The Stars in Winter

Winter is a great time of year to go out and look up at the night sky: darkness comes early, winter nights are often crisp and clear, and some of the brightest stars in the sky make their appearance at this time of year. The constellations are also outstanding and many are easily recognizable. One of my favorites is Orion, the mighty hunter. My youngest son, Nathaniel, was born with Orion looking down upon him, and so his middle name, Orion, came down from the skies to us.

Stars

There are many books, star charts, apps, websites, etc. that can help lead you around the winter skies. So if you can find a fairly dark spot, go there, and before you go to one of the charts or guides, just look up, with wide eyes and with silence for at least a few minutes. And while you’re looking up remember this quotation from Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, popularizer of science and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC:

“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of these facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, because they are small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”

Ed’s Corner

Making Winter Buddies

We’re at the dark turn of the year, awaiting the Winter Solstice (the night between December 21st and 22nd) and after that the return of the light, when the sun will be ‘up’ a little bit longer each day. When I walk by the now naked trees and look closely at the branches I’m reminded that they may be devoid of leaves but certainly not the buds we can find along and usually at the ends of most branches. Inside these buds are the flowers and leaves that will ‘be’ next spring. They too are waiting all winter for the warmer, light-filled days of spring. When I’m with children outdoors we sometimes refer to them as packets of promise.

Buds

Now some buds, depending on the kind of tree they are on, will contain just the leaves, some only the flowers, others will have both.
Different buds will have different shapes, colors and be of different sizes. They serve as good guides in identifying winter trees.

Now would be a good time to venture out-of-doors and find some ‘buddies’. Go to a few different kinds of trees and choose some buds that you can check on, be aware of or look in on, whenever you go outdoors. Be patient, not much will be happening for a while but when it does happen, it will feel like magic, a promise fulfilled.

How will you know which are your buds? I like to tag or mark them with a colored piece of yarn or string tied around the branch and on or right next to my buds. You might think of other ways to mark your buds so that you can easily find them.

buddies

Making a Bird Feeder

Header

December’s colder weather and the year’s turn toward winter mean less available food for hungry resident birds. This time of year offers an opportunity for us to fill some of the vacuum left by nature’s waning resources, and by doing so bring some action, drama, color, and an endlessly watchable scene of hungry visitors to our attention.

Making this bird feeder is simple, and viewing the results of your work can be an exciting and easy way to connect with the natural world during this season.

 

Materials you’ll need:

What you'll need

A plastic bottle, a screw or eye hook screw, string, a wooden spoon, a knife or scissors, some birdseed.

 

What to do:

Putting the screw in the cap

Using your knife or scissors (parents, help your children), start a small hole in the cap of your plastic bottle, and then twist your screw into this incision.

 

Tying the string around the screw

Then tie your string around the screw. The length of your string can be based on the height at which you’d like your feeder to rest.

 

Cutting a larger hole in one side

Take your knife or scissors and make an incision toward the bottom of your bottle.

 

Cutting a smaller hole in the other side

Make another small hole opposite the first incision.

 

Putting the spoon through the bottle

Now insert your wooden spoon! Our first incision is slightly larger than the second in order to accommodate the wide end of the spoon, and to serve as an opening for bird seed to fall out of, onto the waiting bowl of the spoon.

 

Pouring the bird seed

Removing the cap, fill your feeder with bird seed. Most of our bird seed ended up on the ground around the bottle before it made it inside. A funnel would have helped!

 

Complete feeder

After filling your bottle with bird seed, close the cap, and you’re ready to hang up your feeder.

 

Hang the feeder, here on a string between two trees

We tied a string between two trees, and then hung the feeder in the middle (some squirrel protection).

 

We waited for our first visitor, who arrived only a few minutes after putting the bird feeder out.

An interested chickadee

An interested chickadee

 

Going in

Eating the bird seed

 

Have fun!

Mud

Mud is messy. If you can get past this, mud can be absolutely marvelous! March is when mother nature tends to make a lot of mud, and with some old clothes you don’t mind dirtying and a sense of adventure, playing in the mud can be truly freeing.

Here are some simple things we like to do with mud:

Make a mud castle
Just like at the beach, but not so warm and even messier, mud is a great medium for building, especially when it’s a little dryer than it is wet. We built a fairy home with a moat around it, but you could build a castle, a house, a boat, or anything else that strikes your fancy and needs to be created.

Fairy mud house

Worm Charming
Alternately called worm grunting or worm fiddling, this activity is too much fun. By making vibrations in the mud that mimic the sounds of a tunneling mole, we can literally charm the worms out of the earth and up to the surface. One technique to lure your worms involves putting one end of a stick in the mud, and to rub the top of the stick back and forth between your hands so that it begins to ‘tunnel’ into the earth. Another popular technique is to place a pitchfork or rake or another similar yard tool into the earth and then hit that tool in order to create vibrations that travel through the soil. The World Worm Charming Championships are held every year in the village of Willaston, in Chesire, England. Happy worm hunting! (Doing this when it’s been a little warmer for a little longer – maybe within 2 weeks from now – might produce better results).

Stick technique

Pitchfork technique

Painting with Mud
For mud paint we like mud that is wetter than it is dry. You’ll be surprised to find the variety of color and texture that mud produces, and you can use this variety to create mud paintings on pieces of paper, trees, rocks, pavement, the sidewalk, or any other surface that will hold your mud. When it rains on your outside mud painting don’t worry, while nature might have washed away your creation, you’re also getting more mud to make something new!

Mud painting


Make mud pies
A classic mud activity, all you need is a pair of hands, a pie tin, and this month’s messy medium. Fill your pie tin with some mud (you can even make a fancy crust around the edges), and then leave your concoction in a sunlit spot to bake. Come back after a few hours and your pie should be cooked to perfection.

Gourmet!

Muddy Toes
If you’ve been to camp, you’ve probably done this in our barefoot zone, but March’s mud is even fresher. All you need to do is take off your shoes and socks, roll up your pants, take a deep breath, and wade into a mud puddle! Squish, splash, and mush this mud around with your feet. Find a dry patch of earth or a flat rock and leave your muddy footprint, just be sure to rinse your feet off before heading back into the house.

Muddy toes

Animal Tracks
Mud is the perfect medium in which to find animal tracks. You’ll commonly find dog prints, cat paws, or bird tracks in mud by your house or apartment, but keep an eye out for something that looks a little more unusual (raccoon, rabbit, even coyote). Let us know if you find something neat or want help identifying your muddy animal track.

Raccoon track

Maple Sugaring at Home

First you need a maple tree. There are two reliable methods to be sure you’ve got a maple – opposite branching and brown pointy buds. The internet also has plenty of images you can use as a resource to be sure you’re tapping a maple and not an oak. This late winter weather of cold nights and warmer days is the perfect time to tap, as the contrast in temperatures is what gets the sap moving within the tree.

Opposite branching and brown pointy buds

Next you need to drill a hole into your maple tree. We use a 7/16 inch drill bit to fit our spouts. Choose a tree that looks healthy (no decaying branches or dead-looking spots on the trunk) and is at least 14 inches in diameter (any smaller and your drilling will damage the tree). Drill your hole at a slight upward angle so that the sap runs downward, and while you can choose any part of the tree to drill, we prefer the south facing side in order to maximize sunlight, warmth, and flowing sap.

Drilling the hole

After drilling, clean out any pieces of wood in the hole. Now you can gently hammer in your spout until it fits tightly. We get our spouts from Bascom, but you can get yours from any sugaring supply company, ebay, amazon, or other places. You can also use other materials as a spout (plastic tubing is common), as long as sap is dripping from the tree into your bucket.

Tapping the spout

Hang your bucket! If you’re ordering a bucket from a sugaring company you can order a lid along with it. You can also make your own bucket from things around your house, and improvise some sort of lid to keep out the rain, snow, or inevitable bugs. We’ve seen milk jugs, five gallon buckets, sand pails, two-liter soda bottles, and more hanging off maples.

Hanging the bucket

Once you have collected a decent amount of sap, it’s time to boil it down into syrup! Sap is around 98% water, cooking it is intended to evaporate the water and concentrate the sugar. Forty parts of sap will boil down to one part of syrup – so be prepared to boil a lot. As your sap gets close to being syrup you will notice a sweeter smelling steam and a darker color in your boiling pot. Seven degrees above the boiling point of water (for most of us 219 degrees Fahrenheit) means your sap has officially become syrup, but really, if it looks like syrup, smells like syrup, and tastes like syrup, you’ve made maple syrup.

Cooking the sap

Now you can eat your very own maple syrup from your own maple tree, a delight that doesn’t come easily, but one we think is well worth the effort. Maple sugaring season is over when the sap stops dripping for a few days, looks a little off-color or has a slight off-taste, or when the buds start to open. You can pull your spout out of its hole (which will heal by itself) and give your maple tree a big, sappy hug.

Happy tapping!

Maple syrup!

Ice Art

Fun Ice Art to make when it’s cold outside:

Take a round metal pie pan outdoors and fill it with water. Add leaves, seeds, twigs, ‘pretty’ litter, small stones. Get a piece of twine or strong string, make a loop out of it by holding the two ends together. Add this loop of string so that the ends of the string are in the water but the actual loop stays dry, hanging off the side of the pan.

Leave overnight. The next morning bring the by-now frozen pie pan inside and run some warm water onto the bottom. Out from the pan should slide your ice art! You can use the loop to hang it onto a branch where you can watch the sun shine through it.

Leaf Games

Here are a few easy leaf activities for the fall:

Pick up two handfuls of dry leaves, putting them up to and just touching your ears, and then crunch – crunch – crunch them! Fall in stereo. The sound of squishing corn flakes or potato chips.

Find a lawn (perhaps even your own!) covered in a layer of leaves and make leaf angels by lying down and moving your arms and legs just like you would for a snow angel.

Use a rake to make a path that twists, turns and bends through a yard full of leaves, and then follow it! You can walk, run, skip, bike – it’s up to you.

Find colored leaves that have just fallen and are not yet dried out, and rub them on a piece of white paper. Make sure the paper is on a hard surface. Crumpling the leaf up before you rub it will help the color come onto the paper.

Daniel crunches leaves

Catching some spring fall

In my backyard I’ve been experiencing at times a blizzard of ‘things’ (no leaves, autumn is for that) falling from the trees – old flowers, stems, bud coverings, I’m not sure what else. Why not get a sheet, tarp, baskets, bowls, upside down opened umbrellas, and place on the ground under a bunch of trees and see what you ‘catch’. You may get some surprises.

Catching some spring fall

It’s not easy being green

… so sings Kermit the frog. Plants would have a different tune: they love being green, most of them are green (at least their leaves!), they esteem green, expect to be green, help the earth tremendously by being green, are able to capture the sun’s energy with their green, and would not consider being anything else.

And this is the time of year when the greens are making the scene – spring is here, buds are opening, shoots are emerging from the ground, it’s all beginning to feel like a good, green world. So here’s a suggestion for a little outdoor journey to explore the different shades of green.

Visit one of the big home stores (i.e. Home Depot, Lowes) and get a few of the shades-of-green paint charts – they are free. Then with paint chart(s) in hand go outdoors searching high and low, little and big, for the shades of green in nature that might match up with those in your green color guide or chart.



A few shades of green

The Force

Just Can’t Wait …

… for some of those buds to open and reveal their flowers? Well, we can force things a little. At this time of year if we cut a small branch off certain shrubs/trees/bushes and put it into a vase of water, indoors, the buds will open and give an early sneak peek at what is to come. The plants that lend themselves best for this ‘forcing’ include forsythia, pussy willow, red bud, magnolia, crab apple, cherry, honeysuckle, lilac, dogwood and wisteria.

May the force be with you