Monday, February 15, 2016

Nature Study :: A Month of Weekly "Winter" Outings

People joke that here in California, we have two seasons: brown and green.  Well, it's green season!  It's been gorgeous lately, and we are soaking up the wet sunshine and new growth.

I thought I'd round up here a month of wintertime nature study here in not-all-that-wintery California.  The kids get outside daily, but we plan a "nature outing" once a week, usually with friends.  In the past month, that meant two trips to our usual spot with our nature group (one for our tree study and one for free exploring), one week of nature study solo in our backyard (thanks to illness), and then one group trip to a pond up in the hills that border our valley town.

Week 1 :: Our tree study outing with friends

Our focus for this lesson was two-fold: branches and branching.  For the latter, my friend brought positive-negative space grids for the kids to experiment with.  She also brought viewfinders for the kids to make their own grid drawings using the trees themselves, focusing on the shape of the branches coming right out of the trunk.

Then we did an object lesson with a fallen branch we found by the pond.  Our goal was to consider: what is left behind in or on the tree after the leaves fall?

shelf mushrooms
three kinds of lichen plus moss!
looks like termite droppings clustered in that bottom crevice

But despite our focus on the bare tree, only the sycamore was missing its leaves.  Our horse chestnuts are quickly re-leafing, and the laurel tree already has blossoms!

Week 2 :: Exploration outing at the same spot

This ended up being a week for mushroom hunting and lots and lots of questions with very few answers:

What kind of fungus is that, and who made those holes?


sorry this is so blurry, but this mushroom's curly edges looked like a flower!
black cap, white stem!
 How do mushrooms push themselves out of the ground despite those big caps?

these were still half covered with damp earth  
 Who took down our fort?!

examining the remains of their fort, likely razed by the park rangers -- and planning a rebuild!
Who made those marks, and what was he looking for?

looks like a boar, which are very common here -- maybe hunting for mushrooms like us?
And it was also a lovely week for wildflowers.  The fiddlenecks are beautiful (the one on the left is so new it hasn't "fiddled" like the one on the right just yet),

...miner's lettuce has leaves up but no blooms,

...and the buttercup sorrel/oxalis is everywhere!

Week 3 :: In Our Backyard

Everyone in the family was down with a cold (including me!), so we stayed home and the kids spent an hour out back.  Certainly not as exciting as the prior two weeks, but thankfully our yard is just now bursting into spring bloom so we made some entries in our Calendar of Firsts...

first daffodils of the year
pluot tree in bloom!

Week 4 :: At the vernal pond

This is a vernal pond--it completely dries up in late summer, which makes its a wonderful home for insects and amphibians since there are no fish predators.  And that seems true--we see far more frogs, newts, and water bugs here than we do at the year-round pond we frequent.

Right now it's at its peak: full, with boggy shores.  It seems like such a calm, quiet place, but there is so much going on!

the ground is covered with geranium (two kinds!), clover, and sorrel

the drought-marked grasses make an eerie white line against the green hills

We found a few of these nests in the grasses along the pond's edge.  I think they're mallard nests?

can you see it nestled there at the center bottom of the photo?
There were lots of tree frogs hopping around, but though we caught quite a few to watch, they were so active I didn't even try to grab a photo.  But these frog eggs floating in the pond were a first spotting for us!

And this California newt was the star of the day.  Look at that leg stretch!

And to link up with Keeping Company, here's a bit of my kids' nature journaling from these outings:

In the next few weeks, we're planning at least one trip to the beach and a wildflower walk.  This time of year feels like a gift.


  1. WOW! So much fun stuff! I love all the mushroom pictures. And that newt is so cool! Do your kids draw their pictures from your pictures? Or do they just draw them on the spot? Both maybe? I just adore their drawings. :)

    Can I just tell you how jealous I am, though? We were *excited* around here today BECAUSE IT WAS 30 DEGREES. :/

    1. Yes, 30 is just painful. If you ever want to head west for a visit, I'll show you all our favorite spots! ;)

      My kids do a mixture of things. For moving things (like the newt or birds), they draw from my photos or occasionally from a field guide (like in the case of the frog, which I didn't get a picture of but they wanted to include). Most often, they draw from collected items either at the site (like the mushrooms at the park or the things in our yard) or at home (like the wildflowers). They do at least one nature journaling session outside a month though -- at our tree study, everyone in the group brings their notebooks to journal there.

    2. We do that too--if we're out and see something and I don't get a pic, we just use a field guide. :) I would LOVE to come to California! Not sure it'll ever happen, but a girl can dream, right? I actually have been there, but I was only 1 so I don't count it. ;)

  2. How do you pull off such magnificent nature study outings with littles?

    1. My husband is working from home right now, so this month, I left the baby with him. It definitely makes things easier! :) BUT for the past five years of nearly-weekly nature study, this is the first time I have been able to do that, so I have almost always had a baby and a toddler on our nature outings.

      One thing that really helps is doing nature study as a group. The other moms have babies too, and we are all looking out for each other and can help if there's a need for baby-holding or an emergency. The kids also have plenty of friends to explore with. And in a group, there are bigger kids along that can do some off-roads exploring and bring back things to show the littles. (The newt was spotted by one of the high schoolers on our outing, for example, and my Big Kids helped the littler ones in the group catch some frogs.)

      We also choose places that are pretty toddler-friendly and also have somewhere to sit for nursing. I bring my carrier, so I have a baby or toddler strapped to my back, and my three older kids bring backpacks to carry our stuff (including mine). Rather than taking a hike, we usually "park" somewhere so we can put down our things and I can let the little ones walk around while the Bigs explore. Some day we will be able to go more off-road, but that will have to wait until I don't have a baby along! :) We are very thankful to have places close by that are both "wild" enough and also accessible for young families.

      And one last thing: our outings really aren't that magnificent! We have our share of falls in the pond, runny noses, tantrums, less-interested kids, muddy shoes, poison oak, and all the rest of it. ;) But done consistently, over time, our nature study outings have grown into something wonderful, thanks to the wonder of God's creation! :)

  3. You are always such a beautiful inspiration Celeste.

  4. As usual, Celeste, this post is full of inspiration. I always enjoy catching a glimpse of your nature study outings via these posts. You've given me another great idea for our outings, too. LOVE the idea of sketching the branches as they come off the tree and comparing different shapes, angles, etc. Brilliant!!

    1. I'm so happy to be sharing our nature outings with some other amazing nature-loving moms! They always come up with great ideas for our kids and have lots of enthusiasm. My friend that did the grid used to be a kids' art teacher and is just great with guiding the kids in useful activities. I am blessed by her. :)

  5. Ah, California! :-) Isn't it grand? I'm always amazed at how far ahead you are in seasons though - probably almost 2 months. 3000 ft of elevation gain makes a big difference! You've shared such great finds and pictures, thank you!

    1. This is the time of year that I just LOVE California. It's raining today, but we're headed out on a wildflower hunt tomorrow and it's forecasted to be lovely. But I had no idea that you were so far "behind" us! That's interesting because we have the ladybugs here in January/February too -- you'd think they'd come at different times given the difference in conditions? I need to read more about it. Anyway, thanks, Amber!