Great blue heron on trail camera (Photo: McDonald)
Wildlife Watching Unobtrusively
I find it a personal challenge to give gifts that will be meaningful and used well beyond the occasion when the gift was given. This Christmas I decided to buy a trail camera for my partner. In all fairness I thought it might be a good family gift too, mainly because I work in environmental education and I was also excited to see how one works and the potential use for educational programs or observations. What follows is a short article on my observations and suggestions for personal or educational uses of a trail camera (or multiple cameras).
I'm often asked for natural history themed reading selections or books that might be good for a science/nature book club. I know there are many different flavors of science and what people like to read, but I thought I'd offer a list of books that I've read or those that are good for conversations in nature-related book clubs. This list is largely populated by the "Natural Selections" reading list from the Cape Henlopen book group I belonged to for years. I miss those late night discussions, they were wonderful. So for those of you thinking of buying books for loved ones, starting a book club, looking to expand your library, or for some fun winter reading, here's a list.
Big Brown Bat "Sweetie" (Photo: Matt Reinbold, Flicker Sharing).
Brown Bats 101
You can't look at Halloween decorations without seeing bats hanging everywhere. They are often lumped with spiders and black cats and relegated to the "scary things" category. Like many "scary" things, bats really aren't that bad if you understand a little bit about them. This is why I want to introduce you to brown bats, a good place to start on your way to appreciating our bat neighbors. After all, Bat Week is October 25th-October 31st (Have you planned your party yet??)!
Little brown bats (Photo: Wiki Commons).
BATS AREN'T RODENTS
First, let's get this straight, bats are not rodents. If you question this simply throw a mouse in the air and see if it flies. Bats are the only flying mammals. The creature that comes closest are flying squirrels and they simply leap like demented nocturnal paragliders and then float around using the flaps of skin between their arms and legs as they go from tree to tree.
As a child of the 80's I loved the "Magic School Bus" and "School House Rock" series, their animations, snazzy music, and content all kept me entertained and engaged. I'd like to introduce you to a modern version of this, but with a great slant, the "Good Thinking" animated video series from the Smithsonian Science Education Center. It's aimed at teachers, educators, and even those just interested in learning about how science is taught. Specifically it addresses misconceptions in science.
A Predictive Weather Modeling App for Students and Teachers
I usually don't mix my professional life with my personal blog, but I wanted to share with you a neat interactive weather app that I helped develop. It is a tool that can be useful for weatherphiles, teachers, and students. It is called the Weather Lab, an online and mobile application from the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) in association with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The Weather Lab helps students visualize how weather is formed though the complex interactions of ocean currents and air masses in North America.
Ladybugs are familiar sights in the Spring. (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Biting Ladybugs: Should I Run and Hide?
Ladybugs are one of those insects that even non-insect lovers tend to like. They're bright and colorful, tickle when they walk, and are easy to handle and play with. Kids don't feel threatened by them and adults will often go out of their way to move them or take them outside. There are countless children's story books about the wee creatures. However, they are still insects. In this post I want to share with you the awesome life cycle of lady bugs (you will never guess what they look like as babies!), their mouth parts/anatomy, and a few ideas for lessons or teaching materials.
Aristotle was a proponent of methodical science (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Science as a Practice
As a curriculum developer my nose is constantly buried in science education standards, notably the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which are slowly being adopted across the country. As I've been delving into these standards and other literature about teaching pedagogy ( which is the method or practice of teaching), I've noticed a clear shift away from the scientific method. If you're like me, then growing up the scientific method was the bread-and butter of your science classrooms, and you were taught to memorize the steps of the scientific method:
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolution of Sex
Dr. Ruth Meets David Attenborough
In honor of Valentines Day I thought I'd share with you one of my all time favorite books. It's called, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolution of Sex by Olivia Judson. The reason I like Dr. Tatiana is because she's written a book that I would consider as being the love child of Dr. Ruth and David Attenborough. It has tongue in cheek humor about animals and their unique reproductive problems. As her website suggests, it's "..witty but rigorous."
Sea anemone's have hydrostatic skeletons (a tube within a tube). (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Spineless Doesn't Mean No Support
Have you ever heard the words: "You're spineless?" While meant as an insult, it's actually a compliment in biological terms. You probably already know that some animals, like humans, have internal skeletons (endoskeletons), and some have external skeletons (exoskeletons), like insects. But the story doesn't end there, nature is much more complex and diverse. There is an entire class of organisms that has a type of skeleton, called a hydrostatic skeleton. It is just like the name implies, a static skeleton made of fluid (hydro).
One example of augmented reality using text images (Photo: Wiki Commons).
What is Augmented Reality?
As a science educator I often find myself walking a fine line between wanting kids to experience nature in person, unplugged and engaged with their surroundings. But, I can't turn a blind eye to technology. STEM science education is rapidly emerging as part of classroom requirements, and that includes tech. Besides, most of the kids I teach or write curriculum for were born with smart technology at their fingertips, and it's how they understand their world.
One of the newest technologies emerging for museums, science centers, engineering and design, and even advertising is augmented reality or AR. Augmented reality is a type of smart technology that superimposes a computer-generated image onto a user's view of the world using a smart phone, iPad, or camera on your computer. There are many different types of AR, but most require that you download an app to be able to see these over-laid images. You'll also a device with a camera (phone, tablet, or computer). The idea is that your device, using image cues, uploads a computer-generated video, 3-D image, photos/photo album, news-feed, or interactive animation. The computer program keys in on one of several types of cues in static images, these can be things like QR codes (those black and white boxes of smaller boxes you see everywhere), which is a symbol that is unique to the app you're using, or even a specific picture, image, artwork, or advertisement.
I know that trees aren't the fuzzy charismatic mega-fauna that most people adore and love, but they are an important part of our world, from ecosystem services to wood products and even the lowly toilet paper. Being able to walk into the woods and identify trees is like going into someone's home and saying hello to friends. It creates a familiarity with your surroundings and helps you to understand what is going on around you. For instance, the presence of willows means water and the presence of sweet gums means the land was probably disturbed in the not too distant past. All forests tell stories, you just have to know what trees you're looking at, and what their presence means.
The Arbor Day website lets you choose your region in North America (Photo: Arbor Day Website).
As the fall approaches, and corn crops are coming in, this is a timely post. Thanks for author Anne Littlewolf for this fun and whimsical guest post.
There is an old saying that the more complex the mind, the more important the need to play. This is probably one of the truest axioms of our world and so let's look at some of the traditions and treasures of toys and playing. In this post we will revisit the incredibly versatile corn, which you can read more about kernels and ears of corn in our previous post, and see that this amazing plant offers even more than just good nutrition. ...continue reading →
As an Educator, working in the field, or looking to fill conversation, I frequently turn to subjects that are close at hand. Often it's cumbersome to carry objects on a trail, you can't always find certain plants or animals when you need them (a general rule of thumb), and sometimes you just need to keep people's minds busy to avoid kids wandering off, people losing attention, or just "losing" your audience all together. One of the constants you can always talk about, especially at dawn, dusk, or for evening programs is the Moon. No matter where you are in the world, there it is. On top of this, the new Next Generation Science Standards have a strong component of space literacy too. Specifically they are targeting 1st and 5th grades, middle school, and high school. This program includes determining phases of the moon and determining distances in space. In this blog post we'll explore some quick moon facts, a fun exercise in proportion and size, and I'll provide you with some books and lesson plans that I like for teaching about the moon.
Resources for Teaching or Learning About Climate Change
This is a screen shot from NASA's website for kids and climate change. (Photo: NASA).
Global Climate Change Teaching Resources
One of the most challenging things to talk about, and teach, is the topic of climate change or less commonly known now as "global warming." This is especially true because in many places it's getting cooler and not hotter, wetter and not drier. This post is dedicated to some of the climate change teaching resources I've found useful.
First, you need a good definition of global climate change. Climate is the average, or overall, pattern of weather over a long period of time. There have been many changes in climate over the long history of the Earth, from hot to cold, but the global climate pattern is currently getting warmer. This means the ups and downs in the weather are getting more "up" and more "down" or hotter and colder than ever before, and they are staying that way, not changing. This up and down being caused by the trapping of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and these gasses come from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil. Teachers are trying to move away from using the term "global warming" because it does not accurately represent all of the ups and downs in weather patterns and trends, especially in places that are cooling!
One of the best resources I've found for teaching about how climate change works (for kids and adults) is from Robert Krulwich, and the NPR Climate Connection web site. He offers five short (5 minute) animated episodes that clearly lays out how climate change works. The series is narrated by Krulwich and follows a carbon molecule, even "in love" with its two oxygen molecules, and how they help trap heat on the Earth.
This is the carbon character from Robert Krulwich's NPR video series on Climate Connections (Source: NPR).
The Climate Connections series is a year-long exploration of climate change, and has an abundance of interviews, articles, and podcasts of information and research.
A house finch nest found with bluish white eggs (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Bird Nest and ID Suggestions
Often times, when walking in the woods, or tending a garden, you'll see a bird nest, but no bird, only eggs or hatchlings. Adult birds are quite savvy about spotting approaching humans, and often fly off and observe their nest from a distance, making it hard to identify which bird belongs to which nest. This post is a rough first start at identifying some common Eastern US bird nests, and some resources you can use to help you with your identification.
Before you begin looking:
Before you begin trying to figure out the bird nest that you have found, a few words of caution:
Predators can smell you. Even though smell is not as integral to our lives as predators like cats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, it's still something to be aware of. When you walk to a nest, or around it, you are leaving a scent trail, which is an open invitation to predators. Try to avoid going directly up to a nest, touching a nest, or walking around it to lessen the danger to baby birds.
Fox scenting rocks (Photo: Flicker sharing, James snyder).
If you can, watch the nest you find from a distance. Use binoculars to check it out, and try to keep away. If you inadvertently come upon a nest, then walk around in circles, and keep moving away from the nest. Stop at other random places, and try to leave a scent trail that does not stop at the nest. When doing bird research I would even take off my smelly shirt or socks and rub them on trees and rocks, well away from the nest, and walk on.
Do not reach into nests or remove eggs or fledglings. It's a myth that birds can actually smell you, or will abandon the eggs if they smell a human. However, the stress of having a predator touching and handling the eggs or young, may cause the parents to abandon the nest, so don't do it!
Helpful Plant Biology and Botany Book For Gardeners and Naturalists
As the gardening season swings into full bloom, I'm reminded that it's hard to find good basic information about botany, with the breadth and depth that most naturalists and gardeners desire or need (and not too much of what they don't want). Today's post is a short one, dedicated to a book I've found quite useful in my own garden. It's also a refresher for teaching botany classes and hikes, as well as a classroom tool. The book is called "Botany for Gardeners" and it is by Brian Capon. Currently it is in its 3rd edition, which was published in 2010, which is available in paperback, hardback, or in E-book format.
The reason I am recommending this book, is that it's an essential desktop companion for those wishing to understand plants, or those needing more understanding of the inner workings of their gardens. The author does not treat you like a professional botanist, using high level botanical jargon, but he also does not shy away from taking you into the biological basis of plant growth and development. He starts with plant cells and seeds and then progresses through roots and shoots. Through this book, you will learn the basics of how plant cells and cell walls work, as well as the laying down of xylem (water) and phloem (food) cells that supply nutrients. For me it was great to relearn how roots push their way through the soil and how apical buds unfurl. You can read about how plant growth, hormones, photoperiod, and nutrients affect plants, or you can deep dive into flowers and plant reproduction.
This book is a very simple and concise look at botany in a practical way. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a "gardening-how-to" book, it's about the nuts-and-bolts of botany and plant biology. It is meant as a primer and refresher of botany (especially useful for those that may have had botany years ago and forgotten). "Botany for Gardeners" is written as a high school and adult level. The focus is primarily on vascular plants, with some information on nonvascular mosses.
I've used this book for a plant taxonomy class for advanced biology students, ages 13-16. We didn't read the book from cover to cover, but I had them read sections to go along with the plant taxonomy we were learning. We especially used it during the first 1/2 of the class, which was based more on plant physiology and ecology. I would highly recommend ordering this book for your collection, whether you're leading plant-and-nature hikes or just interested in a deeper understanding of what grows in your garden.
How to Identify and "Call" Lightning Bugs or Fireflies
Photinus sp. (Photo: James Jordan, Flicker Sharing).
An "Enlightening" Conversation
As summer rolls around it's time again for the emergence of fireflies or lightning bugs. These benign insect ambassadors have been many children's introduction to the world of beetles and friendly insects. For today's post I will introduce you to the three most common groups of fireflies in the Eastern US and how you can use LED flash patterns to call the most common species to you. It makes a great lesson plan for evening programs or just something fun to do with the kids on a summer night.
Fireflies, or lightening bugs, are beetles (order Coleoptera). Unlike their cousins, that have hard-bodied elytra (ee-light-tra) or wing coverings. Their bodies and wings are relatively soft and they have leathery wing coverings. The are usually about 2 cm long, and blackish with reddish or yellow spots on their head covering. The head covering is also called the pronotum (pro-know-tum). Around the world, there are over 2,000 species of fireflies, and most live in tropical, moist and damp areas, in part because of their soft bodies. Lightning bugs are called this because their abdomens light up using a chemical process called bioluminescence.
In the Eastern US there are three common families of fireflies that we see, Photinus (Foe-tine-us), Pyractomena (Pie-rack-toe-mean-A), and Photuris (Foe-tur-is). You can distinguish them apart by looking at their head covering and their wings.
Naturalist's Apprentice Books: Exploring Unsung Naturalists and Inspiring Young Readers
Pond Watching with Ann Morgan is one of eight books in the Naturalist's Apprentice Series by Michael Elsohn Ross.
Delve Into the History of the Founders of Natural History
As a naturalist I've always prided myself in being self-taught, then going to school, later to teach, and then continuing my learning through teaching. However, I was never taught much about the people that made being a naturalist a possibility. There are many, many unsung heroes that contributed to the study of natural history that we have never been told about. Do you ever recall learning about the first woman to scientifically study aquatic invertebrates, or learning about one of the first Native American wildlife biologists and doctors, or maybe hearing about a famous African American entomologist? In the history of science, these important people are often glossed over. If you're like me and countless other naturalists, you were probably never given a history of your own natural history interests. This is why I want to share with you a wonderful series of books called the Naturalist's Apprentice Series by Michael Elsohn Ross.
An ant keeping his aphid "cows" safe. (Photo: K. McDonald)
Free and Low Cost Resources
As many of you know, I lead a double blogging life with my Citizen Science in the Classroom series on the umbrella citizen science site called SciStarter. If you haven't checked out their plethora of citizen science activities that you can get involved with, then head over to their site. In my series, I focus on specific citizen science projects and then help teachers figure out how to conduct those projects to meet grade specific, Next Generation and Common Core teaching standards. While writing my last post about a project called School of Ants, I was amazed at how little there is out there for teaching about ants. I had to do a great deal of digging to find teaching resources. But when I did, I found some great ones that I thought I'd share here. You can also check out my SciStarter blog post with Next Gen. and Common Core connections.
My favorite resource so far is Dr. Elanor's Book of Common Ants. This is a great free resource with wonderful illustrations, large ant pictures and close ups, and clear text. It's written for adults, but it's also kid friendly (4th-12th Grade). This book, along with a magnifying glass, is all you need to get yourself started with basic ant ID (or toss your kid outside with it and get them busy discovering on their own). I loved learning facts about pavement ants, winter ants, and the common little black ants called the "Odorous House Ant." Odorous house ants are the tiny little black sugar ants that come into the house. She suggests the "Squish-n-Sniff" for these guys because when you squish them, they smell good! This is how they got their names. How fun is that? If you are a naturalist at heart and want to learn more about ants, then this is the go-to resource.
Dr. Elanor's book is an amazing resource. (Photo: Your Wildlife)
Arizona State University has a great website on ants (Photo: ASU)
I also stumbled across a great video about ants on YouTube. It's called "ANTS-Natures Secret Power." It is a bit long to show in class (about an hour), but you could use segments or assign it as homework to the students.
I'd also like to suggest some of the following books:
There are many more books out there that are great, these are just a few. If you need magnifying glasses, ant farm kits, or other supplies, you can find resources on my "Nature Gifts and Teaching Supplies" page. The wonderful thing about ants is that they are everywhere and require very few materials to study and observe. Happy "anting" (this is actually a term used by birders when birds rub ants on their feathers for some unknown reason, but I think it applies here).
Beatrix Potter was a children's author, naturalist, and mycologist (studied fungus and mushrooms).
Those with Naturalist Skills Are Becoming Few and Far Between
During an interview I was asked about why I represented this blog as a resource for naturalists and educators. The interviewer was driving at the idea of, “What is a naturalist?" Because you rarely hear the term anymore. I started really chewing on this idea because it’s something that has been rattling around in the back of my head for a long time. I’ve noticed that naturalists seem to be a dying breed. Anecdotally it appears that there is a clear decline in those dedicated to natural history. Why are naturalists disappearing?
An Introduction to the Teaching and The Citizen Science Website Journey North
Journey North, a Citizen Science Website for Everyone
Journey North is a Citizen Science Website That Tracks Phenology (life cycle changes in plants and animals) and Seasonal Changes
Spring weather has briefly visited us this week, though the cold is coming back soon. But invariably we're seeing the first signs of Spring everywhere. This weekend the first osprey was spotted locally, geese are migrating, red-winged blackbirds are singing out their territories, and I heard a lone spring peeper. With thoughts of spring it's a good time to make you aware of a wonderful resource for citizen science. The website Journey North is designed as a tool for individuals and classrooms, as well as informal educators, to use for tracking seasonal changes and migrations. The term for tracking the seasonal life cycle changes of plants and animals is called phenology. This website provides the tools to track the phenology of robins, humming birds, whales, barn swallows, worms, first leaf-out, eagles, flowers blooming, caribou, whooping cranes, and so much more. They also specialize in providing tracking maps and information for recording seasonal changes in sunlight and weather.
Examples of projects found on the Journey North website and "teaching" pages.
An Introduction to Bats and Echolocation (and Tools to Use in the Classroom)
Bats Can Be Identified Through Their Unique Echolocation Patterns, They Even Have Dialects
Chirp, Chirp, Chrip Yall'
Desert long eared bat (Wiki commons)
As an undergraduate my introduction to field research was through bats. I studied under Dr. John Leffler, a student of EO Wilson, and spent countless hours recording bat sounds and trying to match their sounds to visual patterns that were species specific. If my life had gone differently I might still be studying bats and hanging from ropes welding bat gates. Even though I moved on from bats, to birds, and then outdoor education, I still have a mad passion for them and bat programs are one of my favorites. Thus, I'll do a series of posts on bats in the coming months in tribute to these amazing flying mammals. Today let's start with echolocation.
Visit National Parks in 3-D Pop-up With the new National Parks Pop-up Book
1930s Style Posters Illustrations Bring Parks to Life in 3-D National Parks Pop-up Book
I have a love and appreciation for all that our National Parks do for conservation and protection of wild-lands in America. And as an outdoor educator that has worked in National Parks (yes, I wore the Smokey the Bear hat) I also respect how hard the Rangers and staff work with very little resources and pay. These parks have been tasked with excellence in service, collaborations, citizen science, heritage education, employee development, management, research, technology, and more (https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/mission.htm). Of the 59 parks under NPS there have been over 282 million visitors each year, and the numbers are growing. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw over 10 million visitors in 2012 alone. The golden Gate National Recreation Area had over 14 million visitors, and the Blue Ridge Parkway had over 15 million visitors (National Parks Traveler).
Dr. Seuss Nature Books and TV Show on PBS for Children
Science and Nature in Verse
Dr. Seuss books of Science and Nature.
Growing up I always loved the Dr. Seuss books, especially the "Cat in the Hat," which is why I'm excited to say that there is a set of Dr. Seuss nature books for the next generation of kids. PBS has teamed up with Dr. Seuss artists and writers to create a series called "The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That," which is a science and nature series of books, animated short films (30 minutes), and lesson plans for elementary school students.
Picking a Feather off the Ground May Get You Jail Time
Migratory Bird Treaty Act Makes Collecting Bird Feathers Illegal, the Feather Atlas from USFWS Can Help
Often times when leading hikes I see visitors in my programs pick up bird feathers and want to know if they can take them home. I have to answer that by law, it's illegal. Most people are shocked to find out that picking up bird feathers, moving bird nests, or taking carcasses for stuffing is illegal. This is because of something called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Uncover Books offer a range of books for kids (and adults) interested in knowing what goes on inside of animals.
As we're approaching Christmas, and attention is turning once again to holiday shopping and ideas I wanted to review a series of books that I've found to be a great supplement to my classes and that kids absolutely love. They are called "Uncover Books." The books are a hybrid of the models you made as a kid of the clear human body and a board book. But these books are much more.