Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mushroom Moments

My husband came into the house and said, "You've got to come see this!"  Apparently, the recent rain and hot weather, after months of drought, brought to life many mushrooms all over our property.  We did not have to go far to find them.  And they were of all shapes, sizes, and of several species (although I don't know how to identify them). If you can identify them, I'd love to hear from you.
 It is amazing how many there were....and they were everywhere!
 They were hiding under the grasses...and coming up in the middle of the road!

They were growing on dead logs and in the middle of the path through our woods.
See the small mushrooms in the center right.

This sudden appearance of all these mushrooms must be a boon to wildlife as they try to find food after such a drought.

As my husband and I shared these moments hunting mushrooms, he kept pointing out more and more, asking me to take pictures of each one.  He was like a kid in a candy store--and became disappointed when I didn't take a picture of his mushroom find!  But I had already taken almost 100 pictures.

This was certainly an unusual mushroom explosion.  And, like my husband, I could not wait to share our find!  What an unusual year in nature it has been.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hot tubbing Frogs and other Oddities

With cooler weather and increased aches and pains from half marathon training runs, I decided to start up my hot tub after the long summer hiatus.  Surprise, surprise!  When I went to uncover the tub, I found three of these fellows staring back at me....
It hurt me to displace them, especially when I saw the frog eggs swimming in the shallow rain water at the bottom of the tub.  But, soon they were hopping out of the tub--at about 2 feet with each hop.  It is amazing how they can move.  I have to say, they found the only wet spot within 100 miles I bet!

This hot dry summer has been hard on wildlife, but it has provide me with many new nature experiences.  Besides the hot tubbing frogs, I sat next to a pond yesterday and observed a hummingbird dart in and out of a cloud of insects, consuming as many as she could handle.  I knew hummingbirds also ate insects, but this bird was zeroing in on her prey with a vengeance.  The nectar producing flowers are long gone, but this bird was using the available resources to survive.

Earlier in the week, I was looking out my window at the base of a tree 20 feet away.  I saw a creature I thought to be a rather large wooly worm, but it was moving too quickly.  Upon closer observation, I saw that it was about 2 and a half inches long with short gray fur and barely visible tail--a shrew!  Probably a Least Shrew.  I have never seen one above ground before.  Obviously, he or she was forced above ground in search for food (or water) for survival.
So, while these may be hard times for the plants and animals, this summer has provided opportunities to observe some interesting animals that might not normally be seen.  I wonder what new experiences  next week will bring.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bats Entertainment

It seems crazy, I know, but watching bats is one of my favorite summer time activities.  I just sit outside in the evening, shortly before dark, and they appear, gliding and maneuvering with great skill above me.  I like to sit still and see how close they will come.  Of course, that depends on how many insects are around me.  A single bat can eat 3000 insects in one night.

                                               image: Jessica Nelson/Nat'l Sci Foundation

I watch the aerial displays and observe that there is more than one species flying overhead.  One emerges early and is larger with slower, erratic flight.  It seems to circle the small opening in the woods on a regular flight path.  Another seems smaller with faster wingbeats but frequent glides.  It also arrives early to the opening.  The first could be a Red Bat, Lasiurus borealis.  I have seen them hanging from the eaves during the fall.  The other is possibly the Silver-haired Bat, Lasionycteris noctivagans.  Our cat has captured one of those in the past.

It is difficult to identify flying bats without a bat detector, a device that would convert the ultrasonic sounds made by bats to a frequency humans can detect.  According to several sources, the Red Bat makes sounds in the 39-50 kHz range, while the Silver-haired Bat has a range of 26-38 kHz.

Still, just watching the aerial antics is entertaining.  I have seen bats fly toward an insect, only to have the insect drop suddenly out of the flight path.  Interactions between 2 bats flying in the same area are also fun to observe.  Sometimes, if I listen carefully, I can hear a chattering sound that bats sometimes make while flying.

 I can't wait for my granddaughter to visit so I can show her "bat watching" just as we have had fun together watching the birds.

 I have some of my favorite children's books for bats ready to read to her also.
 And I'm sure, the bats will be here, too, performing their nightly feats of aerial agility.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Colorado fires and other mishaps

Colorado fires and other mishaps...or how I spent my summer vacation.

We had planned our trip to Colorado several months in advance, but as the time approached we watched with concern as the fires burned in that state.  Our first destination was through Poudre Canyon to StateForestStatePark, just northwest of Rocky Mountain National Park.  We arrived just as the road was reopened and saw the firefighters mopping up the area.  We saw the charred trees everywhere--evened a house burnt to the ground!  But there were lots of spared homes and grateful people--grateful for the hero firefighters who saved their lives, homes, and possessions.

At the campground, the next mishap was observed--the effects of the bark beetle damage to pine trees.  In some areas, I would estimate that 60-70% of the trees were dead and standing.  In the campground, of course, these dead trees had to be cut due to the danger they presented to campers.  But still, the view (picture above) was spectacular.

Each dawn and dusk we heard an owl hooting--one we had never heard before.  It turns out that it was a Boreal Owl (normally found further north)--or rather, two of them.  The hooting was distinctive and continued for a prolonged amount of time.  We never did see this beautiful bird, but I will not forget the sound it makes.

Colorado, like many places in the US is coming off of a dry winter--as evidenced by the lack of snow left on some of the peaks, low water in the snow fed ponds, and dry areas along the trails.

However, we found some icy cold streams with beautiful views--just the thing to soak tired feet after a 10 mile trek!

And we even found a small pile of snow on one of our trails.
Our last mishap (or you could call it an adventure) was our climb up Mt. Bierstadt, a 14'er just west of Denver.  Now, to a flatlander like myself, 3 miles does not seem far, especially since I have run several half marathons (13.1 miles).  So I admit, I was not mentally prepared for the task at hand.  We did have food, water, extra clothing, rain gear, etc. but what we didn't have was enough time before the eventual rain.  Yes, during our time in Colorado, the rainy season began.

The trail started with a descent through the willow bog (a special place of beauty and special natural community).  So the first mile through the bog results in little elevation gain.  All of the close to 2800 feet elevation gain occurs in the last two miles.  That is a grueling steady assent.  I now realized that I was not mentally prepared for the task.  As the day became more and more cloudy,  we decided to enjoy the scenery at 13,000 feet--until the cold temps and wind caused us to shiver and seek lower ground.

As we were nearing the bottom, we heard the helicopter overhead and realized there was a mountain rescue underway.  Apparently someone had fallen and broken a leg.  Apparently these kinds of mishaps--hypothermia, altitude sickness, broken bones--are frequent occurrences in this wilderness (according to Forest Service personnel).  One tiny mishap can have huge consequences in this environment.

We left, enjoying the peak from the road this time, and recounting the lessons learned during this summer vacation of mishaps.

1. Firefighters deserve our gratitude and support for putting their lives on the line every day.
2. Good can come from bad--the beetles can destroy trees but can also enhance the view of the mts.
3. Icy cold water can offset the ravages of plantar fasciitis.
4. Both mental and physical preparedness are necessary in wilderness conditions.
5. A mishap can be a cherished memory--it is all in how you look at it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Enhance Nature Exploration with Technology

Kids and nature seemed like a natural combination a generation ago, but today that combination is being threatened for many reasons.

The term, "nature deficit disorder", coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, describes the disconnect of our children with nature.

If you haven't read this book, I would highly recommend it.  It has started the important public discussion about the this disconnect with nature, its causes and its consequences.

One of the reasons often quoted for the disconnect is time spent with technology.  A recent national survey found that today's kids spend and average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day on technology such as TV, video games, computers, etc. which leaves little time for outdoor exploration.

But I thought, if we could only USE technology as a way to get kids away from the technology that keeps them indoors, we might help solve this alarming trend.  In other words, not all technology is the same.  Some, like video games, seem to be keeping kids inside; others, like cameras, may be a reason to go outside.  "Technology could help reconnect kids to nature!"  That would be an awesome headline.  With the advent of more and more mobile devices, this may come true.

 For me, a camera is the mobile device that gets me outside.
I find that exploring with a camera in my hand has helped me to  more closely observe nature.  And some of my teacher friends have said it does the same for their students.

In trying to take a photo of  this turtle eat a dead mouse, I had to  
slow down and watch carefully.  I spent almost an hour watching its behavior.  That is saying something for me; my friends sometimes think I may have ADHD! (It's just the coffee--but that's another story).


In the article, recently published in NSTA's Science Scope magazine, a colleague and I outlined a lesson that would integrate technology use with outdoor exploration.  It is only one idea, and I'm sure there are many others that would combine nature and technology.  You can read about our idea on-line at the National Science Teachers Association website.

I'd like to hear about your ideas of how to use technology WITH nature study.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tracking Turtles

My husband and I have been seeing many box turtles in our little 80 acre woods.  But it is hard to know if we are seeing many different turtles, or the same turtle many times.  Hence, we have started a simple system of labeling the carapace using a permanent marker.  Some researchers make notches in the carapace, but we think this system is easier.

Using a silver permanent marker, we labeled the year (2012) and started numbering the turtles with #1.  We have only just started and have labeled 3 so far.  All were found within 100 feet of our house.  The last one was found burying itself under a pile of leaves.  Hopefully we will see these turtles again--perhaps after a rain and cooler weather would be a good time to look for them.  We do not know how long the marks will endure, but hopefully through this season.

According to Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, a Kansas study found that ornate box turtles may have a home range of up to five acres, and there may be as many as 2 per acre.  In another reference  for eastern box turtles, they state that these turtles do not travel far--only 200meters   The Smithsonian Box Turtle Fact Sheet  states that box turtle ranges will overlap.  In an Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission publication, it is noted that researchers have documented the home ranges of three-toed and ornate box turtles to be as small as three acres or as large as 100 acres.

Box turtles seem to remember landmarks in their home ranges which contributes to their strong homing instincts. If removed from their home range and relocated , the turtles will generally not stay in a new location but will travel long distances in order to return to their original home.

We hope to continue to monitor the density and home range of the box turtles that call our woods their home.  They are certainly fun critters to watch.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hummingbird dilemas

A favorite summer pastime of mine is to watch the hummingbirds come to our feeders.  Sometimes they will get very close to me while I sit on our deck--which is thrilling!  I love to hear all the twittering as the male, in a U-shaped-diving display defends his territory (the feeder).  I have also see the birds display aggression towards each other by shifting back and forth on a horizontal plane with tail feathers spread out.
We have been feeding and watching these birds since our oldest was about 5 and did a science fair project on "Which Color Do Hummingbirds Prefer".  No we did not add different color dyes--we used different color feeders.

The dye question is a source of much  rumor  There are some commonly held myths like "red dye makes hummingbird egg shells soft".  For some reason, the people who say this are confusing the DDT problem of hawks and eagles with hummingbirds.  There is, however,  some anecdotal evidence of beak and liver tumors from red dye, so it is really best to avoid the dye.  there is enough red on most feeders to attract the birds.

Recipe for Hummingbird Nectar  One thing to remember with the nectar--keep it fresh!  If it starts to look cloudy, it is spoiled and will harm the birds.  The commercial feeders that we have purchased in the past are just too big for the quantity our hummers consume in a day (or two).
So we use red spray paint caps that my husband modified by putting a screw in it and through a small suction cup holder.  We only put about one half cup nectar in each one, but place several in the windows around our house.  This helps the birds spread out--and avoids some of that aggression.  It does make the window messy--and attracts ants, spiders, etc, but this is just more food for the birds.

This is exactly how our daughter conducted her science fair project, except she used paint caps from different color spray paint cans.  What did she discover?  Hummingbirds do favor the color red.  Perhaps more interesting was the fact that the green caps received fewer visits from the birds.

Besides the controversial red dye, hummingbirds are facing another potential danger (and other animals as well).  Global climate change can through the birds and the flowers they depend on for nectar out of sync.  A recent study reported in  Science Daily  postulates about the effect of early flowering on the migrating birds, especially in the northern part of the range.

In light of this, perhaps feeding the hummingbirds is more important than just a fun pastime; maybe it will help the birds' survival.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Insect Insanity

Yes, I believe what the media is saying--the weather this year is perfect for insects!  The other day as I was jogging, I had to run through a cloud of them.  (cough, cough)  And I have noticed many more crane flies this year--probably dozens to 100 each morning--on my deck--dead.  Apparently they were attracted to the lights in the house.
They look like mosquitoes,--huge ones at that--, but at least they do not bite humans. Most crane flies do not eat at all; they only mate and then die.  They have six long, slender, fragile legs, but sometimes a leg will be missing--they ARE fragile!   According to my favorite field guide, Kaufman's Field Guide to the Insects of North America,  they are in the Order Diptera which includes the flies, bees and wasps.  Being true flies (as you can tell by the two word name), they have only one pair of wings.  They belong to the family Tipulidae which are often abundant and extremely diverse. 

Because of this superabundance of insects, those species that make their living off of them should do pretty well this year also.  Many species of spiders, birds, amphibians, bats and others will have an ample food supply.

Still, this does not help me when I'm trying to breathe and jog at the same time!  Guess I should keep my mouth shut:)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Learning from Photography

I have always loved the outdoors and observing nature, but my personality is one that goes full speed 24/7 so slowing down in nature is difficult for me.  It is hard to observe nature going 70 mph!  So recently I have discovered that photography is a good way to slow me down.  I am not the only one who feels this way.  A friend of mine recently blogged about the same topic.  See her blog at
She talks about photographing wildflowers in wild places.  Certainly, flowers are more stationary and an easier subject, so I have tried a little of that--see the white trillium, one of my first photos.

I discovered photography because of blogging.  It seems that all the good blogs have photos, so each time I blog, I try to take a picture to go with it.  Of course, with animals, it is a little harder, so I picked this slow to move box turtle to photograph.  While turtles can move quite fast, this one was not interested in leaving the decomposing mouse it was eating.  That allowed me time to experiment with getting closer and closer.  I must have taken 20 pictures hoping to get a good one.  That's another perk in today's digital world--seemingly unlimited capacity and ability to review the photos instantly.  I tried photographing this turtle from both sides and the front and back just to see which would provide the best photo in my opinion.  I chose this one because you can distinctly see the back foot, lines on the scutes, and coloration.  It was a bright day and the picture would have turned out better with less harsh light of dawn or dusk, but I took advantage of the opportunity when it--and the turtle--appeared.

I am not an expert in nature photography by any stretch of the imagination.  But I like how holding a camera in my hand can slow down the day and consequently provide awesome nature experiences.   I am still learning about getting close ups, lighting, composition and other aspects.  I know there is much more for me to learn and that is exciting too!

The ability to slow down and focus doesn't come naturally to a lot of kids I know either, so putting a camera in a child's hand is an easy way to build that internal focus that is needed to appreciate nature.  The old saying "Stop and smell the roses" is right on.  It certainly can provide an enjoyable experience, one in which you can learn about yourself (like I have) and about nature.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Nature of Nature is Change

This spring has been unusual for most parts of the U.S.  It is no different where I live.  Documenting these unusual times requires close observation and notetaking.  I'm not so good at the notetaking.  So, for me, I like to document changes with pictures.
Recently I visited a stream--a good place to watch the changes in nature.  Immediately, I noticed that the stream is much lower than last year.  So I went back to my photo archives, and yes, it is quite a bit lower this year.  The stream last year (above) had twice the flow rate as this year (below).

These differences are striking.  Which makes me ponder--how can the plants and animals that live in the water tolerate such changing conditions?  It is amazing and marvelous to observe.  I am reminded of the saying "Adapt or Die".  This certainly must be true for these creatures!

I am intent on putting in some picture posts to make it easier to go back to exactly the same places week after week, month after month, year after year to document these changes in a more thoughtful way in the future.  Go to picture post web site,, to get ideas on how to build these photo stations.

What is certain: nature will change.  What we can do: observe and record those changes.  They are awe inspiring!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Goose Behavior

Last week I was standing by the pond at the Bray Conservation Area watching the geese glide calmly along the pond.  The male and female were accompanied by their 5 newly hatched goslings.  Such a peaceful sight.

All this was to change in just one night.  The morning after I took this picture I returned to find the geese in a panic and no goslings in sight.  I knew, of course, that some predator--a coyote, raccoon or other opportunist, had taken the young in the night.  This is quite remarkable since I know from first hand experience how fiercely the parents defend the nest.
Sad as this must seem,  it is all a part of nature.  The predators must eat too.  However, I also thought of the silver lining-- now I won't have as many goose droppings to avoid when walking along the dam!

But that isn't the end of the story.  I was standing on the dam watching the geese a couple of days later and observed a behavior I had not seen before.  I watched both the male and female dip their heads into the water and bring their beaks up splashing water over their backs.  This odd behavior continued for several minutes.  Suddenly, I understood what was happening.  The male jumped on the back of the female, biting her neck while mating.  Maybe there will be goslings again soon and peace on the pond at Bray.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Turtles on the Move

As I have been driving along the roads, I have noticed the usual uptick in box turtles on the road.  In fact, when the traffic allows, I try to stop and move the animal in its direction of travel.  Or I try to avoid the collision since these accidents are a big hazard for this animal's survival.  Turtles travel a lot this time of year within their established territories looking for food, water, or a mate!  After all, it is spring.
The other day, I found a box turtle in my yard--not unusual.  But usually when I approach a turtle, it retreats into its shell.  With the hinge closed shut, it is hard to observe the animal.  In this case, the turtle was eating and apparently did not want to retreat into its shell with the item and didn't want to drop it.
What was surprising to me was what the turtle was eating.  I know turtles eat lots of things: earthworms, plants, berries, mushrooms.  But this turtle was eating the remains of the unfortunate mouse that our cat had brought home!  As I approached, the turtle stopped but did not retreat into its shell.  I got closer, but the turtle did not move.
I returned to the house for just a few minutes.  When I returned, the animal was gone.  These turtles can move fairly fast--as I would have know had I recalled the story of the tortoise and the hare!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

My First Post

This is my first post.  I have been toying with the idea of blogging for quite some time.  At times, it seemed that I wouldn't have enough to share, and at others, not enough time.  This spring has been one of those times with so much to share but not enough time to do it.  So I thought I'd dive in anyway.  There is just so much happening this year.

So here I hope to document some of the usual and unusual things I observe in the outdoors.  It occurs to me that I spend a lot of time outdoors but still can see things that are new and different.

And I like to go to new places in the outdoors like Little Grand Canyon in southern Illinois.  My husband and I took a hike there a couple of weeks ago.  It was a strenuous hike down solid, slippery bedrock. Over three miles in length.
But what pure beauty.  Photos just can not capture how awesome this place was.  It was the first trip for us, and we were not disappointed.  Our dog could not climb such steep slopes, so we had to carry her in spots.

We saw many of these white trilliums in bloom.  These are not found in our woods so it was something new and unusual. All in all, it was a great hike and one I would repeat.