Thursday, April 23, 2015

An Astronomical Earth Day

Happy post Earth Day! Whether you took a walk in the springtime sun, planted a tree or a flower, or even just wistfully looked out the window while you were stuck at work, I hope you took some time to appreciate this planet that we call home. It's a pretty cool place, and we are lucky to be here. Today I thought we'd take a look at our neighbors within the solar system and perhaps by learning about them, we can learn a bit more about our own planet and appreciate just how special it is.

Sun: Giant Ball of Life-Giving Fusion

Our lives literally revolve around the sun; our juuust right proximity to it is what makes life possible on planet Earth. This great ball of fire has temperatures that vary according to the colors that you see in the photo. The white spots are the hottest, coming in at around 9980° F, while the darkest areas, known as sun spots, are a mere 6380° F.

Mercury: A Lesson in Climate Change
Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and has almost no atmosphere, which means nothing to protect its surface from the heat of the sun. On this planet, daytime highs hover around 800° F. "But Katie," you're saying, "Mercury is the closest to the sun, of course it's going to get that hot." Well consider this then, although this planet is indeed the closest to the sun, because there is also no atmosphere to hold in the heat from the day, the nighttime lows plummet to -300° F. "Global warming" doesn't mean that there will no longer be any winters if we damage our own atmosphere due to pollution and deforestation, it means things will become more extreme on both ends of the spectrum. This is why scientists use the term "climate change" today instead of the misleading "global warming." 

Venus: Earth's Twin Sister

Venus is called Earth's twin because it is pretty much the same size as our planet and is our next door neighbor. But you wouldn't want to go to school or have a work day on Venus. That's because it rotates so slowly that it completely circles the sun before it makes one revolution, ie a day is longer than a year! A day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days, while a year is 224 days. I'm going to need a lot more coffee breaks if I ever get relocated to Venus.

Earth: Third Rock from the Sun

DUDE! I go there! w00t!

Mars: The Red Planet

It seems like almost daily we are learning more about our other next door neighbor, thanks to the Mars Rover. Mars gets its characteristic color from iron (rust) that is found in the soil. While Venus shares the same jeans size as the Earth, Mars has something in common with Earth too: polar ice caps!

Jupiter: Florida Ain't Got Nothin' on Me

You just can't show a picture or illustration of Jupiter without featuring the Great Red Spot that you see here in the lower left. That spot is a massive hurricane, the size of 100 Earths, that has been raging for over 300 years. Aliens on Jupiter would treat a Category 5 hurricane on Earth like Floridans treat a Category 1. Days on this planet are only 10 hours long, but one year is the equivalent of 12 on Earth. So you have shorter work days, but have to wait much, much longer for the next Black Friday sale.

Saturn: Put a Ring on It

Saturn is probably the most widely recognized planet, aside from Earth. Although cartoons like to portray its famous rings as solid, they are made from pieces of rock and dust. If you had a pool of water large enough to put Saturn in (72,367 miles across), it would float! That's because Saturn has a solid inner core, but no solid surface. Like many reality TV stars, it's a gassy giant. 

Uranus: The Most Unfortunately Named Planet

Poor Uranus. It may have been named after the Greek god of the sky (the only planet not named after a Roman god), but I'll bet even the god Uranus was the butt of many jokes. So yes, Uranus is blue. Uranus even has rings around it. And Uranus is also considered a gassy giant. But hey, at least Uranus is popular, it has 27 moon groupies. This planet also rotates perpendicular to its orbit, which means nights can last 40 years. Maybe we should rename this planet Rip Van Winkle.

Neptune: The Stormy Planet

Neptune, like its neighbor, is blue, which it gets from a large amount of methane gas in its atmosphere. While Jupiter may have the Great Red Spot, this entire planet is ravaged by storms with winds up to 1240 miles per hour. Talk about breaking wind, this planet is even smellier than Uranus. 

Pluto: I Still Love You!
Oh Neil DeGrasse Tyson, how you shattered the lives of countless geeks when you and your team demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet on August 24, 2006. So why was Pluto kicked out of the planet clique? In order to be considered a planet, an object has to meet 3 criteria:
  1. It must orbit the sun.
  2. It must be round due to the force of its own gravity.
  3. It has to dominate its orbit, meaning it either must consume or sling items in its orbit path. 
Poor little Pluto, it's orbital path is littered with objects that refuse to yield to its inferior mass, and so it has been demoted to dwarf planet. Don't worry, Pluto, there will always be nine planets in my heart

When you look at our neighbors in the solar system, you get a better idea of just how unique our beloved planet Earth is. It has water, a protective atmosphere, is positioned neither too far nor too close to a source of energy, day and night lengths that make the workday tolerable, a favorable climate, and isn't a smelly, gassy giant with an unfortunate name. On this Earth Day and every day, we need to do our best to remember this awesome place we call home and treat it like we plan on sticking around for many Earth Days to come.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Try It! Sound Mapping

As I sit here on the couch, trying desperately to think of something to write about, I am surrounded by the sounds of birds. There is one house sparrow at my bird feeder saying the equivalent of "Here I am." Across the street, an entire flock of house sparrows are chirping quite enthusiastically, reminding me of a group of friends chatting loudly at a bar. A Carolina wren sang briefly from the Norway maple in my backyard. 

It's amazing what you notice when you stop looking for things and instead just listen. If I put my head down, even with my eyes open, and just focus on my sense of hearing instead of sight, I hear even more sounds. An airplane flying over, how traffic sounds on this street, that street, a far away street, the sound of a bus versus a car, a dog barking about a block down, my neighbor arriving home from school. We are constantly surrounded by sound that is informing our brain about the world around us. 

This weekend, try going out to your favorite place and creating a sound map. It's a great activity to try with your kids, and a great way to practice focusing. I find the activity quite calming, myself. All you'll need is a piece of paper, something to write with, and maybe a clipboard or something else to write on. Find a spot at a local park or nature preserve where you can sit comfortably for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, looking only at your sheet of paper, draw what you hear around you and where you hear it in relation to yourself (I use the center of the paper to represent my location). Don't worry about the quality of your drawing, focus instead on recording every sound you hear: birds, rustling of leaves on the ground, wind blowing through tree branches, footsteps of a passing hiker, rushing water. And if drawing isn't quite your thing, you can instead write the sounds you hear.

I did a sound map from my couch for a few minutes just now, and here's what I heard:
(I told you the quality of the drawing didn't matter.)

In my few minutes here's what I heard and mapped:

  • An American robin doing its alarm call ("Tut! Tut!") in my backyard
  • A house sparrow do a single chirp in my front yard
  • Three cars go by on the road outside my house
  • A bus go by on the main road 2 blocks away
  • The loud music of a car going by on the road behind my house
  • A plane flying overhead
  • A Carolina wren singing on one side of my backyard, then on the other side
  • The feet of Peanut, my male cockatiel as he walked on top of his metal cage bars, then slid down the front of the cage to come sit on my feet (he's a good blog helper).
  • A squeak from Tucker, my female cockatiel, also on top of the cage, then the sound of her preening her tail feathers. She then went to the ground (I forgot to draw her flight) and I heard her feet inside a cardboard box
Sound mapping is an easy activity that not only demonstrates just how much information we can gather from the sounds around us, but also forces us to stop from our busy lives and just listen for a few minutes. So this weekend grab a friend, your family, a girl scout troop, or just yourself, and try some sound mapping as an excuse to get outside and enjoy a spring day. And if you're feeling bold, share your drawing on my Facebook page! Have fun!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Red-backed Salamander: Denizen of the Detritus

Although the high of 46 degrees here in Philadelphia says otherwise, it really is finally spring! The migratory birds are returning, flowers are blooming, and although 46 degrees may not exactly be a heat wave, at least it's not snowing (sorry to rub it in, Mom). Another sign of spring here in the Northeast is the return of the red-backed salamander.

These tiny amphibians can be found all over Briar Bush Nature Center, where I filmed a video edition of today's blog for your edutainment!
(My apologies on the audio...I had a cold and could not stop sniffling!)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Extreme Makeover: Grackle Edition

Last month, I brought you the story of a common grackle that was kept illegally as a pet for 7 years by a well-intentioned gentleman who mistook the bird for an orphan. The bird was kept in a tiny cage, with access to water only in a coffee cup (which meant he could not bathe), and an improper diet. This left his feathers tattered and dull and his beak and nails overgrown. He also never achieved his adult yellow eye color, which may be an indication of thyroid issues. When I last left you, the grackle had been brought to the Schuylkill Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic for some much needed medical attention.

Mr. Nature Geek and I went to visit the grackle (whom we named "Twitch" due to his constant movement) a few days later and were able to get him to perch on our arms and shoulders. We also offered him what could have been his first bath ever. I put a pan of water on a table, and with Twitch on my arm, splashed in the water with my fingers. Twitch knew just what to do! He immediately hopped in and went absolutely berzerk, flapping his wings and scooting around in the water like a little motorboat. When his bath was over, the water was cloudy and littered with frayed feathers. Twitch was one happy bird. 

In the month that followed, my friend and clinic rehabber Michele, would send me updates and let me come and visit Twitch to see his progress. He underwent a massive molt, replacing all of his tail feathers at once and most of his wing feathers. Thanks to his new spacious housing and natural diet of mealworms, seeds, fruit, and a little cat food for extra nutrients, Twitch's new feathers were as gorgeous as nature intended. 

So how is he doing today? You be the judge:

Yup, Twitch is doing pretty well these days. He has moved out of the clinic and is being fostered by me at Briar Bush. In just one weekend, Twitch went from being a fearful bird who did not want to stray far from his human companions to an independent, pain in the butt, and I wouldn't have it any other way. And just for a reminder of how far he's come, take a look at these before and after shots:

Hello Mr. Twitch, you fine lookin' grackle you. And he's not even done molting yet! Once all of his old feathers have been replaced, he'll be even more beautiful and he'll be able to fly (I think he's a pain now, just wait until he can fly away from me and not just run!) So what's next for Twitch? We're trying to find a good home for him either at another nature center or at an aviary, where he can live out his days in comfort. Either way, he's got some of the best days of his life ahead of him and is never going to look back.