Friday, June 28, 2024

Wildfire!

 
Fire Escape: How Animals and Plants Survive Wildfires (Books for a Better Earth) 
by Jessica Stremer; illus. by Michael Garland  
128 pages; ages 8-12
Holiday House, 2024

Wildfires have been in the news lately – mostly because they are becoming more frequent and bigger and cause disaster when they burn through towns and cities. But what happens to the plants and animals in a wildfire’s path? That’s what Jessica Stremer discusses in her newest book, Fire Escape.

Chapter by chapter she addresses such issues as how farmers evacuate livestock,  how zoos shelter their residents, and how rescued wild animals are cared for. While most animals try to flee fire, some see fire as an opportunity. Raptors hunt ahead of the flames, preying on animals fleeing the flames.

Let’s not forget the plants; they’re “wildlife” too. Some pine trees have adapted to wildfires, and require flames to melt the resin sealing their cones shut. Only then can the seeds be released to sprout into new seedlings. And when a fire reduces a forest to ash, that’s when succession takes over. Certain flowers, grasses, and fungi are adapted to colonize the burnt landscape. As they grow and die, new plants move in, eventually growing back into a forest. 

Jessica discusses megafires and the role global warming plays in wildfire season (indeed, in some places there is no “wildfire season” anymore. Fires burn year-round.) She takes a look at how people have used fire as a tool to maintain habitat, and how goats are used to fight fires. And she includes a great chapter about the advantages of having beavers move into a landscape. At the end of the book she mentions the scientists who help fight fire and the many kinds of fire-fighting jobs there are.

I wanted to know more about what inspired Jessica to write this book, and she graciouslyanswered my questions.

Me: In your author’s note, you mention seeing ash flakes fall from a fire in 2017. Can you tell us more?

Jessica: I was fist altered to the Lilac Fire, as it would later be named, when I walked out of a store to discover ash falling from the sky. I actually wasn’t sure what it was at first, but as I drove home, and towards the direction of the fire, I realized what was going on.

This wasn’t the first time we’d had a fire burning nearby. We lived just south of the Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton, and fires would sometimes start as a result of artillery drops during training sessions. We could see smoke from the fires, but they were always too far away to be of any concern. In fact, of the twelve years that we lived in California, the Lilac Fire was the only one that ever caused us to worry.

That afternoon, the fire was still a few miles away and most of my neighbors were confident that we didn’t need to worry. I didn’t want to overreact by evacuating that night (although a few of our friends did), but I also didn’t want to ignore what could become a very deadly situation. So when the kids got home from school, we packed suitcases for ourselves and supplies for our dogs just in case we needed to evacuate.

My daughters took horseback riding lessons at a stable a few miles east of us. After checking the news to learn exactly where the fire was burning and which direction it was headed, I texted their riding instructor to see if she or anyone there needed help. She said they were monitoring the fire and had plans in place to evacuate. In my research for this book, I spoke to a few people who run volunteer evacuation groups for horses and other livestock for situations just like this. It’s amazing to see people come together in times of need.

My husband and I then took turns waking up in the middle of the night to check the status of the fire. The next morning, we learned that between the firefighters working hard to contain the flames, and the wind changing direction – sending the flames back towards the direction they had come from where there was nothing left to burn – the fire was fortunately no longer a threat for us or our home.

We did have friends that had to evacuate. They lived near the riding stables, and while she and her daughters fled, her husband stayed to help their neighbor with their horses. >From his neighbor’s yard he saw a crew of hotshots rappel out of a helicopter into his back yard. Their fence burned down, but luckily their home was ok. Unfortunately, a nearby horse training facility, San Luis Rey Downs, wasn’t so lucky. Dozens of horses perished, unable to escape the deadly blaze. There was an immense feeling of sadness among the entire community.

Me: You mentioned that you went to the area years later. What did you notice about the landscape?

 Jessica: There are various areas in southern California that have experienced wildfires and are now thriving. Driving to our friend’s house, the ones who had to evacuate, is where I regularly witnessed an ongoing change in the post-fire landscape. At first the entire area was blackened and charred. But it didn’t take long for life to return to the area. Initially there were a lot of smaller plants which had sprouted up through the ashes. Then taller trees and shrubs began to fill in the gaps. One day a few years later, I remember driving past that area and thinking how lush and green everything looked. Almost like you wouldn’t know a fire had happened if you weren’t around to experience it.

The same thing happened while driving through Camp Pendleton. I didn’t take that road often, but I can distinctly remember one drive shortly after a fire where the entire landscape was charred, and then another drive years later where again plants had regrown. From the car, you would never know a fire had ever occurred in that area.

We sometimes went hiking on Palomar Mountain about an hour away from our home. It was during one of those hikes that I noticed many of the trees were scarred from a fire that had burned long ago, yet the forest was alive and thriving. I knew fires were good for the landscape, and following that hike the seeds of curiosity were planted. I wanted to know more about what happened during wildfires. What did animals do to survive? And how does a forest regrow? I never want to downplay the loss people experience during wildfires, but I do want to help people understand the ways in which fire can be beneficial.

photo by John McColgan, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service

Me: The biggest threat now seems to be mega fires. What one thing can we do to prevent them? To help mitigate climate change or reverse it?

 Jessica: Oye, that’s a loaded question! So much of it depends on where you live. When it comes to wildfires, it’s important to maintaining boundaries around your home. Firefighters call this a “defensible area” which can be obtained by not planting trees and shrubs too close to structures.

If you live in a wooded area, talk to your local forestry management organization about the best way to manage the landscape. Can you help eradicate invasive species and plant those that are native to your area? Is it possible to have firefighters perform a controlled burn? Teaching our kids how to respect and care for the land is also really important.

Most wildfires are caused by people, so if you do have a fire, make sure the conditions are right. For example, never start a fire when it’s extremely dry and windy. Also, never start a fire in an uncontained area, such as outside a firepit, and never leave a fire unattended.

In regards to mitigating climate change, a lot of the problems stem from big corporations, the way they operate and the waste they produce. However, there are lot of little things we can do to try and help. Reduce the consumption of unnecessary goods and think of innovative ways to reuse products you already have. Buy local whenever possible. Participate in trash clean-ups. Plant native vegetation. I could go on and on!

Thank you so much, Jessica! Jessica is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website.

Thanks for dropping by today. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Milkweed Bugs

 
 
Now I ask you: is this not a beautiful bug? And bug it is - a "true" bug, with sucking mouthparts and all. The large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) is marked with two black diamonds separated by a black band. It feeds exclusively on the sap and seeds of milkweed plants - sap that is toxic to most animals. But these bugs happily chug it down because it doesn't make them sick, and it confers upon them a certain advantage: animals won't eat them because of the bitter taste. Eat one milkweed bug and you won't eat another! You can read more about milkweed bugs on this post.
 
If you have milkweed growing near you, look closely. You might find a milkweed bug or two - and maybe some other milkweed visitors.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Celebrating Pollinators of the Gitxan Nation

When I talk about the bees and wasps and butterflies and beetles that pollinate the flowers in my garden and the surrounding meadows, I do so through a lens of western science. But that is only one way of observing the world we live in. So I was very happy to get this book in the mail a few weeks ago, as it reminded me that there are many ways to view the world around us.

The Bee Mother (series: Mothers of Xsan)
By Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson); illus. by Natasha Donovan
32 pages; ages 9-12
HighWater Press, 2024

It’s spring and bumble bee, yellowjacket, and honey bee are finding new homes. Bumble bee (Nox Ap) and yellow jacket because the newly emerged queens must start a new colony. Honey bee because her swarm has left an overcrowded hive.

So begins Hetxw’ms Gyetxw/Brett's picture book about these three different pollinators. Through the lens of Indigenous knowledge carrier, he shows the life cycles of these pollinators through the seasons. He also shows their role in the ecosystem and their connection with humans – sometimes as helper and sometimes (as when the wasps want bits of smoked salmon) as uninvited guests and downright annoying at times.

What I like about this book: I like the way the author integrates his language into the text, from the name of bumble bee to the names of the moons over the changing seasons. These names are explained within the main text. He uses text boxes to highlight facts and define words, such as “worker bees” or “pollinators.” A layer through the book shows how the Gitxan people live through the seasons in harmony with the bees.

There is also back matter: a brief introduction to the Gitxan Nation in the Northwest interior of British Columbia, Canada – and a map of the rivers. Brett also includes a list of the moons through the year, from Stories and Feasting Moon to Getting-used-to-cold moon.

The Bee Mother is the seventh book of the Mothers of Xsan series. Other books include The Raven Mother, The Frog Mother, and The Wolf Mother.  You can find out more about the author and his books at his website, https://thegitxsan.ca/

Thanks for dropping by today. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by Deborah Sloan and Company.


















Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Pollinator Scavenger Hunt

 

It's Pollinator Week so of course we're going to head out to look for some pollinators! How many of these can you find? Have Fun!
  • a bumble bee
  • a beetle on a flower
  • a shiny green bee
  • a fly that looks like a bee or wasp
  • a hummingbird
  • a moth that looks like a hummingbird
  • an ant on a flower
  • a bee with pollen on its body or face
  • a fuzzy fly that looks like a bumble bee
  • a wasp on a flower
  • a butterfly on a flower
  • a fuzzy beetle that looks like a bumble bee

Monday, June 17, 2024

It's Pollinator Week!

 It's Pollinator Week! That means every day I'll have something fun on this blog. Tomorrow and Thursday it's a look at pollinators at work. On Wednesday there's a pollinator scavenger hunt, and on Friday a review of a special book about bees.
 
 Before the Seed: How Pollen Moves
by Susannah Buhrman-Deever; illus. by Gina Triplett & Matt Curtius
40 pages; ages 7-9
‎MIT Kids Press, 2024
 
 If you want to grow a flower - or a tomato - you need to plant a seed. But before you can have a seed, you've got to move pollen. And if you've ever seen a pollen grain, you know they're too tiny to pick up. So how does pollen get moved? By animals. From beetles to bees, from bats to birds and butterflies, pollen is on the move!
 
 

 The Mighty Pollinators
by Helen Frost; photographs by Rick Lieder
32 pages; ages 2-5
Candlewick, 2024

Meet the pollinators through playful poems and stunning photographs. There are bumble bees and honey bees that carry pollen back to their hive, and solitary bees that live alone. There are beautiful photos of flies and butterflies, bats and fireflies, and back matter that explains more about pollen and pollination. Want to observe pollinators in your garden or park? Just find a flower and stand a few feet away and watch. Once you're still, you'll notice the pollinators visiting the blooms. They are busy working, so if you don't bother them they won't bother you.

Want to learn more about these books and the authors? Head over to the GROG blog and check out my interview with Susannah and Helen at the GROG's Fourth Annual Arthropod Roundtable

Friday, June 14, 2024

How to Build a Beak

 
Building a Beak: How a Toucan's Rescue Inspired the World  
by Becca McMurdie; illus. by Diana Hern├índez 
32 pages; ages 4-8
Page Street Kids, 2024  

theme: engineering, birds, kindness

High in the Costa Rican treetops, a toucan named Grecia soared from branch to branch…

She did the regular things toucans do: pick berries, preen her feathers, sing, and tuck her beak next to her wing at night to sleep. Until humans hurt her, breaking her beak. Fortunately some kind-hearted people found her and took her to a place where she could be protected. But a toucan can’t survive without a beak. Enter an engineer with a 3-D printer and people around the world who wanted to help save Grecia.

What I like about this book: I can’t resist a story of kindness overcoming adversity, especially when scientists use the technology they have to try a novel solution. In this case, printing an artificial beak. I love how author Becca McMurdie shows the community of engineers and scientists, bird experts, the rescue center staff, and children came together to help an injured toucan. And I like how illustrator Diana Hernandez included an engineering diagram of the new beak. In back matter, Becca discusses why stories like this are important. Reading and discussing these kinds of stories helps build awareness about the importance of protecting habitats (in this case the rainforest) and the animals that live there, she says.

Becca mentioned that she had gone to Costa Rica for a couple months and learned about Grecia while she was there. So of course I had Questions!

Me: Hi Becca. Can you tell us a bit about what you were doing while in Costa Rica?

Becca: I was working for a charter school network in New York City that allowed all staff members to take a two-month sabbatical after every 10 years of service to the organization. I decided to spend my two months living in a small cabin in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, volunteering at a local school there, going on nature walks daily, and doing lots of writing. Why not!? 

Me: Why not indeed! So how did you learn about Grecia?

Becca: While I was in Monteverde, I went on several bird watching tours. On my first tour, I saw a toucan for the first time. It was perched on top of a branch singing proudly. So beautiful! The guide then told me that a few years prior, there was a toucan in Costa Rica who was injured and lost its beak, but a prosthetic beak was made for it. I was intrigued! He couldn’t remember all of the details, but said that everyone in Costa Rica had heard about it at the time, and had been in the news. I went back to my cabin that night and did an internet search to learn about this toucan with the prosthetic beak. I learned her name was Grecia, that a 3D printer had been used to create the beak, and, even more impressively, that the event sparked a wildlife protection movement that successfully led to legal protection of the rainforest! Many of the articles I read were in Spanish, from local Costa Rican news sources. I found out that the name of the rescue center that saved Grecia was Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center. It was about three hours from where I was staying. Bravely, and humbly, I emailed them to tell them how I had learned of Grecia, and that I wrote children’s books (albeit no published books and no agent, at the time) and that I would love to speak with someone on the rescue team, either via email, Zoom or in-person, if they’d be interested and open to that. To my delight, they replied with enthusiasm and invited me to visit! 

Me: I have to know more about your visit to the rescue center to meet Grecia and their caretakers and scientists.

Becca: During my visit I was escorted by one of the veterinary technicians on Grecia’s team, and met several other caretakers and scientists as well. I got a behind-the-scenes tour of their emergency animal rescue department. I could look into the enclosures through one-way viewing glass. It’s important to minimize the animals’ contact with humans, so they maintain their natural instincts and be returned to the wild after they are rehabilitated. I saw lots of baby monkeys, a few grown-up monkeys, sloths, many beautiful birds and even an ocelot. Some of the animals had been hit by cars or injured on power lines. As one of the largest rescue centers in the country, Rescate receives several new injured or orphaned animals every single day, arriving from all around Costa Rica. Many of them require weeks, if not months, of care before they can be released. Animals that cannot be released, either because their injuries will require long-term treatment or because they no longer have natural instincts needed to survive in the wild, remain in the center’s lifetime animal sanctuary, which is open to the public. That’s where Grecia lived after she received her new beak. Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Grecia. She passed away of natural causes just a month before my visit. (She did live a full life-span, comparable to those of most wild toucans.) Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center is truly an amazing place. You can learn more about them at www.rescatewildlife.org. I donate a portion of the proceeds of Building a Beak, to the organization. 

Beyond the Books:
By Bernard Dupont - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Read about Grecia here at NPR

Make a paper plate toucan. Here's how.

Becca is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website,

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the author.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Roadside Perfume

  While walking along the road last week I poked my nose in the posies in hopes of spying pollinators. Instead, I was treated to a delightful scent.

 
I never realized just how sweet Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) flowers smelled. That's probably because I think of them as "those wild and weedy invasive mustards..." Which they are. Wild. Weedy. Mustards. Invasive. They originally come from Eurasia, and were brought to this continent in the 1600s as an ornamental for gardens.

 Like its cousin, garlic mustard, Dame's Rocket is aggressive. A single plant can produce 20,000 seeds - if you gathered every single seed it would take you just under 6 hours to count them all. 

Lots of folks call this flower a wild phlox. But put the two side-by-side and you can see they aren't even related. Phlox have five petals; Dame's rocket has four. Phlox leaves are smooth, Dame's rocket are rough and tooth-edged.

Both have fragrant flowers that attract bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. And both provide essential oils used in perfume. 

What do the flowers in your neighborhood smell like?


Friday, June 7, 2024

Science, Bias, and Measuring our World


Thomas Jefferson’s Battle for Science: Bias, Truth, and a Mighty Moose! 
by Beth Anderson; illus. by Jeremy Holmes 
48 pages; ages 7-10
‎Calkins Creek, 2024

theme: science, history, biography

Young Thomas Jefferson measured his world … animals and plants, mountains and streams, weather and crops. He recorded sizes and shapes, temperatures and times, distances and speeds (even his own). 

Science was certain, peaceful, measurable. Or so Jefferson believed. But when a French scientist wrote about the animals of America – saying the land was swampy and cold, the bears were smaller, the wolves downright puny – Jefferson got furious. He would show that buffoon! 

Jefferson is certain that America has ferocious and grand animals, such as Moose. So after the revolution, Jefferson declared a war of his own. A war against faulty facts. He would use science to fight this war. He would prove that American animals were large and magnificent - even if he had to mail a Moose to France to do so!

What I like love about this book: I love the endpapers – they are filled with life-sized tracks of North American birds and mammals. I love how Jeremy Holmes captured the feeling of science at the turn of the 19th century in his illustrations: identification tags and labels laid out on graph paper; documents tacked to wooden walls… even the color palette feels old-fashioned.

Then there is the language – it is downright fun. I love how Beth Anderson shows Jefferson’s reaction to the French critic: Hogwash! Absurd! Outrageous! I love how she shows Jefferson’s skepticism: where did Buffon get his information if he’d never been to America? (This, dear readers, is the sort of skepticism we need to nurture today! Just sayin’) And I love the back matter. In the author’s note, Beth dives deeper into Thomas Jefferson’s love of science and dissects the problems with mistruths. She reminds us that “scientific truth is always changing and growing” and asks readers to continue to fight against biases and untruth in scientific thinking, as Thomas Jefferson fought against Buffon’s  mistruths.

And that was when I knew I just had to ask Beth A Few Questions:

Me:  Why did you want to write this book? I feel there is an underlying lesson in it 

Beth: The more I dug into Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with science and this event, the more connections I found to today and for kids. So many important ideas and issues to ponder! It’s more important than ever that we raise critical thinkers. Truth matters. It’s vital for us all to examine our sources for bias and misinformation. Jefferson and Count Buffon both eventually admitted they were wrong when presented with evidence. While the story deals with a theory about animals and simple concepts like bigger isn’t necessarily better and different doesn’t mean inferior, I’m hoping that kids will be able to take the understanding gained from this to more crucial applications as mentioned in the back matter that result in really dangerous and damaging patterns of thinking. I also loved that Jefferson’s efforts to disprove Buffon’s theory fit the scientific inquiry process that kids use today. The past connects to today in so many ways! 

Me: What faulty facts are we fighting today?

Beth: We have all kinds out there—all that was being passed around during Covid is just one area where faulty facts piled up. Unfortunately many areas have become politicized and polarizing which makes it hard for us to examine issues intelligently, admit if we’re wrong, and recognize reality. Faulty facts have invaded medicine, history, democracy, environmental science, and more. We are in an age when it is becoming ever more difficult to sort truth from non-truth. We are deluged with information from legitimate as well as dubious sources, and now the emergence of AI makes this all even harder. As I said, it’s so important that we raise kids to think and question in constructive ways. Though the illustrations of Jefferson and Buffon’s dinner debate show Jefferson’s inner turmoil, historical sources describe him as respectful and polite despite Buffon’s condescending attitude. Buffon was one of Jefferson’s scientific heroes. Imagine how disappointing that was and how hard it was for Jefferson to dispute Buffon’s information. It’s clear that they both had to let go of their emotional attachment to what they WANTED to be true. 

Me: What can we do to help our children become scientifically literate?

Beth: We are really fortunate to have such a fantastic array of children’s books about science these days. I think wide exposure to gain knowledge and nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world is where scientific literacy starts. Then we provide opportunities to practice experimentation and investigation, collect and analyze data, and model critical thinking. An important piece of this is that scientific truth evolves as our understanding grows. Science is really quite irresistible! With the love of it, comes the literacy.

Beyond the Books:

Measure your world. What do you measure, and what tools do you use to do the measuring? Record your measurements and share them with others.

What are the largest (and possibly most majestic) animals that live near you? Use the process of scientific inquiry to support your thinking.  

What kinds of animal tracks can you find in the wild places near your home? (perhaps a park or local wooded area). You can find a handy field guide to animal tracks from Maine Fish and Wildlife at 

Beth is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website.

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ A Rose by Any Other Name ...

 What do you notice about the flowers below? Look at each of them and jot down what you observe.

 
From the top left, going clockwise they are bird cherry, amelanchier, strawberry, and apple. You might have noticed they have five petals and a lot of stamens in the center. And that might have led you to wonder whether they are related. Yes, they are. All of these belong to the rose family, Rosaceae. It's a big family and, in addition to roses, includes amelanchier, apples, pears, apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and almonds. And those are just the familiar fruits and berries (and nuts) that we eat.

You might also wonder whether all flowers in the rose family are white. Most are white to pink, but there are some brambles with fuchsia petals, and cinquefoil flowers with yellow petals, flowering crab apple with bright pink and roses in all colors.

This week, go on a "rose-hunting" field trip. 
Look for flowers that might be related to roses. You might find strawberry flowers in your lawn, apple and cherry blossoms on trees at a park, and cinquefoil along the roadside.