February 8, 2016

Featured in Boston Globe article on winter tracking

Tracking programs reveal winter’s wild wanderings in the Bay State


As a youngster, Alexander Dunn ran wild in a vacant lot behind his home in Cambridge.
“I spent tons of time tracking rabbits and squirrels, raccoons and opossums and occasionally a Red fox,” recalled Dunn, now a Gloucester resident.
Referencing child development expert/author Louise Chawla, Dunn added, “Like so many adult, self-proclaimed environmentalists, I had what (Chawla) highlights as the two most crucial childhood ingredients: a mentor and a semi-wild place to explore at will.
These days, employed by the Trustees of Reservations, Dunn is an engagement site manager in the Charles River Valley, primarily at Chestnut Hill Farm in Southborough and Rocky Woods in Medfield.
“These acres are there for both the enjoyment of the public as well as for the wildlife, and of course the overlap is when tracking comes into play,” he said.
“My job is to connect our visitors to the land through activities and knowledge, and tracking is a perfect example.”
The joy of tracking, he says, is tied to the solitude and quiet of the activity.
“It was not something I often did with friends or school,” said Dunn.
“It was having that moment of quiet awe, all alone, with just my breathe moving through the cold air, knowing that I was bearing witness to some small narrative in this much larger, more complex story.
“Now, as an educator, I try to honor those moments by giving students of any age the tools and space to have similar moments alone in the wild,” he said.
“Of course, by preserving over 113 properties across the state, people are never far from a wild or semi-wild place to explore.”
Dunn thoroughly enjoys the isolation of tracking, but the activity clearly makes for a great group outing.
Organizations like the Trustees of Reservations and Greenbelt (formerly the Essex County Greenbelt Association) offer several tracking-related programs.
Kelsey Cowdell , a Trustees engagement site manager at the Governor Ames Estate (Easton) and Francis William Bird Park (Walpole), leads an “Animal Tracks and Traces” day for kids and adults during the February school vacation.
“I’m most passionate about the chance to use tracking as a way to introduce children and families to nature in a way they may not have considered before,” said Cowdell.
“The mystery of following a trail can be really appealing, and the fun, game-like aspect it can have may attract families when they may not otherwise have chosen to head out.”
Dorothy Antczak , field education programs manager for the Trustees, developed the Crane Outdoor Adventures Program, which offers several tracking options like the “Stop, Look and Listen Tour” at Castle Hill in Ipswich (all cq).
“The art of tracking is really about sharpening your skills of observation, about learning to see ‘clues’ that you can then piece together to create a story – or an educated guess, really – that reveals what’s going on in the world around you,” said Antczak.
Similar to Dunn, Antczak’s interest in tracking began at a young age.
“Oddly, I first discovered tracking by trying not to leave tracks,” said Antczak, who lives in Ipswich. “I was a big fan of the Native American Sacajawea, who gathered the ducks killed by her tribe in the marsh without leaving her footprints in the mud.
“While attempting it, I noticed all of the tracks that had been left in the mud by the edge of the river, an array that included raccoon, deer, coyote and different types of birds,” she said. “My parents were both nature enthusiasts and teachers, and curiosity was rewarded with hikes and camping excursions and trips to the library. We learned about tracking as a family.”
According to Antczak, tracking is another outstanding reason to brave the cold weather.
“Winter tracking is, for me, always a little more exciting than tracking in other seasons. Tracks are easier to see and follow on top of the snow, and the creatures that live under the snow, like mice or voles, often burrow tunnels that leave raised lines that show where they’ve traveled,’ she said.
“Last winter, when the snow drifted to four and five feet high, the deer, desperate for food, were browsing the bark off of trees from the tops of those tall snow banks. When the snow melted, it was curious to see ‘scrape’ marks so high up.”
Cowdell said that from a teaching perspective, “winter tracking is great because you often more clearly see the tracks in the snow, which can be rewarding for beginners,” she said.
“While tracks and other signs are certainly visible in other seasons, the snow can help to leave clearer imprints. This means it is easier to point out the shape of the feet, the pattern of the strides, and follow where they might be headed.
“This is a great jumping off point for kids who have never seen a clear wild animal track before, and can lead to some great discussions.
“The best place to track is wherever you feel comfortable exploring. You can just as easily track a squirrel in your local park as track a more ‘exciting’ animal anywhere else. The main thing to do is get out and try.”
For tracking programs close to home, visit Trustees of Reservations (thetrustees.org) or Greenbelt (ecga.org) websites. If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor atbrionoc@verizon.net.
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NEMA Museum People Podcast

Museum PeopleWhile at the 2015 New England Museum Association (NEMA) conference in Portland, ME I had the chance to speak with Marieke Van Damme, director of the Cambridge Historical Society. I was thrilled to find a portion of this interview featured in the new NEMA Podcast, Museum People, a podcast that "celebrates individuals connected with the museum field by highlighting their work, passions, opinions, and personalities. In each episode, you’ll hear stories and viewpoints from a variety of museum people, from unsung workers to executive directors, volunteers to trustees, as they help change the world one visitor at a time."

You can listen to the interview here beginning around 9:20 

October 21, 2013

Ornithology Among The Trees

on Tue, 10/15/2013 - 15:15
Donning cloth security harnesses, helmets, sketch books, and the sheer will to explore, students of Art Biology class head to the EcoTarium's Tree Canopy Walkway for an interactive bird watching session. EcoTariumeducator and ornithology enthusiast, Alex Dunn, leads the group along with WTT founder, Lauren Monroe, and resident art teacher, Jen Swan. After Alex guides us through safety protocol we set forth, one at a time, across the first bridge. The Walkway consists of three tree-house sized platforms, interconnecting bridges, and a plethora of tether cables which dangle and stretch like metallic vines.
The students spend some time exploring each platform, clipping their carabiners back and forth between the web of heavy cables, before we're asked to settle on a specific platform with sketch book and pencil in-hand. On one of the platforms, surrounded by a group of students, Alex holds up a small speaker attached to an iPod. Suddenly, the excited energy of the group begins to focus into a quiet calm as the speaker unleashes the sounds of Black-Capped Chickadees mobbing an Eastern Screech Owl. Within moments, actual Black-Capped Chickadees descend into the tree canopy.
Alex, who has been into ornithology since the 5th grade, explains how the recording of the birds mobbing the Screech Owl is like a call-to-arms; the chickadees hear trouble and come to aid their brethren. In our case, they simply perch on the surrounding branches perhaps wondering what all the fuss is. The commotion doesn't only stir the Chickadees- we soon see other species appear in the foliage such as the White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, and Blue-headed Vireo.
The students sit and lean attentively. Jen Swan encourages them to observe and illustratively document the birds even if the visibility is fleeting. In the coming weeks the students will implement some of what they learn in this experience to render 3d bird sculptures which they shape and paint themselves. It is a beautiful sight to behold, sharing this space with the students, teachers, and nature.
As Alex and I recounted the experience, I asked what was appealing to him about bird watching. “They don't stand still for you," he pointed out, explaining how he enjoys the challenge of the hunt.  Alex also appreciates how ornithology is "part of this larger story", acting as an entryway to studying a vast and complex ecosystem. I interpret this into how we have to be vigilant and perpetuate awareness in order to keep the practice alive, keep our thirst for such knowledge satiated. I can't help but draw a correlation between these words and the experience of teaching youth! Learn more about local ornithology on Alex's blog.

April 2, 2013

Cambridge Science Fair Blog

A Brief History of Earth Day: a View from 28,000 Miles
by: Alex Dunn

We all know Earth Day as a day that promotes positive behavior, raises awareness for critical global issues and builds community. The first Earth Day celebrations occurred in cities and towns across the U.S. on April 22, 1970. Attributed to the support of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, those first Earth Day “protests” bottled the fire of the 1960s, bringing together students, activists, politicians and neighbors. Earth Day’s early success was so influential that it’s credited for spurring the creation of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act.

Since that April in 1970 Earth Day celebrations have continued to serve as an annual reminder of the societal effort needed to preserve what we have. But today these events occur in the face of a society saturated with dark green gloom: global climate change, massive plastic gyres in the oceans, accelerating species loss -- the news is bleak. Meanwhile, one of Earth Day’s core concepts of “consuming less” has been usurped by commercial corporations, who “green wash” their products to sell more stuff. So what message can Earth Day promote to a population at once saturated in green washing and smothered in dark green gloom? Somewhere between burn out and burn up we must find a message of focused optimism.

Whether those first Earth Day celebrations shifted the whole country’s attention to the plight of the Earth is debatable, but on December 7, 1972 a single image taken from 28,000 miles away did just that. Snapped from the window of the Apollo 17 space craft, the iconic “Blue Marble” photograph depicted an Earth with swirling cyclonic storms, vast Saharan sands, and the full round girth of our blue, green and brown planet. Though this image was not the first image of Earth taken from space it was the most vivid and put into plain reality the limitations of the marble on which we live.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17 (link)

This year the EcoTarium will celebrate our little blue rock for being just that. Beginning on Tuesday, April 16, the EcoTarium will kick off April Vacation Week with Earth Week activities (April 16-19), culminating with our annual Earth Day Celebration on Friday, April 19. This year’s vacation week theme will be space exploration. With activities ranging from driving rovers on Mars to timing a rocket launch to get to an orbiting planet, we will unfold the complexity of space exploration and the limited beauty that is our little blue marble.

For more details please visit our website at www.ecotarium.org or visit us Tuesday – Sunday at 222 Harrington St. Worcester, MA 01604

(Blog entry written by Alex Dunn, who works at the EcoTarium, but whose views do not necessarily represent the views of the EcoTarium.)

March 6, 2013

March 5, 2013

Winter is perfect bird-watching weather


It's deep winter, the time when the nonskiing majority often feels an irresistible urge to curl up by the fire and stay there until daffodils trumpet the start of spring. A few snowy weeks later, however, serious cabin fever sets in.

An uncommon-but-sure cure is to get out and go bird watching, Deborah D. Cary, director of Central Sanctuaries for Mass Audubon, says. 

Really? In winter?? 

“Actually it's spectacular in winter because there isn't so much foliage around to distract you. You get a much clearer view of the birds,” Cary said. “You can see their flight patterns better, and it's quieter when there's a lot of snow on the ground. Listening for a bird call is a key way to identify a species so it works great in winter.” 

Audubon sanctuaries offer guided bird walks in winter to help you get the hang of where the birds are hanging out in cold weather. You also will learn something about their winged ways. You might see chickadees, blue jays and wrens but they are not the same ones you see in summer. That's because almost all birds are migratory to some extent, Alexander Dunn, a natural history guide at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, said.

Some birds, such as the Arctic tern, travel 10,000 miles twice a year, basically from pole to pole and back. But our backyard birds might only migrate a few hundred miles so that in winter we have birds from Canada who head south to Massachusetts before the deep freeze hits their homeland. Meanwhile, the chickadees, jays and others that hop around our yards in summer have flown down to the Carolinas for the winter. They return as their Canadian cousins hightail it home in the spring.

So why is Massachusetts warm enough for one chickadee and not for another? Because they're a little bit like people, apparently. “Some of us spend the winter here and some of us go to Florida,” said Dunn, who is the outreach coordinator at Worcester Art Museum. 

If you can't tell a robin from a roadrunner, you might want to check out a new blog Dunn has started, The Daily Bird New England.

The blog is like a “word-of-the-day” calendar for beginner bird watchers. Each day a brief entry describes a kind of bird that can be seen around here whatever the time of year it happens to be. The idea is that, if you visit each day, you can develop an understanding of birds in rhythm with the seasons. 

“There are loads of websites and blogs about bird watching, but a lot of them are based around personal photographs, personal sightings and places that people like to go that are specific to a particular region,” Dunn said. “I wanted to basically do a website where people could go to learn about bird watching — and learn in pace with the season, so it's based in what's going on right now outside your window.” 

Follow the blog long enough and you might become a twitcher, which is what obsessive bird spotters in England are called. Birders throughout the world are obsessed with their lifetime checklists that keep track of all the birds they've ever seen. The idea, in bird circles, is to have a very long list, so when a rare bird is spotted in the British Isles, twitchers, sometimes thousands of them, flock to the location, though it be many hours away from where they live. “These are people who will take a six-hour car ride to see a bird they've never seen, check it off their list and then drive back home,” Dunn said. 

Dunn says he is not a twitcher, but he's all for going the distance where a special bird is concerned. He will be a co-leader for a Broad Meadow Brook-sponsored trip to Plum Island, a barrier island off the northeast coast of Massachusetts, on Jan. 29. The group will be on the lookout for the magnificent snowy owl, which usually lives in the far north tundra but comes south for the deepest part of winter. To a snowy owl, Plum Island in winter looks a lot like home. “It's similar to the tundra that these birds spend the rest of the year on,” Dunn said. “In the winter they get pushed down to these little pockets of flat frozen land. They'll show up sometimes at Logan Airport or Duxbury Beach and places that look like that, but Plum Island is a really reliable place.” 

Of course they are white (hence the name “snowy”) and you are trying to pick them out against a snow-covered background. Still, bird watchers give a hoot about catching a glimpse of one. 

“There's just something about them,” Dunn said. “They're this massive bird. You see them flying silently over the frozen expanse, you have the sense that you're suddenly transported to the Arctic. If you get a close enough look, they have these yellow and black eyes and when they lock on you it's kind of a looking-into-your-soul kind of thing. It's really powerful.” 


March 1, 2013

Youth Reach project blends art, community advocacy
By Allison Chisolm

Alex Dunn put two lumps of gray clay in the middle of a table at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM). Two high school students immediately picked them up and started playing with them. Four others wouldn't touch the stuff.

"These two are tactile learners," said Dunn, WAM's outreach coordinator, explaining to the group that some acquire knowledge first through their hands. Others learn visually, or through logic, music or movement. They discussed the concept of multiple intelligences and different learning styles.

Then the youth, ages 14 to 22, tackled the day's mission. How could the group help elementary school students learn to care about trash in the neighborhood? Through visual materials like flyers or a video, or... how about a skit where second graders become recycled materials?

Cleaning up trash was the issue the youth chose to focus on after undertaking several community walks around the Worcester Youth Center's neighborhood last fall. They observed what was there, and more importantly, what wasn't. They didn't find much community pride. Instead, they saw a lot of trash.

Facilitating those weekly discussions was Esayas Wureta, a second-year graduate student in Clark's International Development and Social Change program, who selected the 15 youth, after reviewing their applications for the year-long Youth Reach project. Part of the Youth Center's Urban Community Action Planning for Teens, or UCAPT initiative, the collaboration between WAM and the Youth Center was funded for two years through a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant. The program will repeat with a new group in the 2011-12 school year.

Program participants also spent eight two-hour sessions at WAM last fall meeting artists and exploring different art forms, including cartooning, watercolors, sculpture and print making. They visited an exhibit on art as social change at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and closer to home, a photography exhibit at the NuCafe.

To respond to their community concerns through art, they elected to create a sculpture made of cigarette butts. They will also decorate new trash cans, once they receive the funding and city authorization for their inclusion in the trash collection schedule, to encourage people to keep the trash off the street. The group's artwork and a chronicle of their year's efforts will be exhibited at the Worcester Public Library in September.

"What I like about the program is it's all about the youth," said Esayas. "They are engaged. There are no set ideas, just a framework and they determine the end goal...I'm just following them and facilitating."

Worcester Youth Center Winter 2011 Newsletter

February 20, 2012

Join me at the MEES Conference - March 14, 2012

I will be presenting at this year's Massachusetts Environmental Education Society Conference on March 14th, 2012. This year's conference theme is Refresh: New Tools and Techniques for Today's Educators

The conference is open to classroom, or informal educators, teachers, and naturalists interested in learning a about what's going on in the field of "EE". It is a great opportunity to gain new curriculum ideas, or just get a chance to talk with other educators from the field. The day long conference will be held at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.  

My session is titled, The Digital Bird Watcher: New Tools for Building Fundamental Tools. for more information about sessions or to register please click here

October 27, 2011

Notes from the NEEEA Conference 2011

Demystifying the Process of Bird Watching: Observe, Identify, Recognize
Saturday October 22, 2011
4:45 - 6:15pm
Session: D2
Instructor: Alexander Dunn

How do advanced bird watchers identify a tiny warbler in just a flash? In this workshop we will explore how advanced birders use the eye-brain connection to make snap judgments and discuss how educators can utilize close observation and field notes to develop bird identification skills at any age.

The three myths:

1. Good bird watchers have supervision

Myth one debunked: Bird watchers don’t have supervision, instead they use repetitive observations and identifications to build a subconscious data pool that allows them to “thin-slice” a bird and make an identification. 

Learning tool – getting to identification begins with good observation. Teaching fast, field observation with “warbler bingo”.

2. Bird identification is made by observing every feather

Myth two debunked: Bird watchers examine every feather on a bird to make an identification. – wrong. Bird watchers use a myriad of observations including song, niche habitat, season, flight pattern, and attitude to make an identification.

Learning tool – have students utilize GISS, ecological observation, and bird song.

3. The maps in bird books show when a bird is most common in the area

Myth three debunked: The maps in bird books tell a small slice of a much larger story. When we see birds we are witnessing a moment of a complex life. Breeding, migrating, wintering these are elements that can be broken down into individual strands of learning.

Learning tools – Migration game, monitoring, citizen science, plotting data, scale migration distances of a Bobolink, Red-wing blackbird, and personal commute.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - The first place to start!
Environment for the Americas - International Migratory bird Day resources
Celebrate Urban Birds - projects for your school or community
Alvaro Jaramillo - a good birder to know
Audio monitoring - how to build and analyze night flight calls 
Breeding Bird Atlas - citizen science data on breeding birds in the numerous states
Bird Education Network - additional resources 
E-bird Animated Occurrence Maps - citizen science data that illustrates migration and season movement
Voice of Audubon - Mass Audubon's bird sightings
My upcoming walks


blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds by Pete Dunne

The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States by Janine M. Beny

For questions or to receive the full PowerPoint please email me at: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

January 31, 2011

Outdoor walk to feature peregrines, architecture
You can try to catch a glimpse of the downtown peregrine falcon pair by taking part in “Peregrines and Pediments,” a walk sponsored by Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary and Preservation Worcester from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 20. Participants will search for soaring birds and, while gazing skyward, seek out the hidden architectural details of the city. Instructors are Alexander Dunn, a natural history guide at Broad Meadow Brook, and Susan Ceccacci, architectural historian and education director at Preservation Worcester. The walk is suitable for anyone age 6 and up. It’s free to Preservation Worcester and Massachusetts Audubon Society members, $5 for adult nonmembers and $3 for nonmember children. Registration is required. Call (508) 753-6087.