Archive for the ‘Highlands Center for Natural History’s Outdoor Outings’ Category

  • Oh, deer!

    By Jill Craig In every outdoor educator’s cache is a game called “Oh, Deer!” To play, one third of the students play deer, each looking for a specific habitat need such as food, shelter, or water. The remaining students play those habitat needs. During each round the deer seek out a partner from the other side that matches the resource they require. As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that resources are limited and survival is not a given. The only deer to survive for another round are those that find a resource match. This game is a great way to illustrate “carrying capacity” — how many individuals the ecosystem can support — and “limiting factors —hunting, predator-prey relationships, disease, and seasonal weather changes —that are everyday challenges for wildlife. While the game is educational and fun, it has real implications. Fall and winter are the toughest times of the year for mammals, including deer. There are two species of deer in Arizona: Coues White-tailed Deer and Mule Deer. Coues deer, a subspecies of White-Tailed Deer, have a range from southeastern Arizona up to the Mogollon Rim. Coues are small — 65 pounds, on average — and can be identified by their broad tail and salt-and-pepper coat. Mule Deer have a broader habitat range, and are slightly bigger than Coues deer. Mule Deer can be identified by their large ears

  • Fall in line with ritual

    By Jill Craig We have a wood burning insert in our fireplace at home that provides all the heat we need on cold winter days and nights. I have a ritual, you could call it, for firing it up for the first time each season. I like to put on my favorite James Taylor melodies, make a batch of potato leek soup and a loaf of bread, and pull out all of my cozy sweaters and blankets while putting away my summer shorts and tanks. This is my way of saying “Hello Fall!” Having grown up in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, each Arizona fall I continue to expect sweeping landscapes of deep oranges, reds, and yellows. My ears crave the crunching of mounds of fallen leaves, and my nose searches out the scent of cold, pre-snow air mixed with fallen foliage. While we may not have grandiose fall colors here in the Arizona Highlands, there are still pockets of seasonal change — it’s simply a matter of seeking them out. Since most of the forest canopy is comprised of evergreen trees such as Ponderosa Pines, Scrubs, Emory and Grey oaks, Piñon Pines, and Alligator Juniper, there isn’t much color at the changing of seasons. To satisfy that aesthetic need it’s best to travel a bit higher in elevation or closer to streams and valleys where more deciduous trees tend

  • Falling forward

    By Jill Craig After a long, hot summer of seeking shade and water, the cooler days and nights of September bring an infectious yearning for fall colors, warm chowders, and the first snow. Those days are welcoming to hikers. The trails, sprinkled with blooming grasses and wildflowers, offer glimpses of mushrooms that have popped up in the nooks and crannies of logs and roots. These are signs that a good monsoon has quenched the parched Arizona Highlands providing food for hungry hibernators who will sleep the winter or for those escaping its cold embrace in Mexico or another warmer clime. The summer season is winding down, school is back in session and monsoons are wrapping up, if not over already. Exposed trails, ignored when the sun was hot and high, are now choice. Their panoramic views are made brilliant by sunset and sunrise; their dry landscapes are made green, lush and dotted with wildflowers — the likes of bird’s bill dayflower, yarrow, blue dicks, birdsfoot lotus, Indian paintbrush, clovers, and thistles. Cooler canopy-covered trails — those that provided summer respite — are great for spotting wildlife. They share the most of what the monsoon provided: obscure pools and fresh seeds and berries. It’s the time of year that makes living in the Southwest so great for hiking and exploring. With the Doce Fire having burned just a few months ago,

  • [VIDEO] ‘Mushroom Madness!’ recap and info

    On Saturday, Aug. 3, Northern Arizona University mycologist Erik Nelson lead a fungi talk and hike, “Mushroom Madness!” at the Highlands Center for Natural History, in Prescott. In case you missed it, here are a few factoids, photos, and videos: Fungi are the fruiting, reproductive bodies of mycorrhizae. More than 2,000 species of trees have a symbiotic relationship with fungi and their ilk. The vast majority of herbaceous plants — some 300,000 species — have a similar relationship with mycorrhizae, though not necessarily mushrooms. Practically all uncooked mushrooms are probably at least mildly carcinogenic. Yes, that includes the ones at the salad bar. In many cases, cap color is one of the least reliable mushroom identification features. In Arizona, Shaggy Manes (Coprinus comatus), Lobster Mushrooms (Hypomyces lactiflorum), Aspen Boletes (Leccinum insigne), and Common Puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum) are among the easiest edible mushrooms to identify. Regardless, further reading and trained help is recommended before hunting, identifying, and consuming wild mushrooms. ***** Read more online at Erik Nelson’s website, TaneLorn.Us.  

  • Outdoor Outings: A fungi-filled forest

    By Jill Craig Somewhere in the forest, a round tan ball the size of a half-dollar is pushing through the leaf litter. Encouraged by monsoonal moisture, this fungal ball’s arms open into a star. Then they expand exposing a small white pouch to the sky to welcome rain that, in turn,  releases spores. These spores travel with the wind and rain until they find a suitable soil home t0 create a new community. The ball is called an Earthstar because it looks like a star — a very small one, mind you — that’s fallen from the sky. Earthstars are actually the fruiting body of an underground network of fungi called mycorrhizae. When conditions are ripe, the network reproduces. Odd as it may same, this network is extremely important to the health and well-being of the forest. Basically, the roots of plants and trees have agreed to work together with mycorrhizae. The fungus, with its widespread network, attaches to roots and helps secure moisture and nutrients in the soil that plants can access. In turn, plants produce sugars via photosynthesis that travel to their roots and are absorbed by fungi. It’s a pretty good deal for both parties. Earthstars are great fun. When you find one, take it home and try letting it dry out then re-wetting it. You can find earthstars year-round, but they’re most common after periods of

  • Outdoor Outings: When it rains …

    By Jill Craig You can feel it coming. The air thickens and begins to smell like moist soil. The wind picks up, scattering the leaves. Birds become still and quiet. A monsoon is coming. It comes after a hot morning. If you watch the sky, perhaps you’ll see a thunderhead building, getting taller, getting bigger. Then, suddenly, rain comes battering to earth, as if a giant watering can were tipped over. It kicks up dry dust and soaks everything in sight within seconds. But, just as suddenly as it begins, it ends. The only evidence it leaves are gushing creeks, a clean swept smell, and dripping pines. After months of bone-dry weather, monsoons come just in time to replenish the high desert, hills, and valleys creeks. With each microburst, dry hillsides bloom into blankets of late summer wildflowers, carpets of native grasses burst into color — though you have to look closely for a peek into that world — and, right when you get the feeling that summer’s heat will never end, there’s a springtime sense that everything is fresh and new. Earlier this spring, native oak species (Scrub, Emory, and Grey) dropped their leaves in preparation for a long, hot summer — the norm is fall, but these trees know better. These sad, deceased looking trees now release soft, bursting, pokey leaves that are ready to soak up the

  • Highlands Center for Natural History’s Outdoor Outings: Dwelling on dwellings

    By Jill Craig When second-grade students visit the Highlands Center for Natural History for a field trip, they learn about habitats and their inhabitants. They look at nests that the Highlands Center has collected under a Game and Fish permit (collecting nests, feathers, and eggs is otherwise illegal). Students look at the nests and try to determine where the parent birds lived. Nests made with grass? Chino Valley, perhaps. Nests made with mud? Maybe down near a creek. And the ones with pine needles? Likely in the forest. When we ask them what they need in a home, their answers are very astute and specific. They need shelter, water, food and video games! Really, though, they understand that humans have very basic survival needs. They also understand that plants and animals have those same needs, even though their homes look different than ours. This season, one of our volunteers who works with school groups noticed a lot of bushtits (tiny gray birds) close to the amphitheater where we start the day with a puppet show. He drew our attention to a small nest built hanging from an Aspen tree branch. This bushtit pair had found all sorts of soft materials — lichen, hair, down, and grass — to make their intricate nest. Bushtit nests are usually built to hang with a bit of spider webbing and are shaped like gourds

  • Highlands Center for Natural History’s Outdoor Outings: Drop by drop (by drop)

    By Jill Craig When raindrops fall to the earth, do you know where they go? Some are absorbed, nourishing the roots of plants or feeding into an aquifer, others evaporate, and still others run off with nutrients and debris as they roll downstream following the path of least resistance. From the moment one drop of rain makes contact with the earth, it begins a long, important journey. Small streams of water carve shallow rivulets into the arid Southwest soil until they reach larger washes or creeks. These washes accumulate more water and move further downstream into larger bodies of water: puddles, swimming holes, ponds, lakes, or oceans. That raindrop is traveling through a watershed. If you live close to downtown Prescott, you live inside the Granite Creek Watershed, which flows diligently toward the Verde River. The Highlands Center for Natural History, however, is just inside the western edge of the Agua Fria Watershed. Recently members of a new volunteer Naturalists class and I explored this watershed and visited the Agua Fria River. The headwater is close to Arizona 69, just on the other side of Granite Dells, though you’d be hard pressed to find much water there. The Agua Fria River is dry the majority of the year and, though it’s been known to flood, its flow is usually delegated to a trickle, even during our wettest season. We started

  • Highlands Center for Natural History’s Outdoor Outings: Springtime delights

    By Jill Craig Like a fresh new antler, the branch is soft and velvety. It reaches for the sun’s photosynthetic rays. Tiny catkins on the tips of each tip will soon tempt hungry pollinating insects. This Lemonade Berry Bush (Rhus trilobata), a close relative of poison ivy, is a crowd pleaser from spring to late fall. Don’t worry: It’s not poisonous. The catkins produce a cluster of small, inconspicuous white flowers before the shrub leafs out. After pollination, each flower develops into a bright red-to-orange berry with a single seed. The berries are edible and taste like bitter lemonade, hence the shrub’s common name. Perhaps this growth will deter hungry herbivores. This Lemonade Berry Bush is a spring friend I look forward to seeing after a long winter. It’s one of many hopeful indications that spring is here. Another telltale sign of spring’s arrival is the lengthening of days. Winter is especially difficult for me and many others because the sun doesn’t lighten our days until the late morning and it sets so very early. In spring, though, I’m greeted with sleepy morning rays that evoke Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” — ah, where is my milk and toast and honey? We can thank these longer, sun-filled days to the tilt of the Earth’s axis. During the vernal equinox, the northern hemisphere inclines toward the sun allowing it to grace us

  • Highlands Center for Natural History’s Outdoor Outings

    I’d been hiking uphill with my dog for a while and was getting to the point where I needed to head back home. Yet, I’m a sucker for corners. I have to know what’s around the next one so I don’t miss something good — a beautiful view, perhaps. So, I explored one last bend. This was a few years back, and I had an experience that forever changed the way that I view the natural world. Soon after the turn, I noticed something off to the side. For whatever reason, I ducked behind a tree on the opposite side of the trail. Peering cautiously around the tree, I spotted the disturbance. A small junco laid quietly on the ground, its chest pumping rapidly as if trying to catch a breath. Slowly I emerged from my hiding spot and perched closer to the bird. As I stood a few feet away, the junco drew one last breath and then exhaled. I cannot describe the enormity of this moment. I’d never witnessed anything take a final breath. After some reflection and reverence, I noticed that ants had already started covering the junco’s body. The natural process was already at work, as it should be. I suppose I should’ve been saddened by this loss of life, but I came away with a profound sense of awe. I felt privileged to have shared

Celebrating art and science in Greater Prescott.

↓ More ↓