Carolina Chickadee Sketches

We've been watching our bird feeder. Our AV Club president and resident tech-expert, King, even set up a video camera to record who comes to feed. I hope to eventually graduate to real, live bird watching and observing, but we are starting with the videotaping method.

Rainy day bird videotaping set-up by King.

Rainy day bird videotaping set-up by King.

The boys will then choose a bird, identify it, research it and present their findings in our nature study class.

King was first up and chose the Carolina chickadee.

We made sketches from photos found on the internet.

King's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

King's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

Mike's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

Mike's sketch of the Carolina chickadee.

To prevent this exercise from being too sweet and perfect, the boys each defaced their original chickadee photograph.
Kings doodled chickadee.JPG
Mikes doodled chickadee.JPG

More Galls.

After discovering the goldenrod galls last week, the boys and I went on a gall hunt to see if we could find more of these fascinating formations. It was a rainy day, but we were not deterred (i.e. I made the boys go out despite the rain).

And our (my) tenacity paid off!  In addition to finding more goldenrod fly galls, we found two other types. We found the gall of a moth, which coincidentally also makes its home inside the goldenrod stem, but differs in that it is elliptical in shape, rather than spherical (see photo below left). We also found a blackberry knot gall, which appears as a strange lumpy growth on a blackberry cane (see photo below right). We took our bounty back to the house to dig a little deeper (litterally) and find out who was living inside each one.

Left to Right: two elliptical goldenrod moth galls; four spherical goldenrod fly galls.

Blackberry Knot Galls

We cut open the spherical gall first. We could see the small grub of the fly (Eurosta solidaginis) tucked inside the hollow space in the center of its home (see photos below). Anna Botsford Comstock, in her "Handbook of Nature Study", likens a gall-dweller such as this to a "boy living in the middle of a giant sponge cake, who when hungry would naturally eat out a larger cave in the heart of the cake."

Goldenrod Gall Fly Larva in left half of gall.

Goldenrod Gall Larva in my craggy hand.

Next we looked at the elliptical shaped gall which is also found on the goldenrod plant. This gall is formed by a moth (Epiblema scudderiana). The moth lays its eggs on the goldenrod's stem in the fall. In the spring, the eggs hatch and the caterpillar buries itself in the stem where the plant tissue starts to swell around it. Over the summer the caterpillar feeds on the inside of the gall, which continually expands to accomodate its growing size.  Before its transformation takes place, the caterpillar chews a small tunnel (see photo below) to the outside, but closes off the entrance with a little door made of debris. The tunnel is constructed in such a way, that the door will only push open from the inside, so as to discourage any intruders. In late summer, the metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa to moth takes place and the newly formed moth pushes open its trap door and flies off, leaving behind nothing more than its red-brown pupal skin (see photo below).

Goldenrod gall moth empty gall with exit tunnel and pupal skin.

Next we cut open the blackberry knot gall. Inside, there wasn't a single hollowed out center chamber. As its odd outward appearance suggested, the inside of this gall was a random jumble of plant tissue and crevices (see photo below left). The blackberry knot gall is what is called a "colonial" gall, in that it has not one inhabitant, but many. In the spring and summer, the tiny wasp (Diastrophus nebulosus) lays several eggs on the cane of a blackberry bush. The eggs hatch and the larvae spend the winter inside the gall. The more eggs that are laid the larger the gall will become. Each larva has its own "chamber" in which to grow, surrounded by gall tissue on which to feed (see photo below right). In the spring, the adult wasps will chew their way out  and leave behind the apartment home they shared with their siblings.

Blackberry knot gall cut into quarters.

Blackberry knot gall wasp larva in situ.

We kept a few intact specimens and put them in a jar outside to see if we can catch sight of emerging insects in the spring. Of course, we won't be seeing any moths, as they have already vacated their homes. 

Goldenrod fly galls and blackberry knot galls in a jar.

If any of our gall dwellers do indeed reveal themselves, I'll be sure to share the event with you.


By Anna Botsford Comstock

Goldenrod Gall

On a walk along the edge of our field, I noticed these round ball-like growths on the stems of some tall dried weeds. These swollen sections looked unnatural to the plant, which got me curious. I broke off the section containing the oddity and sliced it open with my knife. Inside the ball there was a small hollow cavity containing a soft white grub-like creature. 

After a little research, I discovered that the plant is a goldenrod and the little guy inside the sphere is the larvae of the goldenrod gall fly. In the spring the female goldenrod gall fly lays her eggs on the stems of goldenrod plants. When the egg hatches the larvae begins feeding on the stem. The stem then swells in reaction to this injury, thus creating what is called a "gall". The larvae lives inside the gall, well protected and well fed by the gall itself. When it is done growing it will chew itself an escape tunnel out of the gall, stopping just short of breaking through to the outside. The larvae survives the winter protected by the globular scar tissue. The next spring the fully developed adult gall fly emerges through its pre-made tunnel, ready to repeat the cycle.

Besides the goldenrod, there are many other types of galls, gall plants and gall makers (perhaps 2,000 in North America alone). I'll definitely be on the look out for more of these fascinating creations.

Discovering Mistletoe

All I knew of Mistletoe was that you kiss under it at Christmastime. I was surprised to hear that it grew wild in the South. I was also surprised to hear that it grew on trees. Mistletoe is not a tree, but a parasitic shrub that grows out of the branches of existing trees like oaks. I began to look up and around, and sure enough, there it was all around me, high up in the trees of my own yard.

At a quick glance you might assume it is a squirrel's nest left over from the summer. But with a longer look and a closer inspection you will notice that it is not a mass of brown dead leaves, but green, like strange and untimely new growth on an otherwise dormant and barren tree. 

The boys and I decided we would try to harvest some for ourselves. Apparently, the preferred way to harvest mistletoe in the South is to shoot it out of the tree with a shotgun. I was a little skeptical about this approach for many reasons. So we hauled out an old ladder we found in the barn and hoped it would reach high enough. That's another thing about mistletoe. It seems to prefer the highest branches on a tree on which to grow. We could only reach a small clump of it from the top of our ladder. Even this relatively "low growing" cluster was a little too high for my comfort and letting go of the ladder to do my clipping (and photographing) left me more than a little uneasy. 

The botanical name for American Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is derived from the Greek words for "tree thief". It is a hemi-parasitic shrub which obtains water and nutrients from its host, although it also produces some of its own food through its own photosynthetic processes. The common name "Mistletoe" may come from the Anglo-Saxon words for "dung twig". This alludes to the plants method of propagation. Some birds enjoy eating the sticky white mistletoe berries which, when passed through the digestive system and deposited on a branch, may germinate into a new plant.

Kissing Under the Dung Twig

It is unclear why we kiss under mistletoe. The practice may have originated with the Druids who believed the plant to be sacred. It is said that if two enemies met under a mistletoe plant, they must lay down their weapons, great each other warmly and observe a truce until the following day. 

In any case, we have been kissing under the "dung twig" for hundreds of years. Washington Irving referenced the tradition in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., first published in 1819. 

the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.** The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.

The only mistletoe we were able to reach was devoid of any berries, so I guess our kissing privileges were gone before they even began.

I think I need some hand lotion.

I think I need some hand lotion.

Have School, Will Travel

According to Georgia law, a home study program (i.e. homeschool) must have at least one hundred eighty days of instruction within a twelve month period. This year we started school on Labor Day, which is a little late for Georgia schools. The longer it takes us to fill our quota of 180 days, the farther our school year will stretch into summer, regardless of how much material we cover.

None of us want to be having school in July, so we look for ways to be creative in what counts as "school", while still remaining within the law (of course!). We are not bound by a school building, so trips that might normally be classified as strictly vacation can be partly counted as "field trips". I try not to stretch this too much. For example, I'm not going to call our Thanksgiving Day get-together with my family a social studies class on intergenerational relations. However, with a little intentional planning and instruction we can check a few days off the school calendar that might otherwise be "lost" to vacation.

This Thanksgiving we spent a week in Wisconsin and Minnesota visiting my family. However, were able to dedicate some time toward educational endeavors.

There was stargazing with Uncle Rod and his telescope. We saw a double star, the open star cluster Pleiades, the Andromeda Galaxy, and we were able to get an amazing view of Jupiter and its moons.

My dad (aka "Pop") dissected an abandoned paper wasps' nest for the kids.

Thankfully, no one was home.


He also performed a dissection of a reptile specimen. Some found this fascinating...


Others found the blood a little disconcerting, at least initially...


And others just thought it felt suspiciously like school interrupting his vacation.


I have fond childhood memories of picking milkweed pods and tearing them open to reveal their silky white fluff. The boys had never seen any before, so King drove us in the Gator to find some along the side of the road.

I allowed Mike to drive us back, after he promised not to drive too fast.

I'll take it easy, Mom.

It takes great effort and concentration to drive slowly.


Our whole family was able to spend a day at my brother's school. The boys attended classes with their cousins and Curtis and I observed the school's very talented teachers in action. The boys reported that "it wasn't that different than homeschool". (Apart from having more than one classmate and the teachers not being their mother, I suppose). I took their assessment as a compliment.

Magnolia: Gone to Seed

We kicked off nature study this year by studying the fruit of the Southern Magnolia tree. We had the opportunity to observe the transformation of the fruit as it opens to reveal its cache of seeds.

While ripening, the fruit remains closed up tight and firmly attached to the tree.

After the fruit has past its prime, its flesh begins to pull back, giving a glimpse of the seeds inside.

Eventually, the fruit dies back completely, allowing its scarlet seeds to dangle freely by thin white threads.

It was such a privilege to watch and document this amazing and beautiful transformation of fruit to seed.

The boys were even inspired. I believe their detailed and carefully crafted representations testify to that fact.

Fruit of the Magnolia

For Nature Study, I try to pick out one or two specific trees that we will study throughout the year. We will study them at various times, observing their changes with the seasons. One of the trees we will be following this year is a Southern Magnolia living in the park across the street.

In the fall, our Magnolia bears fruit. 

Magnolia Fruit In Situ

But before you can properly study a tree, you must swing from her branches. It's a rule.


With that out of the way, we gathered our low hanging fruit and headed back to the classroom.

Poetry is full of sadness of the fading flower, whereas rightly it should be the gladness of the flower that fades, because its work is done for the precious seed at its heart. The whole attention of the child should be fixed upon the developing fruit instead of the fading and falling petals.

- Anna Botsford Comstock, HANDBOOK OF NATURE STUDY

The fruit of a plant is its vehicle for producing and distributing seed. We had an interesting discussion about all the different fruits that are falling this time of year and the different mechanisms and partnerships that are utilized to distribute them. Michael commented that the squirrel that buries an acorn is really an oak tree farmer.

But we are talking magnolias here, not oaks. 

The boys got out their Nature Journals and their watercolors. Here is the fruit of their labor:

Fruit of Magnolia Grandiflora by King (watercolor on paper)

Fruit of Magnolia Grandiflora by Michael (watercolor on paper)

Daffodils Make Me Happy

I planned a field study to the Botanical Gardens. We would sit amongst the daffodils, read Wordsworth, and King would sketch.



It sounded so perfect.

However, as so often happens, a fresh new setting led to fresh new distractions; and poetry pushed beyond the most literal ("Daffodils make him happy.") was merely frustration.

"I don't KNOW what he's talking about! ...Daffodils?"

I wish I had left it at that.

"Yes, daffodils make him happy. Now, let's get out the sketchbook and get to know one for yourself."


Surely there was more to the poem, but it wasn't mine to give. I pushed too hard, explained to much, and as a result King began to loathe my words, my questions, and perhaps even the poem itself. Even with all my good intentions, I had achieved the exact opposite result from the one I wanted.

One of my favorite things about Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education is that she rightly places all inspiration and knowledge in the hands of the Divine Teacher. I may put King in the presence of daffodils, and place Wordsworth before him, but I cannot force him to "drink" the ideas therein. I must quietly stand aside and let God reveal what He will in His own time and in His own way.

For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him. Isaiah 28:26