Nature Watch: Black Rat Snake

A month or so ago, we visited Smithgall Woods State Park, and while we were walking back to the parking lot, we came across this beautiful, medium-sized black rat snake. Black rat snakes are the most common snake in Georgia, so we’ve seen a few of them.

Snakes were my eldest son’s first love. When he was about four-years-old, he learned a lot about them by attending the knee-high naturalist program at the local nature center, and later I bought him a poster of Georgia snakes, which still hangs in his room. We started making a book about snakes too. Even though he’s decided he does not want to study snakes when he grows up anymore, he still loves snakes, and his younger brother thinks they are pretty cool too.

By studying snakes with my son, I learned quite a bit about them, and I know which ones are venomous and which ones are not. Black rat snakes are harmless, but, of course, any snake can bite, if you bother them, so you need to be respectful of them.

Snakes are very beneficial to the environment especially in that they help keep the rodent population in check, so you never want to harm one, if you find one. You might remember that many years ago, we watched a black rat snake eat a squirrel in our backyard, and I caught it on film! (So consider yourself warned, if you click on that link!)

My family has a deep appreciation for snakes, so finding this one was quite a treat!

Summer Day Camps

One morning late in the week I brought my laptop to the garden to get some writing done. I snapped this photo when the kids walked by. My eldest son is in the center, in the red shirt.

Last week my boys participated in a summer day camp at the botanical garden! It was so much fun!

My eldest son has participated in local summer and winter day camps since he was five-years-old. Last year, my six-year-old was five and could finally enroll in one of the summer camps at the botanical garden, which was a week-long half-day camp. He was very nervous about it,  but he ended up loving it. Then he got to attend the three-day spring camp there with his brother this year too.

When my eldest son was five, there were several mini-camps available at the nature center, and I’m sad those don’t seem to be available anymore. He participated in a lot of those, and I feel a little bad that my younger son doesn’t get to participate in as many programs as his older brother did, but I guess it all evens out when you consider all the extra things he does get to do because he has an older brother, and his older brother didn’t have those opportunities.

Getting ready to leave for camp in the a.m.

I think camps are especially useful for homeschoolers because the kids get to interact with regular school kids. There are tons of different summer day camps. Whatever your child is interested in, there is probably a camp for it. You just have to try them out and see what you like best.

My son is a big nature boy, so we tried a week-long camp at the nature center two years ago (which they still offer), but it was not a good fit after all. My son didn’t like it and said he’d never go back. We’ve also done pottery camps (very good!) and a robotics camp (mediocre), but we love the botanical garden camps the best. Usually we let him do two camps each year, but this year we needed to save money, so we let each boy pick one camp each. They wanted to go back to the botanical garden, and they also picked the same week, which helped cut down on driving for us.

My six-year-old performed in a skit with his group at the end of the week for the parents. He’s sitting down in the orange and white striped shirt.

Even though they took the camp together, they were separated into different groups by age, which I’m glad about. Sometimes the boys can use some time away from each other!

This year’s camp was titled Forest Explorers and Early Civilizations. The kids learned about ancient cultures and how they used the forests for survival. I also love the botanical garden camps because my boys get a good dose of nature while they attend, and since the garden limits how many kids can attend, it’s not an overwhelming experience. Plus, I think the garden staff takes care of the kids better than in other programs they’ve attended.

I love the orchids and always take photos of them whenever I’m at the garden.

This was the first time I was going to have a whole week without both boys to take care of, so I was planning to get so. much. done. I was so excited. Unfortunately, I got sick right before the camp, and all I wanted after that was for both boys to stay healthy so that they could complete the camp. So I took great pains to not expose my germs to them. It paid off because they made it through the whole camp. Yay!

But I got very little done.😦 Oh well. At least I was able to rest, and I can always look forward to next year.

Nature Watch: Carolina Chickadee fledges

I think this is what I love about homeschooling the most: my boys are very connected to the wildlife outside our windows because they are home all day, and we are always looking out our windows.

Not the best photography today. I took this photo and short videos with my phone through the window.

This morning I was sitting at the kitchen table when something fluttered by outside the window. “Boys!” I called. “I think the chickadees are fledging!”

My boys came, and we carefully stepped toward the window. Sure enough, a tiny little chickadee was on our back porch. Then my husband noticed another one in the yard. Later still, another fledged, and then another! (I caught the last one on video, which you can see below.) There were at least four (maybe five) chicks in that one small birdhouse!

We knew there were chickadees nesting in the birdhouse on our back deck, but we didn’t know if we’d be lucky enough to be present at just the right moment when the babies would decide to leave the nest. Last year, we had Carolina wrens nesting in this box, and we saw one of them fledge. However, we missed the bluebirds fledging on our front porch. They suddenly were gone one day!

So this was such a special morning! We spent a long time watching the chickadees (from a safe distance). The parents were still feeding them, and they couldn’t fly very well. They managed to flutter down to the ground, and they eventually got up into the trees. We could hear their calls for a long time, and we could see a couple of them up in the branches.

This is the last one who took a long time to get up enough courage to leave the nest!

I know they are still out in the trees tonight, and I hope they will be safe and warm. I am glad we were able to give them a safe place to start their journey.

A Little Bit of Wildness

This morning was the first morning that was warm enough for us to sit on the porch and do lessons. I love sitting on the front porch, but it’s tricky doing our lessons out here because it’s hard to keep the boys focused. They are ready to jump out of their seats and go play in the yard, but frankly, since there are some days that I have a hard time getting them outside, I don’t mind. I guess you could also call doing lessons outside my strategy for getting them to play outside. But we still got a lot of work done, so I’m feeling pretty good about this morning.

I am in the process of reading this wonderful essay by Carol Black. (It’s so long, I haven’t finished it yet!) She talks about how kids in traditional schools are losing their wildness. (Really, you should go read it yourself. She explains this much better than I am.) I began thinking about this and wondering that even though my kids are not in traditional school, they probably don’t have that kind of wildness she refers to. In an attempt to balance that unavoidable necessity of being able to live within our society, I make my kids sit down every morning and do lessons. I make them clean up their dishes. I make them get up early and get to places on time. All these things temper that natural wildness.

I also let my boys spend time (because they so desire it) on screens. We don’t live on a big farm where my kids can wander aimless for hours, and though we do have a big yard, my kids can get bored outside after awhile. We garden, but we only grow a few vegetables successfully. There are days they want to go outside and play. There are days when they aren’t interested in going outside at all. Although the idea of living on some land and letting them wander for hours sounds ideal, it just isn’t happening. It’s not realistic for us.

But I agree with her. Humans lose something vital for our well-being when we’re stuck inside a building all day, and kids, especially, need to have more freedom to move around, explore, and develop an appreciation for nature. So many adults are stuck at a computer all day, they feel no connection to their inner wildness. I hope my children will grow up to feel a connection to nature.

This morning after lessons, my nine-year-old brought me this little hairstreak butterfly to show me, and it sat on his hand long enough for me to take its picture. While doing lessons, we noticed how the mama and papa bluebird would not feed their chicks in the birdhouse on our porch because we were too close to it, so we moved to the other end of the porch, and then the bluebirds got to work again. I also thought about how both my boys know the names of all the common birds we see in our yard, and yesterday evening my six-year-old came in from the backyard (where he was playing alone) to tell me he heard the baby chickadees in the birdhouse out there for the first time.  And finally, yesterday I noticed my boys stooped in the backyard observing something for a long time. Later, they told me they were watching some ants eat a worm — a very fascinating encounter for two little boys!

So perhaps we are striking the right balance between being a little bit wild and being a little bit not wild. Or, at least, we’re learning to appreciate the wild things and our place alongside of them as wild (yet just as predictable as the bluebirds) human beings.

***

And on the opposite kind of subject, my post Don’t Cut the Screen Time — Just Make Sure It Countsis up on the home/school/life blog today.

On Becoming a Birder

20160115_114140My six-year-old’s painting of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. My six-year-old loves birds, and because of that, it’s become an interest for the whole family. We watch them, identify them, draw them and paint them. It’s a great project!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 3, 2016.

I’ve always liked birds, but it wasn’t until my youngest son became enamored with them that I started to pay more attention to them. Children have a way of making the world new and exciting for you, and what’s more, they teach you how to relax, if you let them. Birding is not only infectious, it takes you away from all your troubles.

Now everyone in my house is a “birder,” and for me, I think this hobby will outlast my son’s interest in it. But you never know – he may never lose interest in the birds either. Birds are some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures to watch, and I’ve learned that we get quite a variety of birds in our wooded subdivision.

Some of the most familiar birds I already knew the names of – cardinals, bluebirds, blue jays, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens. Carolina wrens are small brown birds, but they aren’t like the sparrows you might find in the grocery store parking lot. They are a reddish brown, and whenever I hear birdsong in the morning, it’s usually a wren signaling to the other birds right outside my window.

When I hear the wren, I know it’s time to get the binoculars. On more than one occasion, if a wren is outside, other birds soon follow. Cardinals might appear in the tree, and as the male watches, the female will fly to the ground to forage on seeds in my flower garden. The tufted titmice might arrive to forage on the ground too.

These are birds that we see here year-round, but lately I’ve seen some winter visitors too. My whole family was thrilled to find a pair of golden-crowned kinglets in the yard one day because that’s one of my six-year-old’s favorite birds. He thinks it’s so cute that when we came across its picture in our bird app, he wanted to have a picture of it on his bedroom wall.

The male golden-crowned kinglet has a bright yellow and orange stripe on the top of its head. The female looks exactly the same except her stripe is yellow minus the orange. It’s a very small bird, almost as small as a chickadee, and it never stops moving, so it’s hard to spot without binoculars.

We also spotted what we think is a pine warbler. It doesn’t come through our yard often, but when it does, it gives us a welcome splash of color because its feathers are a beautiful greenish-yellow. The phoebe is much more plain with its brown and pale white feathers, but it’s still an elegant bird. It gets its name from the sound it makes: “FEE-bee!”

Very occasionally, we get to spy woodpeckers. We’ve seen downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, and once, long ago, a pileated woodpecker, which is very big and gorgeous. Most recently we’ve discovered that a yellow-bellied sapsucker has claimed one of the trees in our backyard as a regular feeding station.

Larger birds do travel through our area, but we rarely see them in our yard. Once when I woke up my eldest son in the morning, we looked out his window to see a red-tailed hawk sitting in a nearby tree! My husband has taken our dogs outside during the night and heard owls, and once he heard something large take off from the ground in our backyard, but it was too dark to see much.

There was one night my husband heard a pair of owls, and he quickly woke up my eldest son. They stood on the back deck for several minutes and listened as two great horned owls spoke to each other from either side of the woods.

We so easily forget that the wilderness is right in our backyard. We’re lucky to glimpse the flash of a wing or hear their elusive calls, but as my sons have taught me, if I take just a few minutes each day to pay attention, I am always delighted by what I find.

If you like watching birds, you might enjoy participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project which asks you to count the birds you see for just 15 minutes over the weekend of February 12-15th. (It starts today!)

Dauset Trails Nature Center

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on January 20, 2016.

If you feel like an adventure, consider a drive down to Jackson, Georgia to explore Dauset Trails Nature Center, a private, non-profit center whose mission is to provide environmental education, outdoor recreation and an understanding of early farm life. It has 1400 acres of woods, fields, creeks and lakes, and it includes live animal exihibits, gardens, hiking, biking and horseback trails. Admission is free.

We took a day over the holidays to go down and see this place that we had heard about at a local nature center event. It was well worth the effort because Dauset Trails is beautiful and peaceful, and it offers so much to see.

The animal trail reminded me a little of Bear Hollow Zoo in Athens, and my boys loved viewing the wild animals such as the bald eagle who cried out to us, owls, hawks, otters, a cougar, bear, coyotes, a bison and more. All of these animals are non-releasable, and they have been either injured or orphaned.

Dauset also has a barnyard exhibit with chickens, pigs, cows, goats, a mule and a donkey. We walked through a barn and could see the smoke house, country store, blacksmith shop and other buildings, which I believe are used for events. On the day we were there, we had the place almost to ourselves.

Below the visitor’s center is a kind of classroom/reptile house where we found live turtles, alligators and snakes. Right outside the nature center, you can sit on the porch and watch the songbirds coming and going from the feeders – we had never seen so many different birds all at once. We spied chickadees, titmice, cardinals, bluebirds and two or three woodpeckers!

Behind the visitor’s center is a small lake, and you can walk over the bridge and purchase a handful of food (bring some quarters) to feed the fish and ducks, though there were no ducks the day we were there.

After walking the animal trail, seeing the barnyard animals, and walking through some of the gardens, we were too tired to hit a hiking trail, so we hope to go back someday.

I was impressed to learn that Dauset Trails was the dream of Hampton Daughtry, a man who had played as a boy in the woods where we walked. When he grew up, he made his fortune in the textile industry, and when he returned to his home, he put much of his money into the community. He was a big supporter of the Boy Scouts and youth recreational programs.

He and his friend, David Settle, dreamed of providing a place where people could learn about and enjoy nature without disturbance. Much of the land in Dauset Trails belonged to them, and the name “Dauset” was created by combining parts of their names. Mr. Daughtry is buried on the property in the Memorial Garden.

There is no food available at the center, but there is a drink machine and picnic tables. Camping areas are available for organized groups only and require a reservation. Facility rentals are available for special events. It is open Monday-Saturday 9-5 and Sunday 12-5. (No admittance one hour before closing.) See dausettrails.com for more information.

 

Nature Watch: Southern Leopard Frog

Last May, we took a vacation to see Cloudland Canyon State Park, and while we were there, we hiked into the canyon to view two waterfalls. The first waterfall was Cherokee Falls, and it spilled into a beautiful, tranquil pool that was filled with boulders we could climb and sit on. We were delighted when we found, sitting on the rock, this beautiful Southern Leopard Frog. I was pretty impressed that my son was able to identify it right away too.

It jumped into the water when we got too close, but you can see the green stripe just below the eye.

Oh, and here’s Cherokee Falls too. It was a cool nature find too.😉