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Black Birds: Our Family Outdoor Hour Challenge

We have had our eyes out for black birds of all kinds. We have a short list of black birds that we observed for this week’s bird challenge:
American crow
Red-winged blackbirds
Turkey vultures
Brewer’s blackbirds

The most abundant black bird we observed for this challenge was the Brewer’s blackbird.

Our field guide says that it has a “distinctive yellow eye”. It is very easy to identify.


Here is a short video of a red-winged blackbird eating some sort of seeds washed up alongside the river. You do hear him at the end of the video.

We all decided that the turkey vulture, although it is as ugly as can be, is the best flier of the bunch. They soar and soar and soar on a good day. We often see groups of six or eight turkey vultures all gliding and soaring over our house.

Crows and ravens are the noisiest bunch of the black birds we observed. You always hear them coming before you see them. My son observed that they are also the most obviously useful birds of the bunch. When we were at Yosemite last week we saw a pair of ravens cleaning up a dead squirrel off the road….gross but useful.

Our favorite black bird we learned about this week was certainly the red-winged blackbird. We had the opportunity to see quite a few and it has quickly become a favorite bird because of its flash of red as it flies. Now that we can identify its call, we hear him more often as we hike in different areas.

We realized during our hiking adventures last week that birdsong usually fills the air as we go along. If you stop and listen, you will usually hear some sort of bird singing you a tune. We had an especially happy bird on this day.


We made a joint journal entry later back at Curry Village. Someone forget to bring the boys’ nature journals…oops. I started the entry with the Steller’s jay and Mr. B sketched the ground squirrel after that. I was trying my best to notice with each bird the color and shape of their eye. The Steller’s jay has a very black eye and beak.

So that was our black birds challenge this week. We will continue to look for starlings since they do come to our yard on occasion.

Great bird week for our family.


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Yosemite Research Trip: Waterfalls, Dogwood, and Birds

We had a family trip planned for the last few days to Yosemite National Park. A wildfire in Santa Barbara came along and changed our plans. Instead of the four of us going, three of us headed to Yosemite and one went to the coast to fight fire. This is the way fire season goes in our house….be flexible and make the most of it.

Yosemite at this time of year is all about the waterfalls. Big waterfalls. It seems as if the walls sprout water. Bridalveil, Yosemite, Ribbon, Staircase, Vernal, Nevada, and Illillouette are all going strong! The sound of water is everywhere and it gurgles and bubbles along just about every hiking trail.

Another outstanding feature of spring in Yosemite is the blooming of the dogwood. It fills the forest with its beautiful white blooms.

We had a lot of adventures in three days. One morning we got up early and jumped on our bikes and were off to watch the sunrise over Half Dome.

It was a beautiful experience and if you could hear the soundtrack in the background of this photo….you would hear birdsong and water running high in the creek from Mirror Lake down to the river.

Although getting up early wasn’t necessarily their favorite idea, the boys were great once we got off on our adventure. It helped that there were quite a few other people up on the trail already as well. Most of them had big camera outfits with tripods but since we were on bikes and I don’t own any fancy camera equipment, I was happy just to be there and capture a few good photos with my point and shoot.

Here is a photo of Mirror Lake….it’s not hard to figure out how they came up with the name. 🙂

This is not your traditional birdwatching pose but it works. We also did some water observations as we sat here early in the morning. We saw some sort of larval insect in the water wiggling around and there were mosquitoes and some other winged creatures as well.

Later that morning our bike ride took us by this view. I think I took about a hundred photos of Yosemite Falls on this trip, from every angle possible. The sound of it is just incredible as it thunders over the rocks.

Oh, we did see two bear cubs at two separate locations…no mama bear but we figured she was probably close by. We just keep on going about our business and the cubs would scamper off into the woods.

Another day found us hiking in the Tuolumne Grove of giant sequoias. I have given up trying to get an entire sequoia into a photo. This is a great hike if you have an afternoon to spend under the big trees. I am working on a Squidoo lens describing some easy day hikes for families. This hike will be in it for sure.

Our last big hike of the trip was on the Panorama Trail. The road to Glacier Point was open which was a surprise so we took advantage of the afternoon to hike down towards Illilouette Falls. The view of Half Dome and Nevada Falls from this trail is breathtaking. We decided to sit on a downed tree and just take in the splendor of the moment. The photo above was our view.

We also did a little birding as we hiked on this gorgeous afternoon. There was a bird singing a beautiful song as we hiked. We spotted him and we think he was a Hermit Thrush.

Okay, so I have spent a lot of time out in the wilderness over the years but this hike gave me something to ponder over. We heard a sound. Not quite sure how to describe it. At first it sounded like drums….sort of like tribal drums…..thump, thump, thump. But not quite like a drum….it was more of a vibration. The boys thought it sounded more like when you blow air over the top of a bottle and it makes that vibrating sort of sound. We went through a list of animals it could have been but nothing seemed right. We thought about wind blowing in or over something but it was not quite what we heard either. It was not a steady sound but would come and go but always in a series of three….thrummm, thrumm, thrumm. We heard it on the same section of trail both going out and then coming back. It was sort of eerie.

EDIT TO ADD: Shannon suggested a grouse and I did a little research. Turns out there are several kinds of grouse in Yosemite. I listened to the call on All About Birds and it is very similar to what we heard. Here is a link:
Dusky Grouse
Doing a little more research it turns out that it probably was a Sooty grouse. The Blue grouse was split into two species: dusky and sooty. I found a list of Yosemite birds and it lists the Sooty grouse. No way to know for sure without having seen it but it sure sounds like what we heard on our hike. 🙂

The habitat is right on. Here is what WhatBird says, “Preferred habitats include burned areas, montane forests, slashes, and subalpine forest clearings.” We were in a burned area with lots of downed trees and it was a subalpine habitat. Bingo!

So many adventures, so little blog space. 🙂

I may be home from Yosemite but it is a place that never leaves my heart.

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Milkweed Pods and Seeds: Outdoor Hour Challenge #30

We took some time to observe and learn about milkweed seeds as part of this challenge.

“The milkweed pod has been the admiration of nature students from the beginning, and surely there are few plants structures that so interest the child as this house in which the milkweed carries its seeds.”
Milkweed pods opening
“No sooner is our treasure open to the air than the shining silk begins to separate into floss of fairy texture.”

“…and altogether there are enough of the threads to float the seed, a balloon of the safest sort.”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 493

The Handbook of Nature Study has a complete section of information and observation suggestions on pages 491-495.

We are going to plant some milkweed in our butterfly garden this year. I ordered the seeds from this website. We did not gather the milkweed seeds that are in the photos since we were at Yosemite National Park and it is against the law to gather seeds in a national park. 🙂

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Everyone Has Their Own Style-Nature Journals

This is how your own personality comes out in your nature journal.

My daughter and I each were sitting on a rock and looking pretty much at the same scene below Yosemite Falls. How could our perceptions have been so different?

It is just so interesting to me that we could each focus on something different…..I focused on Half Dome and she focused on the lovely stream of water and rocks.

I just thought you might be interested to see how there is no “right” answer when you are nature journaling.

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Yosemite Birds: Photos and Notebook Page

Lest you think that all I took photos of on my Yosemite trip were wildflowers, here are some bird photos. You will also note that these are not my typical “pretty” photos….birds are hard to photograph and they just don’t come close enough for my little camera.

I love to watch for birds in the early morning. The meadow near our campsite was a perfect birding site and I was up early each morning to see what I could find. The first photo is of a white-headed woodpecker and the second photo is a brown creeper.

These are both new birds to add to my life list of birds seen and identified. That is always exciting.

There is a section in the Handbook of Nature Study on different woodpeckers on pages 70-77. You might enjoy reading about the woodpecker in preparation of your next encounter.

Something else interesting is that I found a feather from a Steller’s jayand when I compared it to my Scrub jay feather that is already in my collection, I found out how different the feathers are colored. Both birds are very similar in color and shape but the patterns of color are very different. Here you can see it clearly. The Scrub Jay is on the left and the Steller’s Jay is on the right. There is a section in the Handbook of Nature Study specifically on bird feathers starting on page 29. We found it very interesting to read about the various purposes of feathers and the various kinds of feathers.

Here is a scan of one of my bird nature journal pages that I made during our trip. Nothing fancy but still a really good reminder in my nature journal of the day we saw this woodpecker. You can find the notebook page on my Freebies page.

Hope you enjoyed a little bird stuff today. I still have insects to share and a really big entry with wildflowers. I am trying to decide whether to make a slideshow of the flowers or just share a few of the over forty flowers I took photos of.

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Moths of All Sorts-Outdoor Hour Challenge #23

This week’s challenge was to focus on insects and moths in particular. We were able to see lots of moths close-up this week when we were camping. Once you turn on the lantern and set it on the table, watch out! Moths come a flying!

Here are some of the many moths we observed during the week. We were able to get good photos by turning on two lanterns and using one to attract the moths and one to light the moth for the photo. I did not use the flash on the camera.

I don’t think this one is a moth but some other sort of insect that is attracted to the light.

The next set of photos is from the back porch. I turned on the porch light and a little while later, we had plenty of insects that were sitting on the wall near the light. We were able to get good photos by shining a flashlight on the insect and then turning the flash off on the camera to take each one close-up.

Edit: Roberta says this is an adult cabbage looper. I think it looks right to me. 🙂 Thanks Roberta.

This looks more like a green lacewing than a moth but it was sure attracted to the light.

I have not taken the time to try to identify all these insects. I have a really hard time with that part of insect nature study. I spend hours and hours pouring through the field guides and rarely do I find what I am looking for. Insects are really hard to identify but we will persevere and try to update this entry as we find the names for these critters.

My son is going to help me identify the insects and make his journal entry on one of the moths we identify. He prefers to use a spiral bound sketchbook for his nature journal instead of notebooking pages.

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Beautiful Butterflies and Some Nature Journal Ideas

We were on the lookout for butterflies on our recent camping trip to Yosemite. Many were too fast or would not sit still long enough for a photo but here are a few that I can share. All these were butterflies that I saw as we went on various hikes in a variety of terrain and habitat. My daughter decided that she would rather take photos of flowers than insects because flowers stay in one place.

We did see some Monarchs fluttering and flying around the milkweed but there was never a chance to photograph one, maybe next time. 🙂

We are continuing our study for Outdoor Hour Challenge #22 for Butterflies.

Showy Milkweed in Stoneman’s Meadow, Yosemite Valley.

We know this is some sort of Fritillary but which exact one, we are not so confident. If I had to make a best guess, I think it is a Pacific Fritillary or a Western Meadow Fritillary.

Okay, there are two butterflies in this photo. It was taken in a marshy meadow area near Lukens Lake. There is one distinctly blue and one distinctly brown butterfly but I have no idea what particular ones they are even after examining the field guide for a long time. I’m not very good at identifying butterflies….yet.

Here is another blue butterfly sitting on some bird droppings. My best guess on this one is a Lupine Blue.

Now this one I think is a Woodland Skipper. I know it is a skipper for sure and it looks just like the one in my field guide.

You can see why I was able to take some good photos of these beauties, they were otherwise occupied with more important activities at that particular moment. I still haven’t been able to identify this particular butterfly. Any ideas???

Here is one of my nature journal pages that I used to record one of my experiences with butterflies. I was testing out the free notebooking pages for an upcoming Outdoor Hour Challenge E-book that we are putting together to share with everyone. This page shows my attempt to record a bit about our butterfly study this past week.

Someone was asking recently about how I keep a running list in my nature journal. This is so easy to do and it doesn’t need to be fancy. Tina has created an easy to use version of a running list that will also be in the upcoming E-book.

As you can see, I really just list the butterfly name if I know it and the date and place that I observed it. If I am not sure, I make a note and then use my photographs to identify it later when I have time to use the field guide and the internet.

So those are some of the butterflies that I was able to capture with my camera. We saw many, many Tiger swallowtails and a particular yellow butterfly that we have yet to identify. I look at this project as a life-long endeavor and if I don’t catch the butterfly this time, maybe I will the next time.

Edit to add: Heather asked about my nature journal and how I plan on using the notebooking pages if I am using a spiral bound sketch diary as my nature journal. I made a decision to change to a bigger size nature journal, still spiral bound since I find that easiest to work in. I only have three pages left in my smaller spiral bound nature journal so I will be starting over in a 9″ by 12″ spiral bound artist’s sketchbook that I purchased from Miller Pads and Paper. I will be attaching the pages into the sketchbook with double-backed tape; running lists will be in the back and the other sheets will go in order starting in the front. This will give me the flexibility to use the notebooking pages or to just freehand my entries in as I feel the need. I love to have options. This sketchbooks use heavy enough paper that I feel comfortable using watercolors in them as well as pencils and markers. Hope that explains it!

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Watching New Ferns Unfolding: Yosemite

This past weekend we took a hike at Yosemite National Park. The ferns were all coming to life and unrolling their new growth. I found the soft greens a delight for the eyes.

“All of the parts of the frond of a fern are tightly folded spirally within the bud and every fold of every leaflet is also folded in a spiral. But the first glance at one of these little woolly spirals gives us but small conception of its marvelous enfolding. Every part of the frond is present in that bud, even to the fruiting organs…”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 698 in the section “How a Fern Bud Unfolds”

Here is a look at what the fern looks like after it unfolds. Beautiful.