Juggling my camera, pen, and notebook, I cross the athletic fields with a group of students and disappear into the cool, shady forest at the edge of campus. Science teacher Josh Delcourt is leading us to a path – the Eastern Trail – that slices through this oak and hickory forest and winds through communities along the Maine coast. He wears the science teacher uniform of tan dockers and pressed shirt, but has added work boots, a ball cap imprinted with “Thornton Academy Anglers Society,” and a maroon and gold tie.
While local residents enjoy the sunny day by walking and jogging by us down the trail, we’re stepping off of the trail. Josh holds a finger to his lips, silencing the group of students and nods his head toward the Havahart trap nestled in the leaves. There, a gray squirrel peers out at us.
I start photographing Josh as he approaches the trap, crouches down, and maneuvers a cone-shaped canvas tunnel against the cage. Josh nudges the squirrel to exit the metal trap by running through the canvas tunnel. At first the squirrel won’t budge, but then success! The squirrel dashes into the tunnel-shaped canvas bag until it can go no farther. I switch to videotaping Josh as he carries the canvas bag -- now more like a big squirrel sausage -- and rests it at the feet of the students who wait for him. The students silently encircle their science teacher.
“Who’s measuring? Who’s doing data?” Josh asks.
One student picks up the measuring tape. Another flips open an iPad.
Josh gently rolls back the canvas edge until the squirrel’s pointy nose pokes out. The students watch closely as he measures the furry ears and then the impossibly long treads of the squirrel’s feet. They record the data as he calls it out. I keep my camera clicking.
Then Josh pulls out a strip of bright green cord to collar the squirrel. “Meet squirrel number 6,” Josh says. And another student notes down the identifying collar number. Two more students steady the canvas as Josh releases the squirrel. He dashes back into the trees, collared but unharmed.
“This is how wildlife population biology starts out, gang. Wait until we get to the squirrel livecam data, you’re going to love it.”
I can’t wait until they start the squirrel livecam because it’s sure to generate more good stories.
Patricia Erikson is the Director of Marketing & Communications at Thornton Academy. As an author, the opportunity to document daily student life at Thornton Academy – both the ordinary and the extraordinary – keeps her job a fascinating one. Student and faculty research projects in the Science-Technology-Engineering-Math program frequently offer unique opportunities to photograph, videotape, and write about Thornton academics. Featured here is Josh Delcourt’s Eastern Gray Squirrel Mark and Recapture Project in his Maine Fish and Wildlife course which, by the way, captured, marked, and released ten gray squirrels over a two week period in the fall of 2015. Josh was named Thornton Academy’s Teacher of the Year on March 7, 2016. You can view below the video used to announce his honor to students at school meeting.