Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Treasure Hunt! What's Out There?

( A great tree treasure ) 
First, sorry to be gone for so long. The good thing is that I have been outside and traveling. I got to be in Maine for a week running a ropes course training for summer camp staff. The camp is in Denmark Maine, and a wonderful place. Here is the view of Moose Lake which is a home to many Loons! Yeah it was tough.
Anyway, before I went out there, I was up in the city with my some friends of ours and we were walking in a park in the Berkeley hills with their kids. Before we headed out I was talking to Lucy, the oldest at almost 4, and asked her what we should look for on our hike. She responded, "treasures"! I was going to suggest that we should on a scavenger hunt. Lucy's response of treasures, got me thinking why go on a scavenger hunt, when you can go on a Treasure Hunt. Treasure hunting sounds much more fun then scavenging. We ended up collecting acorns and rocks. It was a good day. 
So, let's go on a Treasure Hunt. If you want another hunt to go on, check out this previous postingThis hunt is a little more of a challenge perhaps then the previous one, but have a blast exploring!
-- Find a plant shading a second plant while being shaded by a third plant.
            How did so many plants get into such small area?
-- Find objects that are the following shapes: square, circle, triangle, heart, etc. What is the    oddest shape you can find?
-- Find something that is turning into soil. Find as many animals and plants that are helping.
-- Find two plants growing on another plant, and two plants growing on a non-living thing.
            How do they hang on?
-- Find five different shades of brown.
-- Find three trees with evidence of animals.  What have the animals been doing?
            How do you know?
-- Find a tree the same height as you.
-- Find a leaf the same size as your hand. 
-- Find a tree too big for you to reach around.

Of course you can add as many other things to find! Keep exploring! A fun challenge could be to see how many of these things you can find within 100' or so of your house. And how many items on your list did you have to go somewhere else to find?

Website to explore: Wildlife Observations is a web site dedicated to sharing your nature observations with others around the country. It is easy to join and fun to explore. 

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Linking Trail

(A trail in the redwoods)
A little backstory on this posting. This weekend I was standing on my porch and looking down at the ground cover just below the deck and I noticed that there were strawberries growing down there. Now, I have never planted strawberries down there and they were not there last spring. Now I do have a small planter on the deck that does have strawberries in it. The strawberries on the ground are growing in a semi-circle just below the strawberries on the deck. I began thinking about how they got there. I know I did not drop strawberries down there, but something did. As I began thinking about the birds and animals I have seen on the deck recently, I began thinking about an activity I had done several years ago. It is called linking.
This activity can be done with kids at any age and you can start anywhere. Simply find something that attracts your children's attention. It could be a rock, a plant, an animal, a flower, etc. Then sit there for a second and look for something that is "linked" to the first thing you were looking at. Then, look for a link to that second thing, and then continue linking one thing to another. Do not be too attached to where you are heading, simply allow the links to show themselves. 
If you want to be more intentional in this activity, pick an object and then look for things that could or should be linked ecologically or logically. For example, if you are standing in the shade of a tree looking at the grass or clover that is growing there, you might look for signs of rabbits or squirrels that might be eating the grass or clover there. Then, follow the small trail you might see that goes into the small bushes nearby. Chances are is that small consumers that might eat the clover will approach from the closest area of cover, so by looking there, you will find a link. Then peer inside and see if you can find the trails those animals might use. Also look at the ground under the clover/ grass and see if there are consumer trails there such as those of voles or even insect trails that are under the cover of the grass. You are finding links that are ecologically and logically connected to the grass or clover. 
You could also begin with the Sun and then follow it anywhere! Or start with a producer and follow it through the food chain to a decomposer. Look nearby a tree and see what is going on below the tree with new growth, decomposition, predators and prey living under there. Pick a starting point and follow the linked trial! Enjoy the exploration! 

Websites to checkout: A site for a new short movie about getting kids reconnected with nature! 

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One of the trees seen in Jurassic Park!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Bears oh my!

( One of Nature's ways of saying "Do not touch"!)

In a previous post on the Three Sisters of Itch, I mentioned that Jon Young strongly suggests becoming knowledgeable about the plants and animals in your area that pose a hazard to you. It is a wonderful suggestion for at least two reasons; first, it is good to know what can hurt you, and second there are fewer things out there that are hazardous then are benign or helpful. So in this posting we are going to explore a little about some of the things in our environments that we should be aware of while exploring what is out there. This is by no means an exhaustive list, it is a primer of some of the more common, and potentially harmful plants and animals that you might encounter outside.
Let's start with the animals. A general concept is that most of the animals you see in the wild are just that, wild. Just because they are cute, does not mean that they star in a Walt Disney movie. Megafauna like Deer, Coyote, Elk, Moose, Bison, Raccoons, Porcupines, Bears, Armadillos, Horses, Cattle, and Mountain Lions, to name a few, should be treated with great respect and caution. They are wonderful animals that should be viewed from a distance and not annoyed. Ever year people are mauled or killed by some of these animals because the people wanted to get close to animals that are wild. As a result, most of the "offending" animals are killed by authorities for the actions of the people injured.  
First a bit on terminology. Animals-snakes, spiders, and many insects have venom, and are venomous. Plants can be poisonous. Now onto some of the wee-beasties that might cause you some harm. But first a quick side note, Shorttail and Common Shrews like the unknown number of insectivorous mammals are venomous. It is in their saliva, but the concentration is not strong enough to be a concern for humans. and Armadillos have been known to carry leprosy on their skin. So, do not pet the Armadillos!
The Reticulate and Banded Gila Monsters. These lizards, along with the Mexican Beaded Lizard, are the only venomous lizards in the world. The venom from these lizards is very potent. There are very few recorded attacks by these lizards in the wild. The recorded ones are from lizards kept in captivity, and up to 25% of those bites have been fatal. There is no commercial antivenin available.
I found 26 species of Rattlesnakes in doing research for this posting! While all the species are venomous, many will not cause death in humans. The bites will really hurt and medical attention should be sought. The Eastern Diamondback is considered to be the most dangerous rattlesnake in North America and considered potentially lethal. Rattlesnakes do NOT always rattle before they strike. Learn if they are in your area, and learn about their habits. 

There are three species of Cottonmouths, or water moccasins, in America. They are the Eastern, Florida, and Western Cottonmouths. The venom of the cottonmouths is very destructive and has caused limbs to be amputated. A good general rule is to avoid all unknown water snakes within the geographic ranges of the Cottonmouths. Seek medical attention if you are bitten by a Cottonmouth.

I found 5 species of Copperheads that you might encounter and they are the Southern, Northern, Osage, Broad-Banded, and Trans-Pecos Copperheads. There are no reported deaths of healthy adults from Copperhead bites. Young children, adults with weak hearts, and the elderly have been killed by Copperhead bites, but these are rare. The bites are painful, and Copperheads can be aggressive. You should seek medical attention if bitten by a Copperhead.  

There are 4 species of Coral Snakes in America. The Eastern, South Florida, Texas, and Arizona Coral Snake. They are venomous, and medical attention should be sought if bitten. Having said that, the only recorded Coral Snake bites have come from people handling the snakes. The Scarlet Kingsnake, and other sub-species of Milk Snake, can be confused with Coral Snakes because of the similar colors. The phrase "Red on yellow kills a fellow. Red on black, venom lack" is a way to remember to help determine if the snake you are looking at is a Coral Snake or a Milk (King) Snake.   

Virtually all spiders have venom. That is how they kill their prey. But the Black Widow is the most venomous spider in the world, and we have it here in North America. They tend to live in dark areas and under debris. If you are bitten by one seek medical attention as there is an antivenin.  

The Brown Recluse spider is a wide spread spider which can be found in houses. The bites are rarely fatal. The bites are painful and can develop into a large, deep area of dead skin cell tissue. The wound may take months to heal and can leave a scar.

There are about 1500 known Scorpion species in the world, with only 25 having lethal venom. Here in the states we have about 70 species of Scorpions. The Sculptured Scorpion of Arizona is one of the Scorpions that does have potentially lethal venom. So seek medical attention if you are bitten by a Sculpted Scorpion.

Many insects like the Saddleback and Io Moth Caterpillars have a mild venom in the hairs on their bodies which produces an irritation or itchy area if you contact them. Similarly, bees, wasps, and hornets have venom but are usually non-fatal unless the person being stung is allergic to "bee" stings. It can be a life threatening situation for someone who is allergic. 

There are many plants out there that will cause you stomach ailments if you eat parts of them. Many are benign, many have medicinal properties. All grasses are edible. They may not taste great but they are edible. Here are some common plants that can cause some harm, or death to humans. Plants can be tricky. Some poisonous species look very similar to species that are really tasty. So, exert caution if you get into using wild edible plants.  

Pokeweed is a tall , stout, large rooted perennial which has gorgeous purple-black berries that are inedible. While children have died from eating the berries, it is actual the roots that are the most poisonous. 

"I drank what?", are the last words Socrates is reported to have uttered after being poisoned by drinking hemlock according to Plato. Both Poison and Water Hemlock are poisonous, especially the roots and seeds. Poison Hemlock root can resemble wild carrots and Water Hemlock can resemble wild parsnip. In both cases one bite of the roots can kill an adult. If you have these it in your area, learn what it looks like. It is actually rather pretty and delicate. The Hemlock plants are very different from the Hemlock Tree whose needles can be brewed into a vitamin C rich tea.
Stinging Nettle has turned many a romp through the woods and fields into a painful and itchy experience. Stinging Nettle often grows in disturbed soils and moist thickets. The stinging usually last about an hour, but can last for days, and is not deadly. Nettle tea is actual very nice to drink and the fresh leaves can be collected and steamed like spinach. The cooking makes the chemical mixture that causes the itching to become inert. It is very tasty.

Make sure you can identify the Three Sisters of Itch in your area! Poison Sumac, Ivy, and Oak can cause a great deal of misery for folks who react to the oils on these plants. Also never burn any of the three sisters as the burning releases the oils into the smoke and then you can inhale the oils into your airway and lungs.  

Mushrooms are a whole other deal. Many mushrooms are wonderful to eat. Others will kill you with one bite. Collecting mushrooms is a huge cultural tradition around the world. Here in California the arrival of the winter rains means that the woods will soon be full of dedicated mushroom hunters looking for a variety of edible fungi. And every year there are deaths around the country from people eating misidentified mushrooms. The Death Cap (Cup) Amanita phalloides is responsible for the majority of deaths from eating mushrooms in the United States and is often called the deadliest mushroom in the world. The Death Cup is a rather attractive white mushroom that looks very innocent. Eating one however can kill you in a few days. It does this by shutting down your kidneys in 2-3 days. So, when it comes to eating mushrooms, you NEED to be 1000% sure of what you are going to put into your mouth. I suggest stick to cultivated mushrooms unless you really dedicate some time into learning about mushroom identification. 

So, that is it for a crash course on some of the things out there that can cause us harm, pain, or even death. I write this posting not to discourage you from your continued exploration and enjoyment of the natural world, but rather to inform you about what is out there. By learning about the things out there that can cause us harm, you are giving yourself and your children knowledge. With this knowledge, you can explore the natural world and keep yourself safe at the same time. The knowledge will also help dispel fear about the "unknown" things out there. It is a great way to help fight Nature Deficit Disorder. Have a blast learning more about our amazing world out there!

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Like to move it move it!

( Many animals touch the ground daily)

I was watching the Discovery Channel series LIFE last weekend and I was totally enthralled with watching how primates move! I always enjoy watching animals move in their natural habitat regardless if it is in person or in a video, especially primates and large cats! Every species has their own method of moving that suits them best for where they live. So for this posting we are going to explore moving like animals. So put on your comfy clothes and shoes, do some stretching, and head outside!

You can approach this topic in a couple of ways: inside or outside. If you are inside and you have access to videos of animals moving, you can all sit down and try moving like various animals. Now of course you do not need videos. You could simply pick various animals and try to move like them. I would recommend trying to move like walking animals and not animals charging around at full speed indoors!   

Doing this activity outdoors allows you to negotiate uneven ground, and allows you to incorporate aspects of the natural world like trees, water, high grass, sand, etc. Try and explore a wide range of animals: birds, snakes, mammals, and reptiles. By having kids try and imitate animals they can begin to develop a greater understanding and perhaps empathy for the animals they mimic. In later posts we will explore several games that allow you to "become" various animals or explore animal adaptations. 

I would encourage you to visit a local park or zoo to see how a variety of animals move, and see if you can mimic their movements. Here is another link that provides you with a whole bunch of animal tracks you can use to work on animal behavior and movement. I would also encourage you to make the noises of the animals you are mimicking, it adds a little spice, and might make people around you giggle!

That's it for today! Short and sweet. I hope you had a good Earth day today. And remember, that if we can make everyday Earth day, we can ensure that our great grandchildren have a better world then we have! Have fun moving around! 

Friday, April 9, 2010

Let's go Clubbing!

(A redwood that has had a few issues)

So spring is in full approach in many parts of the country with spring rain, snow, pollen, and warmer temps. It is also a great time to get outside and explore! It's really always a good time to get outdoors! And while you are outside try some Clubbing! Yes, it is time to go Clubbing! No not dancing, but Nature Clubbing! Nature Clubbing is about going out with people and seeing how many clubs you can join. The outdoor education program I work with has a whole bunch of clubs the kids can join during the week. 

As the kids go through the week, they can join the clubs they want to, and even create new clubs. The kids love seeing how many clubs they can join and then asking their friends in other groups how many they have joined. Some of the clubs are easier to join than others. For example, to join the "Dirty Butt Club" all you have to do is sit on the ground. Now for some folks that can be a challenge, but overall pretty easy. The "Duff Shower Club", which involves letting someone hold a big handful of forest duff over your head and let it go giving the person a "shower", can be more of a challenge for people. 
As you get outside this spring, and really anytime, see how many clubs you can join. By looking for clubs to join, you will also find yourselves exploring new areas and hopefully having some fun! So here are some Nature Clubs you and your kids can join in your area:

- The Mud Club: Get some mud on your face.
- The Scat Club: Find as many different scat samples as you can.
- The Phenology Club: See if you can find two plants that are the same that are in different stages of  spring growth.
- The FBI Club: Find and keep track of as many Fungi, Bacteria, and Invertebrates as possible.
- Belly Up Club: Find a tree and hug it and look up for a cool view.
- Burnt Out Club: See if you can find charcoal left from a natural fire.
- Tracking Club: See if you can find 6 different animal tracks.
- Bush Head: Carefully stick your head into a bush and see what is in there.
- Wet Head Club: Find a clean body of water and dunk your head. The colder the better.
-  Dirty Feet Club: Find a nice area and spend some time walking barefoot outside.
- What Good Are Bugs Club: Try and find some bugs doing their work.
- The Hard Core Club: If you have an apple snack, eat the whole apple except the stem and seeds. 
- Funky Tree Club: See if you can find trees, like the one above, that have something unique about them.

You get the point. Have fun exploring and racking up your club memberships. I also encourage you to create your own clubs either before you head out, or on the spot. Also share your club list with other folks and see how many clubs you as a group can join! Have fun out there!

Nature Nugget:
Last week I was watching the Discovery show LIFE and they had an incredibly cool animal. Actually the whole show was cool. The animal they showed is a Pipa Pipa. A toad from Surinam. When the Pipa Pipa mate the eggs are brought to the back of the female by the male and then the female grows a layer of skin over the eggs to protect them! The eggs actually develop into full baby toads under the skin then they emerge. Check out some more info on these cool toads.



Sunday, March 21, 2010

A different perspective.

(A new way to view a flower)

I have been thinking about perspective lately for two reasons. The first is that I got to spend 5 days helping to rebuild some ropes course elements about 2 weeks ago. It was a great time with most of my days being spent 30-60' in the air working in Douglas Fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii). And the second is that I am still watching the remains of the mountain lion kill near where I live. Very different perspectives. 
So talking about perspectives, being in the trees for 5 days was a cool experience and something I have not gotten to do since July of last year. Being 5 stories up in the air does give you a very different perspective to be sure. But the event that had an impact on me was one afternoon I was sitting in a tree about 60' up waiting for a cable to get cut on the ground. As I sat/hung there I started hearing bird calls all around me. A slight chirping chorus all around me. I saw one of the little birds land nearby me. At first I though it was a chickadee. It looked like it had a black cap, and black and white colors on it's body. Then the little one flew into the sunlight and it turned yellow! The shade had dulled out it's yellow color and once it was in the sunlight, it's full color came out! It was a very cool optical trick on my eyes. Talk about a change in perspective! I am not sure about the species, I am still looking in some bird books, but I think based on my look at it for a brief few seconds at about 25' away, that it was a Townsend's Warbler. So for this posting, I am going to send you on a "photo" journey to look for different perspectives.

You will need at least 2 people for this activity. One person is going to be a "camera" and the other is the photographer. This activity is called Camera and is one of my favorite classic outdoor education activities from the New Games Foundation and Joseph Cornell. This activity is a great game to play when you are on a walk or simply in your back yard. It is also a great game to play in and around your anchor spot. 

The photographer guides their “camera” around in search of specific things to photograph. The person being the camera keeps their eyes closed most of the time until the photographer “takes” a picture. When the photographer finds their subject, they position the camera’s lens (eyes) at the object. Then the photographer taps a shoulder of the camera to open the shutter (eyes) and then taps the shoulder again to close the shutter. It might help for the photographer to say “open” and “close” when taking the pictures. Then the pair moves to the next subject. It is important that the camera keeps their eyes closed between pictures so that the 2-5 second “exposures” will have more impact and be a surprise for the camera. Sometimes it is neat to keep talking to a minimum until you both have had a turn and let the "pictures" speak for themselves.

The traditional way of doing this activity is for the pairs to take photos of whatever catches the eyes of the photographer. This is a wonderful way of doing this activity, and you can also try and look for specific things to photograph. Here are some examples you might try: 
Parts of trees, specific trees, the 6 plant parts, rocks, producers, consumers, decomposers, portions of the water cycle, proof of decomposition, tracks.

You can also practice taking close up shots and also big vista shots. It can really create a neat feeling to go back and forth between the two. Or do a series of mirco-close up shots, and then a whole series of marco-wide angle shots. Another great thing to do is to bring a real camera with you and take shots of the pictures you take. Have a blast exploring with your new camera! I also encourage you to seek out natural things to photograph in your house.

Nature Nugget:
(Photos by Liesl Pimentel)

So, to touch base a little with the other event that caught my attention around perspective, lets talk about mountain lions, pumas, rock cats, and cougars! Yeah they are all the same animal. I will preface this section by saying that the puma is perhaps my favorite mega-fauna of all time! I have always loved big cats, and since the mountian lion is the only really big cat  here in North America, I fell in love with it early in life. 

Anyhow, here is some general info about these amazing animals:
Males- 1020-1540mm or 3'3"-5' without the tail up to 6'+ with the tail.   
Females-  860-1310mm or 2'8"-4'3"without the tail and up to 6' with the tail.

Males- 36-120kg or 80-265 pounds.
Females- 29-64kg or 64-140 pounds.

Their weight and length depend a good deal on their habitat and available food supply. The recent sightings in my area place the lion at about 140-150 pounds, most likely a male. They tend to eat ungulates but will go for smaller animals like rabbits, raccoons, etc.

The adults are solitary animals except for the brief period of mating period in December through March in the northern latitudes. A female will have on average 3-4 cubs which are born blind and will stay with their mother for an average of 15 months before separating and finding their own home territory. A home territory ranges in size from and average for females of about 60 square miles and about 100 square miles for males.

There is great concern among many people about being attacked by a mountain lion. The odds are pretty good in your favor. In 13 years-from 1991-2003- there were 73 attacks in the U.S. and Canada with 10 of those resulting in death. 7 of those attacks were in California and 2 of the deaths. Having said that, one piece of advice I can give folks in general about going outdoors, learn about the things that will hurt or kill you. There are fewer of them, it gives you knowledge about where you are going, and it will help keep you safe. A site that has good info on pumas and details recorded attacks and deaths.

 And now you know!

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Clues left on the ground.

(A coyote track in mud)
I live in a fairly wild part of the bay area. There are bobcats, coyotes, various raptors, and mountain lions sharing the land where I live. Yes, mountain lions. This point has been brought up recently with three staff seeing mountain lions in the past two weeks. About a week and a half ago two of the naturalists had fairly close encounters with a puma. They had found a very fresh deer kill on property. And by fresh I mean within 5-6 hours. 1 of the staff was walking by and saw the lion sitting with its kill and it stared him down. Another naturalist saw the animal loping away. They estimate that the animal was between 130-150 pounds. My partner Jen saw a cat run across the road on the way home from a meeting late one afternoon. I have not seen one yet. 

Anyway, once I heard that a mountain lion was around, and that there was a kill site nearby, I needed to go explore. I have not been able to see a kill that new before, and the thought of finding more tracks was exciting. About a week earlier a naturalist had found three really nice prints when she was out with her field group. I spent about 30 minutes making notes and measurements of the track and imagining what the animal looked like as it moved up the hill.

The kill site was pretty amazing. Don't worry, no photos here. If you would like to see them, email me. It is amazing what a large cat can do. Unfortunately the area around the kill was mostly covered in a thick leaf and twig covering, and with people coming to check out the site, I could only find hints of prints and animal trials. After a little while chatting with two other naturalists about the lion, I headed out to an area where I had seen lion tracks before to see if I could find any new ones. No luck, but I did find some good coyote tracks-like the one above, and some neat deer tracks-See below.

The last photo is not a deer, it is a pair of worm tracks! I found no new mountain lion tracks, but I did have a great time being outside and finding other signs of animals. I also got to see and hear a great many birds. Anyway, as I walked home I spent a good deal of time thinking about tracks. I love seeing footprints left by people, birds, and animals. It is a brief glimpse into the movement of an animal on its daily rounds. Now you can get very obsessed with finding and following tracks. My goal is to give you some basics. The great thing about tracking or becoming track aware, is that you and your kids will begin to re-pattern your brain with how to see patterns in nature. Tracks are simply a different pattern left in the ground than what is usually there. 

So in general tracking requires you to notice things that are out of place or are creating patterns. A depression in the Earth, grass shinning or dull, sticks broken, sharp angles, and recurring patterns. As you notice from the pictures above -especially the deer prints- tracks can come in different shapes even from the same species.

Here are some general tips for tracking:
- Try and keep tracks between you and the Sun. Lighting can make a HUGE difference in how you see tracks.
- Cat tracks tend to be rounder than dogs and rarely show claws.
- Canine tracks tend to be oval in shape and often show claws.
- Deer tracks tend to look heart shaped and have a pointed end.
- Birds that live and hunt mostly on the ground will usually walk, while birds that hunt and live in the trees more will usually hop.

You might notice that I used the terms "usually" and "tend" in these tips. There are trends in tracking, and nature provides us with a wide range of variety. There are some other tips you can use especially when you are just beginning to spot tracks:
- Mud provides a great medium for tracks.
- So does snow.
- If you live in a area with sand, you can find many more tracks than those of us in wooded areas.
- Bodies of water are great areas to look for tracks-animals need water.
- Animals have routines just like us and tend to take the same trails on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

A fun game to play with kids around where you live is to see if you can determine whose shoes left what tracks around your house. Using shoes is great because so many of them have unique patterns on the bottoms. Play around with making tracks in different soils and mediums.

Websites to visit for tracks: A website by a tracking friend of mine here in California. A good site with several good links.

Nature Nugget:
Another sign that animals have been around is that they leave scat. Scat is the scientific term for poop.  So to follow that fact, I am going to try and answer the question one of my camp staff asked me years ago: "Why is poop brown"? So here we go:

Scientists have been pondering the question "why is poop brown" for centuries and still have not quite figured out why. As it turns out, and you may have noticed, not all scat is brown.  Sometimes scat can be green, yellow or nearly black.  On occasion there are pieces of plant matter, fur, bones, etc in it too. We are talking about animal scat here, not human.

Some animals like rodents, rabbits, and shrews have two types of scat. One is the typical kind -- waste that is left behind. The other, however, is dark and rich in vitamins. Just like cows regurgitate and chew cud to get more nutrients from their hard-to-digest diet, some animals eat this special scat. Now isn't that a tasty thought!

The color of scat can help determine the animal's diet. Dark scat means lots of meat for carnivores, and moist plants for herbivores. White scat is often dried out. Blue scat means berries, whereas grey carnivore scat usually indicates the presence of fur. Grey, and the presence of actual fur helps too!

Some animals, like deer, leave scat as they walk. But other species, particularly those with dens, have a latrine area so they can keep things tidy. Just like pet cats, wild cats try to bury their scat. And some animals, like mountain lions, use scat as territorial markings. I have found that coyotes tend to poop on a high point in a trial as a marking sign.

Birds, reptiles, and amphibians sometimes combine their scat and urine. A white nitrogenous deposit on scat means it didn't come from a mammal. However, just because there is no whitish layer on the scat doesn't mean it didn't come from a bird.

Bird pellets, also known as cough pellets or casting, aren't scat, but they are similar: pellets are the undigested remains of meals that birds regurgitate from their gizzards. Raptors like eagles and owls and corvids like ravens and crows, as well as other birds cast pellets, including herons, gulls, and kingfishers. Pellets are often found near roosting or nesting sites, though some birds will cast pellets were they ate. In them, you can find hair, bones, beaks, claws, and other clues as to what a bird’s last meal was. You can find owl pellets on-line to order for home science projects.

Now in people, our poop, you could call it scat if you want, is mostly shades of brown or yellow, but other colors can occur as well. I found two explanations of why scat is brownish in color. The first is that digestion is aided by bile and when bile is metabolized by bacteria in the large intestines, a byproduct called stercoblin is created, which gives poop a brown color. The second reason says that dead blood cells release iron that is then converted into bilirubin which gives our poop a brown color.

Now in people we can also have multi-colored poop. Some illnesses in babies gives them green or even blue-green poop. I found out on a backpacking trip with teenage boys, that freeze dried cobbler turns poop a very odd color of green. The kids were a little freaked out at first! In the front country, another source of blue poop in children is more innocent: it can come from eating a concentrated source of blue food coloring such as ice cream. Intense red food coloring can produce bright red poop. Sometimes brightly colored foods pass through the gut almost unchanged, and poop may be speckled with bright red fragments such as pimentos, or that favorite, bright yellow kernels of corn. 

And now you know!

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How do you know it is spring?

(In some places spring is coming!)

I hope you are doing well and getting out and enjoying the places around where you live. Even if you are still deep in winter, getting outside and exploring, even if it is for a short time, is a worthy pursuit. I have been busy getting ready for and going to few conferences so that is why I have not posted in the past few weeks. I was up at Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side, in the middle of the month for a conference of Residential Outdoor Environmental Educators. A small gathering of 45 or so folks from all over including 3 Canadians! It was a wonderful venue overlooking Lake Tahoe from the eastern side. One of my fun moments was joining the Tahoe Tessie club one morning. The Tahoe Tessie club involves jumping in lake early in the morning. WOW was it cold; 38.9 degrees to be exact. Yes I had a water thermometer with me. It was also good to drive up and over the Sierra Range and to see a bunch of snow.

Anyway, one of the workshops I went to was called "How do you know it is spring?". It was a great workshop in which I learned about a great civil science project called Project Bud Burst. It is a great project where you get to help collect data for your area and send it to the project. I wanted to let folks know about the project because it can be a wonderful long term environmental project for you and your kids. Even if you do not officially get involved with the project, they provide you with some great tools to help you expand your awareness of plants progressing into spring. They also provide a whole host of resources for studying plants all around the country.

The main focus of the project is to look at Phenology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring biological phases, the causes of their timing with regard to biotic and abiotic forces. It also explores the interrelation among phases of same or different species. Phenology is an interesting study because the timing of plant growth, up to including fruiting, determines Food Supply, can affect the survival of plants and animals in their environment, and can provide you with yearly data changes in the plants around where you live. Phenology is also being used to help determine possible climate changes.

If you get involved with the project officially, thanks for providing useful data. If you do not, I encourage you to get involved in a more personal manner. Here are some suggestions on how you could do a plant phenology project of your own. Simply start observing the plants in your own yard or nearby park. Maybe even in your Anchor Spot. Keep a watch on plants that interest you and watch for the first buds, leaves, flowers, and fruits as spring progresses. You can use the tools on the Project Budburst site.

If you have other families in your area that have kids, or if you work at an outdoor school, get a group together and make observations over time and compare them. At home you could even compare data from your house with data and observations from other house in areas that are either close by or maybe even a little farther away and see what differences emerge. Where I live the progression of spring growth varies greatly from one side of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the other, a distance of about 15 miles.  At an outdoor school, keep weekly data observations and then refer to them next year and create a timeline of plant growth on your site for this spring. 

Even if you do not keep notes on how plants are progressing in your area, keep some mental notes on what you are observing in the plants you see. You can also keep an eye out for spring animals as they arrive. There are bird migrations you can keep an eye on, and even a bird phenology program. I hope you enjoy looking at the upcoming changes that spring will provide us! Have fun , and get out there!

Nature Nugget:
A wonderful NPR piece on insect migrations! 


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Happened Here?

(Headwaters of the Mississippi-Itaska State Park, MN)
Today we are going to explore some of your local history. No matter where you live people have had an impact on the Earth in many ways. In many cases there are still reminders of those events from long ago. Part of developing a Sense of Place and developing a greater sense of Ecological Literacy, is learning more about the historical impacts humans have made to the place you live. For this posting, lets go explore some of the unique areas where you live.

Every developed area has some history to it. In some cases it can define the area. Where I grew up, in Storrs CT, many if not most of all the fields had stone walls, and many would have 1 or 2 large trees left in the fields. The stones were often collected by farmers clearing their fields to plant, and used to keep livestock in specific places and to define land boundaries. The trees where left to provide shade for livestock. In addition to copious stone walls, there were numerous mills dotting rivers and streams. In some cases the mills were still in wonderful condition and were museums, and others are simply foundations left to the woods. Much of the forests had been logged beginning in the 1700's, and had been logged several times. Really old trees were rare to find. Here is my favorite in Storrs:

I spent 9 years living in central Missouri on a large 5000 acre YMCA camp that was heavily influenced by human behavior. Our 300 acre lake was manmade, there were 13 filled lead mines on and around the property, the spring on property had been used for years as a meeting place for early settlers, and I found an arrowhead and partial knife point in nearby fields. The area had been clear-cut during the civil war to help power iron smelting operations and build wagons and boats.

I now live in the Santa Cruz Mountains and here the area has a little less, only slightly, impact. This area was very busy with the logging of coastal redwood and douglas fir trees during the 1800's gold rush in CA, and then the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. When walking around in the redwood forests you can often see wedges cut out about 6-10' above the ground where lumberjacks cut slots to fit cutting boards into the trucks to get above the hardest part of the trunks on these massive trees.

In every case, some of these historical remains are easy to find, but looking for the less obvious ones is much more exciting and rewarding. When I was a kid I would find old stone walls and walk them for hours. Just wandering. In Missouri, finding great limestone caves and drinking from natural springs was a wonderful treat. And here in California finding fallen 200' redwoods that were left behind or the remains of old logging camps is a wonderful adventure.

So head out and do a little exploring of your areas human history. Some things might be easy to find, so start with those. Others may take some work. Contact local historical societies, ask friends, go visit a museum. Learn more about the history of human impact and development of the place you live. Enjoy! 

Nature Nugget:
One of the animals that makes its "living" on the fringes of human society is the Coyote or Canis latrans. They are wonderfully resourceful animals and incredibly adaptable. In many Native American cultures they Coyote is a mythical character who is often a grand trickster. Teaching humans lessons through a round-a-bout method.

Coyotes, both eastern and western, are smaller than wolves. Although eastern Coyotes can be much larger than western ones and are sometimes mistaken for wolves. Unlike wolves, which hunt in packs and live mainly on large game, Coyotes are often solitary and can live on everything from grass and grasshoppers to deer mice and deer.

Usually pups are born in the spring, and both the male and female help to raise the pups. For the past two years a female Coyote would come up to the house during mating season and yip and bark playfully at our dogs. It was really cute. Dogs and Coyotes can breed, but it does change the offspring's behavior.

Coyotes have had a very difficult time interacting with humans in the last 100+ years. On average there are 87,000 Coyotes killed every year in the U.S. Often these are state sponsored kills or during specific hunting seasons. However, the reputation of Coyotes as attacking humans is over-rated. The Coyote was given the same reputation as the wolf. The reality is that the best estimates show that there have been 30-40 coyotes attacks on humans that resulted in injuries. In comparison, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 4.7 million people are bitten by domestic dogs every year, and over 300 people have been killed by dogs in the U.S. since 1979. And as far as the concern about Coyotes being a major threat to livestock populations, the highest number I could find for how much of a Coyote's diet was from domestic sheep, was .2% in British Columbia. They will take carcasses if they can find them.

Coyotes are very shy and keep a low-profile. I have seen Coyotes along major highways here in California, in Connecticut, and Missouri. I have seen and tracked Coyotes in parks in St. Louis, and encountered them on running trails in many states. They can be beautiful animals. And remember, they are WILD animals and distance should be given to them when you see them in the wild.

And now you know.

Websites to visit:
A Website run by a friend of mine. A wonderful site to explore more about coyotes and how humans treat and mistreat coyotes. A warning for folks, there are some pictures and videos of coyote killing on this website.

Remember you can leave comments here or email me at:

Friday, January 22, 2010

Caregiving: An action and an attitude.

(Muir Woods, CA)

I hope you are all getting out and enjoying nature in whatever way you can this winter season. Over the last couple of days we have been having some really wicked rain storms here in Bay Area. High winds, high surf, and a lot of rain-about 10" here at home in 4 days. Sorry for the delay in posting a new entry, I have been with out power for most of the week. While I was out walking in the woods I was noticing what the storms had done in the woods. There were lots of branches down, small and large trees pulled from the rain soaked ground, and a few small mudslides on the trail. Nature was doing some serious winter cleaning. As I walked this morning with the dogs, I began to remove fallen branches from smaller, still living, trees and shrubs. And it got me thinking about taking care of the word we live in.

Now I am not talking about large scale business or government driven plans here. I am talking about things you can do in your own neighborhood and places that you frequent. Some personal responsibility and local Care-Taking. Helping nature in little ways can be fun, adventurous, and an opportunity to help children develop a positive attitude about caring for the environment. For those of you who have gardens or even plants in your home, you probably do some Caregiving already. You water the plants (hopefully), you remove dead leaves and old flower heads (Deadheading my mom calls it), and some weeding. Well, why not take that same attitude outside and help nature with some Caregiving.

Caregiving is an activity that can be done be itself or in conjunction with other nature activities like Disco Hikes, Creating Nature Art, while sitting in your Anchor Spot, on an FBI hunt, or just walking the dogs. As you are out there exploring, if you see where a fallen branch has landed on a living tree or plant, simple remove the branch-try not to damage the live plant-and then break up the stick to help it decompose near the living plant or tree. You can also remove dead branches or leaves from trees or plants. The organism is no longer providing food for that dead area of the plant, and you can place the dead material at the base of the plant or tree for the FBI to begin decomposition and to add to the nutrient cycle.

Caregiving is not necessarily landscaping. I am not encouraging you to go out and clear out whole areas so they look like an English Garden. I am talking about actions like simply providing a little help removing stresses like a branch that is crushing a plant. Another example of care giving is to mow your leaves into the grass rather than raking them up and then mowing. By mowing the leaves into the grass clippings you are helping the nitrogen cycle keep nutrients in the ground and helping your lawn stay healthy. Or at least use your leaves to start a compost pile rather than sending them to a landfill.

Another way to Caregive is to join a local organization that helps remove invasive species in your area. You can also get involved with a trail restoration group, water way clean up days, or road side trash pick up days. By getting out and looking for opportunities to aid nature in processes that are already occurring, you can begin to build that habit in your kids, and develop an attitude of caring for the natural world. It is also a great opportunity to engage your friends, family, and neighbors and do a little community building at the same time.

A quick little story to end todays entry. About 4 years ago I was in New Jersey for a class. Part of the class was to do some caretaking for a cedar swamp in the Pine Barrens. This area had been logged in the mid-late 1800's and the loggers had left cedar stumps in the creeks and many off them had created jams by gathering lots of brush and silt. As a group we spent the better part of two days in the swamp removing logs and brush and clearing out two springs that had gotten clogged up with slit and mud. It was a wonderful group experience. A day after we had finished our caregiving in the swamp, there were frogs and fish in the areas we had cleared that were not there when we started. It was pretty amazing. I went back 2 years later and the area had continued to be very diverse and clear water was flowing in many of the areas that had been clogged by the logs left in the swamps. A great experience, and an example of caregiving on a slightly larger scale. Have fun giving nature a hand!

Nature Nugget:
As I was heading into town yesterday, I looked down into the valley where I live and it was filled with some great fog rising out of the forest.

It got me thinking about fog and how exactly it is formed and why. So here is what I have found out about fog. In short, fog is a cloud that forms or sinks to the surface of the Earth. The thickness of fog depends on the density and size of the water droplets in the air. And fogs are classified by the processes that produce them. Here are five types of fog for your exploration:
Radiation Fog:
This is the most common form of fog seen over land. It is a cooling fog which usually forms in still moist air overnight. This happens as heat radiates away from the Earth and air cools and reaches a temperature that equals the dew point. Yes Dew Point actually has a use. It occurs most frequently in valley bottoms where cool air accumulates after sinking from hillsides.
Advection Fog:
This is another cooling fog which forms when moist air flows over a cold surface. Most sea fog is Advection Fog. Advection-radiation fog which is also called Ground Fog and is generally only a few feet thick. It can also be called valley fog.
Upslope Fog:
A third kind of cooling fog, Upslope Fog is formed as air is forced upward along a surface and expands as it cools, due to lower pressure and temperature, and the then the water vapor condenses. Mt Washington in New Hampshire can experience Upslope more than 300 days a year.
Steam Fog:
A warming fog that forms as cold air passes over a warm water surface. It is also called sea smoke. As the warming air rises off the water, it condenses as it hits the colder air.
Frontal Fog:
A Frontal Fog, another warming fog, is formed with the passage of a warm air front as warm rain falls into colder air below. The evaporating raindrops saturate the colder air layer resulting in condensation. This fog occurs frequently after a prolonged winter storm.  

And now you know. Now get out there and touch a cloud!

Websites to visit:
 A very cool site of Lily the Brown Bear in MN, in torpor, having cubs on video in her den. At least one this morning! Perhaps two.
An artist who does some AMAZING art with nature! This link was sent to me by a reader of What's Out There.

A great story on how spending time outdoors can help children keep good eyesight.

A website dedicated to Therapeutic Landscape Design from one of our members Naomi Sachs.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Art of Nature.

A great example of living Art in Nature.
(Photo by Leisl Pimentel of Phoenix Zoo fame!)

Nature if full of absolutely amazing patterns, colors, shapes, and forms. I find that when I am taking a walk and I stop for a few minutes, even a few seconds, and look around I see an incredible amount of intricate details. I am constantly in awe of the rich collection of colors that change with the adjusting light, and the seemingly endless arrangements of patterns. So, how can we use this rich collection of inspiration to have fun outdoors, and create stronger connections to the natural world? Well, by getting outside to start with. And secondly, by creating some of your own art in nature.

Now I know that it is winter for all of us in the northern hemisphere and we here in America have been getting some proper and some unusual winter weather. It was 17 degrees in parts of Florida this morning! So getting out in the winter can be a challenge. And a good portion of this activity can be done indoors after a quick exploration outside. And really, doing art projects while drinking hot coco is a ton of fun.

There are a couple of options that come to mind when I think about creating art in and with Nature. The first one is to head outside, perhaps near your Anchor Spot and look for materials. I would also encourage you to explore all around your neighborhood or local parks as well for "art materials". The greater the variety of materials will lead to more diverse masterpieces!

Look for objects that are plentiful. We do not want to over harvest materials and risk harming the long term health of plants or degrading areas that others might enjoy. Some suggestions for materials are: acorns, various leaves both green and dead, twigs, fungi, rocks, pine cones, ferns, bones, feathers, bark, etc. You get the point. Try and collect materials that have a variety of colors, textures, and sizes. I also encourage you to mix materials and combine living plants or organisms with items you bring to a living item. Here is an example of such a mini-project:

I used the growing mushroom as the center piece and then built around it with various leaves from four plants/ trees. I also found another mushroom of the same species that had been knocked off of it's stem by something, and created another little piece.

  For these two pieces I chose to make them outside. However, you can just as easily collect your materials and bring them inside or to another location outside to create your masterpieces. Both of these options work well with one or two kids or even with a large group! Make sure that before you go out and collect materials that you talk with your kids about respecting the plants and other resources that they might choose so that they do not create too much damage to the area you are working in. We will talk more about Caretaking next time.

Another option is to head out with a camera (digital or traditional) and take pictures of patterns that you can find in area around your house. Then you can go home and create some great slideshows or even print out some of your best pictures and put them up in your house. Here are some examples of patterns I found within 50' of the house this morning on my walk with the dogs.

As you continue making Art With Nature, experiment with a variety of sizes, colors, and textures. Send in some pictures of your work ( so others can be inspired by your creativity. Also, if you are in an area with snow or ice, the white can provide a wonderful canvas to create on! Another option besides taking photos is to find items in nature that inspire you and draw them in a nature journal. A wonderful tradition to start might be to do some Nature Art each season, or even every month! There is no end to the amount of things you could create using the wonderful resources nature can provides. Enjoy connecting with What's Out There and releasing your creative skills!

Nature Nugget:
Today the Nature Nugget is an overview of the components of our Atmosphere. This ocean of air envelopes our small planet and provides us with the air we breathe and the colors of our sky. Our atmosphere is not a uniform mixture of material, it is a layered blanket that changes as it moves away from our planet's surface. So here is a basic primer of Atmospheric Explanation.
(Going from the Earth's Surface upward)
Earth's Surface:

Troposphere: From the surface up to around 9mi (15km).
This layer is the lowest, densest, and the thinnest layer of the atmosphere. Most weather occurs in the Troposphere. On average the temperature in the Troposphere drops about 3.5 degrees for each additional 1000' of altitude. At the upper end of the Troposphere the temperature is around -70 degrees fahrenheit. The Troposphere contains about between 80-90% of the mass in our atmosphere including most of the water vapor.
--Tropopause-- The area where the Troposphere and Stratosphere mix and the area of our Jet Streams.

Stratosphere: Up to about 30mi (50km).
The lower parts of the Stratosphere is around the same temperature as the upper level of the Troposphere, but then gradually warms in the mid to high areas of the Stratosphere as there is an increase in the amount of Ozone (O3). This warmer air over colder air inhibits vertical mixing and creates a fairly stable, stratified distribution of air. At the top of the Stratosphere, the temperature is about 30 degrees fahrenheit.
--Stratopause-- Air pressure is 1/1000 of the pressure at sea level.

Mesosphere: Continues up to between 50-56 miles up (90km).
The Ozone Layer here is almost non-existent and heat actually is radiated out into space and temperature decreases with height. At the top of the Mesosphere the temperature is about -130 degrees fahrenheit. This is the area of our atmosphere where meteors burn up when they enter our atmosphere.

Thermosphere: Up to between 350-700 miles high.
Here temperature also raises with a gain in height due to gases absorbing short ultraviolet waves from the sun. The upper Thermosphere has temperatures about 180 degrees fahrenheit. The upper area of thermosphere is where many of our man-made satellites orbit- including the space station and space shuttles. Above the poles in the Thermosphere is where the northern and southern lights or auroras are displayed through energy from the sun exciting gases.  In the Thermosphere is the Ionosphere. This region is where atoms have become ionized by ultraviolet radiation. This is the area where radio waves can be bounced around the world using predetermined angles, eliminating the problem of the Earth's curvature.

Exosphere: Any area above the Thermopause.   

So there you go, that is what's above us at any given time. So the next time you look up, keep in mind all the layers you are looking through. Our atmosphere can affect our view of sunsets, and sunrises and the clarity of stars at night.

If you have any thoughts or comments, please leave them here or email me at:

Until next time...have fun out there!