Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Up, Up & Away!

Up, Up and Away
Written by Ginger Wadsworth, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne
32 pages, for ages 4 - 9
Charlesbridge, 2009

I have lots of spiders in my garden – hairy wolf spiders the size of quarters, nursery-web spiders that protect their eggs, and bright yellow and black garden spiders with zig-zaggy designs in their webs. But one sight I have yet to see is hundreds of tiny spiderlings riding air currents on their skinny silk parachutes.

So I’m glad that Ginger Wadsworth and Patricia Wynne teamed up to show how baby spiders travel by flying Up, Up and Away. Spiderlings spin silk draglines that catch the breeze – and because the baby spiders are so lightweight they’re carried into the air. It’s called “ballooning”, and they ride the air currents until evening when the air cools and drops them onto field or forest or your back yard.

I asked Wadsworth what inspired this book. “I’ve always been fascinated with the  ballooning spiders I encountered in my garden,” she said. “Also, the concept of moving away and finding a new home, whether for a spider or for a child, is a universal theme.” Wadsworth credits her penpal, Adirondack naturalist Ed Kanze, with inspiring her. “He wrote about how far ballooning spiders might travel, and that column stuck with me!” 

Wadsworth’s book follows the adventures of one young spider who manages to avoid becoming lunch for a lizard and evades the pointy end of a hungry bird’s beak. After landing on a fence near a farm, the young spider begins spinning a web. “Without a single lesson she knows what to do,” Wadsworth writes.

All spring and summer the spider builds webs and catches dinner. “She bites her prey with powerful jaws and sucks up juicy beetle guts …” M-M good!  After mating, the spider lays her eggs, wraps them in silk and dies, as every mother spider must do. But life goes on. Her babies hatch out and wait for spring when they, too will fly up, up and away.

Wadsworth admits that she learned a lot about spiders while working on the book. But with thousands of species inhabiting our planet, she felt she had to focus on one kind for the story. “I chose the garden spider because of their beautiful webs, and because they are so common that children might spot them in a park or garden,” she says. “Plus they are gorgeous-looking spiders.”

What people don’t know is that spiders are really fragile creatures, Wadworth explained. When she was working on her book, Rachel Carson, Voice for the Earth, she read how Carson carried  spiders outside to release them. “Now we have a rule in our household that everyone is expected to gently wrap a spider in a paper towel or piece of Kleenex and carry it out,” Wadsworth says. “Or they can ask me to do it.”

A great book for kids who want to learn more about the secret life of spiders, with delightful illustrations.

This post is part of the Nonfiction Monday Round-Up hosted this week by Wendie’s Wanderings; review copy from the shelves of Candor Free Library. Click here to watch the book trailer at Wadsworth's website.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Make a Back Yard Field Guide

One of the neat things about science is that you can walk out your back door and learn something new. One fall my kids dug through the compost bin looking for isopods (roly-polies, plant lice) for some studies they wanted to conduct. In the process they uncovered a lot of interesting stuff: worms, centipedes, sprouting seeds.... enough to make cataloging the compost pile that day's study.

Another week we decided to take a closer look at the insects living in the milkweed patch, and later we examined the insects hanging around goldenrod.

In the process we collected notes and sketches of our observations in a sun-faded blue notebook that resided on the windowsill where we watched birds. Over the years our "Window Ledger" grew into a field guide.

I wish I'd taken the next step: snap photos of the things we observed (and the kids holding frogs, kneeling in the garden to watch spiders), print the pages, punch holes and stick into a binder. You can get some good ideas about creating your own field guide from "Flora, Fauna and Family Togetherness"in this month's National Wildlife magazine.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How Many Eggs Can a Monarch Lay?

Monarch laying an egg (photo by Rick Bunting)
Back in 2007  Jim Edson, from the University of Arkansas counted and came up with 326. Of course, he says, the butterfly could have laid some eggs on her journey north from Mexico….

Last week Rick Bunting, a butterfly watcher in Upstate NY happened to have his camera handy when a female Monarch was laying eggs. Monarch eggs are tiny – about 1/8 inch long – and the butterfly glues each one individually to the underside of a milkweed leaf with a quick-drying substance she secretes along with the egg.  

It takes about a handful of days (from 3 to 5) for the egg to hatch. The tiny larva (caterpillar) eats what’s left of the egg, then begins munching milkweed leaves. As it eats, it grows. When it gets too big for its skin, the caterpillar molts and then eats its old skin. After it molts about four times, the larva is ready to turn into an adult butterfly. It stops eating and finds a protected branch where it can pupate.

The caterpillar spins a bit of silk and attaches its hind end to a branch. Then it hangs head down and turns into a jade green chrysalis. The chrysalis is hard, and protects the caterpillar-changing-into-butterfly for nearly two weeks. During that time the caterpillar dissolves and reorganizes its body into an adult butterfly.

Karen Oberhauser a professor at the University of Minnesota, answers lots of questions about the butterflies. One person asked how to increase the number of eggs and caterpillars that survive to maturity (the butterfly stage). Should she try to control predators?

Not really, said Oberhauser. The most important thing to do she said, is to create and preserve habitat – and avoid the use of pesticides that can harm them. Global warming may make this more challenging. According to the models, Oberhauser said that monarch overwintering sites are likely to become much wetter than they are now. That’s because of more frequent storms, she says. The model indicates current summer habitat will become too hot, so the Monarchs may need to move farther north for breeding.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Sound of Hummingbird Wings

from US Fish & Wildlife
I was in the garden yanking weeds when I heard the soft whirring of hummingbird wings. A ruby-throated hummer hovered above the chives, a splash of red and emerald amongst the pale amethyst of the earliest blossoms.

Hummingbirds are amazing for so many reasons: they can fly up, down, backwards and sideways; they can stop in midair; they rival the Blue Angels for aerial displays. For such small creatures – only 3 to 4 inches long and so light you could mail about ten of them for the price of a first class stamp – ruby-throated hummingbirds are amazingly strong. During migration they fly about 600 miles.

But back to their wings. A ruby-throated hummingbird beats its wings more than 50 times a second.  I could probably flap my arms 50 times a minute – but not long enough to fly 600 miles south for the winter.(Some hummingbirds migrate much farther!)

And it’s the wings that make that wonderful whirring distinctive to hummingbirds. It’s soft, but strong enough to hear amidst the buzzing of bees and rustle of leaves in the breeze.

This week listen to wing sounds: the drone of bumblebees, the flutter of moths against the screen, the sound of chickadee wings as they flit by. By the end of the week you may even be able to identify the kinds of bees in your yard by the pitch of their buzzing.

For more amazing facts about ruby-throated hummingbirds – and to listen to wing sounds – visit Cornell’s All About Birds.