Winter statistics at minus 3 degrees
Date: Saturday, January 6, 2018
Morning temperature: Minus 3 degrees
With wind chill: Minus 15
My outdoor clothing: Heavy cotton cami, long underwear, knee socks, heavy wool socks, jeans, sweater, padded jacket with hood, wool scarf, heavy mittens, knee-high boots
Jazzy’s outdoor clothing: Purple dog sweater, plaid dog coat, long belly hair and amazing toe tufts
Time it took to dress us both: 15 minutes
Bird food: 2 scoops of dried corn, 2 scoops of wild bird seed, 2 scoops of sunflower seeds, 1 suet block, 2 apples that froze in the garage
Cost of bird food: 50 lbs of dried corn from local feed mill, $6.75; 25 lbs of black sunflower seeds, $14.75 from feed mill; 40 lbs of premium bird seed, $19.20 from feed mill; suet blocks, $.89/each from Ollie’s
Time it took to feed birds: 3 minutes
Time it took for birds to arrive and begin eating: 2 minutes!
Time it took Jazzy to remember why we were outside: 3 more minutes
Total time outside at minus 3 degrees: 8 minutes
Time it took to undress us both: 4 minutes
Time for Project FeederWatch
Project FeederWatch begins November 11 and continues through April 13. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, Project FeederWatch invites you – and the children in your life – to observe and count the birds that turn up at your bird feeder. You can contribute to a nearly 30-year database that helps scientists understand bird biology, population trends, and migrations. New participants receive a FeederWatch handbook, a full-color poster of common feeder birds, a bird-watching-days calendar, the annual report on Winter Bird Highlights, and a subscription to the Cornell Lab newsletter. Membership costs $18.
Explore Project FeederWatch and the FeederWatch Cam.
I’ve been feeding birds daily at our feeder for thirty-five years, so you can imagine that they know my schedule and my voice. But two years ago, it occurred to me that I could call the birds by whistling. I whistled a three-note call, my best attempt at a birdcall, and they came immediately. Birds, like other animals, are curious, so it wasn’t surprising that they came to investigate. But in just a few days, they responded to my whistle by flying in from all directions. I can watch them land in the trees around me, quickly coming nearer, until they dart into the feeder, so close I can hear the soft whoosh of their wings. It’s thrilling to have this sense of communication and understanding!
Today I’ve been forest bathing. Well, I’ve bathed in the goodness of trees all my life, but I’ve just recently learned about the practice of shinrin yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Developed in Japan in the 1980s, shinrin yoku is catching on stateside. Many studies are confirming what we might already know intuitively – we feel less stressed, happier, and more peaceful in the presence of trees. I read on the shinrin yoku website:
“The idea is simple: If a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way, there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved."
In Japan, forest bathing, or “forest therapy,” is often practiced for its health benefits, including lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol; boosting the immune system; increasing energy; and improving sleep. All from spending time under the canopy of a living forest.
To me, forest bathing is a new way of describing the experience of appreciating the strength and beauty and color and texture of trees, enjoying shade and shadows, hearing birds and insects or wind and rain on leaves and limbs, breathing fresh oxygen provided by the trees, and feeling protected and at home in the world.
When Bob and I first bought our wooded land, we spent an entire summer clearing a road to our home site. The road winds its way around the trees that we couldn’t bear to cut. One night after we had built our road and our house, as we were falling asleep, Bob asked me, “How many of our trees do you know by heart?” I readily answered, “Well, the big white pine is one of my favorites. And the maple with yellow blossoms – and the dogwoods, of course.” He said, “I like the tulip poplar with the double trunk and the ash tree that was hit by lightning.” I said I loved the snag where the woodpeckers nested. He said he really liked the big oak and I said I liked the bark on the cedar. He liked the red bud in the spring – and I fell asleep.
When I remember that sleepy, dreamy conversation, it reminds me that when we really observe a tree, especially over a period of time, we get to know that tree like a friend. Maybe forest bathing is just spending time with good friends.
There is something almost magical about mushrooms. They seem to appear from nowhere, popping up overnight and then popping down again. Actually, a mushroom is only the fruit of a fungus. The true fungus is typically a tangle of fine threads, called a mycelium, which is found underground. The fungus fruit, or mushroom, contains spores that are like tiny seeds that can produce more fungi and more mushrooms. The mushroom pops up out of the ground to spread the spores.
One year in late August, we were hiking in a deep forest with my dad, a life-long mushroom enthusiast. He veered off the trail and we followed him into the shady, secret, steamy understory, where lush ferns grew on crumbling, mossy logs. The forest floor was carpeted with layers of damp leaves. We saw some familiar brown mushrooms, delicate and long-stemmed. Then we saw a large white mushroom. Then a lemon-yellow mushroom with white scales, a flat red mushroom on a curved white stem, a bright yellow mushroom with a pleated cap, a completely blue mushroom, a waxy green mushroom, leathery purple bracket mushrooms growing on a tree trunk, a sticky orange-yellow mushroom with branches like coral, and a colony of tiny red cuplike mushrooms. We seemed to be walking in an enchanted garden with very odd flowers – leathery, feathery, slimy or wooden, velvety or crumbly, stinky and musty, tiny and large. Mushroom-flowers.
One thing I learned was that fall is a wonderful time to look for mushrooms. Bob and I have been mushroom hunting in our woods all week. This is what we found.
All photos, copyright: Toni and Robert Albert
Collecting spider webs
Important note: Don’t pick up a spider. Many spiders bite and two are really dangerous –the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. A Black Widow is shiny black with a red hour-glass on its underside. The Brown Recluse is yellow-brown and has a dark violin on top.
Spiders have spinnerets on their rear ends, which spin out silk. A single spider can spin different kinds of silk for different purposes: for traps and nets, ropes for binding prey, safety lines and parachutes, egg sacs, and nests and sleeping bags. Spider silk is stronger than steel of the same thickness. It’s stretchier than rubber.
When I walk in the woods, spider webs often catch my eye -- especially after a shower when the webs are lined with water droplets. A newly made web is perfect and precise, just right for catching the spider’s prey. An orb web is made to trap flying insects. A funnel web or a sheet web catches crawling insects. And a cobweb may net both flying and crawling insects.
Look for spider webs in corners or around windows in a basement or garage. Look around the foundation of your house. Look in grass, shrubs, or trees. When you find a web, take a photo of it. You can make a photo collection of different kinds of webs. Jiggle the web with a tiny twig to draw the spider from its hiding place if you want a photo of the spider too.
To collect a spider web, you’ll need a large piece of sturdy paper, a can of black spray paint, and a can of spray adhesive. (You can find spray glue at a home improvement center.) Find a web that can be reached from both front and back like a web between two trees or two posts. Scare the spider away with a twig. (Don’t worry, it will make a new web.) Lightly – very lightly! – spray one side of the web with the black paint. Then spray the back side of the web with spray adhesive. Bring your paper against the sticky side of the web, so that the web sticks to the paper. To protect the web, you can cover the paper with clear contact paper when you get home.
Happy World Turtle Day!
Happy World Turtle Day!
How should we celebrate?
I have a few turtle stories. (Doesn’t everyone?)
One: On a cold spring morning when the ground had just thawed, Bob and I were walking along a path in the woods. He said, “I smell a turtle.” I was doubtful. “Really? I don’t smell anything.” Early spring doesn’t offer much to interest your nose.
But he insisted, so we started looking for a turtle. Nothing. We looked more carefully. No turtle. We stirred some leaf litter. There was the turtle just emerging from his winter hibernation-home in the mud. The turtle, a box turtle, looked at us somewhat cynically with his red eyes. “This is my first day in months to open my eyes and move my body and pick up my turtle life. Did you ever think I might want some privacy?” No, we never did.
Two: I once bought a painted turtle at a pet store to release in our pond. I saw it once sunning itself on a floating branch but never again. Then I found a painted turtle on a dirt road where I like to walk. I picked it up and carried it back to our pond. I thought, “Now we have two turtles. Unless the turtle I found was the turtle I bought….” Now, a decade later, we have painted turtles in all sizes. Our two turtles have populated a pond.
Three: I was sitting in the back seat of my son’s car, while in the front seat, he and his wife were having an escalating argument. Their voices were becoming shriller and louder, and I was getting worried. We drove around a turtle that was crossing the road. As the argument continued without a pause, my son turned the car around, stopped by the turtle, my daughter-in-law got out and moved the turtle to safety, we turned around again and continued on our way. The argument was not yet settled, but I was. Beneath the disagreement of the moment was a perfectly executed dance of agreement.
. . .
World Turtle Day was founded in 1990 by American Tortoise Rescue as an annual observance to help people celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises and their disappearing habitats around the world. American Tortoise Rescue has placed thousands of rescued tortoises and turtles in caring homes.
Turtles are more threatened than birds, mammals, or amphibians. In 2010, almost 50% of all modern turtles were either extinct or threatened with extinction. They are collected for food, medicine, cosmetics, or to be sold as pets. They are subject to loss of habitat in its various forms: deforestation, drained wetlands, and rivers converted to stagnant reservoirs. They are often killed by traffic as they move around to feed and nest.
71% of all tortoise species are either gone or almost gone.
. . . . . . .
NatureReconnect: Continuing to follow the Carolina wrens:
What's in a nest?
What’s in a nest? (They’re awfully homely….)
For this blog, I planned to look at the various materials that birds use to make their nests. But “What’s in a nest?” prompted me to check on the Carolina wren’s nest with the five cinnamon-spotted eggs in it. The tiny altricial babies are undeniably homely!
For children and the young-at-definitions: Altricial means having young that are hatched or born in a very immature and helpless condition so as to require care for some time.
While the wrens were hunting insects, Bob took several photos, which we examined minutely.
Toni: Is this in focus?
Bob: It is. Look at the fine grass that lines the nest.
Toni: They’re not very pretty.
Bob: I think they’re a work in progress.
Well, back to “What’s in a nest?” Now I’m thinking about more than nesting materials and skill in weaving and hiding a nest. Now I’m focused on how a bird’s nest must shelter, protect, and hide a brood of tiny helpless birdlets. Nests, nesting materials, and nesting locations are as varied as birds. Once you identify a bird and its nest, you’ll be able to recognize another nest like it and know what kind of bird made it. Because robins often build their nests near or on our homes – even in a wreath hanging on a door – many children are familiar with their “robins-egg blue” eggs and their finely woven grassy nests.
Although it’s against the law to collect birds’ nests, you can certainly examine a nest (without touching it) after the bird family has left. When you look closely at a robin’s nest, you’ll see that it’s made of mud, grasses, weed stalks, and found objects like string or cloth and that it’s lined with fine grasses.
This is a partial list of nesting materials used by birds in our area:
Leaves or leaf mold
Plant down (like milkweed silk)
Found objects: string – cloth – paper – aluminum foil - (I once found a nest with a tea bag woven into it.)
This is the time of year to keep our eyes open for birds’ nests and nesting birds, tiny bits of eggshells, often dropped away from the nest so as not to give away its location, and birds returning repeatedly to a single place (where they are feeding young?). I never tire of watching this cycle of life repeated and repeated.
Naming names with field guides
In the Old Testament, “Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.” Men and women have always ordered the world by naming and classifying. It’s not enough for a birder to spot a bird he hasn’t seen before. He has to identify it and add its name to his life list. Nature lovers live with field guides.
In our home, we have field guides to birds; trees and shrubs; wildflowers; mushrooms; Eastern butterflies; insects and spiders; North American wildlife; animal tracks; edible wild plants; mammals of PA; rocks and minerals; fossils in PA; fishes and sea life; and coral reefs. And even a field guide to Eastern birds’ nests!
That’s how I identified a Carolina wren’s nest that is built under our deck and, at this very moment, has five tiny eggs in it. (There were only four when we took the photo.) Later, we confirmed the ID when we saw the wren fly from her nest.
From the field guide:
Habitat: Brushy forests – check!
Nest: Built in … nook or cranny around human dwelling – check!
Rarely higher than 10 feet – check! About 4 feet above the ground.
Bulky mass of twigs, mosses, rootlets, strips of inner bark – check!
Side entrance – check! The photo may look like one taken from above, but it was taken from the front, looking in.
Lined with … fine grasses – check! Messy on the outside, good camouflage, but neat and tidy inside.
Eggs: Commonly 5-6 – check! There are five today.
Short-oval shape. Smooth with little gloss. – check!
White, pale pink; typically marked with heavy brown spots, often concentrated at larger end – check!
So why do we love field guides? They help us identify what we observe. And think of the rich education one entry in a field guide provides. By the time we answer our question, “What is this?” we have a sense of ownership. I think it’s thrilling to investigate the great diversity of nature and, at the same time, to acknowledge the perfect individuality and consistency of each member. At a simpler level, it’s fun to recognize and call by name the living things around us. It’s a way of knowing a tree or a flower or a butterfly like a friend.
A slimy sign of spring
Early in March, before any sign of spring, a chorus of frog song disturbs the winter silence. Frog song! Many frogs migrate back to the pond where they were tadpoles, where the males call and croak to attract females for a splashy spring fling. (That’s literal. There is much splashing.) Each species of frog has its own call, and even those of the same species may alternate their calls, so that the complete song is rhythmic and complex – and loud. At first I think it’s like the overture to a symphony, but after a few minutes, I admit it’s more like the instruments tuning up.
After hearing frog song, it’s time to look for frogspawn (frog eggs). The singing – and flinging – will go on for weeks until our pond is dotted with clumps of white jelly or clear jelly. The frog eggs, which are black, are clearly seen inside the clumps. Later we’ll be able to see the eggs develop inside the jelly until tiny black tadpoles are visible. It’s exciting – like looking at a sonogram.
Bob and I took our dog Jazzy to walk through the woods to our pond. The water is tea colored because of the leaves that have fallen into it but absolutely clear. It only took a minute to find the first clump of frogspawn at the water’s edge. While we took photos, Jazzy lay in the sun, gnawing on a deer shoulder bone she found. Across the pond from us, the sun was sparkling on the water in tiny points of light. More frog eggs? Surely not that many, enough to cover 15 square feet. But, yes, there were more frog eggs than we’ve ever seen in one place. It’s going to be an interesting spring!
Note: When I direct children to look for frogspawn, I sometimes use a definition that was written by a six-year-old in one of my writing workshops. After studying frog eggs in a large jar, she wrote, “Frog eggs look like a little ghost that drowned at the bottom of a pond.” Have children look for milky white globs of jelly, usually about the size of a fist or two fists, or clumps of clear jelly with black eggs inside them. And of course, don’t let children explore a pond without adult supervision.
Growing a young scientist
Nature is a perfect laboratory for learning about our world. Exploring nature awakens children’s curiosity and sense of wonder and in a very “natural” way, introduces them to science and the scientific method. Learning to be observant leads to asking questions, doing research, making predictions, designing experiments, and drawing conclusions. And there you have it – a young scientist!
These activities will help ready a child (or an adult, of course) to reconnect with nature. They make wonderful "10-minute time outs."
Look closely -- and more closely.
Activities to help children become more observant
1 - It’s fun to run through a field, scramble up rocks, crash through the underbrush, or splash in a creek, but that’s not the best way to explore nature. Practice moving quietly. Sit still in one place, keeping all of your senses alert. Listen to the sounds -- or the silence -- around you. Breathe deeply and notice different smells. Look around you and observe details. Touch the bark of trees, fuzzy moss, or smooth stones.
2 - Look at a familiar place in a new way. Look at the scene upside down. Or concentrate on looking at shadows. Or look through colored glasses or colored cellophane. Look through a camera lens or binoculars. Did you see anything you hadn’t noticed before?
3 - Look for signs of animals: tracks, feathers or fur, nests, holes in trees or in the ground, narrow trails, bones, droppings, chewed nutshells, stripped plants, etc. Make a list of the signs of animals that you observe. What animals do you think were there?
4 - Keep a nature journal. Record anything interesting that you see outdoors, such as a tiny red mushroom or a spider web stretched between two trees.
5 - Take photos or make sketches to add to your nature journal. When you study something through the viewfinder of a camera or look closely at details in order to draw it, you'll really see it.
6 - Create a list of interesting things you’ve seen outside (an orange leaf, lichen, a black rock, etc.) and invite your friends to have a scavenger hunt. Give each person a copy of your list and see who can find the most objects on the list in 15 minutes.
7 - Take a tiny plastic bag (the kind that holds an extra button when you buy a new shirt) and fill it with tiny treasures, such as a berry or a miniature flower. This will force you to look closely.
8 - Look at the same tree every day for a week or two. In spring, observe the appearing of buds, flowers, and leaves. Measure the growth of a single leaf. In fall, watch the progress of coloring, fading, falling leaves. Look for nests, insects, and cavities. Look at the bark, the shape of the leaves, and the branching of the tree. Identify your tree with a field guide to trees.
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”