Tag Archives: Nature Activities

In GPS Era, Map Reading Skills a Lost Art

This article relates a tale that is no doubt being played out all over the developed world:

Two college students playing in an out-of-town hockey tournament went out to eat with their parents after a late game, but the restaurant they picked had just closed its kitchen.

“There’s another place just a few blocks away,” the hostess said helpfully. “Take a left out of the parking lot, go two blocks, turn right and go one block.”

The parents and the players retreated to their separate cars. When the players sat in the parking lot for a couple of minutes without moving, one of the parents walked over to see if there was a problem with the car.

“Not at all,” they said. “We’re just programming the directions into the GPS.’ ”

Is that where we’ve ended up, with a younger generation that can’t go three blocks without being told by a electronic voice where to turn?

Like the author, I found this story dismaying. I know GPS (Global Positioning System) and similar devices are helpful, but they can also be a crutch and, ultimately, a detriment.

According to the British Cartographic Society, high-tech maps get the user from Point A to Point B but leave off traditional features like geographic and built landmarks, and this could lead to a loss of cultural and geographic literacy.

I, too, find the GPS experience extremely limiting, especially when visual or voice commands tell me (sometimes incorrectly) where to turn just before the turn needs to be made. With a map, preferably one on paper, one can pull out to a bird’s eye view, get a complete picture, plot a route, and have true satisfaction and awareness about ones place within it.

Nothing wrong with having a GPS as a back-up, but I see far too many people who completely depend on them, to the degree that, like the boys in the restaurant parking lot, they’re afraid to travel anywhere, even a few blocks, without one.

One study, from the University of Tokyo, found that people on foot using a GPS device actually made more errors and more stops, and walked farther and more slowly than traditional map users. They also demonstrated a poorer knowledge of the terrain, topography and routes.

GPS, researchers say, encourages people to stare at a screen, rather than looking around at their environment. Also, most GPS screens makes it impossible for a user to take in both their location and their destination at the same time.

Ah, there’s that Big Picture again.

There are additional consequences to over-reliance on GPS devices. I wrote last year about Nature Disconnect in Britain. It seems that a lack of map skills is actually somewhat responsible for keeping a whole generation of children there, and surely elsewhere, homebound, fearful of exploring, playing, and being outside in the unknown. Children’s very sense of adventure is being terribly circumscribed.

Luckily, there are steps being taken to combat this. This list of ideas ranges from walking in ones neighborhood and making friends, to creating neighborhood green spaces and safe pedestrian and bike routes, to educating parents about unfounded fears. And, of course, one can and should learn basic map reading skills.

Interestingly, technology is helping with the latter, as geocaching (group scavenger hunts which use GPS devices) as well as old-school scavenger hunts continue to gain popularity. In addition, the Boy Scouts have responded to the crisis in map reading by upping their universal requirements for using a compass and map. (Girl Scouts also offer geocaching and orienteering badges and programs.)

Debi at Go Explore Nature offers some tips for getting out and geocaching.

Where is the paper map in all this? Some say it’s going the way of the phone booth and the milkman. I’m sure many of you remember family car trips, during which the map was unfolded, dutifully followed with index finger on highway line, and then folded up, yet never in quite the same neat way it had come. (We still honor this practice in our family and begin many adventures with a trip to the California Automobile Association, which stopped producing paper maps a few years ago.) Indeed, maps are on their way to becoming collectors items.

Here’s hoping that you get to enjoy the tactile pleasure of an old-school map, the inner satisfaction of locating your place, the fun of an outdoor scavenger hunt or other adventure, and the gift of knowing which way is up.

Images: Hands on Museum, Built St. Louis, Route 66 Guidebooks, Ferrell Digital

Look up! It’s the Geminid Meteor Shower and a Lunar Eclipse

Now playing overhead: The dramatic Geminid Meteor Shower, which many astronomers agree is the best meteor shower of the year. Following that,  stargazers could keep their necks craned for 2010’s only complete lunar eclipse, which coincides with Winter Solstice December 21.

The Geminid Meteor Shower is forecast to peak late Mon./early Tues. Dec. 13-14, between around midnight and sunrise, in North America. If you can’t stay up that late, not to worry — astronomers tell us that some meteors should be visible as soon as darkness hits. In addition, the shower lasts for days before and after the peak date, and there have already been reports from around the world of people spotting spectacular fireball-like celestial streaks.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) Scientists believe that the Geminids actually come from an asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which is really the skeleton of an extinct comet. The Earth passes through this particular debris stream each December, and is said to originate near the constellation Gemini.

How to watch the Geminid Meteor Shower

Good news! The Geminids should be visible with the naked eye in North America and perhaps in other parts of the world. Sky watchers in cold climates should bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and perhaps a blanket, head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.

Because meteor showers last for days before and after the projected peak, be sure to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can. This time of year, clouds can obscure the Geminids on the peak day, as can the moon, which will be in its first quarter.

A thermos of hot chocolate is a great accompaniment for the Geminids.

This shower has been getting stronger every year it’s been recorded, going back the the 1860s. It could be “an amazing annual display”, according to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Geminids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.

This movie of the 2008 Geminids comes from a space camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

After the Geminids, night-sky gazers can look forward to a full lunar eclipse that will coincide with the winter solstice Dec. 21.

What is a Lunar Eclipse?

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through a point in its orbit when the Earth is directly between it and the sun, and the moon is in the shadow of the Earth.

In the Western Hemisphere, the eclipse will “officially” begin on Dec. 21 at 12:29 a.m. EST (9:29 p.m. PST on Dec. 20). As with the Geminids, the best way to see the eclipse is to hope for clear weather, go outside, and look up. It takes about 45 minutes to notice any changes in the moon’s appearance as the shadow moves slowly across it. The lunar eclipse should be visible in North and South America, the northern and western part of Europe, and a small part of northeast Asia. A complete lunar eclipse won’t happen again in North America until 2014.

Space.com has more great information about the lunar eclipse.


New British Study about Nature Disconnect

A new study from Great Britain bodes poorly for children and their outdoor lives. According to researchers at Hertfordshire University, while most children are open to outdoor play, their parents are not, and a lack of confidence is often the reason.

Parents are overly fearful, the survey said. They fear cars, injury, abduction, ending up on private property, children running away, and .. dirt. From the study:

There seems to be an obsession about cleanliness. Perhaps because children are in expensive clothes, mud seems to be abhorrent.

What happened to play clothes? Are children showpieces? It makes sense to use inexpensive or used clothing precisely for play, to be dirtied and stained. Play is the job of children! Dress them appropriately and let them explore.

Another issue? Lack of map-reading skills. Said senior lecturer Debbie Pearlman Hogue:

None of the mothers I spoke to could read a map.

This is downright pitiful. As a result of skewed priorities and an extreme lack of skills, a whole generation is being deprived of outdoor play and experiences which, in turn, is going to render each successive generation increasingly bereft of experiences and abilities until we all just stay huddled inside our homes.

Poul Christensen, chairman of Natural England, says:

Children are being denied the fundamental sense of independence and freedom in nature that their parents enjoyed.

Children now want more opportunities to play outdoors. Whether through pond dipping or tree climbing, nature-based activities can play an important role in the educational and social development of children.

England’s Royal Society for the Arts points to a “risk averse” culture in which “youngsters were being deprived of the freedom to develop, to manage and take risks – and, ultimately, to grow up.” Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to England – It’s prevalent in the U.S. and in much of the industrialized world.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? A few ideas:

Make outdoor play a public priority by designing parks and safe, green play spaces.

Make outdoor play a personal priority by getting outdoors as a family or joining a nature club.

Educate parents about legitimate and unfounded fears.

Learn to enjoy wild spaces and trails as much as mediated, organized playgrounds and parks.

Dress kids appropriately for play and weather.

Walk instead of driving when possible.

Make friends with your neighbors.

Learn to read a map and kindle a sense of adventure about going somewhere new.

This site explains map reading and also offers some exercises and games for beginning map readers.

As an aside, I’ve always loved maps and atlases. I appreciate knowing the “lay of the land”, getting the big picture. For that reason, I don’t rely on GPS devices in cars. They remind me of driving through a tunnel, being told only what I need to know. I’d rather be armed with information and perspective. I fear that devices like GPS, while helpful, also tend to do the work for you, and that their prominence will only render people less capable of navigating their own, not to mention other, neighborhoods.

If kids and adults merely go out their doors and explore, and engage in simple map use and games, like treasure hunts, they’ll find themselves empowered to use maps and they’ll have a lot of fun. Look for treasure hunt tips in a future post.

Kings Norton Park in Birmingham, England: benkid77, Map of Twickenham, England: Creative Commons

The Great Backyard Bird Count

On Saturday, some friends and I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a 4-day event that is winding down today. We had great fun and saw lots of birds while hiking around the Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds in San Rafael, CA, a nearby place I’d never visited before! There’s still time to join this and other bird counts. In fact, they’re part of an ongoing effort by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track, learn about, and assist bird populations. Here is complete information about bird counts and how you can get  involved. In the meantime, enjoy our walk with us.

We immediately spotted lots of birds in the nearby trees, such as Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Red-Winged Blackbirds, House Wrens, and these Finches, both male (top) and female.

The large ponds were teeming with bird life, both on water and in the trees. It was amazing what I could see in the trees with binoculars. It was as if a hidden world opened up. There were birds everywhere — white glints of gulls, herons, and egrets.  (I admit I’m not sure what kinds. My friends, and their kids, were all much better classifiers than me.) Flocks of Canada Geese flew by and we did our best to count/guess how many there were.

In the water were Avocets, and these graceful Black-Necked Stilts.

Plenty of ducks and geese swam by and called noisily to one another. Ducks we spotted included the poetically named Northern Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, and, of course, the lovely emerald-headed Mallard.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Red-winged Blackbird. It took me a moment to register the bright orange-red color on the tops of their wings. These seem in repose, watching a duck.

We found a great stand of trees, hosting lots of bird life. (Quickly moving bird life, that seemed to sense when you were closing in with a camera, before flying away.) We were able to identify Robins and these Western Bluebirds.

I quietly followed this Great Egret for a while. I liked the way he mozeyed down the trail, taking his time (Slow Egret?), before sticking his neck out.

This tree was full of noisy, cheery blackbirds.

You can listen to a group of blackbirds, seemingly signaling spring.

The tally for the Bird Count got entered online. As of mid-day Monday, there had been 46,912 checklists submitted, 553 species observed, and 4,531,433 individual birds counted. In a little over an hour, we contributed 170 birds in 24 species to the list in order to help the Bird Count get a snapshot of bird activity over a busy, migrating weekend in February.

As for me, the activity really whet my appetite to do more bird watching and counting. Who knows? One day I might be able to identify those white birds in the trees.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count this Weekend

I am very excited about the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place Friday-Monday, February 12-15, all over North America. Anyone can participate, even if you only have 15 minutes and are completely new to birding.

Here’s how it works: You can pick a spot to go watch birds (a backyard, a park, a trail, a marsh, or anywhere you think birds might be) or you can join an organized event. You can download a very thorough check list of birds that are likely to be seen in your area. You record the birds that you see and then go home and either send in your checklist or enter the names and numbers in online.

There are lots more tips about counting and recording birds, tricky identifications, binoculars, and much more on BirdSource’s Great Backyard Bird Count page. The site also features recordings of bird sounds and more activities for kids.

The All About Birds site has beautiful photos and information that can help you identify birds. These are the top 10 birds that were reported during the count last year.

So, why count birds in the first place, and why now? The Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Audubon Society and others use the information from the annual February count to track the health of various bird species over time and, in some cases, take steps to protect them. Mid-February has proven a good time to count, as it occurs just before the major Spring migrations. If you find you like counting, you can actually help year-round on various projects.

Last year 11,558,638 individual birds were reported by more than 100,000 people. This year you could be part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Photos: Painted Bunting and Green Honeycreeper by Doug Janson, Flame Colored Tanager by Jerry Oldenettel, Blue Jay: Creative Commons, Northern Spotted Owl by Susan Sachs Lipman

Marin County Coho Salmon have Spawned Again

I just got wind of the late winter return of several Coho salmon to their habitat in Marin County’s Lagunitas watershed. This is particularly wonderful news because this had been a year of especially low sightings of this beautiful, endangered salmon.

This weekend is the last one of the season in which to take a Creekwalk to see the salmon, led by a trained naturalist. My family and I have done this 2-hour walk and it is terrific. You walk beautiful streams and learn a great deal about salmon, their habits and habitat.

There are two tours daily, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Saturday & Sunday, January 30 and 31.

Creekwalks begin from the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, 6350 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. There is a small suggested donation. Plenty more information is available on the SPAWN (Salmon Protection and Waterwork Network) Creekwalk page.

Even with a low count, the salmon season has had its share of excitement. SPAWN has a great naturalist blog, which goes into vivid detail about salmon sightings and other activities in the creeks and on the trails.

This is a great explanation from Alaska fisherman Mark Glassmaker about how salmon spawn. U.S. Fish & Wildlife offers a no-frills page that has a lot of good information about salmon life cycle and spawning habits, as well as some information on various species and their rates of extinction.

Whether or not you take advantage of a Creekwalk this weekend, you can certainly celebrate the return of the Coho and what it says about the health and renewal of our ecosystem.

Photos: Public Domain, Susan Sachs Lipman


Great Winter Nature Activity: Butterfly Rearing Kit

Although there are many ways to play outside in winter, sometimes an indoor activity is the call. If that’s the case, you might want to look into this activity that allows you to witness first-hand the life cycle of the butterfly — a Butterfly Rearing Kit.

I got to witness a Butterfly Rearing Kit at my daughter’s pre-school. It’s a completely delightful experience and makes a great indoor nature activity for winter or any time of year. The kit comes with a foot-tall cylindrical net cage that can be hung, placed on a tabletop or stored until you’re ready to use it; five or more caterpillars (depending on kit size); food; all materials needed to perform feedings; and complete instructions. It’s an ingenious way to be able to witness the fascinating life cycle as the caterpillars transition to chrysalises, and finally to Painted Lady butterflies.

Caterpillars can even be shipped at a later date. The Nature Gift Store guarantees that a certain amount of butterflies will hatch within three weeks. At that time, if it’s warm enough, they can be let out to fly on their own.

The Butterfly Site also has terrific information about butterflies, their rearing and life cycles, conservation, migration, and much, much more. Reading about glorious butterflies makes me want to watch their metamorphosis again with my family, perhaps in time to release butterflies in spring so they can graze from the local wildflowers and begin the process of the adult life cycle.

In addition, this week PBS’ is running a one-hour documentary, The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies, about the twice-yearly 2,000-mile migration of the Monarch butterfly. The above PBS link has information about when you can see the show locally, as well as clips you can watch.

Photo: Nature Gift Store