THE MOON: Small-but-Mighty Neighbor

The moon is a small, unassuming celestial body – Earth’s natural satellite. We watch the moon through its phases, but other than that I’d bet most people don’t give it much thought. Neither did I. But as it turns out, life on Earth would be much different without our moon, if it were possible at all. Wait, what?

It’s true. The moon keeps Earthy steady; without the moon, Earth would be very wobbly, tilting too much on its axis. All that wobbling would mean a crazy climate. The moon also keeps the earth from spinning too fast. In addition to really short days, if the earth spun faster, winds and storms would be stronger. It’s incredible to think about. And small though it is (for a size comparison to Earth, set a green pea next to nickel), our moon is a mighty cosmic ally that we truly can’t get by without.

As I did my research about the moon my mind kept coming back to these facts. One random event in space that is responsible for the creation of our moon changed Earth forever. Want to learn what that event was? Or learn more about the moon? Well then, travel the universe with a couple of snarky, adorable aliens starting March 15!

THE EARTH: One-of-a-Kind Planet

In 2019 my editor at Nomad Press asked if I wanted to do another picture book science series, this time on space. Of course I said YES! But then I thought, oh no, space science is hard! And, it wasn’t a subject I was familiar with. As a kid I didn’t even much like space science. Right there was the challenge – how could I deliver information about complex subjects in a way kids like me could understand and enjoy? And maybe even be inspired to learn more about?

I started noodling. There were a lot of choices to make before drafting:

  • What tone did I want for the series?
  • Who would be the narrator?
  • Would there be layered text?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What do I want the reader take-away to be?
  • What is the hook?
  • What is the entry point for each book?
  • What else is already out there on these subjects?

These are all things an author considers, usually before writing a single word. And because these books were going to be a series, there needed to be consistency. Once I had all that figured out, it was time to write (of course there was A LOT of research too).

Now, on March 15, The Earth: One-of-a-Kind Planet will make its way into world, introducing students to Earth’s place in the solar system, how Earth was created, how life evolved, and more.

P.S. There are aliens in the book too!

Ponderosa Pines

Ponderosa pines are one my favorite trees. They grow straight and tall (they can grow to well over 100 feet!), have striking red bark, and smell like butterscotch. It’s true. They are like a living scratch and sniff. If you get close, scratch the bark with your fingernail, and sniff, it does smell somewhat like butterscotch. Other people say they smell like baking cookies. Either way, it’s always nice to get up close and personal to a ponderosa.

They are remarkable in other ways too. These giants can live 400 years. Quite possibly the trees you pass on hikes in the West were around long before our country was founded. Ponderosas are also fire resistant, thanks, in part, to their thick, insulating bark that acts like armor. The outside layer of bark can burn, but if the inner layer isn’t, the tree will survive.

Of course ponderosa pines are critical habitat for wildlife, too. Abert’s squirrels feed on the trees’ cones, buds, and twigs, and even fungus and tree sap. In addition, many types of birds including finches, chickadees, nuthatches, and jays, as well as chipmunks, enjoy the ponderosa pine’s seeds. Even the bark is choice food for beavers and porcupines. Clearly these trees are a favorite among wildlife too!

World Wetlands Day

When people hear the word “wetland” they often think “swamp.” Or they think of someplace mucky, stinky, and gross. Many people envision wetlands as overrun by disease-carrying insects. As a result, they are often drained, dammed, filled in, and used as dumps. But the truth is, as with any ecosystem, that healthy wetlands have few insects, aren’t smelly, and are vital to the overall functioning of our interconnected world.

World Wetlands Day is a day to celebrate wetlands and bring attention to their importance. For example, did you know that wetlands store and clean fresh water?  They do! A healthy wetland actually filters pollutants, working in much the same way kidneys do in the human body. Wetlands also act as a buffer against storms. Because they absorb water, they can help prevent flooding downstream. On coastlines, wetlands act as a buffer between storms and the mainland. Even more importantly in today’s world, wetlands capture and store carbon. In fact, peatlands, marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds store more carbon than forests. And if all that isn’t enough to convince you of the value of wetlands, they are home to 40% of Earth’s species.

Learn more about wetlands here. Better still, go visit a wetland near you. There’s a lot to see and celebrate.

Snow Fly

While snowshoeing high, high in the mountains, on top of snow measured in feet, we came across what we thought was a spider. Instantly puzzled, we wondered what the heck a spider was doing walking across the snow on a not-at-all-warm day. Had we taken the time to count its legs, we would have known that it wasn’t a spider at all. Luckily I took pictures.

And because I geek-out over this kind of stuff, I had to figure out what it was. Drum roll, please…it was a snow fly. A snow fly? Who has ever heard of such a thing? Clearly not me. And in all the time I’ve spent in the mountains in winter I’ve never come across one.

Apparently these wingless flies are present in montane environments across North America, Asia, and Europe. They spend most of their adult lives in the subnivean* environment (new word alert!) making good use of mammal burrows and cavities in the snow created by rocks, fallen logs, and vegetation. The little research done on these flies reveals that adults most likely don’t eat at all, and only drink water from melted snow. What do the larvae eat? They are coprophagous** (new word alert #2!).

Aside from their winter strolls on the snow, high in the mountains, snow flies are different from most insects in other ways. Opposite from most other insects, snow fly larvae grow in the summer and pupate in the fall. The adults mate in the winter, which, scientists believe is one of the reasons they leave the relative “warmth” of the subnivean zone and go for a stroll. They are looking for a mate.

* the area between the surface of the ground and bottom of the snow

**feeding on the feces of  other animals

Greenland Shark

Greenland shark at the floe edge of the Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut (Hemming1952)

Last week I had the honor of reading one of my picture books to a group of second graders (hello Dry Creek Elementary 2nd grade!). Afterwards they asked what I like to write about, and I explained how much I geek out over cool nature and science facts (like the velvet worm). Then, the very next morning a friend sent me a link to an article about Greenland sharks. I geeked out.

The first thing that caught my attention is that they are ENORMOUS yet we know very, very little about them. How is that possible? What we do know is that these elusive sharks can be over 20 feet long (comparable to a great white) and the surface of the skin is covered in denticles – toothlike projections. Greenland sharks love cold, very deep water around Greenland and Iceland, which is probably why they are seen so rarely. Down in the depths they blend into the murky darkness, moving ever so slowly. Their average speed? Less than 2 miles per hour. In addition, they are practically blind. That brings up the question, how do they catch anything to eat? The answer is, first of all, that they are not picky. They will eat just about anything, alive or dead (Arctic seals, reindeer, polar bears, beluga whales, fish, crustaceans), that ends up in the sea. They are scavengers for sure, but they are also ambush predators.

Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about the Greenland shark is how long they live: over 200 years. That is not a typo. And I checked multiple sources. Teams of scientists have used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of captured sharks. One female was approximately 400 years old. That means she was alive at the same time as Galileo, when the Taj Mahal was completed, and while Newton pondered gravity. Truly hard to comprehend, but fun to geek out over.

 

Robins

Robins are a common site across North America. They are so common that we often don’t give them much thought. Yet in the past months I’ve come to appreciate the common birds that populate my yard and visit my feeder, and I find them every bit as fascinating as more extravagant birds.

Photo by Joe Cosentino

First of all, robins can be found year-round in the contiguous states. Though some do migrate (especially those living in the northern part of the continent), most simply move into the woods in the winter where there are trees and shrubs with berries, and they roost in the trees. That’s why we don’t see them as often in the winter. When warm weather arrives, we will see them in parks and yards pulling up worms after a rainstorm. To find the worms, robins stand motionless, staring at the ground with their head tilted sideways. The search for worms will happen most often in the morning because robins stick to a routine menu: worms in the morning, berries in the afternoon.

If you do see a robin in the wintertime, you are most likely in the company of many more than one. These roosts, as they’re called, can include up to a quarter million birds! Surely I look forward to the days when they’re pulling up worms again, but I’m happy to see one any time.

Common Goldeneye

Recently I came across a bird I’d never seen – the common goldeneye. They are members of the family of water birds (ducks, geese, etc.) and have apparently come to Colorado for the winter. Personally I would’ve kept flying south, but I suppose it’s downright balmy here compared to Canada.

I like ducks of all varieties, but this one caught my eye because of its striking black and white markings. It also provided a measure of amusement as it dove down and disappeared in the creek. Where would it reappear? There? There? No, there! Endless entertainment. It even dove under sheets of ice, then popped back up on the other side (they can apparently dive for up to a minute).

A little more investigation also revealed that, during breeding season further north, the females will lay their eggs in other ducks’ nests when sites are scarce (and it can be any duck nest – doesn’t have to be another goldeneye nest). As it turns out other ducks do this, so it seems as though a goldeneye might end up raising a very diverse group (this diverse brood is called a crèche)!  The eggs are then incubated by some feathered mom for about 30 days. After hatching the common goldeneye young are ready to leave the nest in only 1-2 days! Gets even better…goldeneyes nest in the boreal forests of Canada in tree cavities up to 40 feet high. That means the chicks must jump to the ground where their mother (either biological or foster) waits and calls. Then they are led to the water.

 

Winter Solstice

Unlike many people, I am not one to celebrate the arrival of winter. I DO, however, celebrate the solstice. HOORAY, we made it! At last, the amount of darkness will wane. The amount of daylight will begin to increase once again. The sun will climb a little higher into the sky each day. Ahhhhh.

In the northern hemisphere, the solstice marks the beginning of winter and the day on which our side of the planet is tilted furthest from the sun. On that day, my region will receive only 9 hours and 21 minutes of daylight. Not enough! From this point, though, the Northern Hemisphere will see more and more sunlight each day. And while the tilt of the earth does change slightly, its axis always points in the same direction, and is not the reason for our different seasons. What changes is earth’s position in its orbit around the sun.

So, today at noon stand outside and cast your longest midday shadow of the year and celebrate the return of sunlight.

Wolves Coming Back to Colorado!

Copyright Gunnar Ries

Among the other excellent election day news, Coloradoans voted in favor of a ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves in the state. It’s been 80 years since Colorado has had an established population. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as European expansion and settlement in the West increased, wolves were poisoned and hunted to the point of extirpation (local extinction).

The vote to bring them back was close, just about split down the middle between rural and urban areas. Voters in urban areas were the ones in favor, rural voters were against. Ranchers are concerned that wolves will kill livestock. This is certainly a reality. However, ranchers do get compensation when wolves kill their livestock.

Yet as the Yellowstone wolves have clearly shown, they are a vital part of the ecosystem. More importantly, reintroducing the wolves to their native habitat is a step toward repairing the damage we’ve done; if they hadn’t been hunted to extinction, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t need to vote on it. But we did need to vote, and the first wolves will be back in Western Colorado in 2022.