The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

One of many highlights of our recent trip was being able to visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you’ll know I’ve written several times about my younger son’s love of birds. He’s nine-years-old now, and he’s been talking about birds since he was about four. I am pleasantly surprised that his interest has not faded, though he definitely has his own way of navigating this project. We haven’t done a lot  of in depth study about birds. Instead, we’ve drawn them, watched them, identified dozens of them, collected toy birds, made toy birds, and only occasionally read books about them. Though I encourage it and offer whatever I can to foster his love of birds, I haven’t pushed all the ideas I would like to see done. This has been a good decision. It’s truly a child-led project.

We’ve known about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for awhile now, and I have been wanting to visit it, but I never thought we would be able to see it so soon. Then my eldest son’s interest in music took us to Cleveland, and well, though that’s not extremely close to Ithaca, it was close enough for us. We had to go!

We loved Ithaca, and we loved the Lab. We went twice. On the first visit, we walked the trails in Sapsucker Woods for about an hour, and then we took the behind-the-scenes tour of the lab. The next day, we went back and took a longer walk through the beautiful Sapsucker Woods.

View of the lab from across the pond.

It’s a beautiful building. About 250~300 faculty, students and staff work there. We were told it is mostly member-supported, and Cornell University contributes only a tiny percentage of its budget. It has the beautiful Wall of Birds (click on that link and you won’t be sorry), the Macaulay Library, which you can contribute to, and the Lab also houses Cornell University’s Museum of Vertebrates, so bird specimens aren’t the only resource available to students and researchers.

Here is the Lab’s mission statement:

Our mission is to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.

If you are at all interested in birds, then you have probably already been to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. You have probably used the section All About Birdswhich can help you identify the birds you see outside your window. Or you have contributed your sightings to to eBird or another one of their popular citizen science projects.

Their website has much more on it, and if you are a bird lover or you have a child who is, then there’s a lot of educational materials that you can use. I can’t wait until my son gets a little older. I think he’ll really enjoy the Bird Academy. There are also activities and planned lessons for teachers or homeschooling co-op parents in their K-12 Education section. There’s even more than that, but I’ll stop there and let you explore their website yourself. You can also read about the history of the Lab on Wikipedia.

Sapsucker Woods is a special place, and we knew it before we even stepped on a trail. I’ll show you our walks through my photos.

I know Canada Geese are everywhere up north, but we don’t see them too often in Georgia, so we still enjoy encountering them.
Right at the start of the trail, we saw a pileated woodpecker. We see these occasionally in our yard, but it’s always a big deal when they arrive because they don’t come often. We stood there watching this one for quite awhile.
Mama wood duck and her ducklings.

fleabane

Fawn. Mama was there too.
Song sparrow
Haven’t identified this fella yet. Anybody know?

Baby raccoon. There were two siblings and a mom in the tree too.
Georgia Blue Jays have never posed for me like this one did. 😉
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods is a special place, and I highly recommend that you visit, if you can.

Have you ever been to the Cornell Lab? Please tell me about your visit.

Raising Giant Swallowtail Butterflies

After finding some black swallowtail caterpillars in our garden earlier this summer, we were very surprised to find giant swallowtail caterpillars too. We were even more surprised because these caterpillars looked like bird poop!

That is how my son identified them. He typed “caterpillars that look like bird poop” into a Google search engine, and giant swallowtails were the first result!

We were thrilled to find them because we don’t see giant swallowtails very often. We have seen them in our yard, but I can count on one hand the times I’ve spotted one. They are the largest butterfly in the U.S. and Canada, and they can have a wingspan of six inches. Ours weren’t quite that big, but they were almost five inches.

It turns out that one of the host plants for giant swallowtails is citrus, and if you remember, my son had planted a lemon seed a few years ago, and it grew into a small tree. We don’t live in the right climate for citrus, however, so it died during the winter. I cut off all the limbs, and I was going to throw it out, but in the spring, I started to see little green shoots come up again. So I left it. By the time the giant swallowtail came to lay her eggs, it was the size of a small bush. Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever have lemons, we don’t mind sharing our tree with caterpillars.

Eventually, we put some of the caterpillars into our butterfly cage, and we had the pleasure of observing these incredibly beautiful and well-camouflaged chrysalises.

They stayed in their chrysalis form for a good 15 days — that’s the longest we’ve ever observed a butterfly in a chrysalis. When they eclosed, they revealed their gorgeous adult attire, which was a far cry from the caterpillar-poop attire. 😉

We’re looking forward to other wonders we may find in our yard!

It’s Still Birds

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, you may remember that my eight-year-old has loved birds since he was about four-years-old. Well, we all love birds, but he’s the one that has inspired us to pay more attention to them, and birdwatching has turned into a family project.

If you’d like to see some projects he has done in the past regarding birds, you can read this and this. If you’d like to see a list of some of his favorite storybooks about birds, click here.

I have done various things to encourage his interest. Mostly, since I love birds too, I pay attention to them, and this keeps my son paying attention to them. We used to sketch birds a lot, but he’s lost interest in drawing this past year (sigh). I ask him periodically if there’s something he’d like to do regarding birds, but for the past couple of years, he’s mostly wanted to read a page or two in a bird guide during his lessons.

There are things I’m tempted to do to make a big project out of this, but I’ve realized it’s best to let his interest unfold on its own, especially since my son can be quite stubborn and balk at any of my suggestions. And I know other projects will happen as he gets older and capable of doing more complicated things.

However, recently he asked me to read some other bird books to him — books that are a little more complicated than the descriptive entries of field guides. They explain bird anatomy, how they fly, and their behaviors and habits. I’m very excited about this because I’ve been wanting to read these books to him for so long! But it took him to decide when we should read them. Whenever I suggested them in the past, he wasn’t interested. I think perhaps he wasn’t old enough to understand them.

If you are trying to encourage a budding interest in your child, I suggest you let your child take the lead. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t buy those books or do some research on what your child could do. My husband and I both keep in mind ideas to keep our bird-loving boy happy, and we’re looking into a few things we might be able to do as a family in the future.

***

Okay, this is a terrible, horrible, no good photo that I took with my phone, but can you see it? There’s the male wood duck in our tree!

One of our “bird highlights” of the year was when the eight-year-old and I were doing lessons one afternoon at his desk, which is positioned in front of a window overlooking our front yard. I was looking out the window when suddenly two ducks flew into the trees! And they weren’t just any ducks — they were a male and female wood duck. My eight-year-old has been wanting to see wood ducks in the wild for a long time! So we were shocked and delighted. We’ve never seen ducks in our yard before and don’t live near a large water source.

Since my photo is terrible, here’s a link to a good photo of a male wood duck, and if you don’t know what they look like, be sure to click here. The male is gorgeous when he’s in his breeding plumage.

I called my eldest son and husband, and we all stood and watched the wood ducks while they stayed in our trees, checking out a cavity for a possible nest site. They stayed at least thirty minutes before the squirrels who were living in that tree cavity ran them off. It was an experience we will never forget!

What long-term interests have your kids had?

Nature Watch: Ft. Yargo State Park

Today is Friday, and we all needed a break, so we decided to take a little hike at our nearby state park, Ft. Yargo. It’s only about 15 minutes from our house, and every time we go, we say, “We should come here more often.” But we don’t go nearly enough.

Ft. Yargo State Park is about 1,800 acres, and it has a 260 acre lake. It’s quite a treasure. In the past we’ve explored different areas of the park, but today we took our favorite trail. My photos aren’t the best because I just had my phone camera with me, but I still wanted to share what we found with you.

We expected there might be a lot of debris on the trail left over from Tropical Storm Irma, which just passed through here on Monday. We were right. Above you can see some trees that fell, but someone already cleared them from the trail. Everywhere there were small branches and green leaves. It was a little hard to walk in some places. 

But we considered it an adventure, and we made a lot of nature discoveries along the trail, including these beautiful flower/berry things. I need to figure out what they are!

Our best encounter was with this handsome Eastern Kingsnake, which we rarely see. Its head was hidden under the fallen debris. They are not as common, but they are great snakes to have around. They eat rats, mice and venomous snakes! I think they are quite pretty with the yellow rings around their body too.

Spiders were everywhere! My husband walked in front swinging a stick because numerous spider webs crossed the trail. It’s not a great photo, but this yellow and orange spider was the prettiest we found. I need to identify it too.

Many flowers are blooming right now. It’s a great time to watch for butterflies, and we saw a few fritillaries.

This hornet’s nest was a cool find, but we didn’t want to stick around long to watch it. (And I wasn’t standing this close. I used my zoom.)

We are always happy to encounter frogs, so this little fowler’s toad was a welcome sight too.

We all had a great time, except for the eight-year-old who complained about being tired and bored, except when we saw the snake. (You can’t have it all, can you?) He’s not the nature boy that his older brother is, but we’re not giving up on him yet. He did enjoy it a little bit, and he liked going out to eat afterward and not doing his lessons today. Although, I consider time spent in nature one of the best lessons of all. 😉

What has your Friday been like?

Nature Watch: Horned Lizard

Look closely. Do you see it? It has great camouflage.

When we were in New Mexico, we stopped along the road to enjoy the view and take photos. If I hadn’t of almost stepped on this little guy, I would have never seen him. My boys knew exactly what it was and told me it was a “horny toad.” After searching on the Internet, I’ve learned that they can be called that or “horned toads,” or more accurately, “horned lizard.” There are 14 species of horned lizards. I’m not sure what species this is, but he sure was a cute little guy, and I’m so glad we had the privilege of seeing him.

We saw many wild animals on our trip west that we can’t find in Georgia, which was a thrill. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos of any other animals, so I’ll just share the “nature discoveries” list we made on that trip. I keep a small journal listing all our wildlife finds. At least one of us has to see an animal to make it into the journal.

Birds: great-tailed grackles, ravens, magpies, cliff swallows, and a hovering kestrel (we think it was a kestrel)

Mammals: pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, prairie dogs

Reptiles: horned lizard, whiptail lizard

What have been your latest nature discoveries?

Nature Watch: Oakworm Moth

One morning I went out to water our garden, and I found this beauty on the green bean leaves. Curiously, I had also seen this moth on our porch one evening, but the colors were much more muted. I don’t know if this is a slightly different species or the sunlight was making it shine, but I couldn’t get over the colors in it. And it wasn’t until I viewed my photos later that I noticed the wings are translucent!

This is an oakworm moth, and I think it’s the pink-striped oakworm moth, but it’s very hard to tell it apart from the orange-tipped oakworm moth, so I’m not sure. (If you know, please tell me.)

My son became fascinated with moths a while back, and while it’s not what I’d call an active project (that is, he’s not researching information about them or creating any representations anymore), we still get quite excited when we find a moth we’ve never seen before in the yard. We have been lucky enough to find the Polyphemus Moth, Luna Moth, and the Tulip-tree Silkmoth, and I think we’ve seen the Imperial Moth too, but I don’t have a photo of one. We still haven’t seen a Cecropia Moth in the wild, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed!

As a little bonus, I want to share this photograph I took on one of my summer morning walks. It was a wet and foggy morning because it had stormed the previous day, and the dew made hundreds, maybe thousands, of spider webs visible in the trees. I marveled at how many there were, and luckily I had my phone with me, so I took a photo of this one, which hung on a branch by the road. Spider webs are amazing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed making some nature discoveries lately too, and I hope you’re staying cool throughout this brutal summer!

 

Nature Watch: Canada Geese

One other Nature Watch from our day at Smithgall Woods State Park.

They wouldn’t let us get too close, but you can imagine our delight when we happened upon these beautiful Canada Geese swimming in a boggy area at the park.

As you may know if you read my blog, my six-year-old loves birds, but he doesn’t always like to go hiking or even outdoors. (Sigh.) It’s at these rare sightings that I get to tell him, “See?! You never would have seen those Canada geese, if we hadn’t gone hiking and exploring!” 😉

What happy nature discovery have you made recently?

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!

Nature Watch: Cope’s Tree Frog

You’ll never guess where we found this beautiful little frog!

It was in our upstairs bathroom! We have no idea how it got there. This is actually the second time we’ve found a frog inside our house. Both times, we thought perhaps our dog had brought it in and dropped it, but now I’m wondering if somehow they came up through the toilets. That’s the only pipe large enough for them to fit through, and somewhere I heard that can happen. But who knows?

He appeared quite healthy and undamaged but also a little bewildered. We caught him, put him in a little bowl with some water to hydrate him and then released him immediately in our front yard.

I was able to identify this little guy as a Cope’s Tree Frog. The inner thigh is bright yellow or orange, and if you look closely at my photo, you can see a spot of yellow under his hind leg. This frog is small and still growing. Hopefully he found his way up to the top of a tree where they like to live.

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.