Archive for ‘Nature’

March 13, 2014

Winter Siestas

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 12, 2014.

I love Georgia winters because the weather here always offers us a few “siestas” or breaks in the cold weather. This winter has been especially cold, but that hasn’t stopped us from getting a few days of spring-like weather sprinkled here and there. I have even seen some trees blooming.

The blooms I’ve found always give me mixed emotions because I know a freeze may come and mess up the blooming cycle, but every spring Georgia seems to have plenty of beautiful blooms anyway. I can’t wait until the warm weather is here to stay, but I’m glad we’ve been taking advantage of the warm days in winter.

The boys are finally old enough to enjoy longer hikes, at least when the terrain isn’t too rugged. We usually go to Fort Yargo, and recently we were happy to discover that there is a trail that goes all the way around the lake – years ago when my husband and I hiked there while we were dating, the trail didn’t go all the way around.

We haven’t yet hiked the whole trail in one visit, but we’ve done parts of it, and my seven-year-old really wanted to see the dam, so we walked all the way from the parking lot near the beach to the dam and back. Ft. Yargo is a beautiful place, and if you live here in Barrow County, you’ll want to visit as often as you can.

Last week we went to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens, which has several miles of trails too. My boys love to hike on the trail that goes along the Middle Oconee River the best. Sometimes the river is high, but occasionally it’ll be low enough where they can venture down to a large sandbar and play by the water.

As soon as they saw the sandbar last week, there was no keeping them on the trail. My husband and I found a log to sit on, and we watched our boys build a “beaver dam” with driftwood and mud. Two little girls and their mother came out onto the sandy area, and we were delighted to watch our four-year-old chatter away with one of the girls who joined my boys in their pursuit to build a strong dam.

We were too far away to hear what our youngest son was saying, but later my seven-year-old told me that he was telling the girl what his favorite foods were, among other things. I guess for a four-year-old, there are only a few topics of conversation!

As for the cold days, they are perfect days to get more work done. More library books are read, math games are played, and of course, my son continues to work at this Legos and cardboard building projects. I recently introduced him to the game Minecraft, which is an app you can download on the iPad. It’s a popular game with kids, and it’s like building with blocks on the screen. He is hooked on that now too.

But I can’t wait until spring is here to stay. Park play dates, more hiking, and our annual attempts at gardening – while the gardening usually isn’t very fruitful, the attempts make me happy.

These hints of spring are full of promises. The birds are inspecting the birdhouses on our porch, and I’ve heard the frogs begin to sing. The budding plants and occasional warm days are just what I need to get me through the weeks of cold.  May the true spring come quickly this year, and may it fill us all with a fresh, cheerful spirit!

December 3, 2013

Find Me Elsewhere Today

I’m very honored to have some of my photographs from a nature walk featured on the wonderful, new nature blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors. I hope you’ll pop over there and take a look.  Click here to see my photos on Mud Puddles to Meteors.

In addition to this, a short article I wrote along with some of my photographs of the William Harris Homestead has been published in Atlanta Homeschool magazine. Check out page 22.  This is an awesome magazine that homeschoolers anywhere and non-homeschooling locals can get something out of. I’m honored to be part of it.

September 12, 2013

Victoria Bryant State Park

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 11, 2013.

My family found another treasure. Victoria Bryant State Park is located in Franklin County, and what captured my heart was the stream that flows through the park. Though it’s called a “stream” on the park’s pamphlet, Rice Creek looked like an easy-going river to me.

There’s nothing I love more than running water, especially when my bare feet are in it. Imagine the crystal clear water pouring over large stones with green branches arching overhead. Unidentified wildflowers bloomed in the crevices along its bank. A scene like this is the reason I moved to Georgia in the first place.

There are four different hiking trails of varying lengths in the park.  Since we had the little ones, we picked the short ½-mile trail named “Victoria’s Path.” It looped around a section of Rice Creek. The trail was pretty with thick foliage that threatened to smother the trail, and it showed signs of being flooded during our summer rains. We were surprised to find a thick grove of native bamboo trees. We also spied mushrooms, Christmas fern, and wild ginger.

According to their website, the park is 502 acres and offers 27 tent, trailer, and RV campsites. There are 8 platform, walk-in tent sites, and 2 pioneer group campgrounds.  There are 8 miles of hiking and bicycling trails, 2 ponds for fishing (private boats allowed; electric motors only; no boat ramp), an 18-hole golf course, a swimming pool, three playgrounds, archery range, nature center and more.

We saw a group of people who were having a party in a picnic shelter, and nearby the children were tubing down some rocks in the river. We need to check that out next time.

We only saw a small section of the park, but that’s because we were satisfied with the first place we came to at the stream. There was no big drop off from the shore, so I wasn’t worried about my boys falling in. While they gathered stones to throw, I took my shoes off and waded into a stream for the first time in years. My husband soon followed.

After that we drove a short distance to find Victoria’s Path, and the boys were thrilled that the paved road went through the stream. (I guess someone didn’t see the need to build a bridge.) After our hike we had a picnic at some tables overlooking the river, and we watched as other cars drove through the river. If you like taking pictures of your car, it makes a nice photo op.

While we were eating, we enjoyed watching a family of deer graze on a hill overlooking us, and we also took advantage of the large porch-like swing by the river. I could have sat there all day.

We went on a Saturday, and the park was quiet with few other people around. If you go, you might like to pack a lunch, but it’s not necessary. There are plenty of restaurants in nearby Royston, and there’s a McDonald’s one mile from the park’s entrance.

For directions and more information, go to the park’s website at www.gastateparks.org/VictoriaBryant.

September 5, 2013

My Nature Boy

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 4, 2013.

My seven-year-old tells me that when he grows up, he wants to study snakes. He’s been saying this since he was four. He saw his first, live snake at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and every time they bring out snakes in his classes, he almost leaps out of his pants.

We’ve been making a book about snakes, we’ve watched videos and television about snakes, and we’ve read books about snakes. Despite this, though I could be wrong, I don’t think snakes are my son’s passion. Why? There are subtle clues.

This past spring we checked out a bunch of library books about snakes, but my son never picked one of those books during our book time.  My second clue is that he rarely asks questions about snakes anymore. I know he loves snakes, but I don’t think he loves them as much as he thinks he does.

In project-based homeschooling, it’s a parent’s job to observe their child and watch for their interests. No interest is too small, and almost any subject can be studied and branch out into many directions. Parents can stealthily guide their young students to the right resources, and like a magnet, the kids will be drawn to them because they already have a natural interest.

Whether this interest in snakes is fading or just on the back burner, I don’t know, but I do know there’s an overarching theme to all of his interests, both large and small.

I see his undying fascination with all things nature. Sure, all kids love nature. I used to think he was just like all other kids, but now I realize his interest goes beyond the ordinary. I get a zillion questions a day from him that mostly has to do with animals and the natural world. His make-believe world is all about animals.

When he was four, I worried about my son’s shyness, but once we began taking classes at the nature center, he blossomed. He’s not afraid to ask questions there, and he has no problem leaving me behind to follow the facilitator on the trail. He is always ready to help turn over a log or shout out that he’s found something interesting.

One of the facilitators at the nature center got to know my son, and she told me that he had a true passion for nature. She said other kids will look at the animals and other discoveries out on the trails, and they’re like, “Cool!” but then they run off.  My son can’t get enough. He stays by her side, wanting to see and learn more.

I’ve also noticed that his younger brother isn’t as enamored by nature. While his big brother was in camp a few weeks ago, he took a walk in the woods with my husband and me. He was impatient and uninterested in discovering what was in the woods, and when I asked him if he was having fun, he said, “No.” Later he changed his mind, but his big brother never had to warm up to the outdoors.

One of the most exciting parts of parenthood is discovering who your children are and what they love. I don’t know what my son will do when he becomes an adult, but I won’t be surprised if it has something to do with biology.

I’ll continue to feed his natural interests in nature, but I’ll also introduce him to other subjects, places and ideas. You never know where the threads of these inquiries will meet. It’s as if my son and I are weaving a tapestry, but the final design is yet unknown. 

What are your child’s deep interests?

July 13, 2013

The Chicago Botanical Garden Butterfly Habitat

On our recent journey to Chicago to help my in-laws in an unfortunate circumstance, we took a couple of days to go out and do something fun. One of our favorite places is the Chicago Botanical Garden. We went last year when we were in Chicago visiting our relatives, and it was nice to go back feeling like we didn’t need to see everything. It’s a huge garden. One of our favorite spots within the garden is the butterfly habitat, and this year, especially, it seemed like a fitting celebratory ending to our experience raising Painted Lady Butterflies this spring. We spent a long, leisurely time in the habitat this year, and I was so excited knowing that my six-year-old fully understood the butterfly life cycle and because of that, it had more meaning for him.

I thought you might enjoy the photos I took of some of the butterflies in the habitat. The photographer in me was so delighted with my subjects.

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July 11, 2013

2nd Generation Butterflies

{Raising Painted Lady Butterflies} {Butterfly Life Cycle}

A. 2nd generation butterflies

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 26, 2013.

If you read my column regularly, you may recall that we raised Painted Lady butterflies this spring. We ordered the larvae from an online company and watched them grow, pupate and emerge into adult butterflies. Then we got the crazy idea to keep the butterflies, watch them mate, lay eggs, and raise a second generation.

I had visions of my house being invaded by tiny caterpillars, but I persevered thinking that at any time, I could throw the whole thing outside. I thought we’d just try it and see what happens.

We kept our first generation in our butterfly habitat, a roomy mesh cage about the size of an aquarium.  Four out of six larvae made it to maturity, and when we observed them mating, we figured out only one of them was a female. She may have been overworked, but she was determined to carry on life, and she laid dozens of eggs on a small hollyhock plant that I had dug up and potted from my yard so that I could put it down into the cage.

Butterflies don’t live very long after they mate, so when we released our first generation, I’m not sure how much time they had left. For one, it was real quick – before it reached the tree in our front yard a bird came out of nowhere and snatched it up. My husband and I weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. We were all sad, but fortunately, my six-year-old “little biologist” understands how nature works. My three-year-old didn’t seem to notice.

There are a few plants that Painted Lady butterflies will feed on, including hollyhock, and by sheer luck I had some growing in my yard because I had received the seeds for a present. The female butterfly will only lay her eggs on these plants so that once the larvae hatch, they can start eating right away.

The eggs are smaller than the point of a pin, and they’re a beautiful aqua blue with vertical lines that look like the longitude lines on a globe. We looked at them twice under a microscope. I had read that you can see the tiny caterpillars inside them, but we never observed that.

The eggs were tiny and scattered over the leaves of the hollyhock, so I’m not sure how many there were. I decided to put the plant on our front porch to avoid an “invasion,” but I left it in the mesh cage to protect it from predators. After about a week and a half, we found the tiniest caterpillars you can imagine wiggling on the plant leaves. They were less than a millimeter in length.

At this point, we clipped the leaves with the caterpillars and put them into a big mason jar. We covered it with a coffee filter and secured it with a rubber band. Punching holes into the filter is not necessary because the caterpillars don’t need a lot of air – the filter lets in enough. We added a fresh leaf from our hollyhock plants every other day.

Then we watched them grow and grow and grow. And eat and eat and eat. And poop and poop and poop. This is the life of a caterpillar. After six days, they were the size of our first generation when we received them in the mail. They moved so fast that I never bothered to get an accurate count, but I know we had at least 24 of them.

When they got a little bigger, we let some of them go in our garden, and I wished them well.  I feared we wouldn’t have enough hollyhock to continue feeding all of them.

We kept 16 and divided them into four big mason jars to give them extra space. Of those, only ten of them survived to the pupa stage. All of them emerged or “eclosed” into adult butterflies, but, sadly, one of them was not fully formed.

2nd gen butterflies!-2

The most troubling part of the whole process, however, was discovering that one of the butterflies went missing from our cage.  Did they push open the cover? Did our cat get it? Did the three-year-old open the cage when we weren’t looking? Was I going to find a dead butterfly while vacuuming under the sofa?  I was baffled.

It was even more troubling the next day when two more went missing, so we immediately took them outside to release them, only two days after they eclosed and while we were still waiting on two more to emerge.  Luckily the case of the missing butterflies was solved when I lifted the paper towel from the bottom of the cage – three of them had crawled into the folds of the towel, and luckily they were healthy and strong and flew away as soon as I released them.

After that, it wasn’t long before the last healthy butterfly was born, and we discovered that last one was not healthy enough to fly away.  We released the healthy one, and the other rests in peace.

Raising the butterflies from eggs to adult and witnessing the entire life cycle was a wonderful experience for my whole family. It showed us how fragile and beautiful life is, and while trying to help the butterfly with miniature wings, I thought of a line in my favorite poem by Mary Oliver.  “Life is infinitely inventive,” she writes.

We hope some of them survive and are creating a third generation right here in Barrow County.

***

I hope you enjoy the following gallery of the butterfly life cycle! Click on an image to enlarge. To view a slideshow of the cycle of our first generation of butterflies, click here: Raising Butterflies

May 23, 2013

Garden Inheritance

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 22, 2013.

When I was a young girl I came to Georgia to visit my grandmother who lived in Athens. She kept a little red watering can just for me because I loved to help her water her plants. She lived in an apartment, but it had a courtyard where she grew flowers. Red geraniums were her favorite.

I used to love walking with her to Charmar nursery where I was enchanted with the rows and rows of plants inside the long greenhouse. Once she bought a little green fern for me, and I took it home on the airplane.

When we lived in Colorado, our house had a sunroom, and my mother filled it with Scheffleras, spider plants and jades.  I remember watching my father tend the garden that ran along the back fence. In my childhood memory that garden was very big, but it was probably just a modest house garden.

During my year in Japan, I had a very tiny apartment, but it had a small balcony, so it seemed natural to follow in my mother and grandmother’s footsteps and fill it with greenery. It was the least I could do to improve the view of the parking lot.

Now my children have inherited this love of plants and gardening. My six-year-old saves the seeds from his mandarins and apples and wants to plant them to see if they’ll grow. He found a half-sprouted acorn in the yard, so now we have a hardwood tree growing in a pot despite the fact that we have more than enough growing in our yard.

Every night he faithfully waters our garden where we planted green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and a few herbs. He likes watering our flowers in the front yard too, but I always offer to help because I don’t want it to become a chore for him.

My three-year-old loves to water and plant too.  One afternoon he carried seeds around from some plant found in the woods. His grubby little hands offered them to me, and they ended up in the cup holder of my chair. He, too, has an acorn growing in a pot, thanks to the help of his older brother.

A friend of mine owns a landscaping business, and she taught my son how take a cutting from the butterfly bush. Cut off one of the new shoots, strip the bottom leaves and cut the top leaves in half. Put the remaining part into a small pot with some seed starter mix, keep it moist and in a sunny spot.  Now my son is pulling the new leaves off the bush to try it himself. Come here in a few years, and you’ll probably find our yard full of purple butterfly bushes.

I’m making no attempts to stop my budding gardeners even though a landscaper might cringe at our attempts to grow full-sun plants in the shade or crowd the flowers together. My education in gardening has been through trial and error, and my sons are following in my footsteps.

Whenever I watch my three-year-old stoop over to water a pot with his blue watering tin, I think about the little red one I had at my grandmother’s. I think she would be pleased that I’m still outside planting, watering, and growing seeds. Someday I’ll have to take my boys on a trip to a big greenhouse too.

May 9, 2013

Raising Butterflies

Scroll down for a slideshow of our butterfly’s life cycle!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 8, 2013.

Last year we raised toads from tadpoles, and this year we’re raising butterflies. This is surprisingly easy to do, and I’d encourage any family to give it a try.  It’s a wonderful experience for children and adults.

My sons received the Backyard Safari Butterfly Habitat as a Christmas present, but you can find other companies who sell butterfly habitats and the larvae online. The cages are around $15. The Backyard Safari Habitat came with a coupon so that we could order the larvae when we were ready for them. You need to wait for warm weather, if you plan to release the butterflies. (The larvae were approximately $10 with the coupon, but they are under $20 without it.)

We received six Painted Lady larvae (or caterpillars) in a small container with everything they needed to survive during this second stage of their life cycle. There were explicit instructions to not open the container. All we needed to do was set the container by a window (but not in direct sunlight). Note: I have read different opinions about leaving them in the container, so I suggest you do some of your own research.

Painted Lady Butterflies live almost everywhere, which is why they are often used in schools and homes for this purpose. In most places it’s okay to release them back into the environment. Another option is to find butterfly larvae in your local area and raise them, but each species has different needs, so you have to make sure you have the right food source.

We watched our caterpillars for less than two weeks as they stirred up the food, spun silk, and proved to be extremely bad housekeepers. When we got them, they were less than a centimeter in length, and in two days, they doubled their size. Right before they formed themselves into a chrysalis (or pupa), they were about an inch long and quite plump.

After the butterflies emerged, my son turned this into a project by making a model of the Painted Lady Butterfly! He studied it like a real artist!

According to the instructions I received, the caterpillars were supposed to climb to the top of the vial and attach themselves to the gauze that was placed under the lid of the container. There they would hang down and form into chrysalides, and then we weren’t allowed to disturb the container for two days. After that time, we could carefully remove the lid, and then pin the gauze with the chrysalides near the bottom and on the wall of the cage.

This is what really happened: The caterpillars made a huge mess in the container, and we couldn’t see through it very well. All of the caterpillars crawled to the top, but most of them didn’t stay there. In the end, there were only two caterpillars that formed chrysalides and hung from the top. We could barely make out one chrysalis on the bottom, and since there wasn’t any movement, I assumed the others down there were changing too.

Per the instructions, we waited two full days after the last caterpillar we could see formed his chrysalis. Finally we got out the butterfly cage, and found a small branch that fit nicely into it. Then I removed the lid to the container, and we discovered that the caterpillars had eaten most of the gauze! The two chrysalides were hanging from silk and the plastic lid. Luckily I managed to fit it over the twigs in the cage so that they hung down safely.

I had to scoop out the four other chrysalides from the bottom of the container with a spoon, and I laid them gently on the bottom of our cage. We had read that this can happen, and they should be okay, but unfortunately, two of these never formed into butterflies. We weren’t surprised.

After only five days, two of our butterflies emerged!  Two more butterflies emerged in the next few days.  They are beautiful, small orange and black butterflies, and we’re feeding them watermelon and oranges.

The whole process has enamored my six-year-old, and he wants to keep going, so we’re going to attempt to raise a second generation. Yep, call me crazy. If it turns into a good story, and I’m pretty sure it will, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Note: Yes, indeed, it’s turning into a story, and I will share it with you!

Below is a slideshow I created to show you our experience, and you can see the life cycle here too!

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Notes you may be interested in:

  • The butterfly’s life cycle is in four stages: egg, larvae (or caterpillar), chrysalis, adult butterfly.  (I highly recommend the simple app Life Cycles by nthfusion.com to help with learning about nature’s cycles!)
  • The plural for chrysalis can be either chrysalides or chrysalises. (You can go here to hear the pronunciations.)
  • The word eclose is a verb which means to emerge from the pupa as an adult or from an egg as a larvae.
  • The red liquid that drips out off the butterfly after it emerges is meconium or the waste that was secreted while it was in chrysalis.
  • After the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it can live for about two weeks. During that time, they seek a mate, and the female seeks a host plant to lay her eggs.

If you like this, you might enjoy the slideshow I made of our tadpoles to toads last year.

Have you raised butterflies? Please share your experience!

March 22, 2013

Amicalola Falls State Park

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 20, 2013.

Earlier this year on one of those warm winter days, we made the spontaneous decision to take the boys to Amicalola Falls State Park, which is less than a two-hour drive northwest from Winder. When we got there, we weren’t quite sure where to go, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves starting our hike at the base of the falls, going up.

If you’ve never been there before, you may not know that Amicalola Falls is the highest waterfall in the southeast. True to its name, which means “tumbling waters” in the Cherokee Indian language, it’s a beautiful series of falls tumbling down 729 feet of rock.

There’s a footpath and stairs that take you to the top of the falls, and a bridge crosses right in front of the falls about mid-way. The views are amazing.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to climb the 600 steps to the top of the falls, but now I was with my family, which included a six-year-old and three-year-old. I was remembering the last time we were out for an easy hike at Hard Labor Creek and how the three-year-old graced us with a temper tantrum at the beginning of that excursion because I didn’t pack the right snack.

At Amicalola, we were not the only ones who took advantage of the weather that day, so there were quite a few people taking the trek alongside us. I didn’t want a temper tantrum, and I didn’t want either my husband or me to have to carry a 37-pound three-year-old up those steps.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if I could make it up those steps too. During these past few years of child rearing, I have not been the healthiest eater, and I have little time for exercise that doesn’t include my little tag-alongs.

We easily hiked up the 175 steps to the bridge in front of the falls. The boys were on their best behavior, and they enjoyed the views. But my husband and I planned to go back down at that point.

The kids had a different opinion. They were determined to go to the top, and we couldn’t persuade them otherwise. After a few threats such as “if I have to carry you, I’m going to get really, really mad,” etc., we conceded and happily undertook the challenge. Secretly, I didn’t want to stop either.

We all felt like we accomplished something when we finished those last 425 steps without a problem. On the way down, we took another route through the woods, and we must have spent over 2~3 hours hiking that day. I was especially proud of the three-year-old who had no problem keeping up.

Our hike that day could be a metaphor for parenting. Though it’s a non-stop, daily challenge to raise small children, just when you think you can’t go anymore, your children surprise you. They show you just how far you can go, how fun life is and how resilient a family can be when working together to accomplish something.

If you’re interested in seeing Amicalola Falls, but you aren’t interested in climbing 600 steps, you’ll be happy to know that you can drive and take a short walk to where the platform is mid-way up, or you can drive to the top of the falls.  The top is where the Amicalola Falls Lodge is located, and it has a nice restaurant and beautiful views.

Also nearby is the access trail to the Appalachian Trail, and you can also hike up to the Len Foote Hike Inn, which is a wonderful overnight experience that I did many years ago, though you need to make reservations well in advance for that. You can learn about all of this and more at http://gastateparks.org/AmicalolaFalls.

What are your favorite family excursion memories?

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