Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Tree Spotlight: Northern Catalpa

Catalpa is a tree you may not have heard of, but once you see one you won’t forget it. With showy spring flowers, bean-like pods, and bearing one of the largest leaves of any tree in the northern hemisphere, it is a beautiful sight. Let’s join the Arbor Day Foundation in shining the spotlight on one of the most unique Michigan trees.

And if you want to see a truly magnificent one, the Michigan State Record lives on the lawn of the Capitol in Lansing.

Northern Catalpa: Rarely Unnoticed

By James R. Fazio | November 7, 2017


Catalpa speciosa

Catalpa is a hard tree to overlook. Trumpet-shaped flowers herald its awakening for the summer and are soon followed by some of the largest leaves in the northern hemisphere. Elephant ears would not be too far off the mark for their description. Finally come the seed pods — bean-like in shape draping the tree like green tinsel.

There are two key species of catalpa in the United States — southern and northern catalpa. Originally, southern catalpa was more widespread, but when the pioneers discovered the northern species in a very limited area of the Midwest, it didn’t take long to realize that this one grew larger and could tolerate colder winters better. Thanks to its fast growth and rot-resistant wood — and a promotional campaign by Nebraska governor Robert W. Furnas, a contemporary of J. Sterling Morton — farmers began planting it for fence posts and to sell as railroad ties. Today, as a shade tree, it is widely distributed in parks and yards throughout the country.

Catalpa is not a tidy tree. Maintenance people complain about cleaning up after it when the flower petals, leaves, and seed pods drop. But that may be a small price to pay for this tree’s tolerance to a wide range of growing conditions, its dense shade, and the interest it adds to the landscape. Guy Sternberg, author of Native Trees for North American Landscapes, has said that the old trees of this species, “become rustic and picturesque, their weathered crowns testifying to the passage of previous wind storms, and would look very much at home towering over Boot Hill on Halloween.”

Whether young and vigorous or old and stagnated, catalpa is a tree in the landscape that is difficult not to notice and enjoy.

What’s in a Name?

The common names for catalpa are many and colorful. Some of these include Johnny smoker tree, Linden log tree, cigar tree, stogie tree, bean tree, western catalpa, hardy catalpa, Catawba, caterpillar tree, and fish-bait tree.

The scientific name makes less sense. The genus is the same as the common name, Catalpa, and comes from the name that Cherokee Indians used for this tree, Catawba. The species name, speciosa, is from the Latin for — not surprisingly — species. The “osa” part is from osus, or “full of,” said to be in reference to its showy flowers.

In the Landscape

The catalpa tree is a tree that demands your attention. White, showy flowers, giant heart-shaped leaves and dangling bean-like seed pods make is a great ornamental tree. It reaches up to 60 feet in urban settings and grows well in a wide range of soils (hardiness zones 4-8).

While not ideal for every location, this unique and hardy tree is a fast grower that finds a home in parks and yards throughout the country.


Video: How Forests Make Lives Better

There’s nothing like a good video. They’re a fun way to pass the time. And if it’s educational, that’s just a bonus.

This is a great one we ran across by Walk in the Woods with Us. It visually shows a TON of things that trees give us, including many that we may not even realize we’re connected to.

The video image looks a little busy, but give it a chance. It goes through each part step-by-step in a really neat animation that pulls everything together.

So without further ado, sit back and enjoy the show!

How Forests Make Lives Better from Walk in the Woods with Us on Vimeo

Life In An Oak

Oak trees are found across the United States, and in much of the world in fact, but don’t let that make you think these trees are commonplace.

There are over 60 species of native oaks in North America, found in nearly every type of habitat. They are the United States’ most widespread hardwood, important both environmentally and historically. Oaks are a symbol of strength and endurance (most recently as a symbol in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey).

The life of an oak tree is connected to numerous other plants, animals, and organisms. Over 100 types of birds and mammals rely on acorns for food. For many of these species, acorns are their primary source of nutrition in the winter. Native American tribes were also known to create acorn flour to be made into acorn mush or bread. They are so important that they were named the United States’ National Tree in 2004.

So it’s fitting that such an important tree has been showcased in all its colorful glory in this poster by the Habitat Network. The poster features a handful of the many species that rely on oak trees from coast-to-coast and demonstrates the important role these trees play in our ecosystems.


Detailed information about all the plants and animals pictured in this striking poster can be found here:


The Habitat Network is a citizen science program launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2014. In 2016, this program became part of a partnership between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy, expanding it into the Nature Conservancy’s YardMap platform.

Nature Works Everywhere Grants Available!

The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Works Everywhere program is awarding grants to K-12 public and charter schools across the United States. Check out the details below!

To find this information on their website, click here.

Grants for K–12 schools

students and their teacher work at planting in their school garden
© People’s Television

We are awarding grants to support projects that implement green infrastructure to address local environmental challenges. These include: access to healthy food, air quality, heat island effect, climate change, and storm water collection. Young people will work as social innovators to help their communities through project design and implementation.

Grants of $2,000 will be awarded to 60 public or charter schools across the United States. See the detailed grant description linked on this page for full requirements, guidelines, important dates, and online application information. Samples of an application, an applicant commitment letter, and an administration letter of support are also available.

Applications must be submitted online by 5 PM ET November 3, 2017.

To start a new online grant application, visit the grant application website. If you do not have an account there yet, choose “New Applicant.” After you create your account, you will receive an email confirming your account creation. Use the link provided in the email to start your application.

Or, if you have already started your application, you can sign in and edit it.

Email us if you have questions.

There’s Nothing Like a Good Book

Back to school is in full swing and classes are gearing up for another great year!

But just because you’re out of school it doesn’t mean you stop learning. No, now we get to read things because we’re genuinely interested in them! Imagine that. It can be a freeing feeling to expand your knowledge just because you want to.

And the world of nature education is full of fantastic books to satisfy your appetite. This is a great list from Children at Nature Play.

So find a good book, sit outside under a tree with a glass of apple cider and enjoy fall!


It’s a Jungle Out There!: 52 Nature Adventures for City Kids by Jennifer Ward

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda McGurk of Rain or Shine Mamma (pre-order)

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

A Natural Sense of Wonder by Rick Van Noy

Home Grown by Ben Hewitt

Sharing Nature by Joseph Cornell/Sharing Nature Worldwide

How to Raise a Wild Child by Dr. Scott Sampson

Whatever the Weather by Dawn Suzette Smith of Mud Puddles to Meteors

Companions in Wonder by Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Keller

The Thunder Tree by Robert Michael Pyle

Wild Play by David Sobel

Children & Nature: Making Connections by Orion Magazine/Myrin Institute

Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom of TimberNook

Closer to the Ground by Dylan Tomine, Author

Michigan Mammals Week is July 10-16!

It’s Michigan Mammals Week next week! That means State Parks across Michigan will be holding special programs featuring our furry friends. These programs are free to the public, but you may need to pay to enter the park. If you have a Recreation Passport, you’re all set!

Check out the announcement below for details and to discover the program that’s right for you and your family.


July 5, 2017

Contact: Karen Gourlay, 248-349-3858

Celebrate Michigan Mammals Week at Michigan state parks July 10-16

TExplorer Programshe Michigan Department of Natural Resources will highlight the wonders of Michigan’s mammals during Michigan Mammals Week July 10-16 in a handful of Michigan state parks. The family-friendly programs are free for campers and visitors.

The annual program provides a fun and educational experience for the whole family. The week of hands-on programming will take place in 31 Michigan state parks and will feature hikes, animal tracking programs, games and much more.

Michigan Mammals Week and many other programs are led by state park Explorer Guides and park interpreters who work in the park and present a variety of outdoor education opportunities in more than 30 Michigan state parks Memorial Day through August. These enthusiastic, nature-minded folks lead hikes, activities and programming that shine a spotlight on each park’s unique resources.

To find a program in your favorite park, visit and click on the link “Michigan Mammals Week” under Special Programs and Activities. To see all available Explorer programming throughout the summer, view the interactive map or alphabetical list of parks.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to

Tips for Teaching Groups Outdoors

Teaching kids outside is a great time. It can be a fun day of exploring and learning about the natural world. But if leading a group outdoors gives you anxiety, here are a few helpful tips from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdSleuth program that can help you out.


Outdoor Teaching Tips

What’s Keeping you Inside? Tips for Leading Groups Outdoors

By Barbara Jacobs-Smith K-12 Education Team Resident Teacher Advisor
This blog is the first in our series on Outdoor Education.

As teachers and leaders of young people, I think we have an obligation to take children outside to learn whenever it’s practical to do so, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone. Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor educator or new to taking groups outside, here are some general tips and techniques that can make leading a group in the great outdoors a positive, successful, and rewarding experience for everyone.


1. Plan ahead

As the leader, it is very important that you feel comfortable and confident. Before you go out with the kids, go out by yourself and scout the area. Walk the trail or explore the habitat. Consider where you’ll stop, how long you’ll spend, what features are noteworthy, and concepts that are applicable to the area. What questions can you pose to children, what activities lend themselves to the area, and how will you encourage structured interaction with nature? Make note of any potential hazards. Spending some quiet reflective time in the space you’ll be using can help make it feel like an extension of your own classroom and increase your comfort level teaching there.

2. Set clear expectations

Very young birders are

You no doubt have established expectations for student behavior in your classroom. It’s just as important to do this for the outdoors. Rather than a long list of rules, each starting with, “NO” (No talking, No running, No pushing, No interrupting), keep the list short and positive. “Stay on the trail. Remain with the group. Use materials responsibly.” Spell out the specific guidelines for the group when moving from one place to the next. This can be as simple as explaining that the group must travel as a sandwich. The leader is one slice of bread. Whoever is at the end of the line is designated as the other slice of bread. Everyone else is the yummy fixings that make up the sandwich. We must stay between the two slices of bread because we can’t have our sandwich falling apart!

3. Be a scientist

Third grade students making observations in the field.

When in the field, students should behave as the scientists they are, collecting data, making observations, whatever it is that you are expecting them to do, and doing so in a manner that is serious and focused on the task. It helps if students understand the purpose of their being outdoors. “You act differently when you’re outside for recess than you do when you’re outside for science.” Before you take the group outdoors, lead a discussion with students about specifically how it should look, feel, and sound differently.

4. Stealth mode

There is a time and place for quiet discussion and conversation between scientists working in the field. There is also a time for silence. When you are traveling along a path or through an area, it is far more likely that you’ll observe animals there if everyone is as quiet as mice, owls, or ants. You can call it moving in “stealth mode.” If animals hear a large group of people lumbering along, they will clear out, reducing the chance of seeing the creatures that live in that habitat. Students should understand when they hear you announce, “We are now in stealth mode,” this means silence is in order. Use your vision now instead of your voice.

5. Send them off, but bring them back

Sometimes, an outdoor trip involves giving children instruction and then sending them off to explore or complete an activity. To do this, you must be sure that: a.) you have their attention as you give instruction, b.) when it’s time, you can get everyone to come back to you quickly and easily, and c.) you know that everyone is back. When you send children off to find or do something, in order to bring them back to you quickly and efficiently, establish a “signal word.” As soon as they hear the word, students must stop what they are doing and return to you as quickly as it is safely possible. The word “magnet” works well. You can tell them that when they hear you say “magnet” they magically turn into pieces of metal, and you become a magnet; they will immediately become strongly “attracted” and have to return to you as quickly as they can. Finally, count your group regularly. You can pair children up to help them keep track of each other. “Do you see your buddy?” Make sure you know how many kids you are meant to have and always have that many. No more. No less.

6. Have what you need and know what you don’t


Before you go outside, think carefully about what you are going to do and what you want to accomplish, so you know exactly what materials you are going to want to bring. When it’s time to leave the building, be sure you have everything you need gathered together and ready to go. The less materials and equipment students have to carry in their hands the better. If there are items children must have in order to do an activity, carry a backpack or, if the terrain allows, pull a wagon containing that equipment. If you plan to make trips into the field on a regular basis and there are certain pieces of equipment you want children to have each time they are outdoors, you may want to find a local business that has cloth bags with their logo on them. Ask for a donation of enough bags for every student (or groups of two or three), being sure to explain your desire to take students outside for science, and perhaps the compelling reasons for doing so. If you’re successful in getting the donation, be sure to follow up with a written thank you for the business to post. Are you short on clipboards for kids to use outside? Make clipboards out of a piece of cardboard or old personal-sized white boards with binder clips at the top and a rubber band at the bottom to secure paper to the “board.” Be sure to take plenty of extra pencils in case of loss or breakage. What you are unlikely to have when in the field is access to a bathroom. If that is the case, it is important to remind everyone (no matter what their age) to use the restroom. Making a stop at the bathrooms on your way out of the building can eliminate (no pun intended) emergencies that can bring you in from the field before you’ve accomplished your goals.

7. Bring along technology

Apps like Merlin are a great tool to help with identification of birds and other species

If you have a smartphone, you can turn it into a terrific resource with the use of one or more of the handy apps (some of which are available for free) that can help when trying to identifying unknown species and/or answering puzzling questions. (Free apps to ID: birds – Merlin; trees – VTree. Check the app store for free or Lite versions of field guides specific to your state or area.) A camera is an excellent tool to use when documenting what students are doing, capturing candid photos of them at work, “collecting” samples of what was observed, documenting unknown species for identification later, and video recording their “process.”

8. Know it’s good not to know all the answers

Nature journals can help give focus to a trip outdoors.

Don’t let a concern about not knowing the name of every plant or animal species you might see or the answers to all the possible questions kids might ask keep you inside. On the contrary, embrace the teachable moments that exist if you don’t know everything. These are priceless! Not knowing everything gives you authentic opportunities to

model for kids exactly how to find the answers. If someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, tell the group, “That’s a terrific question. Let’s write it down to research later.” This demonstrates to students that you’re a learner right along with them.   With some thought and careful planning, you can successfully lead groups of children outdoors safely and provide a positive and enriching experience for them and for yourself. You will be able to bring nature alive for students, and give them the authentic experiences that will start them questioning and wondering about the world around them! Happy trails! Barbara

This blog is Part 1 of a series around engaging and teaching students outside. Click here for Part 2: Creating an Outdoor Classroom and here for Part 3: Citizen Science in Your Outdoor Classroom . You can also watch our video “Nature Walks: Five Steps to Success” below.