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Whether you homeschool year round or you set aside formal lessons during the summer, you need to understand that summer is a prime time for nature study. Karen Smith, my friend and coworker, is joining me today to discuss summer nature study.
Sonya: Karen, why is summer such a prime time to do nature study?
Karen: Well, any season is a prime time to do nature study, though summer can be easier if you’re just getting started.
Sonya: That’s true.
Karen: There is so much to see in the summertime. The trees are in full leaf, the insects are buzzing around, amphibians and lizards are around, the animals are out of hibernation and are more active. There’s just so much to see in summer.
Sonya: It makes it easier, I suppose, if you haven’t trained your eye to look closely and notice nature, then it’s easier when it’s right there in front of you, as many times nature is during the summer. So, let’s dive into some specific things. You mentioned a few in general. What can we look specifically for?
Karen: Trees are probably one of the easiest things to get started with. There are so many of them, and in the summertime they have their leaves out in full which makes it easy to identify them because you can use the leaves as an identifier. But you can study the leaves too: What’s the shape of the leaf? Is it a leaflet or is it one leaf? Now, a leaflet will be one little part of a full leaf. If you look at a walnut tree, for instance, that tree, the full leaf has leaflets on it. Each little individual leaf that you might think is a leaf is part of the whole. So you can look at that. You can see how the leaves grow on the branch: Do they alternate or do they grow opposite of each other? All of those things can help you identify what type of tree it is.
Sonya: That makes sense, because in the spring, the leaves aren’t usually fully out yet. And in the autumn, they’re laying on the ground.
Karen: Or they’re different colors.
Sonya: Yes, or withered up. And in the winter?
Karen: They’re nowhere to be found if you live where I am.
Sonya: Up north. Yes, that is true.
Karen: But you can also see on the trees, a lot of them flower in the spring, but some flower in the summer and you can watch the fruit develop on them also. That’s another way to help you identify the tree if you can see the fruit on it and sometimes even the flowers. All of that is available in the summertime.
Sonya: Now, we did another post on identifying trees by their leaves and fruit and flower and you talked through how to use a tree key.
Karen: Yes, which is going to pretty much depend on the leaves and how they grow on the tree. A tree key is very useful in the summertime.
Sonya: You talk about both in that post. That should help with the tree nature study. What other kinds of nature study are available in summer?
Karen: Flowering plants are a good thing to do in the summertime, because that’s when the flowers are blooming. Now, you can also look at the other parts of the plant—the leaves, the stem—but it’s a good time to notice How does the flower grow? What does it look like? How many petals does it have? How does it compare to other flowers? What’s the shape of the flower? All of these things are things that you can observe in the summertime, and you can watch the plant grow.
When the flowers are starting to bud, you can watch those almost daily to see if there are any changes. And by daily, I don’t mean go out and study it every day. But if the flowers are on your way to the mailbox or to the car in the driveway or on your daily walk, you can glance at them and see if there are any changes and notice those and make note of them in your nature journal later if you want to, or just remember them.
Sonya: So in that case, we talk about doing nature study once a week, but in the summer, sometimes you’re going to miss it if you only go out once a week.
Karen: And other times. Just notice nature every time you’re out, but take some time to really study it about once a week.
Sonya: I like how you mentioned observing it in your daily walk. I remember when we would walk around the neighborhood and I was always so thankful that some of my neighbors planted flowers as well. So it wasn’t just the flowers in our front yard. We could also notice other types of flowers and take advantage of all the other front yards in the neighborhood.
Karen: Yes. Now, flowers draw another good item to study in nature and that’s insects.
Sonya: There are plenty of insects in summer.
Karen: Yes, there are. Some places there are more than others, but they are usually out in the warmer weather. Flowers are a good place to observe them, because many insects are drawn to flowers. Bumblebees, honeybees, but also many other types of bees and flying insects are drawn to the flowers.
Sonya: I noticed just yesterday, there are several different kinds of wasps, it looks like, hovering around our knockout roses out there. And if you just stand quietly, they’re too busy focusing on the flowers to pay you any attention. So you can observe them.
Karen: Different types of beetles will be drawn to those. Grasshoppers, cicadas.
Karen: Spiders. All of that insect and spider activity will be around your flowers if you take the time to look. In my family, we have grown milkweed on our property for many years. And the reason for that started with because we wanted to provide food for the Monarch caterpillars. What we discovered is that milkweed is its own habitat. There are so many insects and spiders and other invertebrates (earwigs, for instance) that use milkweed and live on that plant, that it is just a fascinating little world. You can watch the milkweed grow. You can watch it bloom. You can notice how the flowers smell, the shape of those, but you can also watch all of this insect life that lives on the milkweed plant.
Sonya: I hope the flowers smell better than the sap.
Karen: They most certainly do. They are very sweet smelling.
Sonya: Oh, nice. All right, so trees, flowers, insects.
Karen: Summer is also a good time to see if you can find things like frogs and toads, and in other parts of the country that I don’t live in, lizards and maybe some other types of reptiles, snakes. I know snakes are not a favorite of many, but if you observe them from a distance they are fascinating creatures and they will not bother you if you do not bother them.
Sonya: Speaking of lizards, the other day I was watering my potted flowers out on the front lawn. They’re sitting by the porch, and it had been a dry spell for several days. That pot is sitting right next to the front porch. As I was watering it, I noticed something green move on the porch. And it was a little anole. Well, he wasn’t little. He was a nice size. He looked like he was full grown, and he was just sitting there and that was fine. And usually when the lizards see me, or the skinks around here, they go scurrying the other way, but he didn’t, he jumped into the flower pot. As I was watering, the geraniums were over there on that side of the pot. And you know how they have those broad leaves and they were kinda curled up, and it had little pools of water from where I was watering. He just went right over there to that leaf. I could watch him, his little pink tongue just went out lapping it. Bloop, bloop, bloop, lapping up the water. I’ve never seen a lizard lap water before. It was so fun.
Karen: You learned something new about them.
Sonya: Yes! And when he got done, he was invigorated. He jumped out, jumped onto the porch, started pumping and flaring his dewlap. He was like a new man, you know? It was great.
Karen: All because you gave him a drink.
Sonya: Yes. And I didn’t intend to, I was just watering the flowers, but that little green movement caught my eye and the lizards were out. It was fun.
Karen: Yes. So, summer lends itself well to a lot of observations that you can make in nature. And there’s just so much.
Sonya: The other day when we were outside, you mentioned clouds and how summer is like prime time to see different kinds of clouds, right?
Karen: Different types of clouds. You can see them at other times of the year, obviously. But summer is one of those times when the skies are really that brilliant blue and you get a lot of the different types of clouds and you can see several different types of clouds on one day, a lot of times, all at the same time. It’s also a good time to watch the weather. And when there’s a storm coming in, you can usually notice from a safe distance. The storm clouds starting to pile up and get darker and some of the lightning in that storm cloud. So, summer is a good time for that, to notice those weather changes that happen.
Sonya: That reminds me of when our family would take a vacation at the beach, we could see the storm clouds and even a curtain of rain off in the distance across the ocean there, and that we could not see at our home. And so I think of taking nature study with you on your vacations. A lot of people are vacationing in summer.
Karen: That’s a good idea too. That gives you the opportunity to notice nature that you might not be able to see at your home, particularly if you’re going to a completely different area from where you live. Say you live in the north, like I do, and you go to the south. Well, then I have opportunity to see lizards that don’t live in the north. Or you’re going to the mountains and you live on the prairie. It gives you a totally different habitat to discover. And that can be exciting.
Sonya: Summer can be a very exciting time for nature study. Thanks for opening our eyes to a few of the things. There are plenty more, but a few of the things to take notice of. Thanks for joining me.