Category Archives: Nature Games

Learning the Language of Birds

On the trail, Tod continuously encourages us to focus more of our attention on bird language.  We have learned the four baseline communications of birds and their alarm sound, which they make when danger is near.  The baseline communications include: song, contact calls, territorial behavior, and juvenile begging.  After several years, I’m just starting to hear more than their song.

We are all familiar with bird song. Even if we can’t see or identify the singer, we are pleased with the sound.  We have a few birds we recognize with the changing seasons, or get excited to hear as they move through our yard.  We love listening to the golden-crowned sparrow as it sings “Oh, poor me!”; the California towhee’s repetitive chirp; the American robin’s lengthy song at sunset; the chestnut-backed chickadee singing its name.  And, of course, the many we haven’t yet named.

Most of us can identify contact calls and territorial behavior too, if we take a moment to pay attention.  In our yard, the chickadees, junkos and California towhees chatter back and forth with their flock-mates or partners.  They are checking in with each other and staying aware of everyone’s safety and location.

As for territorial behavior, the easiest for our family to see is the in-flight attacks of hummingbirds.  They defend their territory against each other, seemingly all the time.  This spring I also saw a hummingbird dive-bombing a pair of bushtits who seemed to be minding their own business in our plum tree.  Hummingbirds are beautiful, but their aggressive spirit is much, much bigger than their body size!

More recently, we listened for juvenile begging in our yard, the rapid “feed me, feed me” that’s expected from hungry hatchlings.  Tod told us he hears several nests of birds begging every time he leaves his house at this time of year.  We hadn’t heard any!  I made a conscious decision to listen for juvenile begging on Saturday.  Turns out, there are baby birds everywhere!  I heard at least 6 nests of beggars during my walk through the woods.  Awareness and focus lead to discovery!

The last communication, bird alarms, have become more noticeable to the kids and me in the recent months.  Our cats set them off as they walk across the yard.  We set them off when we plow through the forest.  The noise clearly conveys irritation and it is repeated constantly, in an attempt to get someone to go away from their space and to warn others of danger.

Last month, I heard a pair of bushtits alarming intensely.  I fox-walked to the other side of the house to see what was going on and saw a scrub jay tormenting them by sitting near their nest…a few days later the bushtits were gone and the bottom of their beautiful, hanging nest was ripped apart.

I heard another bird alarm this morning at dawn.  An intense alarm was coming from the big oak tree outside our living room.  No birds were singing.  Then, I heard my cat, who had chosen to ignore my calls to come in last night, speed across the deck on the other side of the house.  I jumped up to let her in and she came skidding across the floor, poofy-tailed and aggravated.  The bird kept alarming outside and then I heard something run across my roof…possibly a raccoon?  The bird stopped alarming shortly afterwards and within one minute I heard the dawn chorus of several birds singing to the rising sun.

Listening to the birds can make us aware of activity in our surroundings, whether peaceful or threatening.  We play a couple of games to help remember the different communications. In nature group, each family acted out a type of bird language to remind the group of the five types of communication.   Another favorite game for the kids is Jays and Juncos, where communication through bird alarms is necessary for survival.  And, of course, quiet sit spot time is a great way to listen to the birds…


Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?   – David Attenborough

Jays and Juncos – Awareness Game

During our last two meetings we played several games.   One of the games, Jays and Juncos, is a group favorite and helps us become more aware of our surroundings, lest we be eaten!  The game is played like this:  The Juncos are the majority of the birds in the game.  They need to gather food from a food source (an adult handing out one kernel of corn at a time) and put it in their nest.  Their nest is a small paper cup, which they hide when the Jays aren’t looking.

Junco Cambria begging for food.

Junco Cambria begging for food.

There are two Jays raiding the Juncos’ nests.  They are running around trying to find and empty the nests.  If they raid a nest, they empty the kernels into their cups and drop the nest cup on the ground.  The Juncos can re-hide their nest and start over.

Tod introduced a Pygmy Owl to the game in the second round.  Pygmy Owls eat Jays and Juncos.  Jays and Juncos can lay down to “escape” the Owl, but if they are tagged, they are dead for 30 seconds.  Other birds can make alarm sounds when the Owl is near to alert others to the predator.

Elijah is alarming at the Owl and Cambria dove to the ground to hide.

Elijah is alarming at the Owl and Cambria dove to the ground to hide.  Her nest is under the backpack.

I was the food source during the game.  My favorite part was watching the evolution of the Juncos in just a few rounds – they became much better at alarming and having fake nest sites to mis-lead the Jays.  Cambria also discovered that she could dive down in a pretend evasion of the Owl, but really be dropping her food into her nest.

When we played Jays and Juncos during the second week, we had several more kids in the group.  The dynamic changed quite a bit, with just three more people and the previous week’s awareness training.  It was harder for the Juncos to get to their nests on the sly.  The first week Juncos had 8-12 kernels in their nests.  This week, they were lucky to end up with 5 kernels and many more nests were dumped on the ground.

Can you imagine living with these threats?  Whew!

Tracking Cats, Birds and Humans

Cambria, Tod and I found feline tracks along the Gazos Beach bluffs where we had tracked the bobcat in the spring. They were tiny and, while there were other larger, sunken circles in the sand, we didn’t find any clear tracks the size of a bobcat’s. The tiny prints were about the size of a domestic cat’s prints and we couldn’t determine if it might be a feral cat’s prints or a bobcat kitten.

photo 1

Bobcat kitten? Domestic cat?

When we got home, Cambria studied her cat’s feet and we decided to take a track from her cat.

Mama Kitty's track.

Mama Kitty’s track.

They look similar, though the beach track is more compact, round and a bit smaller.  I’m not sure if that’s the sand consistency or the weight of the cat or the many other factors that could effect our non-scientific analysis!  It’s fun to think it was a bobcat kitten on the beach, following its mom who we tracked in the spring.

We also found many bird tracks on the beach, the highlight being this one:

photo 2

We had seen a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in this area from the parking lot.  Clearly it stopped to poop and then walked away toward the lagoon. It was a special find!



Bobcat journals…

Elijah is frustrated right now with his sketches. He’s definitely entered a developmental stage of realizing his sketches don’t look exactly like a photo. It’s so hard…he erases over and over, even when I re-iterate that this is for science, not art class. This week, I tried a new tactic – no drawings, just a bulleted description, and tracing paper for the skull and tracks. Here’s his journal:

photo 3




Today we did a tracking activity.   Tod made a series of tracks in the sand behind us.  Our goal: figure out the story of his tracks.

photo 2

There are three sets of tracks, parallel to each other.  The one on the left has the same stride as the one in the middle, but the tracks are slightly deeper, mainly in the front.  The last set on the right is deeper, blown out the back and the stride is longer.

We started the process by saying “I notice…” and the kids talked about the depths, blow outs, pressure points and strides.  They quickly decided that the middle tracks were Tod walking and the right tracks were running.  The left series left them guessing.  Several kids said skipping and Tod sent them off to compare their own walk and skip tracks.  Definitely not skipping – the strides were much different.

Hmmm…Identical stride to walking, but deeper prints.  Can you solve the mystery?

Sitting Still in Nature

We visited Purisima Creek Redwoods this week and, in preparation, we journaled the Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).  On several previous occasions, we found gray fox scat on top of a rock at the intersection of two trails in the park.

Here are our journals:

No scat this time, but we learned a lot about the gray fox, including the fact that it is a special canine that can climb trees with its semi-retractable claws!

My favorite part of the day was playing Camouflage in the redwood grove by the creek.


My view of Tod.

During Camouflage, we must see the Seeker at all times during this version of hide-and-seek, as he tries to notice any movement or hear any noise from his stationary position.  Camouflage is a great game to exercise the kids’ (and parents’!) ability to sit still in nature.  Tod drags out his dramatic seeking to stretch the limits of our stillness and to set the stage for longer sit spot times when we are on our own.

Elijah loves the feeling that Tod is looking straight at his hiding spot, but can’t see him because he remains so still.  I love listening to the forest when we are all silent and I’m continually impressed by how calm and quiet this group of 12 active kids can be when faced with the challenge of hiding from Tod!


Camouflage can be a hair brushing nightmare…

We have two natural mysteries from Purisima Creek to solve.  Who’s egg is this?

photo+3-2 photo+2-2

And, what kind of butterfly is this?


Tod reminded us to ask questions.  Some of ours are:  Did the egg hatch?  Or, was the egg eaten by a predator?  Where was its nest?  Why is the butterfly so tattered?  What is the normal lifecycle of this butterfly?  Why are the colors so faded?  Etc…

We are left to wonder about these mysteries and to do our own research.  Answers aren’t automatically given by Tod.  I have found that I rarely forget the solution to a mystery that I research with the kids.  Anyone can do this with the smallest, most simple item in nature.

Do you have a natural mystery this week?

“New to us” Plants & Fungi in the Redwoods

Today we hiked in Purisima Creek Redwoods. We shared our elderberry journals.

Cambria's journal.

Cambria’s journal.


Elijah’s journal.

My journal.

My journal.

When we were done, Tod asked us to close our eyes. Then, he asked us to point to an elderberry, to see if we had noticed them surrounding us. It was great to see how the kids were aware of the elderberries, now that they had journaled it in detail.

I ran back to the car to put our large journals away, so I didn’t need to lug them along. A winter wren flew right in front of me, landed on a branch and and started to sing his heart out! What a great nature moment to start out my day!


Tod says winter wrens have spider power to sing that loud. Spiders are a main food for them. They are such tiny birds, but their song is loud, long and powerful (listen here).

After several sitings of banana slugs in precarious climbing situations, we decide they must have seen the movie Turbo. They were not sticking to the ground today. We saw one perched on the top of a stinging nettle plant, one sliming its way along an elderberry, high above the creek, and one near our favorite snack spot climbing straight up a thimble berry plant!

Turbo slug in red elderberry, high above the creek.

Turbo slug in red elderberry, high above the creek.

As we walked along the trail a group of parents, myself included, stopped to identify this flower:


The mystery plant wasn’t in my favorite redwood forest book (Plants of the Coast Redwood Region by Kathleen Lyons & Mary Beth Cuneo-Lazaneo), but it reminded me of two other plants called alum root and coral bells, except the leaves on this plant were on the long flower stalk. These plants also have long flower stalks, but the leaves were all at the base, usually spread out on the ground.

When we got home, the kids and I looked up alum root. We found that our mystery plant was in the same Family and is called fringe cups! It was a cool way to discover the name, by researching a similar plant. Lucky us!

As we approached the creek, we found a plant with bright, glossy green leaves. It looked familiar, but had no flowers to give us a clue. Tod gave us a hint this time: it will have flowers and they will turn into beautiful berries. Red clintonia!


I pointed out Solomon’s seal to a couple of the other moms. We discussed the difference between it and Hooker’s fairy bells, since the leaves are similar. The Solomon’s seal smells delicious. Warm and full of spring!

Here’s Cambria’s picture:


We visited the Hobbit Hut that we made with S & H last year. It was still standing and the door was in place. The inside was dry and we were proud of our creation!

While we were playing camouflage by the creek, S found a mushroom and Tod was very excited. S is very focused on mushrooms right now. She has a mushroom lab at her house and she’s checked out every book in the library. She a voracious reader and wants to be a mushroom scientist when she grows up.

The mushroom was a candy cap. It smells more and more strongly like maple syrup as it dries and people make cookies out of them.

Before heading back to the parking lot, we had some sit spot time with our families. We wrote a quick paragraph about something we saw from our spot. Tod asked us to start with “I am a…” and then describe it and tell what it teaches us. The kids and I were drawn to a spot by the creek where we could see a raven in the water.

Here are our stories: 

Raven by Cambria, Elijah and Emily

I am a raven. I hear my friend calling. I am sleek and black. I am smart and strong and I strut up the creek. I feel lumpy rocks under my feet. I have a big and powerful wingspan. Other birds alarm when they see me. The raven teaches me to be brave and curious. The raven teaches me to sneak up and attack.

Water by Elijah

I am water rushing down to my destiny. I am cold and wet. I am shimmering from the sun. The water teaches me to go along with our day.

Tod by Cambria and Elijah

I am Tod. I know nature. Nature is my friend. I am a super-cool nature man. I love nature. Tod teaches me that nature is a place where you can find out things. Tod teaches me that nature is a beautiful place and you can find art everywhere.

We had closing circle near the parking area. I love listening to everyone tell their favorite part of the day. It’s great to hear what the kids and adults found important in their walk and it’s a fun reflection time. Sometimes the group will remind me of a special moment that slipped my mind and I’ll add it to my journal.

Back home, I start drawing the fringe cups in my journal and the kids join me. Both of them want to draw the new mushrooms we saw. It’s a wonderful way to close the afternoon.


Hard at work journaling. Researching and sketching.


My “new” plants. Red clintonia and fringe cups.

Cambria's mushrooms.

Cambria’s mushrooms.

Elijah's mushrooms.

Elijah’s mushrooms.

Assignment: We have two assignments this week, because we aren’t meeting next Monday.

  1. Make a tidepool guide for our trip to Maverick’s tide pools in two weeks.
  2. Send a picture of our nature area or collection spot to the group.

This inspired us to clean our nature “table” and organize everything. Cambria grouped all the beach items on one side, including our new addition – the bobcat plaster of paris prints! Elijah group all the seeds and cones on the windowsill.


Our nature “table” is the top of a waist-high shelf near our front door. It’s a nice way for everyone to see it when they arrive and it keeps most of the nature items contained in one area. There are bits of nature all over our house, but we definitely keep the fragile and potentially stinky items on the table.

Inventory: elderberries losing flowers and we saw the first signs of berries, hooker’s fairy bells, trillium flowers are gone, Wilson’s warbler, robin, raven, hound’s tongue, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, stinging nettle, hedge nettle, rough-skinned newts, banana slugs, redwood violets, scarlet waxy caps, fringe cups, thimble berries starting to appear, red clintonia not blooming yet, fat Solomon’s seal blooming, horsetails, candy cap, trail plant, clown millipede