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.

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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!)

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.😉

Getting Out Into Nature

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 25, 2015.

When that non-stop rain we had finally ceased, we high-tailed it to the nearest park. That, of course, was Barrow County’s treasure: Ft. Yargo State Park. We had wanted to go there frequently during the fall, but that rain was keeping us at home, and we were all getting a bit stir crazy.

Due to our work and homeschool schedule, we don’t have a lot of time to get out into nature, but we’ve always made a point in exploring the various parks within driving distance whenever we can. It’s good for the boys, and it’s good for us. I can’t count the times my husband has thanked me after coaxing him away from his desk for a walk in the woods. It’s rejuvenating.

My father used to get his family into the outdoors frequently, and I guess I’m following his example. I have always enjoyed being outside, but I’m not sure I really noticed the plants and animals we share this earth with until I had children. No one can teach an adult how to discover the world better than a child.

There is rarely an insect, arachnid or small mammal that goes unnoticed when we’re walking in the woods with our children. The noise we make scares most wildlife away, but when we went to Ft. Yargo last week, we had a special encounter, especially for my bird-loving six-year-old.

My six-year-old often starts our leisurely hikes in protest. “Ugh!” He pouts. “All we do is walk!” If left to his own devices, my six-year-old would stay on our living room floor playing with his dinosaurs and animals and waging wars between them. Either that, or he would play Minecraft on his tablet most of the day. Unlike his older brother, who has always been my nature boy, the six-year-old needs convincing that hiking is a good thing.

Luckily, on that day, my nine-year-old spied a mallard duck, and soon after, we realized there were two more – two males and a small third duck that was either a female or juvenile. Suddenly my six-year-old was all into hiking. He loves birds, and ducks are his favorite. He has wanted to see a wild mallard, especially after watching documentaries about ducks and studying their photos in our bird app. He knew that they migrate to Georgia in the winter, but he had not encountered one before.

On our hike at Ft. Yargo, we had the pleasure of telling him that you have to get out into nature frequently, if you are going to see anything. And you have to go walking around and exploring. Otherwise, you definitely won’t see anything. I hope he got the message!

As long as we stayed in their territory along the lake, the mallard ducks followed us along the shore, and when we walked across the bridge, they followed us to the other side. We didn’t have any food to give them, but that didn’t deter them. They seemed just as interested in us as my boys were in them.

They are beautiful ducks, and it was a pleasure taking the time to watch them gracefully swim through the water and preen their feathers and cluck softly to one another. As they moved about, I could see the striking blue feathers that are hidden under their wings. The male’s green head glinted in the sunlight. I’m grateful that my children have taught me to look deeply at things that I would otherwise take for granted.

My six-year-old’s next mission is to try to see a male wood duck in the wild. If you’ve never seen a wood duck, you should look up a photo online. The males have beautiful plumage. That’s his favorite duck, and it too lives in Georgia (and it’s a favorite of duck hunters), but we’re not sure where we should go to try to see one. If anyone might know the answer to that, please send me an e-mail.

Nature Watch: Thrust Fault

I’ve been really excited to share this photo with you. It may not look like much at first, but it’s actually an image of a thrust fault. If you look in the middle, near the top of this cliff, you’ll see how the rock on the right kind of looks like a wave, and it’s pushing up over the rock on the left. That’s the fault!

When we went to Cloudland Canyon State Park, we took along Roadside Geology of Georgia by Pamela J. W. Gore and William Witherspoon. Cloudland is a haven for geology enthusiasts, and I’m going to do a separate post with all my “rock” photos taken in Cloudland.

This photo was not taken in the park. This thrust fault is located along I-59 near Rising Fawn, Georgia, and yes, we stopped our car on the highway, and I got out to take it. The reason we did that is because there’s a picture in the book of this same fault, and we thought it would be really cool to find it. Since it took some effort to find it, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to take a photograph!

There are different kinds of faults, depending on which way the earth moves and the angle of the fault. Click here for a definition of a thrust fault and a flash animation of how the earth moves for a thrust fault.

I wish I could explain more about the geology of this region, but I’m not a geologist, and I’m just barely beginning to grasp this wonderful subject myself. I highly recommend the Roadside series. There is one for almost every state!