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.


Cicada on the Sidewalk: Not Quite Dead September 9, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Fall,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 1:25 pm
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Adult cicadas face a rough transition from nymph to adult and are always in danger of being eaten. However, quite a few cicadas do survive to mate and lay eggs. By late summer these survivors start to die of — what else can we call it? — old age.

So, a few days ago Aaron found our first half-dead Annual Cicada of the year. It just lay there on the sidewalk, legs folded up, as if it was asleep:

The dying Annual Cicada just lay there with its legs folded under its body.

The dying Annual Cicada just lay there with its legs folded under its body.

When I picked it up, it started to buzz, vibrating my finger tips. But stopped after two seconds. Turning it over, we could see some body parts involved in making the buzzing sound (red arrow), plus the long, pointed beak it sometimes uses to suck sap from plants (blue arrow):

Underside of the Annual Cicada. The red arrow points to the visible part of the body that makes the buzzing sound. The blue arrow points to the tube its sometimes uses to suck plant juice (and occasionally jab a threatening animal -- or human).

Underside of the Annual Cicada. The red arrow points to a protective covering (operculum) for the sound-producing organs. The blue arrow points to the tube (beak) that cicadas use to suck plant juice and occasionally jab a threatening animal -- or human.

Aaron and I decided to leave the dying cicada in peace. It was gone the next day, so it may have been found by a hungry bird or curious human.


As noted in the caption, the part you see under the body is only protective — it doesn’t make the sound. The part that actually vibrates to make the buzz is up under the wings, and the muscles that cause it to vibrate are inside the body. If you’re interested in knowing more, there’s a detailed, illustrated description of cicada anatomy here. There’s a good technical description of how cicadas make sound here.


Here’s an interesting observation about humans and cicadas. Although most years Annual Cicadas start singing in late June or early July, I’ve noticed that my Kids’ Cicada Hunt website doesn’t experience a big jump in visitation until 4 to 6 weeks later — when the cicadas start to die. I guess hearing cicadas doesn’t inspire much interest, but a cicada in the hand is worth a visit to cicada website or two. (My site is usually on the second or third page of results.) For comparison, my website statistics can tell when the first Cicada Killer Wasps emerge within a few days. The sight of a giant wasp inspires lots of folks to head for their computers, where they often find this picture of five-year-old Ethan holding dead Cicada Killers.

For a more complete analysis of when people visit my cicada website, check out this old CicadaBlog post.


Cicada FAIL: Growing Up Is Hard To Do September 3, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 3:21 pm
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Maybe that title is a little harsh. Cicadas go through a lot as they convert from underground nymphs to adults flying through the treetops. Lots has to go right for it to happen, involving hormones and other complex biochemical activities on the inside and major changes to their bodies on the outside. And a lot of things can go wrong.

I’m not sure what happened here, but something cut short the life of this Annual Cicada, preserving it forever frozen in a transition from nymph to adult:

This nymph crawled out of the ground, climbed a wall, locked itself in place, and started to shed its skin -- but died before it could complete the transition to adult.

This nymph crawled out of the ground, climbed a wall, locked itself in place, and started to shed its skin -- but died before it could complete the transition to adult. The dead adult dried, darkened, and mummified into its current form.

I even feel a little guilty for displaying its dead body this way. Maybe we’ll go back and retrive it from the wall, and bury in our backyard pet cemetery. Or maybe we’ll let the ants do their job.


To see what would have happened if everything had gone right, check out this series of photos on our Kids’ Cicada Hunt website.

This blog post discusses deformities and other things that can go wrong as cicadas transform from nymphs to adults.


Pokeweed Berries Ripening, Catbirds and Thrushes Coming Soon!

On the first Friday in September I noticed ripe Pokeweed berries in our backyard:

These are the first ripe Pokeweed berries I've seen this year, and they are in our backyard!

These are the first ripe Pokeweed berries I've seen this year, and they are in our backyard!

Soon there will be catbirds, thrushes, and many other birds with purple-stained beaks!

Gray Catbirds have spent the last five summers in backyards on our block. They stopped defending their breeding territory weeks ago, but I’ve seen a Catbird visit our Pokeweed once or twice since then. I think they keep track of berry bushes in the neighborhood so they can be the first to feast once the berries are ripe.

Swainson’s Thrushes breed up north, and then migrate south through our area starting late summer. Yesterday I saw two in the woods at nearby Columbus Park. Last September a Swainson’s Thrush stuck around our neighbor’s yard for two weeks feeding on her Pokeweed berries. A few weeks later a Hermit Thrush stopped by to eat its fill.

One nice thing about Pokeweed is that it keeps producing berries for many weeks, September through October. In this photo you can see ripe berries and a tiny flower stalk just starting, plus all stages of flowers and green berries in between:

The ripe Pokeweed berries are hidden among the leaves. A newly opening white flower stalk is to the left and above the berries, and inbetween stages are scattered elsewhere on the plant. By the way, the oval leaves are Pokeweed; the larger heart-shaped leaves are a type of Morning Glory.

The ripe Pokeweed berries are hidden among the leaves. A newly opening white flower stalk is to the left and above the berries, and in between stages are scattered elsewhere on the plant. By the way, the oval leaves are Pokeweed; the larger heart-shaped leaves are a type of Morning Glory.

So, this fall’s backyard catbird and thrush watch starts today, and then continues for almost two months!


Note added Friday, September 4, at 2 p.m.: Early this morning we saw the first bird of the season feeding on our Pokeweed. It was an American Robin (which is a kind of thrush). Then, while monitoring birds at Columbus Park (less than a mile from our house), I saw about a dozen Swainson’s Thrushes and three Catbirds. Three of the Thrushes and one of the Catbirds were feeding on Pokeweed berries.

Note added Sunday, September 6, at 3 p.m.: We just saw three Swainson’s Thrushes in our Pokeweed patch! Aaron got the following for-the-record photo through our back window:

One of the three Swainson's Thrushes we saw on our backyard Pokeweed. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal (shot through a sunlit back window).

One of the three Swainson's Thrushes we saw on our backyard Pokeweed. Note the olive-brown back, lots of spots on a pale breast, and big buffy "spectacles" around its eyes. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal (shot through a sunlit back window).


You can find more information about Pokeweed on Wikipedia. Cooked Pokeweed greens can be eaten, but raw Pokeweed can be poisonous to humans, as described on this National Institutes of Health web page.

The All About Birds website has more information about how Gray Catbirds, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Hermit Thrushes live their lives


Cardinal Eats Cicada: Two Interests Collide

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Bugs,Children's Interests,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 7:28 am
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Usually it’s kind of nice when two of our family’s interests intersect. But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about what happened this morning when a Cardinal caught and ate an Annual Cicada in our neighbor’s elm tree:

The Cardinal ate the cicada bit by bit. In this photo it's holding the cicada's wing and part of its body.

The Cardinal ate the cicada bit by bit. In this photo it's holding the cicada's wing and part of its body.

One problem we have when birds and bugs interact: Who do we root for? We love cicadas, and we love birds, and one gets eaten by the other! Usually we’re OK with birds eating cicadas, since adult cicadas die off in the fall anyway. But this year there aren’t as many cicadas around, so today’s encounter left me a little sad.

The Cardinal looks a little ratty in this photo, and it’s not just because the photo’s fuzzy. The Cardinals in our neighborhood are molting — shedding their old summer feathers and growing a new set for the winter. That’s why most Cardinals we see right now look bald. They’ve molted their old crests and the new ones are just getting started. Adult female and young Cardinals have similar greenish brown feathers, but I think the Cardinal in this photo is a female, because it has a bright red-orange bill and reddish on the wings.

Two other things about our neighborhood’s Cardinals right now: The males stopped singing a few days ago — they must be done defending the breeding territories they used this summer. Also, there are lots of young-of-the-year Cardinals around right now — sometimes the young ones chase the adults around our yard begging for food. I guess her babies were somewhere else, though, because this mommy Cardinal got to eat her cicada in peace.


Note added Tuesday, September 8, at 8:30 a.m.: I just saw a House Sparrow carrying off a cicada! Counting its wings, the cicada was half the length of the sparrow’s body. The sparrow hid in some brush, perhaps hoping its flockmates would not notice its catch.


For more information about Northern Cardinals, visit All About Birds. For more information about Annual Cicadas, try our Kids’ Cicada Hunt website.


Cicadas Are Singing, So It Finally Sounds Like Summer! September 1, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Puzzles and Mysteries,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 10:23 am
Tags: , , , ,

Despite the cool start to the day, Annual Cicadas have been singing almost continuously since the boys left for school. It finally sounds like summer — on September 1st!

So far I’ve heard three kinds of cicada songs: A slow-pulsing buzz, a faster-pulsing buzz, and a high-pitched, continuous whine. The best matches I’ve found for these songs are Scissor-grinder, Dog-day, & Linne’s Cicadas, respectively. Recordings of these cicadas (and many other insects) are online at the Songs of Insects website, here.

By the way, I’m glad someone finally gave common names to these cicadas! I especially like the name “Scissor-grinder Cicada.” Also, the folks who did the Songs of Insects website have a book with CD. We’ve got copies, and they are both beautiful and useful.

One more thing: I’ve still only seen two adult cicadas in our neighborhood this year: One sitting on the side of our neighbor’s house and another that a Robin was trying to catch — the Robin dropped it when it saw me coming. I wonder if adult cicada numbers will increase through September, or if the cicada nymphs still in the ground will just wait until next year.


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.