Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Why Do We Need Raptor Centers?

On October 29th–from 1 -2 PM at Writers & Books in Rochester, New York–I’ll be upstaged by an owl.

Happens all the time.9781634501477_p0_v2_s192x300

I love to do events for young readers around my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in partnership with the area’s local raptor rehabilitation center. Staff bring live birds on the glove and introduce audiences to each, telling a little about the natural and personal history of the raptors in their care.

I talk about what inspired me to write the book (volunteering at my own rehabilitation center with injured birds of prey while courting another volunteer who would eventually become my husband). I also talk about why we need raptor centers in the first place.

Raptors occupy the lofty top of the food chain. They’re an indicator species, which means we can study changes in the environment, including our climate, by looking at them. For example, thin-shelled eggs and babies not hatching? When scientists noticed this, they traced the issue back to pesticide use, and environmental activists worked to ban certain crop poisons which rodents would ingest and pass on to birds.

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This Western screech owl lost her eye in a battle with a cat.

Do you like rats and mice? Me, too. But I don’t want to wade through a sea of them on my way to the mailbox. Raptors keep our rodent population down to healthy levels. A single barn owl can eat 1,300 rats a year. Burrowing owls chow down mass quantities of insects and beetles; again, I’m fond of these, too, but a few of them go a long, long way.

The issue that threatens raptors (owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, vultures, and kites) is . . . well, to put it bluntly, us. We like to drive fast, and we end up colliding with birds that swoop across the highway in search of mice. We put up barbed wire fences, and owls get horrifically tangled in them. We put out rat poison, and rats ingest it, but then raptors eat them and become ill. We cut down trees with nests in them, and parents fly off, leaving owls orphaned.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Fortunately, raptor centers exist across the world to help preserve threatened birds of prey. Staff and volunteers dedicate their lives to providing them with medication, food, water, and clean and enriching home environments. Want to support your local raptor center? Here’s a list of rehabilitation centers by state. Many invite visitors to walk around and meet the birds. In some, you can even hold a birthday party or, in my case, a wedding.

 

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Me, releasing a rehabilitated hawk on my wedding day. No white dress here!

On Saturday, I’ll be doing a presentation with staff and birds from Wild Wings, Inc. in upstate New York. They’re wonderful people devoted to caring for raptors and teaching us about the value and beauty of these birds of prey. Yes, their resident owl is sure to upstage me.

It’s totally worth it.

For more information on the Rochester, NY event, click here.  I’ll also appear at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, Oregon on November 11th, 11 AM.

–Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Nerd Out with These Three Nature-Focused Resources

Kazoo Magazineimages

This month, I surprised my nine-year old daughter with a subscription to the new magazine Kazoo, billed as a publication for “girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise.” I haunted our dusty red mailbox every day in October until her issue arrived, and managed to slip it out of her room one night after she’d fallen asleep reading it.

Fellow Nature Nerds, it rocks.

In  issue #2, you’ll learn how to make beautiful self-portraits out of leaves and sticks and flower petals and lichen found outside. You’ll study the science of composting to enrich the soil, learn how to make an acorn whistle, examine a butterfly wing up close, and create a pinhole camera with which to document your adventures outdoors. Don’t miss it.

Mystery Science

If I hadn’t started homeschooling my daughter last year, I would never have discovered a wonderful new online resource called Mystery Science. Each short lesson begins with an entertaining anecdote and moves into information and–my favorite part–experiments!

 

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Over the past few months, my daughter and I have learned why some apples are red, some are green, and some are yellow. We’ve investigated whether we could outrun a dinosaur and whether or not a volcano could appear spontaneously in our backyard.

Thanks to the smart people at Mystery Science, we know what happens to fallen leaves, why a hawk might move to New York City, how to identify clouds and track a storm and and tell the time using only the sun and a paper plate and a pencil.

Each short lesson concludes with a page of links and films and books for further study. Science this exciting is addictive!

 

Camp Out!

I’m a sucker for a colorful nonfiction kids’ book, especially if the author can explain in a clear and entertaining manner certain tricky concepts like how to navigate without a compass, and mark a trail, and tell whether a storm is coming. 0fe003a7-2b6d-474d-9a68-54266d89ee96

I found this book at our local science museum, and I’ve read it over and over, both alone and with my daughter. It’s a fun book, packed with useful information. We learned how to make spider dogs and solar oven pizza, how to make seed jewelry, and how to tell a rabbit track from a garter snake track (okay, that one was  easy).

Too cold to camp right now? This book makes for great winter reading while you plan your next adventure. Check out Camp Out here!

These are just a few of my favorite nature resources. I’d love to know yours! Feel free to comment below.

–Melissa

 Melissa Hart is a contributing author at The Writer Magazine and the author of the middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016).

 

 

 

 


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Seattle’s Pacific Science Center: Bugs, Bikes, and Musical Flowers

Some families travel to Disneyland. Mine goes to science museums. There’s a family-friendly science museum in almost every major city, and you can find one of the best in Seattle, Washington.

We visited the Pacific Science Center in September on a break from my Avenging the Owl bookstore tour, and spent seven hours investigating every corner of the museum. Here are some of the weird and wonderful things we discovered.

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Insect Village

Love insects? Stick around here for a while. An animatronic housefly invites you to “step right up” and visit an extensive display that will give you a sense of how high a flea jumps, how a beetle’s exoskeleton acts like a knight’s armor, why hissing cockroaches hiss, and—my favorite—how mealworms eat Styrofoam. (Up until I observed this for myself, I thought mealworms were simply food for owls, but now I realize they have other environmental benefits, as well!)

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Tropical Butterfly House

Even on the grayest, rainiest, coldest days, the butterfly house glows with a tropical light. Hundreds of butterflies drift about, landing on flowered plants, on piles of sliced fruit, and on you. The museum gets its butterflies in chrysalis form from farms in Central and South America, and they allow visitors to watch the hatching and study the brief but beautiful life cycle of these insects. Laminated identification cards let you to learn the names of what you’re seeing, but you can also dispense with the fancy nomenclature and simply bask with the butterflies.

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High-Rail Bicycle

So maybe you’re sort of a daredevil, or maybe your great-grandparents—like mine–ran away to join the circus. Either way, if you weigh over 100 pounds, you can pedal a bicycle on a one-inch-wide rail 15 feet above the museum’s courtyard for free. Downward-hanging weights keep it from slipping off the rail.

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Look, Mom! No hands!

Live Science Shows

As a creative writing teacher, I have a crazy admiration for those who can impart the magic of science to kids  . . . and to me. The museum offers a couple of half-hour science presentations a day, classes so surprising and funny you forget you’re actually learning. We saw “The Science of Combustion” in which the presenter lit blew up fuel-filled balloons and lit someone’s ten dollar bill on fire (it managed to escape unharmed), and “The Science of Bubbles.”

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Musical Flowers

After seven hours of fabulously-interactive exhibits on health and archaeology and space and dinosaurs and Legos and 3-D printing and musical instruments, I had to get outside and go in search of a veggie dog. I found one along a line of food stands in the Seattle Center, but not before I discovered artist Dan Corson‘s giant glass flowers sprouting up right outside the museum. As people walk past them, they emit loud tones—some low, some high, all unexpected and weird. But then, that describes the whole science museum, which is much more fun, my 9-year old agrees, than a family vacation to Disneyland.


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Owl Pellets and Owl Pellet Cookies: Don’t get them mixed up!

I offer you an important lesson today, my friends, one that could very likely save you from walking around with mouse bones stuck in your teeth.

This is an owl pellet:

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And these are owl pellet cookies:

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Why should you care? Because owl pellets are a hoot and a half to dissect.

Here’s the deal. Whenever possible, owls swallow their prey whole. But they can’t digest the entire mouse or rat or songbird or snake. So about once a day, the owl’s stomach makes a pellet with fur and feathers on the outside, and sharp bones of the prey on the inside.

Let me dispel a major misconception right now: a pellet comes out of the beak-end of the bird, people, not the butt! You can find them on the ground under trees when you’re hiking, or order them online, and then pull them apart with tweezers to see what the owl had for a meal.

Here’s a group of kids examining owl pellets after my latest Raptors Rule! slideshow and reading from my novel, Avenging the Owl at the lovely Third Place Books Ravenna, Seattle.

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Dissecting owl pellets is fun, and for a really good time, combine this activity with owl pellet cookies.

Hey, wouldn’t this make for a most excellent birthday party?!

Here’s a deliciously-weird recipe from Jane Hammerslough’s super-fun, super-sciency book, Owl Puke.

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Owl pellet cookies

Servings: 36 to 45 cookies

6 cups crispy rice cereal

2 cups semisweet or milk chocolate chips

1 cup sugar

1 cup corn syrup

1 cup peanut butter

2 white chocolate candy bar, chopped into bonelike bits

Foil for wrapping pellets

1. Mix cereal and chocolate chips in a large bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix sugar and corn syrup in a small pan and heat until bubbling.

3. Remove sugar-syrup mixture from heat and stir in peanut butter.

4. Stir peanut butter mixture into cereal and chocolate chips and mix together well. The chocolate chips will melt. When the cereal is coated, allow the mixture to cool.

5. Put 2 tablespoons of the mixture into your hand. Sprinkle 4 to 5 white chocolate bone and skull pieces on top.

6. Squeeze mixture in your fist until it looks like an owl pellet. Wrap, if you’d like, in a small square of foil.

Mmm. So tasty. What’s your favorite owl-related activity? Feel free to comment here!


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Bart King, Author and Bird Lover

You probably know Portland author Bart King from his books, The Big Book of Boy Stuff and the Big Book of Girl Stuff. He’s also written numerous other nonfiction books, and now, he’s got a novel!

Titled The Drake Equation, it’s the story of birdwatcher Noah Grow, a boy who starts out on a quest to find a wood duck and ends up on an intergalactic adventure.

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On Wednesday May 4th at 7 PM, Bart King and I will host a family-friendly literary event at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing . We’ll talk about his book, and about my new novel Avenging the Owl, then debate which bird is cooler–black swifts or great horned owls.

Learn about birds with our slide show presentation and Avian Trivia game, and stay for our reading and book signing. This event is ideal for anyone who loves wildlife and wit.

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Author Bart King

I caught up with Bart King earlier this week to ask him about his new novel. Here’s what he had to say:

Melissa Hart: What is it about black swifts that intrigues you, and why did you want to include this particular bird in The Drake Equation? Have you seen these birds in person, and if so, where? 

Bart King: First off, I’ve never seen a black swift personally. Almost nobody has! They’re very rare, canny, and private.

About two years ago, I read a short book about black swifts, and was amazed to discover this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a young birdwatcher named Noah who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift.

But if Noah was secretly watching the black swifts, was it possible that someone (or something) else was watching Noah? (The story took off from there!)

Melissa Hart: Tell me about your relationship to wood ducks.

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck - Brautente)

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck – Brautente)

Bart King: In 1971, I was living in a small town in California called Sebastopol. It has wetlands on its east border (now known as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve), and wood ducks lived there. As a community project, I helped build and install nesting boxes for the birds. (Wood ducks are unusual in that they perch and nest in trees). Anyone who’s ever seen a wood duck knows how absolutely beautiful they are—and I’ve remained impressed ever since!

Melissa Hart: Let’s say you have a whole weekend free to travel to your favorite spot in the Pacific Northwest. Where will we find you?

Bart King: You’re going to think I’m a freak—but I might just stay home and work. (To explain that a bit, I’ll just add that given what we know about climate change, the idea of driving a car somewhere for fun has become completely “alien” to me.)

Melissa Hart: Are you working on another book now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Bart King: The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

For more about author Bart King, visit his website at http://www.bartking.net/. And see him in person with me at Powell’s Books, Cedar Crossing, 7 PM Wednesday May 4th.

BartMelissaBooks


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Raptor Rehabbers Celebrate Birds Every Day

Happy National Audubon Day! The National Audubon Society sets aside April 26 each year to celebrate the life of ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, author and illustrator of this gorgeous book, The Birds of America.

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You can find a chapter of the Audubon Society in or near your hometown and meet up with other bird lovers for hikes and educational meetings and the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Want to take your love for all things avian one step further? Why not visit and support your local bird rehabilitation center? These centers, which serve songbirds and waterfowl and raptors, exist all over the country. You can often go there to learn about how staff and volunteers work to help injured and orphaned bird. Sometimes, you can even become a volunteer yourself! Here’s a list of resources from the appendix of my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016), to get you started:  9781634501477_p0_v2_s192x300

Hawkwatch International, a non-profit dedicated to preserving raptors and their habitat: http://www.hawkwatch.org/

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, a great site for education and resources for wildlife conservation: http://theiwrc.org/

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, provides links to finding a wildlife/raptor rehabilitator near you: http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/finding-rehabilitator

The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit working to conserve birds of prey: http://www.peregrinefund.org

One of my favorite raptor rehabilitation centers is Wild Wings, in upstate New York. Here’s an article I wrote about it for The Boston Globe a while back. Enjoy!

“New Yorkers shelter and show birds too hurt to go free” from The Boston Globe

The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings.
The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings. (Jonathan B. Smith for The Boston Globe)

HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. — Wild Wings is a national chain restaurant serving crispy, spicy drumsticks in barbecue sauce. Wild Wings is also a family-friendly raptor rehabilitation center just south of Rochester.

People tend to get their wings mixed up, with humorous results. It’s not unusual for Terry Kozakiewizc, director of the raptor center, to get a call like this:

“I picked up the phone and the caller said he’d like to order three dozen wild wings.’’ Kozakiewizc said, breaking into a wide smile. “I said, ‘We’ve got ’em, hon, but they’re alive.’ ’’

Wild Wings Bird of Prey Facility, at Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls, houses over 20 raptors including eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and a vulture. Most of the birds were hit by cars and have permanent injuries ranging from vision loss to damaged wings; they cannot be released back into the wild.

Kozakiewizc makes the raptors available for public viewing five days a week year round, hoping to foster awareness and increased respect for birds of prey. Watching a barred owl soar through the sky is exciting indeed, but getting to see Hunter, Wild Wings’ fluffy resident barred owl, close-up on her perch inspires me to drive more mindfully.

The facility offers educational programs and guided tours. Participants can dissect owl pellets or paint a portrait of a live raptor on its perch. Visitors can stroll along Bird Song trail to feed chickadees, then step into Wild Wings’ colorful Cottage Store with its avian-themed gifts. Just out the back door, a tidy outdoor compound of wood and wire cages houses stately red-tailed hawks, diminutive Eastern screech owls, bald and golden eagles, and an elegant black-spotted snowy owl named Pearl.

Each enclosure gives the raptors numerous perches and room to move about, even to take limited flight. Volunteers have paid close attention to each species’ needs — brightly-colored hanging toys tempt the curious crow, and a pile of low stones provides a perfect seat for the tundra-nesting snowy owl.

My daughter was most enamored of Wild Wings’ resident bobcat, who roused herself from a nap in a bed of straw and dashed up to the fence. Tara, captive-bred and declawed, lives in a spacious cage with ramps and bridges for roaming. But while we stood there, her amber eyes remained fixated on my child.

“She sees her as a toy, hon,’’ Kozakiewizc told me, and so we retreated into the Cottage Store for hot cocoa, coffee, and cookies. Kozakiewizc explained that Wild Wings is a family affair, and that she’s the only paid employee.

“My husband builds enclosures for the birds, and my son Nick does a lot of the educational programs for kids.’’ She pointed to a grinning young man helping to restock a shelf with child-sized footballs in the shape of bald eagles and furry leopard-print purses.

Their affection for each bird is palpable. Kozakiewizc recounted the recent death of Shasta, a 25-year-old red-tailed hawk. “I’m so glad he died before he had to be cooped up for the long winter,’’ she said, and went on to relate the story of how, for the past three years, a wild red-tail had brought freshly-caught squirrels to the aging Shasta, continuing even after his fellow hawk died.

If You Go

27 Pond Road
Honeoye Falls, N.Y.
585-334-7790
www.wildwingsinc.org
Fri-Tue 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free; donations welcome.


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Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide!

Jakebook

Jake says “two paws up”

I knew I didn’t want to make a traditional book trailer. Typically, a book trailer’s a short video preview of one’s new novel or work of nonfiction or poetry. I’d made one for each of my previous books which, while quirky, followed a narrative about the stories I’d published. But my new book, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, April 2106) is my debut middle-grade novel about a 13-year old boy who’s essentially saved by Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, so I wanted to create a video in celebration of nature–a quick documentary that would entertain viewers and teach them something.

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Enter the banana slug.

I love witty nature documentaries like this one on nutria by Ted Gesing, and funny book trailers like this one by David Gessner. I decided to create an alter ego to highlight one of the weirdest creatures in Oregon’s natural world–Ariolimax columbianus. (Bonus info: As a college freshman, I enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz because their mascot is the banana slug.)

My husband and daughter and I teamed up to create a three-minute documentary/promotional video for Avenging the Owl. I wrote the script and created a storyboard. Jonathan (who’s a professional photographer) filmed, and our kiddo provided sound effects and some physical comedy along with me.

Click here to watch the video, Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide

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Me and Ariolimax columbianus, BFFs

We spent several winter mornings hiking through Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, searching for banana slugs. Finally, we found one in the long grass under Douglas firs. The slug became our movie star for 24 hours, and then we returned it to the spot in which we’d discovered it, right next to the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.

For super-cool information on banana slugs, I relied on a brilliant nature guidebook written by Patricia K. Lichen. All of her titles sit on our living room bookshelf.

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Next up, we’ll be working on a three-minute documentary about owl pellets. Stay tuned, Northwest Nature Nerds, and stay outside!

–Melissa