Thursday, October 28, 2010

Beautiful, brilliant bats de-bug night skies

Okay, so Halloween creepy-crawlie poster child number two is up for examination today; here's a closer look at the wonderful world of bats!

First there are a few myths we need to dispose of – please bury these silly notions under those fake headstones currently decorating the front yard:

Bat Myth 1: All bats are vampires.

No! There are over 1,100 species of bats and only three species are known to suck blood! Those three species, all of which are quite small and are mostly limited to South America, where they suck a meal the size of a teaspoon from forest animals. Most other bats eat insects, fruit, nectar, and/or pollen.

Bat Myth 2: All bats carry rabies.

A big no here, too! Bats can catch rabies, as can any other mammal. According to, “Less than one half of one percent of bats actually contract [rabies] . . . more people die annually from contact with household pets than have died from contact with bats in all [of] recorded history.

It’s still not a good idea to grab at or handle a wild bat, however. Remember that compared to a bat who weighs a few ounces, you’re larger than and scarier than Godzilla, even without your Godzilla costume. And if Godzilla tried to grab at or handle you, you’d get scared and bite him, too!

Bat Myth 3: Bats will fly so close to you that they’ll get tangled in your hair.

Not even if your hair is as big as the Bride of Frankenstein’s. Bats are not blind. In addition to seeing as well as humans do, they also have a sonar system that allows them to sense and catch tiny insects in total darkness. They have absolutely no trouble sensing and avoiding something the size of a human! If a bat swoops close to you, it’s probably just eaten a mosquito that was about to bite you. The appropriate thing to do is not to duck and shriek, but to say “Thank you, bat!

Now to some mind-blowing bat facts:

One little brown bat can catch and eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized bugs per hour. In fact, the Mexican free-tail bats that live in Bracken Cave in Texas can eat up to 400,000 pounds of insects in one night!

Bats fly fast! The big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) common in all North American habitats can fly at 40 mph!

There are 47 species of bats in the U.S., eleven of which make their homes right here in Louisiana.

The world’s smallest bat, Thailand’s bumblebee bat, weighs less than a penny.

The giant flying fox bats of Asia, however, can have a wingspan of more than six feet!

The North American little brown bat can live up to 30 years.

Bat guano is an extremely effective phosphorous-based natural fertilizer and can be used to improve garden soil, kill fungus that harms plants, control nematode plant pests, and activate compost piles for better decomposition.

Bats pollinate many important night-blooming plants. One example is agave (the plant from which we make tequila) – without bats, agave seed production drops to 0.03%. So, if you’re drinking a margarita, (or eating a banana, mango, cashew, or fig) once again, say “Thank you, bat!”

The scariest thing about bats is, in fact, that 50% of the bats in North America are in population decline.

To keep bats healthy and happy and eating the insects that would otherwise be eliminated with harmful pesticides, try building a bat house!

Instructions for building bat houses are available from many sources, and it will be a great project to keep the kiddos out of their candy stashes during the three-week, candy-induced blood sugar hangover of Halloween.

Now that’s scary.

Spider facts prove arachnids are cool, not creepy

Okay, so there's a reason spiders, bats, and other nocturnal creatures are associated with Halloween: the whole blood sucking concept is scary.

However, the amazing abilities of spiders and the many services they provide far outweigh any creepy factor. Today's article will be the first in a series that focuses on the cool-not-creepy facts about Halloween's various animal associates.

So, without further ado, a few notes on awesome arachnids:

  • One spider can eat 2,000 insects each year! Source That’s a lot of mosquitos not biting you, thanks to our eight legged friends.
  • Not all spiders make webs - about half of known species stalk and hunt their prey. Many of the web or "orb"weavers, however, create such distinctive patterns in their webs that their species can be determined from the web design alone.
  • The large and lovely orb webs found in backyard gardenswere likely created by a female spider.(Talk about a web design expert!) The male orb weavers are smaller and not often seen. Source
  • There are more than 40,000 different species of spiders, and 3,500 species of spiders living in North America alone. Source
  • The largest spider in the world is the South American Goliath Birdeater spider (Theraphosa leblondi), which has a legspan of up to 10 inches and weighs more than a quarter pound hamburger! Source
  • Scientists estimate than in a field habitat, there are over 400,000 spiders living in every acre. Soucre
  • Spiders’ silk is tremendously strong; it can rival the tensile strength of steel and has been suggested for use in bulletproof vests. Source
  • If a young spider loses a leg, it can grow a whole new one! Source Testing this theory is not recommended, of course, as "playing" with a spider will send the normally shy, retreating creatures into fight or flight mode. And when flight isn't an option, bite is! (Then again, what creature wouldn't try to bite you if you cornered it and threatened to remove a limb?)
  • Another way spiders avoid being legless or being lunch is by playing dead! They'll drop to the ground and curl their legs up, but if you're patient, they'll eventually uncurl and scamper away. Source
  • Spiders don’t actually suck the blood of their prey. They actually use digestive juices to dissolve most of the edible parts of their insect meal, doing the little bit of needed chewing with their chelicerae (“jaws”). Source If the dining spider doesn't have jaws strong enough to chew that particular meal, it will inject the digestive juices into the insect and then suck the dissolved innards out like soup.

Okay, so that last one was a little graphic, but no one wants to take all the

frightening fun out of Halloween!

Enjoy the excellent spider links and resources below, and stay tuned: the next creepy critter up for demystification is that un-frightening furry flyer, the bat!

Spider Education Links

Environmental Education for Kids!

Spider Activities

Kinder Korner Along Came A Spider


Myths, Misconceptions, and Superstitions About Spiders

Spinning Tales of Spiders - An Arachnid Book List

Eight Legs by D.M. Souza

How Spiders Make Their Webs by Jill Bailey

Spiders and Scorpions by Dr. Paul Hillyard

The Lives of Spiders by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

Spiders and Their Kin by H.W. Levi. A Golden Guide

Spiders by Watts, Barrie.

Trapdoor spiders by Gerholdt, James E.

Spiders, insects, and minibeasts by Clarke, Penny

The private life of spiders by Hillyard, P. D.

Wolf spiders by Gerholdt, James E.

Jumping spiders by Gerholdt, James E.

Tarantula spiders by Gerholdt, James E.

Bird-eating spiders by Gerholdt, James E.

Black widow spiders by Gerholdt, James E.

Spider’s lunch: all about garden spiders by Cole, Joanna Payne

Simon & Schuster Children’s Guide to Insects and Spiders

Spinning spiders by Berger, Melvin

Amazing spiders by Schnieper, Claudia

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nature activities for the drive to school

he first quarter of the school year is already over!

Though the past nine weeks have flown, most parents will agree that the time spent driving kiddos to and from school does not go as fast as one would hope.

When parents are just getting their first sips of morning caffeine, children in the back seat are already in hyper-chatty mode.

An essential tool for commute survival is a “Backseat Box” with quiet, solo activities that the kids can do while the parents keep their eyes on the road. While common Backseat Box items are books, coloring and activity books, and crayons or washable markers, just a few easy additions can turn the daily drive into a nature safari!

Encourage kids to lift their eyes from their handheld electronic games long enough to notice the incredible sights outside the car windows by creating nature scavenger hunts! Simply print out a few free nature scavenger hunt pages (or create your own) and put them on a clip board for your student commuter.

The scavenger hunt pages described below have been a hit with kids ages three to thirteen, and all are attached as printable documents at the Nature Notes blog, simply follow the hot links associated with each.

  • Nature’s Colors – the challenge here is to attune the eye to the many colors of the natural world. Kids and grownups alike get used to thinking of trees as green and skies as blue, but if you pay attention, the whole spectrum of colors – from crimson to lavender and all of their tints and shades in between are visible every day of the year. Either create or print this page of color blocks and let your younger student write what they saw in its corresponding color block. For a challenge or for older children, cut up paint swatch cards from the local home improvement store and keep them in a bag by the front door. Then, each passenger can blindly choose a paint color before the ride begins. The first to find their color on something in nature wins the competition! Scavenger Hunt – Colors
  • Outdoor Alphabet – With a page full of letters and blank lines, kids can spend the car ride finding something in nature that starts with each letter. Here in the deep south, the unfortunate road-crossing habits of armadillos will often provide kids with an easy answer for A right by the side of the road. (And giggles to go with it.) Depending on age and skill level, kids might find that B is for blue sky or blue jay or buckeye butterfly or basswood tree. Their creativity will really blossom when they get to Q, X, and Z! Scavenger Hunt – Alphabet
  • Nature’s Treasures - This page can be used as a scavenger hunt or cut into cards to be pulled from a “treasure box” (or treasure hat, or treasure cloth bag). Its clear visuals are great for even the youngest children to start honing their observation and identification skills by matching pictures to what they see out the window. Backyard Treasure Hunt Cards
  • Shapes of the Wild – For the very youngest of nature lovers, this page teaches shape recognition. The moon in the early morning sky will match the crescent. The shining sun can be their circle. Seeing nature through these simple shapes will also translate to improved drawing skills by helping child and parent alike translate plants and animals into assemblies of simpler shapes! Scavenger Hunt – shapes

With any luck, their eyes will be glued to the windows and their pencils busy on the page, so your eyes can stay stuck on the road and your hands on the wheel. Well, at least one hand on the wheel, and one wrapped around that warm coffee mug!

Northshore nature attractions for fun fall weekends

Autumn in Southeast Louisiana is prime time for outdoor activities. The weather is cooler (though not yet actually cool!), the sun is shining, and wildlife and wildflowers that had been hiding from the summer heat are coming back out for one last hurrah before winter.

Today Big Branch Marsh Wildlife Refuge hosted "Wild Things" an interactive festival and showcase of some of the region's best nature destinations and wildlife organizations in the area, plus great crafts and attractions for the whole family.

For those that didn't make it to today's festival to scope out future day trips and weekend adventures, however, here are a few local family fun favorites:

  1. The Tammany Trace - This 28-mile long, no-charge paved trail stretches along a scenic route from Covington to Slidell. Goldenrod, asters, and other fall wildflowers decorate both sides of the trail, inviting lovely fluttering butterflies to come and sip. Also, the surrounding forest provides excellent opportunities for bird watching. There are also more than a dozen stream crossings that allow a great vantage point to stop and see turtles, water snakes, and other wetland wildlife from a safe distance. Whether you prefer to walk, run, bicycle, or ride a horse, the Tammany Trace is not to be missed! Plan your Tammany Trace trip at their website.
  2. The Northlake Nature Center - Known as St. Tammany Parish's secret garden. With mixed pine forest, a beaver pond, and Bayou Castine, the opportunities to see wildlife here are endless! Come dressed in comfy shoes, ready to stroll down one of three loop trails. At .75, 1.2, and 1.75 miles, respectively, these trails can be completed even with preschoolers. The 400 acre nature center is open from dawn to dusk daily and there is no entry fee. On November 6, 2010, the autumn installment of their Walk in the Woods Nature series will start at 8 a.m. However, if for those more in the mood to visit freestyle, but who want to sneak in some extra education for the kiddos, print free nature activities right from the Northlake Nature Center website.
  3. Pearl River Wildlife Management Area - This is the section of the Pearl River where the swamp tours companies run their boats. Though the tours are not free, local residents can usually get a significant discount simply. Whether you're local or visiting, the swamp tours are a must-do. While water temperatures stay above 70 degrees, you're likely to see both small and large alligators on the tour, which may visit the boat to get a little snack from the captain. (They get their snacks from the captain, and only the captain. Feeding gators is not encouraged for anyone else. There's a fine line in the gator's mind between providing a snack and becoming a snack.) Even after waters cool to below gator-active temperatures, swamp tours regularly see egrets and herons, osprey, nutria, and lots of other swamp denizens. The captains are extremely knowledgeable about swamp ecology, swamp culture and history, and how wetlands are both affected by and protect people from the ravages of hurricanes. Two of the more popular swamp tour companies are Cajun Encounters Swamp Tours and Pearl River Eco-Tours.

So, if your Sunday isn't already swamped, get out there and swamp it . . .or trace it, or center it around nature!

This piece was originally written for