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Outdoor Hour Challenge: Muskrat Nature Study

This week’s nature study topic is the muskrat. Muskrats get their common name from the musk or fragrance they emit to attract a mate and to mark a territory. This is just one of the interesting facts about this mammal that you can learn from your study of the muskrat. Use the links below to get started and learn alongside your child.

Outdoor Hour Challenge Muskrats

  • Research the muskrat in a field guide or a book you find at your local library.  Here’s an online resource for this challenge: Common Muskrat.  This one is also very informative: Common Muskrat.


Alternate study this week

You may choose to complete a related study learning more about:

Outdoor Hour Challenge – Beaver

Outdoor Hour Challenge – Mouse (More Nature Study Summer Ebook)

Outdoor Hour Challenge – Rat

See the Creepy things ebook for more muskrat nature study ideas, videos, and printables!

Please note that I will not be posting the complete challenge here on the blog. You’ll find the detailed challenge in the Creepy Things ebook that’s available both in the Ultimate Naturalist and Journey level memberships. Sign into your account and download the ebook for the details, more links, and notebook pages.

Creepy Thing Ebook Cover image

If you don’t have a membership yet, click the graphic above and join today for immediate access to the 26 ebooks and so much more! Remember that all levels, even the Discovery level membership, include access to all of the archived newsletters!

Topics in this ebook include:

  • Banana slug
  • Tarantula
  • Black widow
  • Scorpion
  • Leech
  • Muskrat
  • Sphinx moth
  • Cicada
  • Millipede
  • Poison oak


Join Us Ultimate Naturalist June 2020

Use the discount code SUMMERNATURE  for $10 off an Ultimate Naturalist Library membership.

Code expires 8/1/2020.



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Outdoor Hour Challenge – Chipmunks Revisited

Outdoor Hour Challenge Chipmunk Study @handbookofnaturestudy

Outdoor Hour Challenge

Chipmunk Study and the More Nature Study ebook.

This is an active time of year for chipmunks (and squirrels) as they busy themselves getting ready for the up-coming winter season. On our most recent hikes we have seen them scurrying around on the forest floor and crossing our trail as they gather a storehouse of food. Sometimes, they try to gather OUR food!

Use the ideas in this week’s archive post by clicking the link above for more details.

You also may wish to read our entry: Chipmunks or Squirrels? – Our Study Using the Outdoor Hour Challenge.


There is also a free printable Rodent Study notebooking page in this entry: Squirrel or Other Rodent.

Note: You do not need to purchase the ebooks to participate but they are handy to have for planning and for the regular and advanced notebook pages included in each one. Click the graphic at the bottom of this post to go over to check out the Ultimate Naturalist Library membership. If you would like to see a sample of this ebook, you can download a sample here: More Nature Study Autumn Sample.

Ultimate Ebook Library @handbookofnaturestudyUse the discount code NATURE5 for $5 off an Ultimate Naturalist Membership!








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Looking For Signs of a Squirrel – Our Rodent Nature Study

Squirrel nature study happens quite frequently at our house. We tend to have squirrels that are not shy about making themselves at home in our birdfeeders and in our trees, especially the walnut tree. I knew we had a squirrel challenge to complete this month so I have been waiting for one to come along to observe. Wouldn’t you know it? We could hear them chattering up in the tree a few times over the past few weeks but we have not actually seen our resident squirrels.

Our Outdoor Time
Kona and I completed this squirrel challenge on our own today…it was a drizzly, gray day. Kona is the squirrel hunter in our family and she will chase them along the fence line and watch them from the base of the tree. She loves a good squirrel chase. Today though there was no squirrel around.

We made use of our time by trying to find some signs of squirrels. We found quite a few walnut shells which are dead giveaway. We looked up in the tree but we couldn’t see any squirrels up there. We made our way around to the side of the house and the birdfeeder where the squirrels sometimes sit and munch on seeds. No squirrels today.

We then went around the side of the house and we saw some tracks in the mud. I think they are cat tracks.

One last tree to check out…nope, no squirrels today.

Well, we didn’t see a squirrel to observe but we ended up really enjoying our time outside. I gathered a colorful leaf bouquet, watched a flock of finches in the feeder (post to come), and we got some fresh air before it really started to rain. Successful….yes!

I did pull out the field guide and look up squirrels and read through the pages. Mr. B and I will be keeping our eyes out for squirrels as the month goes by and once the leaves are all down for the season I know we will be able to see more clearly when we hear the squirrels chattering.

Don’t forget you can study any rodent this month and there is a free printable notebook page for you to use with your Handbook
of Nature Study.Rodents included in the Handbook of Nature Study are the muskrat, house mouse, woodchuck, red squirrel, and the chipmunk.

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Chipmunks or Squirrels? Our Study Using the Outdoor Hour Challenge

When you spend as much time outdoors as our family does, you eventually come across squirrels and chipmunks. Squirrels are an everyday occurrence in our yard but we do not see chipmunks at all. Chipmunks sometimes find us when we are out hiking, always when you stop to eat a picnic at Yosemite. I think the Chipmunk study as part of the More Nature Study series of Outdoor Hour Challenges will be one that is on-going since we were unable this week to observe any up close.

This past summer we had an experience where we thought we had seen chipmunks but turns out they too were squirrels.

Golden-manteled Ground Squirrel 2

This little rodent was very curious about us as we sat on the granite rock taking a rest after a long hot hike. He was not afraid of us in the least bit, begging a bite of our granola bars. We know better than to feed wild animals but he didn’t understand that people food is not good for him and insisted that he investigate our pack from the inside out.

Golden-manteled Ground Squirrel 4

We thought he was a chipmunk because of the stripes but when we got home and pulled up the field guide we realized he was a Golden-mantled ground squirrel. Our book says he is “medium sized” but we thought he was rather small compared to our other squirrels that we observe in our backyard, the Western gray squirrel and the Fox squirrel.

Golden-manteled Ground Squirrel

So how can we tell in the future that what we see IS a chipmunk? They have stripes on their head and our little ground squirrel does not.

Interesting facts:

  • Traditional hibernator- subject of much research on hibernation.
  • Eats leaves and seeds of grasses, occasionally eats nuts, roots, bulbs, and other underground plant parts.
  • Lives in the coniferous forest at elevations of 5,200 to 12,500 feet.
  • It is prey for hawks, jays, foxes, bobcats, and coyote.
  • Has cheek pouches for carrying food.
  • Digs shallow burrows (up to 100 feet) with hidden openings.
  • Cleans itself by rolling in the dirt.

Since we don’t have chipmunks in our neighborhood but we know we see them all the time when we are at Yosemite. Sounds like a good reason to take the drive soon!

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OHC More Nature Study #6 Chipmunks

“While the chipmunk is a good runner and jumper, it is not so able a climber as is the red squirrel, and it naturally stays nearer the ground.”
Handbook of Nature Study page 239

OHC More Nature Study #6

Inside Preparation Work:

Chipmunk illustration
Golden Treasury of Natural History from 1952

Outdoor Hour Time:

  • Go on a chipmunk hunt! Spend a few minutes of your Outdoor Hour time for this challenge looking for chipmunks. Chipmunks and squirrels are diurnal, or active during the day.
  • If you observe a squirrel instead of a chipmunk, make some observations and comparisons. Compare color, stripes, tail, and behavior.
Squirrel illustration
Golden Treasury of Natural History from 1952 – love the expression

Follow-Up Activity:

  • Give the opportunity for discussion and follow-up to your chipmunk hunt. Complete a notebook page (ebook users), a nature journal page, and/or the coloring page (ebook users only) for you nature journal.
  • Advanced Follow-Up: Compare a chipmunk and a squirrel by careful observation. Subjects can include: stripes, tails, behavior, diet, size, voice.
  • Advanced Follow-Up: Research and record in your nature journal about the method the chipmunk uses for building his home. There is a notebook page in the ebook to record your study.

Additional Links:
Chipmunk Lapbook and Unit Study on
For Advanced Study: Chipmunks.

More Nature Study Autumn

This challenge is part of the More Nature Study – Autumn series. All of the challenges are gathered into one ebook with notebooking pages (regular and for advanced students) and additional resources. You can gain access to this ebook by purchasing an Ultimate Naturalist membership here on the Handbook of Nature Study. See the Join Us page by clicking the link at the top of the website for more information about what comes with your Ultimate membership.

Ultimate Ebook Library @handbookofnaturestudy



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Our Family OHC: Pine Cones and More About Pines

Pine Cone 11 22 10
Photo by Mr. A

Our study of pine cones started way back when I was writing the Autumn Series ebook. We gathered a few pine cones to use in the experiments suggested. We had fun soaking the cones in a bucket of water and then setting them in the sun to observe them as they dried and opened up again. Simple things sometimes make the deepest impressions and honestly, none of us had really put all the pieces together until doing the experiments. I know I took photos but they are lost somewhere on my hard drive. Could that be a sign of taking too many photos? I bet a lot of you can relate to my desire to document as much as I can about our world and that leads to lots of images to save and enjoy.

Our unofficial theme as we worked through this study became something like this:
Pine cones don’t just hold still, they are a living thing created for a specific purpose.

What else pushed this pine cone study up another notch?

We have had sort of an on-going study of the female and male cones of the pines in our area.

We studied pine cones back in February of 2008 as part of the Winter Wednesday studies: Cones and a Woodpecker. We also studied pines as part of the Winter Series back in February 2010. This time though we are really trying to concentrate on the cones.

We extended our study of female and male cones.

pine growth
Male cones with the pollen.

This is the photo that sort of started it all so long ago. We wondered if these were “baby pine cones”. Well, it turns out they are not and only after completing a study of what gymnosperms are in our biology study did things start to fall into place. There are male and female cones on the tree. Females are usually at the top and males at the bottom. The males have the pollen that is wind driven up to meet up with the female cones.  How about a simple video that even I can understand? Here you go!

Pine Cones on

Next we wondered why the female cones are sticky and then we guessed it had to do something with capturing the pollen…but that is whole other subject.

Squirrel 11 22 10
This guy wanted to be included in our pine cone study this week. He was so very happy that I put out some extra walnuts for him when I was filling the birdfeeders and he climbed up the tree to look in the living room window at us.

“Thanks a lot”, he said as he swished his big fluffy tail and then dropped to the ground and off to eat some more.

There were also some bird friends that made an appearance but I will save those for another post.

There is always something to learn about in our world and these challenges have helped us focus on things that we never dream of making into a complete study all on their own. I love it.

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Of Mice and Snow

3 31 10 snow trees

Last night my boys were going down after dark to put our cats in their basement room for the night. They have to walk right past our bird feeder along the way and this night they saw some kind of creature inside the feeder eating.

They ran back up and had me go outside to see and by the time I got out there the creature was climbing up the supporting rope and up into the tree. I got just a glimpse and I actually saw two critters climbing up. The boys were sure it was something like a possum or rat but I didn’t think so from what I had seen.

We pulled out our mammal field guide and started paging through. What was the tail like? How was the head shaped? How big was it? What color was it? We went through all the pages and decided it had to be some kind of rodent.

I crept back to the door with the flashlight and quietly tiptoed out to the deck rail. I flipped on the switch and there in the feeder were the biggest mice I have ever seen. They looked straight at me a few seconds and then made a leap from the feeder to the tree, out onto a branch, and then hopped over to another tree and out of sight.

As long as they stay outdoors I can live with a few mice in my feeders.

3 31 10 tulips in the snow
This morning we woke up to snow on the ground and more coming down as daylight broke. I was so glad that I had gone out yesterday and cut a lot of my tulips and daffodils to bring inside. The ones left outdoors look so sad.

dog print in the snow
Our dog thinks this is perfect weather to be outdoors. It brings out the Labrador in her.

We are off to enjoy our very snowy day….I think hot cocoa is in order since this will more than likely be the last of our snow for the season.

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Squirrel Study: Sad Story of Our Walnuts

Pile of Walnuts

We have a beautiful walnut tree in our backyard and it has always given us an abundance of nuts each autumn. The photo shown here is from a few years ago and shows part of our walnut harvest. Around this time of year, we are usually gathering oodles of nuts to dry and crack to eat and save for our baking.

Not this year.

Grey squirrels came and ate every last nut in our crop. Climbing into the tree, they would pick the nuts wrapped in their green outer coats, strip the casings off, and then proceed to crack the shells to get to the meat.

Piles and piles of shells and green casings dropped to the ground, littering the sidewalk and garden below. I thought surely they couldn’t eat them all, but they did.

I have mixed feelings about the whole situation. On one hand, I love having the furry little guys in my yard and away from my birdfeeders. On the other hand, I would have liked to have had a few nuts in my pantry for cookies and muffins and salads. This autumn will be known as the year with no nuts.

Our front yard also has a squirrel that visits quite frequently. It is a different variety of squirrel and he is FAST.
Squirrel in the tuliptree 2
(I shared this photo a few weeks ago during our tree study…we think it is a Fox Squirrel.)

Fox Squirrel on the front wall

He is busy eating the seeds from the tulip tree.

Squirrel on the front wall 2
Look at those feet! No wonder they can climb and jump like they do!

He nibbles and then scurries off down the street, as if he has a regular route he takes to dine at various spots in the neighborhood.

Squirrel on the front wall 1
He is fun to watch as he bounds down the street and up onto the neighbor’s narrow fence top. My son, who does a lot of his schoolwork in the living room at the table by the window, calls my attention to our resident squirrel all the time. We are getting to know him quite well this year.

The other day as I was driving down a fairly busy street in town, a squirrel decided to run out in front of me. I know from experience that they usually dart out of the way at the last minute and I try not to get too excited. This one seemed to look me in the eye as he sat in my lane of traffic, a crazy game of chicken. Starting to move, he zigged and zagged a little in front of me and stood still again as I got closer. I slowed a bit and started coaching him to “Get out of the way!” At the last possible moment, he ran off to the side of the road and quickly up a tree. Why do they do that?

For the most part, we enjoy our neighborhood squirrels and find a great deal of entertainment value in this rodent. Our favorite squirrel actually walks the telephone line at a busy intersection in town. We see him probably once a week doing his tight-rope act, defying gravity and giving us something to be in awe about with this little one of God’s creation.

Here is our link to our previous squirrel study if you would like to read that one:
Squirrel Study

Watch this video to see another common squirrel in our area…the California Ground Squirrel. This video was taken last spring on a hike we took not too far from our home.

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Foggy Day Walk: Our Groundhog Study Week

The Outdoor Hour Challenge this week was to learn about groundhogs/woodchucks, prairie dogs, and marmots.

Since we do not have groundhogs, prairie dogs, or marmots in our area, we just enjoyed reading the information from the Handbook of Nature Study, the Burgess Animal Book, and watching the videos.

After that we needed to take our outdoor time.

We didn’t feel much like going for a walk but once we were on the trail….it was refreshing and it felt good to stretch our legs. The fog was drifting in and out of the trees as we walked and there was a squirrel chattering at us from high up in the trees.

The boys remembered that we had seen a prairie dog at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum and I pulled up the photos to remind us a little more.

Wow, I totally forgot that we saw prairie dogs when we were in Arizona. (We saw so many interesting things at this museum that it isn’t any wonder that I forgot.)

I thought the prairie dog was posing for us because he looked right at us as I snapped the photo. He was rather cute for a rodent. Click on the photo and then tell me….is he posing or not? That is his hole right there between us and it was really big.

Okay, back to our walk.

On our foggy day walk, we started to notice more and more muddy trails off the main trail. We are assuming these are made by animals since this area does not get many visitors this time of year….or any time of the year for that matter. This particular trail heads down into another gully and I can hear in the distance the faint sound of water so I think there must be a creek. One of these days I will convince someone to go exploring with me down one of these trails. The photo looks crooked but it really is a very steep little gully and I imagine in the spring this will not be as noticeable as the trees put back on their leaves.

After completing a little more research, we found that there are marmots in the Sierras and in Yosemite National Park. I have never seen one there but now you know that it will be a goal to see one. 🙂

This was a great challenge for us and we learned a lot about these mammals. This challenge also encouraged us to get out on a day that we would have probably not ventured out as a family and that is the best part of the whole thing.

Autumn 2010 Nature Study cover

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Signs of a Squirrel: Our Outdoor Hour Challenge #45

Today ended up with a nature study of squirrels at my dad’s house. We had gone over to visit him this afternoon and somehow it was mentioned that we were studying squirrels this week. His eyes lit up and he took us out for a little walk on the backside of his property. He has been up there cutting wood and he had something to share with us.

This is what he wanted us to see up on the hill next to his woodpile. There was a whole area that was piled high with shredded pinecones. All of the reddish material that you see in this photo is the remnants of a squirrel feast. The squirrels have been very busy eating up in the trees and letting the litter fall to the ground in great heaps.

Here in the center, probably easier to see if you click the photo, are some of the many, many pinecones stripped of their tasty seeds.

Here is a closer shot of another cone.
Can you believe how big this pile is? They are busy squirrels.

Here one of the seeds from the cone after the squirrel has finished with it.

Now for a few more mammal signs from our walk.

We also saw these “signs” from some mule deer that live in this area. Just last week we saw seven deer walking down to my dad’s pond late in the afternoon. They seemed not to care that we were watching in awe of their beauty.

Then right down the hill from where we were, we saw these tell-tale signs of a busy gopher. You could not walk easily on this slope because the ground was just full of holes and tunnels.

Here is another view of one of the holes. My dad was thinking about making a new garden in this area but I told him he better think twice….deer and gophers don’t mix very well with a vegetable garden. Even though it is a perfect spot for growing with lots of sunlight, he would need to fence it like his other garden area….a very tall fence.

What a great way to study squirrels. My dad thinks of his property as a sort of nature study laboratory for our family. He will call us over if he sees something interesting and I love that about him. My dad and I did not spend much time together when I was a child because he was always working but now that he is retired, he and I share our love of all things that have to do with the great outdoors. He has not always been a fan of homeschooling but I think he now has changed his mind and is eager to help us out with our nature study.

More Nature Study Book 2 Winter Wonder cover