Saturday, December 6, 2008

I Live for Summer Camp

Ms. Rachel facilitates
live animal encounter, Earth Camp Week 1, 2008

I am gathering information on 50 nature-oriented summer camps around the country. So far, the programs seem to all have a common thread: activities are experiential and place-based, focusing on the resources unique to the site. For example, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies’ Junior Naturalist Science and Discovery Camp has hands-on activities in a spruce forest, a wildflower meadow, and a wetland, about moose, and during a boat trip to an intertidal bay field station. The Delaware Museum of Natural History’s Summer Camp facilitates activities under themes such as bugs, dinosaurs, geology, comparative anatomy, science tricks – and most curiously – the natural history of pizza.

My original intent for this project was to see how Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park’s Earth Camp compared to similar camps around the country and to find some inspiration (ideas to steal). If time and funding permitted, I would visit each of the camps and observe them in action, but that would probably take 50 summers. I am planning on attending the College of the Atlantic’s Family Nature Camp in Maine in 2011 (as soon as my son is old enough). This program is a place-based, experiential, and interpretive overnight camp for children and their parents. So far, it is the only program I have come across for the whole family, and its activities - like whale watching, eagle watching and hiking in Acadia National Park - sound like a great, enriching way to spend a summer.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Park Tree

Maclura pomifera. Monkey brain. Horse apple. Hedge apple. Osage orange. Bois d’arc (pronounced “bo dark”). It’s a tree that goes by many names. It’s a tree like no other. Some think it’s got a lot of character (ugly). Once, while standing under a monstrous one at the East Kings Highway Park, I found myself defending the bois d’arc’s very right to exist. A park visitor wondered aloud “Why would they plant that ugly, thorny tree with poisonous fruit at the Duck Pond? Why don’t they just cut it down?”

“Where do I start?” I thought to myself.

You know, you won’t find “Duck Pond” on any Shreveport map. Don’t bother asking Google maps or Mapquest for it. The sign in front of the park says “East Kings Highway Park,” and while you can find that on the maps, you cannot ask a local how to get there. He’s never heard of the East Kings Highway Park. To Shreveporters, it’s the Duck Pond – never mind it’s not a pond at all – but a three-mile-long body of water called Old River Bayou.

The Old River Bayou is an old path of the Red River, and the bois d’arc’s natural range is the Red River Region of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This fact and the sheer size of the specimen suggest it was here before the land around it became a park.

The seeds are edible. They are so difficult to extract that you probably won't find them to be worth the trouble, but sit back on a park bench and watch how hard a gray squirrel will work to get those seeds.

The fruits smell like oranges and makes great pomanders. Old wives have been parking bois d’arc fruits in the corners of their kitchens for centuries to ward off bugs, and it turns out the plant may in fact have insecticidal properties. It certainly enjoys a charmed existence free from any known insect pests.

No, horses can’t eat the fruits, but you do find them planted at the edges of pastures. Prior to the invention of barbed wire, ranchers planted bois d’arc trees “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight.” Bois d’arc branches may have even inspired the inventor of barbed wire.

Bois d’arcs are a living piece of history. Peter Custis wrote the first scientific description of the trees in 1806. They were closely associated with the indigenous Osage people. Osage men constructed their bows from these trees, which accounts for the common names, Bois d'arc ("wood of bow"), and Osage orange. The wood was useful (and useful equals valuable) so it was traded for other items amongst Native American groups.

According to the Virginia Big Tree Program, bois d’arc trees live an average of 75 years. The oldest one known to exist is the American Champion Osage Orange Tree at Patrick Henry's Red Hill, and it’s estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old. It’s on my list of things to see next time I’m in Virginia. I wonder if it’s a girl or a boy. Bois d’arc trees have flowers with pistils (female reproductive organs) or stamens (male reproductive organs), so they are either male or female. Only the females produce the fruits.

Maybe the bois d’arc is not the quintessential city park tree, but it’s got so much character.

By the way, Bois d'arc fruits are ripe now (August-September), so gather your air fresheners/bug repellents while you can!


Great Plains Nature Center
Discovering Lewis and Clark
Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial
Virginia Big Tree Program
University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department
The U.S. Forest Service
Wikipedia - Osage Orange, Maclura pomifera
Wikipedia - Osage people
Freeman and Custis symposium paper
Freeman and Custis book

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Saint Paul's Cicada

I found this cicada at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Shreveport, "Saint Paul's Cicada" is not it's species name. If I can figure out what species it is, I'll edit my post here.

Name or no name, I was proud of my photograph (I think my photography teacher would even be proud). Anyway, without further ado...

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Dog Days

The “Dog Days of Summer” are technically July 3rd through August 11th. That’s if you are keeping track of Sirius, the “dog star,” which disappears from the night sky to rise and set with the sun during those few weeks. Most of us, however, think of the dog days as the hottest, most miserable part of summer, when we wish to emulate our dogs who do nothing but lie in the shade (or on our couch in the air conditioning). These dog days are well underway, with about four weeks to go.

During this time, a cacophony of singing cicadas reverberates through the forest. There are a number of different species out there, and you can actually tell them apart by their sound alone (which is good, because how many have you ever seen?) Some species start singing in May, while others are still crooning well into the fall, but since the majority of Tibicen species are heard from mid-July to late-August, they are all called “dog day” cicadas.

Each adult dog day cicada lives only a few weeks, and spends its time sucking juices from tender twigs, mating, and producing hundreds of eggs. Those eggs take a month or so to hatch. The hatchlings, called nymphs, then live underground for up to a decade. These cicadas are not "annual" at all, but since every year is somebody's tenth birthday (or hatchday), we can hear dog day cicadas buzzing in the treetops every July and August.

If you are interested in reading more about the astronomical dog days, check out Wikipedia, Cornell University’s Astronomy Department, and this guy’s website.

To find out which cicadas are singing when – and to hear their songs – check out the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Service, and the University of Connecticut’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. Other good cicada sources include Wikipedia, Cicadamania and this guy's website.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Walk slowly through the forest and you’ll perceive scurrying along the floor. If you’re eyes are quick enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of a reptile tail as it disappears beneath the leaf litter. Sometimes that slither you detect, and the slender tail you catch sight of is a little snake, but more often than not, it’s a lizard called a skink.

There’s a reason these sleek, smooth-scaled herps get mistaken for snakes: the two groups have some similarities. Other than having ear holes, the skink’s head looks just like a snake’s head. The skink’s body is streamlined and – at first glance – you might overlook those telltale legs and feet.

There are six species of skinks in Louisiana. One is found in southeastern parts of the state. Another prefers open fields. That leaves four kinds of skinks scurrying through the forests of Northwest Louisiana: coal, ground, broad-headed, and five-lined.

With an electric-blue tail, the young five-lined skink is by far the most visually stunning lizard in the forest. Obviously designed to make a predator think twice, that shockingly colored tail appears to be a bluff. After a few years the bright blue fades. The five lines fade, too, and an older individual can be mistaken for its broad-headed cousin.

Five-lined skinks are nesting now. To see them in action, scan the forest floor for fallen trees, roll a few logs back, and have a peak. You may discover a mother skink guarding a clutch of a dozen or more eggs. She will stay with them for the next few weeks until they hatch, and then she’ll eat the ones that don’t.

It’s hard out there for a skink. Raccoons, possums, foxes, snakes, and birds are all looking to make a meal out of her and her babies. So, after you've found her, please be kind and roll the log back into place.

Here are a few interesting web resources to explore:

The digital morphology library allows you to examine the animal’s skull inside and out.

Brandon’s Herb Adventure is a series of You Tube videos showcasing reptiles and amphibians found in the Pensacola, Florida area. Brandon is a 15-year-old, walking, talking reptile and amphibian field guide.

If you want a list of all the herps in Louisiana, this one from the Louisiana Gulf Coast Herpetelogical Society, is in a nice portable format, and includes both scientific and common names.

If you're old school like me and want a book to flip through, this one is the most complete resource available for the state (although it's out of print and in limited supply, and old enough that some of the scientific names have changed since its publication).

Monday, April 14, 2008

First of Season

“First of Season” or “FOS” is a notation in a birdwatcher’s records that highlights when migratory birds return from their winter vacations. Baltimore Orioles breed all across the eastern and central United States, from the Dakotas to Maine, and as far south as Louisiana. When they leave us in the fall, they go to southern Mexico, the southern tip of Florida, all the Caribbean islands, and as far south as the northern sections of Venezuela and Colombia. Then they come back in the spring…and the first one I see or hear gets the distinction of FOS.

My FOS Baltimore Oriole this year was April 10.

This year, he arrived at his cluster of Sycamore trees to find them overpopulated with his cousins, the Red-winged Blackbirds. I wonder if he found that to be strange. He will mate and nest in one of those trees (the one in my neighbor’s front yard, most likely). His wife will construct a dainty sock and hang it from a branch that cannot bear the weight of a gray squirrel, at the tippy top of the tree. They will eat insects, nectar, and fruit. They will occasionally drink from my hummingbird feeder, but they have yet to shop at a fruit feeder I put out just for them. Usually, they stay so high in the trees that I have to hurt my neck to try to see them.

Even though orioles and blackbirds are in the same family (as in Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species), they have their own niches. Red-winged Blackbirds don’t migrate. They like to hang out in the tall grasses in fields or at water edges. During breeding time, a male will have a dozen or more wives. They often put their nests on or close to the ground. They eat insects and seeds. The ones in my yard frequent my sunflower feeder. In the fall and winter, they flock together by the millions, but Red-winged Blackbirds still roost in small groups in the spring and summer.

My house is not that far from the marshy Quail Creek and two old river bayous. In the past, I have had the occasional flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to visit and empty out my feeder. This year is different. This year they aren’t just stopping by once in a while, they’re making camp.

Why are they sticking around? Kohl’s, JC Penney, Dick’s Sporting Goods TGI Fridays’, Lowe’s, Cost Plus World Market, Linens and Things, Pier 1, Starbucks, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, PETCO, Krispy Kreme, DSW Shoes, P.F. Chang’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Logan’s Roadhouse, Circuit City, Raising Cane’s…I may be forgetting a few. Shreveport is growing! And it just grew into the fields between Youree Drive and East Kings Highway, where the red-winged blackbirds had lived.

I hope my Baltimore Oriole doesn’t mind sharing his seven sycamore trees with a few hundred distant relatives.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Field Journal for March 14, 2008

Yesterday, I traded a pair of navy slacks for a new perspective on nature. Thankfully, there were no other humans around to happen upon me while I was crawling across the forest floor composing photographs of early blooming wildflowers, emerging Spring leaves, butterflies and a toad. The experience reminded me of an image I saw of Kjell Sandved chest-deep in a bog, camera in hand, capturing a butterfly for his alphabet. I think we would have both looked pretty silly to the casual passer-by.

Though the fruits of my labor shouldn't even be in the same sentence with the word 'Smithsonian,' they're pretty good (if I do say so myself), and they complement my field journal nicely...

Juvenal's Duskywings, Erynnius juvenalis, on Violets,
Viola sp.
(I will find out which species and edit here.)

The violets are booming! And getting a lot of attention from some duskywings.

Cardamines, Cardamine bulbosa

The cardamines have peaked and are beginning to fade. (I had no luck getting a Falcate Orangetip to pose for my camera, but they were out in force, visiting both the cardamines and the violets.)

Blueberry bushes. I do not know if they are Vaccinium elliotii or young Vaccinium arboretum. I know both species have been recorded in Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park. I will probably need to sit down with a dichotomous key to be sure.

The blueberries have just begun to bloom.

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin

Spicebush flowers are opening up.

Pawpaw, Asimina trioba

The Pawpaws are waking up.
I think it's safe to say Spring has sprung in Shreveport!
By the way, if the name Kjell Sandved doesn't resonate with you, check out who he is and what he's done here:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Snowy Day

Here is proof that sometimes it does snow in Louisiana.

These images were taken at Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park in Shreveport, Louisiana on March 7, 2008.

Any evidence that it had ever snowed disappeared about an hour later.