Feb 27, 2013

OHC: Birding by Ear: a Whole New World

We took a much-needed break today after the dreariest, grayest, rainiest day I can remember in a long while. I knew the window of opportunity was short--cold returning this weekend--so I suggested that after the quick tune-up at the orthodontist (braces went on two days ago), we could grab the dog and the GPS and head for the little park near the doctor's office for some fresh air, exercise, and geo-caching.
Font Hill Park, a wetland conservation area

    No decent homeschooling parent misses a chance to turn any event into a teachable moment, even a walk. A Charlotte Mason-style educator would be kicked out of the club if she didn't! So knowing that one of our Outdoor Hour Challenges for February was birding by ear, I realized that I had a perfect God-given opportunity to attempt the challenge and gain some nature study points.

 (NOTE: I credit an old friend and birding expert in Pennsylvania, Skip Conant, for teaching the importance of birding by ear. He said it was more important than identifying by sight because so often you CAN'T see them. And I can recommend the Android app, iBird, for the added dimension of audio clips of every bird, something no book can give you. )

  The park is one we have visited before, but not for a while. It is a wetland park with a boardwalk and asphalt path meandering around the perimeter of a pond and along the stream that it feeds through the woods. It is blessed with several types of environments perfect for attracting a variety of birds in a relatively small area.
   Besides looking for the geocache, I further sweetened the deal by offering a reward--"Will work for Chocolate"-- for identifying at least six species of birds by ear.

     It didn't take long.
Canada Geese annoyed by our intrusion
   A pair of Canada Geese voiced their annoyance at our arrival immediately. Then a Song Sparrow welcomed spring. A love-sick Northern Cardinal wooed its mate in the trees to the left. A bereaved Mourning Dove sighed.

   Four down and our walk had only begun.
   Into the wooded stream area, and new species who prefer a secluded habitat welcomed us. A Blue Jay screeched, Chickadees dee-deed, and Tufted Titmice called for Peter-Peter-Peter! A Carolina Wren wanted his Tea-Kettle, Tea-Kettle, Tea! A Red-winged Blackbird preferred jer-KEEEY!
  A Flicker teased us with a few Keew's, but never showed. And a White-breasted Nuthatch 'nyacked' about us to his neighbors.
The stick horse gets a needed drink.
   Then, without a sound, a huge flap of wings grabbed our attention as a disturbed Red-shouldered Hawk rose up out of the swamp where it was planning its next meal not thirty feet from us and soared up to a gigantic tulip poplar to await our departure.
   We didn't find the cache, but I was personally rewarded by the twelve species that Mei had identified by ear alone!
   Here is her notebook page in which she listed her birds and then made notes of their songs to refer back to. We had fun interpreting the musical sounds phonetically and that will help them stick in her head in the future.

 Gotten an earful from the birds? How would YOU interpret a Red-winged Blackbird?  Tell Mother All About It!

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OHC: The Great Backyard Bird Count

   For all the years I've been a birder (my whole life) and all the years I've homeschooled , I've never had us participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count! But thanks to the Outdoor Hour Challenge, we finally got the nudge.
  We got all those feeders up and filled, (see my post about our backyard bird paradise here!), then created our account, got out our binoculars, and made up a chart for counting. (which I can't find right now).
   Our wonderful three-sided sunroom provided optimal conditions for keeping track. On the website it seemed confusing, but by actually participating, we soon got into the swing. Mei had to learn to be very still and PATIENT for the birds to arrive. But after about five minutes they started returning to the feeders that our presence had startled them from. The bold little chickadees led the way. Then it was the juncos who resumed their pecking.
   "Hey! What's that?" "A sparrow." "But what KIND of sparrow?" (white-throated) "Did we count that bird?" and so on. We had recently attracted a Red-breasted Nuthatch. I so hoped we could include it in our first submission. But it was a no-show.
Mei attempting a most challenging feat: photographing birds.
   We thought that the counting would be the best part, but found that entering our data was even more exciting. We found that our submission was timed to approach the 5000th of the day on Friday, the first day of counting,  and watched with fascination as the interactive world-wide map (the first year ever for international tabulation) popped up locations one-by-one around the globe as the counter moved quite quickly to the 5000 mark.
    I continued the challenge three more times over the weekend under varying conditions and settings. Around a wetland near Mei's ballet studio, I heard my first Red-winged Blackbirds of the season. I was glad that birds HEARD were countable as well as birds SEEN. On another occasion, while walking the dog, I encountered some bluebirds. Back home on Sunday near sunset, the Red-breasted Nuthatch  made his appearance (yeah!), followed by a Downy Woodpecker and our newest member of the suet gang, the not-at-all-creepie Brown Creeper. I guess everyone wanted to be part of the game!

    All in all, we observed over twenty species of birds, putting us at the middle mark for species entered in our state. It was a great feeling knowing, as I explained to Mei, that we "citizen scientists" helped accumulate data that can determine species migrations, movements, rises and declines. And it was a lot of FUN too!
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Feb 15, 2013

Our Backyard Bird Paradise

It's February! And in our homeschool, we are gearing up for the Great Backyard Bird Count! We've recently stocked up on some new feeders, both to replace some that died as well as some that have specialty features.I thought it might be useful to give you a tour. Maybe it will provide some inspiration.
Letting the garden go until spring provides more food and protection.

We have a large, open backyard that leads to a pond in the next field. Our garden was already planted with a variety of shrubs and trees that provide shelter and some natural food. The openness though can be a drawback because of the threat of dive-bombing hawks. Over the last few seasons I've learned to take some precautions.

For one thing,I have situated our feeders much closer to our windows now. I've also persuaded Father R to let us place our old Christmas tree at the base of two feeders to give instant cover from predators and snowfall. He's okay with it now as long as our yard doesn't look like a junk heap. :-D
That the feeders are close to the windows (and we have lots of them), means I need to protect the birds from colliding with the glass. (Incidentally, keeping them close also PROTECTS the birds by preventing them from hitting those windows at top speed should they bolt.)  I have applied these window stickers to the windows to alert them of the invisible plane.On the right is the commonly-found diving predator window cling sticker. It's lasted for years. See how it dissuades a bird from thinking that reflection is more yard? On the left is a less obtrusive invention. The hummingbird is infused with an ultra-violet light substance that only the birds can see. We lowly humans merely see a pretty, frosty sticker. The down-side is they have to be replaced seasonally.

Window stickers protect flying birds.
 Now for the feeders. Knowing that the most popular seed is black oil sunflower I choose feeders that are designed for that especially. The big cylinder feeder on the right is an eight-year-old, tried-and-true all-metal design made of a stiff, heavy screen. The lid lifts up for filling. It holds a  whopping 10 pounds of seed! I won't be needing to re-fill it more than every two weeks! Yes some seed spills through when I fill it, but the ground feeders eat it, so it's not going to waste. The perforated tray allows drainage and a place for larger birds like cardinals to perch. The little birds can cling all over it. 
Only three feet from the window ! What a view and safer for flying birds.

On the left is a new replacement called a No-No feeder, referring to the fact that there is no plastic, and no wood, so it will be long-lasting and stand up to squirrels. We don't have a squirrel problem fortunately. We really only have one who we've named Scugg after the pet that Ben Franklin carried in his pocket to Continental Congress meetings! Scugg does give our feeders a go, however, so I do keep feeder materials and placement in mind. The No-No, which comes in all different sizes and shapes, is unique. While it also is made of  mesh, this one collapses on itself. When you receive it, you just lift the handle and VOILA!, like magic, a feeder! If stored, it will take up No-No space (haha!). A locking lid keeps out the squirrels. The only tricky part is filling it, since you can't just set it on the ground. It would collapse again. Instead I hung it low for filling and used a milk jug that I cut a whole out of. I poured seed into the hole of the jug, and then poured the seed into the feeder from the spout. This one holds about six pounds.

Needless to say, those two  feeders need a STRONG support. I bought this one at a The Wildlife Authority store. It was about $40 USD and has held up well for many years. It is designed for you to custom design the length arms that best serve you. Pretty neat. A good investment.

Additional designs for select feeds increase the variety of birds to the yard
 My Droll Yankee feeder on the top left is a staple. It can hold sunflower or other medium size seed. It's almost indestructable. This one is over ten years old.If you can only afford one feeder, start here. Add a dome at the top and hang it from a light branch, or a baffle on the bottom and affix it to a pole, and you have a virtually squirrel-proof feeder. (I say "virtual" because squirrels are better problem-solvers than MIT professors.) 

He and his buds can eat that whole cake.
The suet feeder on the top right attracts chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers. It will also bring on your starlings. We've already had those greedy European devils arrive, a full month early. I've moved it to the tree that grows up through the deck very close to the house. I'm hoping this might foil the gluttons. (Scugg will appreciate the move though.) They make more expensive types that protect the suet, but I'll stick to this for a while.

I'm adding a new type tube thistle feeder this year. This design places the holes BELOW the perches. Some observant birding genius discovered that that other invasive species,  the house finch, can't eat upside down like the beautiful goldfinch, so another problem solved! I'm not real impressed with the quality of this particular one that I ordered, so we'll see how long it lasts. Thistle seed seems to have jumped in price and I only needed a small quantity. My Wild Bird Authority store had 5 pounds in an easy-pour jug for $7.99. I'll get at least three fillings which means more than one season!

Finally, I'm putting up 2 new peanut feeders to give the precious downy woodpeckers and the elegant flickers something new to try. The one feeder is pictured above. The second one is made by C&S of large-holed metal mesh and designed to work with their suet pellets. I found them at Home Depot and the feeder and food came to only $9! I also visited my local Southern States store which has the best prices on a variety of seed, especially bulk items like black-oil sunflower. I picked up a yummy-looking "woodpecker blend" full of peanuts, pistachios, dried fruit and other tasties to fill the one above.

The neighboring pond attracts lots of geese year-round.

Finally, a garden feature everyone should have, especially in winter, is WATER! I mistakenly thought that: 1) with a pond nearby that their liquid needs were met, and 2) that snow on seed would provide an alternative source. Bad idea on both counts. The flight to the pond (or any other distant source) uses up vital fuel that would be better reserved for keeping warm. The snow also burns fuel by cooling the body-the exact opposite thing the birds need in a snowstorm.

Enter the bird bath heater!
Water is much-appreciated!
It keeps a melted area around it in all temps. Birds don't drink mass quantities, so even a fringe of exposed water will suffice. In the pic above, I had just refilled the bath, so don't think that the heater was keeping the whole thing melted. But soon after this, our resident mockingbird (who we named Mr. Stubby after something trying to catch him pulled all his tail feathers out) made an appearance and drank several beakfuls. It was great to see him. They don't spend time at feeders, so this was our opp to bring him in.

So that's how we outfit our backyard sanctuary! 
Hope it helped you get some ideas. Don't feel you have to get all this at once! Just start with a decent  tube feeder and black-oil sunflower and watch the show begin!

Sweet, little Red-Breasted Nuthatch
UPDATE: Only a day ago I received my Cornell  Lab of Ornithology newsletter describing a "superflight" of birds across the country (birds well outside their normal ranges) that included Red-Breasted Nuthatches in Maryland. Would you believe the very next morning after hanging those peanut feeders, we had our first Red-Breasted Nuthatch?! So excited to be including that in our results for the Great Backyard Bird Count.
   And thanks to the Outdoor Hour Challenge for getting us motivated to finally participate!

Got birdfeeders? Got comments? Tell Mother All About It!

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Feb 4, 2013


"Well done, thou good and faithful servant, Ray Lewis!"

Feb 3, 2013

Machine-Made Love

An old friend that I had cast aside without care for lack of appreciation has returned. All is forgiven and I will promise to nurture and value our relationship. I look forward again to how our friendship enhanced my life and those I love.

I am speaking of bread baking. Specifically bread-baking by machine.

Hot out of the Machine oven
 My first machine was an Hitachi HB-B102 Home Bakery II purchased when they first hit the shelves back in the late 80's. (That sounds positively pre-historic, doesn't it?) We lived in Pennsylvania at the time, country decor was the rage, and back-to-basics was the watch-word.We had neighbors that had one and I knew others that went so far as to grind their own grain. It baked those awkward vertical loaves that look like pencil erasers. But they were tasty erasers.
The Hitachi HB-B102. Ebay for it.

When it came to time to sell that house, I followed good advice, and set the machine to bake cinnamon bread while the potential buyers toured. During one of the worst winters in Mid-Atlantic history, when the snow was piled up so high out front of our duplex that you couldn't park and photos were needed to envision the buried back yard, that house sold in less than five weeks. I give the bread machine the credit.

But then I gradually lost interest, its space was taken over by other newer appliances, and after another move, it finally was relegated to the garage. The end was near. It was transported to the local thrift store and dumped unwanted at the front door like an abandoned old dog.

But now, with tighter times again, I was cringing at the weekly expense of my husband's crack-like addiction to crusty bakery-baked loaves. I figured an investment in a bread machine would pay for itself in a matter of months.

The West Bend Hi-Rise Breadmaker
An obsessive review-reader by nature (read: anxiety-ridden perfectionist), I studied many brands to define my personal needs and features. It must blend with my kitchen decor if it is to stay on the counter all the time, it should preferably bake horizontal loaves, be reliable, and be affordable. The winner was the West Bend Hi-Rise Breadmaker. It's black and chrome--perfect--, looks elegant on the counter, bakes horizontally in 4 sizes, even has an extra pan for purchase that bakes two small loaves simultaneously, and all for the amazingly low price of $75. Act now and you get a free packet of yeast! (jk :-)   )

I found it on my door step at 11 PM, two days after I placed my order--Go, Amazon!--and snuck it in. I still had bread flour in the freezer and some fresh-enough yeast, so I thought I'd surprise the unsuspecting Father R with that unforgettable wake-up smell. I followed the directions for Basic Bread in the manual, set it for Delay, and went to bed all aflutter.

The HORIZONTAL pan, ready for baking
At 6:45, I detected a waft. Father R did not. (Disappointment.) But the surprised delight on his face from, first the look, and then the TASTE, and I knew it was a great move. (That's the finished result at the top of the page.)

Three days later, and we have made white bread, buttermilk bread, cinnamon-cranberry-orange bread, pizza dough, and sandwich rolls for our Super Bowl Pork BBQ.  I've gained two pounds, but I'll just have to cut out something else. This time I'm going to be a trustworthy friend.

Look here for the yummy recipes.
Got Bread? Got Machine? Got Questions? Tell Mother All About It!

Bird's-Eye View of the Week: Why Be Normal? Schooling with Charlotte Mason

Every week I think, "Oh, we haven't really covered anything noteworthy this week." 

And then I scratch out a list of stuff and am, like, WOW!" Which is a good thing cuz I do have to show "regular, thorough instruction in the courses normally taught in schools." (COMAR, the Md. state homeschool law)

Fortunately our law is lenient enough that we can define HOW and WHEN we teach what is "normal." When you use a Charlotte Mason curriculum which depends on "living books", you cover so much more with more retention than the dry textbooks and the "teach to the test" parrot talk.

For instance our 6th-grader's normal history lessons on Elizabethan England and Shakespeare are gleaned from reading a 36-chapter tale, Master Skylark, of a kidnapped boy forced to join a player's guild. I'm not sure if the P.S. middle-schoolers even have any familiarity with The Bard.

Our geography study of South America and Australia utilizes a lengthy true story, Stowaway, accounting the three-year voyage of  Captain Cook's circumnavigation of the globe as told by a 10-year-old crewmate.

Science, art, music--they're all covered. But OUR way, not the "normal" way.

So what happened this week?

We concluded our nature study-- a subject NOT normally taught in schools-- with the Outdoor Hour Challenge's January focus on rocks. It culminated with a visit to a local quarry. We pass it every week on the way to jazz class so it was great to make friends with our neighbor. You can read about it in detail here.

February's study will be birds, timed with the Great Backyard Bird Count. Our existing feeders are filled, and replacements are in the mail. Can't wait to do MY favorite subject! (The link will tell you how you can participate. And they are homeschool friendly! )

We're really getting into our other history novel, Strangers in the Land, about the persecution of the Huguenots as experienced by one family. Through it, we are becoming familiar with important events in 18th c. Europe like the Treaty of Nantes. And what an inspiring character study of faith and fortitude.

For Math, Life of Fred-Fractions continues to delight. If a math program makes Mei WANT to do her work, I'll stand on my head for it. 

Her co-op composition class is developing a report on an animal of their choosing. I drew the line at the two she knows most about, dogs and horses. I wanted her to experience the rigors of researching a new topic. It didn't go over well, but she settled on clownfish, natives of the Great Barrier Reef, which will help lead us into the broader study of Australia. And they're so cute. And famous. But finding info (chuckle, haha) was as difficult as finding the Disney character.

"Breezing Up" by Winslow Homer. View it in D.C.!
"Snap the Whip" by Winslow Homer. At the Met in NYC!
Finally the art co-op I teach began their study of Winslow Homer using the Meet the Masters curriculum. This artist will introduce the kids to the concepts of value and focal point in a composition. Homer's subject range is so broad there is something to appeal to anyone, but kids especially can relate to his famous works of "Breezing Up" and "Snap the Whip." I had to explain that game, and now they want to enjoy it, of course! We're hoping next Thursday might not be so muddy. The kids won't care, but the moms might!

For ME, the big thrill was getting a  BREAD MACHINE!!  Naturally, like the good excellent homeschooling parent I am, I will find teachable moments. Chemical reactions and the study of fungi immediately come to mind. Bread-baking. Another way our school is NOT "normal."
   I'm posting my review of my little kitchen workhorse here along with our first successes and their recipes! Keep watching. Can you tell I'm excited?

That's the view from the perch this week. How about you? Do anything "normal?"  Tell Mother All About It!



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