Love Those Ladybugs

Who hasn’t greeted ladybugs with surprise and delight? These beetles are full-grown at less than a half-inch and live for 2-3 years. Children of all ages seem fascinated by ladybugs because of their small size, bright color and their willingness to walk a while on your finger and fly away when they tire of the adventure. Ladybugs are speedy – flying at 15 MPH.

ladybugs, nature, children, outdoors, garden, pollinators, aphidsWhen your family is out walking in the neighborhood, look for ladybugs feasting on aphids – their favorite food – or other small insects. They use their antennae to touch, smell and taste and eat as many as 50 aphids a day! The instant they are born, ladybugs start eating. By the end of six weeks, they can eat 5,000 aphids. Because of their huge appetites, they are an important way to protect plants. Farmers use them to protect crops instead of using chemicals.

Not all ladybugs are red. I have seen colonies of hundreds of red, spotted ladybugs. They are also yellow, orange, gray, black, brown and pink. More than 500 species of ladybugs live in the US and 5,000 around the world. Some don’t have spots. As a ladybug ages, spots fade.

Ladybugs play dead when threatened, releasing a foul smelling liquid that helps defend themselves from predators. Dragonflies, ants, crows and other insect-eating birds love to feast on ladybugs.

Make your own ladybugs. With a little imagination, paint, colored markers or pencils, ladybugs can be made using any of the following materials:

  • Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners for legs
  • Paper mache (using starch and newspaper strips and forming the body with a cereal bowl)
  • Paper plates to make a spotted bug face mask
  • Small round stones to paint
  • Egg carton as the body

 Ladybug Board Game courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

Find Your Peaceful Spot

Find a special place outdoors you, your students or children can call their own. That place could be your backyard, park, open field, stream or a hidden away slice of open space. Take your time, take a picnic, bring a journal or a book. Sit and relax for an hour or more and learn the landscape.

peaceful spot, American River, bikepathWhen you find your “peaceful spot,” here’s what to do:

  • Explore what lives there.
  • Visit in different seasons to see how the land has changed.
  • Smell the freshness in the air after a rain.
  • Listen to the music of the birds.
  • Walk barefoot in the grass.
  • Play “I spy” with your kids.
  • Watch the leaves fall and the where the shadows fall at sunset.

I ride my bike to a quiet resting spot on the bike path near my home. I look for deer, turkeys, caterpillars, butterflies and squirrels. Occasionally a coyote crosses the path. On some rides, I have dodged a harmless snake crossing the path. My favorite spot is a picnic table that sits on a ridge covered with oak trees, with a panoramic view of the river. From here I watch the wind shake the leaves on trees that have changed from green to yellow. I see leaves from a mature oak fall to the ground and a roving lizard climb the jagged bark.

River access is a short walk down the hill from the bike path. I guide my bike down to the sandbar and dip my feet in the cool water, watch the rapids rush by, see the birds fly overhead and hear Canada Geese honking. I enjoy sitting alone in my peaceful spot, listening only to the water and the occasional whizz of a cyclist or two passing by.  The more you know about your special place, the more you will realize it has a life of its own and you can watch that life unfold.

Make Friends With a Tree

Trees are great friends because they have so many stories to tell and so much to share.

Years ago on a nature hike, a ranger gave us this clever hint for identifying  Douglas-fir trees. Their cones look as if mice are hiding inside “digging fir seeds” and their tail is all you can see. While your tree is still outside, become an explorer and learn your tree’s story.

  • How tall is it? Taller than mom or dad? Can your child reach the top by stretching their arms high?
  • Can you guess how old it is? Take a close look at the rings on the underside of the trunk. What important events happened since the tree was born?
  • Who can wrap their arms all the way around it?
  • Reach inside to the trunk and feel the bark. Is it soft, scratchy, rough? What color is the trunk?
  • Does the tree have needles or leaves? Are needles sticky, sharp or soft? Short or long?  Are they arranged in groups of 2, 3, or even 6 on a branch? Are needles or leaves sturdy or limp?
  • Ponderosa pine

    Does any creature make its home in the tree? How can you tell? Do you see a spider’s web or tiny holes in the bark from a woodpecker’s beak?

  • If you approach a tree that smells like vanilla or butterscotch, then you are looking at a Ponderosa pine.
  • Celebrate it! Give it water. Decorate. Take photos. Write its story.
  • Next times you visit a forest, watch the trees  sway in the wind, reach high for the sun and down into the ground to its roots for nourishment.
  • Explore on your own – what do trees give us besides a shady place to rest?

Talking About Climate Change

With more than 100 websites with information on climate change describing scientific research, classroom education activities, conferences around the world, cartoons and much, much more.  The topic can be overwhelming and definitely confusing.

Where do you start? 

Begin a discussion with children that is brief, clear, understandable and personally relevant.

This week’s post offers questions and answers as a start for conversation with resources to review to find more detailed information. This is indeed only a beginning…

1. Where are the wildflowers and trees?

Wildflowers are seasonal and dependent on temperature. They bloom earlier when temperatures are warmer. Plants will move uphill or northward to stay in their traditional cooler climate zones. The challenge for all plants and trees is if they can adapt quickly enough to keep up with changing weather patterns or thin out and die in large numbers during their move. Animals also live by seasons. They move where it is warmer and to find food. Sometimes they move into areas where people live and animals don’t belong. Wild animals are usually not good neighbors.

2. Who shrunk the beach?

As glaciers melt worldwide, beaches on the coast will appear to shrink because of erosion and rise in seal level. Low lying coastal areas could eventually be under water and everyone who lives there needs to move inland to higher ground.

3. Why is it such a big deal that some places are warmer than usual and others are colder and wetter than they are supposed to be?

Changing weather patterns bring more severe storms and flooding in areas that are worse than usual. People, buildings and dams are not always fully prepared when storms come, so that causes more property damage. Climate change can reduce our nation’s food supply because farmers depend on predictable weather patterns. Too much rain or too soon can damage or destroy whole crops. Warmer water temperatures are too warm for some fish (and the ecosystems that support them) to thrive and lay their eggs. A third problem is higher danger of forest fires in areas where there is less rainfall.

4. Haven’t these warming and cooling cycles happened on our planet before?

The earth has experienced a lot of different weather patterns over millions of years. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred within the last 12 years, so what we are experiencing now is not the same as anything that we know has happened before.

5. Are there places that have changed because of because of climate change?

Yes. Lassen National Park, Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe were originally formed when glaciers melted millions of years ago.  Scientists have found fossils in places that are now dry that prove the land used to be covered in water. Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was created when the water rose around it from melting ice and filled the Bay. Animals are migrating north to stay in cooler weather when their home temperature is now warmer.

6. Will there still be snow to play in or go snowboarding?

If the planet continues to get warmer, there will probably be less snow in the mountains and it will melt a lot sooner. Instead of a lot of snowpack available for winter sports, we will have more flooding when the snow melts so fast.

7. What can I do to slow down changes in temperature?

You can do a lot! We can use less energy at home because using a lot of energy contributes to the problem. Walk more and drive less. Buy products that use less packaging and take less energy to operate. And we can recycle and reuse things as much as we can. We are not just saving money, we are saving our plants, animals and where we live too.

Enjoying Nature Begins at Home

 You can do a LOT in one hour!  One hour of unstructured play with the natural world.

Alphabet Walk. Stop, Look, Listen, Feel and Smell!  Look for letter shapes in your neighborhood. Fall and winter can the best times for careful observation because tree limbs and branches are exposed so more letters are visible. X and Y and relatively easy to find. Be creative as you search for other letters. Look to the sky and on the ground. Sometimes letters are found in unexpected places.

Nature Detectives Scavenger Hunt. One of many things a child can do alone is a backyard scavenger hunt (or any area near your home or apartment). Give your child a note pad and pencil and send them on a mission to find bugs, fallen leaves, spider webs, ladybugs, worms, birds and whatever else they can find in about 30 minutes.

Challenge them to find 10 things they never saw before. Encourage them to draw what they see, make a list, or describe it in a sentence. You can accompany them and incite enthusiasm if they won’t go alone or feel safer if accompanied by an adult.

  • Make comparisons: Is it as a long as their finger?
  • Look (or touch) closely: It is wet or dry?
  • Listen carefully: Does it make a sound?
  • Describe it: Does it have legs, wings or just a slimy body?
  • Count: How many?

Once they have returned from their solo mission, share their enthusiasm by reviewing their field journal. Follow up on their investigation by asking questions, inviting them to show you where they searched so you can see first hand what they found.

Visit the National Wildlife Federation website for even more  activities you can do during the  Green Hour .

Strentzel-Muir Ranch Influences Early California Agriculture

John Muir, Martinez, Strentze-Muir Ranch, Martinez Adobe, Railroad, right of way, railroad station, produce, farm, ranch,

The size, capacity and management of the Strentzel-Muir Ranch played a major role in the development of early California agriculture in the Alhambra Valley.

Dr. John Strentzel, a Polish immigrant, who would later become John Muir’s father-in-law, was one of many successful pioneers who arrived in the gold fields and soon left to become a farmer. He eventually arrived at the valley of Rancho Cañada del Hambre, a Mexican land grant.

Mrs. Strentzel preferred the name “Alhambra” to Rancho Cañada del Hambre. From then on, the area was known as Alhambra Valley. For the next 25 years, Dr. Strentzel continued to acquire property and over time expanded the size of his holdings until reaching its peak at a total of 2,300 acres.

Dr. Strentzel helped establish the Alhambra Grange creating the opportunity for farmers to work cooperatively, get the best prices, and ship and store produce and grain. Later the Grange became an important resource for agricultural research.

Fifty-five varieties of peaches and thirty-six varieties of apples were a small fraction of his total production. Strentzel was the first in California to grow Muscat and Tokay grapes as well as other select varieties. He produced the first raisins and made his own wine. By 1875, as a result of Dr. Strentzel’s influence, the Alhambra Valley was planted with more than 70,000 fruit trees.

John Muir applied his talent for efficiency and inventiveness to improve ranch operations by inventing a machine that helped ranch workers plant vines in a straight line. Muir worked alongside the Chinese immigrant workers to plant and harvest hundreds of tons of fruit each year. At age 50, Muir weighed less than 100 pounds from working so long and hard in the fields. At one point, Chinese immigrants were responsible for harvesting two-thirds of all the vegetables in the state. They accounted for some twenty-five percent of the labor force in neighboring Alameda and San Mateo counties. The gently sloping hillsides of the Alhambra Valley were filled with orchards producing peaches, pears, figs, apricots, cherries and walnuts for residents of the growing city of San Francisco and around the nation.

Railroad Travels Through the Alhambra Valley. The Santa Fe and San Joaquin Valley Railroad (later to become the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway) and Burlington Northern railroad were interested in expanding their rail lines into Martinez. Muir took advantage of this opportunity to expand his markets. In October 1897, Muir transferred a right of way to the railways one-quarter mile south of the Muir and Martinez Adobe. Muir received a lifelong pass for his donation of the property. The railroad named the stop at the east approach to the tunnel, Muir Station. By 1906, there was a 1,680-foot wooden and steel trestle above the orchards on the north slope of Mt. Wanda, a 300-foot tunnel and a railroad grade.  This railroad grade is now Highway 4 passing alongside the current John Muir National Historic Site.

John Muir, reading, Martinez, Strentzel-Muir Ranch, agriculture, Early California agricultureJohn Muir Transfers Ranch Ownership. Muir had been steadily selling and leasing large chunks of the ranch for years. He used the money to support his family and provide the funding he needed to travel and write. In 1891, Muir immersed himself full time into his conservation work and writing and passed the ranch management to his son-in-law Tom Hanna, who married Muir’s eldest daughter Wanda.

California Emerges as Agricultural Leader. In 1910, California emerged as one of the world’s principal producers of grapes, citrus, and various deciduous [annual] fruits. The access to the rail transportation, refrigerated cars, improved roads, the new focus on understanding biology of the fruit and the introduction of new industrial technologies such as canning, packing and machinery accelerated California’s agricultural standing to a position of global leadership.

Alhambra Water Fresh From a Local Spring. Other new businesses started in Martinez and the Alhambra Valley. Loron Lassell owned a 300-acre ranch in the valley and located a fresh water springs on his ranch. In 1902, he began bottling his water and sold it under the name of Alhambra Water to San Francisco, Oakland and Contra Costa towns. The springs were abandoned in 1954 when the company was sold to Foremost-McKesson.

This blog post is excerpted from the original text printed in Field Trip Curriculum for the John Muir National Historic Site, written by Janice Kelley and published by California State University, Sacramento in 2013.

Geese in Flight

geese at American River, early morning

Early morning the day after a day of heavy rain at the American River in Fair Oaks. Geese are catching up on their flying lessons.  They fly up and away! Enjoying the outdoor world is always a miracle.

How many geese are flying in this photo?


Imagine the Possibilities

During one of my most recent visits to the American River, I discovered something very curious and imagined the possibilities of what this could be. At first I thought it was two crocodiles crawling into the river. Then I looked again and saw a rowboat with two oars. The next time I saw a huge heart with arrows piercing it. What do you see?

curious, imagination, observation, nature, writing,
What do you see in this photo?