Tag Archives: nature

Unraveling the Monarch Butterfly Migration Mystery

Monarch butterflies at Gulf State Park, Alabama, on the fall migration south. (Photo by Boris Datnow)

Guest Written by Author Claire Datnow.

 

It’s one of nature’s biggest mysteries. Every year, a super generation of monarch butterflies—which lives eight months longer than other generations of monarchs—migrates to one specific location: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, nestled in the majestic oyamel fir forests in the central mountains of Mexico. As many as one million butterflies from wide areas of North America fly to the reserve, a place that they’ve never seen. The trees seem to turn orange, branches bending under the collective weight of thousands of monarch butterflies.

 

In my book Adventures of the Sizzling Six: Monarch Mysteries, jovial science teacher Mr. Ernie Fix describes this phenomenon to his class:

 

‘The monarchs will live here [at the Biosphere Reserve] until the spring comes and mating can begin,’ Mr. Fix says. ‘They must wait for spring when the milkweed starts to grow in the United States and southern Canada. The milkweed provides a place for monarchs to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch into caterpillars, they will feed only on milkweed and no other plant.’

 

Monarchs make the trip to the reserve once in their lives, some navigating as much as three thousand miles to a tiny point on a map. For more than ten thousand years, these monarchs, each weighing no more a paper clip, have traveled without a map, a compass, or GPS. How do they know where to go?

 

Scientists have devoted years to studying monarchs, unraveling part of this mystery: these butterflies are guided by the position of the sun. It’s pretty miraculous if you think of the monarchs as tiny, orange solar compasses with wings.

 

After wintering in the mountains for eight months, when the temperature starts to warm the monarchs begin their return journey, traveling as far north as Canada. When summer ends, the monarchs migrate south again—and so the cycle of life keeps on turning, like a giant Ferris wheel, through the seasons.

 

Unlike the migrations of other insects, four successive generations of monarchs are born and die within two to three weeks along the way. The fourth generation to hatch, known as the super generation, is bigger than the previous three generations and can survive for eight months in the mountains.

 

The monarch butterfly isn’t just fascinating—it’s essential. Without pollinators like monarchs our agriculture and food system would collapse. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (UFWS) estimates the North American monarch population has dropped over 90 percent since the 1990s. In December 2020, the UFWS announced that listing monarchs as a threatened and endangered species is “warranted but precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions.”

 

One conservation concern for monarch butterflies is illegal logging in the reserve that destroys their winter habitat. Their food sources are also disappearing in the US because some farmers consider milkweed a weed and spray it with insecticides.

 

It’s now more important than ever for us to protect these natural wonders! The best thing we can do is plant native milkweed. It’s a great way to learn about nature. Click here for other conservation tips.

 

Teachers and Educators: Visit my website for a FREE handout with role-playing cards featuring characters from Monarch Mysteries.

Making Time for Outdoor Spring Activities

Playing outside makes children happy and healthy! (from the forthcoming Let’s Play Outside; photography by Daniel Nakamura).

Spring is fast approaching, and it’s time to think about getting kids outside! If you’re looking for new ways to encourage your child to play outside and keep their imagination active, here are some practical tips.

Why is it so important for kids to play outside?

Increased technology and higher rates of screen time have been linked to obesity, mental health disorders, insomnia, social disconnection, and lack of exercise. Now more than ever, it’s important for children to spend time outdoors. Harvard health experts cite the following medical (physically, mentally, and socially healthy) reasons for children to be active outside:

  1. Sunshine: Enriches children with vitamin D, contributes to bone development, boosts moods, and aids in healthy sleep.
  2. Executive Function: Executive function skills help children prioritize, plan, multitask, negotiate, imagine, and problem-solve. Children need to be outside to imagine, figure things out, make up games, and navigate unstructured, adult-led time.
  3. Exercise: Children should be active at least one hour each day. Sending them outdoors is the best way to give them room to move in.
  4. Appreciation of Nature: Children need to appreciate the mountains, the sky, the birds, the oceans, the worms. It’s essential to protect our planet.
  5. Taking Risks: Falling off a swing or tripping mid-run is part of understanding that failures occur and we can learn from them. It prepares us for life.
  6. Socialization: This can be tough during a pandemic, but forming a pod with other kids can help. Interacting outside of the classroom or sports team structure is crucial.

Safe, Outdoor Spring Activities for Kids

There are many creative ways to keep kids outside and off screens. Here are some of the most innovative and classic activities that can be done with household members or socially distanced with others.

  • Outdoor tea party: Have your kids dress up, make cucumber sandwiches, and have some lemonade or tea!
  • Go fishing: You can fish in almost any type of water. It teaches children patience, and their faces light up when they catch a fish.
  • Fly a kite!
  • Plant a tree: Purchase a tree seedling, dig a hole that’s twice as wide as the root ball, and pull dirt over it. Make sure to create a little dam around it so the tree can get more water!
  • Grill outside: Hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie skewers, and steaks all taste better outside!
  • Dig for worms: Kids love seeing what’s right under their feet. Dig for worms after the rain when the soil is damp.
  • Press flowers: Pick some flowers and let them dry for 7-10 days. Put them in journals or cards or use as art decorations!
  • Go green for St. Patrick’s Day: If you celebrate, make the theme of the day green. Dress in green, spend time in the green world, and eat green foods!
  • Make a fairy garden: Let your kids pick the spot, set up a little house, lights, glitter, beads, garlands, rocks, figurines, and anything else you want!
  • Dandelion crowns: Collect dandelions with long stems. Wrap one dandelion around the stem of another, and keep adding until it looks like a crown!
  • Make a rain gauge: Find a jar, mark measurements with a ruler, put the jar outside on a level place while it’s raining, and bring it back inside to measure how much it rained!
  • Blow bubbles: All you need is a wand and some bubbles (water and soap)!
  • Celebrate May Day: May 1 is right between the March equinox and the June solstice. Celebrate by making a maypole with colorful ribbons, make flower crowns, have a bonfire, go hiking, and read or write some poetry about spring.
  • Decorate a flower pot: Purchase a terracotta pot, and let your kids use paint, stickers, chalk, markers, etc. Add soil, a plant, let them keep it or gift it!
  • Start a nature collection: Collect rocks, feathers, shells, snakeskins, four-leaf clovers, turtle shells, eggshells, empty nests—anything goes!
  • Make wind chimes: Use anything: seashells, wood, glass, stones, silverware, or anything you think would look beautiful!
  • Make a magic wand: Using a stick and some colored ribbons, let your kid’s imagination run free!
  • Dance in the rain: Dress your child in rain gear, or go barefoot! Splashing in puddles is always fun.
  • Make DIY butterfly wings!
  • Go strawberry picking: Visit a local orchard. Apply plenty of sunscreen and wear boots for the muddy terrain. Fresh strawberries taste delicious!
  • Create a backyard golf course: You can use anything as makeshift holes: cereal boxes, buckets, whatever you think would look cool and might give kids a challenge!
  • Set up a hammock: Taking a nap outside or reading in a hammock is one of life’s simplest pleasures.

Bird-Watching Can be Family Fun

Bird-watching is a fun and educational way to for children to bond with parents while connecting with nature. Not only does the activity encourage children to explore the biodiversity in their area, it also helps develop patience and respect for the environment.

 

Parents and kids can gather and learn about the many different types of birds living around them. Families in rural areas can find good bird-watching spots near nesting trees and other fruitful vegetation. If you live in an urban environment, you can explore your local park or garden. Or, if you prefer to stay indoors, you can transform a window into an observatory.

 

Here are some tips to help you get started on your own bird-watching adventures:

 

Prepare Your Equipment

Bird-watching is an activity that requires a lot of time outdoors. Make sure to pack a bag with water, snacks, sunscreen, and first-aid remedies. If you’re staying at home, keep the items you need with you at all times so the bird-watching experience isn’t interrupted. You can also build or purchase a birdfeeder in your yard if you’d like to attract more birds.

Michelle Coxon (Grandma Is a Slowpoke)

What Should You Pack?

Along with basic necessities, you should pack a guidebook, a sketchpad with coloring pencils and crayons, a camera, and an observation tool. These items are useful no matter where you go bird-watching—whether it’s at home or at your local park.

 

      • The Guidebook – It’s important to research the different kinds of birds in your area for each season. Local bird guidebooks can offer an accurate visual representation of birds you might observe. Use the guidebook to create a list of birds you and your child want to see. Kids can use the guidebook as a reference to help identify the birds. The National Audubon Society also has an app that helps identify birds in your area.

 

      • The Sketchpad – Illustrating birds is an engaging way to enhance the bird-watching experience. This activity is great for kinetic learners as they can create their own personal guidebook. You can also ask your child to point out key identifying details for each bird. Alternatively, you can purchase coloring books featuring the birds in your area.

 

      • The Camera – Cameras can be useful if you want to capture an image of the birds you observe. However, clicking sounds may spook birds so it is better to use cameras with silent image capturing.

 

      • Observation Tool – Determine what observation tool is best for you and your child. There are various kid-friendly binoculars on the market. Adult binoculars and spotting scopes may be hard for children to use so acquiring a monocular lens is a good alternative too. You can also add an ocular lens adapter to a smartphone for a broader view.

 

When Observing

    • Be Respectful and Responsible
      • If you’re in a public area, don’t stray from designated paths when finding a place to observe. It is important the habitat is kept in the same condition you find it. Find a comfortable place to observe and be mindful of the space you’ll occupy. It’s always safer to observe from a distance.

 

      • It is just as important to be respectful of the bird’s habitat when observing in your backyard. If you’re using a birdfeeder, make sure the food you provide is the best diet for birds in your area. Otherwise, do not feed wild birds, as their diets are very specific to their habitats.

Brian Wildsmith (The Owl and the Woodpecker)

    • Listen!
      • Study the different sounds your local birds make. Have your child focus on identifying the sounds of birds by closing their eyes and picturing the bird’s location. This will help spot birds as they are often heard before they are seen. It’s important to be quiet while listening. If a bird approaches, try not to make any sudden movements.

 

      • Indoor observers can choose to keep their windows open or closed when listening. An open window will allow bird sounds to travel easily, but a closed window can act as a barrier, which may allow for more birds to be seen.

 

    • Be Patient! And Play Games
      • Bird-watching is an activity that requires a lot of patience. It will enhance mindfulness through waiting and observation. To keep your kid engaged, actively ask questions, play an “I Spy” game, or create a simple outdoor-friendly scavenger hunt.

The more you practice bird-watching together, the better you and your child will be at spotting birds. It takes time to familiarize yourself with local birds so don’t be discouraged if the first few times are difficult. Bird-watching is an activity you can always come back to for a unique experience, and the more you do it, the more fun you’ll have! Birds are featured in a variety of our books including The Owl and the Woodpecker, City Birds, Grandma is a Slowpoke, and more!