Aquatic Studies Class

Fifth through eighth graders came out today from a local school to do some aquatic studies.  After an indoor crash course in macroinvertebrates and water quality assessment, we divided the group in half and half went to the stream first, while the other half visited the pond first.  Later we switched and afterwards we did a wrap-up indoors to evaluate what we found.

My group visited the stream first, and the girls jumped right in!

20140424_124825 20140424_124859We caught three crayfish – one was under an inch long!

20140424_125446 20140424_125811 One student got caught herself – her feet were stuck in the mud and her back and hair were stuck in the brambles!

20140424_125843She was a good sport about it, and with the help of two friends in the end, she got unstuck…although one shoe was sucked off her foot!

20140424_125947 20140424_130224We found many water striders and a good number of caddisfly larvae.  We even found a very robust damselfly nymph.  All our critters indicated that this was good quality water.

20140424_130144We sampled at the pond next.

20140424_132306 20140424_132853The air was full of the aroma of decay.  This turtle did not make it through the winter, nor did many of the goldfish that live in the pond.

20140424_133157We had some extra time at the end of the program, so the kids got to play in the Nature Playscape.  One is never to old to climb trees and play on logs.

20140424_140222 20140424_140257 20140424_140914In the end, everyone said it was a great afternoon!  We love it when kids love being outside exploring!  Let’s hear it for the Salmon in the Classroom kids!


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Prescribed Burn


The call came Friday afternoon – the burn crew was going to be here at 6:00 to do the burn we had planned at the north side of our property as part of a land conservation grant that we’ve secured with the Stewardship Network and other partners.  Then it was moved to  7:00 – the crew was doing a burn at Haehnle just before coming to Dahlem.  About 7:30 we were getting ready to head out to the 10 acre burn site.DSC_0111DSC_0113 Dave Borneman runs the burn crew.  This year’s crew included three new team members, and all were quite efficient and skilled at their work.

DSC_0117The burn site includes edges (along a field and trails), a somewhat open grassy area, and woods.  The wind was coming out of the west, so they started the burn in the woods on the east side of the plot, and drove the flames into the wind.  The raked trail served as a fire break.

DSC_0118DSC_0120DSC_0121There wasn’t a lot of fuel in the woods, aside from last fall’s leaves and some old branches, so this area took its time to burn.  They laid down several lines of fire to get it burning faster.

DSC_0123Areas around logs, benches and signs were watered down to prevent them from catching fire.

DSC_0127DSC_0145It was a beautiful warm evening, and those flames were good and hot!

DSC_0150We had a fair-sized crowd of spectators:  Dahlem staff, volunteers, members and friends.  There was also a reporter and photographer from the local paper in attendance.

DSC_0155Part of the burn crew went up to the northern edge of the area and started sending the flames through the edge and into the open area.

DSC_0163A lot of the grass here did not burn.  And the brush piles resisted the flames as well.  This area had been prepped by our Cut and Dab Society (volunteers who help us with land conservation/stewardship projects), mostly this spring.  The deep snows, and later the ice, from the winter prevented a lot of work that would’ve been done over the winter months.  As a result, much of the brush in the brush piles was still on the green side.


One brush pile, however, had some dead material in it, and it burned quite nicely once it got going.

DSC_0173DSC_0187Still Life with Vine.  We discovered that the cut vines (mostly Asian bittersweet) burned really well.

DSC_0198Here we are looking back across the open area toward the woods.  A little further back from this shot is the glacial pond, which was alive with singing frogs.  They were not at all deterred by the smoke that was blowing their way.

DSC_0201Dusk was well underway by now, so Dave drove back and forth with a drip torch, making sure there were plenty of lines of fire going to speed the burn along.

DSC_0224At last we were on the western side of the plot.  The trail that leads to the Ecology Farm formed the boundary along this side.

DSC_0227As mentioned before, the vines burned very nicely.

DSC_0231DSC_0233The lines of fire were beautiful as evening fell.

DSC_0252 DSC_0250 In truth, the world did not turn blue; it is the result of me shooting at a very low shutter speed.  This shot, which was taken about 9:00 PM, shows an interesting web of unburned grasses through the open area.  These are likely deer trails.DSC_0267So…why was this burn prescribed?  Once upon a time, burns were a natural part of the landscape, often started by lightning strikes, and later encouraged by the Native Americans.  Burns are what keep grasslands and savannas as grasslands and savannas.  Without some sort of disturbance (like fire), ecosystems age and change over time, eventually reaching whatever the climax community of that area is.  By reintroducing fire to the landscape, we can keep our grasslands and savannas from becoming woodlands.  This favors plant, bird, insect, mammal, and herp (reptile/amphibian) species that thrive in open situations (or along edges).  Without disturbances, like fire, diversity on the landscape is lost.

At Dahlem, we are working on a long-range plan to re-establish habitats that favor grassland birds, whose populations are in serious decline (due to a number of reason).  By recreating open habitats, such as grasslands and savannas, we are providing nesting habitat for these birds (and other associated species).

We are quite keen to see what plant species pop up in the burn area.  While we will be planting some grass and forb seeds, it is very possible that some natives were already in the seed bank and will have been released by the fire.

Be sure to walk out to the burn over the next few weeks to see what is happening!

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Banding Birds

On Saturday, Marcy 29, Allen Chartier was back at Dahlem doing another bird banding program, this time for the public.  Nearly 40 visitors came to watch and help release birds.  Here are some of the highlights.

DSC_0583Watching to see what’s caught in the nets.

DSC_0589Looking at the leg bands.

DSC_0622 DSC_0635 DSC_0636 DSC_0662 DSC_0692 DSC_0735  DSC_0791 DSC_0814 DSC_0839 DSC_0867 DSC_0904 DSC_0925 DSC_0938 DSC_0984 DSC_1002 DSC_1005 DSC_1014 DSC_1024 DSC_1041 DSC_1054 DSC_1055 DSC_1060 DSC_1082 DSC_1090 DSC_1094 DSC_1098Everyone had a great time, and everyone who wanted to release a bird had the chance to do so.

If you’d like to see more of this kind of program, let us know!  It’s a great way to introduce people of all ages to birds (up close) and nature (in general).

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U of M Bird Collection – Part Two

SO…the Cassowary.

DSC_0485 Cassowary (2)This large, flightless bird is still alive (well, not this particular one, but the species in general) and kicking.  And when we say kicking, that can be taken literally, for this bird has been known to do serious damage to people with those powerful legs.

DSC_0485 CassowaryTake a close look at the feathers, and wings.  The feathers are really almost hair-like…coarse hair.  And the larger bits you see in the photo below are all that remain of the wings/wing feathers:  very stiff…whatevers.  It’s like the rachis without any of the rest of the feather attached.

This bird belonged to PT Barnum – he was given it in 1874.  The U of M acquired it many years later when one of their bird collection staff saw it in a back room collection of Mr. Barnum’s things. Upon saying “we don’t have one of those” he was offered the bird.  Et voila – here it is today.

DSC_0488 We saw this poster on one of the cabinets, so we wanted to see the birds…did they really look like this?

DSC_0521Well…sorta.  These are Pittas, a family of passerines (perching birds) from tropical Asia and Australasia.

DSC_0491Many of the males have spectacular iridescent plumage.DSC_0495 DSC_0499

The Hoatzin is this funny chicken-like bird from South America.  I saw these when I visited the Amazon, gosh, 14 years ago!  They are famous for the claws the babies have on their wings, which enable them to climb back up the tree to the nest if they fall out.  It was once thought that this was proof of a missing link between modern day birds and their dinosaur ancestors.  This theory is no longer in vogue.

DSC_0509 hoatzinAnother bird many of the group wanted to see was the Resplendent Quetzal, which hails from Central America.  As you could guess, it gets at least part of its name from its glorious feathers.

DSC_0530 Resplendant Quetzel (5)The Shoebill, or Whalehead, is a large bird that is named for its rather obvious bill, which resembles a wooden clog.  Although often likened to storks, this African native is not related to storks at all.  Today it is believed that this bird is more closely related to pelicans and has thus been reclassified into the pelican family of birds.

DSC_0540 SHoebillJanet pulled out another large African bird for us to see:  the Secretarybird, named for the long stiff feathers on its head, which are reminiscent of writing quills.

DSC_0546 Secretary bird (3)Some people may wonder what the purpose of a collection of birds (or any other animal) like this would be, other than a look at what once was.

Specimen collections are important in many aspects of scientific study, but for our group they served two purposes.  One, we got to see birds many of us would never see otherwise.  Two, collections can help people learn how to identify species.

DSC_0552For example, this selection of thrushes…

DSC_0506 Various Thrusheswas beneficial to one of our group in learning to tell wood, swainson’s and hermit thrushes apart.  Some details are only easily seen when the bird is in the hand.


This collection of yellowthroats …

DSC_0403helps the viewer see the differences that can occur within a single species.

DSC_0404Being able to look at similar species up close can really help train the eye to see  differences that are often very subtle.

DSC_0503After about two hours with Janet and the birds, we took our leave and thanked our gracious host.  On our way out of the museum, we zipped around some of the other exhibits to see what else was there…

like these dinosaur bones!

DSC_0560Every kid loves a dinosaur.  Some of us never outgrow dinosaurs.  I loved this huge eel-like skeleton – what was it?  According to the sign, its a Basiliosaurus, a precurser to the whale.

DSC_0561Mammoths!  Or are they Mastodons?  Or both?  I didn’t get a chance to look at them up close…next time.

DSC_0558There are some terrific dioramas at this museum.  I really liked this one with all the baby opossums in the bottom!

DSC_0567And right now the big draw to the museum is this:

DSC_0572it’s a replica from a fossil that was found of a snake eating a baby dinosaur!  Complete with eggs from the dinosaur nest!  This fossil was found in western India in 1981.  We will never know who would’ve won the battle, the dino or the snake, because they were both covered with silt before the snake could catch the dino or the dino could get away.  Apparently snakes were quite rare during this time period, so this find was simply incredible.

If you find yourself in Ann Arbor with some spare time on your hands, make your way to the U of M’s Museum of Natural History.  It’s free ($6 donation suggested) and well worth a tour.  I know that I will be going back to see more of what they have to offer!

You are also invited to join our Tuesday Group!  Anyone can come out with us.  We meet every Tuesday morning at 9:00 here at Dahlem.  Most of the time we are outside looking for birds, bugs, plants and other critters.  Sometimes we study geology.  Sometimes we travel to other sites to see new and exciting things.  If you are interested in natural history, come on out and join us!

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Frozen in Time

Tuesday morning started off rather overcast, but great things lay ahead, for the Tuesday Morning Group was headed to Ann Arbor to visit the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, specifically to take in the bird collection.

I was early on my way to meet my carpool, so I detoured out to the fields where the snowy owls have been seen.  I did see two large white birds fly into the treeline here, but if they were snowies remains unknown.  They could’ve also been hawks…or a hawk pushing a snowy.  One of these days I will have my binocs and camera with me when I see something and will be able to make a more positive ID!

DSC_0382Soon, however, the caravan was headed up Route 94 on the way to the museum.  This natural history museum is a wonderful place that everyone should visit.  To begin with, it has some beautiful architecture – check out the ceiling in the lobby!

DSC_0386Our destination was the third floor, where Janet Hinshaw is the manager of the Bird Collection.  Ah…there’s nothing like an “old school” critter collection.  You can just feel the years of research in the place.

DSC_0389DSC_0392But not everything is old.  In fact, all the specimen cabinets are new, state-of-the-art cases, which are hermetically sealed against humidity, bugs, and people!

DSC_0396Our group was eager to start looking at birds!

DSC_0390 Janet had placed some trays of warblers, a selection of falcons, and a variety of thrushes out on the tables for us to view as she did an introduction to the collection.

DSC_0402I was drawn to the big fella in the back corner, though.  This is an ostrich skeleton.  Impressive.

DSC_0399In a case up on top of shelves, was a skeleton of a Great Auk, a bird I know from stories and history – now extinct.  It was much smaller than I expected.  Sadly, it’s height above the floor, my less-than-statuesque height, and the reflecting lights on the display case’s glass resulted in poor photos:

DSC_0406 DSC_0407 Great AukThis was the first of the extinct birds we were to see this morning.  Janet took us down an aisle of cabinets, unlocked one, and inside were the birds that we now only know from books, some rare films, or study skins like these.

First up, the Carolina Parakeet.

DSC_0413 Carolina ParakeetCan you imagine, truly, trees full of flocks of these spectacularly colored birds?  Once their flocks spread across the United States, from the east coast to the midwest, where they fed on a variety of fruits and seeds.  When settlers moved out west, and started to convert forests and the plains to agricultural lands, the birds lost habitat and food sources.  As a result, they started to feed on the commercial crop, with the predictable outcome:  slaughter by irate farmers.  By 1860 the Carolina Parakeet was rare;  it was extinct by 1920.

DSC_0414Probably the most famous extinct bird, besides the dodo, is the Passenger Pigeon.  Like the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon existed in large flocks.  In fact, the flocks were enormous!  They could be miles long!  But when settlers came to this continent, they saw these large flocks as a source of food.  It was the beginning of the end.

The demise of the Passenger Pigeon has been called “the most spectacular example of avian exploitation in human history” – rivaled only by the collapse of many of our ocean fisheries.    Entire railroad lines were built specifically to take advantage of the massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons in the midwest.  Market hunters would take the trains out to where the birds were roosting and feeding, and as the birds settled in the hundreds and thousands on the ground, they’d fire huge nets over the flocks and catch them.  Hundreds of tons of these pigeons would be loaded on the trains and shipped to market.

As the population declined, it plummeted.  Some suspect that the birds needed to have such huge flocks in order to locate the massive amounts of food they needed to survive.  It is also known that the birds stopped breeding – not necessarily because they couldn’t find mates, but again because their numbers were so low.  And, the hunting pressure exceeded the replacement rate.

What a shame.  And what a beautiful bird (it was).  Love the iridescence on the neck.

DSC_0419 Passenger PigeonNext Janet pulled out the woodpeckers.  As you’d probably expect, this one is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – male and female.

DSC_0422 Ivory-billed Woodpecker (5)The Ivory-billed had two subspecies:  the North American subspecies, which was endemic to the lowland forests of the southeast, and the Cuban subspecies, found, as you would expect, in Cuba.

The primary cause of loss for these birds was hunting, although habitat loss was right up there.  In fact, it is believed that there is no longer the right kind of forest to support these birds any more.  Ivory-bills hit the news in 2004/2005 when reports came out of Arkansas about a sighting.  Teams of birders and ornithologists hit the flooded forests in search of these birds, but no conclusive evidence was found.  Might they still be there?  It’s possible, but the probability is low.  There has been no conclusive evidence since 1940.

DSC_0429 female ivory-billedThe largest woodpecker in the world was the Imperial Woodpecker, and Janet showed us a male and female of this bird, too.

DSC_0433 Imperial WoodpeckerAlso known as the Mexican Woodpecker, it was found in the forests of Mexico.  The last confirmed sighting was of a female in 1956.  I read about what happened to these birds and it just about made my blood boil.

These birds were targeted by logging outfits in the forests where they lived.  They told the locals that these birds were destroying the valuable timber that was to be logged, so in order to help the logging industry, the logging people gave poison to the locals to smear on trees where the woodpeckers were known to be searching for food.  When this happened, the population plummeted, as you can imagine.  What makes this so infuriating is that woodpeckers do not feed on live, healthy trees; and loggers do not harvest diseased, dead trees.  Was there really a conflict?  NO!  Arrrghh!

What stands out as really cool about this bird is the flipped up “do” on the female.

DSC_0440Here’s a peek inside the drawer of extinct exotic birds.  I believe the reddish ones are a honey creeper from Hawaii.

DSC_0447This fella is the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, listed as extinct in 1990.  I remember hearing about this bird when I was in college – just prior to its listing.

These sparrows were officially declared a subspecies in 1973, although they had been described as such about 100 years before.  They are (were) closely related to the Scott’s Seaside Sparrow, and depending on whether one was a lumper or splitter, the Dusky was the same (or not).  DNA testing was not held as 100 % reliable, but eventually it was determined that these two birds split ways between 250,000 and 500,000 years ago.

Duskies lived in a very small habitat area, so they were subject to the perils of “island” effects, where it doesn’t take much to wipe out a species.  In the 1940s, DDT (sprayed for mosquito control) took a huge toll:  breeding pairs dropped from about 2000 to 600.  Then the area was flooded, again in an attempt to control mosquitoes.  This resulted in the loss of nesting habitat – the population dropped again.  Next, the land was drained to enable the construction of a highway, resulting in further habitat loss.  What did in the Dusky Seaside Sparrow?  A combination of pesticides and pollution are commonly cited as the cause.

DSC_0443 dusky seaside sparrowThis pretty little bird is the Bachman’s Warbler.  Very little was ever learned about its behavior.  It was a southeastern bird, last seen in Florida in 1977.  The last confirmed US sighting was in 1988.   These little birds overwintered in Cuba, and the hurricane that struck there in 1933 devastated the population.  It is believed they became so rare that they were unable to find mates and breed.  Poof.

DSC_0451Bachman's warblerThe Labrador Duck is another species that went extinct before we knew much about it.  It is believed that the population was never large to begin with.  “They” believe that the duck’s bill indicates that is sifted through silt and shallow water for shellfish and crustaceans; this highly specialized diet/niche may have also contributed to the bird’s decline and eventual extinction, as did its lack of fear of people.  The last confirmed sighting was 1878 in Elmira, NY.

DSC_0463The Eskimo Curlew – in the 1870s huge flocks of this bird were seen all along its range, especially when it came in to forage on blueberries and other heath fruits.  When Passenger Pigeons became harder and harder to find, the market hunters turned their attention to the Eskimo Curlews.  By the late 1800s their population was in critical decline, a condition that was compounded by excessive hunting and loss of spring food sources (especially the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper) due to conversion of land to agriculture.  In less than 20 years, Eskimo Curlews were also extinct.


DSC_0475 Eskimo CurlewThe chicken-like bird below is a Heath Hen.  It’s a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, which can still be found.  The Heath Hen was once fairly common along the eastern US, and some believe that it was these birds that graced the first Thanksgiving table, not turkeys.  Regardless, they were extremely common during Colonial times.  By the late 18th century, these birds were so common, and so commonly eaten, that they eventually became known as the poor man’s meat – cheap and plentiful.  I’ve even read that some employment contracts that included meals dictated that the employee would not be served passenger pigeons for more than three meals a week because they would get sick of it.

As you might guess, over-hunting was the primary cause of the bird’s decline.  Soon the only population that remained was on Martha’s Vineyard, where, for the first time, laws were put in place to protect them.  For a while it looked like the protections would work, for the population rebounded and did fairly well, but then the island effect took hold again, and between disease and weather, the population suffered irreparable losses and it became extinct in 1932.


DSC_0476Now we branch into some of the interesting extinct birds from outside the US.  This is a pair of Huias, a bird that was found in New Zealand.  The female is the one with the really curved bill, while the male has the shorter, stouter bill.  He would whack away at wood to excavate it for insects, while she could reach further into the wood to extract a meal.  This particular example of sexual dimorphism is unusual – mostly with birds what you see is a difference in coloration or size between the sexes, if there is any difference at all.  Over-hunting for skins to mount in museums and for tail feathers to use on hats, and habitat loss (deforestation) led to the extinction of this bird.  It lived in ancient forests – complex ecosystems, that once logged, could no longer support this bird.  The last Huias were seen in the 1960s.

DSC_0468 This little fellow is the Laysan Rail.  We were all surprised to see a rail that was so small!  It was a flightless bird from the northwester Hawaiian island of the same name.  It was noted for its speed as it ran across the ground, using its wings to maintain its balance.  You can see footage of this bird here.  It’s loss was primarily due to the introduction of rabbits to the island.  The Laysan Rail ate a varied diet of invertebrates, leaves, seeds, eggs and seabird carcasses, but when the rabbits arrived, these voracious herbivores stripped the island bare of vegetation, leaving a virtual dust bowl in their wake.  The loss of plants was devastating to the birds, and not just the rail – two other species also went extinct.  In 1910 the island was at K, which is the carrying capacity of a habitat; for the rails that meant there were about 2000 breeding pairs.  By 1923, there only two left on the island.  The last Laysan Rails were seen in 1944 on the island of Midway.

DSC_0448 L aysan Rail It really is so very sad to see these losses.  And to know that they are just the tip of the iceberg.   These were just a handful of specimens from one cabinet in one collection.

The tragedy of these losses should be a lesson to everyone.  And yet, extinctions continue, often in the name of “progress.”

From this one cabinet, we moved on to other birds, ones that still exist, like the Cassowary:

DSC_0485 Cassowary (3)Tune in tomorrow to learn more about this bird (it was from P.T. Barnum’s circus) and the rest of the birds we saw this day.

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Bird Banding

It was a rather cold morning when a local cub scout pack came out to Dahlem this month for their Blue and Gold awards outing.  For their program, they brought in Allen Chartier, who is a Michigan bird bander.


Earlier in the week Allen had come out and set up mist nets around our bird feeding station, and had put out three traps, in order to acclimatize the birds to these unusual structures.  The birds readily adapted to the new items at the station, so that morning, the nets were opened and the traps set, and soon we had birds to band.


Mist nets are very fine nets that the birds cannot see.  When they fly in to feed at the feeders, they hit the net and fall into a “pocket” or drape in the netting.  Once caught, they usually lie there pretty still, waiting to be rescued.  As quickly as possible, Allen was out there untangling the birds,


pulling them out of the traps,


and popping them into cotton bags (one bird per bag).  Being in the bag usually calms the bird down and keeps it from hurting itself.  Allen was surprised at how many birds we caught and how quickly.  In about an hour we had 39 birds and had to close the nets and traps.

The bagged birds were brought inside and hung up on hooks to await their turns at being recorded for posterity.

DSC_0231Bird banding requires both state and federal licenses, as well as years of training.  The leg bands come in a variety of sizes, each size just right for each species of bird.

DSC_0289Very quickly, Allen would select the correct band, open it, and then clamp it around the leg of a bird from one of the bags.


Blowing gently on the head, Allen would then age the birds based on the ossification of the skull (had the sutures on the skull closed or not).  He’d also check the bird’s sex, if possible.


Wing and tail measurements were taken,


each bird was wrapped up in a bag and weighed,


and all the data were recorded in Allen’s records, to be sent on later to the bird banding authorities.


After each bird was successfully banded and recorded, it was carried outside and released.  Staff and visitors got to help release some of the birds, which were more than happy to get back to their routines.

DSC_0282DSC_0315 DSC_0320We will have Allen out again at the end of March for a public bird banding program.  Look for it in our March/April issue of PawPrints.   He will also be out during the annual Birds, Blooms and Butterflies Festival in August, when he bands hummingbirds.

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Snow Fun in the New Year!

Happy New Year, Everyone!  And how lucky are we to not only finally get some snow, but to get some marvelously fluffy snow, and to have a gloriously sunny day today in which to enjoy it during one of our Winter Break Programs:  Snow Fun!

Designed for children ages 7 to 10, we had plans to do all sorts of fun outdoor stuff in the snow.

First, we made snow angels.

DSC_0235 DSC_0237

And then we gathered some natural objects to freeze into sun catchers.


Next, we wanted to see what would happen when one blew soap bubbles when the temperature was below freezing.  Would they freeze?

DSC_0257The ones we blew into the air didn’t…not really.  Most dropped right to the ground; some caught an updraft and blew away.  When they popped, there was a brief shower of frozen suds.  But Bailey discovered that if you blew them right onto the snow, they would freeze:

DSC_0280Soon our hands were frozen from all the soap bubble solution, so it was time to go inside to defrost a little bit and start to make our Snow Ice Cream!

We started with about 8 cups of fresh snow, added 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup milk and 2 tablespoons vanilla.

DSC_0290 DSC_0291

Stir stir stir, and then add about 2 more cups of fresh snow.  Stir some more.

DSC_0293You will end up with very soft ice cream.


It met with our chefs’ approval.

DSC_0298 DSC_0299Next we had to check our sun catchers – were they frozen yet?  Good enough!

DSC_0300 DSC_0301 DSC_0305And we wrapped up the afternoon with some hot cocoa and Bird TV.

DSC_0313It was a good day.

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