Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Winter Urban Forestry Classes

            Trees Indiana will once again sponsor Home School Urban Forestry classes at the Nature Explore Classroom at Cedar Canyon Elementary, 15011 Coldwater Road (corner of Gump and Coldwater Roads).  Students will spend the entire class session outdoors studying the woodlands, so they should come prepared wearing snowpants, boots, etc.  Each session, students will do activities and games in the great winter outdoors!  Come prepared to learn about birds, following tracks, snowflakes and the freezing and melting process.  Dress for outdoor play while we learn and have fun in the woods in winter!  Cost is $5 per child for the entire winter session, which includes all three classes. Register by e-mailing or calling Mary Ibe:  ibe.science@frontier.com or 637-4873.   Class is limited to fifteen and it fills up quickly, so register early.

*Dec. 8th -  Birds in Winter

*Jan. 12th – Snow

*Feb. 16th – Ice
*Class topics subject to swaps, due to weather conditions.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Right Clothes

   My old friend and colleague, Dick Homan, used to say about outdoor activities, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes."  He was a firm believer that winter's cold or summer's heat should not be a deterrent for outdoor fun.  He always has the best gear for all the 'Silent Sports' he participates in, such as cross-country skiing, biking and rollerblading. His words come back to me the most while I am toasty warm in the proper coat on a cold day while downhill skiing. Consequently, I've grown to feel a bit smug about how I'm usually comfortable during outdoor activities.   So, when the kids and I got caught in the wrong gear on a summer day recently, I was thoroughly de-smugged!

   It happened while exploring Vandolah Nature Preserve, just east of Tonkel Road.  The kids and I have been trying to visit as many ACRES land trust preserves as we can.  We had never been to Vandolah before and last week seemed like to perfect time to sneak in one more preserve before the start of the school year.  Anticipating a short walk on a groomed trail, we put on some old gym shorts and t-shirts.  Dogs on a leash are welcomed at these preserves, so we brought along our fabulous golden retriever, Genny.   Due to the extreme heat, it had been awhile since Genny was in the woods, so she had a doggie perma-grin as she pulled my teenage son up and down the ravines at this beautiful site.  The trail loop is 1.5 miles long, but it was such a nice day and none of us felt like that would be a long enough hike, so we decided to venture to the part of the preserve that runs under I-69 and follows the river.   On the map, it appears that this part of the preserve has a trail along the river.  The reality is that it starts out as a mere deerpath then disappears altogether.   We are adventurous and we knew enough to stay by the river so as not to get lost.  What we didn't think about are the massive amounts of poison ivy that are in the woods at this time of year.  We felt like we avoided most of the itch-producing plants and were well on our way back to the 'real' trail when we encountered the only other hiker we saw that day: our orthodontist!  He had never been to the preserve, so he asked us all about the 'unchartered' part we had just visited.  We told him it was very scenic, but there was a lot of poison ivy to avoid.  He had on some very snappy gear: thick hiking boots, all-weather pants, a breathable exercise shirt and an impressive backpack into which he said he put some weights. Oh, and he also had a pair of trekking sticks that put the ones I purchased at Walmart® to shame.  After we warned him about the poison ivy, he looked down at his own clothe covered legs and assured us he'd be fine. I felt a little embarrassed that I'd been 'caught' dragging my kids through the woods ill dressed. (NOTE: since our orthodontist is very down to earth, I'm sure he didn't even think twice about it.  It was just the crashing down of my smugness that made me feel  inadequate!)
            Back on the 'real' trail, we consulted the map and headed out.  Unknowingly, we missed a turn and we were once again in an unfamiliar woods without a trail…and with LOTS of stinging nettle (or something nearly as bad).  We had just blazed our way through a particularly nippy thatch of it when we all stopped dead.  There was absolutely nowhere else to go and we were standing in weeds that towered over our heads.  My eleven year old daughter burst into tears.  This unsettled me because she is most definitely not a crier.  Thankfully, my son held it together.  He tried to comfort his sister by saying, "It's okay, we'll just head back to the car now."   This brought more tears from my daughter because I could see that she realized that this meant we'd have to go back through that nasty nettle patch.  What else is there to do when you are over your head in weeds and somewhat lost but to turn around and re-trace your steps?  So, that's what we did.  Twenty minutes later, safely back at the car, we compared war wounds.  It turns out that my legs were the only ones with permanent red-streaks from the plants (probably because I was the trail-blazer).  Once we got the air-conditioning on in the car and showers and clothes and dog washed upon returning home, all was well again with everyone.  Now that days have passed since it happened, it has become the adventure of the summer as the story gets re-told. 
            However, I now have proof that the lesson of wearing the right clothes has sunk in more deeply with the kids and me.  While packing for a camping trip this week, we stuck our heads into each other's bedrooms and gave reminders to, at the very least, remember to pack some nice hiking pants!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hawkins Family Farm

The Nature and Nurture group at Resurrection Lutheran Church just had a fantastic Friday night pizza experience at Hawkins Family Farm in North Manchester, Indiana.  The drive out to the farm through the ubiquitous corn and soybean fields of Indiana farm country was made all the better when I realized that there were still many old-fashioned red, hip-roofed barns along the way.  Something about seeing those red-sided buildings makes me feel that all is right with the world. 

This is their home, and you are made to feel like you just dropped by for a visit.  We had twelve people in our group, so we set up our chairs and blankets on the lawn, next to the farmhouse, which is their residence.  The old growth shade trees combined with the smells of the farm were calming.  The kids lazed in the gigantic hammock while the adults had great discussions and enjoyed adult beverages which we were able to bring in our own coolers.   Four varieties of organic pizzas were offered (all delicious!) and the Hawkins family even stuck around with us until well after dark when someone in our group locked their keys in the car.

Jeff Hawkins' grandparents purchased the 99 acre farm in 1957.   Jeff, an ordained minister, now runs the farm with his family.  Jeff provides an experience for other pastors with a ministry focused on understanding systems and their interactions and inter-dependencies creating a nature-centered venue for clergy renewal at the farm. The farm is also committed to community sustained agriculture, and as such, offers a full harvest share for 2011 which includes a weekly allotment of vegetables plus 20 chickens, a fresh Thanksgiving turkey, a half grass-fed hog, and a quarter grass-finished beef.  If you enjoyed reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, then the Hawkins Family Farm is a must-see for you. If you are looking for a unique, nature-friendly Friday night, the Farm is calling you!  


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nature and Nurture Group

The Nature and Nurture group will have its next gathering at Lindenwood Nature Preserve on Sunday, June 5th at 2:00 pm.  This preserve is located in the vicinity of Saint Francis University and has some beautiful trails with lots of wildflowers.  We'll meet in the parking lot and hike for about an hour.  Bring the kids!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Turkeys and Robins

            There are a few spots I can always count on for some good nature viewing while I am in the car.  Two locations are along stretches of highway here in Indiana.  Highway 24 between Fort Wayne and Toledo and I-69 between Fort Wayne and Indianapolis are always good for some wild turkey spotting.   When we first moved to Fort Wayne from California, I could hardly believe my eyes when we saw wild turkeys grazing in a winter-plowed corn field along I-69.   I had to do a triple take to make sure I wasn't confusing some turkey vultures for the genuine article.   I thought the wow factor would fade, but seven years later, I still get such a kick when I spot some.
            Another spot which has not failed me once this spring is the northeast corner of Auburn and Union Chapel Roads in Fort Wayne.  Every single time I drive by there is ALWAYS a robin in the yard.  Every time! No kidding.   Usually, there are several and one time I counted thirteen.   I learned that I need to stop counting the robins while driving because it is nearly as dangerous as texting.  I keep thinking that this bird phenomena will end now that spring is well underway, but so far I've not seen a decrease in the flocking.  There must be a mighty fine crop of worms living in that soil.  
            Where do you consistently see wildlife as you travel your daily routes?   If you don't see any, make it a point to look for something and you'll find that wildlife suddenly appears everywhere you travel.  However, like texting, I recommend that you don't count and drive.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring Peepers and Woodpeckers

I heard the first Spring Peepers today!  I was out in our local environmental center yesterday teaching three classes and I heard not a sign of them.  Today I took my own children out to enjoy the warmer weather and we were greeted by quite a chorus of them. Peepers are found in woodland pools and ponds, preferably without fish to prey on their eggs, tadpoles and adults.  Males gather in these small pools by the hundreds, or even thousands.  Their chorus begins the first warm evenings of the season, starting in late February into late summer.  Only the male frogs call, averaging a peep per second.  They usually call in trios, with the lowest-pitched male starting the competition.  Those that sing the loudest and fastest are most likely to attract mates.  These nocturnal amphibians can be heard loud and clear up to a half-mile away. 

Another creature that is out in full-force is the woodpecker.  We have been seeing and hearing a very persistent
downy woodpecker the last few weeks.  It is the one bird that children have to be asked to listen for, but when they do hear it, a smile always spreads across their face.  Children often say that it sounds just like you think it should.   Today we visited Bicentennial Woods and as we parked the car, a crow size bird with a red-head flew by. 
“Mom, mom, what was that?” my son asked. 

I haven’t seen a pileated recently, but the size of the bird we saw made it unmistakable.  It was a pileated woodpecker.  We listened to his ardent pecking during most of our hour long nature walk.  It made us feel really connected to nature to hear that bird busily pecking away while we meandered through the forest.  It seemed like all was right with the world.

            The Nature and Nurture Club will meet for a group hike at Bicentennial Woods in two weeks.  On Sunday, March 27th, plan on meeting us in the parking lot at 3:00 pm for a great spring hike.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Birds of Feather

      I know that starlings are considered a ‘nuisance’ bird and an invasive, but I can’t help but be amused by them.  They still swarm my pear tree on occasion to get the last of the little, brown mushy fruits that cling to the branches.   They also seem to love the suet cake I have at my feeder.  Watching the flock swirl and swarm in unison as they move from tree to feeder is like watching a synchronized swimming event.  Mesmerizing!

      While hunting online for more information about these maligned creatures, I discovered that a flock of them is called a “chatter” or an “affliction”.  So interesting.  Even their flock name is amusing.   I discovered many flocks go by another name.  Here are a few: 
·  Birds of Prey (hawks, falcons): Cast, cauldron, kettle
·  Cormorants: Flight
·  Crows: Murder, congress, horde
·  Ducks: Raft, team, paddling
·  Eagles: Convocation, congregation
·  Finches: Charm
·  Flamingos: Flamboyance
·  Game Birds (quail, grouse, ptarmigan): Covey, pack, bevy
·  Geese: Skein, wedge, gaggle, plump
·  Gulls: Colony
·  Herons: Siege, sedge, scattering
·  Hummingbirds: Charm

      Now, come up with a flock name for your family or group.  It should suit you as the starlings’ does.   Extend the activity to other creatures.  For example, a group of golden retrievers could be called a ‘love’.   There are more storms still ahead, so this topic could be a way to pass a snowy afternoon.  You may come up with a name that will stick for years! 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Winter Thaw

         The temperatures are supposed to climb to nearly 40° this week.  This promises to make things soggy and damp.   Usually, this is my least favorite kind of weather.  In an effort to be upbeat about it, I tried to think about something positive for gray, drippy days.  One thing I came up with is that every winter I notice that during a thaw, I see the animals acting, well, a little crazy!   I distinctly remember last year seeing no less than nine squirrels gathering at the edge of a playground, chowing down on tidbits that had been covered by snow for months. They were so absorbed in their eating, that I got within three feet of them before they scattered.  I was mesmerized by the tiny little knob-like thumbs they deftly use to hold their food.  I also saw a flock of about 60 starlings swarming the decorative pear tree in my yard.  They were gobbling up the tiny, decayed brown fruits as if it were a Vegas buffet! After gorging, the birds were flying in crazy patterns.  I think the pears were  fermented.  
            While teaching a class outdoors last week, it was only 12°, up from -3° earlier that day.  We didn’t think we’d see much, due to the cold, so when the group spotted two obvious kill sites…a bird and a rabbit probably killed by a bird of prey, it was very exciting.  I am taking a group of students out to the same spot this Wednesday, which has a forecast of 41°.   While it will be hard to beat the circle of life we witnessed on the 12° day, now I am looking forward to maybe witnessing a little animal lunacy!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Nest Hunting

      I just love seeing vacated bird’s nests in tree limbs at this time of year.  They always catch my eye when they have a dollop of snow on top of them.  Sometimes when I see that puff of white, I almost get fooled into thinking it is the rounded form of an egg.  Bird’s nests aren’t the only kind of nests easily visible at this time of year.  Squirrels’ summer homes can be seen in the treetops as clumps of dried, brown leaves.  During the summer, squirrels create these nests, or dreys, to use for sleeping and resting.  Often where you spot one drey, you will find another nearby.   Squirrels always build their dreys in a tree adjacent to another tree so that they have an additional escape route, if need be.   If you aren’t able to find any nests in your own yard, try looking for them in trees as you drive around town.  Once you try to start spotting them, it will become impossible to look at a stand of trees, even in the middle of the city, without first scanning the tops to spot dreys or bird nests.
            When my children were young, I often asked them to count the number of squirrel dreys they spotted between our house and the grocery store or wherever my errands took us.  It kept them occupied and they always tried to spot new ones along our familiar routes.  In this day when even the family car has a television screen, it is sometimes good to take a moment to look out the window at your surroundings.  

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Snow Day!

A possible winter storm is forecast for this week.  The prospect of a snow day thrills me now as much as it did when I was a child.  There is something magical surrounding the anticipation and the moment the news is heard.  A world transformed by ice and snow just begs to be explored.  At this point in the winter, the charm of a snowfall may have worn off, but there are still ways that snow play can be re-invented.   Aside from the usual snowman or snowball fight, try some of these ideas:
  • Let the kids use some of your larger Tupperware® containers for making snow blocks to build a fort.  My kids can really crank out a lot of these blocks in a short time. Use containers that are the size of a brick or larger and pack the snow tightly.  Forts made with this type of block seem to be a bit sturdier than the usual pile-up-and-pack method.
  • Make snow furniture instead of a snow man.   We forgot our chairs at the beach one day, so we formed some out of sand.  We did the same thing by making a snow bench next to our ice skating pond this winter.  I think a snow couch is the next thing on the list.
  • Once the snow finally lets up, go outside and listen.  Sit perfectly still for at least 3 minutes.  All the birds and critters that holed-up during the storm will come out to feed.   The snow and cold causes sound to travel differently, so even the everyday sounds of your neighborhood will seem interesting. 
  • Make a deal with your kids.  Promise them that if they complete one unloved chore before they go outside to play, you’ll do a snowball fight WITH them for five minutes.  What child wouldn’t love a snowball fight with a grownup that is their mom or dad?
Even if there isn’t any new snow this week, there is no reason you shouldn’t get out there and play in the snow that is already on the ground.  Happy January!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter Walk

Please join us for a winter walk at the Northwest Allen County Environmental Center behind Oak View Elementary off of Coldwater Road.  The walk will be on Sunday, January 23 from 3-4 pm.  The group is called "Nature and Nurture" a fellowship created through Resurrection Lutheran Church.  All people of any faith are welcome to come and share beautiful scenery and camaraderie.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cross-Country Skiing

With at least 4 inches of snow on the ground, it is possible to get in some pretty decent nordic skiing here in Fort Wayne.   Two local parks, Fox Island and Metea, have groomed trails and ski rentals.  For $6 and hour for an adult ($5 12 and under), you can rent skis, boots and poles.  Alll you need is some basic instructions and you can set off on any of the beautiful trails.  The great thing about cross-country skiing is that how fast you go is entirely up to you.  It is much less intimidating than downhill skiing and there is never a wait for the chair lift!  The scenery is always wonderful.   Known as one of the winter 'silent sports', cross-country skiing enables you to see what the wildlife is up to.  The animals are probably more active than you realize and there is no better way to view them than from a pair of cross-country skis.  You have undoubtedly heard that nordic skiing is a great workout, which is yet another reason to try it.

I went out on the trails Monday at Metea and conditions were dandy.   With the recent layer of ice, we'll probably need another layer of snow before the trails are open again, but that will likely happen in the next few days.   If you have always wanted to try cross-country skiing, don't let another season pass without giving it a whirl.  I"ve been cross-country skiing for over 30 years and every time I go I still tell myself it is something I should do more often!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fox and Geese

My dad always used to get us excited to go outside in the winter by stamping a giant spoked wheel into the snow.  We would then choose one person to be the 'fox' and the rest of us were 'geese'.  The fox chased the geese until one was caught and it became the fox.  The rules dictated that you had to stay on the rim or the spokes while running, with the hub of the wheel being 'safe'---for one goose at a time!  It was a lot of fun and dad always played the first few rounds with us. He called the game fox and geese and I've discovered that this game is little known nowadays.   Looking back on it, we didn't play the game for hours on end, but we did end up staying outside for quite awhile after we played a few rounds.   I think the exciting part of the game was that dad was playing with us.  By the time he headed back indoors, we were engaged in other snow play activities, which is probably what dad had in mind all along.   So, be a catalyst for your family, take advantage of all the snow that is on the ground and go start a round of Fox and Geese!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Solid Water Adventures

   As I watched my children use sticks to prod the frozen edges of our pond recently, I reminded myself how I had stolen the chance for some neighborhood kids to enjoy this simple pleasure.  Some children moved into our neighborhood and started throwing rocks into the pond that backs up to many of our homes. I yelled across the pond to them to stop throwing the rocks.  At the sound of my voice, the kids scattered and I never saw them venture over to investigate the pond again.  I scared them off perfectly.  I never got a chance to explain to them the reason they couldn't throw those particular rocks.  The rocks were there for erosion control.  I knew the owner had spent quite a bit of money placing the rocks there and that they needed to stay put.    My attempt to keep the rocks in place had created a "fraidy cat"  mindset in the children.    Forevermore they shunned anything associated with the pond.

   For many, winter resurrects this same fraidy cat mentality when it comes to frozen ponds, lakes or streams.  This is a healthy reaction and may even prove to be a life-saving one.  However, fear of frozen water is not the same as respect for it.  One of my best teaching moments occurred on frozen water and I am thankful that I didn't let it pass because of fear.   In a local school's wildlife area, I was leading a small group of students out to count trees that had been felled by a long-ago beaver infestation.  We were about to take our usual path when one of the students noticed that with the leaves gone from the trees, we could see many  more tree stumps than ever before. If we ventured to walk across parts of the frozen pond, we would get some really great data.  With the students anxiously waiting to see if I would give the go ahead, I had to make an assessment.   Was the pond really frozen?   How thick was the ice layer?  What would I do if someone broke through?  I had just that morning measured the ice layer at the pond at my home.  My own very deep, spring-fed pond's ice layer was more than 8 inches.  The school pond was only six feet deep at best and was not spring-fed.  We'd had a long series of below zero nights and many weeks well below freezing.   I knew that the area we were crossing was only 2-3 feet deep.  I was 100% certain conditions were more than safe.   I passed out several long sticks, gave some instructions about ice safety, and we headed out.  Ten minutes later, standing in the midst of hundreds of beaver nibbled stumps, we were all in awe.  Previously, we had only counted stumps in the dozens.  To see hundreds of stumps stretching in every direction was beyond exciting.  To top it all off, we saw signs of all the animals that had spent time on the ice.  We saw hundreds of bird, rabbit, deer and mouse trails.   We followed a foraging shrew as if we were private eyes.  We saw a fresh rabbit carcass we guessed to have been from a bird of prey.  In short, we felt like we discovered a new world that was right under our noses.  As we hiked back to the classroom, I saw a literal example of wide-eyed students.  They were bubbling with talk and burst forth with news of what we saw to every person we encountered on the way.  Being respectful and understanding of the ice had paid off in a big way.

    I was able to recognize that it is possible to enjoy time outdoors on solid water, as long as all the risks are understood and the rules of ice play are kept. Most sources use the guideline that four inches of clear, solid ice are the minimum requirement to bear the weight of a single person.  Five inches are recommended for group activities, such as hockey, or for equipment, such as a snowmobile.  Eight inches for a small car.    At home, I use our cordless drill to quickly find out the ice depth by drilling into it.  Most everyone has a drill hanging up with their tools and use of it provides instant comfort about the safety of the ice you'll be using.
   If you are still leery, don't completely give up on solid water adventures.  At least let your children poke at a frozen puddle with a stick or use little rocks to play your own version of curling on your driveway.   Winter is the only time you can experiment with ice outside for hours on end without it disappearing.

   Minnesota DNR has a great website for tips on ice safety:  http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/ice/thickness.html