Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

My Twitter Stream from Our No Child Left Inside Block Party, August 22 September 22, 2009

Since this summer’s No Child Left Inside (NCLI) block party started kind of slow, I pulled out my laptop and started tweeting about events (and non events). Twitter has since erased all those tweets from the public record, so I decided to retrieve them and put them on the web for anyone interested in planning their own party.

I reversed the Twitter order so that the first tweets are at the top of the page, rather than lost at the bottom. That way it reads more like a story. I also added some tweets from before and after the party, plus I added a bit of commentary that I neglected to tweet during the party. Finally, I did some editing and reforming, removing various aspects of Twitter speak but leaving a few #NCLIBlockParty “hash tags,” as they’re called. (That’s a way to search for all the tweets on a topic.)

So, starting a week or so before the party:

We’re planning our summer block party as a “no child left inside” event, hopefully with longer term effects. 12:56 PM Aug 12th

Our “No Child Left Inside” block party is next week. I blogged about its philosophy & posted the activity schedule here: 4:02 PM Aug 15th

Just posted NO PARKING signs for tomorrow’s “No Child Left Inside” block party It may rain a bit, but we’ll survive.  2:06 PM Aug 21st

I probably won’t have time/energy to live blog the party, but I may Tweet about AM nature walk finds. Predicted north winds = good migrants? 2:09 PM Aug 21st

Of course, my kids feel too old for all this. They will help with nature activities, but would rather chase a possible Stint in Ohio. 2:12 PM Aug 21st

Forecast for tomorrow’s “No Child Left Inside” block party: Rain ending, migrating birds arriving for our nature walk.  10:08 PM Aug 21st

And now it’s August 22, the date of the NCLI Block Party:

Weather radar showed some migration in our area last night — saw 4 Robins in front yards instead of the 1 we’ve been seeing. 6:45 AM Aug 22nd

Much more migration to the west of us. Hope nothing rare reported on birding lists — the boys would be begging to leave our #NCLIBlockParty. 6:47 AM Aug 22nd

I almost forgot the other important things about the weather: It’s about 60 and NOT RAINING on our #NCLIBlockParty.  6:56 AM Aug 22nd

So far I’ve counted 10 bird species and only 2 humans other than myself. Fortunately, our #NCLIBlockParty nature walk runs until bedtime. 7:47 AM Aug 22nd

An Annual Cicada just started a song, then quit. Temperature only 59 degrees, but at least it’s sunny!  8:07 AM Aug 22nd

It turned out that my kids were the only ones who woke up early enough for the 8 a.m. nature walk. So we decided to fit in nature observations and activities throughout the day, as they happened.

1 more human — Emma, a naturalist since her toddler years, current geology student, going back to college.  8:42 AM Aug 22nd

3 birds are singing, Cardinal, American Goldfinch & Starling, plus lots of cheeps and chirps, as expected this time of year.  8:44 AM Aug 22nd

The Village’s block party website advises, “Supervise children at all times.” What would @FreeRangeKids say to that?   8:48 AM Aug 22nd

Our street is now closed to traffic — kids are appearing outdoors (some without parents). Safe streets make a difference!  9:10 AM Aug 22nd

The DinoJump and a new neighbor’s moving truck showed up at the same time. Got that sorted out. On with the show!  9:43 AM Aug 22nd

Kids in DinoJump or on bikes/skateboards in the street. Except for supervising DinoJump, adults leaving kids on their own.  11:31 AM Aug 22nd

Having friends over is a vital part of #NCLIBlockParty. Ethan has friends over, Aaron’s can’t come yet. Ethan’s busy, Aaron’s bored.11:35 AM Aug 22nd

We have 13 bird species so far, all summer residents. Aaron and I are going to search for fall migrants.  11:41 AM Aug 22nd

Oh my, Ethan and his friends have started climbing trees! (The few that can be climbed on our block) #NCLIBlockParty must be a success! 12:27 PM Aug 22nd

Now the high school freshmen are playing with sticks and stones. Could we ask for anything more?  12:37 PM Aug 22nd

The next tweet relates to one of the activities we did with the younger kids: Turning over rocks, catching the bugs, worms, and slugs, and putting them in containers for a closer look.

2 preschool girls were just arguing over who had the cutest slug. As they left, they said I should “take good care of them.” 1:12 PM Aug 22nd

Busy, busy, busy — digging for treasures, trading at Nature Swap, wild pets (like tadpoles, mosquito larvae), & soil bugs.  3:36 PM Aug 22nd

Time to slow things down with nature crafts, giant bubbles, building with bark and sticks.  3:38 PM Aug 22nd

Cool thing this year: Lots of 6th to 9th graders active outside with their friends — mixing, talking, doing our activities. 3:40 PM Aug 22nd

Of course, I’ve watched most these kids grow — I can tell WHY things are working — it’s a good mix of great kids.  3:46 PM Aug 22nd

Got to fire up the grills soon. I’ve taken some digital photos of activities, but I won’t have time to post. 3:49 PM Aug 22nd

Aaron’s friend finally showed up. He’s happy, at last.  3:51 PM Aug 22nd

I just counted 50 kids on our street. Half are doing active sports; half older than 10; half are guests from off the block.  4:08 PM Aug 22nd

Our bubble mix: 2 buckets warm water (less what kids spill); biggest Dawn Ultra available; 6 oz CVS glycerin; stand back…   4:26 PM Aug 22nd

Six-on-six touch football in the street, coached/officiated by one of the dads.  4:48 PM Aug 22nd

I hear tonight’s high-school-aged rock band practicing in their garage. (They’re up-and-coming, so we just pass the hat.)  4:54 PM Aug 22nd

First casualty of the day was an accidentally smashed slug. Second: The coach/dad was hit on the nose with a football.  5:23 PM Aug 22nd

I thought 4 gallons of lemonade mix would be enough for a cool day. Then they started playing football.  5:24 PM Aug 22nd

Another dad stepped in as coach/official for big-kid football — his kids are 7 and under, so I think he’s loving it.  5:25 PM Aug 22nd

It’s great to have a long block. We have room for football, bubbles, little kids stuff, bikes, & dinner setup at same time.  5:28 PM Aug 22nd

Dinner’s over, time for bingo under the stars…er, clouds. This tradition is led by one of the founders of our block party.  6:52 PM Aug 22nd

Suspicious activity in the alley — everyone reminded to lock their back door and keep an eye on loose bikes.  7:22 PM Aug 22nd

Our local band (headliners) swung deals for a stage, sound system & lighting — the opening act brought the sound system. 7:24 PM Aug 22nd

Middle schoolers crowding the stage during set up, as bingo concludes at the other end of the block.  7:25 PM Aug 22nd

While the opening act plays the Beatles, Gail & I are putting away tables & supplies with a little help from our friends.  8:07 PM Aug 22nd

As one end of the block rocks on, the other plays ghost in the graveyard. And glow sticks decorate everything.  8:56 PM Aug 22nd

It’s barely 9 o’clock. Two more hours…. I think the parents are ready to call it a night, but not the kids.  8:59 PM Aug 22nd

The street is quiet — just a few clusters of teens/adults. Maybe the day did wear out the kids, as the parents hoped.  9:54 PM Aug 22nd

The #NCLIBlockParty is over! As I took down the barricades, the last kids on the street scootered along, taking down No Parking signs. Bye! 11:10 PM Aug 22nd

And now some tweets from the next day and beyond. I’ve been keeping an eye out for kids playing outside on our block.

The block looks pretty good AM after #NCLIBlockParty. Folks already picked up most the trash, squirrels and starlings getting what’s left. 8:18 AM Aug 23rd

#NCLIBlockParty lost-and-found at record low: 1 scooter, 5 dot paintings, & 1 steak knife left behind — on our front steps until reclaimed.  8:21 AM Aug 23rd  Later some lost kitchenware also turned up down the street.

24 hrs ago there were 50 kids playing outside on our block. Now there is 1 parent pulling 1 toddler in a wagon. (sigh…)  4:01 PM Aug 23rd

At least the boys are bugging me to take them birding at Columbus Park. Soon, Aaron, soon….  4:03 PM Aug 23rd

It’s sunset, but the middle-school skateboarders & four families with younger kids are outside on our block. I’m smiling….  7:40 PM Aug 23rd

And finally, from mid-September:

A dozen middle schoolers took back our street! A diverse group in gender, ethnicity, & mode of transportation. (Just went home for supper.) 5:23 PM Sep 16th    I wish that happened more often!


That’s it for now. I may add photos and more commentary later.


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.


Block Parties: Outdoor and Nature Play, All Day Long! August 12, 2009

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be working with our neighbors to plan our summer block party. That’s the one day of the summer when all the neighborhood kids play outdoors throughout the day and into the night. On other days, most of the kids I see outside on our block seem to be walking to the nearby pool with their families or middle-school skateboarders reclaiming the street. (Full disclosure: I root for the skateboarders!)

So, this year I’m thinking about block party planning in the context of the movement to get more kids playing outside. Organizations involved in this movement include Children and Nature, Nature Rocks, Green Hour, and Chicago Wilderness, with its Leave No Child Inside campaign. There are also parent-to-parent bloggers helping families with activity and field trip ideas, like 5 Orange Potatoes, Double the Adventure, The Grass Stain Guru, Kids Off the Couch, and Kids Discover Nature. (My blog is kind of in the same vein, although our family has older children who are already obsessively interested in nature, or at least in birds.)

So, I’m thinking about things we can do to with the neighborhood kids that might inspire them to spend more time outside after the block party ends. For instance, we’ll restock our Collector’s Garden (see it here), which is already open spring through fall. We’ll show kids how they can play outside with their indoor toys, like my kids used to do with cars and trains and trucks. We’ll try to interest more kids in building with natural materials by helping them construct a “fairyland” with twigs and bark, and then encouraging them to revisit it the next day to see what rewards the no-longer-homeless fairies have left behind. (My parents used to leave candy, but we’ll probably leave polished rocks.)

I’m sure we’ll come up with many more ideas. I’ll post the best ones on this blog.


Be sure and read the comments section! Folks are adding more ideas for outdoor activities.

If you want to read about our applied philosophy and preliminary schedule for the “No Child Life Inside” block party, please go here.

I searched the Web for ideas for a nature-themed, no-child-left-inside block party. Earth Day on Your Block seemed useful, as did this No Child Left Inside PDF file by Sharron Krull, and some of the more general sites on organizing block parties. But I’ve still got lots more digging to do to develop this theme.


Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment April 16, 2009

Next Wednesday, April 22, I’ll be putting on an Earth Day event at Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park. I’ll be using this blog to (1) write about and illustrate the principles that I’m using to design this program, (2) show examples of what we wind up doing at Wonder Works, and (3) give readers ideas about what they can do in their own neighborhoods to support the development of nature-loving kids.

In days to come I’ll expound on the history of the No Child Left Inside movement (which I seem to be a part of) and discuss some authors who have helped me develop my ideas (like Richard Louv, David Sobel, and others). For now, I’ll just spell out the most recent version of my own, personal, Principles for Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment:

1. Appreciate the nature you’ve got. There’s probably a lot more nature in your neighborhood than you realize. Recognize what you’ve got, pay attention to it, appreciate it, incorporate it into your life and into your kids’ play. (This blog provides ideas of what to look for in your neighborhood.)

2. Make your neighborhood a better place for nature-loving kids. Grow a garden, feed the birds, salt your sandbox, keep outdoor containers filled with water all year ’round, give the kids a corner of your yard where they can build a fort or play in the dirt.

3. Bring the outdoors indoors — but do it as a beginning, not as an end in itself. Collect natural things and bring them home, fill the bathtub with snow, raise indoor plants, make sure the kids’ toy box includes sticks and rocks as well as plastic toys, start an aquarium, make home-made play dough when you can’t play in the mud, keep pets — small wild ones and larger domesticated ones. But realize that this is just a beginning — the real goal is to get back outside and experience nature in an outdoor setting.

4. Bring the indoors outdoors. Toy trucks and cars, wooden trains, and plastic dinosaurs are as much fun outdoors as they are inside — and maybe more! Back when my kids were passionately interested in these things, we used to move our play to the front sidewalk or our vest-pocket backyard once the weather turned warm. You can see examples here and here and here. (Oops, maybe skip the last one if you’re not used to having older b0ys around.)

5. Use all the resources available to you — people, print, and electronic. Find informal mentors in your neighborhood, at local organizations (like clubs and museums), or online. Visit your local library frequently and search the Web for more resources. (As your kids grow older and more media savvy, they may take over this role, like my boys did with our family’s birding interest.)

6. Be prepared to travel. The first four principles are about making your home and neighborhood a better place to raise nature-loving kids. If you are successful, they’ll outgrow the nature you can offer close to home. When my kids were young, we visited local parks, museums, zoos, and arboretums. Now we go still go to parks, but we also search out other places, where we make our own natural experiences. (You can see examples here and here.)

7. Understand and support whatever kinds of nature-loving kids you’ve got. Observe how your child interacts with nature, and start from there. Do they lead with their head or their heart? Do they seek adventure or avoid it? What attracts them, what disgusts or frightens them? Knowing these things will help you design a life-in-nature that builds on their interests and strengths.

That’s almost it for now — but I’ll be writing more over the next few weeks (both before and after Earth Day). Feel free to contribute your own thoughts!

For now, just one more thing: A link to a Pioneer Press article about our Earth Day plans for Wonder Works. (Thanks, Myrna!)


Note: Principles 5 and 6 were added on April 20, 2009. Principle 4 was added on August 11, 2009.


Leaves of Native Wildflowers Are Emerging at Columbus Park April 13, 2009

On Sunday, April 12, while birding in the woods beside Columbus Park lagoon, we discovered the emerging leaves of native wildflowers. We found the first Mayapple leaves we’ve seen this spring:

There were several stages of opening Mayapple leaves. Soon we'll see flower buds below some of the leaf umbrellas.

There were several stages of opening Mayapple leaves. Soon we'll see flower buds below some of the leaf umbrellas.

And also the first Trout Lily leaves:

The purplish marked Trout Lily leaves had emerged, but no sign of flower buds so far. This plant is also called.....

The purple-marked Trout Lily leaves had emerged, but no sign of flower buds so far.

We had seen Cutleaf Toothwort blooming earlier this spring at Clinton Lake in central Illinois, so we weren’t surprised to see both leaves and flower buds at Columbus Park:

Cut-leaved Toothwort leaves and buds, Columbus Park, Illinois, April 12, 2009.

Toothwort flowers look like tiny white teeth when they first open, and the leaves look like they've been cut out by tiny scissors.

We also made a slightly more ominous discovery. Back on March 23rd, we showed photos of a cultivated flower which we identified as Siberian Squill, but others know as Scilla (its scientific name). On Sunday we discovered that this garden flower has escaped its intended bounds and invaded the woods beside Columbus Park lagoon. Because this also happens elsewhere, Scilla is listed in the Global Compendium of Weeds and on some web documents about invasive plants. Some folks who track invasive species suggest that Scilla may not harm native wildflowers, like Trout Lily and Mayapple. But another wrote, “the jury is still out whether this is a harmless garden escapee or something to worry about.” So, we’ll keep an eye on the Park’s woodland Scilla this spring and beyond.


Nature News from Columbus Park: New Bird, New Flower, New Burns March 23, 2009

On my first day back from Circle Pines, I took an exercise walk to Columbus Park to monitor birds and other forms of nature.

The new bird of the day was a Belted Kingfisher patrolling the lagoon, flying back and forth and making its rattling call. Last year Kingfishers visited Columbus Park in early spring and later in the summer, but went elsewhere to nest. Some Kingfishers stick around Illinois all winter if there’s open water to dive and catch their fish, but last year they left the Park in late October. (Our other bird sightings from the Park are summarized on this page.)

The new flower is a cultivated plant in the shaded garden by Refectory pool. The flowers lent a bluish cast to the green carpet of leaves:

The deep green leaves and blue flowers carpeted the garden near the Refectory pool.

The deep green leaves and blue flowers carpeted a garden near the Refectory pool.

A closer look revealed droopy flowers that looked a bit like a Snowdrops but were intensely blue. Also the leaves were broader and darker green than Snowdrops:

Up close, the flowers where shaped a bit like Snowdrops, but were intensely blue in color.

Up close the flowers were shaped a bit like Snowdrops, but were intensely blue.

I’m no expert on cultivated plants, so I Googled a preliminary identification. My best guess is Siberian Squill — not as poetic as “Snowdrops,” but that seems to be its name. (If you know your flowers, please comment below to correct or confirm my identification.)

Two areas of the Park had prescribed burns this year. The burns were intentionally set fires designed to improve habitats for native plants and animals. The fires must have been set after my visit to the Park on Friday morning and were closely monitored so they didn’t spread too far. One burn was in the restored prairie on the large peninsula, between the arms of the lagoon. The other burn was in the woodland just west of the lagoon. Here’s what the burned prairie looked like:

The blackened area in "peninsula prairie" was burned by land managers to maintain the native grasses and wildflowers.

The blackened area was burned by land managers to protect native grasses and wildflowers from invading shrubs and trees.

Looking closer, patches of prairie grass and dried wildflowers remained:

Some patches of unburned grass remain. The box on a pole is a shelter for bats, recently installed.

The prescribed burn on the "peninsula prairie" left some patches of unburned grass. (The box on a pole is a shelter for bats, recently installed.)

This field, which we call “peninsula prairie,” grows native grasses, sedges, and summer wildflowers. It attracts migrating birds rare elsewhere in our neighborhood, like Lincoln’s and Clay-colored Sparrows. (Obscure sparrows like these both delight and frustrate beginning birders.) Without periodic burning, willows and other woody plants might overwhelm the prairie, and we’d lose the native plants and birds. So far, so good with this round of burning. I heard a male Song Sparrow singing, claiming the blackened ground. An Eastern Phoebe searched for flying insects above the burn, and Dark-eyed Juncos foraged on the edges. We’ll watch the prairie through spring and summer to see how plants and other birds respond.

The second burn was something new. The “lagoon woodland,” as we call it, has lots of oaks and other trees, an understory of shrubs, but few native wildflowers. Without plants covering the ground, fallen leaves blow away, leaving bare soil to erode. The burn seems designed to “open up” the woods, so sun-loving native grass and flowers can flourish:

In the woodland west of the lagoon, the groundcover and shrubs were burned, but the trees were not.

In the woodland west of the lagoon, the ground cover and bases of the shrubs were burned, but the trees were not harmed.

Again, so far so good. Today I saw and heard Cardinals, Juncos, and Phoebes in the woods, and a Swamp Sparrow at the water’s edge. I’m excited to see what happens to the plants — we’ll watch this growing season and next to see how things change. Ethan will record the changing plants, birds, butterflies, and bugs with his new camera.

So, that’s the news from Columbus Park. Tomorrow we’ll update you on spring in south Oak Park.


Upcoming Events: Science and Nature Activities by Neighborhood Nature March 13, 2009

Neighborhood Nature will bring hands-on science and nature activities to three events during March and April:

ESCONI Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Show: THIS WEEKEND, Saturday and Sunday, March 14 and 15, 2009. ESCONI is the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois, and our annual show brings exhibitors and dealers from around the Midwest to the College of DuPage for two days. Gail’s favorite jewelry maker (Exclusive Inspiration) will be there, along with her Dad, who is Ethan’s favorite fossil dealer (Rib River Fossils). Our family will help run the ESCONI Juniors Kids’ Corner activities both days. We’ll have free collecting and craft activities for children and a sales area with inexpensive rocks, minerals, and fossils for sale just to children and teachers. Web address:

Earth Day at Wonder Works, Wednesday morning, April 22, 2009. We’ve done informal hands-on activities at Wonder Works since it first opened in north Oak Park. Our 2009 Earth Day activities are currently being designed to illustrate a  range of ways that adults can nurture young children’s love for the natural world, even if they live in a densely populated place like south Oak Park. (That’s been the story of my life for the past dozen years!) Many of the activities will be based on David Sobel’s design principles for helping children make connections with nature, but I’ll give them an urban spin. There are two basic ideas: (1) Adults should help children learn to love the natural world before they asking them to save it, and (2) children learn that love by play and exploration in natual settings. As summarized on a series of blog postings by a children’s garden educator, the ways children learn to love nature include: Adventure; Fantasy and Imagination; Animal Allies; Maps and Paths; Special Places; Small Worlds; and Hunting and Gathering. We’ll provide details about our Earth Day activities as we invent them during the weeks before the program.

Academic Fair at Washington Irving School in Oak Park, evening of Wednesday, April 22, 2009. We’ll run informal activites in the Mini-Gym while the main event — the student projects — are on display in the Main Gym. We’ll probably bring a combination of ESCONI and Earth Day activites, with some technology and physical science activities as well. (If Irving School families want us to bring back favorites from the past, please let us know as soon as possible.)

So, hope to see you at one of these events!


Big Green and Big Footprint Birding February 17, 2009

It was a long and pretty birdy weekend, with a bit of Big Green and a lot of Big Footprint birding. (That’s Big Carbon Footprint — see below.) The weekend was long because school was half days on Thursday and Friday, and the boys had Monday off for President’s Day. It was pretty birdy because we went on lots of birding trips and saw many of the birds we hoped to see, but not all of them.

The Big Green part was my birding for the Great Backyard Bird Count, which was mostly done around the neighborhood on foot. Big Green Big Year birding, pronounced “Bigby,” is self-propelled, low carbon-footprint birding. My Bigby ambitions for 2009 are to see 150 species while birding on foot around our extended neighborhood. I added White-breasted Nuthatch to my Bigby list on Thursday on a Backyard Bird Count. Go here to read about my Bigby progress.

It was a Big Carbon Footprint weekend because many of our birding trips were to far off destinations, driving hundreds of miles round trip. In our family, most Big Footprint birding adds rare birds for our lists. Aaron and I keep formal year lists of all the birds we see from January 1 to December 31. (Ethan keeps track of year birds in his head.) Both Aaron and Ethan keep formal life lists — all the bird species they’ve ever seen in the wild — but I don’t. (I keep Aaron company with year lists, but large-scale lists just aren’t my thing.)

When Aaron first started a year list in 2008, it helped revitalize his passion for birding. There’s almost always some bird he wants to see in Illinois or surrounding states — something to tear him away from his electronic interests. This Saturday morning we traveled to Lake County, Illinois, to add Black Scoter and Red-throated Loon to our year lists. Then we went to Indiana Dunes State Park for an evening owl walk, but only heard woodpeckers and raccoons. Our Monday trip swept from Kane County, Illinois, south and then east along the Kankakee River, ending the day in Indiana. We missed the Townsend’s Solitaire in Kane County, but found Long-eared Owls, Killdeer, Greater White-fronted Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and Wild Turkeys. Aaron’s 2009 year list almost reached 100 species. Go here for an update on my 2009 list and some details about our trips.

Our regional trips are mostly Medium Footprint expeditions; our Biggest Footprints come on family vacations. For instance, Ethan’s a dedicated life-list person. With more than 400 birds on his life list, he”ll find just a few more life birds in the Midwest. So, Ethan plans our family vacations around birds he wants to see. Last year he planned our summer driving vacation to birding hotspots between Chicago and Frisco, Colorado. The boys found more than 50 life birds on that trip. This year Ethan’s planning a family vacation to California, and he hopes for dozens more lifers.

Can you tell I’m ambivalent about Big Footprint birding? I like that it maintains my boys’ interest in birds, but my own interests are much more local. Aaron and Ethan get interested in local birds early in the year, when the year list is just beginning, or when there’s something rare at our feeders. Local sites also attract attention during spring and fall migration, when year birds and rarities show up not far from our home. Other than that, it takes travel to add birds to their lists.

Bigby birding is best for me. If we have to use a car, I’d rather chase rare birds within our county. This weekend’s short trips included a Thursday afternoon adventure to southern Cook County, a Sunday morning trip to the Chicago Lakefront, and two trips to look for Long-eared Owls in a Chicago neighborhood. These trips were not particularly successful. We missed most target birds and only got distant views of a female Barrow’s Goldeneye on Lake Michigan. These failures shaped our plans for longer trips on Saturday and Monday. At least we tried local places first.

The winds today are from the south. This time of year a warm front may bring snow, but it can also transport early migrants to our neighborhood. Maybe the boys and I can find common ground later in the week if a Ross’s Goose settles at Columbus Park, or a Fox Sparrow stops to search for seed in our backyard. Or maybe I can interest the boys in a new, more locally focused kind of list, perhaps a list just for our town or county. We have bird lists for our block and for nearby Columbus Park. The Listers’ Corner on the Illinois Ornithological Society website may provide more inspiration.

Or maybe we need to relate to birds in completely different ways. Maybe our bird monitoring at Columbus Park could evolve into a stewardship role. Perhaps our volunteer work at the Animal Care League could lead to helping out a bird rescue and rehab center. I guess we’ll try to keep an open mind and see what happens.

Until then, the boys will follow Birdmail to plan our next long trip, while I continue to walk the neighborhood.


Weekend Report: Wild Things and Birding Other People’s Neighborhoods February 9, 2009

On Saturday, February 7, I took the Blue Line to University of Illinois at Chicago and spent the day at the 2009 Wild Things conference. There were about a thousand attendees and more than a hundred presentations, posters, and booths to choose from.

I picked the sessions that would most support my interests in neighborhood nature and took down names of other speakers, so I could look up their work at a later date. I learned a lot about urban wildlife, like squirrels, cottontail rabbits, and Canada Geese. I also found out more about citizen science efforts to monitor local birds, mammals, and frogs, including some initial findings and recommendations from this research. I heard about people’s changing relationship with nature and discovered local grassroots groups dealing with environmental issues like one that south Oak Park faced in Barrie Park. And I made contacts in the Chicago Park District that may deepen my family’s involvement at Columbus Park.

I learned way too much to put in one post, plus I need to do more research — online and on the ground — before I write about what I learned. So, stay tuned.

On Sunday, the family split up: Aaron went to Starved Rock State Park with his friend, Matt, where he saw Bald Eagles and added five birds to his year list. Dad and Ethan headed to the Indiana shore in search of other year birds. And Mom stayed in the neighborhood to do her homework and work out at Pav YMCA. Go here to read more about the birding part of our adventures.