Thursday, September 27, 2012

Outdoor Hour: Focusing on Insects

I hate to admit it, but nature study is one of the first things to get dropped off the to-do list when our lives get busy or when other "more important" subjects need to be completed.

In order not to fall off the nature study wagon the first month back to school, I needed to keep it simple.  I have a tendency to go overboard.  With nature study, that means too much "study" and not enough "nature".  This is where the resources that Barb has provided have saved me from myself.

What did we do this month?
  • We used Barb's insect study grid and insect list (from the September newsletter) to give a focus to our nature study.
  • We used the Insect Study notebook page to research a few specific insects that interested us.
  • We used the small square study as another activity to get us outdoors.

We started a few weeks ago by going on a bug hunt in an overgrown area at the end of the street.  B and I both had our digital cameras and I told him to just see what he could find.  We found quite a few wasps and bees on the goldenrod.  Those were a little tricky to get pictures of because they kept moving.

We also found a couple of insects on the milkweed.  We didn't know what they were, but with the cameras, we could take pictures to use for reference later.  A few days later, I gave B the Insect Study notebook page created by Barb and had him see if he could identify what we had found.  He used a field guide and the internet to determine that our insect was a Small Milkweed Bug.  One of the interesting things we found was that another insect we found on the milkweed - and thought was something altogether different - was the nymph of the Small Milkweed Bug.

Small Milkweed Bug adult.

Small Milkweed Bug nymph.

This week, I sent him out into the yard with some string and had him choose a place for his Small Square Study.  The place he chose was an old stump.  We found plenty of things to put in our living or once-living category, but the non-living category was harder.  As we sat there, I noticed some ants coming down the hemlock tree next to me.  We managed to get two of them into the bug magnifier and bring them inside for closer inspection.  We have tentatively identified them as red-banded carpenter ants.  (Back out to the tree and away from the house they went).

Red-banded carpenter ants (we think).

The only other type of ant we have seen this month is a citronella ant.  Actually, it wasn't just one ant, but a  seething swarm of them.  They were in our back yard and I kind of freaked out because I thought they were termites.  The vast majority of the ants (hundreds and hundreds) had wings and covered an area of about one square foot.  They had obviously come up out of a hole in the ground.  Interspersed with these flying ants was an occasional light colored ant (the reason I thought they were termites).  I called a local pest control company and when I described what was happening, I was told they were citronella ants.  Termites swarm in the spring.

With my mind relieved and my curiosity piqued, we looked up some information on citronella ants.  First, we found that they get their name from an odor they give off that is especially noticeable if they are crushed.  Also, it seems they "farm" aphids for their honeydew. 

After adding all of our insects to our insect list and checking off the boxes on our insect study grid, we took a few minutes to go through the Powerpoint slide presentation on insects that I found at the East Tennessee Wildflowers website.  Here we reviewed information on the difference between insects and spiders, complete versus incomplete metamorphosis, and other insect facts.  What we found interesting or important to remember, we added to our nature notebook.

It felt so good to get some nature study in this month and it wasn't that hard!  We're looking forward to more nature study in the months ahead.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jewelweed is a Gem of a Plant

On a hike earlier this year, we came across a pretty orange wildflower that someone identified as jewelweed.  Not long after, we saw it on another hike and I couldn't remember the name.  How frustrating!

What can I do that will help me remember my plant and animal identifications?  I have found that I need to observe, do some research, and observe some more.  When I start making connections, I find it easier to remember a particular plant or animal.

Jewelweed is the perfect example.  The first time someone identified it for me, the name didn't stick.  After I saw it for the second time, I got on-line and looked up some information.  It turns out jewelweed can be used to treat poison ivy and other rashes.  Well, that is interesting (and potentially useful)!  In fact, jewelweed can often be found near poison ivy, and as we found out on another hike, it may also grow near stinging nettle.

Jewelweed or touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis)

Now that I have been introduced to jewelweed, I see it everywhere.  I have seen it on numerous hikes and along the edge of the river when I was kayaking.

On our most recent hike, we found more jewelweed and I was able to check out some information I had read about the leaves.  I had read that if you put jewelweed leaves in water, the underside takes on a shiny metallic look.  Some would say like silver, I think of mercury.  It was amazing!  I don't think my picture does it justice, so you'll have to try it yourself.

Other information about jewelweed that I found interesting:

  • Jewelweed is also called touch-me-not because the seed pods explode when you touch them and can project the seeds up to five feet away.  The seed pods curl up like a spring after releasing the seeds.
  • Even after being submerged, the leaves of the jewelweed will remain dry.  Microscopic hairs on the leaf trap a layer of air that prevent the leaf from getting wet.
  • I have heard at least three reasons for the name jewelweed:  the metalic look of the leaves underwater, the beading up of water on the leaves is jewel-like, and my favorite, the dark green to almost black seeds are like little jewels.
  • Jewelweed is a favorite of hummingbirds and is an important food source because it blooms into the fall when the hummingbirds prepare to migrate.
  • Jewelweed is an annual and grows from seeds not from rootstalks.  In addition to the pretty orange flower that attracts insects and hummingbirds for pollination, there is also a second, green flower that remains closed and self-pollinates.  This means the plant has two means of reproducing.

Now that I have looked more closely at the plant, done some research, and found a few interesting facts, jewelweed is a plant I should readily be able to identify.

East Hartland - Tunxis Trail

On Saturday, my hiking buddy gave me a call to see if I wanted to join her and her husband on a hike in East Hartland.  The hike was on the Tunxis Trail north of Route 20.  This was a new hike for me and other than the yellow jacket attack, it was a good hike.

We started at the pull off on Route 20 where the blue trail marker is, west of Hurricane Brook Road (on old topo maps).  We climbed to the top of Trillium Hill and then descended to Hurricane Brook.  Somewhere along this section is where my friend and I were stung by yellow jackets.  Fortunately, neither of us are allergic.  Her husband, who was in the lead and escaped unscathed, entered the coordinates in his GPS so that we could be prepared on the return trip.

Hurricane Brook is probably quite impressive when there is water running, but it has been pretty dry lately and most of the water is just in stagnant pools.

Hurricane Brook
We then came upon the Hurricane Brook Shelter.  This shelter apparently was put there for backpackers to use, but I wouldn't suggest it.  There is a dirt floor and the roof has gaping holes.  Someone has made an attempt to patch the roof, but rather haphazardly.  There is a fair amount of trash about including tarps and remnants of the old roof. 

Hurricane Brook Shelter
From the shelter, we left the Tunxis Trail and headed east to a little chasm along one of the branches of the brook.  Again, not much water flowing now.

This last little chasm was our turn-around point.  The trail continues to the Massachusetts border, but we decided to save that for another day.  This was a nice hike and we got a decent workout.  I think if you were just interested in seeing the brook and the shelter, walking in along the gated Hurricane Brook Road would make it easier.

Here is a map I found of the location of the shelter.  More information for other backpack camping can be found at the DEEP's website.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Burr Pond Kayak

On Monday, our homeschool hiking group had a fantastic stroll around Burr Pond in Torrington.  (Wrote about it here.) This afternoon, B and I went back with our kayaks.

The weather was absolutely stunning - clear, sunny, and mild.  We started at the boat launch and followed along the western edge of the pond.

There are a lot of water lilies and other vegetation growing from the bottom.  As long as I am in my kayak, I am fine with that.  I don't really want to touch stuff like that when I am swimming, though.

The great thing about kayaking is the different perspective it offers you.  When we were here the other day, we saw a lot of great things, but out on the water, we could get up close and personal with some of the inhabitants. In fact, one of the inhabitants was not too happy to see us.

Not quite half-way down the western shore, there is an island.  B had seen it the other day and wanted to explore it.  There is a very narrow, shallow waterway separating the island from shore.  B decided to cut through there while I went around.  I met him at a place near the cut-through where he could put his kayak ashore.  As I floated nearby, I heard a loud splash just out of sight, back the way I had come.  I assumed it was a hiker on the nearby path having fun lobbing rocks into the water.  It happened again.  And another minute later it happened again.  By now, I was curious and paddled to where I could see out into the pond.  At the same time, B noticed the sounds and we both realized it was a beaver!  It was swimming back and forth between the island and the shore and periodically it was diving and slapping its tail on the water.  Loudly!  Apparently, he was not happy to see us.

We headed out towards the main part of the pond and drifted a bit to see if we could see the beaver again (and I was hoping for a picture), but no luck.  I hadn't seen the beaver's lodge on the way past it the first time, but when I looked for it, it was obvious.  There was a large pile of sticks on the side of the island.  We didn't want to agitate it any more, so we left.

Beaver lodge.

We continued our paddle to the far end, where a peninsula juts out into the pond.  We didn't do this little out-and-back trail when we were hiking the other day, so we poked around in our kayaks a bit.  It was very pretty and the rocks and pine trees reminded me of Maine.

Again, the kayak allowed B to get up close and personal with wildlife.  This time it was three ducks.  Two seemed to be taking a nap in the sun, but the third was giving herself a cleaning.  They didn't seem to mind having him there until a slight breeze pushed his kayak and he bumped the rock.  He paddled away and they were soon back on the rock.

A little more exploring and we spotted a Great Blue Heron.  They are pretty skittish, so we didn't approach too closely.  While we were watching the heron, I saw an Osprey swoop down into the water.  He must have missed what he was aiming for because he wasn't carrying anything as he flew off over my head.

Great Blue Heron.

It was a great day for a paddle and B said he liked this much better than the Farmington River.  He thought there was more to explore here.  We headed back to the boat launch and took our kayaks out, making sure to check for any plant material and wiping the bottoms.  It was kind of funny then, when a few hours after we returned home, we went to take the kayaks out of the van, and a frog hopped off of the life jacket strapped to the back of B's boat!  Fortunately, we have a small pond just across the road.  We hope our froggy hitchhiker will be happy there.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Farmington River Kayak 8-24

B and I took our kayaks over to the Farmington River a couple of weeks ago.  We put in at Curtiss Park in Simsbury.  This, so far, has been the best place for us to use.  The beach area is wide and slopes gently to the water.  We kayak upstream toward Simsbury and then back to Curtiss Park.

The great thing about the kayaks is that we are able to get pretty close to wildlife.  I know when I have hiked in nearby McLean Game Refuge, I can never get close enough to the turtles at Spring Pond to get a decent picture.  They always hear me coming and plop into the water.  On this trip, we were able to get right up near the turtles without them going in.  In just one snag, we saw seven turtles.

Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta)

Can't keep that boy out of the water.
I know there are freshwater shell fish, but I can't say that I have ever noticed them before.  We came across a lot of small shells on one of the banks.  One side of the shell could fit neatly over my finger.  B was out in the water and could see some at the bottom.  All seemed relatively small.  I do not know what they are.  I'll have to pay closer attention next time.

Also along the riverbank, we saw Jewelweed.  I have seen a lot of this on hikes recently.  In fact, after being exposed to Stinging Nettle on our last hike with our homeschool group, we saw some Jewelweed and talked about using it as a remedy for our pain.  The leaves and juice from the stems can be used on poison ivy, too. 

Information from the Connecticut Botanical Society:

The ripe seedpods pop open at a gentle touch, hence the name touch-me-not. Water drops bead up on the leaves, and a leaf held underwater has a silver sheen.

Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis)

Some kind of tickseed sunflower?
The highlight of our paddle came when I was finally able to get some pictures of a Great Blue Heron.  We had seen one on our paddle upriver, but he had spotted us first and flew away long before we were within camera range.  Another time, we were looking at something else along the edge of the river and he was right there.  We just didn't notice until he flew off!

Then I saw him fly in for a landing around the bend in a little cove.  We very slowly and silently made our way there.  We did see him catch something with his beak before we were too close.  I was able to take quite a few pictures.  None that really show that shaggy plumage, though.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
In flight.  Ungainly at first, but look at the size of those wings!
It looks like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a camera set up on a Great Blue Heron nest in Sapsucker Woods.  When I looked, there was no one there, but maybe you'll have better luck.

We were out on the water for nearly three hours!  What a great way to spend the morning.