Ravens in Winter: Nature Study Activities and Lessons for Teens

My father has a pair of ravens that sit perched a top the branches of a snag on his property. They will often squawk upon our arrival and swoop down quickly to snatch up the tasty morsels we toss out to them periodically. Watching their antics is a highlight of our visit and provides a great nature study segue for our teens.

I’ve always been fascinated by ravens. When I was a young girl, my mother introduced me to her favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe. Chills ran up my spine as she read, The Raven. I now enjoy reading it each autumn when the leaves begin to fall from the trees and the cold winds begin to blow.  Teens may wish to memorize this poem.Ravens in Winter

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

~ Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

Corvus Identification

Common ravens (Corvus corax) and American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), overlap widely throughout North America and they look very similar. Rest assured, however, that with a little practice, you can tell them apart.

You probably know that ravens are larger. They are actually the same size as a Red-tailed Hawk and will often travel in pairs. Crows, on the other hand, are seen in larger groups.

As they fly overhead, the crow’s tail feathers are basically the same length, so when the bird spreads its tail, it opens like a fan. Ravens, however, have longer middle feathers in their tails, so their tail appears wedge-shaped when open. Ravens ride the thermals and soar, whereas crows do more flapping.

Another key difference is their call. Crows give a cawing sound whereas ravens produce a lower croaking sound.

The Tower of London

The photo featured at the top of this post was taken at the Tower of London while on family holiday a few months ago. “Should the ravens leave the Tower of London, it will crumble into dust and great harm befall the kingdom,” proclaimed the official Ravenmaster we spoke to as we wandered about the grounds.

As you can imagine, the ravens who reside at the Tower of London are an attraction to travelers around the world. You can learn more about them and the role the Ravenmaster plays in their care here, At the Tower of London, a Ravenmaster for the Digital Age.

Living Books

Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich is a wonderfully written narrative compiled from the author’s field notes and studies all aimed at understanding raven behavior. In 1984 he was determined to find out why ravens call to each other when they discover food, a rare example of sharing in the wild. For the next four years he spent winter weekends observing these birds at a remote site in Maine, braving fierce weather, lugging enormous amounts of bait to lure ravens to his study area and sleeping in a cabin where temperatures often plunged below zero at night.

A Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Vermont, Henrich is the author of numerous books, including Bumblebee Economics, Mind of the Raven, and The Homing Instinct. He has received the John Burrough’s Medal for Nature Writing and has been nominated for a National Book Award for Science.Ravens in Winter provides an in-depth look at raven ethology – particularly their intelligence and playfulness. It is a great living science book for teens, providing a visual picture of the scientific method.

To expand on your Corvid nature study, you may consider extending with Native American and Norse mythology.

Corvus Study in the Wild

Ravens and crows have the keenest intelligence of all our common birds. Taking inspiration from Heinrich’s study, winter is the perfect time to get outdoors and study the behavior of the Corvus genus ourselves. Their nests are often easier to see in the winter when the foliage is absent from the trees. However, most do build their nests in evergreens. Here are few questions or things to ponder as you observe them – be sure to record your observations in your nature journal:

  • Describe its colors when seen in the sunlight.
  • Describe the general shape of the crow or raven.
  • Are its wings long and slender or short and stout?
  • Is the tail long or short? Is it notched or straight across the end?
  • Describe its feet. Are they large and strong or slender? How many toes does it have? How many are directed forward and how many backward?
  • What is it doing? Describe its behavior or activity.
  • Describe its call.
  • Describe its beak.
  • Where and of what material did it build its nest?
  • If they are feeding in a feed, is there a sentinel or guard posted?
  • What do they feed upon?

Sit down with your sketch book and illustrate a few. Try to capture its movement and different poses with quick, light sketches. Take photographs if the weather is not conducive to sketching outdoors.

Build a Feeder

There are two beneficiaries to setting up a bird feeder in you backyard … birds and people. In regards to the first beneficiary, you should consider:

  1. accessibility to the birds;
  2. shelter from the wind, snow, and rain;
  3. vulnerability to window strikes; and
  4. safety from predators, especially cats.

In regards to the latter, ponder the following:

  1. ready visibility from a window;
  2. ease of filling and maintaining; and
  3. capacity, which determines refilling frequency.

With these thoughts in mind, you can begin to research what type of feeder you would like to build and the potential placement. There are many options to choose from and building plans are easily found at your local library, online, or from local bird watching groups like the Audubon Society.

There are also many opportunities to engage in real science – collecting data on bird migration patterns and nesting behaviors for a variety of citizen science projects. Two that come to mind immediately are Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Welcome to the first The Nature Book Club Monthly Link Up. The monthly link up will begin on the 20th day of each month.

The monthly book club is devoted to connecting children to nature. There is a theme for each month in 2018. The theme this month is winter birds and nests.

We welcome your nature book and activity related links. Read on for more details and for a giveaway!

The Nature Book Club theme for January: Winter Birds and Nests

The Nature Book Club is brought to you by these 15 nature loving bloggers which are your co-hosts! Are you following them? If you don’t want to miss anything, be sure to follow each one.

Here are the co-hosts, their choices of books, and activities for the month.

Something 2 Offer
Birds, Nests, and Eggs Nest Scavenger Hunt

The Usual Mayhem
The Boy Who Drew Birds Free artist study set (John James Audobon)

Preschool Naturally
Whose Nest Is This? Nest Building Activity

Tina’s Dynamic Homeschool Plus
(Backyard Bird Series) CardinalsFree Northern Cardinal Unit Study & Lapbook.

Rule This Roost
Fine Feathered Friends: All About BirdsDIY Bird Feeders

Hide The Chocolate
Those Darn Squirrels Fly SouthFree online book club.

The Homeschool Scientist
Birds, Nests, and EggsMake a Suet Feeder

Forgetful Momma
Snowy Owls Snowy Owl Craft

Table Life Blog
A Nest is NoisyArt Project.

Eva Varga
Ravens in Winter: Nature Study Activities and Lessons for TeensWinter Bird ID

Wind in a Letterbox
Birds for Beginners in Southern AfricaNature Journal Entry

Rainy Day Mum
Coming HomeNeedle Felted Robin

Handbook of Nature Study
Backyard Birds Field Guide for Young NaturalistBackyard Bird Nature Study

The Playful Scholar
TBD – How to Make Hanging Suet Ornaments

Freshly Planted
NestsNest weaving

The Nature Book Club theme for February: Small Mammals

WHOOP! – The Nature Book Club Giveaway!

We’re so excited about this month’s freebie. It is an ebook, Backyard Science – Easy Activities for All Ages, by The Homeschool Scientist.
A huge Thank You to The Homeschool Scientist!


Click on the link above. It’s free until February 4, 2018. No coupon code required.

Party Rules

  • Choose an engaging nature book, do a craft or activity, and add your post to our monthly link up.
  • The link up party goes live at 9:00 a.m. EST on the 20th of each month and stays open until 11:59 p.m. EST on the last day of the month. Hurry to add your links!
  • You can link up to 3 posts. Please do not link up advertising posts, advertise other link up parties, your store, or non-related blog posts. They will be removed.
  • By linking up with us, you agree for us to share your images and give you credit of course if we feature your posts.That’s it!
  • Let’s party.


Environmental Science: Our Local Biodiversity & Environmental Impact Statements

The Environmental Science merit badge has been a lot of fun to teach. In many ways, today’s activities were my favorite because they got us outdoors and we were able to visually see examples of local biodiversity, invasive species, erosion, and so much more. We concluded by discussing components of an environmental impact statement.

Today is the final post in the series highlighting the activities I have coordinated as the Environmental Science merit badge counselor for our local Boy Scout Troop.

Biodiversity & an Environmental Impact Statement @EvaVargaOur Local Biodiversity

For requirement #5, we chose two outdoor study areas that are very different from one another (a nearby forested woodland and an area of the sand dune undergoing succession). In small groups, the scouts marked off a study area with flags and counted the number of species found within. They then estimate how much space was occupied by each species and the type and number of nonplant species observed.

After our visit to each area, they were directed to write a report that discusses the biodiversity and population density of the chosen study areas. I look forward to reading their work and discussing what they learned from this experience one-on-one.

Environmental Impact Statements

Requirement #6 of the merit badge requirements is a little vague.

Using the construction project provided or a plan you create on your own, identify the items that would need to be included in an environmental impact statement for the project planned.

I do not know what construction project to which is referred so I was a bit confused. In my opinion, a local real-life construction project would be best suited for this requirement as the boys would have real experience and prior knowledge.

I thereby opted to take the boys for a walk around our neighborhood by which we were able to do several things:

  • visit a residential construction site and talk about the impact the housing development had on the local ecosystem (sand dune)
  • view, from a short distance, the north spit where a liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline terminal has been proposed

Locally, there has been a HUGE political battle in regards to the LNG whereupon we could visually see the north spit where a liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline terminal has been proposed. Along the way, we also observed areas disturbed by construction and thus an abundance of invasive plant species, an open meadow-like area (generally shrubs of both native and invasive species and a variety of wild grasses) the city presumably mowed to reduce wildfire danger, and the site where a WW2 bunker had been removed (this greatly saddened us but I believe the local authorities did so due to fear of litigation).

When we returned home, we discussed the impact the residential construction had on the area as well as the proposed LNG terminal. I pulled up the final Environmental Impact Statement that was released to the public and we walked through components of it for quite some time. It is rather lengthy – over 200 pages – so I aimed to summarize and pull out the key components including:

  • topographical maps
  • proposed roads
  • drafts of engineering plans for containment
  • mitigation plans

The previous posts in this series have touched on the following topics:

Environmental Policy Timeline, Key Terms, & Pollination

How Species Respond to Environmental Changes & Endangered Species

Acid Rain, Pollution Prevention, & Conservation Practices

In the Path of Totality: The 2017 Eclipse

We had been planning to be in the path of totality for over a year, purchasing tickets to OMSI’s eclipse party at the state fairgrounds in Salem, Oregon in July of 2016. As the date approached, the media was inundated with warnings about traffic congestion, fuel shortages, and other issues related to the eclipse.

path of totality - solar eclipse Preparing for Totality

As we prepared for the event and stressed about logistics – wondering if we should change plans and camp in the Cascades [we would need to pick Geneva up on Friday evening after National Youth Leadership Training – (NYLT)], crash at my brother’s in Eugene, or return home and then drive up to Salem the morning of – we spent time learning more about eclipses.

We had previously seen an annular eclipse and the kids were curious how they differed. Best of all, their interest tied into the requirements necessary to earn the coveted BSA Eclipse patch:

  • Boy Scouts: Draw a diagram of the positions of the moon, earth, and sun to show how the solar eclipse occurs.
  • Venturers: Research Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s 1919 experiment and discuss how it confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

We had recently discovered mysimpleshow and it seemed like the perfect tool for this project. We thereby collaborated (learning how to use the program together) on an explainer video for the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.

As

As this was our first multimedia presentation with mysimpleshow, we struggled with a few things (I can’t figure out why a few of the images appear in blue hues) but otherwise we LOVE it! We will definitely be using it again – I’ll be posting a complete review in September so check back. :)

Experiencing Totality

After learning more about the location of Geneva’s NYLT camp, we opted to return home Friday evening – we didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m. She needed the time to decompress after camp however, so it was a wise decision.

We decided to drive up Sunday afternoon and thereby made arrangements to pitch our tent in a friend’s backyard (Thank you, Hannah!). Traffic was not bad on the way up and we arrived rested and excited for the next day.

path of totality - solar eclipse We grabbed a quick breakfast and made our way over the fairgrounds where the vibe was picking up as our morning coffees began to work their magic. We met up with friends who drove down from Portland and the festivities began.

We meandered the vendor booths and enjoyed the speakers in the amphitheater. The best part of the morning was simply catching up with our friends and taking in each moment – Geneva sketching and Jeffrey cubing.

I loved watching the crowd as the moon eclipsed the sun. Taiko drummers beat out a rhythm as totality approached and were silent during the 1 minute 53 seconds of duration. The crowd was awed and everyone mesmerized by the beauty of the natural event.

path of totality - solar eclipse

It was so fun to experience it with a large crowd – to stop even ever so briefly and not worry about politics or personal strife. Though many people began to depart after totality, we opted to stay.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant as we contemplated which route to take to return home. As I5 south was already congested with traffic (our GPS map showed it red for the entire length of the state), we chose to drive slightly westward and then proceed south on highway 99 through Monmouth and Corvallis. This turned out to be a wise choice. Though traffic was heavier than usual, we encountered congestion for only a short stretch between Corvallis and Monroe.

It has been several days now since the eclipse and we are still in awe. It was really incredible and we are so thankful we had the opportunity to experience a total solar eclipse in totality. The next eclipse visible in the United States will be 2024. We may consider making plans for this one as well.

 

 

Oregon Nature Quiz: Boy Scout Rank Wildlife Edition

To finish up his Second Class rank requirements for Boy Scouts recently, I was helping my little man find photographs of wildlife that he has observed. As we dug through our photo archives, I was reminded of a fun little Oregon Nature Quiz: Early Summer Edition that I posted several months ago. I had posted it with the intention of making it a quarterly series but sadly, life distracted me and I let it slip my mind.

Oregon Nature Quiz #2: Wildlife Edition

How Well Do You Know Oregon?

Here are five of the photos my son selected to submit to his Scoutmaster. Can you identify the wildlife represented here? Whose Been Here? Oregon Nature Quiz: Boy Scout Rank Wildlife Edition @EvaVarga.net

Who Am I? Oregon Nature Quiz: Boy Scout Rank Wildlife Edition @EvaVarga.net

What Happened Here? Oregon Nature Quiz: Boy Scout Rank Wildlife Edition @EvaVarga.net

I'm Friendly. Or Am I? Oregon Nature Quiz: Boy Scout Rank Wildlife Edition @EvaVarga.net

My, What Big Teeth You Have. Oregon Nature Quiz: Boy Scout Rank Wildlife Edition @EvaVarga.net

Answers:

1. North American Raccoon tracks along the banks of a river

In the wild, raccoons often dabble for underwater food near the shore-line. They then often pick up the food item with their front paws to examine it and rub the item, sometimes to remove unwanted parts. This gives the appearance of the raccoon “washing” the food.

Originally, raccoon habitats were solely deciduous and mixed forests, but due to their adaptability they have extended their range to mountainous areas, coastal marshes, and even urban areas. Though previously thought to be solitary, there is now evidence that raccoons engage in gender-specific social behavior. Related females often share a common area, while unrelated males live together in groups of up to four animals to maintain their positions against foreign males during the mating season, and other potential invaders.

Intrigued by animal tracks and wildlife signs? Check out these ideas for Exploring Animal Tracks with students.

2. Pacific Tree Frog

Pacific tree frogs are common on the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington. They occur in shades of greens or browns and can change colors over periods of hours and weeks. They occur in shades of greens or browns and can change colors over periods of hours and weeks. Eggs of the Pacific tree frog may be consumed by the rough-skinned newt and other amphibians.

They are found upland in ponds, streams, lakes and sometimes even further away from water. The Pacific tree frog makes its home in riparian habitat, as well as woodlands, grassland, chaparral, pasture land, and even urban areas including back yard ponds.

3. Black Bear claw marks and Acorn Woodpecker holes on the trunk of an apple tree

In the early fall, when the apples are ripe, it is not uncommon to see claw marks on apple trees, particularly in old pioneer orchards that have been abandoned. Brown and American black bears are generally diurnal, meaning that they are active for the most part during the day, though they may also forage at night.

Most bears have diets of more plant than animal matter and are completely opportunistic omnivores. Knowing when plants are ripe for eating is a learned behavior. Bears may mark territory by rubbing against trees and other objects which may serve to spread their scent. This is usually accompanied by clawing and biting the object.

Interested in learning more about animals and the study of wildlife? Check out these great animal webcams.

4. Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel

Scientists classify the golden-mantled ground squirrel as a true ground squirrel, though it will climb trees to reach seeds. Its genus name Spermophilus is Greek for “seed loving.” Like other ground squirrels, the golden-mantle packs seeds and fruit in its cheek pouches and stores the food in burrows, puts on a thick layer of fat, and hibernates in winter. Golden-mantled ground squirrels eat their stored food in early spring, when seeds and fruit are scarce. In addition to seeds and fruit, the omnivorous ground squirrel eats fungi, insects, bird eggs, small vertebrates, and carrion.

Though the golden-mantled ground squirrel can vocalize, it remains silent most of the time. When alarmed, it chirps and squeals. Though not especially aggressive, it growls when fighting with other ground squirrels. Though tempting, it’s not a good idea to feed these or any other wild animals; it distracts them from searching for natural foods, which they must eat in large quantities to survive. Unlike most other ground squirrels, the golden mantle is a loner. It only spends time with others of its kind as a youngster with its mother and siblings.

5. North American Beaver teeth marks on the trunk of an oak tree

Beaver (Castor Canadensis) are known for building dams, canals, and lodges (homes). Their colonies create one or more dams to provide still, deep water to protect against predators, and to float food and building material. While they don’t generally use trees of the size pictured here in their dams, it is fascinating to watch the process of a beaver dam under construction which play a critical role in the ecology of our streams. Learn more in my post, The Industrious Beaver: Nature’s Engineers.

Rare, Bizarre Creatures from the Deep: An Unexpected Nature Study

I grew up on the Oregon Coast in beautiful Bandon by the Sea. I spent many a day on the shoreline investigating the marine invertebrates under the rock crevices and walking the sandy beaches. My brothers and I longed for the minus tides, providing us the rare opportunity to go spelunking in the sea caves just off shore. These rocky islands are now protected areas for marine bird nesting habitat but back in the 70s, it was our playground.

dune geology tunicates

Dune geology features: foredune and deflation plain

Tracking Marine Debris

In all the years I have spent on the beach, I have found a diverse amount of debris and organisms in varying states of decay. I probably spend an equal amount of time sifting through the wrack on the high tide line as I do in wave zone digging in the sand looking for mole crabs.

I have found marine debris from Japan evidenced by the kanji script. An occasional flip flop or fishing net remnants are not uncommon. While immersing myself in marine biology courses at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology one summer, I even found several squid egg cases that washed ashore after a winter storm, providing my peers and I an opportunity to observe the development up close. Yet, once in a while, I am still surprised at what washes ashore.

tunicates

Walking along the ATV trail across the deflation plain

This past holiday weekend, my family and I enjoyed a leisurely walk on the beach near our home. Our goal was to field test a new marine debris app, a joint initiative between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative. The tracker app allows you to help make a difference by checking in when you find trash on our coastlines and waterways.*

We drove out to the North Spit and thereafter began our excursion through the deflation plain. We soon discovered, however, that there was too much standing water to stick to the trail that meandered through the wetland area. We thus walked along the ATV road until we reached the small foredune. Just a few feet up and over and we arrived on the sandy beach.

No sooner did we arrive at the shore and we immediately were captivated by the presence of a strange organic material that was strewn across the beach for miles. Upon first glance, it looked like a hard plastic tube resembling a sea cucumber. My first suspicion turned out to be incorrect, however. Upon returning home, I learned that what we had found were actually colonial tunicates. Fascinating!

tunicates rare creatures

Planktonic salps, Pyrosoma atlanticum, strewn across the beach.

What are Tunicates?

This bizarre and rarely-seen creature is called a pyrosome, a species of pelagic colonial tunicates. Their scientific name, Pyrosoma atlanticum, is derived from the Greek words pyro meaning ‘fire’ and soma meaning ‘body’ which refers to the fact that they are known for bright displays of bioluminescence.

Pyrosoma atlanticum are one of the few pyrosomes that make it to the west coast of the U.S. The species found here are less than a foot but can get as long as 24 inches. Largely colorless, they can show up as pink, grayish or purple-green.

tunicates invertebrates

A specimen of the colonial tunicate, Pyrosoma atlanticum 

These massive colonies of cloned creatures are related to a kind of jellyfish called a slap. A tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal, a member of the subphylum Tunicata, which is part of the Chordata, a phylum which includes all animals with dorsal nerve cords and notochords.

Each individual organism is about 1 cm long – less than a third of an inch. They are all connected by tissue and in turn form this colony that looks like a plastic tube. The recent winter storms have caused them to strand on the shores and have been found in all areas of the coast.

Usually found in temperate waters as low as 800 meters. The colony of animals is comprised of thousands of individual zooids and moves through the water column by the means of cilia (an organelle found in eukaryotic cells that project from the much larger cell body).

As they move through the water column, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes as far down as 2600 feet, they filter plankton out of the water for food. As it sucks water in, it then pushes it back out, thereby propelling it through the ocean. It does all this via one opening only, so it moves incredibly slow.

For more images of Pyrosoma, check out Bob Perry’s photographs. Included in his work are a few pseudoconchs (false shells) of the pelagic mollusk Corolla which we similarly found.zoologyIf you are interested in learning more about invertebrates with your students, I encourage you to look into the Amazing Animals curriculum unit I have written to introduce middle level students to zoology. This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

Due to our fascination with these rare creatures, we didn’t spend as much time with the debris tracking app as I had intended. We’ll give it a go another time.

How to Build a Connection with Nature in Your Homeschool

Nature study has always been a major focus in our homeschool. In fact, throughout their primary and early elementary years, nature study was primarily the only science we covered.

While easily accessible, nature study incorporates so much more than just the study of plants and animals in our backyard. It can include the study of weather and climate patterns, even ocean currents and tides.

To help you kick off the new school year with gusto, I am giving away a basket load of wonderful nature study goodies that I know you and your kids will absolutely love.

How We Approach Nature Study

I try to incorporate a nature lesson each week. This begins with spending quality time outdoors. With a tween and teen, this basically means we go for hikes or evening walks as a family. When they were younger, however, it meant playing in the creek near the lake, building imaginary worlds in the backyard, and even climbing trees.

Foraging for Mushrooms: A Wild Edibles Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Your purchase at these retailers helps to support my family.

Read my post Keeping a Nature Journal to learn how to get started in just 5 simple exercises. I’ve written more extensively about How We Approach Nature Study but how it is done is less important than just getting outside and exploring the world. Here are a few of our lessons from the past:

Here are some Summer Nature Activities to get you started before school begins next month.

nature journaling

If you would like to take it a little further or if you have an older child, consider learning about a master naturalist like Anna Botsford Comstock, Jane Goodall, or Carolus Linneaus.

For classroom or home educators, I also teach an extensive class on Nature Journaling in the Classroom if you’d like more guidance or are interested in earning course credit.

Nature BasketNature Study Giveaway

As promised, this basket of goodies is sure to delight you and your kids. I have included several of our favorite field identification books, a practical guide to discovering the natural world, and an outdoor workbook for families and classrooms. The contents of the basket are worth over $90!   

The Nature Connection by Claire Walker Leslie ($15.95)

The Practical Naturalist from DK Publishing ($22.95)

National Audubon Society Pocket Guide: Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore ($9.00)

National Audubon Society Pocket Guide: Familiar Birds of Lakes and Rivers ($9.00)

Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves by May Theilgaard Watts ($5.95)

Rocky Mountain Tree Finder by Tom Watts ($5.95)

Millie & Cyndi’s Pocket Nature Guides:

Painted Ladies of North America ($7.95)
Hummers: Hummingbirds of North America($7.95)
Talons: North American Birds of Prey($7.95)

 

Bonus: NaturExplorers Incredible Creeks eBook ($8.95) … to be sent separately

Enter to Win This Bundle

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Back to Homeschool Gift Baskets

But Wait! That is not all ~ 52 homeschool bloggers have joined together to provide one massive back-to-homeschool basket giveaway! Take a peek around these 52 sites and enter to win as many baskets as you like.

Gift Baskets 2016 CollageEach blogger is conducting her own giveaway, so you never know. You may end up winning more than one! All giveaways will be live on Monday, August 15.