Monday, March 28, 2011

Nature Study- Signs of Spring

Outdoor Hour button

It continues to feel like January here in upstate New York.  It has been a long time since I remember it being so cold so late.  All of our friends at the Outdoor Hour are moving on with the spring series and we seem to be stuck in winter.  We bundled up to brave the 31 degree weather and headed out this morning to search for any signs of spring.  Armed with our clipboard and scavenger hunt list we were pleasantly surprised by what we found.

"I" decided he needed his rake to unearth spring under the snow.  His brother and sister looked on to see if he was right.  We didn't need to do any digging to see bits of green.

moss and weed

tree lichen
We could hear the gurgling brook behind the barn overlaid with birds singing their sweet "phoebe...chicka dee dee dee."  The red-winged black birds chimed in with their trill.

our brook
We were thrilled to find some tree buds on our lilac.

Some of our other finds this morning included nests,  

and ferns from last year.  There are no signs of fiddlehead yet.

The boys found tracks from moles or voles.

When we sat down to record our findings the boys had a wealth of ideas for journaling.

Here are the final results.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nature Study - Mammals and Maple Syrup

 We have more snow here today that will supposedly turn to rain.  As the first day of spring has passed, we have had one day that broke 60 degrees.  It was enough to make all of us long for spring even more.   We did capture some signs of spring in our yard, however we want to do the scavenger hunt.  So we will post on signs of spring as soon as we can see the grass again.  To continue our theme of catching up, today's post will focus on our "M" theme- mammals and maple syrup.

Our mammal study began with a few overview books on mammals.
We discussed some of the characteristics that make a mammal a mammal.

  • mammals give live birth
  • mammals feed their young milk
  • mammals have hair or fur
We had done some animal tracking several weeks ago which we posted here.  This time around we discussed what we see in our area.  I asked the boys to each pick a mammal that they know have been in our backyard.   I was expecting them to say deer, fox, or moose.  Of course they surprised me with cow and bear.  Two doors down we have a dairy farm, and a neighbor recently saw a black bear.  

I decided that the time had come to have the boys do a mini research project on each of the animals they selected.   
I chose one book for each of them that gave limited but rich information on bears and cows.  

Then I asked each of them to dictate to me facts that they had learned about their animal.  Then they sketched a picture of their animal.  

the cow that "I" drew is eating grass

"T's" bear is catching fish in a stream
I was very pleased with both their recall of information and the drawings.  They are really starting to be "big boys!"  

Our other "M" related study has been maple syrup.  This is our third year doing this as a family hobby.  It is really easy and great fun.  Our church has a very fancy set up with an evaporator and even a sugar shack.  Hopefully I will be able to post on what a commercial production entails.  This post will feature a very homegrown method. The syrup that we produce is very high quality, even without high teach finishers and hydrometers.  

We only tap two trees and generally, on a good year, can end up with about three to four quarts of syrup.  It takes a lot of sap and propane to make it, so it is not a great savings, but we find it worth it.  It has high educational value.  

The first step is to located the trees.  Then you wait to tap them until there are cold nights and warm days.  Once this cycle begins the sap starts to flow.  Warm is a relative term.  In the 40's and sap can run.  It will run even better the warmer it becomes.  The taps can be purchased at farm stores and some hardware stores.  You simple drill a hole and hammer it into the tree.  Here is one of our trees.  
Here is a close up of a tap with sap running.  

We collect the sap in buckets and bring it into the house to be boiled down on the stove.  We use a sieve lined with a coffee filter to take out dirt, bark, twigs, and bugs.  

The best pan to use is a roasting pan, or something shallow and broad.   Commercial outfits use an evaporator with a wide pan for boiling.  I use the stockpot to heat it and them transfer it to the roasting pan.  

(that is a chunk of ice)

You can see how quickly it begins to evaporate in the broad pan.  

The sap itself is sweet and would make a wonderful bottled drink.  It is the perfect balance of sweet and wet.  It is also clear.  As it begins to evaporate the color turns a bit cloudy and yellowish orange.  

Sometime foam forms on the top.  It can easily be skimmed off.  On this batch I ran it through the coffee filter again before I finished it in a saucepan.  

Here is the syrup before it is finished.  It is still watery, but sweeter than the clear.  The final step transforms it into syrup.  Use a candy thermometer to finish the syrup to about 220 degrees.  It is slightly different each time.  

The final product in this case is light amber.  It is early season syrup.  The later in the season the darker the color. We store it in glass mason jars to enjoy throughout the year.  

The boys were very excited to try it on some homemade waffles.  They consider it to be "grade A."  

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nature Study - Early Spring Flowers

I have so much to post I just can't keep up.  We have been very busy collecting and boiling maple sap, researching mammals, watching our recently emerged swallowtail butterfly, and studying early spring flowers.  I decided to start this week with the flower post.  Hopefully the others will follow.  

When I first purchased the winter series and winter wednesday e-books, I was so excited to see that the flower study was at the close of the book.  I realized that if we made it through...that spring would be at the end.  As I am typing and looking out the sunny window, there are huge snowbanks covering our planted bulbs.  Not exactly spring.  

This was a great excuse to run down the the grocery store and buy a nice selection of spring flowers for our study.  We bought three types to investigate.  
and daffodils

The first to explore the flowers was our new pet; 
 a swallowtail butterfly.  We watched intently as he used his proboscis to probe the flowers.  If you have been following our blog, this was the caterpillar that we found last fall.  Here is the related post


We basically have created spring in our house!  We compared and contrasted the blooms, stems, and leaves.  The boys created drawings for each of the flowers.  

We will be following up on this post once our snow is melted and our garden comes back to life.  For now our indoor "spring" will have to do.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Nature Study - Tracing The Brook and Square Foot Investigation

While staying at our lake house, we conducted several informal nature studies, making an effort to continue with the winter series.  On one cold day we used our Handbook of Nature Study to inspire us to trace a brook that runs down the backside of one of the mountains surrounding Lake George.  We frequently pass by some beautiful waterfalls that cascade down a rocky face.  We decided it was worth investigation where the water comes from and where it goes.

We traced a route on the map and headed north through the woods to find the brook active.  In the heavy snow most of it was covered, icy, and lazy.

We found ourselves getting very excited every time we saw a break in the ice and snow.  It was almost like spring!

 We continued traveling up in elevation and the terrain opened up a bit.  We could see more activity.

We then turn around and headed back toward the falls.  It was frozen over, so we could not see any water on top, but we wanted to follow it to its end.  These falls are actually in someone's yard.  Can you imagine owning your own falls?  Notice the maple taps.

Once we passed the elevation change we realized the water had a lot more momentum and life.
The drainage area is flat wetlands.  Even though we pass by this spot many times a day, the boys had no idea what they were seeing.

Now I think that have a much better idea of the topography of the area and the nature of how a brook moves.

Our last investigation of the brook was in the fall.  We studied current with toy boats.  It was warm and we were in the water floating them down different stretches to see what would happen.  This seasonal follow up has renewed our interest.  In a few weeks when the snow melts we will be back to observe the changes.  

Our last investigation involved looking at a square foot of earth to see what we could find.   At first I wasn't sure if this would work for us with the snow, but then I realized it would be like digging for treasure.

We pulled out a shoved and hiked into the woods singing "We are going on a treasure hunt!"  The boys loved it.  They got on their bellies and dug with their mittens as I tossed each shovel of snow.  We started to unearth some "treasures."  We found dried weeds, stones, dry wood, leaves, and some beautiful green moss.  It was spring under the snow!  We were surprised how dry it was underneath.

Here are the treasures.  

Overall we had a great time.   We did less recording than we usually do, but I don't think there was less learning.