Friday, April 4, 2014

Learning About The Water Cycle

My son is in second grade, and each day when he comes home from school, one of the first things I do is check his backpack to see what the teacher has sent home. There is homework, of course, and often a notice from the school, and usually there is a sheaf of papers representing work recently completed in class. Needless to say, as this is work designed for 7- and 8-year olds, for me, it’s mostly review. But every so often I too get to learn something from the Second Grade curriculum.

In March, Abel brought home some worksheets about the water cycle. One night he had to cut out pictures of each phase of the cycle, and glue them to another page in the proper order. They had covered this in class earlier that day, so Abel understood the concepts. I suspect my memory is faulty, but I couldn’t recall learning about the water cycle myself until adulthood. I was so pleased that second graders were already learning basic earth science!

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose memories of Earth Science have grown hazy. Thus I offer this quick primer.

There are four phases to the water cycle: condensation, precipitation, accumulation and evaporation.

• Condensation, aka Forming Clouds - There is water vapor in the air. When it rises and meets cooler air, it turns into water droplets that form clouds.

• Precipitation, aka Water Falling to the Earth – The clouds gather more and more water as they are moved by the wind. This liquid is constantly forming and evaporating within the clouds, and when the conditions are right, it will fall to earth as rain, snow, sleet or hail.

• Accumulation, or Forming Bodies of Water – The water that falls to the earth via precipitation collects either as surface water (oceans, rivers, lakes, puddles) or groundwater (filtered through the land, and stored within the ground).

• Evaporation, or Forming Water Vapor – The warmth of the sun converts both surface water and groundwater to water vapor. These tiny droplets are carried up into the sky by rising warm air. As they reach the cooler air, condensation begins, and the cycle continues.

To drive these concepts home, Abel’s school brought in the North and South Rivers Watershed Association (NSRWA) for a program known as “Water All Around You.” The NSRWA set up six stations in the school cafeteria, each one addressing a different aspect of the water cycle.

There was a station at which students answered the question “Where in the watershed are you?” A watershed is an area of land in which all of the water that falls will drain to a specific place. For example, Abel’s elementary school is within the South River watershed, so all the rain that falls within that area eventually drains to the South River. The students looked at topographic maps of the town and learned how and where the water flows after it falls from the sky.

They also learned about water quality – finding out about what causes pollution, as well as the natural processes within the earth that clean the water, and the manmade processes (wastewater treatment plants) that are equally essential. Through a see-through acrylic groundwater simulator, they saw how contamination from something like a faulty septic system might flow through the land and into the groundwater. They even got to create mini filtration systems, with plastic bottles and coffee filters, to see first-hand how swamp water can be filtered clean.

In addition, they learned how water flows over the land. Using a model of a storm drain, parent volunteers demonstrated how things like motor oil, fertilizer, road salt, animal waste, and cigarette butts all get washed into the road and eventually flow, untreated, into the nearest body of water.

Abel’s favorite station was the taste test. He and his classmates sampled tap water, distilled water, and bottled water, to see how they varied in flavor. They made note of their observations and then discussed which water source would be the safest to drink. As for taste, the general consensus was that Marshfield water tasted best.

A final station educated the second graders about managing water quantity, and explained to them how they could conserve water in their everyday lives. They were asked to figure out how many household tasks they could complete, using 65 gallons of water per day (the state-recommended maximum consumption, to ensure that there is enough water for public safety and household usage). Practicing their math skills, the students found that they couldn't water their lawns, which can take thousands of gallons a day. 

The NSRWA offers “Water All Around You” to towns that participate in its Greenscapes program, which educates citizens, young and old, about water conservation. To date, more than 12,000 of students across the South Shore have participated, either at the second grade or fifth grade level. The program is a success because so many local towns have participated.

NSRWA Executive Director Samantha Woods says, "We need to change our water consciousness. The majority of our citizens don't know where their water comes from, what is the most common source of water pollution or what the term ‘watershed’ means. Upcoming generations will be faced with more water challenges than ever before. ‘Water All Around You’ is meant to remedy this lack of knowledge by bringing water to the classroom and when possible to get children into their watershed. Our goal is to ensure that every child in the South Shore region, at least once in their school career, learns what a watershed is, how we can protect it and where their own water comes from."

by Kezia Bacon
March 2014

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Sure Sign of Spring

Red Winged Blackbird (male).
 Which bird do you associate with the arrival of spring? The robin, right? It turns out that the appearance of a robin here on the South Shore is not an indication that spring is on its way. However spying a red-winged blackbird at your feeder: now that’s a different story.

Usually in early March, male red-winged blackbirds return to their breeding grounds, to prepare for the arrival of the females. Their aim is stake out, and guard, the best territory, so as to attract the most appealing mate.

My father likes to tell a story about a city-dwelling friend, who after hearing my dad’s excitement about the arrival of red-winged blackbirds on our deck, inquired “What do they look like?”

“Well,” said my dad, stating the obvious, “They are black birds, and they have a patch red on their wings.”

So yes, the name of the red-winged blackbird is indeed an apt descriptor. It is a medium-sized bird, just under two ounces in weight, and about 8.75 inches in length, with a 13-inch wingspan. Males are glossy black in color, with red and yellow badges, or “epaulettes,” on their shoulders, which they can display or conceal as needed. Females are less bold in color, usually a streaked dark brown, often with white above the eyes.

In spring, they are hard to miss – especially the males, who create quite a racket in their quest to be noticed by potential mates. Males will perch in high places and sing “Oak-a-ree!” or “Conk-la-ree!” all day long. Females are more apt to gather food and tend to the nest.

I live a stone’s throw from the Green Harbor River. In my back yard, a freshwater marsh divides the upland from a wide, pond-like section of the watercourse. This is prime habitat for red-winged blackbirds, who during the breeding season, favor marshes (both salt and fresh), rivers and streams, damp scrubby roadsides, and even the manmade ponds on golf courses. In winter, they might choose a drier habitat, such as an agricultural field, a wild meadow, or a grassy pasture.

So when they arrive here in spring, after wintering in warmer climes, they set about breeding and nesting. First the males each establish a territory. Next, when the females arrive, the males perch in prominent places, show off their colorful wing patches, and sing. Mate selection is undertaken by the females, but it’s not exclusive. A male may have up to fifteen different female mates at one time, and in a given season, most male red-winged blackbirds have at least two females nesting in their territory. Males actively defend their dominion. They will chase other birds away, fend off nest predators, and if they feel threatened, even harass large mammals including humans.

The females each select a site on which to build a nest. They use mud, grass and decayed vegetation to create a small cup which is seated low among densely-vegetated marsh grass, shrubs or trees. Females typically lay 3-6 eggs, which are pale blue-green or gray in color. After about 12 days of incubation, the fledglings hatch and the mother stays close-by for five weeks to feed them.

The diet of the red-winged blackbird varies. During the breeding season it is rich in protein, and includes insects like beetles, moths, grasshoppers, caterpillars and grubs. At other times of year, seeds and grains are staples.

The range of the red-winged blackbird spans the entire continental United States, most of Canada, and as far south as El Salvador, but the more highly populated areas are the Northeast, Midwest and the western US. Outside of nesting season, they congregate in extremely large flocks (think: millions), often with other types of blackbirds or starlings. They migrate with the seasons, concentrating where food and water are abundant.

As March approaches, the return of the red-winged blackbirds is nigh. Keep an eye out for brightly-colored males, who will bring some light and warmth to these dark, cold, dreary days, not only in a visual sense, but in a spiritual one as well. These shiny black birds with their patches of red and/or yellow on the shoulder are a sure sign of spring!


by Kezia Bacon, February 2014

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit