Archive for ‘Nature’

July 6, 2015

Birds

mama feeding chicks 6.21.15-1

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on July 1, 2015.

I may call this the spring and summer of birds. My family and I have always enjoyed watching the songbirds in our yard. We love the cardinals, bluebirds, tufted titmice, hummingbirds and chickadees. Every time my boys see a flash of red out the window, they call out, “There’s a male cardinal!”

But this year, birds have become more of a focus, and though I wish I could take credit for it, it has all happened by chance. First, we were lucky that a family of Carolina wrens took up residence in a birdhouse we keep on our back deck. This birdhouse has been sitting empty for several years, and we wondered if it were in a bad spot, or maybe it was too close to the other birdhouse we keep on our front porch. We’ve had bluebirds nest in it consistently, and we know they don’t like to compete with other bluebird families for food.

Though we’ve enjoyed watching the bluebirds on our front porch feeding their babies in the past years, and we could always hear the little chicks screaming for food, we had never before seen the baby birds fledge. This year, to the squeals of delight by my sons, we saw not only a baby bluebird sitting on our front porch rail, we also looked out the window the exact moment when a Carolina wren flew from its birdhouse into the big wide world for the first time.

After all this excitement was over, my eldest son noticed a cardinal building a nest in a bush right outside our living room window. She placed it where we could see it perfectly, and we got very excited.

It took Mama Cardinal about a day to build her nest, and two days later, we could tell there were at least two eggs in it. After that, Mama consistently sat on the nest most of the day, though she seemed to leave for a while in the evenings, probably to find food. She protected the nest through some rough storms too.

About twelve days later, we felt the chicks would hatch soon. We began to see Papa Cardinal hanging out in the trees nearby. Sure enough, they hatched two days later, and then we had the pleasure of watching both Mama and Papa feed the two little chicks, though not quite as frequently as the bluebirds seem to feed their chicks.

Little by little, they grew until we could see they were now looking back at us through the window, and one night, they jumped from the nest into the branches of the bush. There was no sign of them in the morning, so we hope they made it to the safety of the nearby woods.

Not surprisingly, birds have been a theme in my sons’ interests lately. Even before these birds began nesting in our yard, my five-year-old has had a fascination with feathers, and most evenings after dinner, he likes to take a walk with me so that he can look for feathers – you’d be surprised at how many you can find, if you just start looking.

The boys have always loved looking at the bird field guide app, especially when they see an interesting bird they want to identify, and someone gave us The Bird Songs Anthology by Les Beletsky, which features 200 birds and the sounds they make. I have discovered that my eight-year-old has an uncanny memory for bird songs, and whenever we’re outside, he’ll say, “That’s the tufted titmouse!” or “That’s a cardinal!” My ears could never sort and remember all those bird songs, but I have always suspected my son is very auditory, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

The birds have given my family a show this year, so I think I’ll always remember this as the year of the birds. Or maybe it’s the beginning of many years of learning about birds. I can’t wait to find out.

Eventually I’m going to post more photos of the cardinal family, but until I have time for that, you can see a bunch of them on the home/school/life Facebook page.

June 8, 2015

Cloudland Canyon State Park

main overview at Cloudland Canyon State Park

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 3, 2015.

Last month we had time to take a short vacation, so we decided it would be a good time to visit Cloudland Canyon State Park. It is located in the very northwest corner of Georgia. We stayed in a cabin in the nearby small town of Rising Fawn, and from there we were only 20 minutes from Chattanooga, TN, and four miles from the Alabama border.

The canyon is a must-see, if you haven’t been there. I didn’t even know about it until I saw it on an episode of GPB’s Georgia Outdoors. The canyon is vast and beautiful, full of trees and shrubs, painting it with different shades of green.

Cloudland Canyon

The ancient sandstone is still eroding, and it’s a great place for geology enthusiasts. Over 200 million years ago, this area was completely under the ocean. Lookout Mountain was formed through the same seismic activity as the Appalachian Mountains, but later, as the ocean receded, the rim of the canyon was a beach. To this day, you can see ripples in the rock that long ago was sand on the ancient shore. The canyon was formed from rivers draining out to sea – what we now call Sitton Gulch Creek and its tributary, Daniel Creek.

The ripples in the rock indicate where there was once an ancient shoreline.

For three days, we went over to the park in the mornings and hiked. There are trails for those who are experienced hikers and backpackers, and then there are those for the rest of us. We took the moderate trails, not just because we had small children, but because my husband and I are noticing that hiking more strenuous trails isn’t as easy as it used to be!

There is a short trail anyone can use to see the grand vista of the canyon, which we stopped at first. Then we took a trail down to Cherokee falls. I was enchanted with this small crevice between the towering rock walls, filled with beautiful hardwoods and moss, and the sound of water cascading into a small green pool. We sat on the rocks for a while to eat a snack before we left.

There are two waterfalls you can hike down to, but if you don’t think you can make it back up the 600+ steps, I recommend just going to that first waterfall. The second waterfall, Hemlock Falls, was beautiful, but you can’t get as close to it, and there’s a small platform that you are restricted to while viewing it. That wouldn’t be fun on crowded days.

Cherokee Falls (photo taken without a tripod)

I would have liked to have continued down from these waterfalls and hiked ­­­­Sitton’s Gulch Trail, which is a two-hike along the Sitton Gulch Creek. I have a feeling it would have been a gorgeous hike with several mini-waterfalls along the way. But we weren’t sure we were prepared to keep going down when you have to turn around and go all the way back up!

Another day we took the West Rim Trail, and I highly recommend this trail. It has beautiful views overlooking the canyon and the nearby small town of Trenton, Georgia. We drove into the rim and parked so that we could make the hike a little shorter than it would have been if we started it at its trailhead, which was the same place where the waterfall trails start. Except for one part that went slightly uphill, it was moderately flat, but anyone on this trail should be sure-footed because you have to walk over thick roots and rocks. There are also several drop-offs with no railing. Our boys did extremely well on this nearly five-mile hike, but they were ready for it to end by the time we got back to our car!

view from West Rim Trail

Little did we know that the area around our cabin would be one of the loveliest places we’ve ever stayed. We had mountain views, and there were small lakes within walking distance. The best part was that there was a horse pasture on the other side of the fence in our cabin’s backyard! The boys were thrilled to get to pet the friendly horses and feed them carrots.

our cabin

See the red roof in the middle of the photo? That was our cabin.

in the backyard of our cabin

taken from the backyard of the cabin

first time fishermen

My boys went fishing for the first time during our trip at one of the little lakes near the cabin. Every evening they went down there and caught lots of little sunfish, though most were so little they needed to be thrown back, and we didn’t have the right bait to catch the large mouth bass that we could see swimming through the shallow water. By the time we left, my eight-year-old could bait and cast by himself, and my five-year-old was getting pretty good at casting the line too.

If you’d like to learn more about Cloudland Canyon, check out http://www.gastateparks.org/cloudlandcanyon. And if you’re interested in the cabin we stayed in, just send me an e-mail and ask, and I’ll send you a link.

I still have lots of photos I’d like to share with you from our trip, but I’m going to save most of those for some Nature Watch posts. So stay tuned, and thanks for reading my blog!

May 22, 2015

Garden Time

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 20, 2015.

Every year the boys and I buy seeds and a few plants and plant them with good intentions. My boys also enjoy growing sprouting beans in jars and then transplanting them to the garden. We don’t have the best soil or much sunlight on this wooded lot, but I let the boys plant what they want. Digging in the dirt and caring for the vegetables must have more life lessons than I can count.

My eight-year-old wanted to plant pumpkins again. We put them in big pots in our driveway so they can get the most sunlight possible. My five-year-old is growing squash in our garden, and I planted some tomato and cucumber plants. We are all sharing the strawberries and green beans. We have some herbs left over from last year too.

A new garden is a pretty sight. There’s fresh topsoil and no weeds. The new plants have that fresh garden color – a world of promise in a single leaf. Perennials are blooming throughout my yard, keeping promises planted long ago. At this time of year, it’s easy to muster the energy to go out every evening and water the garden. By August, it’ll be another story, but that’s still far off, and I’m going to enjoy this beautiful spring for as long as it’s here.

My son’s carnivorous plants are looking healthy and growing like crazy, and we were thrilled to see his new sundew plant come to life after buying it in its dormant state late last fall. This sundew has long, spindly leaves with a sticky substance on them that insects will stick to, if they land on it. He also has a pitcher plant and Venus flytrap. I think my son’s carnivorous plants are doing a service for our whole neighborhood considering how many dead insects we find in them.

I wish my whole yard looked as fresh and well kept as our garden, spring flowers, and my son’s carnivorous plants, but that’s not the case. Weeds taunt me from under the azalea bushes, and there’s not enough time or money to fix up our backyard or the bare patches of lawn. I found one of my favorite flowering bushes – the name always eludes me – died this year after producing beautiful flowers for many years. It was the same bush where a cardinal family reared their chicks in one year, and we were able to watch the whole cycle right through our living room window. I’m very sad to see this bush stand bare of leaves.

My bay leaf tree, also, has suffered these past two years after growing so well for many years before this. Is it because I’m too busy to go out and pamper it, or did the winters just get too cold for it? I don’t know.

But I see good things happening too. Every year I manage to do one or two small tasks to add to the “perfect yard” that’s in my imagination but slowly taking form around the house. The lead plant I bought two years ago at the botanical garden is hanging in there, and for the first time this year, it’s blooming. Some irises I divided last year are doing quite well in their new spot, and this year I finally divided some monkey grass and planted it in front of the fence on the other side of the house.

We are in this house for the long haul, so I’m patient about getting the yard just right. We are in the season of our lives when we have other priorities, and trying to keep a perfect yard would be a waste of money and time. Keeping it fairly neat and planting slow-growing but lasting plants seems like the more prudent way to go. Besides, when the boys grow up, I doubt they’ll remember the weeds or the lack of lawn. Instead, they’ll remember the flowers, vegetables and freedom they had to run and dig in the dirt. Perhaps this is the perfect garden after all.

May 9, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants Update

Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile may remember when my son was interested in carnivorous plants. It was a long project. We read about them, found them at botanical gardens (we have yet to see one in the wild), talked to experts about them, and my son wanted to grow them. During this time, we found him a venus flytrap and pitcher plant that he could grow himself, but he always wanted a sundew too, which he says is his favorite. These are not so easy to come by locally. Finally last fall, at the suggestion of a local carnivorous plant enthusiast, I ordered my son a sundew from flytraps.com. The man who suggested flytraps.com said this was a reputable vendor, and he also wrote down the scientific name for a couple of sundew that should grow well here in Georgia’s climate.

When I ordered it, however, it was late fall, and the plants go dormant for winter. So what we received didn’t look like much. We put it in the pot outside with the other carnivorous plants, covered it with mesh (to keep the squirrels out of the pot), and I kept my fingers crossed that the sundew would survive the winter. It did! And as you can see, it’s growing very well.

This is either a drosera filiformis or drosera tracyii. I’m afraid I didn’t note exactly which I ordered…these were the two species the local carnivorous plant enthusiast recommended to us.

There are over 500 species of sundew in the world. Many of them are tiny like this one, but some are quite large. They have sticky secretions on their long, thin leaves, and when a bug lands on them, they stick to the sundew. Then the sundew’s leaves curl up and around the insect in order to digest its meal.

My son already had this venus flytrap, and we’re happy to see it’s coming back after the long winter too.

I love the pitcher plants. These will get much bigger and wider as the summer wears on.

Finally, my son said, my collection is complete!

May 7, 2015

Indian Springs State Park

Note: This column appeared in the May 6, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Last month we enjoyed exploring Indian Springs State Park, which is located almost right in the middle of Georgia. It took us about two hours to drive there, and like all Georgia state parks, it’s beautiful, but we didn’t realize what a rich history this particular park has.

Indian Springs is thought to be the oldest state park in the United States because it has been operated by the state as a public park ever since the land was secured from the Creek Indians. It did not become an official state park until 1931 when, along with Vogel State Park, it became one of Georgia’s first state parks.

Our first quest when we arrived at the park was to find the natural spring that is said to have curative properties. The Creek Indians used the water in the spring to heal their sick people, and by the 1820s, white people flocked to the site to taste and bathe in the water, claiming it had healing properties. It didn’t take long for a flourishing resort town to spring up around the park.

Now the spring is located inside a house-like structure built of rocks. Water constantly pours out of a spout and what is not collected goes down a drain. Apparently, people are still collecting the “healing waters” because when we got there, a man with several empty gallon jugs was taking his fill. Later, we saw a woman with a trunk load of containers going to collect water.

the spring is located in that small building where the people are standing

In order to earn another junior ranger badge, my eight-year-old was supposed to drink some water from this spring. The spring has a very strong smell of sulphur, and at first, my son hesitated. But when his mom and dad reached down and scooped up a handful of water, he tried it too. (My five-year-old refused to try it.) Though it’s drinkable, the water tasted “thick” and had a strong taste due to its mineral content. Since we are not used to it, it wasn’t water that we would want to drink on a regular basis.

From there, we walked over to Big Sandy Creek where a fast current flows over some shoals. It was very pretty, and the boys enjoyed throwing rocks in the water, and I took photographs of the stone bridge crossing the creek.

As we walked deeper into the park, we came to the park office, which was a beautiful, historic home. Named Idlewilde, it is a twentieth century two-story “New South” structure with four over four rooms. It still has its original beveled glass windows, heart of pine floors, door handles and light fixtures. There are all kinds of historical items inside the house, but my favorite part was walking through the rock terrace in the backyard. Apparently, one of the women who built the house, named Gi-Gi, was an avid gardener, and she had the terrace built. There still remains some of the Day Lilies and Jonquils that she planted.

The house has an interesting history, but I liked reading about the history of the Creek Indians in this area the best. In 1821, after this area was already becoming a resort area for white people, 1000 acres were reserved for Chief William McIntosh. Chief McIntosh was born in 1778, and he was half Creek and half Scotsman. In 1825, he signed a Treaty of Indian Springs, which handed over Creek land in southwest Georgia to the state for an equal amount of land west of the Mississippi River plus $400,000.

This “Treaty of Indian Springs” was illegal because only eight out of fifty-six Creek towns supported Chief McIntosh. Not even President John Quincy Adams considered it a valid treaty. A few days after the treaty was signed, Chief McIntosh was killed, and in 1826, a “legal” treaty was signed, and the Federal government seized the land.

From the park’s office, we walked toward McIntosh Lake, walked across the levy, and then followed the shore until we came to the manmade beach area where the kids played for awhile. By then we were ready to head back to our car. We only saw a thumbprint of this beautiful 528 acre park, so we plan to go back some day.

The park offers camping, cottages, fishing, boating, swimming, miniature golf, hiking, a museum, and it’s close to many other attractions, such as Dauset Trails Nature Center and Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site. Be sure to visit http://gastateparks.org/info/indspr/ to learn more about this park, and visit it when you get the chance.

What new places have you explored lately?

April 10, 2015

My New Favorite Bird

This photo is courtesy of katieb50 via a creative commons license.

This photo is courtesy of katieb50 via a creative commons license.

Note: This column appeared in the April 8, 2015 issue of the Barrow Journal.

I am adding a new bird to my list of favorites, and it may seem a strange choice to you. Most people don’t list “crow” as one of their favorite birds. Up until now, my favorites have been a toss up between cardinal, bluebird, owl, egret or blue heron. I mean, really, it’s hard to pick a favorite bird when they are all so magnificent, isn’t it?

But recently my family watched a PBS Nature documentary titled “A Murder of Crows.” A group of crows is called a “murder” probably because of old folklore that associated crows with death. Crows are scavengers, like ravens, and both these blackbirds have had a bad rap. Actually, they are both extremely intelligent and may be some of the smartest animals on earth. But ravens don’t live around here, so I’m going to stick to crows for this column.

Scientists are studying crows and learning quite a bit about them. I was impressed to watch one experiment when a researcher put a piece of food out of reach from a crow, but he left a tool nearby that the bird could use to retrieve it, if he could figure out how to use it. However, the crow had to use another tool in order to reach the tool that would get the food. The bird used both the tools and got the food easily.

That was impressive by itself, but then the researcher gave the crow an additional challenge. He tied the first stick to a rope and hung it down from a perch that the crow sat on. This way, the crow had three steps he had to take to get the food. He had to pull the string up with his beak and retrieve the first tool, use it to get the second tool, and then use the second tool to get the food. The researcher hypothesized that the crow wouldn’t be able to do that. But the crow did it! This is more impressive when you consider that even chimpanzees can’t do this three-step process.

Observations have also revealed that a crow’s social structure is similar to humans. They mate for life, and families live in close proximity, continuing to help each other throughout their lives. A baby crow might stay with its parents for up to five years and even help raise its younger siblings. (Most birds are on their own as soon as they leave the nest.)

Crows can congregate in roosts with thousands of other crows, especially when they find food such as a cornfield (farmers will not like crows), but individual crows will come and go from their parent’s nest. Some may travel far and visit occasionally. Others may stay and live nearby.

Another interesting part of the documentary was the research done on how crows can recognize and remember human faces. If a human or other animal has threatened or hurt them, they will use the same distress call each time they see them to alert other crows in the area.

Scientists in the documentary conducted extensive experiments to show that parents of crows may even pass on knowledge of dangerous people to their children, and the children will use the same distress call when they see the threatening person, even after leaving their parent’s nest.

I don’t know about you, but learning about crows has elevated them in my mind. We see them all the time in our neighborhood, but I took them for granted. They weren’t as interesting to me as the beautiful songbirds, but now when I see a pair poking around my yard for some food, I’m fascinated. These intelligent birds have earned my respect.

February 18, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Sketching at the Botanical Garden

When my eight-year-old went to pottery class, I drove my five-year-old ten minutes down the road from the studio to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is probably my favorite place on this earth (and I’ve been a lot of places). I used to go there 2-3 times a week when I first moved to Georgia. I didn’t know many people, and for me, walking on the beautiful, wooded trails or sitting by a stream was like visiting with a friend.

Now that I have children, I don’t get to go there as much as I would like to, but I am happy that we have taken my boys hiking there several times, and my eight-year-old has even taken summer camps there. Sometimes my five-year-old and I took advantage of these times by walking on the trails while waiting for older brother.

I consider Fridays “art days,” and we usually don’t do our other lessons on these days. Luckily, pottery class happened to be on Fridays last fall, so while older brother took that class, I took my five-year-old to the botanical garden for our “art.” I didn’t do formal art lessons though. I decided to just take our sketchbooks and see what would happen.

I am not an artist and until now, I have never put any effort into drawing or painting because it hasn’t been a huge interest of mine. The main reason I’m giving it a go now is because my five-year-old LOVES to draw. He is always coloring or drawing a picture, and I have stacks and stacks of his work. I hang some of it up on the wall above my desk, and other artwork is filling our stairway. As another way of trying to support his work, I got all of us a sketchbook, and occasionally I try to use it. I’m not very good except, maybe, at drawing plants. So that’s what I usually draw. I find it’s a very relaxing exercise too, which is beneficial to me. My goal is to try to make it a weekly practice, although I don’t always get to it that often. (You can read more about how and why I started a sketchbook habit in this post.)

My five-year-old is not very confident at trying to draw new things by himself. He likes to draw “storms” or trees, and loves to use stencils. Usually he colors pictures from a coloring book or he has me draw something for him that he can color. But he has also created some really interesting artwork. Some of it is highly detailed too. Maybe you could call it “doodle art” or abstract art. You can see a slideshow of that on this post. I let him create art however he wants to do it, but I hope as we continue to explore art and drawing together, he will try new things.

Sometimes my five-year-old wasn’t into drawing at the botanical garden, but he almost always wanted to get a snack at the small cafe, and that was okay. (I didn’t mind getting a coffee.) After that, I would pull out our sketchbooks or whatever I brought. He rarely wanted to walk around the botanical gardens at this time, which was okay since it was cold outside, and I had never really sat and lingered in their visitor’s center before. This was definitely a huge treat for myself as well, and I already miss going! (Yes, I know we could go any day just for fun, but that is easier said than done.)

One day was particularly special. It was the day that he wanted to bring his camera, so on that day, we not only enjoyed a leisurely snack and drawing in our sketchbooks, he used his camera to document our workspace and everything around us. He even took his very first video, which turned out to be hilarious (imagine a five-year-old swinging the camera around and talking to his mother at the same time).  It is a video that I will always treasure, and I think he’ll enjoy watching it when he grows up.

Many of his photographs were blurry, but a few were great, I thought, especially since we were sitting in some wonderful light. Below are his photographs. I asked him if he wanted to walk around to take photos, but he didn’t want to do that. He took all of these from his chair. Above are a few snapshots I got with my phone so that you can see how serious he was about his drawing and picture-taking. He didn’t want me to take photos of him, so I had to be quite sly about it! That was necessary because I never want to forget this day. I wish every homeschooling day could be like this one.

February 12, 2015

Nature Watch: Crazy Abundance of Mushrooms

As a follow-up to my son’s mushroom project, I thought I would share what we found below our deck around a tree stump at just about the same time we were growing shiitake mushrooms. We get a lot of cool mushrooms in our yard, especially in the spring and fall when it’s rainy, but we’ve never seen so many mushrooms as this. It was quite a sight. We have no idea what kind of mushrooms these were. If you have any idea, I’d love to know.

September 30, 2014

Nature Watch: Fowler’s Toad

We feel very lucky to get a lot of toads in our yard, and we see these fowler toads quite often. My eight-year-old doesn’t hesitate to catch them, but I’ve taught him to be very gentle, and since he loves animals, he doesn’t want to hurt them.

Nevertheless, he learned a good lesson when he turned the poor toad over to look at its belly. As a defense, some small animals will pee on predators, and sure enough, that toad peed on my son, and it worked! My son let him go right away after that!

What backyard discoveries have you made lately?

September 25, 2014

Nature Watch: Praying Mantis

One thing I love about homeschooling is the ability to cut our lessons short and let my kids explore the yard, especially when I feel like they’re getting more learning out of that than they could any other way.  The other day I did just that, and it was lucky I did. Look what my eight-year-old found. There were actually two beautiful praying mantises in the yard that day. This is one of them.

My son watched it a long time. Finally he did a little experiment without me knowing! He dangled a daddy longlegs in front of the praying mantis, and he watched it lunge for it and then eat it!

Poor daddy longlegs. Lucky praying mantis.

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