staying on the mowed trail, carefully separate tall grasses close to the ground and look for small tunnels made by mice, meadow voles, rabbits, or insects.
  • Search for signs of animals in a meadow such as holes or burrows, tufts of fur, or scat.
  • Make a list of everything you find and try to determine what animal created it or left it behind.
  • Make sure to check the skies too! Meadows are home to birds, flying insects, and bats.
  • If you have a butterfly net try to catch some flying insects to observe up close. Remember to release them when you are finished!

The Stream:

A stream is made up of quick-moving water and is a habitat for many plants and animals. Ashland has many small streams that you are sure to stumble upon as you hike the trails. The Red Clay Creek is the largest. What animals do you think live in a stream? What animals drink water from a stream? Did you know that we also get our drinking water from streams like the Red Clay Creek? If you live in Delaware and get your water from SUEZ, chances are, you are drinking purified water from the Red Clay Creek. Do you think it is important to keep that water clean?

Activities to do at a stream:

  • Exploring a stream is best done by getting your feet wet. With permission from a parent or guardian and wearing closed-toe sandals, old sneakers, or rain boots, feel free to walk in the stream.
  • Carefully look under rocks for camouflaged crayfish, salamanders, and water insects (remember to replace the rocks when finished).
  • Also look for tadpoles and minnows swimming, and water striders skimming the surface.
  • Do you notice any animal tracks in the mud or sand next to the waters edge?

The Forest:

A forest is a large habitat filled with many trees and leaves. Locate Succession Trail on the Ashland trail map. This trail will lead you to a few huge forests to discover! Notice the temperature is cooler in the forest and many leaves are covering the ground. What animals might make their homes here? Birds? Deer? Foxes? Do you think they have good hiding places in a forest?

Activities to do in a forest:

  • Carefully look under leaf litter, rocks, and logs for beetles, worms, millipedes, spiders, salamanders, or centipedes.
  • Search for toads and mushrooms hiding at the base of trees near roots and damp places. Do they have good camouflage?
  • Listen for birds calling, woodpeckers pecking, or footsteps crunching through the leaves.
  • How many different kinds of trees do you notice? How many different kinds of leaves can you find?
  • Feel the soil underneath the thick layer of leaves. We call this humus. It is made of decaying leaves, sticks, and animals and it takes hundreds of years to form!

The Marsh:

A marsh is a very important wetland habitat that is home to many animals who love water! Ashland has a few marshy areas but the largest one can be found below the Visitors Center next to the Red Clay Creek. Look for the boardwalks and cattails and you’ve found it! Although it might be tempting, it is very important to stay on the boardwalk and trails next to the marsh and not walk into the marsh or collect things from it. The marsh acts as a nursery for many baby animals and walking or collecting in the marsh will disturb them.

Activities to do in a marsh:

  • Look carefully for frog or toad eggs in the water next to the boardwalk. Frog eggs look like globs of jelly and toad eggs look like long strings of pearls.
  • Listen for the calls of toads and frogs. Toads make long trilling sounds, bullfrogs have a low groaning GARUMPPP, and a green frog sounds like someone plucking a banjo string…”plung!”
  • See if you can spot red-spotted newts gliding through the water using their paddle-like tails to propel themselves forward.
  • Make sure you also look for waterbirds. There are some birds who will make a nest hidden safely in the marsh where they lay their eggs.
American Toads have been mating in the marsh! Check out this male toad calling for the ladies!

Beginners Habitat Challenge:

Visit each habitat above and do the five-finger challenge! Hold your hand in the air and for each of the things below put a finger down! Can you put all 5 fingers down? What about 10? Figure out which habitat makes you put the most fingers down!

Put a finger down….

  1. For every new sound you hear (could be water, birds, rustling leaves, etc).
  2. Each time you see or collect a new animal
  3. Make it even harder and choose a specific species! Ex: for each type of bird you see, for each type of insect you catch, etc.
  4. Each time you find a SIGN of an animal
Children observing a pond habitat

Expert Habitat Challenge :

Bring a notebook and pencil with you and record as much as you can find in each habitat. It is easiest to organize your findings by whether they are LIVING or NONLIVING and then further organize them by plants, animals, fungus (living) and soil/rocks/water (nonliving). Once you are finished investigating each habitat and recording your findings, try to determine which habitat has the greatest diversity of living and nonliving things (this does not mean the MOST things, but the most variety of things). Which habitat was it? Why do you think that habitat is more diverse than the others? Is there something that could be added to the other habitats that could make them just as diverse? Did each habitat have enough food, water, shelter, air, and space for the animals that live there!

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