Friday, September 12, 2014

Ants - Outdoor Hour Challenge

For this week's Outdoor Hour Challenge, we focused on ants. First, I shared some information from the Handbook of Nature Study about insects in general and ants specifically. (This was from pages 294-300 for the insects in general and 369-373 for information about ants.)

We found the part about ants who battle with one another quite fascinating. We had no idea that ants could be so aggressive towards one another. The description is engaging and we could picture the ants in battle.

As the author said, "There is a great variation in military skill as well as in courage shown by different species of ants; the species most skilled in warfare march to battle in a solid column and when they meet the enemy the battle resolves itself into duels, although there is no code of ant honor which declares that one must fight the enemy single-handed."

We also learned the difference between an ant egg (very small, oblong, and the size of a pinpoint), the larvae (translucent, like grains with one end pointed), and pupae (yellowish, covered with a parchment-like sac and resembles grains of wheat).

There are often two different sizes of ants within the same species. The large ones are called majors and the smaller ones minors.

We also used two books from the library: Creepy Creatures: Ants by Valerie Bodden and All About Ants by Sue Whiting.

Some interesting facts:
=> Most ants are black, brown, yellow, or red.
=> The smallest ants are the size of the grain of sand. The biggest ants are as long as your thumb.
=> There are about 15,000 kinds of ants.
=> If an ant is in danger it will give off a specific pheromone, alerting the other ants in the colony to be on guard.
=> An ant's nest has different rooms that are used for different things (e.g., nurseries, for the queen, food, sleeping). These oval-shaped rooms are called "chambers."
=> Most individual ants only live 45-60 days, but an ant colony can survive up to 30 years.

After we did some reading, the girls worked on their nature journals and we watched a four-minute and 52-second video on YouTube about ants making tunnels at 900 times the speed of life. It was fascinating to watch how they construct the tunnels - a world that is unseen to us.

Then we spent some of our outdoor time looking for ants. We looked on the driveway (which is gravel), in the pasture on dirt spots that the horses roll on, under rocks, and on trees.

We thought for sure that we would find ants on fallen trees, especially ones that had rotted, and had moss and mushrooms growing on them.

While we were near one fallen log in the wooded section of the west pasture, we found some type of fruit. We have no idea what it was so we didn't taste it.

We spotted some type of insect. It was like a grasshopper or cricket, except it had a black "tail" which none of us had seen before. When we came inside, we looked up the words "grasshopper," "cricket," and "tail." The images that came up and most closely matched what we saw in the pasture were of the Field Cricket.

In our case, it was a female Field Cricket. (The male doesn't have the "tail" or ovipositor, a spike-like appendage, about 0.75 inches long, on the hind end of the abdomen between two cerci. The  ovipositor allows the female to bury her fertilized eggs into the ground for protection and development.)

Last week, the acorns had not fallen from the oak tree yet. This week, we spotted a few on the ground as well as evidence that they are being nibbled on by some little creatures.

Sophia found a big woolly bear caterpillar. Initially it curled up when she picked it up, but when she gently blew warm air on it, it uncurled itself and began traveling on her hands.

Despite all the these interesting discoveries, we were surprised that we found only two ants on tree bark of the big oak tree in the west pasture.

We headed to the backyard and found that mushrooms seem to be growing in abundance. There are big white ones.

When some of them are picked, the interior is a tannish-brown color with lots of little "pores" - for a lack of a better word.

When I came in, I was curious to know what the big white mushrooms were. From what I can tell, they may be Calvatia gigantea, commonly known as the Giant puffball.

According to Wikipedia, the Giant Puffball is a mushroom commonly found in meadows, fields, and deciduous forests worldwide usually in late summer and autumn. All true puffballs are considered edible when immature, but can cause digestive upset if the spores have begun to form, as indicated by the color of the flesh being not pure white (first yellow, then brown).

Immature gilled species still contained within their universal veil can be lookalikes for puffballs. To distinguish puffballs from poisonous fungi, they must be cut open; edible puffballs will have a solid white interior.

As a side note, as I was finishing up this post, I put the above photograph on the Minnesota Mushroom Forum. Within minutes, I received confirmation that it is, indeed, the Giant Puffball; and that it is edible if the flesh is white and firm.

We also spotted this fascinating-looking mushroom that was growing new one of the new trees that we planted this spring.

Although the picture isn't too clear, I spotted a Daddy Long-legs resting on the wood pole of the arbor. (It's on the left-hand side of the picture.)

Sophia and Olivia were playing on the swings and I was determined to find some ants for them to observe. I finally did! Of all places, they were on the cover of the hot tub.

There were a couple of ants just walking around.

They were walking among the pine needles that had fallen from the pine tree next to the hot tub.

The girls came up from the swings and took a look at the very few ants that we could spot. We moved the pine needles and tried to find more ants.

Then, interestingly, there was one ant that seemed to have a purpose. It was carrying a wing of another insect. It was holding the wing upright - like a flag - and made its way quite quickly across the cover. It was very determined to bring this wing somewhere despite the obstacles in its way.

We noticed that all of the ants on the hot tub cover were about the same size.

They were much smaller than the two we saw on the oak tree; and were lighter in color. The ones on the oak tree were black (but not carpenter ants).

We used the original ant study on the Outdoor Hour Challenge as well as the newer version.

     Carnival of Homeschooling

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Taco Ring after the Taco Daze Parade

We went to the Taco Daze Parade on Saturday afternoon. The theme this year was the Roaring 20s. Some of the people and horses were dressed up and decorated to reflect the theme, while others were familiar sites from past years.

The Lions always have a big float at the parade and are one of the first floats to start the event.

About midway in the parade, the gnome appears:

It's a Swedish community, so the parade wouldn't be the same without the gnome.

Towards the end of the parade is what we look forward to: the horses. One group was decorated with a patriotic theme.

Another set of horses had the 1920s theme with pretty feathers and decorations around their faces and on their manes.

Every year that we see the miniature horses and carts, we think that it would be good to get a cart so that Hoss can go out on walks and explore the area a bit. Bailey would probably like to go too, but would need a larger cart.

When we came home, I made a taco ring. This recipe appeared on my Facebook feed a couple of times, and I've been wanting to try it since. Taco Daze seemed like a great day to try this recipe.


2 crescent roll tubes
1 pound ground beef
1 packet of taco seasoning
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese (divided)
Shredded lettuce
1 or 2 diced tomatoes depending on size
1/2 small can sliced olives
Sour Cream


Separate the crescent pastry and lay out in a circle, pointed ends out on a foil lined pizza pan, sprayed very lightly with cooking spray. Use some of the leftover crescent rolls to to make the center a bit thicker as this will hold the meat.

Brown meat in a frying pan until no longer pink. Drain fat and add taco seasoning as directed on package, reducing the water to a scant 1/3 cup. Drain excess liquid from meat.

Spread meat mixture in a circle inside the crescent rolls, then sprinkle 1 cup of the cheese over the meat.

Pull crescent roll points over meat and cheese and tuck in.

Bake at 350 degrees until pastry is golden brown (about 30 minutes).

Add remaining 1/2 cup of cheese, chopped lettuce, tomato, black olives, and jalapenos (if using), into the middle of the ring, then add a few dollops of sour cream if desired, before serving.

As a side note, the ring I made puffed up quite a bit. I think you need to make the center ring quite large in order to have a space for lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese.

Regardless, everyone enjoyed the taco ring and wants to have it again. Although this will (most likely) become an annual tradition, I may just have to make this recipe more often since it's so easy and delicious!

Blue Jay - Outdoor Hour Challenge

Two years ago, we studied blue jays and blue birds. We're starting out our nature studies for the 2014-15 homeschool year with this familiar bird again. 

First, we read about bird beaks on pages 39-40 of the Handbook of Nature Study. Although the focus is on chicken beaks and duck bills, it gave an overview some of the different purposes of beaks/bills.

Then each of the girls listened to facts that I had found on All About Birds about blue jays - a familiar bird here at the farm that has blue, white, and black plumage, a pretty crest, and noisy calls.

Blue Jay on Bird Bath
Blue jay on our bird bath.

There were many interesting things we learned about blue jays from All About Birds. For example:

=> Their fondness for acorns is credited with helping spread oak trees after the last glacial period.
=> Some blue jays migrate while others stay in their range. Others will alternate years that they migrate (migrating one year, not migrating the next).
=> Blue jays are known to take and eat eggs and nestlings of other birds. However, most of their diet was composed of insects and nuts.
=> Blue jays lower their crests when they are feeding peacefully with family and flock members or tending to nestlings.
=> The pigment in Blue Jay feathers is melanin, which is brown. The blue color is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs.
=> Blue jays are found in all kinds of forests but especially near oak trees; and they’re more abundant near forest edges than in deep forest. (This probably explains why they like our farm since we have many mature oak trees.)

Sophia's nature journal entry.

Size wise, blue jays are about 9.8–11.8 inches. Their wingspan is 13.4-16.9 inches. They weigh 2.5-3.5 ounces. As a comparison, nine pennies equals approximately 2.5 ounces.

In terms of eggs, a female will have between 2-7 in her clutch; and will have a single brood each spring. The blue or light brown with brownish spotted eggs are about 1- 1/3 inches in length and .7-.9 inches in width.

The incubation period is 17–18 days and the nesting period is about the same (17-21 days).

Olivia's nature journal entry.

Blue jays carry food in their throat and upper esophagus—an area called a “gular pouch.” They may store 2-3 acorns in the pouch, another one in their mouth, and one more in the tip of the bill. In this way they can carry off five acorns at a time to store for later feeding. Six birds with radio transmitters each cached 3,000-5,000 acorns one autumn. That's an amazingly large number of acorns!

Acorns in a Hand
Sophia holding some acorns back in October 2008.
We found a few acorns when we outside, but it will be another month
until the majority of the acorns fall off the trees.

Once Sophia and Olivia worked in their nature journals, we headed outside. It was a nice day after a string of rainy days. While we were listening for blue jays, I had Sophia and Olivia go on a "micro-hike" in which they each had a four-foot piece of yarn that was put on different sections of the grass.

The goal was to explore - at a micro level - the activity that can often be overlooked. Despite being in the same part of the yard, each section had very different items.

Some of the things that Sophia noticed were various groupings of mushrooms and different types of grasses and weeds.

Some of the things that Olivia noticed were: grass, clever leaves, dead grass, dirt, bark, bugs, dead pine needles, "c-shaped thingies," and weeds.

While the girls were observing life at the ground level, I looked around and observed life at the ground to two-foot level.

There was a sunflower that was near the birdfeeder. One of the seeds must have fallen to the ground and germinated.

The hydrangeas are green. They were white back in July, so it looks like before long they will be in their dried state. I leave these up during the winter because they provide a nice landing and sitting spot for the birds.

We've been having lots of problems with moles this year in the back and front yards. This is one of many holes that are in our yard - along with a lot of tunnels.

These little wildlflowers grow each year.

The Black-eyed Susans were adding color to the landscape.

The pear tree even has some pears this years despite an odd spring that went from a first snowy week in May to almost 80 degrees a few weeks later. A severe rainstorm knocked down a lot of blooms so I wasn't sure we'd even get any fruit. This year the fruit seems a bit mis-shapen and damaged. Yet, the flavor is delicious...though the fruit is still on the crisp side.

We collected some things that caught our eyes - such as a feather:

a pretty leaf that's already changing its color:

and a milkweed pod with seeds so tightly packed in the pod still - overlapping one another in a beautiful pattern.

Pretty soon the seeds in other pods will be ready to burst open their homes and set forth on journeys throughout the pastures and yards.

We made our way to the west  pasture, and the girls noticed the tremendous number of box elder bugs this year. If you walk past them and don't disturb them, it's not that bad. However, if you get too near and disturb them, Sophia said that they'll all fly up. Clearly, we didn't want that to happen. We avoided them.

As we entered the pasture, the horses noticed us and started to walk towards us.

There are milkweed plants all over the pasture - something that wasn't present when we moved here back in 1995. It's nice to see that our efforts to spreading the seeds throughout our farm are paying off. Hopefully the monarchs are finding enough to eat here.

The goldenrod is in full bloom. The monarchs - on their migration south - visit the goldenrod as do the bees for nourishment.

We spent some time under the oak tree in the west pasture looking for acorns. It's still a bit too early, but we found five - the same amount that a blue jay can hold in its throat and beak.

We enjoyed watching Bailey and Hoss gallop through the pasture.

As we were there, we heard a very shrill call. Was it a blue jay? We know they can imitate hawks. (We also found out they can imitate humans!) We didn't see anything, so we walked through different parts of the pasture.

Hoss was showing off - rolling in dirt like a dog, running at top speed and kicking up his legs; while Bailey walked along with us. Before long, she couldn't resist: she had to run with Hoss. She sped through the pasture - also kicking her legs up and having a great time. She put on quite a show.

The only bird we saw while we were out in the pasture was a large raptor.

When we heard another  shrill call we looked up. We're not sure exactly what type it was - maybe a falcon or a hawk. At any rate, it soared in the air directly above us showing its impressive wingspan.

That was, ironically, the only bird we saw the entire time that we were outdoors.

I printed page 38 of Cornell's Classroom Feeder Watch coloring book that had an image of a blue jay and some questions. The girls worked on these after they they had completed their nature journal page and we spent some time outdoors.

Stitches - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 37

The book I chose for the 37th week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge was Stitches - A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair  by Anne Lamott.

The only version available through the library system that I could find was on disc. Anne Lamott read her book. She read it at a rather fast pace which doesn't allow much time for processing what she was sharing. For this reason, I would much rather have read the book than listened to the disc.

The author reviews life’s losses, searching for those threads that enabled her to press on. She shares stories about her upbringing in a swinging household loosely held together by alcoholic parents whose chaos impacted their sensitive daughter. There are no major epiphanies in Stitches. Rather, the book is a humbling journey of asking for help and learning one’s limits.

At any rate, there are six pieces or chapters in this book - basically, as the author describes, a “patchwork of moments, memories, connections and stories.” There was a particularly moving chapter about a husband and wife whose husband had memory issues. It reminded me of the journey my dad and mom took after my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.

Another chapter focuses on Pammy, Lamott’s best friend who died at 38 from breast cancer. Lamott kept the linen shirt that Pammy gave to her shortly before she died. Threadbare after many years, it needed to be let go. Yet, it took the author several attempts, until she finally was able to tear the shirt to pieces and let it float down a river in Laos.

There were some things that I took away from the book that I found interesting:

- Stitching with the same color thread translates into our lives as regular contact with a few trusted people; and daily rituals, practices, and can decrease can decrease shock. The unifying thread can provide respite from the worst of the pain.

- Order and discipline create meaning. The author talked about the importance of having a routine or rhythm throughout the day.

- There is meaning in focus and concentration. Pay attention to the simple things in nature - like butterflies and birds.

- The author wants people - especially children - to cling onto hope. She does by looking at the life cycle of butterflies with children. She has them do craft projects with a butterfly theme, listen to a passage about butterflies, and go out and find butterflies.

- It's important to stick together in times of chaos.

There were a few quotes that I liked:

- Ultimately we're all just walking each other home. Ram Dass

- There can be meaning without having things mean sense. - Anne Lamott

- Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion. - Barry López

Anne Lamott shared part of a poem called "Briefly It Enters, Briefly Speaks" by Jane Kenyon. This is the poem in its entirety:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper....

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .

I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .

Basically, the book sums up that heartbreak will happen, and there's no certainty that people can overcome it. We simply must carry on.

“We clean up beaches after oil spills. . . . We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.”

Stitches is kind of a spiritual self-help book about how to handle tough times and persevere even when it’s difficult to discern any purpose and meaning to the chaos of one's life. By trying to stitch things up, even patchwork-style, we can help ourselves cope. “We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky,” writes Lamott. “If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching.”

Although there are some interesting parts to this book, I feel like it glosses over the surface issues and doesn't dive as deeply into the challenges of life as I had hoped. Would I listen to or read the book again? Probably not. Yet, I'm happy with the information, quotes, and poem I gleaned from this book...and for that it was a worthwhile use of my time.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Caramel Molasses Cookies - Olivia 4-H Project

For this year's 4-H special theme, the teen ambassadors chose "Candyland." Youth can do or make anything related to the theme.

As we looked at Pinterest, we found a pin for Caramel Molasses Cookies that led to Sally's Baking Addiction.

These are soft-baked molasses crinkle cookies with caramel on top. The cookies have a lot of flavor and everyone who tried them liked them. We will most certainly be making these again!

The recipe said the yield was 20 cookies.



3 cups all-purpose flour (careful not to over-measure)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup dark molasses
1 egg, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup granulated sugar, for rolling


14 Werther's Original® Baking Caramels, unwrapped (we used 112 Kraft Caramel Bits since the bits are much smaller than a caramel)
1 Tablespoon heavy cream, half-and-half, or full fat milk


To make the cookies: In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

Next, cream the softened butter for about 1 minute on medium speed. Add the brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides as needed. Add the molasses, egg, and vanilla. Beat well on high, scraping down the sides as needed again.

Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet on low speed. Do not overmix. Cover dough tightly and chill for 1 hour.

Make the caramel as the dough chills: Add the caramels and cream to a small saucepan over low-medium heat. Constantly stir, allowing the caramels to fully melt. Once melted, turn off the stove and let the caramel sit in the pan until ready to use.

You could also use a microwave to melt the caramels and cream together, but you would have to stop and stir every minute or so.

Generally, melting caramels on the stove is better. The caramels melt more evenly and it is much easier. Set aside to cool until the cookies are done.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour the granulated sugar into a bowl. Take 2 tablespoons of dough and roll into a ball, then roll into the sugar. Bake for 8-9 minutes.

Remove from the oven and gently press the top of the cookie down with the back of a utensil or even use your fingers. You want to make the top of the cookie look crinkly.

Place back into the oven for 1 more minute. Cookies will be puffy and still appear very soft in the middle. That's okay. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool on the baking sheet for ten minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before drizzling with caramel sauce.

Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 days or in the refrigerator for 5 days. Molasses cookies without caramel may be frozen up to 3 months. Rolled cookie dough may be frozen up to three months. Allow to thaw in the refrigerator overnight and bake as directed.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Baked Hawaiian Sandwiches

I saw a recipe on All Recipes for Baked Hawaiian Sandwiches. I made another version awhile back, but can't seem to locate the recipe. So, I used the following recipe, but made adaptations based on what I remember.

The recipe is for 24 sandwiches, but only 20 would fit into a 9"x13" pan that I used (versus the cookie sheet that is recommended. Having made this recipe before, I didn't want any sauce dripping onto the bottom of the oven. Thus, my preference for the 9"x13" pan.

At any rate, I kept the amount of ingredients the same, just altered the number of rolls used. To make the sandwiches, you'll need:

20-24 Hawaiian bread rolls (such as King's®), split
12 thin slices of honey-cured deli ham, halved (I used 24 slices since I wasn't using turkey)
12 slices Swiss cheese, halved (I used a 7-ounce package with 11 slices that I cut in half and then folded in half1)
12 thin slices deli smoked turkey, halved (I didn't use this)
12 thin slices provolone cheese, halved (I didn't use this)
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dried onion flakes
2 tablespoons poppy seeds (I used 1 tablespoon poppy seeds because I ran out...but would use more next time)
1 tablespoon honey mustard (I used 1 tablespoon of hot-sweet mustard plus 1/2 tablespoon of honey)
Horseradish sauce (this isn't on the All Recipes recipe, but I remember using it in the original version that I made)

To make the sandwiches, you'll need to preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

Line a 9"x13" pan or cookie sheet with parchment paper to keep the bottoms from burning.

Arrange bottom halves of Hawaiian rolls on a baking sheet. Spread horseradish sauce on the rolls. Place a half slice each of ham, Swiss cheese, smoked turkey, and provolone cheese onto each roll bottom. Place top halves onto each bottom to make sandwiches.

Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat and stir in sugar, dried onion flakes, poppy seeds, and honey mustard until mixture is smoothly combined, creamy, and the sugar has dissolved, about 2 minutes.

Brush over the tops of each sandwich. (The rolls on the top are for Olivia since she doesn't like onions or horseradish sauce. Note: if no sauce will be on top of the rolls, they can be baked for a shorter period of time so that the bread doesn't get too overbaked.)

Bake sandwiches on the preheated oven's lower rack until tops are golden brown and fillings are hot, about 15 minutes.

This was the recipe that Sophia and Olivia requested for their back-to-homeschool meal. We also had baked beans, salad, orangeade, and orange creamsicle cookies for dessert.