Friday, February 20, 2009

I'm moving to New York City

Just got word last weekend that we are moving to NYC. My husband will be working in midtown Manhattan and we will live somewhere north of the city. I am looking forward to the many new experiences that will come our way and it will be interesting to see how we can incorporate homeschooling and nature into it all. I will keep this blog up and running but may not be posting as frequently for the next several months.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winter Wednesday Evergreens

We are doing winter nature studies with the blog Handbook of Nature Study and this week our topic was evergreens. Because we were so interested in learning how to identify deciduous trees last week, we decided to stick with the same theme and work on identifying evergreens this week. We used The Tree Identification Book to help us sort out one evergreen from another.
Evergreens can be identified based on the type of needles they hold. There are three different needle types:
1)Needles growing in clusters growing from one place on the twig. If these clusters are held in bundles of 2, 3 or 5 needles, it is a Pine. If there are many needles in a cluster, the tree is a Larch.
2)Needles growing singly with only one needle attached to each spot on the twig. If the needles are 4 sided, it is a Spruce. If they are flat, they can be either a Fir, Yew, Hemlock. or Bald Cypress.
3) Scalelike or Prickly Needles. If the needles are scalelike they are either a White Cedar or an Arborvitae. If the needles are either prickly or scalelike or a combination of both, then the tree is a Red Cedar.
After you determine what type of needle type you are looking at, you can further identify the tree based on its twigs, cones and more specific leaf arrangements. Ryan and I looked for an example of each needle type when we were out investigating evergreens.
Here is a example of a tree that holds its needles in clusters. Because there are 5 needles in each cluster on this tree, we determined that this is a White Pine.

If you click on the picture above, it should enlarge so that you can see the book better and look at samples of leaves that are held in clusters.

Above is a tree that has its needles growing singly. Because the needles are 4 sided, we identified it as a Spruce of some sort.

The page above shows trees that have needles growing singly. On a different page we were able to compare actual sized spruce cones and determine that the tree we were identifying was a Colorado Spruce.

Shown above is a tree which has scalelike leaves. After comparing the examples of scalelike needles, we determined that this tree is an Arborvitae.

The picture above shows the different types of scalelike or prickly leaves and what evergreens they are associated with.
If your kids like playing detective, they will enjoy learning how to identifying trees. If you are doing winter botany, I would suggest starting out with the evergreens because they are easier and work your way up to the deciduous trees. Enjoy!
If you are interested in seeing my other Winter Wednesday posts, please click here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The picture above shows a forest restored to its original condition and cleared of Buckthorn after my son's Mighty Acorn's class cut out this invasive species from a section of Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve. Buckthorn, which is not native to our area, shades out native wildflowers which typically carpet the forest floor and prevents them from flowering.
These kids, all aged 12 and under, managed to remove quite a pile of debris. I was proud of the work they did and look forward to seeing the results of their efforts when wildflowers poke their heads up from the ground and bloom this spring.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The World of the Winter Sky

After being robbed of the opportunity to do star gazing last week due to light pollution, we found success tonight over at Peck Farm Park. The Fox Valley Astronomical Society was having their monthly Star Party and we headed over to look through their many different telescopes set up for public viewing.

The club members were fantastic- welcoming us and pointing out stars and constellations in the night sky. It was a beautiful clear night and we were able to see the moon with its craters, the planet Venus, the constellation Orion, and many other stars. Due to the brightness of the moon, it was hard to see some of the stars located near the moon but we didn't mind. We had a few of Ryan's friends in tow and the kids loved looking through the telescopes and seeing everything up close. What a great experience. We will be sure to head out there again next month. If anyone has any suggestions for a good guide to the night sky for beginners, I would appreciate hearing about it. Thanks.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Beautiful Day!

A break in the cold weather allowed Ryan, Layla and I to get out of the house today without wearing our winter coats. After months of bundling up, it felt good to leave the house with only sweatshirts on as we headed over to Peck Farm Park. During our walk, we identified some trees and looked for animal tracks.
In a more remote area of the park, we came across rabbit fur- all that was left over from a predator's meal. At this time last year, in about the same place, we discovered fresh blood and rabbit fur and wondered if it was a coyote or maybe a hawk that had killed the rabbit. As the snow was disturbed, it was difficult to tell. With snow on the ground, Ryan and I have an easier time finding signs of animal activity than we do when the ground is bare. We find it interesting to try and figure out what an animal was up to as we look at its burrow or tracks in the snow.
Back in the parking lot, Ryan and Layla couldn't help but climb the snow pile created by a snowplow...a fitting end to a nice walk on the prairie.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Winter Wednesday Tree Explorations

The blog Handbook of Nature Study has been offering an online class we have been participating in. This week's chapter in the book Discover Nature in Winter talks about the world of deciduous trees and in particular, how to identify them in the winter. Most tree books use leaves as a way of identifying tree types yet in this chapter, it explains how it is possible to I.D. winter bare trees by observing their branching characteristics, bark, seeds and clues found on twigs.

The last few days have been brutally cold, so even thinking about going outside and looking at trees has not sounded like much fun. But today it warmed up to 28, so we headed out. The book discussed birch trees so I was determined to find them even though I hadn't noticed many in my travels. Luckily after Ryan's archery class, we spotted a paper birch (Betula papyrifera) which had been planted many years ago by the archery club and quickly snapped a shot of it shown above.
Later, on our way home, we discovered many river birches (Betula nigra) used in home landscapes along the way and Ryan managed to snap a picture of the grouping above as we drove by. What frustrated us though was the vast majority of trees we could not identify. I felt especially silly because I have taken a tree I.D. class in the past, yet seem to have only retained residual knowledge. Luckily, I kept all of the reference guides and I pulled them out the minute we got home.
The picture above shows Ryan using a magnifying glass to look at a leaf scar on the twig of a paper birch. I told Ryan that each species of tree has a different leaf scar which can be used to help in identification- just like how humans have fingerprints. The book "Woody Plants in Winter" by Core and Ammons features line drawings of leaf scars for all trees along with a key used to identify woody plants. After spending some time looking at tree reference books and learning how to tell the different birch species apart, we decided that we would like to continue our investigations and learn more about other tree genera.
Here are the reference books we used in today's explorations with links to Amazon if you are interested:
-Woody Plants in Winter by Core and Ammons gives a key useful in identifying trees in the winter along with showing leaf scars.
-The Tree Identification Book by George W.D. Symonds. This book shows closeup pictures of the bark, fruit, branching habits, and twigs of trees. If you were going to only purchase one of these books, this should be the one.
-Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr This book has lots of written information and has color pictures of trees in both winter and summer, along with its fruit and flowers.
-Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael A. Dirr A great guide that gives descriptions of leaves, cones, habit, growth rate etc...
This Winter Wednesday activity has stoked our interest in the trees of our area and I look forward to our continued explorations. I am especially interested in discovering the name of a particularly majestic craggy branched tree I see quite often in these parts. I think it is some kind of an oak.
To see past Winter Wednesday posts, please click here

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A more accurate depiction

My last post about the barns within a mile of my house, gives the feeling that I live in a rural hamlet somewhere when in reality I don't.
My town, perched precariously on the westernmost edge of Chicago's sprawl, does have many remnants of its agricultural roots. But sadly, these rural images are slowly giving way to views of strip malls, subdivisions, and traffic.