week six: nature at night

This week we’ll be exploring nature at night! Once the sun goes down, a whole different set of animals become active. This week we’ll be observing nighttime animals, learning more about the night sky and enjoying being out after dark.

Here’s a shopping list for the activities this week. Wondering what we need all this for? Check out all the activities for this week to find out!

  • Ripe bananas
  • Brown Sugar
  • Beer (the cheaper the better!)
  • Oreo Cookies
  • Graham Crackers
  • Chocolate Bars
  • Marshmallows

Don’t worry if you can’t get the things on this list. These supplies aren’t absolutely essential for enjoying the week’s activities.

day one: the sunset switch

learn.

Today we’re going to take some time to notice what changes when the sun goes down and night falls.  

Find somewhere comfortable to sit—ideally outdoors, but you could do this activity looking out a window too. As sunset approaches, settle into your spot and begin to pay attention to what’s around you. 

  • What animals, birds, and insects can you see or hear? 
  • What colors are visible to you?  
  • What is the temperature like? 
  • How far can you see? 

Either stay in your spot as darkness falls, or come back through the evening. Try asking yourself the questions above again at various stages of the evening, such as: 

  • When the sun has set, but it’s not dark 
  • When it’s dusk 
  • When it’s fully dark

nature id.

This flowering tree is a common landscaping tree. In the wild, you find it growing along the edge of woods.  

Answer (highlight the text to see the answer): This is flowering dogwood (Cornus florida.) Here’s a bonus nature joke: What’s the easiest way to identify a dogwood tree? …By its bark!  

play.

Build a shelter for yourself out of sticks, leaves, and other natural materials. Only use materials that are already on the ground—you don’t want to hurt a tree by breaking off a living branch or pulling off its bark. 

day two: stargazing

If the night is clear, head outside to enjoy the stars! Turn off as many lights as possible so your eyes can adjust to the dark, then sit back, look up, and enjoy the view. Since the full moon is this week, the moon is creating enough light to hide all but the brightest stars. This can actually make it easier to find some constellations, because they’re generally made up of the brightest stars! 

stargazing 

A star chart can help you identify what’s up in the sky right now, and here are descriptions of four easy-to-find objects to find in the night sky.

  • Venus – look for a particularly bright “star” in the western sky…this is actually the planet Venus. Venus was traditionally known as “the morning star” and “the evening star” because it’s visible either at sunrise or sunset. This month is the last time it will be visible in the evening for a while.
  • The Big Dipper – This is one of the best-known constellations, and it’s pretty easy to find…just look straight up! The Big Dipper will be almost directly overhead, or just a little towards the north. Can you spot the four stars the make up the bowl of the dipper, and three that make the handle? 
  • Polaris, the North Star – Once you’ve found the Big Dipper, you can use it to help you find Polaris. Follow the line made by the two outer stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl to the north, looking for a particularly bright star. That’s Polaris! Polaris the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper, the rest of which is to the east of Polaris.
  • Leo the Lion – Find the Big Dipper again, then imagine that its bowl has a lot of holes in it, and water is dripping out towards the south. Follow those imaginary water drips, and they might help you find Leo the Lion just to the south of directly overhead. Leo moves further west each night—chasing away the stars of the winter sky and leading in the stars of summer.  

nature id.

Although it’s all green, this is a flower! 

Answer (highlight the text to see the answer): This is Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum.) If you lift up the top flap to peer inside, there’s a little “man” standing there. That’s where the flower got its name—it looks a little like a preacher standing in an old-fashioned pulpit.  

play.

Find a swing! 

See if you can find a vine to swing on. Be sure to give it a good strong tug before swinging to make sure it won’t fall down. If you can’t find a vine, but have some rope, see if you can make your own swing. (Just be sure that you hang it from a good strong branch that won’t break!)  

day three: moths

Animals that are active at night are called nocturnal. There are lots of different kinds of nocturnal animals, including owls, bats, and many kinds of moths. Tonight, we’ll be observing moths!  

learn.

Debbie BeerMaking a moth observation station can be as simple as turning on a porch light or other outside light after dark. If you really want to see some critters, you can hang a white sheet up near the outdoor light. The sheet gives the moths a spot to land, and creates a good backdrop for taking photos.

You can also make moth bait, since some moths are attracted by scent rather than light. There are lots of different recipes out there but here’s a simple one: 

  1. Mash up 3 or 4 very ripe bananas. (Isn’t it nice to have something new to do with overripe bananas than make more banana bread?) 
  2. Mix in most of a 12-oz can of cheap beer. (Get an adult to help.)
  3. Add about 1.5lbs of brown sugar. Don’t add it all at once, since this will be how you determine how think your final mixture is. You want it to be liquid enough that you can spread it on tree trunks, but not so thin that it will drip all over the place (which would attract ants.)  
  4. Paint the bait on tree trunks around your yard, at about eye level. This mixture can leave a stain, so don’t put it on a wall.

It’s easiest to get everything set up before dark, and then to go back out with a flashlight once it’s dark. Look carefully—sometimes moths camouflage into their surroundings! And keep an eye out for other insects as well, as other species will be attracted to the light and bait too.  

Note: Moths are more active when temperatures are about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It might still be a little cold this week, but you may still get some moths to show up. You may want to try this again in a few weeks when the weather warms up.

nature id.

This moth visited our moth-observing station when we set it up last week.

Molly Smyrl  

Answer (highlight the text to see the answer): This is a White Spring Moth (Lomographa vestaliata), one of the earliest moths to start flying in our region.  

play.

Molly SmyrlGo outside after it rains and look for puddles. When you find a good one, jump in and make a big splash!

day four: the moon

learn.

Today we’ll be learning about how the shape of the moon looks different every night. You probably know that the moon changes throughout the month—today’s we’re going to find out why, and about the different phases of the moon!  

The moon doesn’t spin around an axis the way the Earth does, so that means that the same side is always facing the sun. This means that the parts of the moon that are lit by the sun’s light are always lit, and the parts that are dark are always dark. As the moon orbits around the Earth, we see different parts of the moon. Sometimes we see the lit side (a full moon) and sometimes we see the dark side (a new moon), and sometimes we see a little of both! You can learn more about how this works at Space.com

There are special names that we use to describe the different phases of the moon. When the moon is getting bigger as it goes from a new moon to a full moon, we say that it is waxing. When it’s getting smaller, we say that it is waning. The two points when the moon is halfway between a new moon and full moon are called quarter moons. When less than a quarter of the moon is lit it is called a crescent moon, and when the moon is between a quarter and full, it’s called a gibbous moon. 

craft.

Molly Smyrl

We’re going to use Oreos to recreate the phases of the moon! You’ll need eight Oreos, twisted apart so that all the icing is on one side. (It can help to refrigerate them for a bit before trying to separate them. Even so, there may be a lot of “mistake” cookies that you’ll just have to eat!) Then use a knife to scrape of icing to look like the different stages of the moon. You can find more instructions for this activity here.

After you’ve re-created the moon phases in cookie form, you get to “clean up” by eating the cookies!

watch. 

Here’s a fun song about the phases of the moon.

nature id.

This flowering tree is being used more and more often in landscaping projects 

Molly Smyrl

Answer (highlight the text to see the answer): This is the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis.) The flowers are spread along the whole length of the branches. The buds are a deeper reddish pink (hence the name) but once the flowers open they are a lighter pink.  

play.

Howl at the full moon like a wolf! Molly Smyrl

day five: sweet treat

One of the best parts of being outside at night is having a campfire and roasting marshmallows to make s’mores! 

build.

Pete SmyrlIf you have a spot where you can safely have a campfire, and with the help of an adult, build a small campfire and enjoy sitting around it. Want to know how to build a campfire? Smokey the Bear has directions for how to build one safely. 

Gather sticks to roast marshmallows on and enjoy a sweet treat! (If you can’t safely make a campfire, s’mores can be made inside in the oven or the microwave—with adult supervision!) The Food Network has a great recipe for making S’mores, inside the kitchen or out at a campfire.

nature id. 

This wildflower was found in the woods near the Visitor’s Center at Crow’s Nest Preserve. (Hint: it’s related to the nature id from last Friday!)

Molly Smyrl  

Answer (highlight the text to see the answer): This is Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum.) The name trillium comes from the fact that there are three of most parts of the plant: three leaves, three petals, three sepals.  

Nodding Trillium is a land management success story at Crow’s Nest Preserve. It wasn’t found in the woods near the Visitor’s Center until we started managing Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate) in that area. Garlic Mustard is an invasive species that releases chemicals that inhibit the growth of many kinds of native wildflowers. There’s still garlic mustard in the woods there, but there’s a lot less of it, and Nodding Trillium is getting more common every year as a result—last year we counted more than 400 of them!  

play.

Pete SmyrlGet muddy! Find a mud puddle and get dirty! 

next week: coming soon