Last November, after the risk of spreading oak wilt had passed, we had a huge, ailing White oak tree taken down in our yard. This old grandmother of a tree was about 100 inches in circumference and we figure was at minimum reaching the century mark. It was sad to see her go but dead limbs 80 feet up were dangerous, and we were rewarded a healthy stack of firewood. Seemingly on an unrelated note, the grass and some of the perennials in our yard are looking decidedly dismal this spring. With the past two weeks of rain and sun, all the neighbor’s yards perked right up. We began to ponder: Was it the more-ice-than-snow conditions this winter? Was it the sledding party in mid-April? Did we, as one neighbor suggested, need an aeration and double seed-over? But then we heard this on To The Best of Our Knowledge:


If you don’t have eight minutes to spare, I’ll summarize here: scientists are now discovering that “trees are connected below ground by…mutualistic fungi called mycorrhizal fungi.” And while this may not be groundbreaking news, the fact that trees can use these networks to share resources, and that “mother trees” will share with their kin more than with other species, really sets the stage for a new understanding of the trees and forests around us. Some say trees and plants actually “speak” to one another and can send out distress signals.

And so, as we continued to ponder our gray, matted lawn, we wondered if the death of this tree might be impacting more than our view. What if old grandmother oak, as she faced her last days, was sending nutrients to other oaks, and not the grass or pachysandra? What if by cutting and removing her old, aging body we inadvertently disrupted a thriving and symbiotic underground ecosystem?  What if on the day the nimble and careful tree trimmers climbed up her trunk to remove each limb, she was sending out a distress signal that the lawn is still recovering from? We’ll never truly know, but with articles like this one from The Smithsonian, this one from CNN, or this one from Live Science (with the fun title “I Am Groot: Is a Walking, Talking Plant-Person Possible?”) these theories seem quite reasonable.

The last article cites research from UW-Madison scientist, Simon Gilroy, who shows that plants can respond to chemicals, “know” when they’re being touched, and react when they “hear” a nearby leaf being chomped by a caterpillar.

Did you know…

The animals pictured above are ubiquitous in Wisconsin woodlands. Here are a few fun facts about each:

The Chippewa word for Gray squirrel is “Ah-ji-duh-mo” which translates into “tail in the air.” Some Gray squirrels have black fur. This is a rare mutation but in areas with high concentrations of black squirrels, they can become fairly common. I’ve regularly seen them on summer trips to Northern Wisconsin. Some scientists believe the darker color was a physiological advantage in the densely forested, old growth woods prior to deforestation. As the forest canopy thinned, the genetic advantage leaned toward gray, not black fur.

The White-tailed deer, Wisconsin’s state mammal, gives birth to fawns in May or June. The camouflaging spots on the fawn’s back will disappear when it molts its fur for a winter coat, around October or November. Although deer are agile and can bound quickly through dense vegetation, they can fall prey to human, wolves, bears, coyotes, and, amazingly, eagles. Remember this viral video from last summer?

Even though the pictured woodpecker has a distinctive red stripe on its head, this species is called the Red-bellied woodpecker. The Red-headed woodpecker, a rarer species, has a full red head. According to Cornell’s All About Birds, Red-bellied males “have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food.” Check out this complete list of woodpeckers with red heads to learn the differences between each.

Raccoons kits are generally born in April or May. They live in a den, often in a hollow tree, with their mother until they are about one year in age. We watched “Raccoon Nation” on PBS at our house and learned that scientists believe “human beings, in an effort to outwit raccoons, are actually making them smarter and unwittingly contributing to their evolutionary success.” (PS the above link did provide access to the actual documentary but I believe it’s now out on Netflix.)

Most of these facts come from the EEK! (Environmental Education for Kids) website which was formally hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is now managed and maintained by the Wisconsin Green Schools Network.

To Do This Month:

May 19th: Leopold Foundation Spring Open House 12 – 4 PM – Celebrate spring at the Leopold Foundation! Assist with prairie planting outside the new Future Leaders Center, take a guided hike through our forests and prairies, visit the Leopold Shack, get a peek at the new dorm facility, and take part in hands-on activities for kids of all ages. Concessions will be provided by People Helping People. This event is free and open to the public. Learn more here!

May 28th: Monona Memorial Day Parade w/ ALNC 10 AM- 12 PM – Friends! Share your love of nature and Aldo Leopold Nature Center and as we celebrate Memorial Day and honor all of the Veterans we have lost. Strut your stuff down Monona Drive while handling your favorite animal puppets and passing out prairie seed packets and candy to the people you walk by.​ If you are interested in participating, please e-mail as you will be meeting at Monona Grove High School to start! Learn more here!

Upham Woods

Matching Game

Favorite Woodland Animal Books

May Events

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For Educators:

Summer in the Woods

When the last bell rings to signal the end of the school year, your opportunity to shift from teacher to student begins. Here are just a few of the nature-based learning opportunities being offered this summer:

The Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education, which is based out of UW-Stevens Point, is hosting a fun and full summer of workshop offerings. Topic include birds, a “three dimensional” approach to K-8 science, forestry education, wellness, energy, and the new Environmental Literacy & Sustainability State Standards. Most are offered at the Schmeeckle Reserve in Stevens Point for around $75.

The UW-Milwaukee Field Station offers the “opportunity to explore focused topics in natural history under the guidance of noted authorities.” Their multi-day courses cover topics like herpetology, sedges, vegetation of Wisconsin, ecological geology, lichens, and plant-insect interactions. Workshop duration and costs vary and some are available for college credit.

Take the summertime to become a Wisconsin Master Volunteer Naturalist. This program “provides 40 hours of coursework in natural history, interpretation, and conservation stewardship.” Complete a capstone project and give back to the community with 40 hours of volunteer time (in education, stewardship, or citizen science monitoring) to maintain your standing.

If you happen to still be working with kids over the summer and are looking for engaging projects to keep them busy and learning, the Conserve School is offering a new Conservation Crew opportunity for rising 9th and 10th graders. Click HERE to learn if you qualify for this work-study program that includes free room and board, gear, staff, and a stipend for you and your team of 7-9 students.

Also, be sure to check if a near-by Nature Net Member Site is offering any teacher workshops this summer on the Nature Net Calendar (events listed in green). Nature Net also lists quite a few statewide or on-line opportunities HERE, and you can always use the search tool on to find more.

For Families:

Nature Passport

Looking for fun and creative ways to explore the woods (and prairies and wetlands) this summer? Are you looking for a family activity that costs nothing, has a variety of convenient locations, and is scheduled exactly when you want it? If you enjoy the thrill of discovery and the fresh air, Nature Net’s Nature Passport will help you get outdoors to explore and learn on a Passport journey!

Created each year by the folks from Nature Net, Nature Passport is a free, self-guided family program highlighting each of the Nature Net member sites. It is available in both English and Spanish. This year’s version is hot of the press and will show up in the coming weeks at Madison and Monona Elementary schools, local libraries, and at each Nature Net member site. You can also download and print a copy from the Nature Net website – or just let us know if you want a copy (or a classroom set!).  The 2018 theme is “#NatureHappens…all year round!” with a focus on adaptations and changes that happen throughout the seasons. Hope you can use this tool to get outside for plenty of VitaminN this summer! 


Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.