Tag Archives: Nature

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count

I am very excited about the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place Friday-Monday, February 15-18, all over North America. It’s a great family activity. Anyone can participate, even if you only have 15 minutes and are completely new to birding.

Here’s how it works: You can pick a spot to go watch birds (a backyard, a park, a trail, a marsh, or anywhere you think birds might be) or you can join an organized event. You can download a very thorough check list of birds that are likely to be seen in your area. You record the birds that you see and then go home and either send in your checklist or enter the names and numbers in online.

There are lots more tips about counting and recording birds, tricky identifications, binoculars, and much more on BirdSource’s Great Backyard Bird Count page. The site also features recordings of bird sounds and more activities for kids.

The All About Birds site has beautiful photos and information that can help you identify birds. These are the top birds that were reported during the count last year.

So, why count birds in the first place, and why now? The Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Audubon Society and others use the information from the annual February count to track the health of various bird species over time and, in some cases, take steps to protect them. Mid-February has proven a good time to count, as it occurs just before the major Spring migrations. If you find you like counting, you can actually help year-round on various projects.

Last year more than 17,400,00 individual birds were reported by more than 104,000 people. This year you could be part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Read about and see pictures of the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count.

Make a valentine feeder for the birds.

Get ideas for other great citizen science projects like Project Feeder Watch.

Photos: Painted Bunting and Green Honeycreeper by Doug Janson, Flame Colored Tanager by Jerry Oldenettel, Blue Jay: Creative Commons, Northern Spotted Owl by Susan Sachs Lipman

Make a Quick and Easy Valentine Bird Feeder

Sometimes we forget to feed birds and other wildlife in the winter, which can be precisely when they need it the most because it’s less plentiful in the environment. Why not show a little love by making valentine bird feeders? This very easy project will have you backyard bird-watching in no time. Experiment with different kinds of seeds to see which birds each attracts. Or ask for advice at a plant nursery or pet store. Oil sunflower is a particularly nutritious winter seed that a lot of birds like.

You’ll need:

Heart template, optional
2-3 ‘ ribbon or string
½ cup vegetable shortening, peanut or other nut butter, suet or lard (plus, cornmeal or oatmeal, optional)
2 ½ cup mixture of birdseed (chopped nuts, dried fruit, optional)
Small mixing bowl
Plate, shallow dish or pie tin
Spoon or butter knife

Cut a heart out of cardboard, using a template or free-hand.

Poke a hole toward the top and run the string through it. (If using a ribbon, you might want to string it after the mixture has dried a little, using a hole to poke through the hole, as needed.

In mixing bowl, combine peanut butter or other spread with meal, if using.

Spread that mixture over the both sides of the heart with the knife or spoon.

Pour the birdseed and feed ingredients onto the plate.

Place the heart into the seeds.

Hang your valentine from a tree branch or window eave that offers some shelter from wind and weather if possible, as well as a view of visiting birds!

Slow Tip: You can make these with pinecones in the fall. Or use a toilet-paper tube anytime, and either string it up or place it right onto a branch.

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

Slow Nature: Keep a Moon Diary

The changing moon is a source of fascination for people of all ages.

Scientists, from ancient Babylonia to modern countries around the world, have attempted to explore it. Ancient people used the full moons to determine their calendars, and Native Americans named the full moons according to the activities that took place under them, such as harvesting and the first shoots of corn. The moon’s pull is tied to our tides and even our bodies. Many migratory animals are guided by the moon.

Why not make your own moon explorations and observations by keeping a moon diary?

Taking note of the moon’s phases and rhythms, as it moves through its cycle, is a great way to feel the rhythms of our lives and of nature. It can help younger children understand how long a month is. Of course, everyone has fun searching for the “Man in the Moon”. Look outside during the next full moon to try to find him.

You’ll need:

A blank calendar or pencil and paper
A view of the moon

Look at the moon each night after it has risen and record its phase, in writing or drawing, as it makes its monthly rotation around the earth. The amount of moon we see is really the amount of sunlight that is reflected on it during each phase. New moons are between the earth and the sun, so that the sun almost entirely shines on the part of the moon we don’t see. Full moons are on the side of the earth opposite the sun, so that sunlight shines on them in full. The moon always follow this pattern:

  • New
  • Waxing crescent
  • First quarter
  • Waxing gibbous
  • Full
  • Waning gibbous
  • Third quarter
  • Waning crescent
  • New

Here are some more fun activities to try:

Photo: NASA

Geminid Meteor Shower Promises a Spectacular Show

Now playing overhead: The dramatic Geminid Meteor Shower, which many astronomers agree is the best meteor shower of the year.

The Geminid Meteor Shower is forecast to peak late Thursday/early Friday Dec. 13-14, between around 10 p.m. and sunrise, at your local time, in North America. If you can’t stay up that late, not to worry — astronomers tell us that some meteors should be visible as soon as darkness hits. In addition, the shower lasts for days before and after the peak date, and there have already been reports from around the world of people spotting many spectacular fireball-like celestial streaks in just minutes.

This year’s shower coincides with a new moon, so the sky should be extra dark for excellent viewing. NASA scientists, like Bill Cooke of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office, predict a fantastic show, aided by the possible appearance of a second, newly discovered meteor shower.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) Scientists believe that the Geminids actually come from an asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which is really the skeleton of an extinct comet. The Earth passes through this particular debris stream each December, and is said to originate near the constellation Gemini.

How to watch the Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminids should be visible with the naked eye in North America and perhaps in other parts of the world. Sky watchers in cold climates should bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and perhaps a blanket, head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.

Because meteor showers last for days before and after the projected peak, be sure to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can.

A thermos of hot chocolate is a great accompaniment for the Geminids.

This shower has been getting stronger every year it’s been recorded, going back the the 1860s. It could be “an amazing annual display”, according Cooke of

This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Geminids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.

This movie of the 2008 Geminids comes from a space camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center:

Watch the 2008 Geminid Meteor Shower

Happy National S’More Day!

When the ancient Egyptians mixed the sap of the marsh mallow plant with honey to make a precursor to our marshmallow, they were thinking about curing coughs and other ailments, rather than creating a classic treat. 19th century French confectioners added egg whites and corn syrup and baked the fluffy creations in molds. Not long after that, graham crackers and chocolate bars began to be mass produced. The 1927 Girl Scout handbook, Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, published the first known recipe for s’mores, and the gooey creation was born.

Nearly everyone who’s had one remembers his or her first s’more. There are few better combinations than toasted marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers (though non-purists add peanut butter.) The only thing that can possibly improve on the taste of a s’more is the good fortune to enjoy one outside, cooked over a campfire, and surrounded by good family and friends. Of course it’s no secret how the s’more got its name. It’s the rare person who doesn’t want .. some-more.

You’ll need:

1 graham cracker, broken in two squares
One or two squares of milk chocolate (half of a classic Hershey’s chocolate bar works well)
1 marshmallow
Peanut butter, optional
Wooden or metal skewer

Layer a chocolate piece on top of each graham cracker.

Toast your marshmallow over an open flame, until it is the color of toast.

Remove the marshmallow from the flame.

Place the prepared graham cracker under it and carefully slide the marshmallow off the skewer, quickly capping it with a second square of chocolate, if desired, and the second graham cracker.

Eat the gooey creation and marvel at its simple perfection.

A spoonful of peanut butter can be substituted for or added to the chocolate.

Between National S’more Day and this weekend’s Perseid meteor shower, it should be the perfect weekend to get outside and camp in a backyard or park. National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is encouraging everyone to camp outside through summer and fall by joining  Great American Backyard Campout.

The Great American Backyard Campout is part of National Wildlife Federation’s “Be Out There” movement, which is designed to provide tools that inspire parents and children to spend time in the outdoors. Over the next three years, NWF’s goal is to get 10 million more kids playing outside on a regular basis. Spending a night under the stars is the perfect way to start. Register at the Great American Backyard Campout site to have fun, win prizes, and help spread the word about camping.

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

Graphic: NWF Be Out There



Watch the Perseid Meteor Shower This Weekend


You might see a lot or you might not see many, but if you stay in the house, you won’t see any.  — EarthSky Magazine


The annual Perseid meteor shower is coming our way this weekend. Anyone who lives in the Northern Hemisphere may be in for a good old-fashioned sky show, just by looking up.

The Perseids are debris from a wandering comet that appears as shooting stars each August. (Records of this light show go back to 36 A.D., though the Swift-Tuttle Comet was discovered much later.) They often provide one of the best shows of the year, if the skies are clear and the moon is not full.

This year, they should be best in the U.S. and Canada late Saturday, August 11, and early Sunday, August 12, especially in the hours after midnight into August 12. Early morning August 13 is another good time to see them, because the moon will be waning (not bright) and late-rising. Astronomers are predicting 50-60 meteors an hour for those who are able to see the Perseids. (That said, we always see fewer meteors than these predicted numbers, so don’t be disappointed. One fantastic shooting star blazing through the sky can produce lifelong memories and awe.)

You won’t need any special equipment to see the Perseids. The naked eye is actually best. Just be sure to give your eyes some time to adjust to the dark. And hope for a good show! Here are more tips for viewing the Perseids.

The San Francisco Chronicle offers more information about the Perseids, along with some good viewing tips and a sky map.

If you like, you can even be a citizen scientist and help NASA count meteors! Download a free app for iphones and androids and join the meteor count. (Here are more citizen science projects you might be interested in.)

Some of my family’s most relaxed and memorable moments have occurred while gazing at the stars together. You can’t help but be infused with a sense of wonder, history and mystery while contemplating the cosmos. It’s natural to share those feelings with those around us, as we use the stars to try to look back through distance and time.

My family remembers one especially wonderful August, when we went to the top of our nearest mountain to see the Perseid meteor shower. Lying in the grass in the dark, we could hear choruses of “oohs” and “aahs” coming from all around the mountain, as people caught sight of the meteors blazing through the night sky. Of course, this year, we’ll be outside again, somewhere, looking for the beautiful Perseids.

Enjoy the show!

Meteor Burst Photo by NASA Ames Research Center/S. Molau & P. Jenniskens

Spring at the Bird Café and Bird Feeder Activity

We’ve had some lovely birds greet us this spring, more than in recent memory. They feast on our seed — bars of Birdola songbird and gold finch feed that fit in a wire-cage bird feeder (though you can make your own feed, too. A recipe follows.)

Our visitors this year include the blue Western Scrub-Jay, the very cheery House Finch, and a young Titmouse. Which creatures are visiting you?

This is a really easy bird feeder to make:

Pinecone Bird Feeder

You’ll need:
• Pinecone (you can substitute a toilet-paper tube)
• 2′–3′ of string
• 1/2 cup vegetable shortening, peanut or other nut butter, suet, or lard
• 1/4 cup cornmeal or oatmeal
• 2 1/2 cups mixture of birdseed (e.g., sunflower and millet; check your local  nursery for suggestions), chopped nuts, and dried fruit
• Mixing bowl
• Plate, shallow dish, or pie tin
• Spoon or butter knife

Tie the string around one end of the pinecone.
In mixing bowl, combine peanut butter or other spread with meal.
Spread that mixture over the pinecone with the knife or spoon.
Pour the birdseed and feed ingredients onto the plate. Roll the pinecone in the seeds.
Hang from a tree branch or window eave.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman



Lyrid Meteor Shower May be Best in Years

The Lyrid meteor shower, expected to peak late Saturday night and into Sunday morning over North America, promises one of its best shows in years, astronomers say. Especially beneficial is Saturday’s near-moonless night. The Lyrids are set to peak after midnight, early April 22.

Spokespeople from NASA have gone as far as to observe:

If you must spend one night under the beckoning stars this month, make it April 21.

NASA folks themselves are planning to make the most of the event. They are launching a balloon cam from Bishop, CA, in the hopes of getting up-close meteor footage and they are offering an Up All Night NASA Chat, from 11pm-5am Eastern U.S. Time. Simply follow this link to ask scientists questions about the Lyrids.

The Lyrids (pronounced Lie-rids) have been observed for more than 2,500 years — during 687 B.C., Chinese records noted that “stars fell like rain”. Aside from some similar key years, most recently 1982, when 90 and more shooting stars were seen for a period of hours, the Lyrids have been a minor meteor shower.

Can’t watch it at the exact time? Don’t worry — astronomers tell us that meteor showers can last for hours before and after the peak date.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) The Lyrid meteor shower hails from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which orbits the Sun only once every 415 years, even though we see the Lyrids that result from it annually. The orbit of this comet appears to lie in the constellation Lyra, the source of the name Lyrids.

How to watch the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Meteors are best viewed with the naked eye. Sky watchers should grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and a blanket if it’s cold, and head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.

Because meteor showers last for days before and after the projected peak, try to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can.

This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Lyrids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.

This video from NASA explains why April 21-22 should be an especially wonderful night for stargazing.

ScienceCasts; A Wonderful Night in April

Photo: Composite of 2009 Lyrids over Huntsville, Ala. (NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser)




How to Choose a Great Summer Camp (It’s not too late!)

My family and I all adored summer camp, which has provided each of us with many of our warmest childhood memories. Camp is a unique and special place, often quite unlike any other in one’s life. Camp can be a place to try new things, experience nature in an unmediated and unhurried way, meet people one wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to, experience personal growth and, above all, have a lot of pure, all-out fun.

There are many wonderful summer camps and, although we’re inching toward summer, many still have openings. It’s not too late to choose a great one. So, how do you choose?

Involve Kids in the Decision

Unless they’re very young, most children will have an opinion about the type of camp experience that appeals to them. Try to have some brochures, DVDs or web sites you can look at together. These might come from a local camp fair, or be downloaded from the Internet. Sometimes the simplest things capture children’s imaginations, such as the local Park and Rec. program that offers an Aloha Week with water play. At the same time, exposing them to a new experience, at the right age, can be very beneficial.

Older children usually know when they’re ready for a “sleepaway” camp, as opposed to a day camp. Day camp experience can help prepare kids for sleepover camp, particularly as a lot of day camps offer overnight outings of increasing length and distance as children get older.

Evaluate Your Family’s Needs

Are both parents working all summer? Consider a camp program or programs that cover the entire season, and/or long days — some camps offer after-care; inquire about additional costs. If you have some flexibility and your child wants to try a couple different types of specialty camps, then perhaps two or more shorter camps will fill the bill. On the other hand, some camps recommend registering for a longer program, so as to have adequate time to adjust and really get comfortable. Discuss the family’s needs and desires.

Camp costs will also factor into your decision. These vary widely. Some camps offer “campership” (scholarship) opportunities..

In addition, many day camps offer bus or van transportation, which could cut down on driving time for the parents. (And the great news is that children usually regard the camp bus as part of the fun. Take it from someone who has been banned from singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.) Transportation also often carries an extra cost.

Discuss the Camp’s Activities

What does your child envision doing? Whether it’s theater or ceramics, water sports or group games, you’ll want to make sure that activity is offered. Although it’s great to try new things, it can be comforting when some favorite activities are part of the particular camp. Something else to consider is whether the camp is a general camp with lots of activities, or a specialty camp. Both kinds of camps offer tremendous opportunities. First-time campers may enjoy a traditional camp as a way to get their feet wet and begin the camp experience. Also, a traditional camp offers unique experiences children may not have in any other area of their lives. Some specialty camps also offer swimming and outdoor games, as a way to break up the main activity or to get everyone outside for some physical play. If a child is leaning toward a specialty camp, be sure they know that most of the day will be devoted to the primary activity.

Find Out About the Camp’s Structure

Some camps schedule all activities, and others allow for free choice. When age-appropriate, discuss your child’s preferences with him or her. The right match can go a long way toward a successful camp experience.

Explore the Camp’s Setting

How rustic is the camp? Do children sleep in tents, cabins or dorms? Even with day camps, there are camps that meet in local parks and camps in which children travel daily to outdoor adventure spots or amusement parks. What kind of setting appeals to your child and fits his/her comfort level? Inquire about sleeping and dining facilities, and sports and recreational facilities, as well as the camp’s physical setting.

Try to Get a Sense of the Camp’s Philosophy

Although this may be difficult to discern without spending some time in a camp session, there are some questions you can ask that may help you figure out if a camp is a match for your child and family. These include:

What qualities do you look for in a camp counselor?
Where do campers come from?
What ages and genders typically attend the camp?
How long has the director/camp been in operation?
What percentage of campers usually return?
How are bunks or groups determined?
How competitive are camp activities?
Are campers encouraged to try new things?
Do many activities involve the whole camp?
What kind of food is served?
Does the camp have a religious affiliation?
What is the camp policy regarding electronics, spending money, medication, letters from home and parent visits and phonecalls?

Consider the Camp’s Role Regarding your Child’s Social-Emotional Needs

The choice of camp can be especially critical if your child has special needs. Research or ask the camp director whether or not special needs are addressed. Find out, too, about social and emotional needs. Camps have different policies around homesickness and phonecalls to and from home. Find out how the camp handles campers who are not enjoying themselves or who are having trouble fitting into the activities or friendships.

Find Out About the Camp’s Safety Record and Practices

Of course parents want to feel secure when kids are away from home or trying new activities. Here are some questions to ask regarding safety:

Is the camp ACA accredited? (This is a very important camp accreditation from the American Camp Association, which holds high standards for safety and programming. Note that there are fine non-ACA-accredited camps as well.)
Is instruction given in swimming and other new activities?
Are swim instructors certified?
What is the ratio of staff to campers? (According to the ACA, there should be one counselor for every 5-10 campers, depending on ages and needs.)
What is the training for counselors?
What are the ages of the counselors?
How does the camp ensure safety?
What is the general emergency plan?
Are there nearby medical facilities?
Do staff members have medical/emergency training?
Are there outings away from the camp site and, if so, what are the arrangements for transportation, facilities, supervision, etc.?

Find Out About Practicalities

Are there additional costs or fees?
Is there a refund policy?
Will the director supply references?
Can you visit the camp in advance? (Or, if not, is there a video tour?)

Camps can offer lots of great, new experiences in fun, and sometimes beautiful, settings. Some children see the same camp friends year after year, and many grow up with fond memories of their special camp time. It can be wonderful to stick with a favorite camp or seek a new experience. The right focus in spring can help your child and family have a fun and memorable time in summer.

Try American Camp Association’s Find a Camp tool.

See American Camp Association‘s A Camp for Everyone.

Just added: San Francisco Bay Area folks, I just learned about a very cool camp called Camp Galileo that combines art, science and outdoor activities around weekly themes. They have programs for kids ages pre-K to 8th grade, in 38 locations. The camp philosophy encourages fun and learning through experimentation, discovery and innovation. Each camp is a week long, which allows for flexibility. Extended care is offered, too, to help working parents. Campers through 5th grade are grouped by age and participate in one of four themed camps: Medieval Adventure, Space Odyssey, African Safari and (Design your own) Amusement Park. Older kids choose “Summer Quests” that specialize in high technology, building, culinary arts or fine arts. Camp Galileo is partnered with the Tech Museum of Innovation and Chabot Space and Science Camp. Camp parents speak extremely highly of their children’s experiences. Visit the Camp Galileo site to learn more.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

This post is sponsored by Camp Galileo. The views expressed are my own.

See CHIMPANZEE, Save Chimpanzees

Did you know that you can help the world’s chimpanzee population simply by seeing a movie? The movie, Chimpanzee, which opens Friday, highlights the plight of chimpanzees, which are gravely endangered — 100 years ago, roughly 1 million chimpanzees lived in the lush rainforests of equatorial Africa. Today, only 1/10 of them remain, primarily due to habitat loss and illegal hunting. African ape populations are expected to decline by an additional 80% in the next 30-40 years.

Disney and Disneynature have teamed with the Jane Goodall Institute to bring this story to life, which is told through a curious and entertaining young chimp named Oscar and his triumphs and family bonds.

Disney founder Walt Disney was a pioneer in wildlife filmmaking, and Disneynature continues to bring the world’s top nature filmmakers together to share wildlife stories in the hopes of inspiring and educating people about nature.

The Jane Goodall Institute has been working in Africa for almost 35 years and developed out of the research begun by Dr. Goodall in 1960. Said Dr. Jane Goodall:

Together, we can truly make a difference and are thrilled to have Disneynature join our efforts to protect chimpanzee habitats, care for orphaned chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo and educate a new generation of young people and connect them to nature

Here’s where you come in:

For every moviegoer who sees Chimpanzee during the film’s opening week (April 20-26, 2012), Disneynature will make a donation to JGI through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund in order to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, now and into the future.

Will you see Chimpanzee opening week? I will! Take the pledge by leaving a comment here.

Dr. Jane Goodall Photo: Stuart Clarke

Chimpanzee Photo: Disney

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