It has been a cold, snowy winter in the Midcoast this year, but that has been great for the students taking part in a field ecology course at Oceanside High School West.

They built a quinzee, a type of snow shelter, by piling up a very large hill of snow and then hollowing it out. This became the site for several experiments to see how well snow acts as an insulator for wildlife like mice, ruffed grouse, and other humans who are crazy enough to try winter camping on cold winter nights.

Hot baked potatoes wrapped in polyester insulation took the place of live animals in experiments that compared the temperature of animals sleeping in snow caves versus sleeping in trees. The students also learned to identify animal tracks and signs while they learned about where animals live and how they survive in a cold climate though interpreting field data and by reading Bernd Heinrich’s book, “Winter World.”

As the snow melted and tracking conditions became more difficult, the students started to look at other things in the environment to give them clues about what the area was like in the past. After reading part of Tom Wessels’s book, “Reading the Forested Landscape,” they found wolf trees, weird apples, juniper, stone walls, and the remains of barbed wire fences which were all evidence that the area was once used as livestock pastures. They will be examining old maps and photos of the area to see the habitats of the past. They can then compare the types of wildlife that use the area now to what was around in the past.

With the coming of spring, the students are learning to identify birds based on sight and sound. On a recent trip to Thomaston harbor, they were able to see many of the birds they have been learning to identify, and also several new species to add to their growing list of animals that live in our area. Soon amphibians, like wood frogs, spring peepers, and spotted salamanders, will become active again, and plants will start growing. The students will learn about their life cycles and the habitats they live in. An inventory of all of the species that live in the area will be compiled as a first step towards creating a wildlife management plan for the school area.

The students will also be contributing their field data to citizen science projects like eBird, a national study of bird species distribution and abundance run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Maine Audubon sponsored several workshops for teachers this winter that provided information and resources for the course. They also provided $100 towards equipment costs for the school.

So far the course has been a success for the nine students involved this spring. The course will be offered twice next school year (fall and spring semesters), and more than 50 students have signed up.