If you've ever walked along a beach, you know that the sea offers up a never ending supply of interesting things to look at. Seaweed, shells, driftwood, seaglass... you just never know what might wash up!
One of our favorite things to pick up on the beach are sea beans. We count ourselves lucky with each and every bean find. And we aren't the only ones... our sea bean guide says that ancient surfers wore sea bean necklaces for protection, and sailors carried sea hearts for luck on long journeys.
So what's a sea bean?
They are the seeds (or the fruit) of tropical plants that float down rivers or streams, then across oceans to wash onto our shores and begin a new life. Sea beans have very hard outer casings and internal air pockets which allow them to float in the ocean, sometimes for years, before they germinate.
One scientist, John Dennis, has been studying the floating ability of sea beans. So far, his beans have been afloat for 32 years!
There's an amazing array of sea beans, so keep a look out next time you walk along the shore!
For tons more information about sea beans, including how and where to find them, how to identify them, polishing and even growing sea beans, check out the sea bean site!
Over the last few days, the boys and I learned that there's no guide like a Granny guide.
We had occasion to see and learn so much while we spent some time hanging out in the woods with my grandmother. See, she's spent her whole life in those woods, so she knows them pretty well. She's on a first name basis with the trees - sassafras, hickory, pine, and pin oak. She knows their personalities - "this one wants to take over the yard," she says, "and this one likes to let it's lower branches die out so it can concentrate on growing taller."
She knows which vine is a friend and which is a foe. She knows which plant will make a pretty flower and which one is sure to deliver a caterpillar or four. She wouldn't consider herself a naturalist or an expert of any sort; she's just been paying attention. Needless to say, when we're walking by her side, we do a lot of paying attention too.
One of the first things Granny told my guys when we arrived at her house was that "the nettle's up... stay clear of it! It has a big bite!"
She pointed it out to each of my guys and described in detail how much it stings when all those little pricklies not only poke your skin, but also release an acid that burns and itches something awful.
"If you can get past the bite," she told us, "it makes a real good nut." She's right too - Wikipedia backs up Granny's story. Turns out though that Bull Nettle is not actually a member of the true nettle family. It's seed is edible, but unlike true nettles, it's leaves and stalk are not. Real nettles are very healthful eating though. They've even been known to help with arthritis and high blood pressure. People make them into magic color changing tea, soup, even pesto! I had a few painful run ins with bull nettle as a child though, and I remember that sting too well try eating its nut or any of it's distant cousin's leaves any time soon.
I'm not above foraging for berries though, and Granny knew just where to find some too. Only a few though, because a late frost killed off most of the blackberry blooms this year.
My boy was optimistic though, with his big bucket.
Poor guy - that late frost, paired with a penchant for eating in the field, meant that his bucket stayed pretty much empty.
Granny showed us mole trails, named off roadside flowers for us, and wowed my men straight out of their britches by introducing them to the sensitive plant.
These little vines close their leaves up tight if you brush your finger across them or blow on them. It's very dramatic and sure to have any kid squealing and touching every leaf in a 50 yard radius.
We learned more on a single walk with Granny than we could have studying every field guide on our shelf. So if you've got a grandparent near by, or an older neighbor that knows his way around a wooded path, invite them out for a ramble and keep your eyes and ears open!
Now that we know that Texas is a stop along the journey for many migrating birds and insects this time of year, we've been paying attention!
We had heard tell from some folks in our neighborhood that a pair of osprey's were hanging around the creek near our home. We've been hoping to catch a glimpse of them before they continue on their journey north, so we've been going on lots of creek walks.
When we discovered some fish bones, we felt sure that we were closing in on our ospreys!
Low and behold, we looked up and saw this beautiful bird. We sat down and stared and whispered.
We had never seen an osprey and were awe-struck.
Before long a matching bird appeared and sat alongside this one. For long minutes we just watched, big smiles on our faces, feeling so pleased that we had found what we were looking for.
When we got home, we broke out the colored pencils and began drawing those majestic birds. We carefully labeled them, then looked them up so that we could learn more about them.
Um.... this does not look like the birds that we saw.
It took a lot of digging, but we finally found out that OUR birds were actually Red Shouldered Hawks, not Ospreys. These birds are not native to our area either, so even though we didn't find what we'd hoped for, we think we found something pretty wonderful!
On our latest walkabout, we came across a very interesting find.
We found this lovely Pink Edged Sulphur butterfly.
We looked it up and found two clues that told us this little guy is not from around these parts.
First, Pink-Edged Sulpher caterpillars feed mostly on blueberries. Blueberries do not grow well in our area though.
We also found a map showing the range of Pink Edged Sulphers. Turns out that they are very common in Canada, and the northernmost part of the United States... FAR from Texas.
Our best guess is that this guy has been wintering here, or even farther south, and is slowly making his way north.
Butterflies only live for a few months at best though. So, our theory is that he was on his way north,to where blueberries grow. Perhaps he would have mated there, and eventually his mate's eggs would have hatched a new batch of Pink Edged Sulphers. Those babies would have their own children, then those babies would have children.
Our Pink Edged Sulpher's great great grand children would then head back this way next fall!
This was all very exciting to us because we had not thought about migration in this way before. The boys know that some species "go south" for the winter and then "go north" for the summer, but they had never really considered how our home, Texas, fit into that plan.
It seems that for the most part, Texas is either a winter destination or a stop along the journey for northern species.
There's also a really fabulous resource for learning about migration through ongoing experiments and observations at Journey North. We can't wait to learn all about the Journey North through their activities!
It is February, smack-dab in the middle of winter. Even here in Virginia, February can get pretty cold and cloudy. Well...cold enough to not be at the beach for several months. If you dare head toward the oceanfront, be prepared for beating sand and wild, frosty winds.
But this past weekend was a special gift. An early Valentine's Day present, if you will. Intended to show us all once again, there is beauty to be seen everywhere...even in winter.
With the warmer temperatures, we met some friends at the beach for a quick dinner and lots of running around with found pieces of driftwood as swords.
I had not paid attention to the tide charts. To be honest, I don't even think about the tides in the winter. But when we arrived, we immediately noticed a huge full moon suspended right above the horizon. And a lower than normal low tide. It was a great time to talk about how the moon (and the sun) is responsible for the rise and fall of the ocean levels on our beach.
Yesterday, we researched it a bit more and found these sites to be very helpful.
Some winter days are so downright cold, you just want to stay under the quilt with some hot cocoa and watch the outside world from the inside. But then there are other days when yes, it might be a bit chilly. Yet the warm sun just beckons you out of doors.
My family and I went out for a walk in the woods on just such a sunny day.
Here's a bit of what we found.
At school the boys are learning about the parts of the plant...which I'm certain my guys have known since they emerged from the womb. But we did talk about seeds, seed pods and coverings, and how seeds are scattered.
Of course, moss cried out to be touched.
Felled trees beg to be walked upon like giant balance beams.
And a gathering of sticks asks the question, "What ancient civilization used to live here, mama?"
Toward the end of the walk, I started encouraging the boys too look up. And immediately they began noticing the many bird's nests hight up in the tip top branches of the trees.
But then...something else. Not a bird's nest. Not an abandoned hornet's nest. Something else.
Can you see it?
Here's a better shot.
Yes, yes! It was a sleeping racoon, nestled perfectly in the arm of that tree. Despite the boys banging on the base of the trunks, he did not stir.
My boys felt so lucky to have gotten to see this little guy. And we would have walked right by him if we hadn't turned our eyes upward.
What a way to end a great winter nature walk. Looking up.
Nature— the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful— offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity. —Richard Louv