Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ten (10) Fall Nature Studies: What the Leaves Have Kept Hidden

Fall sunrise in Connecticut (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

We have been enjoying exploring what the leaves of summer have been hiding from us for the past several months. Here are some of the surprises and interesting finds from the past week or so -- each one a potential in-depth study for the next month.

Top Ten Tuesday at Many Little Blessings

1. Lichens & Mosses

These can be harvested to make terrariums, even in the fall. Interesting questions that can be explored, even in the cold seasons:

  • Do mosses really grow more on the north sides of tree trunks?
  • What kinds of lichens grow in my area? Where do they grow?
  • What is a lichen, exactly?
  • How is the life cycle of a moss like that of a seed-bearing plant? How is it different?
  • How do mosses and lichens fit in an ecosystem? Are they producers (they are green, after all)? Are they consumers? Are they decomposers?

Barbara McCoy has a great lichen and moss study at the Handbook of Nature Study.

British soldiers lichen (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012

2. Bark & Vines

Last fall, we took advantage of an unseasonably warm day in early March to take a "bark walk," studying the vines and bark of the trees on the nearby Blue Trail. Either one of these could be a huge study. We ended up focusing on the many faces of the ubiquitous poison ivy on our bark and vine walk.

Poison ivy, or other bark & vines, make a great fall nature study. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

3. Owls

We have been enjoying hearing the owls of Connecticut, right in our backyard, for the past couple of weeks. We are all early risers, so we are serenaded each morning, from about 4:00 a.m. until sunrise, by great horned owls and long-eared owls, and regularly encounter owls silently swooping over the roads when we drive in the evenings.

We use the Apologia Science Exploring Creation series with our youngest son, and found that All About Birds, a web page from Cornell Univerity's Laboratory of Ornithology, makes a great accompaniment to the Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day textbook. Read more about owls, and hear owl calls.

In the November edition of the Simple Science Strategies Newsletter, we feature books in the One Day series, by Jean Craighead George, nature writer and children's author. Here is another novel, with a nature theme, that was always a favorite of my students and my own children, by the same author. Click on the image, for ordering information.

 Barnes & Noble, $16.00

4. Buds

When I taught horticulture students at The Ohio State University, we had three plant identification courses: woody trees and shrubs (a fall class), evergreens and winter identification of trees and shrubs (a winter class), and herbaceous plants (a spring class). In the winter, we would revisit previously learned trees and shrubs, only using their habits, twig markings and buds to identify them. Very challenging!

Winter buds can be very colorful, as well. Certain shrubs and trees that bloom very early in the spring can be cut in the late fall and winter, and brought inside to force the blooms open.

Champaign County (Illinois) Cooperative Extension Service has a nifty pocket guide on winter identification of trees and shrubs. The .pdf is full color, and also teaches about leaf and bud arrangement (did you know that there are only a few woody species with an opposite leaf arrangement?).

Colorful buds challenge our identification skills in fall and winter (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

5. Fruits and Berries

I love cutting wildflowers to bring inside after our nature hikes. In the fall and winter, I cut branches with fruits and berries, or colorful buds, instead. Last fall, I cut some multiflora rose branches with "hips" (berries), and put them in a vase on the kitchen windowsill. They rooted! No wonder it is an invasive species...

If you are a birder, it is interesting to notice which plants attract birds to your yard in winter. Some plants, like hollies and winterberries, are full of bright red fruits, but the birds only eat them very late in the winter and early in spring, when they absolutely have to. Others, like blueberries, barely get a tinge of blue before they are stripped bare by all kinds of wildlife.

If you decide to study the fruits, download a set of my "Apple a Day" notebooking pages to go along with your study.

Colorful fruits and berries brighten the fall landscape. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

6. Old Birds' Nests

We often suspect that we have nesting birds in the yard, because we see mom and dad and their little ones coming to the feeder in the summer, or we watch adults zipping back and forth with wriggly snacks in their beaks.

In the fall, when the leaves have fallen, we can often spot exactly where the nest was, as its hiding place is revealed. Sometimes, fall and winter weather, such as our recent hurricane, blow nests from their hiding spots, so we can study them up close.

One fall, my older boys collected a series of nests on our screen porch. This is a great nature activity when the outside world seems to be sleeping. A word of caution: do not bring the nests inside, as most wild birds are full of mites, which infest the nest, and are definitely NOT something that you want to wake up from their slumber in your house, as they warm up inside. Consider getting a field guide just about nests, to add to your field guide collection. (I love the Peterson guides... Click on the image for ordering information. )

Barnes & Noble $20

Did you know that...
  • Robins use grass and mud to make their nests, but the amount of mud varies with the weather, from nearly all grass if the weather is dry, to full of mud, when things are rainy?
  • Great-crested flycatchers almost always include a snakeskin in their nest cavities? (No one really knows why)
  • A male Northern oriole starts his nest, a bag of woven grass that hangs high in a tree, and uses the beginnings of the nest to lure a female as a mate?
  • Tufted titmouses line their nests with fur, even plucking hair from unsuspecting animals as they go about their daily affairs?
  • Hummingbirds make their tiny nests from lichens and spider webs?
  • Bald eagles add branches to their massive nests each year, until the sheer weight of the nest, or bad weather, topples it?
  • Crows, normally raucous and boisterous, fly silently to their nests, to avoid detection by predators?
  • Blue jays like to weave colorful bits of trash and other "finds" into their nests?
  • Mourning doves create a disheveled nest from loosely piled twigs and leaves?
  • Turkey vultures lay their eggs on a bare rock ledge?
  • Towhees create a nest in a leaf-lined depression on the ground?

Our oriole friends hide their nest high in a tree -- Hurricane Sandy blew last year's down for us to study. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

7. Rock Walls

Living in New England means there are plenty of old rock walls around. The Puritans and other early European settlers found that planting and building anywhere in the Northeast meant dealing with the stones and boulders left by all those glaciers from the Ice Age. They placed these stones, called glacial erratics, in rock walls around their homesteads, where they remain to this day.

Rock walls teach about the settlement, and geology, of New England. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

$16.95, Barnes & Noble
Stone Wall Secrets, by Kristine and Robert Thorson, and illustrated by Gustav Moore, is a beautifully illustrated book that teaches about the geology of New England, and the culture of the ubiquitous stone walls of the area. Author Robert Thorson, a geologist at the University of Connecticut, has been studying the stone walls of New England for decades, learning about the people who built them and the bedrock which created them. It's a great "go-along" for a fall study of stone walls. For more information on this book, click on the image, at left.

8. Mounds and Pits

In September, we learned about the "One Small Square" strategy, a technique for making observations about the plant and animal life, as well as the abiotic factors, in an ecosystem. This strategy can be used to examine the differences between two unique microecosystems: mounds and pits.

Mounds and pits are formed when trees topple over then decay, over time, creating a mound where the exposed root ball once was,  and a pit where it pulled out of the ground. These two areas often have different soil structure, and different plant and animal life. Autumn is a nice time to begin a study of mounds and pits, examining them when only evergreens are growing, and repeating the study on a monthly basis. Consider using the fall and winter months to map out fallen trees or mounds and pits, for future study. Practice using coordinates to map them out.

Mounds and pits form when fallen trees decompose. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

9. Cones

This month, one of our studies involves comparing and contrasting evergreens and deciduous plants. Among the evergreens you will likely encounter in your studies are the cone-bearing plants, or gymnosperms. Cones make for an interesting nature study in the fall, as each type of gymnosperm has a unique type of cone, and the cones, themselves, change over time.

We like to collect pine cones from the white pines in our neighborhood, and make peanut butter and seeds feeders for our bird feeding station -- read about this in "Winter Bird Feeding."

Collect pine cones for autumn decor or making bird feeders. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

10. Animal Tracks

Last week, we had our first snow storm of the season, when Storm Ari dumped 4-12 inches of snow over the state of Connecticut. Enjoying our first snow day, my youngest son and I went outside to re-load the feeding station and clean snow off things in the backyard.

We delighted in looking at the dainty little bird tracks in the snow on the hood of the gas grill, and the scuffle of prints over prints under the feeders.

Muddy ground or snow-covered surfaces provide an opportunity to study animal tracks. Check out "Follow Those Tracks!" for more information about tracks, scats and signs left behind by animals.

Study animal tracks by making plaster casts or taking photographs. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2010


These are just some of the many studies we have been drawn to in the fall. We would love to hear about your fall finds, and the things that caught your eye as you explored outdoors this month.  Please make sure that you link up your blog post on the November Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival.  Add a link to this post and the blog carnival in your blog post, too.

Have a great fall!