We are wrapping up virtual owl pellet dissections with Easton’s third graders and it has been so awesome to explore all of the incredible ways owls are able to thrive in their environments! Many of us hear owls calling at night, but seeing an owl is much more uncommon. This is in part to do with all of the adaptations that allow them to know what is going on around them while being essentially undetectable by others. When looking at the physical structure of owls, everything about them is to help them to be successful predators.
The assumption that many of us make is that because owls have big eyes, they must have great vision. This is absolutely correct and not only do their big eyes equal great vision, but more specifically they allow for great night vision! Having larger eyes with larger pupils lets more light enter the eyeball. This means that in the middle of the night when things looks dark to most animals (humans too), owls can still see a lot of detail! In addition to being able to let in more light, owls' eyeballs have many more rod cells than most animals.
We often assume that all owls are nocturnal, meaning that they are most active at night, but some owls are what we call diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day. The local Barred Owl is a species that can often be seen during the day on overcast days as well as when they are raising their young and teaching them how to hunt. Additionally, some owls are what we call crepuscular, which means they are most active at dusk and dawn!
Because of the size of owls' eyes, they have a special adaptation inside their skulls to keep their eyeballs from deflating! This modification is a bone called the sclerotic ring, which is actually inside the eyeball and offers much needed support to keep the eyes functioning at their best. Many birds and reptiles have sclerotic rings, making it one of the many shared traits that birds, reptiles and a number of dinosaurs have in common! Unlike other birds and reptiles, the owl's sclerotic rings are much larger and much sturdier. They are so sturdy, in fact, that owls are unable to move their eyes within their sockets to look from right to left and up and down.
Owl vision is only one aspect of what makes them such successful predators. They are also able to fly in complete silence due to modified, frayed wing tips, they have asymmetrical ears for pinpointing their prey, and hooked beaks for eating what they catch with their large talons! Not to mention the ability to produce a pellet in their first (of two) stomachs, the proventriculus, which is where the owl's body filters out all of the undigestible hard-parts like bones, fur and feathers of the animals they are eating. Once these hard-parts are filtered out, the nutrient-rich meat continues on to be digested in the owl's second stomach, the muscular stomach. All of the fur, feathers and bones are then compacted into a pellet in the proventriculus and regurgitated, or spit up, back out the mouth of the owl. Incredible!
Sometimes the most difficult part of keeping a nature journal is feeling like you have the right supplies. One way to combat running around trying to find pens and pencils is to create a “nature journal survival kit.” This is something I keep in my back pack that I take hiking with me, just like I do a first aid kit, to ensure all the supplies I need is with me when I am compelled to record something in my nature journal.
Creating your own “nature journal survival kit” can be a fun way to enhance the nature journaling experience. It allows you to think about what kind of recording tools you’d like to have with you while making observations and which tools can be used later to add detail/go over your work with. While creating your kit, be sure to think about what your preferred style is when making observations and recordings. You’ll also want to think about, realistically, how much you’d like to be carrying with you and what kinds of tools you’ll actually use! I’m someone who likes to make quick field observations, snap some photos with my camera and then add additional details later!
The first step in creating a survival kit is picking a bag or container that you are going to carry your journaling supplies in! To do this, I would poke around your home and gather up any extra containers, bags, etc. that might do the trick! Once you have a couple of options, as you add more or less to your kit, you can eliminate the containers/bags that will not work.
These are the solutions I found that might work while creating my nature journal survival kit:
Once you’ve got the essentials, there are some additional materials that can be helpful to keep in your journal. The first is some kind of ruler, or tool for measuring. I like to keep a teeny, tiny tape-measure, but you can keep string that you know is a certain length, or anything that will help you to give some kind of scale to your pictures, or help you record dimensions! You can even create your own compact ruler using a piece of paper, ruler, and marker/pen. All you need to do is mark your units of measurement on it!
Another great thing to keep in your journal is any kind of supplies you like to use to color your journal with (if you like you to add color to your journal). When I’m in the field, I really only make pencil sketches, but occasionally I like to add water color to my work real-time so that I can get as much detail as possible and capture the color as best as I can. Often times, though, I will take a photo of what I am observing and add detail later, or even put the photo in my nature journal. That being said, I do keep a set of water color pencils in my “survival kit” so that I can use them if I feel like it. I’ve also found that since putting them in with my journaling supplies, I’m more compelled to spend time detailing color in the moment! You can add any kind of coloring tools you’d like to your kit be it markers, crayons, colored pencils or water colors! You can even add a little bit of everything. If you are including water color pencils or water colors, be sure to include a brush! Thankfully most of us bring water on our outer adventures, so you don’t need to worry about keeping water in your nature journal kit!
Those are just some suggestions for how to create and awesome journaling kit to bring with you on your adventures, but as with everything in our nature journals, you can really do whatever works for you! I also like to keep a small notepad in my NJK (nature journal kit) in case I forget my actual nature journal. I take my nature journal with me many places, so sometimes it ends up leaving my hiking backpack, but as long as I have a small writing pad and my NJK in my bag, I should be able to journal whenever I am out exploring, no matter what!
In addition to all of this supplies, I’ve been trying to remind myself to add baggies and or something to collect any interesting leaf litter, or seeds that I don’t have time to draw/observe immediately, but want to take home for closer inspection! This is also what cameras can be really great for!
Have you been looking for ways to be more environmentally friendly? The new year is a great time to reassess and reevaluate areas of our lives that often get overlooked. Attached to this blog is a “Green Home Quiz” that you can do to roughly, emphasis on roughly, estimate how environmentally friendly your home is! There is also an attached “Hazardous Home Waste Bingo!” to explore just how many hazardous waste items might be lurking in your home! Don’t despair if you find items that surprise you, many towns have hazardous waste disposal plans set up because of how unavoidable some of these products are. Here is a link to the Mass.gov website with helpful tools on how to properly dispose of waste in your home if you are living in Massachusetts.
It’s so easy to get stuck in the routines of our daily lives without taking stock of the impact our routines may have on the larger scale, such as how our day-to-day decisions add up over time. One area of our lives where we tend to get stuck in habits is how we clean our homes! It is so satisfying to find the perfect cleaner and watch dirt and dust disappear, but do you really know what your cleaner is made of? What makes it so effective? If you’re looking for alternative cleaning solutions, check out these cool home-made products from David Suzuki and Kathy Vanderlinden in their ECO-FUN book!
For these projects, you will need: Empty spray bottles (reused are the best), small jar, measuring cup, measuring spoons, paper, coloring supplies, white craft glue
Fill a spray bottle half way with white vinegar and half way with water. This will make a 1:1 water:vinegar solution! Perfect, you're done!
Once you're done filling the spray bottle, make a label so that friends and family know what is in the bottle. You can even list the ingredients! When using this solution, be sure to wipe down surfaces with newspaper not paper towels or cloths. Using newspaper will ensure that your glass and mirrors dry streak free!
For some eco-friendly furniture polish, you will need: 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 2 teaspoons of white vinegar OR lemon juice, and 2 cups of warm water.
Mix all ingredients in an empty spray bottle. Before each use, heat the mixture and shake well! Once the solution is heated and mixed up, it is the perfect polish for any varnished wood. After applying the polish to your furniture or floors or whatever, rub the surface completely dry with a soft cloth for best results.
Have silver in your home that has seen better days but don't want to bring harsh chemicals into your home? Don't despair! For this polish all you need is: 2 tablespoons or baking soda, 2 tablespoons of salt and 1 piece of aluminum foil.
Mix all ingredients in a small jar and add 2 teaspoons to 1 quart of water to soak your silver in! The amount of water you use will vary with the amount of silver you are polishing. Keep an eye on the piece of aluminum foil because once it turns black, it means it is time to replace the foil. You should be able to see your silver changing from tarnished to polished the longer it soaks!
Not sure you're ready to completely kick the old cleaning habits? No problem! Change happens one step at a time. Try making some alternative cleaning solutions and using them in between your bigger cleans as a way to slowly introduce the idea of using different methods of cleaning. You can also conduct an experiment between your old cleaners and your new and improved eco-cleaners! See what happens if you clean something half with store bought products and half with home-made products! Chances are, the results will be pretty similar.
As mentioned before, below are two fun activities you can print out to see how green your home is and where you might have some hazardous waste lurking! These activities are meant to be fun and inspire alternative ways of thinking about how we use and reuse products in our homes!
One fun one way to document the type of greenery that’s present in an area during a specific time of year is to create a collage of leaves, sticks and any small pieces of nature you can find that you’d like to save! To create a collage, you’ll need some kind of glue or tape to hold your pieces together and, of course, whatever material you find that you would like to collage with! Just as with anything in our nature journals, there are all sorts of ways to go about creating your collage and all of them will work.
Before you create your collage, make a list of what materials you were able to find, where you found them and the date. You can add any other notes and observations about where your objects were found, if they were surprising to you, or if you have any questions about the objects. Can you identify everything that you found? Do your materials remind you of other things?
Additionally, you can play with the idea of creating a mixed media collage! A mixed media collage is when you use different types of mediums/materials to create an image. Adding watercolors, colored pencils, pens or anything else to your collage will add all sorts of depth and texture! You can also add notes about your collected items onto the collage if you wish!
Can't get outside? Turn to magazines and newspapers! Look for images of plants or animals and use them to create a nature inspired collage.
Nature journals are a great deal of fun because of how versatile they are. You can swap between making very meticulous, detailed observations and creating more abstract journal entries. No matter what kinds of entries you choose to create, make sure you’re always having fun with them! If you would like to share any of your journal entries with the NRT, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org we would love to see your work!
We often use the term invasive to describe any critter or plant that is causing a disturbance, but there are quite a few specific characteristics of a species that deem it truly invasive. For example, all people can vouch for the fact that mosquitos are frustrating and can cause harm to humans, but many species of mosquitos are native to the area, which makes them not invasive! For a species to be labeled as invasive, it must have some or most of the following characteristics:
Non-native to the Area it is Invasive to
This means that in order for a species to even be considered as invasive, it needs to be occupying a habitat or area that it is not native to. Many invasive species get to their new locales via human introduction and in most cases it’s a complete accident. Because of human beings’ ability to travel with ease from region to region around the world, the massive trade industry between countries, the manufacturing of goods worldwide and even the international pet trade, animals are constantly being introduced to areas where they are not native to. Some animals will be unable to transition to new habitats, some will survive but not cause much disturbance and others will completely take over.
Harmful to the Economy, Environment or Human Health
An example of an invasive species that has caused economical damage to an area is the invasive Asian Carp within the Mississippi river. Four species of carp have taken over the river after being introduce from Asia. They are the Grass Carp, Black Carp, Bighead Carp and Silver Carp. Within the Mississippi river system, aside from costing money to manage, they have negatively impacted the biodiversity of the area, which has also negatively impacted the fishing industries. For 15 years, scientists, fishermen and community members have been trying to manage these aquatic pests spending a grand total of 1.5 billion dollars in an effort to keep them out of the Great Lakes, where their impact on the fishing industry could be irreversible. As of now, they are mostly managed by electric “herding”, which is when boats use sound waves and electric currents to drive the fish into 1,000 foot long nets. Female carp are able to lay up to 5 million eggs at a time, making it near impossible to manage the populations without continuously spending on resources and manpower. One idea for the future that may allow for some kind of long-term management, at least to keep the fish out the Great Lakes, is to create an underwater dam that blocks fish using the same electric currents and sound waves used to control them now by boats!
Ability to Reproduce Rapidly/Grow Quickly
One of the characteristics that makes invasive species so difficult to manage, as mentioned with the invasive carp species of the Mississippi River, is their ability to reproduce rapidly and grow quickly. What this means is that many invasive species have a very short time between when they are born and when they are mature enough to reproduce themselves. Not only do they reach maturity quickly, but they also tend to have a large number of offspring. Individuals reaching maturity quickly and the ability to produce huge numbers of offspring results in the perfect storm for extreme population growth.
Wide Range of Adaptations
How can you help?
Many invasive species get from place to place by hitch-hiking with humans. This can be from latching onto trade-ships, or even attaching to a camper on a weekend in nature.
Some ways that you can help to prevent the spread of invasive species are by planting native plants in your yard or garden, cleaning off boots and clothes after a hike in an area with known invasives, rinsing off your boat after each use to get rid of aquatic hitchhikers, finding the appropriate way to manage household pets, reporting sightings of invasive species, volunteering with a removal project, and by researching invasive species near you!
Nature journals are a great way to help us focus our thoughts and modify our perspective of things that we look at every single day. One tool for guiding focus is to look for specific things within our natural surroundings. Whether it be some kind of naturally occurring organism or something a little bit more abstract, creating our own scavenger hunts can be a lot of fun! A favorite thing to look for and document in my nature journal are patterns.
Patterns are regularities of repeating shapes, lines and/or colors and are everywhere in nature! Not only are natural patterns beautiful, but finding the reasons for natural patterns is the basis of many scientific discoveries including the observations and findings of renowned naturalist Charle's Darwin. Darwin closely studied the relationship and patterns of behavior and traits among various species all over the world including intensively among the Galapagos Islands to give rise to his theory of Natural Selection.
When journaling, there are a number of different patterns you can look for within the natural world. You can choose to document any and all patterns or pick something specific. Some of the more common patterns in nature to look for are:
In your journals, try to find as many different patterns you can! You can even do some additional research and see what scientists and naturalists have observed the same patterns and how they are used in our everyday lives! Other patterns to look for are waves, spheres, flow or meanders (like a river shape or a snake while it is slithering), cracks, tessellations (repeated tile patterns), and spots and stripes!
Check out more examples of patterns found in nature below!
There are many ways that animals have evolved over time contributing to their successfulness as a species. Many of these useful adaptations are related to making animals less noticeable either from predators, if they are to avoid being eaten, or from prey if they are trying to be successful hunters. When thinking about characteristics that keep animals from standing out, we tend to only think of camouflage, but there are a lot of other really awesome methods of animal deception within the natural world. One of which is in the form of mimicry!
Mimicry is an adaptation that we can see in all branches of the animal kingdom. It shows up in birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates! Mimicry itself is a very broad trait and some forms of camouflage definitely fall within the umbrella description. In basic terms, mimicry is when an organism closely resembles another organism, or, in the case of camouflage, it can be when an animal closely resembles something like a rock. Below are two exceptional examples of insect mimicry within the animal world from imitating harmful animals to avoid predation to aggressive mimicry for luring in prey! Can you think of any animals you know of that might be mimicking another species?
To Bee or Not to Bee
Although it doesn't happen too often, a sting from a bee or a wasp is something a human doesn't forget. Well, the same goes for animals! The stinger is an extremely effective defense mechanism for both bees and wasps all around the world. Especially when interacting with smaller predators such as birds. These negative interactions make predators more keen to avoid the stinging insects if they've ever had a bad experience with one. One group of insects that benefits from the bee's reputation in the animal world is the fly!
Many flies have evolved coloration similar to that of bees and wasps (distinct black and yellow stripes) because they are less likely to be eaten by predators who target small insects! There are some characteristics that distinguish the two groups of insects, one of which being that bees have two pairs of wings and flies only have one pair, but without being able to make thorough observations, predators will avoid anything that resembles the stinging bee.
This type of mimicry is known as Batesian mimicry and is described as when a harmless species mimics a harmful species to avoid predation or negative interactions with other animals. Named for British Naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, who studied mimicry extensively on Amazonian butterflies.
A Flashy Disguise
Not all animals will mimic for protection from predators, some critters will mimic other species so that they can prey on them! This often happens with beetles and spiders mimicking the appearance and even the chemical pheromones of ants to infiltrate their colonies, but one of the flashier examples of this mimicry can be seen in fireflies!
Although firefly flashes may look random to humans, they are actually very precise signals for communication between males and females. Female fireflies will usually stay in one spot while male fireflies fly around and both will display specific light sequences to attract the other. Almost unbelievably, firefly light sequences change from species to species and males of one species know exactly what their female light signals are and vice-versa. Fireflies do not respond to the light sequences of fireflies of different species. Unless, of course, they are being tricked!
This form of mimicry used to trick other species into harmful situations, such as easily becoming an item of prey, is known as aggressive mimicry.
A fun way to incorporate the scientific method into our nature journals is by setting up a research project. This idea is taken from Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth’s Keeping a Nature Journal.
If you ever find yourself particularly interested in a specific plant, animal or phenomenon while outside (or inside) journaling, use it as an opportunity to do a little bit of research! Nature journal research projects can be about anything and they are yet another way to help us focus our thoughts and learn more about the natural world around us!
Something you’ll want to do before pursuing your project is to research the plant or animal you are investigating by trying to get as much information on it as possible. For this, you can utilize your local library, books you have in your home and/or the internet! If you want, you can create a page (or more!) of background information in your journal with all of the new things that you learn about your research subject! As you gain more information on the plant/animal you are looking into, you can compare what you learn through independent study of books/website and what you observe when in the field. Do your observations align with what you are learning? Do you notice anything unique that you didn’t read about? Does anything surprise you about your plant/animal?
A huge part of science and ecological studies is observing how plants and animals behave in their natural environments over time. Committing to sketching, recording, researching and making connections of one aspect of the natural world through a mini-research project will help to enhance so many skills that are utilized in our nature journals and it can be a TON of fun! You'll probably see a lot of things that you hadn't noticed before and perhaps you'll even make a discovery!
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