Archive for the ‘Newsletter’ Category

Spring is Blooming Earlier These Days

Friday, April 1st, 2011
Spring beauty

Spring beauty

Is posies the
Where wonder I
Ris’ has grass the
Sprung has spring

This is the only poem I can recite backwards and forwards.  (Hint, now read it backwards.)  Gotta love spring.  Flowers blooming, birds singing, grass greening, buds bursting, all that.  There’s a lot that happens  this time of year.  It happened last year too, and the year before that.  Actually, spring has sprung for a very long time now.

Have you ever wondered if those chickadees are nesting the same time this year as they did 2 years ago?  Is the skunk cabbage pushing its way up through the snow the same time it did 10 years ago? Is that sugar maple flowering this year near the calendar date it did 40 years ago?  Naturalists like myself ask these curious questions as do scientists studying global warming trends.  This study of periodic happenings, especially as they occur in nature is called phenology.

I’ve spearheaded my Naturalists’ Club in a phenology study for the past 10 years.  Henry David Thoreau, in his meticulous note-taking way, documented springtime occurrences 150 years ago.  Some British naturalists have listed occurrences much longer ago than that.  When we note the blooming times for specific flower species this year, and compare it to when it flowered many years earlier, that’s where the intrigue begins.

Folks at Boston University did exactly that.  They compared their flower blooming times from 2004-2006 to that of Henry David Thoreau’s from 1852-1858.  Location, elevation, plants studied all being the same, these BU folks learned some pretty telling things:

•    The mean annual temperature rose 4°F (2.4°C) over this 150 year span.

Yellow wood sorrel, Wikipedia commons

Yellow wood sorrel, Wikipedia commons

•    Events like bird migration, amphibian mating, and flowering times are occurring earlier now than in the past.
•    Every plant studied blooms earlier now than in HD’s time, some a full week earlier.
•    Highbush blueberry now blooms 21 days earlier.
•    Yellow wood sorrel blooms 32 days earlier.
•    Some species’ blooming cycles are changing rapidly while others are not.

Even in my club’s meager 10 years of collecting phenology, from 2001 – 20010,  I saw a trend toward earlier blooming  for many plants, including:
•    Wild Blue Phlox
•    Bluets
•    Spicebush
•    Epimedium
•    Foam flower
•    forget-me-nots

I’m not going to get all scientific on you, but hey, things are happening and nature is responding.  Even us gardeners and wildflower lovers can see it. Is spring sprouting earlier these days where you are too?  Get in on the action and take notice.  Start a phenology of your own.  A simple chart of:


is all you really need to get going.

The longer you keep track, the more valuable the information becomes.  Plus, it gets you outside and noticing the beauty of spring.  You can’t go wrong. In addition, you can add your data to that of many others on the National Phenology Network online.  Visit here to learn more.

Happy Spring.

Winter Fun in Your National Parks

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

You’ll be missing lots of adventures if you hide inside this winter.  New escapades are available for visitors to many national parks in the winter. If you enjoy winter sports, there are parks for that.  If you want to escape the winter, there are parks for that too.  Here is a sampling.

NPS photo/Death Valley

Death Valley/NPS photo

Death Valley National Park is open year-round, but most visitors avoid the fiercely hot summer months and schedule a visit in the milder winter. The 61st annual Death Valley ‘49ers Encampment is the unofficial season kick-off and a big crowd-pleaser with activities like a pioneer costume contest, wagon train parade, western-style music, craft show, and much more.  It just took place November 10-14.  With average August highs around 115 and January highs in the 60’s, winter is the time to hike, camp, explore and enjoy the Mojave desert environment.

NPS/Dan Leavitt photo

Big Bend/NPS/Dan Leavitt photo

Big Bend National Park encompases the Chisos mountains to Chihuahuan desert, so depending on where you go, winter temperatures range greatly.  Generally, winter is the dry season, but storms can blow in suddenly with snow or cold rain. November to April is the popular season, peaking in March and April. Because of this diversity and latitude, birding any time of year here is fantastic.  Over 450 bird species have been recorded.  Hiking and camping and all sorts of activities are great here in the winter.

Early Snow in Grand Canyon tree/Nancy Condon photo

Early Snow in Grand Canyon tree/Nancy Condon photo

Grand Canyon National Park is also open for various winter activities. November 28th marks the seasonal close of the visitor center, campground, roads, and services at the North Rim, however primitive group campsites are still available to hikers and cross-country skiers with a backcountry permit.  The South Rim’s amenities stay open year-round.

Winter scene in the Smokies/NPS photo

Winter scene in the Smokies/NPS photo

Great Smoky Mountains National Park reveals even more vistas in the winter when deciduous leaves are absent.  The summer crowds are gone and locals enjoy this time of year most in the park where solitude is easy to find.  Clingman’s Dome Road closes to vehicular traffic in winter, and becomes available to cross-country skiers or hikers.  Periodic closures of other roads, especially Newfound Gap road is likely to occur due to snowy or icy conditions.

Skiing in Acadia/Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce photo

Skiing in Acadia/Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce photo

Acadia National Park offers a playground for winter enthusiasts.  If you are looking for scenic drives in your car, better come in summer.  Most of the Park Loop Road is closed to car traffic in winter, except two short sections.  Sargaent Drive and Route 102A are also available to cars and take you to some scenic views.
Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing – The forty-five miles of carriage roads and the unplowed park roads provide fantastic opportunity for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  Be aware that snowmobilers can also use the Park Loop Road.
Snowmobiling is permissible on the 27-mile Park Loop Road as well as the road up Cadillac Mountain.  The carriage roads are for the skiers and snowshoers, with the exception of two miles as connector trails only.
Winter Camping – Blackwoods Campground is available for primitive winter camping from December 1 to March 31.  A camping permit is required.  
Winter hiking, ice fishing and even dog sledding and skijoring are winter sports enjoyed by Acadia visitors in the winter.

Shenandoah view/Ann & Rob Simpson photo

Shenandoah view/Ann & Rob Simpson photo

Shenandoah National Park is always open. Now when the deciduous leaves don’t obscure vistas and the cool temperatures improve visibility, it is a great time for some hiking and backcountry winter camping.  That said, December through March you’ll find services such as lodging, food services, campgrounds, and visitor centers closed. Four picnic grounds: Elk Wallow, Dundo, Pinnacle and South River are open year-round.  Inclement weather will occasionally close portions of Skyline Drive, which is normally open 24 hours a day.  Even so, you can still enter the park on foot.  Skyline Drive is also closed dusk to dawn mid-November to early January due to deer hunting season.

Don’t let winter close you inside.  Your parks are still there awaiting your visit.

NaturePod owl

And, remember to download your NaturePod before you go.  Northern parks with winter closures don’t have ranger programs available, so you’ll want to get the scoop from your own iPod or iPhone.

Attract the Right Birds with the Right Seed

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Would you like to know what food to provide in your yard to attract your favorite birds?  Mix and match the following types of winter birdfeed to attract, or deter, birds and other animals to your feeding stations.
In short, sunflower seed is the most versatile; stay away from fillers such as red or golden millet.

Striped and Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

Striped and Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower Seed; black oil and striped

Grosbeaks, Nuthatches, Tufted titmouse, Chickadee, Cardinal Goldfinch, House finch, Purple finch, Mourning dove, Pine siskin, Junco, Woodpeckers

Safflower seeds

Safflower seeds

Safflower seed

Cardinal, Chickadee, Grosbeaks, Mourning dove, Native sparrows, Tufted titmouse, Purple finch
Fortunately, some of our less desired species such as house sparrow, European starling, and squirrel don’t like safflower seed, but recently, some have acquired a taste for it.

White Millet seed

White Millet seed

White Proso Millet

This small seed is a favorite for ground feeding birds such as Mourning Dove, Native American sparrows, Quail,  Towhee, Junco, Cardinal, Indigo bunting.  Unfortunately, it is also enjoyed by the Cowbird, Blackbirds and House sparrow.

Whole kernel corn

Whole kernel corn

Corn, whole and cracked

Grouse, Pheasant, Turkey, Quai,l Cardinal, Grosbeaks, Crow, Raven, Jay, Dove, Ducks
Unfortunately corn is also eaten by house sparrows, cowbirds, starlings, geese, bears, raccoons, deer and more.  Corn can easily harbor aflatoxins, which are naturally occurring toxins produced by a fungus affecting a variety of crops.  It is harmful even in low doses.  Therefore, don’t let the corn get wet.  Put out only enough that can be eaten in a day in wet or humid conditions and rake up old corn.




Jay, Crow, Chickadee, Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Nuthatches
This high fat food is also a favorite of squirrels, bears, raccoons, and others that you don’t want to supplement with feed.  Keep peanuts dry as they also may contain aflatoxins and put out only that which can be eaten within the day.




Quails, Mourning dove, Goldfinch, House finch, Purple finch, Juncos

Nyjer seed

Nyjer seed

Niger or Nyjer ® (also incorrectly called thistle seed)

Goldfinch, House finch, Purple finch, Indigo bunting, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed junco, Pine siskin




Chickadee, Nuthatches,  Tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, Woodpeckers



Waxworms  & Mealworms

A favorite of insect-eating birds such as:
Bluebirds, Flickers, Woodpeckers




Baltimore Oriole, Eastern Bluebird

Do not provide

Red millet, Golden millet, or  Flax.  These are fillers.  None of our birds prefer them, and in fact discard them for more preferable seed.  If left on the ground they get moldy and harbor disease-producing organisms such as fungi and bacteria.

Get a new hobby by joining Project FeederWatch, a bird counting program through Cornell Lab of Ornithology.   Count birds that come to your feeder or water source November to April.  Novice to expert bird watchers can participate.  Its not too late to sign up.  Go to Project FeederWatch for more information and to sign up.

National Bird-feeding  Society
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Jack and the Devil – A Halloween Jack Tale

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Jack tales book

Jack tales book

Down South we tell stories about Jack.  He’s been around for a long time and some of the stories are said to date back to Scotland and Ireland.  I am sure that you’ve met Jack before.  He’s famous for his exploits with a goose and a beanstalk.  But today I would like to share with you another of the many Jack Tales told through the ages.

Every decade it is said that Saint Peter leafs through his book at the Pearly Gates and chooses a subject that seems to sit on the fence.  Has he done enough to earn entrance to heaven or should he be banished to the other place?

This one year, Saint Peter came across Jack’s name.  On the positive side was a long list of good deeds Jack had done for strangers who passed his way.  But on the next page was a litany of dreadful things Jack had done to his own neighbors.  “What was this man like”, Saint Peter thought, “someone who could be kind to strangers and ugly to those he lived with?”

Saint Peter had to see for himself, so he disguised himself and hurried down to East Tennessee.  He came across Jack working in his blacksmith shop.  Dressed in rags and looking disheveled, Saint Peter opened the shop door and asked, “Good sir, I am a weary traveler could I rest a moment here at your shop?”  Jack stopped and looked up.

“Sure, stranger,” he said as he crossed the hard packed dirt floor. “In fact, take-a-sit here in my favorite chair.”  Jack guided the stranger to a well-worn rocking chair sitting in the corner.  Saint Peter was surprised.  It was the most comfortable chair he had ever sat in.  He was about to comment when Jack turned back to him and said, “I have a bowl-o-beans and a bite-a-cornbread here. Care for some?”

“Thank you sir, I would.”  Saint Peter enjoyed the bread and beans while rocking comfortably in the chair.  Finally, he confessed, “Jack, I don’t understand you.  I am Saint Peter and I have looked at your deeds.  You are kind to travelers like me, but difficult on your neighbors.  If you continue in this way, I am afraid that I will not be allowed to welcome you into heaven.  But I can offer you a chance to improve your life.  As a thank you for your kind hospitality, I will offer you three wishes.  Use them to make things better.”

Jack mumbled, “Make things better… make things better…” and then louder, “I git three wishes to make things better?  I know just the thang for my first wish.”

“Excellent Jack, what can I grant you?”

“See here, Saint Peter, ya see that thar chair you’re a sittin’ in?  Well my neighbors come by and set themselves into that thar chair and start yammerin’ away at me.   I can’t get a dang thing done.”

“Yes… so what would you like me to do?”

“I want the next person that sits in that thar chair to be rocked so turrible that they get thrown across the shop.”

“Jack, that’s an awful wish.  I can’t do that.”

“But you said any wish.”

“OK Jack, but let’s make the next two wishes a bit more positive.  What’ll it be?”

“OK, see this here hammer?  Some of my so-called friends will come by and pick it up without permission.  The next time someone does that, I want this here hammer to smack them over-n-over-n-over in the face.”

“Jack!” Saint Peter said horrified.  “That is an atrocious wish.  I just can’t grant you something like that.”  
“I thought so, you really don’t want to help me do you?”

“Jack, I do, I really do want to help you, but these wishes…

“I can be nicer to my neighbors if they ain’t sitting here botherin’ me an’ stealing my tools.”

“OK Jack, I’ll give you the wish.  But this third one has got to be a good one.”

“Did you see my rose bush as you came in?”  Jack inquired.

“Yes, Jack, I did.  It is a beautiful bush with such lovely flowers.  Would you like me to make it bloom more often?  More colorful?  Would you like a second one to go on the other side of the door?  Maybe one for a friend?  Tell me, what can I do for you and your lovely rose?”

“No, that’s not what I want,” Jack replied.  “I want that bush to grab at the next rascal who comes by an’ thrash him about until his clothes are torn to shreds.”

“Oh Jack!”  Saint. Peter was horrified.

“Yep, that’s what I want,” Jack nodded.

“As much as I hate this, I will grant your wish.  But Jack, I pray you change your ways.”  And with that, Saint Peter got up and left Jack’s little shop.

It wasn’t but a little while later when, who would come down the road, but the devil, Beelzebub himself.devil He strode right into Jacks shop. He  announced, “Jack I’m here to take you with me.”

“What?” said Jack, “I cain’t go now.  Cain’t you see I’m busy?  Tell you what though, you just go take a seat over yonder on that rocker.  I’ll finish up straightaway and then we can be off.”

The devil was a bit put-off, but decided to take a seat and not put up a fight.  At the instant his bottom touched the seat the rocker lurched forward violently and then slammed back.  Viciously it jolted him forward and back, like a cowboy riding a demon bull.  Finally the chair threw the devil all the way across the dirt floor.  He crumpled into a heap along the edge of the log wall.

The devil sprang up infuriated.  “I’ll git you!” he shouted, and rushed across the shop.  Before Jack could react, the devil ripped his hammer from his hand.  He raised the hammer up to strike Jack, but at that very moment, the hammer came to life.  It turned and struck the devil square across the bridge of his nose.  Again and again it struck him beating and bloodying him until the blows finally ceased and the devil dropped the hammer.

The devil was now so incensed he could hardly speak.  He staggered around trying to get his bearings.  Now, he just wanted to get out. He wobbled on his cloven hooves out the door past the ‘ole rosebush.  Suddenly, a calamity arose just outside.  Jack knew what was happening.  He looked outside when it was all over.  The Devil stumbled to his feet, his red garment torn, tattered, and bloody. Rose leaves and petals were tangled in his hair.  The devil glared at Jack. Fiery anger seethed in his eyes.  Then he turned and got out-a-there.

Many years passed and Jack, finally old and tired, died.  He went to the Pearly Gates and met Saint Peter again.  But Jack’s list of bad deeds was just too long.

Jack turned and traveled the long road down to the other place.  As he approached the gates he saw two little devils playing outside.  They spotted Jack approaching and dashed away inside, slamming the gate shut behind them.  Jack reached the gate, picked up a large rock, and knocked.  The heavy metal reverberated with a loud clang.  Jack waited.

Clippity-clop, clippity-clop, Jack heard hoof-steps approaching the gate.  A small metal door slid open and the Devil barked, “What do you want, Jack?”

“Saint Peter sent me.  He said I cain’t go to heaven, so I have to come here.”

“Well, I don’t want you either, Jack.  You’re trouble!”

Jack didn’t know what to do.  He sat down as he heard the Devil walk away.  A few minutes passed and he heard the Devil return, clippity-clop, clippity-clop.  Locks and chains slipped from the gates and the heavy metal doors cracked open just a few inches.  The devil stuck his nose out and called Jack over.  
“Put out your hand.”

Jack stretched out his worn and calloused hand toward the Devil.  The Devil reached out and dropped something into his hand.  It was hot.  Very hot.

Jack looked down and then up at the Devil.  “What’s this?”

“It’s a little piece of hell.  Go start your own.”  And with that the Devil slammed the gates shut.

Jack turned and slowly walked away.  He wasn’t sure where to go and so he just kept walking.  The ember was too hot and not getting any cooler.  As he passed through Ireland, he picked up a potato and used it to carry his little piece of hell.  The potato burned through by the time he reached Russia and so he traded it for a turnip.  That too burned through.

Jack-o'-LanternIt wasn’t until he reached America that he found the perfect vessel for his ember.  He picked up a pumpkin and hollowed it out.  He cut three holes to let the heat and light out and found he could carry his little piece of hell rather well.  And so was born the “Jack-o-Lantern.”

Fall Colors – Prove me Wrong

Saturday, October 16th, 2010
A Sampling of Fall's Splendor

A Sampling of Fall's Splendor

Nothing eases the harsh reality of oncoming winter better than a beautiful fall color display.  This wonderful show of dazzling color travels from north to south at the rate of about 40 miles per day.  It may last a mere three weeks at any given location.  

Although environmental conditions do much to affect the brilliance of fall colors (see “What makes Autumn Leaves Turn Crispy Red” ), generally, any given species of tree often has a characteristic fall color.  That said, nothing in nature consistently conforms to rules. A given tree can itself be several colors at once. But in general, most of these deciduous species tend to turn these colors in the fall:  

Dogwood, Red Maple, Staghorn Sumac, Poison Sumac, Mountain Ash, Sassafras, Pin Oak, Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, Sweet Gum, Sourwood, Wild Cherry

Yellow Buckeye, Tamarack, Box Elder, Ash, Sugar Maple, Striped Maple, Black Maple, Black Locust, Tree of Heaven, Walnut, Hickory, Redbud, Willow, Tulip Tree, Magnolia, Sassafras, Witch Hazel, Chestnut Oak, Northern White Oak, Sycamore, Sweet Gum, American Chestnut,  Wild Cherry, Aspen, Basswood, Mulberry, American Beech ( more like copper color), Ironwood, Hop Hornbeam, Elm,  Birch, Alder, Catalpa, Cottonwood, Poplar,

Persimmon, Black Gum,

Not every North American deciduous tree species is of course listed, but I tried to include the most common ones.  
If a tree species can be multiple colors, I didn’t choose – I just listed it under each color its leaves may “choose” to turn.  
I intentionally didn’t include the color “orange” which is a combination of yellow and red, so pretty much any tree in either category can certainly have elements of orange.
I also didn’t choose to include brown, which some leaves turn – some oaks for instance.  

I now invite you – nay challenge you – to go outside and find exceptions to these categories.  It’s a great fall family game.

Top 10 Things for Every Hike

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

10 essential items for your pack

10 essential items for your pack

As a park ranger and naturalist, I am often asked what are the most important things you should have should you get lost while hiking.  So in collaboration with other rangers and outdoorsmen, we have created a top ten list.

1.    Food – Don’t ever go out without something to eat in your pack, whether it’s a half or even full day hike.  I like to pack those protein bars; you’re not likely to eat them unless you are in an emergency. 8-)
2.    Water – Bring at least a quart for a half-day hike, more for a full day or on a hot and dry day.  Know where water can be replenished on your hike and what to do to make it safe.
3.    Shelter – Afternoon thunderstorms or an unexpected cold front can leave a lost hiker suffering from hypothermia.  A good raincoat is a great shelter against unexpected rain or cold.  I also keep a large trash bag in my pack for emergency shelter.
4.    Matches/Lighter – A lost hiker will want to build a fire for warmth, comfort, and perhaps signaling.  Although we see those survival guys on TV using flints or friction to build their fires, a lighter is lightweight and way easier to use.
5.    Pocketknife –Most lost hikers are found within 24 hours, so you won’t need to be hunting or even fighting off the wild animals.  A pocketknife with a sharp blade is all most hikers will need.
6.    First Aid Kit – Pack along a few essentials: band aids, an ace bandage, your daily meds, and some antibiotics.  
7.    Map and Compass – Never go anywhere new without a decent map of the area.  Learn to use a compass and keep it in your daypack.  They’re cheap, reliable, lightweight, and work without batteries.  GPS are great, but should the battery go, you’re lost.
8.    Flashlight – Many lost hikers are what we referred to in the Smokies as simply misplaced.  They have become delayed or took a wrong turn and wound up on the wrong trail.  Rangers are sent backwards down the trail to catch the delayed hiker often finding them hiking in the dark.  A lightweight flashlight or headlamp will make any travel after dark or the evening in your emergency shelter a lot more bearable.
9.    Rope – 25 feet of parachute cord is light, small, and indispensable in an emergency.  It can be used to whip up a shelter, hold a pot over a fire, or help rig a splint in an emergency.  Throw a length into your pack.
10.    Whistle – The blast from a good whistle will travel further than a human voice and won’t get absorbed by the forest.  It is the best way to signal your location to searchers.  Tie one onto your pack and if you hike with kids, put one around each of their necks.  Years ago we had a 10-year-old boy lost in the Smokies for 3 days.  When he was found, he told searchers he had heard them the first night, but they never heard his screams.  A whistle would have had him home that first night.

Wait, no cell phone?  Yup, of course there is the battery issue, but more important is that many locations in our national parks, forests, and wilderness areas are not cell-phone friendly.  I carry mine with me, but I wouldn’t trade it for any of the things in my top ten list.

Hawk Migration – Go see the Fall Exodus

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Broad-wingedHawk photo by C.Sloan

Broad-winged Hawk photo by C.Sloan

“Another Broad-winged” the bespectacled lounger shouted out.  
“Make that three” another spoke out.
I followed their gaze skyward and spotted small black dots.  I tried my binoculars.
Larger black dots.   I’m instantly impressed with these people’s bird identification skills.

I’m on top of Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pennsylvania in mid-September.  Dotted on every nearly horizontal surface of North Lookout is a chair where a bundled and binocular-ed bird watchers sits scanning the skies overhead.  A uniformed volunteer is the counter and the recipient of the shouts.  In her notebook, she keeps a tally of the species and numbers of hawks as they are spotted.  The spotters constantly converse about bird numbers and locations to make sure that they are not reporting the same birds.  I join the ranks of the dumbfounded.  We form a loose bond by helping each other see what the seasoned spotters are identifying.

Broad-winged Hawks photo by Toby Gordon

Broad-winged Hawks photo by Toby Gordon

Such a scene is taking place all over the country this month and next.  Hawks, turkey vultures, falcons, eagles and songbirds are concentrating along the pathways of their ancestors, heading south for a dependable food supply before winter sets in.  These pathways, called flyways, often follow ridges where updrafts and thermals help the birds conserve energy on their long flights.  Hawk Mountain is located along the Appalachian Flyway and averages sightings of 17,925 raptors per year.

Certain locations and weather conditions allow you to see the birds much more closely as they follow the mountaintop where you may be perched.  Here is a website of the Hawk Migration Association of North America to find a location near you.  Bring your binoculars and maybe a lightweight chair or just spread out on your back and watch skyward.  Your hike up the mountain may be rewarded many-fold.

Make Birch Tea from the Bubble Gum Tree

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

At ECOS, our environmental school, I barely get to tantalize the 4th graders with the highlight to their trip in my introduction to the day.  Some kid always brings it up first.  “Can we go to the bubble gum tree?”

I wasn’t ready for this question when I first started teaching in the program.  I didn’t know what tree they were talking about.   My first thought was the spruce.  Woodsmen used to pinch off nubs of sap from the bark and chew it like gum.  But how could this be it?  The stuff tastes awful.  The kids can’t possibly be all hyped up about such nasty tasting tree gum.

My only other thought was the black birch, Betula lenta.  Now that smells great and was used to flavor candies, gelatin and of course, bubble gum.   Kids could get psyched about that.  My colleagues later confirmed that this is the tree they touted as the “Bubble Gum Tree”.

Kids don’t seem to be disappointed that they can’t pluck off pieces of bubble gum like they envisioned.  The flavor can be detected in the twigs.  Just under the bark one can smell oil of wintergreen.    They light up when they find their own bubble gum tree using the scratch and sniff method.  Scratched twigs smell so deliciously cool, fresh and minty.  I let them collect a 6-inch section and then share how I make birch bark tea.   Here’s how:

Black  Birch

Black Birch

1. Collect

It’s the twigs that you’ll need, so tall adult trees with branches out of reach will not do.  Saplings or seedlings will need to supply twigs within reach.  My backyard is full of B. lenta trees, so I frugally trim a few branches here, a few there, or when I have to get rid of a wayward seedling,  I at least use it for tea.

stripping birch twigs

stripping birch twigs

preparing birch twigs

preparing birch twigs

2. Twig Prep

Strip the leaves off.  Break up the twigs to be 2-4 inches long, or however short they need to be to fit into a pan.  In doing so, expose the cambium, where the oil of wintergreen can be detected in the sap.  I strip the bark on a couple sides of the twig.  Fat twigs don’t contribute much, so stick to flexible twigs less than 1/8 inch thick I’d say.  Just keep sniffing as you go to stick with those end twigs that have the most odor.

simmer twigs until brown

simmer twigs until brown

Infusion of birch twigs smells great

Infusion of birch twigs smells great

3. Heat it up

Cover your collection of twigs with water.  Simmer – don’t boil.  You want to extract the oil of wintergreen flavoring from the twigs but you don’t want to boil the flavoring away or make it taste harsh.  Your kitchen will smell great during this process!

On this hot summer day, I’m thinking about making birch tea using the sun tea method.   I imagine, putting the twigs in a clear container out in the sun for a while might extract the flavor as well.  I haven’t tried it yet, but maybe you can give it a go and let me know.

filter out floaters

filter out floaters

4.  Filter

Once the water is nicely brownish, I call it finished.  You want to separate the water from the twigs and other stuff you don’t want to swallow.  I often use cheesecloth, but a paper towel serves the same purpose as a filter.  I just put it in the mouth of my container and pour my tea right through it.

Refreshing black birch tea

Refreshing black birch tea

5. Enjoy

At this time of year, I stick my tea in the fridge to drink cold.  In the winter, I prefer it warm.  I have a sweet tooth and sugar usually goes in other teas, but black birch tea tastes just fine as-is.

At the end of our day, among the many frameworks-oriented lessons they’ve learned, my kids go home with lots of super skills.  They’ve gained some plant identification skills, learned to look  closely at nature and used their senses.   Lastly, they realize there is specialness in plants.  Well, at least one plant in particular.  That’s my particular passion that I hope they pick up on – the unique world of plants.

Fun Campfire Games

Monday, June 7th, 2010
campfire fun

campfire fun

What is camping without a campfire? Smores, ghost stories, cooking hot dogs on a stick – that’s what makes a campfire fun family time. Pack the marshmallows, lawn chairs, and creativity and have some fun with these games around the campfire:

1- Skin the Marshmallow – While toasting your marshmallows on a stick over the coals, see who can skin their marshmallow the most times. Toast your marshmallow to the point where you can pull off just the outermost toasted layer. Toast the remainder lightly until you can pull off its outer skin. Repeat until you have skinned your marshmallow down to nothing. Don’t forget to count how many times you skinned the same marshmallow. My personal record is 13 skins.

2- Circle Story – Everyone sitting around the campfire contributes to the circle story. One person starts the story with, “Once upon a time…” and for instance can say, ” a boy and his pet dragon went for a walk in the woods.” Then, the next person picks up the story and builds the drama. Each person can tell for as long as he/she wants, but cannot undo what previous storytellers said. Its fun to try to put in a twist for the next storyteller in the circle. The story ends when it completes the circle and comes back to the person who started it. (Or, keep it going round and round – it could go all night!)

3- A What? – This is a fun classic that is sure to make everyone laugh. One person hands an object to the person next to him in the circle saying, “This is a widget”. (Any word can be used, the weirder the better actually). The recipient asks, “A what?” and the response is, “a Widget”. The second person then hands the object to the 3rd person in the circle telling her, “This is a widget”, and the 3rd person asks, “A what?” and the 2nd person turns back to the first and asks, “A what?” and the first answers, “A widget”. The second then answers the 3rd with, “A widget” and the third can then hand it to the 4th person, saying, “This is a widget”, who of course has to ask, “A what?” which gets relayed all the way back to the starter. The object goes all the way around the circle with, “A What?” going all the way back to the original person as if no one has any memory at all, and “A widget” being conveyed back to the person with the object. Once you have that down, try passing a different object around the circle in the opposite direction at the same time. Then the confusion and hilarity really begins.

4- Rhythm Game – Everyone has to have their hands free for this one. Decide on a general topic, like animals. Then, start a rhythm by clapping thighs twice followed by two claps (slap-slap-clap-clap) Not too fast at first. To start, the first person names an animal beginning with the letter A on the claps. The next person in the circle then has to shout out an animal starting with the letter B on the very next claps. The third person in the circle then has the letter C to name an animal on the claps and so forth down the alphabet. If someone misses an animal or messes up the rhythm, he is out. Who of your group is the quick thinker and most coordinated? Other categories can include places, people’s names, food. You can come up with plenty others I’m sure.

5- Twenty questions – Another classic in which one person thinks of a person, place or thing. Others around the campfire can fire off questions with a “yes” or “no” answer to come up with what the person is thinking of. Narrow the focus with categories like movies, historical figures, famous people, astronomy, or whatever you want.

There are many games to play around the campfire. Make up some of your own. Those can be some of the best fun.  Who knows,  you may be up all night!

New – National Park Quarters

Friday, June 4th, 2010
Hot Springs coin

Hot Springs coin

America’s National Parks and Preserves are featured in a new series of quarters to be issued by the US Treasury.   Five quarters will be issued in 2010.  Look for these in the palm of your hand this year:

1. Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas – the first publicly preserved landscape, will be the first quarter issued.  As early as 1807, people had begun using the springs for relaxation and health.  In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson set aside some of the springs for public use.  Although not designated as a National Park, the Hot Springs became the first nationally preserved land.  In 1921, Hot Springs was re-designated as the 18th National Park.

Yosemite coin

Yosemite coin

2. Yosemite National Park in California -  followed a similar path to National Park status as Hot Springs.  President Abraham Lincoln set aside the land as a national preserve, but the land was returned to California soon thereafter.  It wasn’t until 1890 that Yosemite returned as a National Park.

Yellowstone coin

Yellowstone coin

3. Yellowstone National Park -  the first official National Park will also be honored.  In 1872, President US Grant established as the first National Park in the world.  Established originally to preserve its scenery, some now refer to Yellowstone as America’s Serengeti for the exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities found here.

Mt. Hood coin

Mt. Hood coin

4. Mount Hood National Forest – although not a national park, the 100-year effort to make it so continues to this day.  Mount Hood and its surrounding forests are managed by the US Forest Service.  Although some land is preserved under wilderness designation, much of the land is managed for timber harvesting.

Grand Canyon coin

Grand Canyon coin

5. Grand Canyon National Park -  was established as one of America’s first National Monuments.  The US Antiquities Act gave the President the opportunity to set aside land without the approval of Congress.  Originally meant to preserve important Native American archeological sites, President Teddy Roosevelt read into the act a broader mission.  He used the act to create 18 national monuments, including setting aside over 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument.  Learn more about the history of this special National Park with a Grand Canyon NaturePod.