Posts tagged ‘getting kids into nature’

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.

November 5, 2013

Scary, Oozy, Slimy Day at the Sandy Creek Nature Center

Attending Scary, Oozy, Slimy Day every October at the Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, Georgia has become a tradition in my family. There’s nothing scary about it, of course. It’s a wonderful event that showcases under appreciated animals such as snakes, frogs, bugs, spiders and more. There are many hands-on activities and games for children, and children are invited to wear their Halloween costumes, if they want to.  We have especially enjoyed meeting and speaking with the college students who man several of the stations and share creepy crawlies from the university. Since my son is interested in biology, we’ve learned a lot by chatting with them.

Here are just a few images from our visit this year, in October 2013.

 

 

 

My husband the beekeeper? I don’t think so.

 

 

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.

August 1, 2013

Why Study Ants?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, July 31, 2013.

Last week I wrote about the School of Ants, a project that anyone can participate in. Scientists at North Carolina State University and the University of Florida are asking citizens to assist them in collecting ants, particularly those in urban areas.  You can learn all about it at www.schoolofants.org.

As I wrote that column, I dashed off an e-mail to the School of Ants team knowing that they might not get back to me before my deadline.  I was right about the deadline, but I wasn’t expecting to get such a great response this week.  Lauren told me that after considering my question, she found it important enough to write a response as a blog post on their website. I thought you might enjoy reading it too, so I’m sharing it with you today.

My question was “Why is it important to collect data on ants?”  Here’s what she wrote:

First of all, thank you for participating in the School of Ants!  I’m delighted that you and your son enjoyed the experience.  And thank you for your question.

The data that you and your son have helped us collect, along with hundreds of other citizen scientists, is giving us valuable data about the diversity and distribution of ants across the United States.

Ants are ubiquitous.  They are widespread and diverse, such that most people can easily pick out the ant when presented with a line-up of insect photos.  Yet despite how familiar ants are to us and how often we may encounter them in our daily lives (sometimes more often than we would like) we actually know relatively little about their diversity and distribution, particularly in urban areas.  The species we know the least about are the very same species that we interact with most frequently – those that are commonly found in backyards and on sidewalks, in street medians and on playgrounds.

Some of the species we are hoping to learn more about are exotic species – those that have been introduced from habitats outside of the United States.  Many of these exotic species are considered harmful to ecosystems and people, and are termed invasive species. While invasive species tend to be better studied once they have become established and caused havoc in an ecosystem, it’s hard to gather data about them in their earlier stages of introduction, before they have become widespread.

This is where School of Ants participants can save the day! In fact, just this past year, young participants helped us determine that the Asian needle ant (http://www.schoolofants.org/species/1157), a nasty invader well-known in the southeastern US, had expanded its range to Wisconsin and Washington State. Yikes!

We are also interested in the least studied of our native species, especially those that aren’t pests and are therefore often overlooked.  While some ants can be nuisances, many have beneficial roles in ecosystems.  By digging tunnels they turn over dirt and aerate the soil.  They can even help keep other pests at bay, including cockroaches, fleas and termites.  Yet so little is known about their role in urban ecosystems!  Some of the ant species crawling around on sidewalks in major cities haven’t even been named yet!

We’re harnessing the power of citizen scientists to collect data across a much wider range than we could possibly sample on our own (although what a road trip that would be!). We are learning a great deal about the diversity and distribution of ants.  We have already found cases of species living outside their previously described ranges.  For example, a native seed-harvesting ant (Aphaenogaster miamiana), believed to live only as far north as South Carolina, was found by a participant in the piedmont of North Carolina (http://www.schoolofants.org/species/2105).

Studying the diversity and distribution of ants is not only relevant today, but can also help us understand how climate change, land use, and urbanization might affect ants in the future.

So thank you, again, for participating in the project and contributing your data! Please let me know if you have any other questions!

Best,

Lauren and the School of Ants Team

July 30, 2013

The School of Ants

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

This past school year, my son and I participated in the School of Ants project.  Any adult, child or classroom can participate in this fun, educational project, and by doing so, you can help scientists collect data on ants that live in urban areas.

When I told my six-year-old about the project, he couldn’t wait to do it. All we had to do was collect some ants in our yard and send them to North Carolina State University where the scientists identified the ants and labeled a U.S. map, which you can view on their website. If you live in Florida, you’ll send your specimens to Dr. Andrea Lucky’s lab at the University of Florida. She heads this whole project.

The School of Ants has already helped scientists identify an invasive Asian needle ant in samples from New York, Wisconsin and Washington.  Other rare species have been found too, such as the Bigfoot ant, which is North America’s rarest ant species. It had been discovered in the 1940s and never seen again until a North Carolina State University student found two of them under a rock outside his apartment. He took pictures of them and then released them, not knowing that they were so rare!

Though it’s easy to do the project, participants must make their own kit and pay for postage.  You’ll need 8 3×5 index cards, 1 pen, 2 Pecan Sandies cookies, 8 1-quart zip-lock bags, 1 1-gallon zip lock bag, and 1 envelope plus postage for submitting your kit.  You’ll also need to sacrifice some ants.

My son and I took four of the notecards and labeled them “green.” These had to go on a lawn, garden or forest about one foot apart. We left a quarter of a cookie on each card for one hour in the woods beside our house.

On the other four notecards, we wrote “paved.” These had to go on a paved surface for one hour, so we put those on our driveway.  After an hour, we were instructed to quickly dump the card, cookie and any ants we collected into a separate plastic bag.

The cards we left in the woods had plenty of ants on them, but the cards on the pavement only had a few tiny ants. They were just beginning to find the cookies.

We collected what we found and put all the baggies into one big gallon-size bag, and then put them into the freezer overnight. Supposedly, this is a humane way of killing the ants.

We had to fill out a small form, register our kit online and get a confirmation code, which we mailed with the ants.

When we did the project, I read that we would be e-mailed within a few weeks about our ants. We never received an e-mail, and it took several months, but we finally found our ants listed on the School of Ants website.  According to their site, we found three different species. The two in the woods were common ants, but the tiny ants in our driveway were not so common, so there’s not much known about them. Pretty cool, huh?

I asked my son if he’d like to try to find those ants again and observe them for a while. Perhaps we can make a small contribution to science. My son was excited about that, so maybe we’ll try it. That is, if we can find them again.

If you’d like to participate in the School of Ants project, go to www.schoolofants.org to get detailed instructions and additional information.

Come back on Thursday when I post a letter from the School of Ants answering my question, “Why is it important to study ants?”

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.

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?

February 24, 2013

Nothing Says Little Boys Like…

…this picture.  A warm February Sunday spent with sticks alongside a lake. Georgia red clay underfoot. It was a good day.

January 24, 2013

Hard Labor Creek State Park

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on January 23, 2013.

If you want to take advantage of the warm spells we get during the winter in Georgia, one place I recommend going is Hard Labor Creek State Park. We visited there for the first time this past fall (early November) when the leaves were gold and just falling from the trees, and we wondered why we had never gone to this beautiful park before.

It’s located about 30 miles south of Winder in Morgan and Walton counties, and at 5,804 acres, it’s one of the largest state parks in Georgia. It boasts an 18-hole golf course as well as two lakes, camping, cottage rentals, swimming, horse trails, hiking trails and much more.

The park has a rich history.  Before the establishment of the park, the land was made up of corn and cotton fields, and due to poor land-use practices, it was not very productive.  During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a part of his New Deal program. The purpose of CCC was to create recreational areas while also teaching young men new skills and trades.

Between 1934 -1939, there were two CCC camps at Hard Labor Creek, and they together with the U.S. Forestry service built the park. You can still see many of their original structures and landscapes today, including Lake Rutledge.  They also cultivated over 850,000 trees!

My favorite outdoor activity is hiking, and the day we were there, I was determined to walk at least a moderate trail, so I coaxed my family onto the 1-mile Brantley Trail that took us on a tour of some of the beautiful trees that the CCC planted.

Now the trees are mature, and according to a leaflet we found at the beginning of the path, we walked under a canopy of loblolly pines and sweetgum trees, and we also spied white oak, river birch, hickories, red maples, and blackjack oak.

We skedaddled past this tree.

Here you can see how the area is still recovering from the farming.  In the late 1800s, “the upland forest in this area of the piedmont was almost completely stripped for timber and agricultural lands.”  However, it was too steep to farm along the streams, so there you’ll find taller, larger hardwoods.  If you look at “the upslope trees,” you see they are smaller, and there’s more pines and sweetgum.

When we were there this fall, hiking with a six-year-old and three-year-old still required a great deal of patience.  My three-year-old graced us with his first temper tantrum in the middle of the forest, and I couldn’t help but wonder if a child screams in a forest and no one is around to hear it… Ah, well, unfortunately, we were there, and yes, it was quite loud.  But it passed as all things do, and we had a pleasant walk. We also strolled over to the lake, and it offered some beautiful scenery.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Hard Labor Creek State Park, you might join one of several Historic Wagon Ride Tours offered in February, or perhaps you’d prefer Fireside Stories told by a retired park ranger who, according to the park’s website, has a passion for CCC history.  Go to http://www.gastateparks.org/HardLaborCreek for more information on these and other events at the park.

Where’s your favorite outdoor recreation area?

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