Monday, October 17, 2011

On a Construction Hiatus...

We have been in the middle of a number of inside and outside remodeling and construction projects that have taken a lot of time that I previously spent blogging -- life happens!

FIRST: The office/"learning space" --

WE are very happy with our efforts in the new homeschool/office space, which included installing a new ceiling, painting walls, floors and trim, installing carpeting, building office furniture, and some miracles that were wrought with drywall tape, spackle and hope.

 Many parts of the "re-do" were a family effort. Our eldest son helped his mother (who is not a good starter) get the old ceiling prepared and the new ceiling installation started. He is a delightful co-worker (and strong and handsome, too!).

The finish was a little tricky, as there is really nothing square about the room (the house was built in 1896). But my husband says, "Who looks up there in the corner, anyway?"

Along the way, I had to get creative, where gravity and time had caused some gaps to form between ceiling and wall, and wall to wall. These things they don't teach you on HGTV!

As you can see from the photo to the right, we didn't do too bad a job. We'll work on the light fixture at another time -- electricity is one area where I like to leave it to professionals!

Painting is my favorite part of remodeling. I used neutrals so I could use colorful accents and change them as I got tired of the old colors. The rug my husband bought is very soft, and beautiful (you can't see it in any of the photos... sorry).

The floorboards are the original wide boards, hammered in with those squared nails that they used in the Victorian era.

We had new windows installed on the second floor a couple of years ago - each one a unique size and shape. Don't you just love old homes?

Victorian era homes don't have a lot of storage space, simply because folks didn't have a lot of stuff to store, so we are constantly creating new and creative ways to store things. The house came with a lot of furniture that was left from previous tenants. While it was good and solid (not like what you buy now), one needs only so many dressers, so we re-purpose them as storage. I didn't feel like refinishing this time, so I got an idea from an BH&G magazine about creating a skirt for a piece of furniture. I used an old bedsheet, and use the drawers to store our homeschool materials, in bins.

I bought glass-topped office furniture, to make the room bright (it has two windows, north and east-facing, and is one of the sunnier rooms in the house -- something I desperately need in the winter). Here, you see my Bible study aids and my homeschool "tickler" files for the week, plus a timeline that we have to mount, when we get our bulletin board up. Oh, and the coffee. Must have coffee.

The room outside is the laundry room, which will get a redo later this month.

I store resources for homeschool in monthly boxes. The teaching angel was a gift from my mom when I got my first elementary school teaching position, many years ago. The fireman's hat was placed there by my husband, who insisted that every classroom needs a fireman's helmet.

He was my electrician for the installation of the temporary light fixture, and said he'll put in a new one, once I pick it out. He's a keeper.  He and my eldest son also picked out and transported the carpet. They're good Joes.
Because I use a laptop, I have lots of desk space on the L-shaped desk, so my little one and I can each have work space, and work back to back. He gets a lot more independent work done if I am working near him. This way, we are both comfortable. We'll need to get a beanbag or other comfy chair for his reading.

He loves to come in here to work during the day. It's sunny, and quiet, but not so far from the "action" to make him lonely (being close to the laundry room and bathroom keeps him in the loop!).

The wooden shoes were here when we moved in, and hold tools. The "LOL" paperweight is a gift from a former co-worker, and reminds me not to take work or homeschool so seriously that I forget about joy.

I always am on the lookout for a new and better system of organization. This seems to work so far. I need to build my last file bin, so I can get my work files out of the way.

This three bin system is working like a charm to foster independent work habits in our son. One basket has his independent work, which he does, with Papi's help, while I'm at work. The center basket is for finished work. Prior to moving in this room, I would have to hunt all over the house to find his work. Now, I never do.  The third bin is where I put things that I want to work on WITH him -- lessons, projects, games, etc. And the sticky notes are for directions. I never leave anything without a sticky note -- for Papi AND child!

I had a lot more on the shelves, then pared it down, so that there was more open space for trinkets, such as family photos. The urn contains magnetic letters for poetry. I need to get a magnetic dry erase board so we can use them -- they were a big hit with my older children -- we used to laugh at the poems that would appear, and then be re-arranged. We didn't always know who did it!

You can get the magnetic words at any bigger bookstore.

My son loves a morning message. Sometimes I ask him to write back. I usually draw, too -- he likes that!

I also like to leave a question or a "teaser" about what we are going to work on that evening, or something to review what we worked on the day before.

The surface of the re-purposed dressers makes a nice place for displays. We have a globe that needs to come here to live...

I love candles. You can't have them in a classroom, but you can have them in your home. The make it feel cozy. The apple paperweight is a gift from a former student. And the digital photo frame was a Mother's Day gift from my eldest son (the ceiling assistant).

It is important to make your homeschool space comfortable and a place of peace for you and your children. We live in a noisy city, so it's nice to have a quiet spot.

I bought an inexpensive garden stool years ago, and padded it, and covered it with a remnant of imported batik fabric from India, with the help of my mom. Now it serves as a perch for two of my cats, who particularly love to spend time with us in the "learning space." The stool is right beside my chair, so I can pet a kitty while I work. I think they're sleeping in my sock bin right now...

The dog likes to sleep under the desk, because he can look up at me through the glass.
Some additional treasures given to me by students over the years.

I like the book of affirmations. Homeschooling can be challenging, and discouraging, especially because those of us who homeschool have set a high bar for ourselves and our kids. I need to be reminded that I teach my children every day, even when we're not trying to "do school."

I bought a set of matching storage boxes at The Christmas Tree Shoppes years ago. They match the colors in the room (we're doing a lot of "I Beat Breast Cancer- Pink" this year), and make a great place to store stuff for my work contracts, so it is accessible but not out in the open. The pink file box is full of one contract.

My youngest son and I had some disagreements over color scheme, especially when he saw me looking at some hot pink, gauzy curtains the color of the file box in this photo. He said, "Oh, no no no no.... That is TOO girly!" So I bought spring green curtains with big white polka dots, as a compromise. He wasn't thrilled, but he is ok about it now!

When you live with a house full of men, you have to claim SOME girly space!
So back to organization... I thought about closet organizers, but they are expensive, and that would mean I'd have to deal with some really strange closet dimensions (the closets in a house this age are odd sizes). So I bought fabric "shelves" that are for storing clothing, and use those for storing office, work and homeschool supplies. They are much sturdier than you would think they are. I love it because I am prone to clutter, and then I can't think. The little "cubicles" fit my mind, and since the closet is right behind my desk, I can turn in my chair and get anything I need while we are working.

There is space on either side, and underneath, for bigger things, and my big books, which are always tricky to store.

I think we have bought five pairs of child's scissors in the past year. I think the dog ate two of them when he was a puppy. We find glue sticks without caps, pencils without erasers... staplers without staples. I solved that problem by hanging a fabric shoe holder over the back of the closet door. It looks nice if I happen to leave the door open, and holds all those teeny things that you need in an office or homeschool, and that you forget you have if you chuck them in a drawer.

The silver object to the bottom right is my Dynamo label maker -- the envy of my former office. Invaluable for organizing a homeschool or home office!

What did we do without Post-Its? I'll never know...

A very crafty former co-worker made and gave me the apple hanging. The mirror of the dresser adds to the lighting in the room. My husband wants to buy a chair to put in the room so he can hang out here, too. I think we did it!

Next steps:

  • Assemble the last file bin and store work files;
  • Build our gigantic bulletin board (which we are covering with an African quilted batik fabric);
  • Finish storing my school materials in the dressers.
  • Hang the other curtain;
  • Get some wall art up.
  • Get the re-roofing project wrapped up (we're not doing THAT one!).

I wanted to take some time to share our classroom make-over with you all... we'll be back to our regular "programming" later this week!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just Another Fall Day

Just a short note with some weekend updates:

See my web article, Bird Migration: A Study of Robins and Other Thrushes, for a description of our September study on the American Robin and other migrating thrushes that we see in our location.

We wrote it up as a Squidoo article instead of a blog entry, because it was a much larger project than our typical blog posts. Lots of possibilities for both homeschool and the science classroom.

We tried some new recipes this month.  Perhaps they would appeal to your folks in your house, too:
  • Easy Pecan pie (from the back of the Karo syrup jar)
  • A fresh tomato salsa (can't remember where we got the recipe)
  • BBQ chicken - corn tortilla pizzas (from Rachael Ray magazine)
  • Creamy Cholate Tofu Mousse (from Rachael Ray, also) -- delicious!
  • Eggplant and Zucchini parmesan (Rachael Ray)

We are excited about the Lego KidsFest at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, December 2-4, 2011. See the Lego KidsFest website for the dates the event will be in your area (NOTE: the tour begins this week in Raleigh, NC, so don't delay!).

The new office/homeschool "learning space" (as my youngest son calls it) has a new ceiling (finally!). The room is painted (walls and trim), ceiling-ed, and the floor has been shopvacced and washed. Floor painting will begin this evening. We'll keep you posted! We are very excited to have our own space, now.

Walls, trim and ceiling - done!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Make Room for Mushrooms

Fungi are a great fall study.
[Originally published 2011 - posted to Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival, September 2012 Edition]

On the news this morning, the weatherman said that we were 4 inches over our monthly average for rainfall, for September, and a whopping 20 inches over for the year, with the rainiest weather, and a chunk of snow, yet to come. No wonder I can't get my towels to dry!

The rain and our warmer than normal temperatures have produced an astonishing assortment of mushrooms, molds and other sorts of fungi and friends, and we've enjoyed greeting the newcomers each morning.

Here is a photocollage of our fall mushroom sitings, as well as some other creatures that are related to mushrooms, and some that aren't related at all! Come along...

Bracket and shelf fungi grow on dead trees.
Bracket (shelf) fungi are woody and tough, and grow on dead branches and tree trunks. Large ones, called artist conks, have a broad underside that darkens when etched with a sharp tool. They have been used as "palettes" by artists, because they dry and can be preserved indefinitely.

Bracket fungi are perennial -- you can observe growth rings in their flesh, especially on the larger ones. Individual specimens from 50-70 years of age have been collected. That's incredible!

Wayne's World has some great information on bracket fungi.

Indian-pipes are true plants.
If you are out on a mushroom hunt, you will probably spot these interesting specimens, called Indian-pipes. Although they look like fungi, they are actually true plants, but ones without any chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows plants to make their own food from sunlight. I have included them in this article, not just because they look like mushrooms, but because they depend on fungi to live.

Indian-pipes grown in woodland areas with a lot of dead and decaying leaves. However, unlike mushrooms and other fungi, Indian-pipes cannot digest the decaying leaves for food. And, as we already established, they cannot make their own food from carbon dioxide and sunlight. So the roots of the Indian-pipes grow on the mycelium (the hairy, underground "roots" of mushrooms) that live in harmony with the roots of some kinds of woodland trees (called mycorrhizal fungi). The fungus gets its food by digesting decaying plant materials, and the Indian-pipes siphon a little off for themselves. Ingenious!

Rare red form of Indian-pipes

We spotted a lot of Indian-pipes, but were thrilled to spot something I had never seen before -- a rare red variant of the Indian-pipes. I am not sure if it is localized, but there was a lot of it in the park where we hiked.

Indian-pipes turn black when they die back, but still look interesting.

Next time you are hiking in the late summer or early fall, look under pines, birches and other forest trees for these interesting, non-green plants.

Check out the great photos of Indian-pipes from Fairfax County Public School's website.

Mushroom that reminded me of shiitakes.

We spotted an interesting kind of fungus growing on the decaying trunk of a dead tree. It was not a bracket fungus, but a button type of mushroom. It reminded me very much of shiitake mushrooms.

Did you know that you can grow your own shiitake mushrooms, right in your back yard?  Shiitakes like to grow on wood, and all they really need is a wood pile and occasional watering. You can find lots of shiitake growing kits (minus the wood!) online, and can read more about how to grow shiitake mushrooms on the Mother Earth News website. This is actually on our list of things to try in our backyard (we have a beautiful saucer magnolia that creates too much shade for growing plants in one part of the yard, but would make a great mushroom shelter!). We'll keep you all posted!

We called this "The Puffball Stomp"
 Puffballs never cease to fascinate me. They come in all sizes, from the quarter-sized ones in the photo to the right, to ones the size of a dinner plate, as in the lead paragraphs of this article. My father-in-law used to collect larger ones when they were immature and still creamy white inside. He would slice them and saute them with butter (NOTE: We recommend hunting for mushrooms at your local supermarket, where it's safer!). When ripe, they develop a small pore on the top side, and discharge their spores by the billions when struck by raindrops, animals, or seven-year-old boys.

The world's largest puffball was spotted in England in 2010. Have a look!

Stinkhorns, the "back to school" mushroom!

We used to live in a house on a 2-acre wooded lot. Our driveway meandered between oaks to the road, where the two oldest boys would wait for the school bus. Every September, we would spot stinkhorns sprouting up alongside the driveway, as we stood waiting for the bus to take the boys to school. So, in my mind, I think of stinkhorns as the "back to school" mushroom. Weird, huh?

Stinkhorns begin their lives as a round ball, that resembles a potato that has been partially buried in the ground. By the next morning, the full stinkhorn has erupted forth from its papery sheath, and, by the next day, it has collapsed in a mushy heap. A far cry from the 50 years the bracket fungus hangs around!

Stinkhorns get their name from the nasty smell they exude, which smells like rotting meat, and which attracts flies and, especially, beetles, which distribute the spores.  Stinkhorns love to grow wherever you place woodchips as mulch.

The beginnings of a crop of stinkhorns.

The Mushroom Expert has some photographs of this incredibly diverse group of fungi. Despite their name (and their odor!), there are some truly beautiful members of this group. Check out the photos of the flies and other carrion eaters that are attracted to these malodorous fall fungi.

The end of the short life of a stinkhorn.

Wildman Steve Brill also has a great page on stinkhorns. Check it out. Believe it or not, people have tried eating these -- there are no known poisonous ones. However, they really do smell like something that you wouldn't want to eat, and they are covered with a slime when they emerge -- so I'm thinking Stop and Shop might be a better option...

Honey mushrooms

Honey mushrooms often are spotted growing in a ring that seems to spring up overnight. These rings of mushrooms have long been called "fairy rings," and are said to be the places where woodland sprites gathered the night before. In actuality, they sprout up in a ring because they grow on the decaying roots of a tree long since dead. They can form quite large rings in some places. There are many kinds of mushrooms that make "fairy rings."

Fairy Ring Folklore and Garden Fairy have more information about the origin of the folklore about fairy rings.

Actinomycetes, a fungus-like organism
There are things that grow in the soil that LOOK like fungi, but are not. When we were exploring for citronella ants last week, we discovered a beautiful specimen of actinomycetes, a fungus relative that grows like the mycelium of fungi, except does not typically produce what we might recognize as a "fruiting body," like a mushroom. Actinomycetes are the organism that is really responsible for decaying most woody plant material (in reality, fungi are not very good at this, but depend on actinomycetes to begin the job for them). These are also the microorganisms that let our noses know that it is going to rain. When the weather is damp, the organism grows rapidly, and produces that characteristic "rainy day" smell.

I just love the website How Stuff Works. Of course, it has an article on "What Causes the Smell After Rain?"  which gives some additional information about the biology of actinomycetes.


Okay, we just have to share this really gross but true biology story with you. My youngest son gets Ranger Rick magazine (a gift from Grandma). Whenever a new edition comes in the mail, he chooses that for his independent reading for homeschool. We were finishing our ant nature study last week, and had taken a bunch of photos of mushrooms for our mushroom study. So imagine our delight to find an article that combined the two. (But wait until you hear HOW)...

It appears that there is a kind of fungus, called Cordyceps, that grows in the tropics, that infects the brains of ants (and other insects). The infected ants become "possessed" by the fungus as it germinates and infects their brains, and they begin wandering, zombie-like, in search of a particular kind of plant, which the fungus needs to produce spores. With its last movement, it chomps down on a leaf of this plant, and becomes unable to move. What happens next is so bizarre, it is like something out of a horror movie.

As the ant sits paralyzed, the fungus produces its fruiting body, which erupts like a spike through the ant's head, spearing it to the leaf. The ant, now incapacitated, eventually dies. The fungus then produces spores, and starts the process all over again.

So virulent is this fungus, that ants who spot an ant "zombie" will quickly carry it far away from the colony, before the fungus can fruit and release its spores.

Isn't that gross?  But what a spooky "truth is stranger than fiction" story for your October science class... Check out this You Tube video to see Cordyceps in action...


On that note, tune in next week for a (hopefully) less gruesome study of the phases of the moon.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Blog Carnival Extended (Thanks, Irene!)

Due to the delayed opening many of my teacher friends on the East Coast experienced as a result of Hurricane Irene, the Blog Carnival closing date for the September Carnival has been extended to October 14, 2011.

I know many, many of you have been accessing the September Newsletter and nature study posts, and I do not want people to feel rushed to complete their studies.

Remember to use the linking tools (Mr. Linky and The Little Green Corner Blog Carnival link) in the sidebar, to the right.

Have a terrific last week of September!


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Citronella Ants Go Marching

Originally published, 2011. Edited and submitted to Simple Science Strategies September 2012 Blog Carnival.

When we moved into our 1896-built brick American Foursquare home in 2004, we discovered a pile of bricks in the basement. We also discovered a neglected backyard that looked like the jungle scenes in Predator: hibiscus hedges grown 10-feet high, bittersweet vines rambling over the tops of everything, moss growing beneath the undergrowth.

Being a gardener, I set out to turn our city yard into a little green corner of rest amid the parking lots and multifamily homes of our neighborhood. My husband provided the brawn and the hedge management, and I set about to restore the flower and vegetable gardens that my father-in-law had planted many years ago. And, being a nostalgic kind of girl, I grabbed bricks from that pile of leftover bricks from the house, to help define the edges of the beds.

One side benefit of this edging being everywhere is that it makes a ready-made exploration center for little boys (and their mom!). My son and his friends regularly spend mornings systematically turning over each brick, seeing what kind of interesting creatures they can find. One permanent resident of the brick edging in our yard is the citronella ant.

For our September study, we decided to modify the One Small Square activity a little, and we used each brick as an observation "square." We worked our way around one flower bed, noting all the organisms that we saw along the way, including our citronella ant friends. Instead of sketching in our nature journals, we photographed the things we saw, and reviewed the photographs later.

[Note: I have previously mentioned that my little guy, while he loves science and nature study, does not have the patience all the time to sit and observe quietly. So we are practicing sitting still and observing in small doses, but photographing what we observe allows us to also go back and "revisit" an observation at our leisure. This has been invaluable for us as we practice our skills of observation, and has also led to my son deciding to go back outside to the spot, to get more firsthand information. I've also used photojournaling as a learning strategy with kindergartners on nature hikes -- they move fast and miss things, and the photographs help jog their memories later.]

What is a Citronella Ant?

Lasius (Acanthomyops) claviger (
Citronella ants are a medium sized ant (smaller than carpenter ants, and larger than black or red ants), that can frequently be observed at this time of year, parading in a very long file from across the yard, sometimes up the side of a house or over a rock wall, as they move from a summer abode to a fall lodging. The first time I saw citronella ants, there was a line of thousands of them strolling between an old stump in the flower bed that we observed this month, across the yard and up the side of our house. Their size and color made me panic, as they resemble termites!

I looked them up on the Internet that year, and learned that, if you rub or squash a citronella ant, it gives off the odor of oranges, which gives it its name. So, much to my relief, a "field test" of this strategy showed me that we did not have an infested home, but a harmless wanderer in search of a winter cabin in the woodchips at the edge of the yard. Citronella ants are not a household pest -- they rarely move into homes for the winter, as other ants might, and do not come into homes to forage. They alarm people, usually in the fall, because they travel in a huge quantity for a few days, then they go back to their private habits again.

We have a large citronella ant colony that moves around one part of our yard -- we study them often.


Our Photo-Study of Citronella Ants
(all photos Kim Bennett/One Big Happy Family (c) 2011, except where otherwise noted)

A brick edge makes a great "small square"

Science Process Skill:

Method of Data Collection:

Materials Needed:
Digital camera
Clipboard and observation sheets (optional)

We took our camera outside, and began at one end of a flower bed, turning each brick as we went. Here are some of our more interesting observations from our modified "One Small Square" activity.


What evidence of ant activity can you see?

What do you look for when observing wildlife?

We can tell that a creature has been present in four different ways:

  • direct observation of the animal
  • tracks of the animal
  • scats left by the animal
  • other signs of the animal's presence
Here, we see lots of signs of ant presence (tunneling), but not many ants.

More signs of ant activity

What's a track, and what's a sign?

Sometimes, when we study larger animals, we see the actual impressions that their feet leave in the soil, mud, snow or creek bed. These are animal tracks, which tell us a lot about the size, activity and habits of the creature we are studying. You can learn more about animal tracks in "Follow Those Tracks!" 

Of course, when you study tiny creatures, such as ants, you will not see tracks. So you need to look for other evidence of their activity and movement, such as tunneling, body marks, claw scratches, gnawed wood, shed skin or tufts of hair. These other traces of the animal's presence are called signs. Ants leave lots of signs of their activity, and their tunnels are very interesting to study.

Who else lives here?
Learning from neighbors...

Sometimes, we come upon other living things in the vicinity of our target organism. All the creatures that inhabit a particular area are part of that area's ecosystem, which includes the living and non-living elements that exist in harmony with one another in a particular part of a habitat (See The Power of Observation: Life in a Tiny Ecosystem for a similar study of the life on, around and under a rotting log).

This white grub is the larval stage of a beetle (probably a June bug or rose chafer). It hangs out, eating plant roots. A few black ants are visible.

Direct observation of citronella ants
Direct Observation

What you are really hoping for when you set out to observe a living thing, is to actually see it with your own eyes (or at least your video equipment!). When this happens, you are making a direct observation of the organism -- you are not looking at tracks (footprints), scats (droppings), or other signs, but the actual creature of interest.

In this photo, we can directly observe another white grub, an earthworm, a centipede, and some citronella ants caring for eggs (at the center, right).


Did you know about...?

The next time you are exploring the life underneath a rock, log or other object, look for white, fuzzy or root-like material at the surface, just beneath the object that you turned over. Most people think this material is the root system of a plant, or is fungus. In actuality, this is a fungus-like organism in the group called actinomycetes. Actinomycetes are very fond of wood for food (in fact, fungus isn't very good at digesting the cellulose in wood, so any time wood rots, actinomycetes are involved). They are the organisms that give fall it's characteristic smell, and that let your nose know that it's going to rain (these critters love damp weather, and wet leaves or spring rain cause them to give off an odor that we all recognize).

The yellowish "blobs" in the photo are masses of actinomycete "bodies."

You will learn more about actinomycetes in another blog entry.

Citronella ants hard at work
Ants are social insects

One of the neat things about an ant study is you can learn more about the life of a social insect.  Social insects live in large groups, usually centered around one fertile female (the "queen"), with a number of workers (infertile females) and some males. Ants live in a social group called a colony. where individual ants all assume a particular role to keep the colony alive, protected and healthy.

Here, you can observe a group of ants entering and exiting from one entrance to the underground colony.

You can see this cooperation at work through a little experiment. When you find the entrance to a colony, gently cover the hole with some soil (it's ok -- ants have multiple entrances to their colony). Nearly immediately, you will observe the ants nearby stop what they were doing, and open the entrance again. Then they will get back to their original activity. Very cool.

Global Newt has a number of online games that are based on social insects (bees, ants and termites). Learn about life in one of these family groups as you play.

Ants communicate with one another
Communication in social insects

In the Arthurian tale, The Once and Future King, a young King Arthur (referred to as "Newt" by his mentor, Merlin the Magician) is turned into a number of different types of living things, so that he can gain wisdom from learning about their lifestyle. In one chapter, he becomes an ant (an experience he doesn't enjoy), and learns how ants communicate with one another.

If you observe citronella ants or any other ants, you will see that they approach one another very closely, and actually touch when they meet. You might even see them rub their antennae together, or exchange material mouth to mouth. Ants use their antennae to communicate information to one another, to recognize one another (so intruders are kept out of the colony), and to sense their atmosphere in other ways. Many types feed one another regurgitated food.

You can read more about the communication and behavior of ants at Ant Farms.

Winged ants

At this time of year, you might observe some of the ants in your area sporting a set of clear, long wings, as some in this photo have.

Sometimes an ant colony will grow too large, or will need to move. Some ants are raised in the colony which, unlike the workers, are able to reproduce. These include some females, and a lot of males. These winged ants reproduce and the females become new queens in new colonies. Winged ants are often seen late in the summer, as the colony prepares for wintering.  Once the ants get to their new home, the wings drop off.

The Colorado Cooperative Extension Service has an informative article on flying ants that explains more about this phase of a colony's life.

Enchanted Learning has over 300 separate items on ants, including diagrams, life cycle mini-books, and fables that can be used to supplement an ant study. Our ant study led into our mushroom study, which you will see in the next blog entry, so we did not spend as much time on notebooking with our ant study, as we have in the past with bird studies.

The Notebooking Treasury has a beautiful set of Nature Study Notebooking pages which we regularly use for documenting our nature study activities. This set includes generic observation pages, insect pages and diagrams, and pages for documenting the life in and around a log.

Check back soon for our next blog on mushrooms, fungus and the strange case of the "zombie ant".

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Friday, September 23, 2011

September Study 3: Migration

I don't know what the weather's like where you live this week, but it's been unseasonably warm and tropical here in Connecticut, and, right now, it is pouring. Despite the warm turn, we see the flora and fauna around us listening to a different message, as they begin to prepare for cold weather which is soon to come.

September is an excellent opportunity to begin a year-long study of migration.  Here is a suggested outline for the fall portion of a migration study, with ideas on how to follow it up in the spring.


Background Information
The Handbook of Nature Study has an overview of bird migration on pages 35-37; for information on the migration of monarch butterflies, check page 305.

An excellent research to consult all year is American Robin: Journey North, a collection of pages with photographs of the robin lifecycle, range and migration maps, downloadable recording sheets for classroom use, newsletters and more. Even if you decide to study an animal other than the American Robin, you will get a lot of ideas on how to organize a year-long migration study.

Migration Basics, by the National Parks Service, is an excellent overview of migration, and covers many kinds of animals besides birds and monarchs. There are also many links to activities for home and classroom.

Beginning the Study in September

1. Choose an animal to study.

First, do some research to find out what animals that live near you migrate in the fall. One of the best sources of information is your wildlife field guide. Find a creature that you see regularly in the summer, and look up its range on the range map in the field guide. If your creature has separate winter and summer ranges, it migrates. Some animals migrate incredible distances, while others move just enough to keep up with their food supply.

  • Look up migration online or in a book from the library. What animals migrate where you live? What animals in other parts of the world migrate?
  • Do these animals all migrate for the same reason?

2. Watch for signs of impending movement:

Animals usually change their behavior when migration is imminent. For example, many migrating birds will begin to congregate in large groups. Begin by counting the number of the creature you see in your yard each day. You should see that the number increases, or you will start seeing large groups gathering in parks, school yards, or other open areas. You may notice a large group of birds coming into your yard to eat berries or other foods that you have in the yard.

  • What animals do you see gathering in larger numbers than in the summer?
  • What are they doing when they're in the large group? When do they gather? Do they gather all day, or just in the evening to roost?
  • Are there males, females and young birds? Or are the males and females separate?
  • When did you begin to see them gather?

3. Start noticing the weather:

Scientists don't know all the things that trigger migration instincts in animals. But we do know that changes in the seasons are connected. Vultures will often take flight on a warm, sunny day after a cold spell, because they ride "thermals," columns of warm air that rise from the ground, to get to soaring heights. You will see several all spiraling slowly into the sky in a column -- very cool to see. So start keeping track of the weather. 

  • What's the weather like when they gather? Is it warmer and sunnier than usual, or colder? Did the weather change suddenly?
  • Was the weather cold for a period of days before you noticed the animals gathering?

Collect Data

Create a data table. Count the number of your animal you see each day (your dependent variable), and some other factor that you think has something to do with migration (your independent variable -- ideas include air temperature, sunny/cloudy weather, day length...).

Some sites, like American Robin, include places for "citizen scientists" to submit their data. Also check out Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology for projects that involve volunteer data collectors who watch bird movements throughout the year.

Don't forget to sketch, take photographs and journal about your observations. Enchanted Learning has migrating animal printables to add to your notebook. The American Robin site has Resources to Explore that include many items that can be used in a homeschool or classroom migration study.

Use a migration study as an opportunity to do some map work. Incorporate range and sightings maps into math and geography. Calculate distances traveled for math. Practice using a map key, a map scale and legends.

Extend Your Learning
Do more research about your animal:
  • Where does your animal go when it leaves your area? 
  • Find your home and the animal's winter home on a map. How far does your animal travel?
  • What does the animal do when it gets to its winter home? 
  • Does your animal change color before or after it migrates? Why or why not?
  • When the animal returns in the spring, do the males and females come back at the same time?

Share Your Study

When you finish your September observations of your migrating species, tell us how you documented your study. Post the link to your blog in Mr. Linky, and submit your blog post to The Little Green Corner Blog Carnival (see the sidebar to the right).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Feeding the Birds: An Experiment (or Two...)

We just love the birds in our yard. We live in the city, but we have a large lot because our house used to be a multifamily home. We cram as much of the natural world into our yard as we can, and plant it with things that will attract birds and butterflies.

As part of our study of Exploring Creation Through Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day, we conducted an experiment on seed preferences of our backyard birds (Lesson 2: "What Makes a Bird, a Bird?"). This was also a connection to the September Edition of the Handbook of Nature Study Newsletter: Weeds, Seeds and Other Delights. Here is how to conduct it in your backyard:


  • 2 styrofoam plates or 2 other identical "feeders"
  • 2 kinds of seeds (we used black oil sunflower seed and Niger thistle seed)
Note: We reviewed the terms dependent variable (seed preference) and independent variable (seed type), and introduced a new term, confounding. We reviewed the importance of having only one independent variable (the kind of seed), so it is very important that the feeders are the same. Otherwise, the difference in the feeders will introduce confounding into your experiment.

  • Place the feeders in an open space where they can be viewed.
  • Observe them, keeping track of how many visits each feeder gets. We observed our feeders over the following several days, and made a simple tally chart to record visits. As an extra, we decided to record the species of birds who visited each feeder, as well.
A little word on the experiments in Apologia Science's Young Explorers Series, from the scientist-mom:

When you conduct an experiment, you are testing to see the effect of you independent variable (here, seed type) on the dependent variable (seed preference).  In order to measure this, you are assuming that any differences in seed preference are ONLY due to the independent variable-- so you must make sure there are no other factors that could affect the dependent variable. If we put one feeder in a wide open space, and one under a shrub, then we introduce another factor which would affect birds' preference in the seed (i.e., availability of cover), and we can't say that the results were only due to the type of seed.

You will notice that the experiments in the Young Explorers Series (for elementary students) very simple and use common items. This is deliberate, so that you spend more time reviewing the principles and the scientific method. The directions for each experiment include a discussion of "big kid" scientific terms and concepts, and concentrate on methodology, rather than complicated equipment or steps, letting your child spend more time on the actual inquiry part of science.

When children are older (middle and high school), we will want them to follow complex, multistep procedures with precision. This is a skill, by itself. So, for now, we are keeping the procedures simple, so we can concentrate on the components of the scientific method.


  • Null Hypothesis: Seed type has no effect on the number of visits to each feeder.
  • Alternative Hypothesis: The type of seed affects the number of visits to each feeder.
Maliks' hypothesis: "I think the thistle seed will get more likes."


Here is how we set up our data table, and our results:

Niger Thistle Seed

Black Oil Sunflower Seed

English (House) Sparrow – II

Northern Cardinal – II
Mourning Dove – I



We  accepted our alternative hypothesis, that the type of seed influences bird seed preferences in our yard. Malik also concluded that different birds prefer different types of seed.

Sometimes, a picture says it all.

In a research paper, scientists then include a section called Discussion, where the scientist talks about the particulars of an experiment, what surprised him (or her), what didn't go as planned, and what adjustments would be made next time, to better test the hypothesis. This is also the section where the researcher tells what next experiments should be done, as a result of these findings. This section was not included in the lab report from the Apologia materials, but we included it. Here are the three areas that might have affected our results.

1. Human activities. When we first set up our experiment, my son asked, "But won't the birds fly away every time we open the screen door?" In fact, we did notice this, and it was challenging to actually catch the birds feeding, although it was clear they did.

2. Cat activities. As Malik put it in his conclusion, "The cats were on the ground, and so were the feeders."

3. Feeder location. We saw that the types of birds that came to the feeders were birds that don't mind feeding on the ground. My son expected goldfinches to come to the thistle seed, since we see them on the thistle feeder all the time, but they do not feed on the ground, and we didn't observe them.

We would repeat this experiment by hanging the feeders where we could observe them through a window.


In the photo, above, you can see the net bag that used to contain our Smart Suet. It was very popular with the birds (but a little soft in the heat -- we'll put the rest out once the weather gets cold). They pulled it off the hanger and finished it off.

The Handbook of Nature Study has some helpful hints about how to turn your yard into a haven for nature (pp. 43-44), and for the basics of beginning bird study with young children (p. 28). See also Barbara McCoy's blog by the same name, Handbook of Nature Study, for an article on Making Your Yard a Wildlife Habitat.