Posts tagged ‘nature’

November 22, 2015

Nature Watch: Bear Tracks

You can imagine our excitement when we found these bear tracks very close to our cabin when we went on a vacation to Cloudland Canyon State Park last May. It was an exciting find, but we were glad that we never actually saw the bear!

November 12, 2015

Nature Watch: Tulip-tree Silkmoth

When we went on vacation last May to Cloudland Canyon State Park, we stayed in a nearby cabin, and on our first evening, my son found this beautiful moth on the ground in the yard. The closest match we found to it in our butterfly app is a Glover’s Silk Moth, but it really didn’t seem quite right, so when I first posted this, I asked for help in identifying it. Two people did so. (Thanks so much!) Now we know it’s a Callosamia angulifera or Tulip-tree Silkmoth.

This little moth was almost dead when we found it, so we laid it in an open container for the night, and the next day, it was no longer moving at all. My son was very excited to add it to his collection of moths. (We never collect anything unless it’s already dead.) It’s a beautiful specimen!

October 19, 2015

Fall Migration

A monarch I spied at the botanical garden.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 7, 2015.

The other day my son looked out the window and called out, “There’s a monarch butterfly!” This was exciting because we have never noticed a monarch on our butterfly bush before. At this time of year, we knew this was a monarch who was on its long journey south to Mexico. A couple of days later, we saw another monarch stop by to replenish itself as well.

The monarch is the only known butterfly to migrate like birds. Other butterflies can usually overwinter as larvae (the caterpillar) or the pupae (the chrysalis). It’s amazing that the monarchs know where to go without having ever made the journey before.

In the spring and summer, three to four generations of monarchs make a long journey north from Mexico to the northern U.S. and Canada. After a life cycle from egg (approximately 4 days), to caterpillar (for about 2 weeks), and then chrysalis (10-14 days), the insect transforms into the adult stage, a fully-grown monarch butterfly. The adults live for only 2-6 weeks, and after laying its eggs on the milkweed plant, it will die.

However, the fourth generation of monarch, which we saw in our yard, delays this process and can live six to eight months so that they can make the long migration south. Monarchs who live west of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in Southern California, but the monarchs in the east travel all the way to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico where they roost together in trees. Tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster together on a single tree. Together they are so heavy that they can sometimes break the branches. They stay there until the weather begins to warm up in March, and then they mate, lay their eggs and start the process all over again.

While we humans generally stay put in the fall and winter, carrying on with our daily obligations and activities, it fascinates me to think about the animals whose lives are ruled by the seasons. They make astonishing journeys to continue the circle of life.

Another tiny creature to make a long journey is the ruby-throated hummingbird. We enjoy these tiny birds all summer as they feed from nectar in our hummingbird feeder and plants. They are feisty little birds, zipping through the air and defending their feeders.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird at our feeder. The male has the “ruby” throat.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds breed all over the eastern United States, and those migrating from the far north might spend the winter along the gulf coast or the tip of Florida, but most of them will cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight in order to spend the winter in Central America. The shortest distance across is 500 miles, and it can take the hummingbird 18-22 hours to cross. And there are no rest stops! That’s pretty amazing for such a tiny bird.

Many other birds are making their way south now, and many will pass through Georgia on their way farther south. Others will spend winter in Georgia. One of those is the wood duck, which is my six-year-old’s favorite duck. The males have incredible colors on their head. I hear wood ducks are a favorite among duck hunters, and the season for hunting them are various dates in November-January.

I wish I were a bird expert so that I could identify any migrating birds that come through our yard. I find that watching the wildlife for even a few minutes each day is relaxing, and it calms my mind during a busy season of my life. If you’re inclined to learn a little more about migrating monarchs or birds, and how you might help them, see,, or these birding resources on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources website:

July 6, 2015


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.

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 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 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 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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