Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Caterpillar in the Street: Tragedy or Transition? August 26, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Plants,Puzzles and Mysteries,Seasons,Summer,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 7:17 pm
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During a break in this afternoon’s rains, I was walking along our street checking for migrant birds. Something caught the corner of my eye — I looked down and found this:

I found this sphinx moth caterpillar laying motionless on the street, under an American Elm tree.

I found this three-inch sphinx moth caterpillar laying motionless on the street, under an American Elm tree. The head is on the left, the hind end (with its horn-like projection) on the right.

We find at least one of these caterpillars each summer, always on the street or sidewalk under an American Elm tree. The green color, overall shape, and especially the pointed projection on the tail convinced me that this must be some kind of hornworm — the caterpillar stage of a sphinx moth.

The caterpillar was motionless. I wondered if it had fallen 30 or 40 feet from the tree above and died. Just in case it was merely stunned, I brought it in our house and put it in a plastic box with some elm leaves. When Ethan and I checked it a few hours later, it was moving its head slowly, stiffly swinging back and forth, so it was still alive. Maybe we could save it!

Then we had a brainstorm. We knew that many hornworms dig into the ground and make a pupa — the transition stage from caterpillar to moth — without spinning a cocoon. And caterpillars often stiffen up before they split their skins, revealing the pupal stage within. Maybe this caterpillar had dropped to the ground on purpose, but had the bad luck to land on the street rather than soft soil. So we added some damp sand to the box, set the caterpillar on the sand, and waited.

Two hours later Ethan checked the box — the caterpillar had disappeared! However, a bit of digging revealed that it had merely dug its way into the sand and curled up into a tight C-shape. We left it alone, because pupating caterpillars can get all messed up if you bother them during this critical transition.

We’ll check again tomorrow and let you know what happened.


Update: The caterpillar continued burrowing in the sand, digging all around the container and finally settling into a rounded cavity just below the surface. Then, after about a week, it died without making a pupa. It turned out to be a tragedy after all. We were very sad.


Follow these links for more information about sphinx moths:

If our caterpillar pupates successfully we’ll have a sphinx moth to identify, which may be easier than identifying a caterpillar or pupa.


What Happened to this Year’s Cicadas? August 25, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Puzzles and Mysteries,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 12:54 pm
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I’m still wondering what happened to this year’s cicadas in our neighborhood. It’s a warm day in late August, yet it’s way too quiet here in south Oak Park. With all our big old trees to feed cicada nymphs, we usually have a pretty deafening chorus this time of day. However, this summer the cicada chorus has been pretty much of a bust through the hot part of the day, then a little louder at dusk. My family has found about a dozen shed cicada skins, but so far no live cicadas or dead adults have crossed our paths. What’s more, traffic on our Kids’ Cicada Hunt home page is way down — less than half of previous years.

On the other hand, I’ve seen maybe 10 times as many Cicada Killer Wasps as usual, mostly because I saw a couple of leks* at sand traps on the Columbus Park Golf Course. Also, traffic is high on my Cicada Killer web pages (here and here, and especially this photo of my then-five-year-old son’s hand). (The week-old blog post is already number 2 with a bullet on my list of all-time top posts.) It makes me wonder what all those mommy wasps are going to feed their babies!

So, how are the cicadas in you life doing? Same as usual, fewer — or are they blasting your ears out? Inquiring minds, like mine, want to know. Is anyone else worried what happened to their cicadas?


*A Cicada Killer Wasp lek is an area where the Cicada Killers emerge and congregate, and the males fight for the right to mate with females of their species. (See here and here.)


Will Birds Be Migrating to Our Block Party? August 21, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Seasons,Summer,Upcoming Events — saltthesandbox @ 8:43 pm
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The boys and I just checked the weather radar to see if the rain will be ending soon — and to see if birds are migrating south towards our “No Child Left Inside” block party. If you look at this weather radar image from the Chicago Tribune‘s website, you’ll see the answer should be yes on both counts:

The animated version of this image shows the storms moving to the southeast, through Chicago.

The green-and-yellow streaks and blobs around and southeast of Chicago are rainstorms. The green circles north and west of Illinois are night-migrating birds taking off and flying south. The animated version of this image showed storms (and migrating birds) moving to the southeast, through Chicago.

Why are birds on the move? Because winds blowing from the north help migrating birds make their southward journeys. Here’s a wind map to show you what we mean:


This map shows wind patterns at about the same time as the radar image, above. By morning we may have five to ten mile-per-hour north winds blowing through our neighborhood, just west of Chicago.

Overnight north winds may bring smaller birds like warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes to our block party. The night-migrating birds will land near sunrise and then spend the morning searching for food. If north winds continue through the day we may see some hawks migrating overhead.

Of course, north winds bring cool air, so temperatures at tomorrow’s block party may only reach the low 70s. (The neighborhood kids won’t be running under the sprinklers like they have some years.) However, our 7:30 a.m. nature walk may turn up some interesting birds, and we’ll keep our eyes and ears open for fall migrants throughout the day.


To learn more:

You can study bird migration using radar images from WeatherUnderground (the source of the Tribune’s images) and the National Weather Service radar website.

The blog tracks bird migration of New Jersey (and other parts of the United States) using weather radar.

To learn more about using weather radar to track bird movements, try the Badbirdz – Reloaded blog, which includes a primer on using weather radar to track bird migration. For deeper explanations of bird migration and radar, try the New Jersey Audubon website.



Our Husked Buckeyes Are Ripe! August 20, 2009

Filed under: Plants,Seasons,Summer,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 2:58 pm
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A week ago I cut through a Buckeye husk and found the full-sized nuts were still white — not the rich brown Buckeye color that’s so beautiful. (You can see the unripe nuts here.)

Well, I set the unripe nuts and husk on a top shelf in our kitchen, out of reach of cats and squirrels. A week later, this is what I found:

Last week the unripe Buckeye nuts were white -- today they were brown and shiny!

Last week the unripe Buckeye nuts were white -- today they were brown and shiny!

The nuts had turned brown and shiny! However, they had also shrunken and wrinkled just a bit. The husk had shriveled and split, revealing a third nut hidden inside.

I’ve got eight or ten more Buckeye husks set aside. I was thinking of cutting them open at the block party this Saturday and making Buckeye crafts (see ideas here). But there are two things that worry me: Some kids on our block have nut allergies — would those extend to Buckeyes? (Others have pondered this question.) Also, many references say fresh Buckeyes are poisonous to fish and other living things (for instance, here). So, maybe Buckeye husking will be a demonstration and not an activity.

Sometimes I wonder how I survived childhood.

Update added October 30, 2009: Buckeyes trees are similar to Horse Chestnut trees. Here’s a blog post from Scotland about collecting conkers, which look like buckeyes but come from Horse Chestnut trees:

Added November 10, 2009: Conkers, Part 2, is all about games children can play just as well with Buckeyes as with Horse Chestnuts:


Was that an American Kestrel across the Street? August 18, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 12:09 pm
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Yesterday morning I heard a “killy killy killy killy killy” sound coming from the treetops across the street. It sounded like this: (play sound file). My first guess was American Kestrel. My second guess was a local Blue Jay who does a good impression of a Kestrel.

I walked down the sidewalk to a break in the trees, so I could see the top of a neighbor’s spruce where Kestrels have perched before. The boys followed with their cameras, and this is what we saw:

As soon as we saw the bird at the top of the spruce tree we could tell it was a Kestrel and not a Blue Jay. Kestrels are small falcons, and this bird had the classic falcon shape in silhouette.

As soon as we saw the bird at the top of the spruce tree, we could tell it was a Kestrel and not a Blue Jay. Kestrels are small falcons, and this bird had the classic falcon shape in silhouette. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

A closer look showed it was a male Kestrel, because the breast was more spotted that streaked. (There are also color differences not visible in this photo.) Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

A closer look showed it was a male Kestrel, because the breast was more spotted that streaked. (There are also color differences not visible in this photo.) Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

So, mystery solved! One other thing: We had very few small birds at our feeder for the next hour or two.


Check these links for more information about American Kestrels:


Cicada Killer Wasps Are Back! August 16, 2009

On this morning’s walk through south Oak Park, I got my first close look at a Cicada Killer Wasp for 2009:

This Cicada Killer Wasp kept perching on a plant overlooking a rather barren garden. That made me suspect it might be a male, guarding a space where he hoped females might dig their burrows.

This Cicada Killer Wasp kept perching on a plant overlooking a rather barren garden. That made me suspect it might be a male, guarding a space where he hoped females might dig their burrows. (The wasp must have been about an inch-and-a-half long, but it looked much larger in person!)

Most of the Cicada Killer Wasps I’ve seen have been near burrows in bare soil, like in a construction site or at the edge of a playground sandpit. In fact, just yesterday I was scanning the Columbus Park golf course, looking for birds, when I spotted a Cicada Killer Wasp at the edge of a sand trap. Then I saw another — and another — and another — until I counted 25 Cicada Killers flying just above that sand trap. Then I looked at the next sand trap west and saw at least 25 more. (Now there’s a hazard that might scare even Tiger Woods!)

This wasp was behaving differently. It kept perching on the top of an 18-inch-tall plant, flying off when I tried to take its photo, then landing again as I pulled back. Once it hovered right in front of my face, looking me in the eye, before returning to its perch. This made me wonder — was this a male Cicada Killer guarding some sort of territory? If so, I’d never seen one of those before — but how could I tell for sure? I decided to check my photos for a stinger — I expected a female would have one, but a male would not. This is what I found:

The tip of the Cicada Killer Wasp had what looked like a small stinger -- not as big as I expected.

The tip of the Cicada Killer Wasp's butt had what looked like a small stinger -- not as big as I expected.

I’ve seen really long stingers on dead Cicada Killers, but this one looked really short. What was going on?

I searched the web for answers and found some useful photos and a surprising fact (here). Female Cicada Killers can retract their long stingers inside their bodies, so you don’t always see stingers on live female wasps. However, male Cicada Killers have a pseudostinger — a fake stinger, one that doesn’t work — that you can see when they are alive.

So, it seems I really did see a male Cicada Killer in that south Oak Park garden. Next time I walk past there, I’ll look for females and burrows.


Here are some websites about Cicada Killer Wasps:

Five-year-old Ethan holding dead Cicada Killer Wasps

Five-year-old Ethan holding dead Cicada Killer Wasps


Planning Our “No Child Left Inside” Block Party August 15, 2009

Yesterday I went door to door passing out preliminary schedules for this year’s summer block party. That’s a bit of an undertaking, since our block is really a block-and-a-half long, with closely spaced houses and two apartment buildings at one end. For orientation, the middle of our block looks like this:

My house is the third from the left. Many drivers consider the 25 mph speed limit an unwelcome suggestion. Most days, a kids front-yard life focuses on the sidewalk. On black party days, thew street is closed to traffic, and everyone's focus shifts to the asphalt street.

Here's our block in south Oak Park. My house is the third from the right. Many drivers consider the 25 mph speed limit an unwelcome suggestion, so most kids' front-yard life focuses on the concrete sidewalk. On block party days the street is closed to traffic, and everyone's focus shifts to the wide expanse of asphalt.

In addition to the 50 houses and 2 apartment buildings on our block, we also invite the west half of the next block over, since they live on a major road that can’t be closed for parties. I printed 90 schedules and had fewer than 10 left.

Preliminary Activity Schedule

Here’s the preliminary schedule for our block’s 40th summer party. (Yes, we really do have a small archive that goes back that far.) I’ll give some history, explanation, analysis, and commentary later in this post:

7:30 to 8:30 A.M.– Neighborhood Nature Walk: Look for birds, bugs, trees and more on our block (explorations for all ages)

9 A.M. to 11 P.M. – STREET CLOSES AT 9 A.M. Bikes, scooters, skateboards, and rollerblading in the street, along with sports and games, kids’ outdoor toys, and more

BREAKFAST at 9 A.M. near the middle of the block. Everyone is invited to enjoy donuts, bagels, rolls, coffee, juice, and conversation.

9:30 to 11:30 A.M.– Decorate trikes, bikes, and scooters in the middle of the block AND nature collecting & sidewalk chalk village at our house

10 to 11:30 A.M.– Nature Swap — Children can trade natural things that they have found for natural treasures from around the world

10 A.M. to 2 P.M. – DinoJump! (Kids climb inside and jump like crazy)

11:30 A.M.  Parade (decorated vehicles get a prize)

LUNCH: Everyone eats at their own house. (This makes it easier to get little kids down for their naps.)

1 to 4 P.M. – Build a woodland fairy village and Invention Fair (build and display an invention using recycled stuff)

2 to 3 P.M. – Meet live animals: Tadpoles, toads, & turtles (just a few of our many pets)

2 to 4:30 P.M. – Nature crafts using shells, shark teeth and other natural treasures to make a collage (by my wife!)

3:30 to 5 P.M. – Bubble & water play

4 to 5 P.M. – Face painting by a young artist

SUPPER at about 5 P.M. in the middle of the street. Everyone grills their own main course; one side of the block brings salads and other side dishes, the other brings desserts.

After Dinner – Bingo! (with prizes for kids)

After Bingo – Live music by a neighborhood teen’s rock band

Two Critical Ingredients

Now, if you stumbled on this post while searching for ideas for your first block party, please don’t be intimidated by our busy schedule. In my experience, a block party has only two critical ingredients:

  • Street closed to traffic
  • Shared food

Closing the street to traffic changes everything for kids. Suddenly the neighborhood is many times more interesting, even to kids who usually spend many hours in front of screens. Of course, the other kids on the street are as much of an attraction as the open space. Shared food helps get the adults together doing what they’re supposed to do — talk to their neighbors. Breakfast seems to be the most important meal for this kind of mixing, since that’s when people converse with neighbors who they haven’t talked with in many months. Supper is shared but less effective, since many families spend that meal with friends from off the block.

The other activities help keep kids amused once the initial thrill of the street wears off, plus they provide secondary centers for adult conversation. For families with toddlers and preschoolers, having your kids safely busy gives you more time to talk with adults. The activities are fun and useful, but you could get by with just a few of them.

Developing Block Party Activities

I keep these things in mind as I develop the activity schedule:

Legacy activities. Many activities at our parties are legacies — we tried them once, and now they’re so popular that kids would cry if we tried to drop them. The DinoJump is a legacy; we stole the idea from another block about 10 years ago; now it’s incredibly popular with kids, less so with the adults who have to rent and supervise it. (Even the name “DinoJump” is a legacy, since it’s been years since our jump was actually shaped like a dinosaur.) Bingo is another legacy. In fact, our bingo leader was the recording secretary at that first block party planning meeting, 40 years ago.

Activities express their leaders’ interests. My wife, Gail, is an occupational therapist and artist, so it’s natural that she should lead the afternoon nature crafts. A sports-loving family down the block converts their section of street into a skateboarders’ paradise. And my agenda has long been helping kids build their interests in nature, science, and technology, so I do a bunch of activities on those themes. And now my agenda includes “No Child Left Inside.”

Recycling is good! Many of my activities date back to when I volunteered at Wonder Works, led a Camp Fire group, or ran a Nature and Science Club at our neighborhood school. And my kids and I have had many passionate interests over the years (from cars to dinosaurs to birds), so I tried many of our nature, science, and technology activities at home before taking them on the road. Also, we recycle many activities year-after-year; see Legacies, above.

Every block’s party is unique. There are lots of block parties in Oak Park, each with its own history and leaders. The activities at each party reflect the history, constraints, and current composition of its neighborhood. Planners from different blocks hear what’s going on elsewhere and steal ideas, but somehow every party stays unique. That’s the way it’s always been, but if you don’t like it, you can change it — all you have to do is say you’ll be in charge.

So, that’s the context I considered as I developed the “No Child Left Inside” block party.

This Year’s “No Child Left Inside” Activities

As I discussed in an earlier post (here), there’s a whole “No Child Left Inside” movement out there, and I see our block party as part of it. Of course, all block parties get kids outside, but I’ve been thinking of ways to extend the experience, giving families ideas they can use outside all year.

So, here are activities I’m trying for this year’s “No Child Left Inside” theme:

Neighborhood Nature Walk: The nature walk is new this year. Of course, it fits with the theme of this blog (Neighborhood Nature). We’ll concentrate on front-yard nature this year. If we attract an audience, we’ll try backyard and alley walks at later parties. I’ll help participants discover new animals and plants — things they’ve been walking past all summer but not noticing. We’ll also discuss what to look for as summer ends and fall begins.

Nature Collecting: We’ll restock Collector’s Garden (which is open all year) and haul out a sandbox that we can “salt” with natural treasures. I may also enrich the local supply of acorns, winged seeds, and buckeyes on our street, just to see what happens.

Nature Swap: For the last few summers we’ve been setting up a table of natural treasures that kids can trade for — their natural finds for our natural treasures from around the world. This activity was inspired by the nature swap exhibits at Minnesota Museum of Science’s Collectors’ Corner, Brookfield Zoo’s Play Zoo, and elsewhere. This year I’m also going to encourage the kids to trade with each other.

Sidewalk Chalk Village: As we’ve been doing most years, we’ll be putting Aaron’s old toy car and wooden train sets out in the street for kids to play with. This year we’ll also use sidewalk chalk to draw train tracks, streets, buildings, rivers, and more on the pavement — just like we used to do with Aaron. It kept him outside and amused for hours — maybe other families will try it at their homes.

Nature Crafts: Gail plans to have cardboard patterns of butterflies that the kids can decorate with beads, stickers, and markers and also do nature collages on rectangles of poster boards, either making scenes, like a beach scene with shells, or just making a display of some of their favorite rocks, shells, shark teeth, leaves, sticks, flowers and more.

Woodland Fairy Village: The big trees on our street shed lots of twigs and bark, and these days most of it goes to waste — hauled away by the village when it would be lots of fun to play with. We’ll help kids use these natural materials to build a “fairyland” on some bare dirt in front of our house. They can revisit their constructions the next morning to discover rewards the no-longer-homeless fairies have left behind. (My parents used to leave candy, but we’ll probably leave polished rocks.)

Meet Live Animals: For years my family has displayed wild animal pets during our block party. This year I’m going to focus more on the animals that live right on our block — like soil animals and squirrels.

Those are the ideas I put in the preliminary schedule, but I’m already thinking of other activities. I’ll probably have a table of books — field guides for everyone, Richard Louv and David Sobel for the teachers and school volunteers who live on our block, nature story books for kids — along with blankets and beanbags to read on. I may bribe Ethan and Aaron to show the younger folks some outdoor games they can play on front yards and tree lawns, even after the street reopens. I’m sure we’ll come up with more activities before next Saturday.

Wait Until Next Year!

That’s what we’ve planned for our “No Child Left Inside” block party, but this year is just the beginning. I’m thinking next year’s block party should be earlier in the summer — not right before school starts — so families can discover outdoor ideas they can use all summer long. Also, I’ll recruit parents to the “No Child Left Behind” theme in advance — it didn’t occur to me until weeks after this year’s planning meeting. Maybe some younger families will be inspired to start a Nature Club (like this) for our block. (I’ve got a whole year to dream about next summer.)


Note added September 22, 2009: I used the social networking application Twitter to keep up a running commentary before, during, and after our block party. Now I have collected all the tweets in one place, so you can read it here. (This stream is no longer publicly available on Twitter.)


Of course, if I really want to dream big, I can think about ways to change the traffic pattern in our neighborhood. The Active Living Resource Center has some interesting ideas in this PDF file.