Friday, December 23, 2011

This Tree is for the Birds

from the shepherds house
 Decorating a tree for the birds is an old tradition dating back to sixteenth century Europe. Not only does it liven up your yard, but decorating a tree with snacks for birds helps them make it through the cold winter days. You don’t need to go buy fancy birdseed ornaments – just gather some things around the house and create your own.

Think about things you can string onto garlands: old raisins, cranberries, dried apples, dates and figs, popcorn and peanuts in the shell. Even cheerios and fruit loops make good garlands.

Hang colored Indian corn, donuts, rice cakes, or bagels smeared with peanut butter and coated with birdseed.

Pack peanut butter into a pinecone (birds prefer chunky, I’m told) and roll that in cornmeal and birdseed.
From Chickens in the Road

Make “bread cookies”. Use a cookie cutter to cut a shape from a slice of bread. Poke a hole in the top for a string and then let the bread dry out overnight. Mix cornmeal, shortening, and peanut butter and spread the mix on both sides of the bread. Then decorate with sunflower seeds and other birdseed.

Use natural brown string, wool yarn, or raffia to hang the decorations. The birds can use the fibers in their spring nest-building.

What ideas can you think up?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday's View

A few days before Solstice - 
this year  it's Thursday, December 22. 
Longer days ahead ...
but it will take a few weeks to notice the difference.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Night Walking

last week's full moon made star-watching difficult

In the winter it seems like the stars are closer to the earth; brighter; easier to see. The waning moon makes this week (and next) a good time for a night walk. Not only that – you might even see some falling stars!

According to the folks at EarthSky there should be a meteor shower peaking near Solstice. The Ursid meteor shower radiates from the bowl of the Little Dipper and should peak next Thursday and Friday, December 22 and 23. It’s a pretty sparse “peak” as meteor showers go – you might see only 10 stars streaking across the sky in an hour. Or you might luck out and see a couple a minute.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday's View

now that it's cold the birds are visiting the feeders:
red-bellied woodpeckers, downy and hairy
blue jays, chickadees and nuthatches...
the regular crew.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Storm Tracking

This week we got our first snow. It started off as rain, then rain mixed with snow. When the temperature dropped it turned to real snow and by the next morning the world looked different. 

Because of the ice that accompanied the storm, and the tricky driving conditions early in the morning, the storm made our local news. Nearly every TV station has a “storm tracker” weather segment where they follow snow and ice, hurricanes, blizzards and other weather events.

But you don’t have to be a weatherman to follow storms. You can keep track of the storms right where you live. All you need is your journal, a pencil, and a bunch of curiosity.
In addition to noting the date and kind of storm, here’s some other things you might want to keep track of:
  • What kind of precipitation is falling out of the sky? Does it change over time? How can you tell?
  • How does the temperature change over the storm event?
  • What kind of clouds came before the storm and after?
  • If there is precipitation, how much? And how can you measure it?
  • If it’s snow or ice, what does it look like? Feel like?
  • What does the storm sound like?
  • What did you notice about birds or other wildlife that hang around your yard?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Celebrating Picture Books: Red Sled

Red Sled
By Lita Judge
Ages 2-5 (and older!)
Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2011)

OK – I realize Picture Book Month is over, but I can’t resist one more book. Kinda like when the baker tucks an extra cookie in the bag…

Red Sled captured me from the cover. It may be a “wordless” book, but with illustrations this expressive, who needs words? A kid leaves his sled outside at night – a clear invitation to a passing bear. With a few onomatopoeic words and her delightful pencil-and-watercolor animals, Judge captures a winter’s night fantasy.  I especially love the way she portrays each animal’s personality as they pile on the sled for one last ride. Fortunately, the sled survives.

Grab this book, snuggle up with a kid and enjoy a really fun read- aloud.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

STEM Friday - Prairie Storms

Prairie Storms
Written by Darcy Pattison; illus. by Kathleen Rietz
32 pages, for ages 4-8
Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2011

December on the prairie can be tough. “A blizzard rages, a sudden whiteout. The bison herd turns, facing into the teeth of the wind,” writes Darcy Pattison in her newest book, Prairie Storms.

Storms may not bother the bison, but when I hear the wind howling and the sleet rattling at my windows, I make a hot cup of cocoa and snuggle up with a good book.

Pattison raises an interesting question: what do animals do when the snow flies? How do they deal with rain and hail? Month-by-month she takes us into the secret lives of prairie animals: into the burrows of prairie dogs; into the den of a cougar. Who knew that skunks roll up balls of straw to close their doorway? At the end of the book she's included some activities for curious and creative minds.
Pattison lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, a town right on the edge of the prairie, she says. And while it’s not the “Great Prairie” of the Midwest, it served as inspiration and an outdoor lab for her as she worked on the book.

“I wanted to write about animals,” she said. She wanted to explore the relationship between animals and their habitats, but in a different way. “And when you live on the prairie, the sky is the biggest thing around,” she said. So Pattison began investigating how different creatures deal with weather. And that meant a lot of research. And a lot of field trips to the Baker PrairieNatural Area, just outside of Harrison.

Then she started thinking about how to pull all the nifty stuff she learned into a book. Picture books have 14 spreads (the double-page illustrations), she pointed out. “So doing something that focused on the 12 months seemed natural.” Pattison then made two lists: one of the mammals and birds and reptiles she’d seen; the other about the kinds of storms her prairie areas experience over the span of a year.

How did she get the prose so lyrical? “I wrote it as poetry, first,” Pattison admitted.

What was the neat new thing she learned? “Earless lizards!” she said. Despite their name, they hear well enough.
This is part of STEM Friday. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Check out what great books other people are reviewing below. To add a link to your blog, just leave a comment or send an email to sueheaven [at] gmail [dot] com. I'll check periodically throughout the day.

Jeff Barger reviews How Does Medicine Know Where you Hurt? over at NC Teacher Stuff.

Shirley reviews The Life of Rice at Simply Science. She always includes some activities with her reviews.

Anastasia Suen introduces a pop-up physics book, Feel the Force over at Chapter Book of the Day.

Not a review, but worth checking out: an interesting post on the importance of integrating art with STEM at INK.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday's View

The squirrels spend their days
rummaging through the leaves on the ground.
Are they looking for hickory nuts?
Or have they forgotten where they buried the acorns?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Celebrating Picture Books: Bag in the Wind

Recycling plastic grocery bags is great – but what happens when a bag falls out of the recycling bin? Find out in this final celebration of picture book month.

Bag in the Wind
By Ted Kooser; illus. by Barry Root
Ages 5 and up
Candlewick Press 2010

“One cold, windy morning early in spring, a bulldozer was pushing a big pile of garbage around a landfill when it uncovered an empty plastic bag.” That’s how poet Ted Kooser starts his story. This perfectly good bag – the color of the skin of a yellow onion, with two holes for handles – is picked up by a puff of wind and blown over the chain-link fence. From there it is blown into the lives of several people: a girl collecting cans; a store owner with a drafty door; a homeless man.

The story comes full circle when Margaret – the can-collector – uses it to carry home her purchases from a consignment shop. Only, she doesn’t recognize it because it looks like every other grocery bag.

Though this story has a lot more words than the usual picture book, the language is lyrical and makes for a good read-aloud. Plus Kooser includes a couple pages at the end about recycling plastic bags. Did you know that if you use reusable cloth bags instead of plastic bags, you could save over 22,000 plastic bags all by yourself? I didn’t.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Going on a Gall Hike...

Fall is a great time to look for galls. You’ll find them on twigs and stems – even on fallen oak leaves and amongst the needles at the tips of spruce boughs.

Galls can be round, like the marble galls on oaks. They can be hard or soft. Galls can look like pineapples or tiny dots.

What kinds of galls do you find in your neighborhood? How big are they? Are they at the tips of stems or in the middle? Are they pointed or fuzzy or spiny or smooth?

Is there anybody home? The gall-maker might be inside, but there might be other insects as well. The oak-apple, made by a tiny gall wasp, has been known to house seventy-five different kinds of insects – including parasites on the gall-making insect!

Collect some galls and place them in a jar with a lid or a terrarium with a top. Something’s sure to come out. If you can’t wait, take a sharp knife and slice the gall open – you might find a larva all snuggled up for a winter’s sleep.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Celebrating Picture Books: Sheila Says We're Weird

Week three of picture book month features a visit to some neighbors that live life a bit differently from what most kids perceive as “the norm”.  

Sheila Says We're Weird
By Ruth Ann Smalley; illus. by Jennifer Emery
Ages 7 - 12
Tilbury House 2011
Sheila’s neighbors don’t toss laundry in the dryer; they hang it on the line. Her neighbors use a push mower, plant a garden and toss used tea bags in the worm bin.

“That’s really, really weird,” Sheila says.

Sheila’s neighbors chop vegetables for soup instead of opening a can. They ride bikes to the library, patch their jeans and rake leaves on top of the garden to protect plants for winter. And it’s all weird, to Sheila. The funny thing is… Sheila never misses an opportunity to pick strawberries from the garden and she never turns down a bowl of hot homemade soup.

By the end of the book Sheila realizes that her neighbors are happy with what they have. And she wants to share! This is a great story to introduce simple things any kid can do to reduce, reuse and recycle. What a great introduction to the concept of “green living”.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Goldenrod Galls

Past the hickory tree, where we haven’t mowed since last year, grows a patch of goldenrod. Each fall it lives up to its name, producing bright golden flowers that keep the bumblebees and honeybees busy on warm days.

Look closely, though, and you notice weird things on my plants. Some of them have swellings on the stem – as though they swallowed a golf ball. A few have bunches of leaves that resemble flowers, tucked near the tops of stems. These are galls – deformities caused by insects.

Gall flies, moths and midges are responsible for the deformities in goldenrod. The adult insect lays its eggs on the plants. When the larvae hatch, they chew their way into the stem, irritating the goldenrod. In response, the goldenrod develops a swelling (ball gall) or the tight flower-like cluster that keeps the stem from growing.

When the weather grows cold, the larvae enter a state of suspended animation (diapause) and remain that way until spring, when they resume chewing a tunnel to the gall where they’ll pupate.

Over winter, though, a lot can happen to a gall. Downy woodpeckers and chickadees, hungry for protein-rich snacks, may poke a hole into the gall and chow down on the sleeping larvae.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Celebrating Picture Books: The Green Mother Goose

We continue celebrating picture book month with a trip to a favorite childhood character – Mother Goose. But this isn’t our grandmother’s goose. This Mama has gone green.

The Green Mother Goose
By Jan Peck and David Davis; illustrated by Carin Berger
Ages 3 – 6
Sterling Publishing, 2011
Everything in this slim green volume has been recycled, from the paper used to create the collage art to the nursery rhymes. Old Mother Hubbard shops with cloth grocery bags, Little Jack Horner changes all the incandescent bulbs to fluorescent and the Old Woman who lived in a Shoe has solar power!

Remember those three mice? Now they…
Search for clothes at the thrift store shops,
 Recycle the treasures at yard sale stops,
Catch water from rain and use all the drops.
Three wise mice!
I love Carin Berger’s illustrations created from found papers, ticket stubs, old newspapers and other recycled stuff. Even the pages of the book contain recycled wood and fibers! The book’s subtitle says it all: “Saving the world one rhyme at a time”.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Counting on Fibonacci

Last week I reviewed Swirl by Swirl, a book about spirals in nature. Continuing on the theme of math patterns in nature ... a long time ago mathematicians noticed that certain numbers show up in nature over and over again. Lilies have three petals. Shadbush and wild roses have five.

The math guys got excited because these numbers belong to a special series called the Fibonacci sequence, and they found them everywhere they looked. Starfish? Five arms. An octopus? Eight. Daisies? Thirteen petals or, in some cases, 21.

The Fibonacci sequence begins like this: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 …. And there is definitely a pattern.* If you look around, you can find Fibonacci numbers. Cut open a cucumber or tomato and you find three seed cavities. Slice a pear cross-wise and you get that five-armed star shape – each of those arms is where seeds develop. Red pines have pairs of needles while white pines have clusters of five.

Of course, not everything grows in a Fibonacci pattern; mustards have four petals and star flowers have seven.

*(hint: 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3; 2 + 3 = ?)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday's View

Oak leaves are raked. So are the maple and poplar.... 
but those hickory leaves are so stubborn!  
And the beech? Forget about raking beech leaves - 
they'll still be clinging to their twigs come spring.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Celebrating Picture Books: Feeding Friendsies

November is Picture Book Month. I’ll be joining in the celebration each Monday, reviewing fun books that have a science and nature slant. My first book is .....

Feeding Friendsies
By Suzanne Bloom
Ages 2 – 6
Boyds Mills Press 2011

I picked this book for its cover, but mud pie aficionados will pick it for Suzanne Bloom’s playful presentation of fresh-from-the-garden snacks.

“Lolly made a lovely, crunchy lunch from stems and leaves with flowers on top,” writes Bloom. Will she eat it? No – she made it for the butterflies.  A pair of Swallowtails, a Monarch, and a Red Admiral flutter above a salad piled high in a gardener’s straw hat.

Through the pages Lolly and her friends whip up delicacies for hoppy frogs and wiggly worms. When Nana finally calls them to lunch they see a table full of garden delights: carrot sticks, blueberries and blackberries, tomatoes fresh off the vine. Will they eat it? “Oh yes. Oh yes, yes, yes!”

“So what’s your best-ever never-fail mud pie recipe?” I asked Bloom the other day.

Referring to the garden delicacies in her book she answered, “Those are my best recipes for mud pie and dirt dessert. My geologist son, however, has informed me that the correct term is soil, not dirt. But,” she mused, “that just doesn’t have the same ring to it!”

I love Bloom’s books for their reading “fun factor” and Feeding Friendsies is no exception. I also love the way she brings the garden community to life - the butterflies and frogs and chickadees... and Bloom’s watercolors are pure delight.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 4, 2011

STEM Friday - Swirl by Swirl

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature
By Joyce Sidman; illustrations by Beth Krommes
40 pages, ages 4-8
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011

 “A spiral is a snuggling shape,” writes Joyce Sidman. “It fits neatly in small places.” With that cozy beginning, Sidman and illustrator Beth Krommes launch us into a closer inspection of spirals in the natural world.

Spirals start out small and get bigger “swirl by swirl”. Sidman’s lyrical prose helps us understand how spirals are strong, protective, expansive. Krommes’ scratchboard illustrations capture the details: a tail twining around a twig; the way a chipmunk curls up to sleep overwinter.

From snail shells to galaxies, from the curl of an ocean wave to the twist of wild wind, spirals are everywhere. Sidman includes a couple pages at the end that explain more about the plants and animals featured in the book and shows how nature and numbers combine in spirally patterns.

I asked Sidman why spirals?

“I’ve always been interested in them,” she said, “why they appear and why we find them beautiful.” The trick, though, was to find a way to write about them….  “I wanted this to be more than a book about shapes. I wanted to understand why spirals work well in nature, in so many circumstances.”

So Sidman read and read and read. She also collected lots of photos and did a lot of thinking. Then, once she grasped the reasons for why spirals occur in nature she began organizing her book.

Even though Krommes was doing her own research for the illustrations, Sidman sent photos. The two sent ideas back and forth and the book grew in a collaborative fashion. “It was a lively, challenging, and unusual way to create a picture book,” Sidman said. “Usually the editor is the only link between author and illustrator; I loved being part of the whole process!”

You can’t help but learn something new when you work on a book. Sidman learned a lot about Fibonacci numbers, she said – but don’t ask her to explain them. The neatest thing she learned? “That butterfly tongues form spirals but frog tongues don’t!” 

This is part of the STEM Friday book round-up, hosted at Simply Science. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday's View

I love the way the clouds sneak up the valley
early in the morning. This is taken after sunrise
when the sky is still trying on colors for the day.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Looking for Orange Things

It's almost Halloween - an evening celebrated by ghosts and goblins and things orange: candy corn, pumpkin cookies and jelly beans.

So in keeping with the season I encourage you to head outside with your nature journal and look for Orange Things.

A couple weeks ago I noticed this bright orange fungus. With all our fall rain there was a lush growth of grass and clover beneath it, contrasting green with the bright mushroom cap.

If you're looking for orange leaves, you can't go wrong with Sugar Maples.

photo by Marvin Smith

Marvin Smith, a photographer and blogger in the Ozarks has graciously shared two of his orange critters. The moth on the flower to the right is called a "lichen moth" because the caterpillars munch on crunchy lichens.

photo by Marvin Smith

 The spider is a   marbled orb weaver -
 perfect for Halloween!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday's View

Sunny mornings, rain in the afternoons .... snow predicted on Thursday. 
Will these leaves be gone by next week?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tracking Climate Change with Your Nature Journal

Backyard nature-watchers are teaming up with scientists to track the relationships between climate and plants. This isn’t something new – about 60 years ago Aldo Leopold, who observed the plants and birds and insects on his farm, combed through ten years of journals to see how things had changed over time. He found a correlation between temperature and flower blooming.

Later, his daughter moved back to the family farm and resumed nature journaling. When scientists compared her observations to those of her father, half a century earlier, they discovered that over those decades some plants had begun blooming earlier, and some migratory birds returned earlier. Over that same period of time the earth warmed about two degrees.

The study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events is called “phenology”. It doesn't take much to be a "phenologist" - just a pencil, a notebook and a desire to look closely at the world. You can keep track of plants and animals in your back yard. Who knows? Maybe the notes you keep will help scientists in the future. If you're interested in helping scientists collect data for climate research right now, check out Project BudBurst

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday's View

For the past couple decades I've watched the leaves burn scarlet, russet, gold.. and then fade away. I've watched the evening sun paint the far hill with alpenglow and watched snow pile up on the road - all the while thinking: gee, I should document the season's changes. So that's what I'll be doing this year, on Tuesdays - posting a photo of the view from my study window. Starting now, before the last bit of color fades from these gorgeous upstate NY hills. Thanks to Melissa Stewart for inspiring me - this year she's taking cloud portraits.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Catch a Falling Star

If you missed the Draconid meteor shower last week, don’t despair. Meteorites are continually falling to earth. All day long. The problem is, you don’t see them because most of them are really, really tiny.

But you might be able to catch a few. All you need is a large plastic or aluminum bin (a few inches deep), a magnet and a plastic bag.

Put your star-catching bin someplace high enough so you don’t get Earth dust, but yet easy enough to reach. You’ll want it open to the sky, so avoid overhanging trees. Fill the bin with several inches of water and leave it in place for three or four weeks. Check to make sure there is water in it and add some if you need to.

How long will it take to actually capture a falling star? Give it a month or so. Then bring your container down and set it on a sturdy table. First thing you’ll notice is a lot of sediment in the bottom of the bin. So how do you separate out meteorite bits from dust and pollen?

That’s where the magnet comes in. Put the magnet inside the plastic bag and slowly move it around in the water. Make sure to stir up the sediment on the bottom of the bin. Now pour some water in a clean bowl and put your magnet in that. Take the magnet out of the plastic bag and magnetic meteorite bits will fall into the clean bowl.

Those meteorite bits may have come from the farthest reaches of our solar system. And they may be old – really old, like four billion years or more. So take care of them!

And, if you want to watch stars falling out of the sky this fall, there are still a few more showers coming up. The only problem is that the moon might get in the way of seeing the meteors streak across the sky.

Peak viewing times:

Orionids                      Oct 21                        
South Taurids              Nov 5             
North Taurids              Nov 11-12      
Leonids                       Nov 17           
Geminids                     Dec 13            

Learn more at Earth & Sky

Thursday, October 6, 2011

STEM Friday - The Boy Who Drew Birds

The Boy Who Drew Birds
By Jacqueline Davies; illus by Melissa Sweet
32 pages, ages 7 – 10
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
This book has everything one could want in a sciency book: luscious artwork (I love collage!), mystery, historical context and wonderful storytelling. I was hooked at page one: “It was true that John James could skate, hunt, and ride better than most boys. True also that he could dance the minuet and gavotte as if he had been born a king.” John James, we learn, can fiddle and fence and flirt – but the thing he likes to do best is watch birds.

Even though birds have four legs too few, I had to keep reading. Who is this John James? And what is it about birds that intrigues him so?

But what really hooked me was that the story centered around Audubon’s observations of the eastern phoebe – a bird that, over the past dozen years, we have been watching closely because a pair built its nest just beneath my study window. And, as John James learned, they return spring after spring, with kids in tow.

The mystery is where birds go in winter. We know they migrate, but back in 1804 scientists thought they hibernated underwater. Or flew to the moon. The other mystery is whether they return to their home each spring – a mystery Audubon solved with a silver thread.

We think of Audubon as an artist. But clearly, he was a natural scientist as well – even though he didn’t fare well within the confines of a classroom.

Like Audubon, author Jacqueline Davies was inspired by the phoebe. “I met my first phoebe during a nature walk with my daughter," she says. "I was intrigued by the idea of a bird that returns to the same nest year after year.” When she delved into research, she learned that Audubon was the first person to band a bird in this country and that the bird was the phoebe. That’s when she knew she had to write the story. 

Davies read lots of biographies about Audubon, as well his own writing. But she didn’t make it to visit his Pennsylvania home until after her book was published.

During those three months of research, Davies says she learned lots of new things. “The most engrossing,” she says, was reading the scientific theories of Audubon’s day that explained where birds go in the winter. “Those theories offered great insight into not only what they knew but also the accepted practices of the day for making scientific discoveries,” Davies said.  

While Davies doesn’t keep a life list, she does keep a pair of binoculars at the ready in her upstairs bathroom. “It’s the perfect spot for watching all the bird activity in my backyard,” she explained.

This is part of STEM Friday, hosted at Celebrate Science. Review copy provided by Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Salamanders in The Garden

We often find newts in our garden. Red-spotted newts hiding in the mulch or laboriously crawling towards the shade cast by towering cosmos. But last week, while harvesting potatoes, we unearthed two salamanders. They were long – mostly tail – with stubby legs and glistened deep red, almost black.

At first glance salamanders look a lot like lizards, but they are amphibians. Like frogs. Salamanders have moist, often slimy skin with no scales. They use that moist skin to breathe. And while lizards have scratchy toenails (claws), salamanders do not.

Salamanders need moisture, and after all the rain we got last month – a record 12 inches on our hill – the garden beds were just the right soggy-ness for them. The crawled under the mulch and dug into the wet soil of the potato hills – the perfect salamander home until hungry gardeners came along…

This fall as you pull out the weeds and get your garden ready for winter, pay attention to the small critters living there. And, if you can, leave a few big rocks and some cover for shelter.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Go on a Pattern Hike

If you’re looking for a way to connect math to nature, start paying attention to patterns. Patterns are lines or shapes that repeat – and you can find them just about everywhere you look: the back of a caterpillar, butterfly wings, the way a wasp’s nest is built or the honeycomb of a bee hive.

There are patterns in the way clouds gather in the sky, and the V’s geese make as they fly.

There are patterns left by waves on the beach, and by snakes on the desert sand. Look closely at a cactus and you’ll find a pattern in how the spines come out; same thing for pine needles.

There are patterns in rocks and trees – and even in the food you eat. Ever cut an apple across the middle and see the star inside? Take a closer look at blueberries and you’ll see that same star pattern at the blossom end of the fruit.

So, next time you head outside go on a “pattern hunt”. Take along a journal or camera and record the neat patterns you find.

What to share the patterns you find? Just send a low-resolution photo to sueheaven at gmail dot com and I’ll post them here (it might take a couple days).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

STEM Friday: You are Older than the Stars!

Welcome to STEM Friday – that’s where we share nifty nonfiction that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. You’ll find links to more reviews below. But first, a book I love – and brief chat with the author.
Older than the Stars
By Karen C. Fox, illus. by Nancy Davis
32 pages; ages 5-10
Charlesbridge 2010

This is a book that begins with a bang. Karen Fox hangs her tale of how the universe began on the structure of a nursery rhyme: “This is the star of red-hot stuff that burst from the gas in a giant puff that spun from the blocks that formed from the bits that were born in the bang when the world began.”

Early stellar chaos, well-illustrated with Nancy Davis’s bright potato prints and computer graphics, eventually resolves into form: planets, earth, plants, animals, and people. Fox shows how matter created in the big bang gets recycled over the eons – now some of that primordial stardust may be inside of each one of us.

Fun as it is, Fox includes plenty of sidebars explaining what scientists know about how the universe formed. Not only are the sidebars kid-friendly, but they put the story on two reading levels. She concludes with a not-to-scale timeline of the universe and a glossary of useful terms.

Fox, it turns out, has a degree in physics and English. “I had always meant to be a physics major,” she says, “but I was also a constant reader, so … I registered for a double major.” She was inspired to write this book when she saw a call for astronomy picture book ideas. Fox had just finished a book for adults and thought it would be a breeze to take all that information and make a kids book on the big bang. “The joke was on me,” she says. “This book took much longer to get to print than any of my adult books!”

I asked Fox how she came to structure her book like “the house that Jack built”. The initial draft had some repetition in it, she said. “But it wasn’t until the third draft that I realized that of course the book was supposed to be a poem.  The whole book just sort of came together after that.” It was, she said, an excellent lesson in why good writing almost always requires lots of re-writing – and a good editor.

Was Fox surprised by the bold prints that accompany her science story?  “I submitted all kinds of realistic images with my first draft,” she says. But once her editors sent a portfolio of Davis’s artwork, “I agreed that her style seemed fun in a way that would lend itself to illustrating some far out concepts.”

Every writer learns something when they write. Fox says, “I never knew that stars only make the first handful of light elements. It takes explosions as big as supernovae to fuse those atoms into the big stuff like gold and iron.”

Here's what other people are reviewing today:

Jeff Barger reviews How Does My Garden Grow over at NC Teacher Stuff where you can find lots of book reviews on everything from art to sports.

Over at Simply Science Shirley Duke reviews the newly released Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia. she says it's got a great technology section.

Anastasia Suen warms up our day with a review of Geology of the Desert Southwest: Investigate How the Earth Was Formed with 15 Projects at Chapter Book of the Day.

NOTE for STEM Friday reviewers: If you have difficulty leaving comments, please email me your link at sueheaven at gmail dot com.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heading South: Monarchs on Migration

Last month a monarch caterpillar found a nice cozy spot under a cabbage leaf and decided to pupate there. It walked a fair distance before finding shelter, because the nearest patch of milkweed is a football field's length away.

After 24 hours it had changed into a chrysalis.It was well protected from wind and weather and, apparently, anything interested in munching on chrysalides. Not to mention that the chrysalis blended well with the color of the cabbage leaf...

Now it’s waiting to join the vast Monarch migration southward, to Mexico – which, given where we live (42nd parallel) should peak over the next two weeks. 

If you live south of the 45th parallel, now’s the time to start paying attention to Monarch butterflies. Scientists are interested in them and you can help by gluing tags on Monarchs you catch in your neighborhood. It’s a great way to spend sunny autumn days with your children and helps scientists learn more about these butterflies. You can learn more at Monarch Watch.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Decoding Firefly Flash Codes

If you missed the meteor showers due to rain or moonlight, don’t despair – you can catch the nightly firefly shows. Fireflies fill the dark spaces between the stars with their blinking lights. Watch them long enough and you begin to see that there are different flash patterns. Some fireflies blink many times in quick succession, dit-dit-ditting a zigzag through the dark. Others flash a couple of long, slow blinks and pause, as though waiting for a response. Perhaps they are; within seconds flash-code messages are returned from the tall grass.

With as many as 20 to 30 species in our region, all sharing the same habitat, the nighttime airwaves can get crowded with messages. To reduce confusion, each species has developed its own unique flash code. One species might signal with a long flash followed by two short flashes, while another uses three flashes in a row.

Just as important as what fireflies say is how they say it. Some species hover in place as they flash; others write their love messages in glowing curves as they fly. While some fireflies flash their love messages early in the evening, others don’t even file their flight plans until the night’s half over.

Fireflies divide the night sky spatially as well. Some species fly low, right over the grasses, to flash their messages. Others fly at shrub-height, and even others fly among the treetops. Then there’s color – some fireflies flash greenish-yellow while others produce an orange glow.

To find out more about the fireflies in your back yard all you need is a notebook and pencil, a flashlight covered with blue cellophane (fireflies don’t see blue) and a warm night for watching. Spend a few minutes watching the lights, then jot some notes down. If you can distinguish individual fireflies you might be able to decode their flash patterns. Some of the things you’ll want to keep track of are the colors of the flashes, the pattern (length of flashes), how many flashes are in a series and the interval of time between flashes. If you don’t have a stopwatch you can count seconds by saying “one fire fly, two fire fly…”

You will also want to note such things as time of night you see that particular pattern, how high the male flies and what his flight pattern is, where you saw the responding female, and the temperature.
For more on fireflies, check out Firefly Facts 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Creating Pollinator-Friendly Yards

If you want native bees and butterflies to visit your yard, the first thing you need to do is reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides. Instead of spraying chemicals, find other ways to control weeds and insect pests in your garden and yard. Scientists have shown that native bee populations drop by around 50 percent where insecticides have been sprayed. Bumblebees are paralyzed by neonicotinoids – a class of widely used insecticides that act on the nervous system of insects – at levels as low as 12 parts per billion.

Provide as diverse, natural landscape as you can. Are there sections of your property that you can let go a bit wild for the summer and mow once a year? Think about planting native shrubs and trees – they not only enhance the habitat for bees but can add value to your landscaping. Native bees, it turns out, like to forage close to home. While honeybees readily fly two miles to collect nectar and pollen, wild bees rarely fly over 1/2 mile.

Bees depend on nectar for food throughout the entire summer. So think about planting things that bloom over the entire season. Check out the list of flowers bees love below.

Bees also need a source of water. They use water to cool their hives and dilute the honey they feed to their larvae. On extremely hot days, bees might spend more time carrying water back to the hive than foraging for pollen and nectar. Birdbaths work, but make sure the water is shallow, as bees can drown. You can also put a rock or a floating bit of wood in deeper water to provide a place for thirsty bees to land on.

Wild bees need nesting sites. Most of them are solitary, and about a third of them build their nests in wood. They tunnel into the soft pithy centers of some twigs (raspberry canes and sumac) or use tunnels left behind by wood-boring beetle larvae. The other 70 percent are ground-nesters, digging narrow tunnels down to small chambers of brood cells. Ground-nesting bees need direct access to the soil surface and prefer sloped or well-drained sites. Bumblebees, too, build their colonies underground, moving into abandoned rodent burrows.

Encouraging wood-nesting bees can be as simple as retaining dead or dying trees and branches in the hedgerows and encouraging the growth of elderberry, blackberries and raspberries, sumac and dogwood. To attract ground-nesters, leave a small area untilled for a year or actively clear some of the vegetation from a gently sloping or flat area.

Flowers Bees Love

Red maple, chives, Shadbush/ serviceberry, asters, borage, bee plant (Cleome), cosmos, purple coneflower, Joe-pye weed, sunflowers, hyssop, apple blossoms,  mints, bergamot/ bee balm (Monarda), basil, oregano, poppies, plum and cherry blossoms, roses, willows, sage, goldenrod, dandelion, thyme, red clover, blueberries, mullein, zinnias.

You can learn more about bee-friendly gardening here.