A Fun-Loving Guide to the Natural World for Kids and Adults

Festival of the Trees #34

There is an amazing collection of articles at the Festival of the Trees #34, hosted this time around at one of our favorite blogs — Seabrooke’s The Marvelous in Nature.  There you can learn about treehouses, read poetry, and discover what might be the coolest place on Earth — Socotra Island.  We’re also proud to have our taste-tests of three conifer teas as part of the fun. We’ve only just begun to explore all the posts in the Festival — we encourage you to visit and check out the offerings as well!

Dodging Fox Squirrels

Don’t get us wrong. We love fox squirrels. They’re huge, they’re gorgeous, and with their scattered caching behavior, they plant all sorts of trees (and who doesn’t like someone who spends that much time planting trees?)

But we do have to ask a pertinent question. Is something wrong with their brains?

The problem arises when we’re driving out in the country. Invariably, we see squirrels in the road. The grey squirrels are always wary — as soon as they see or hear our car, they shoot off the road and scamper up a tree. But the fox squirrels are different. Often they’ll ignore us completely, so that we have to honk our horn or lean out the window and bark like a dog to get them to move far enough off the road so that we can get by. Others are only slightly more wary, and will move onto the gravel to watch us go by. Maybe they like the feel of the car’s draft — sort of a ‘wind through the hair’ thing.

In the rare event that one panics, it almost never runs straight off the road. It will start in one direction, then change course, then change course again, and often as not finally stop mid-road and stare. It’s gotten to the point that when we’re driving along and see one on the side of the road, we slow almost to a stop, because we’ve had too many instances when they just dart right out in front of the car.

We’ve managed to avoid hitting one, but only by always paying strict attention when we’re driving in the country — especially along routes where we know they’re abundant. But other drivers don’t take as much care, and we see an awful lot of fox squirrels that have met their end between car tire and road.

Has anyone observed this behavior elsewhere? Or is this just a phenomenon of Wisconsin fox squirrels? Maybe there’s something in our acorns?

Anatomy of a Phoebe Nest

For years we’ve had phoebes using the same nesting site under the eave of our porch.  This winter, the nest finally fell down.  Let’s take it apart and see how it was made!

The nest seemed to be built in three layers.  The bottom layer was composed largely of mud, and served as a ‘cup’ for the rest of the nest.  The next layer was made of moss, synthetic stuffing from some sort of mattress or pillow, and a lot of a strange, coiled grass-like material.  The top layer was a portion of the nest the phoebes actually sat on, and was made of thin strips of supple bark, grasses, and more of the coiled stuff.  There was also one bit of plastic (as from a woven plastic feed-bag) in the mix.

These strange coils had us searching the woods to find their source.  The answer?  Echinocystis lobata, the Wild Cucumber.

It always amazes us that birds can build nests.  What’s so amazing about it?  Well, just spend an afternoon trying to build one yourself!  Nests are masterworks of weaving - if you do manage to build a nice one, now imagine trying to do it with just a beak and two feet.  Now consider that the phoebes not only built this nest, but they also carefully glued it to the wall with mud.  Makes one realize how impressive birds are, doesn’t it?

The Amazing Northern Short-Tailed Shrew

Last autumn we were lucky enough to spot this elusive little beast running along the edge of a house.  Little did we know what an intriguing creature it was!

The Life of a Shrew

The world of the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew is very mysterious — they are a creature that seems to combine the traits of many different types of animals.  They are famous for their ravenous appetite, of course.  Can you imagine eating twice your weight in food each day?  The shrew eats this and more.  Talk about an active metabolism!

Like Asian Lady Beetles, these shrews also have a chemical defense to protect them against coyotes, foxes, and house cats who might be looking for a meal.  The shrews exude a musk that makes them quite unpalatable.

Their vision is pretty poor, but the shrew makes up for it by using the power of the bat — echolocation.  They make sounds that are ultrasonic (too high for us to hear) and then listen for the sound’s echo in order to better perceive their environment.

Perhaps most amazing of all, the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew is venomous.  Its venom can kill creatures larger than itself, and if it bites a human, it will hurt rather badly — sometimes for a couple of days.  We didn’t know it was venomous when we saw it last year, and Kenton almost tried to catch it.  Lucky for him he didn’t!

When we met this creature, we thought it was just a rather cute grey velvety-soft looking creature.  We had no idea we were looking at a ravenous echolocating musk-producing venomous beast!  Ah, the surprises of nature!

Mystery Skull #1

Here is our first mystery skull!

We love finding skulls.  We found this one in a pine plantation - it was probably the prey of a hawk.  The plantation was about 200 yards from a river-bank.  Any idea what kind of animal this is from?  You can find out here. Or see a living example at WinterWoman’s blog.

We’ve had great luck finding skulls in pine plantations.

We look for plantations where the trees are about eight feet tall.  Hawks bring their prey there to eat, and the heads, after being picked over, are droppoed to the ground and soon the skin rots away to leave a gleaming white specimen.

Red-Winged Blackbird Displays

This is one of the funnest parts of spring — to watch the male red-winged blackbirds establish their territories.  Our favorite place to go is a cattail marsh that seems to be prime blackbird real estate.  The older males lead the charge, finding perches on the cattails to make their displays.  Look at those red wing-markings fluff up!

It’s all about making a lot of noise and intimidating postures — the red-winged blackbirds don’t usually don’t get into actual fights.

The females haven’t even arrived yet at the marsh we go to — it’s just the males deciding amongst themselves who gets to command what territory.  You can see these displays for yourself if you walk along stream-edges or venture out to the wetlands.  And once the red-winged blackbirds start nesting, they get extremely brave and aggressive — you might even get dive-bombed!

The red-winged blackbirds are only one of the many animals who are doing especially fascinating things during the spring.  Wooly-bears are just crawling out into the sunlight, insects are emerging from winter slumbers, and the turkeys are beginning to gobble in the hills and fields.  It’s a perfect time to get out and see if you can spot the first spider, butterfly, or new shoot poking up from the ground.

Happy Spring!

Spreading the Word About Nature

Now that we’re on the Nature Blog Network, we feel like we’re officially ‘launched’.  We wanted to take this opportunity to thank the folks at NBN, who have put in tremendous effort to promote everyone’s blogs on the network.  We also wanted to thank all of you nature bloggers, who are a vital part of helping to inspire people to deepen their connection with nature.  And, of course, thank you to all of our readers, who are the reason for our efforts.

We recently read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, and he made powerful arguments for the importance of nature in education, and emphasized the part nature plays in our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.  We fervently agree with his message, and are making major shifts in our lives so that we’re better able to share our passion for the natural world through our writing and photography.

Mike, Wren, Nathan, and John (the team at the Nature Blog Network) are setting a powerful example. We’re honored to become a part of the Nature Blog Network, and to join all the rest of you in helping homo sapiens to redefine its role on Earth.  Simply by spreading awareness, we’re doing a great service to the animals, plants, and landscapes with whom we share this planet called ‘Home’.


Kenton and Rebecca

Spring Owl Calls

Last night, well after midnight, we were awoken by the calls of the Barred Owl who lives in the pine forest near our home.  For a time there was only the familiar ‘who-cooks-for-you’ as the male called out, and then the female arrived on the scene, and the calls shifted.  The male called out with simple ‘hoots’, and the female answered with a sound like a monkey in the jungle, transforming our little northlands cabin into a tropical hide-away.  For a long while their calls filled the otherwise silent night.

This morning we ventured out to see if we could find any sign of them, and were lucky enough to see one of the owls in person!  It wasn’t difficult to find, as it was being mobbed by a band of crows.  It wouldn’t let us get close, but we managed to get a few shots.  The crows were perched nearby, calling out in their most raucous voices and swooping in for furtive attacks.

After a time the owl made its escape, flapping off on silent wings — hopefully to find some shelter from the marauders until night once again falls over the landscape.

Taste-testing the Evergreen Teas

Taste Test: Evergreen Teas

There are a lot of plants out in the wildlands and back yards that make for great teas.  In the interest of culinary curiosity, today we thought we’d have a showdown between the Red and White Pines, with a Norway Spruce thrown in for variety.  We collected the needles, attempting to gather a similar amount for each cup, and poured boiling water over the top.  They steeped for ten minutes each. Here are the results:


We had assumed we’d see a golden color, but instead the teas were shades of pink.  The White and Red pine teas brought up an interesting conjecture.  Could the names of these trees be due in part to the colors of their teas?  The White was almost colorless, while the Red was surprisingly pink.


White Pine
Rebecca: Earthy aroma with a hint of Christmas tree
Kenton: Lighter scent, slight lemon aroma

Red Pine
Rebecca: Initial scent of red pine bark or sap, followed by pungency
Kenton: Strong and a bit harsh

Norway Spruce
Rebecca: Very subtle aroma, like green tea
Kenton: Depth of scent, slight earthiness


White Pine
Rebecca: Very light on the tongue and filled with soft full flavor.  An initial very subdued Christmas tree flavor ending with an almost nutty taste.
Kenton: Very subtle, easy to drink. Pleasant all around.

Red Pine
Rebecca: Tastes strongly of the smell of a warm red pine forest in the middle of summer.  Strong earthiness with an acidic finish of tannins.
Kenton: Earthy, robust, and full.  Distinct pine taste.

Norway Spruce
Rebecca: Tastes like the smell of freshly cut grass mixed with green tea.  Finishes with a very subtle pine-y flavor.  Light and pleasing to the palate.
Kenton: Delicious.  Smooth, round, with pleasant resin overtones.  Slight bite in back of throat after swallowing.

The winner:

Kenton: Spruce.  It has enough punch to keep your cup interesting, but isn’t as harsh as the Red.  The White was definitely my second favorite - it was pleasant, but I felt myself hoping for a little more character.

Rebecca: I’m going to say that white pine is my favorite, although the spruce is a close second and I would probably alternate between the two depending on what type of mood I was in.  The red pine I found to be a bit overwhelming to my taste buds, although that could simply be in comparison to the other types.  The funny thing is that I thought I would dislike all the evergreen teas because I think of them as so strong.  I was delighted to discover that I actually enjoy their flavor.  I recommend brewing a few different varieties and trying them for yourself - then let us know which one is your favorite and why!


Spring is approaching, and that means the end of snow.  This year we had some amazing snows in Wisconsin, not because we had a whole lot, but because of the snowflakes.

Sometimes it seems like there are only a few times a year when you can walk out into the winter world and discover millions of perfectly-shaped snowflakes.  Usually snow is coming down in chunky conglomerates or pelting down as little pieces of ice.  But this year we had lots of lovely flakes.  Here’s a picture of my favorite one all year -

It was BIG - maybe the biggest one I’ve ever seen.  About a centimeter across. What we usually call a snowflake is actually a snow crystal - the word ’snowflake’ can refer to a single snow crystal, but it also refers to the lumps that clump together as they fall from the sky.  Single snow crystals usually max out at about the size of the one I saw, but Dr. Libbrecht, who wrote the book Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes (Voyageur Press, 2006) reported during one field study that he saw crystals as large as dimes.  How amazing it would be to see snow crystals that large floating down from above!

Is every snow crystal really unique?  It depends on how closely you look. If you’re using a microscope, every snow crystal will indeed be different.  But there are some basic patterns that most crystals hold to, and to our naked eyes, you can sometimes find two that seem identical.

Here are some great photos of snowflakes, just so you can see the tremendous beauty of these little wonders.

The first set of pictures is by Wilson Bentley, who took remarkable snow crystal photos early in the last century.  If you check out the other gallery pictures, you’ll find a lot more amazing shots, many of which look totally unlike our usual idea of snow.

All those crystals are melting now, flooding the swollen streams and replenishing the ground with moisture.  Some of that same water will then evaporate and be taken right up into the sky again, where it will someday become a snow crystal once more and drift down on its lazy journey through the sky.