Archive for ‘Weekend Nature Challenge’

January 9, 2015

Backyard Connections: Going on a Snowflake Hunt

by Melissa Harding

This activity was inspired by Science Friday; check out their great video on snowflakes to learn more about how they form and the scientists that study them.

Today is a very snowy day at Phipps and it has got us thinking about some of our favorite snowy day activities. While it may not be fun to shovel, it sure is fun to play in. Snowball fights, building snowmen, and sled riding are just a few of the fun activities that you can do as a family in the snow. However, if you are looking for a more low-key snow activity, try this idea: Take your family on a snowflake hunt!

Snowflakes are the most basic parts of snow, after all, and each one is unique. A snowflake is formed around a tiny bit of dust in the atmosphere that builds up into slightly larger bits of ice called crystals; when these crystals start to stick together, they form snowflakes. A snowflake can be made of as many as 200 crystals! Although we may all draw snowflakes the same way in art class, they actually come in many different shapes – from the classic pointy star to round plates and square cubes. Taking a closer look at an individual snowflake is pretty amazing; while the best way to see a single snowflake is under a microscope, you can still observe quite a bit with a magnifying glass.

To go on a snowflake hunt, you will need the following things: a snowy day, a piece of dark construction paper, a magnifying glass and journaling supplies:

1. Put your paper in the freezer or leave it in a cold, dry place so that it can get nicely chilled.
2. Holding the paper by its edges, go outside and catch some snowflakes on the paper.
3. Use your magnifying glass to look at the snowflakes on your paper (cover your nose and mouth with a scarf so that you don’t melt your snowflakes!)
4. Draw your favorite snowflakes in your journal, nothing overall shape, number of points (if any) and anything else of note. Which is the most popular shape of snowflake? Which one was the weirdest?
5. Try to look for as many different kinds of snowflakes as possible

This activity is a great way to practice observation skills while enjoying the winter weather. You can spend 5 minutes or 50 working on this project – it can be fun for even your littlest of kids! Have a cold day but no snow? Try using your trusty magnifying glass to examine frosty windowpanes. The crystal patterns of the frost are just as neat as snowflakes and can be observed from inside!

For more fun snowy day ideas, read this blog post on exploring nature in winter!

To learn more about the importance of observation, check out this post!

The above video is used courtesy of Science Friday.




February 28, 2014

Weekend Nature Challenge: Duck Watching

by Melissa Harding



Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Ogden Nash
As winter is slowly starting to leave, and we look forward to spring, we are not the only ones that are making a note of the change in the season. Bird migration is starting to heat up as well. In the spring, the lengthening days trigger hormonal changes in the birds that prompt northward migration. While it is still a little early to be seeing warblers and blue birds, there is one particular kind of bird that starts its migrations early: ducks. Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl migrate south in the winter to warmer areas in search of food and habitat. The pathway that they choose is an instinctive one that follows a combination of geographic landmarks, celestial signs and magnetic fields. In Pennsylvania, many of the waterfowl that migrate through our state are following the Atlantic pathway, a 3,000 mile stretch that goes from the Arctic tundra of the Baffin island to the Caribbean. The most densely-traveled of all pathways, the annual migration brings us a whole host of fabulous birds to see.

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to find some migrating ducks. This is easier than you might think; as ducks fly thousands of miles, they seek surface waters such as lakes, rivers and ponds to rest. This is especially true after a storm. To find some ducks, all you need to do is find some water. While you may run into some mallards, a common species that often over winters here, you will also find a ton of new duck species that you may have never seen before. Buffleheads, canvasbacks, and more! Take your binoculars and a bird guide (or check out Cornell’s awesome online bird guide). Try making up ducks calls and try to draw the ones you can see in your nature journal. Even if you don’t know what each duck is called, seeing the massive rafts of floating ducks is an amazing sight for sure. You will be amazed at how many gorgeous birds there are just minutes away and so will your family!

Take the next few days to explore the ducks at a body of water near your home or favorite green space. What birds did you notice? Did you observe any other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The photo of hooded merganser above is used courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

January 17, 2014

Weekend Nature Challenge: Winter Star Gazing

by Melissa Harding



“All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems… But all these stars are silent. You-You alone will have stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night. You, only you, will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me… You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince



There is something remarkable that happens to us when we look up into the night sky. For some, it may bring up thoughts of heaven and the divine, for others thoughts of far away burning gas giants. Whatever thoughts the night sky may conjure, you can be sure they are deep ones. The stars have influenced humans throughout our history, from the stories of constellations to their use as navigational beacons. They feature prominently in both our mythology and our science. However, our world has become bright with the lights of houses and cities, making it a rare exception when we stop and look up at them.

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to do just that and go star gazing. Winter is the best time of year for this, as the nights are longer and the cooler air creates less haze and humidity to block your view of the sky. In the northern hemisphere, the night sky in winter is facing toward the outer edge of the Milky Way with its fewer stars, whereas the summer sky is facing to the center of the galaxy and the light of many more stars can obscure the sky with a lighted haze. Long and cold winter nights can provide some of the most detailed and beautiful stargazing of the entire year. Take a walk to a dark place if you can or enjoy the stars you can see from your backyard. Look for constellations, bright stars, and planets. Make up stories about the constellations you find and keep a keen eye out for shooting stars! You can get an even better look if you bring a pair of binoculars, but your eyes will do a fine job as well. You will be amazed at how beautiful the night sky is and so will your family.

Take the next few days to explore the night sky near your home or favorite green space. What stars or constellations did you notice? Did you observe any other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo is courtesy of NASA.

December 27, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Play in the Snow

by Melissa Harding

Kids snow Molly Steinwaldhghghg

Outside, the flakes swirl down out of the darkness,
turning blackest night to palest grey.
Listen, and you can hear the quiet,
as if every sound had been wrapped up and put away

In the morning, you’ll find the snow has kept a diary
of things that happened when you were asleep.
The animals and birds who ran about the garden
have left a snowy record of their feet.

Snow has covered up the dirt and clutter;
it’s made the world look new and neat and clean.
You forgot the other seasons and their colors;
for now, white seems more beautiful than green.

Snow Song by Nicola Davies

Much of North America has been gifted with quite a bit of snow recently – too much snow, in some places! While it may not be fun to shovel, it sure is fun to play in. Snowball fights, building snowmen, and sled riding are just a few of the fun activities that you can do as a family in the snow. As it turns out, many children are out of school for the winter holidays and there is quite a bit of time to fill before they go back to class. Playing outside in the snow is a great way to get everyone outside and doing something fun together. Not feeling a frolic in the snow? There is still a ton of nature to observe during the winter. In fact, freshly fallen snow is the perfect medium for tracking backyard critters. Look for tracks of squirrel, rabbits, birds and pets; follow them and try to guess what the animal was up to. Add a magnifying glass and field guide to create the perfect naturalist afternoon activity. Head out to your local park or just stay in your backyard – there is evidence of animal life everywhere!

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to spend some time outside in the snow. Bundle up and throw some snowballs, look at some track,s and make some snow angels together. You might have so much fun that you decide to do it every day!

Take the next few days to explore the snowy areas of your neighborhood. Did you find any cool critters or other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo was taken by Molly Steinwald.

November 1, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Collecting Cones

by Melissa Harding
IMG_1663O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
– October, Robert Frost

The humble pinecone spends most of its life on the ground, experiencing a bit of short-lived glory affixed to a wreath or scented with cinnamon during the winter holidays, only to be quickly discarded for flashier bits as soon as it has outlived it festive flare. What an unfair neglect of the pinecone. This ordinary little tree part is far more than meets the eye and, if you look carefully, it can tell you an incredible story. To begin with, pine trees are not the only plants to produce cones. All coniferous trees, from spruces to hemlocks to fir, create cones as part of their reproductive cycle. Most conifers have both male and female cones; male cones normally form in small, soft clusters every spring, whereas the bigger, woody cones are female. Female cones start out small and sticky like male cones, but harden and become woody after fertilization to protect the seeds inside.  When female cones are mature, they open up their bracts and release the seeds inside to be dispersed by wind and rain. After they have completed their purpose, they fall to the ground.  Cones of all kinds are an important food sources for a variety of woodland critters, as well as humans, who eat pine nuts in sauces and salads.

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to collect as many cones as you can. Take a hike through your neighborhood or local park to find cones from many different trees; scour the ground to find those that are already open and look up in the trees for those that aren’t.  When you bring the cones indoors, you will be able to observe how each cone is able to detect just the right conditions for dispersing seeds. Watch what happens as the cones warm indoors; move them outside and observe the effect of cold temperatures and humidity. Look for signs of animal snacking on your cones. Use a magnifying glass to examine the woody texture. You’ll be amazed at how much there is to learn about a simple pinecone!

Take the next few days to explore the your neighborhood for cones. What did you notice about the cones that you found? Did you find any cool critters or other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

Above photo was taken by Melissa Harding.

September 27, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Pressing Flowers and Leaves

by Melissa Harding



The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is getting plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

– Emily Dickinson


September is a beautiful month – not quite summer, not quite fall.  Flowers are still growing, tomatoes are still on the vine and the sun is still warm enough to bask in, yet leaves are already falling, apples are ready to pick and everything seems to be flavored with cinnamon. This in-between month is a wonderful time to be outside. It is also a very colorful time, even more vibrant than summer; yellow goldenrod, purple blazing star and the red maples are everywhere! Formerly green trees are suddenly a rainbow of colors and even the sides of the road are bright and cheerful. However, while these colors are short-lived, they are also easy to preserve. This is a great time of year for collecting and pressing flowers and leaves.

This weekend, we challenge you and your family to a fall treasure hunt. More specifically, a collecting hunt for flowers and leaves. Find the brightest colors that you can and pick them to take home and preserve. This challenge combines two activities that kids love – outside treasure hunts and smooshing things together. Spend some time scouring the ground, roadside, bushes and trees for a rainbow of plants. While you’re at it, keep your eyes peeled for grasshoppers, groundhogs and other critters who may be out and about. When you get home, press your treasures in a phone book or a flower press; for a faster pressing time, put a heavy object like a dictionary or an iron on top of your press. Check every week until they are your desired crispiness and then use them to decorate your home, make art or just to observe!

Take the next few days to explore the your neighborhood for colorful plants. What did you notice about the plants that you found? Did you find any cool critters or other things of note? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo was taken by Melissa Harding.

August 30, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Grasshopper and Cricket Hunting

by Melissa Harding
Molly Steinwald Photography (3)Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver
Summer is at its peak now, with fall not far behind. This is the time for grasshoppers and crickets. Just like in the beloved fable, these late summer creatures are singing and playing all day long in the high grasses, enjoying the sun. August and September are the best times to catch them; the trick is to sneak up on your prey very quietly and listen for their song, keeping your eyes open for movement. Of course, they aren’t really singing – rather, they are trying to attract mates and declare their territories. Crickets make sounds by rubbing a row of pegs along the inside of their hind leg against their thickened forewing, causing a vibration. Grasshoppers make sounds far less frequently; they quickly snap their hindwings as they fly, making a crackling sound, which means that you may not hear them until they are already on the move. Follow their sounds and keep your eyes open for these cleverly camouflaged critters; you may be looking right at one and not even know it!
This weekend, we challenge you and your family to go grasshopper and cricket hunting. Look for them in thick grass or meadows. Use a net or your bare hands to catch them; once you find one, handle it gently and observe it. Note its coloration, the rasps on the legs and its crazy jaws. Feel its hard exoskeleton and its antennae. When you are done, gently place it back where you found it and try to catch another. Try to catch one of each and observe the differences between them.

Take the next few days to explore the grassy areas in your neighborhood and search for grasshoppers and crickets. What did you notice about the insects that your found? Did you find any other cool critters? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo is copyrighted to Molly Steinwald.


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