Tag Archives: nature

Saying good-bye to an AMAZING week!

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good friends

It has been a wonderful week.

This was a vacation built around rest and relationships…

Exactly what we stood most in need of during this season of life.

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With our shared path forking into multiple directions in the coming month, this week of connection with friends and family was a wonderful gift before everyone embarks on their individual adventures.

The houseboat provided us the forced rest and stillness that is so hard to find in most other vacations we take. Rather than soaking up local sites and experiences, we soaked up sun. We moved through our days at a languid pace with no agenda or responsibilities driving us.

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It was a week built on simply being present,

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And was such a blessed gift.

Much of our week was spent floating in the water with the sun warming our faces,

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But we also spent time pampering ourselves,

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Playing games,

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Feasting on good food,

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Making friends with the local wildlife,

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Toby came very close to accidently stepping on this copperhead hiding in the brush.

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Soaking up the beauty of God’s creation,

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Capturing it through our lenses,

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And enjoying the blessed gift of laughter with friends.

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It was sad to see our time on Norris Lake come to a close, but all good things must come to an end.

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On Friday morning we prepared to disembark at the marina. The boat had to be returned at 10:00 am. Knowing this, the kids woke early for a final swim and kayaking through the morning fog that had settled on the lake.

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Bags were packed and piles we gathered as we headed back to the marina.

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We enjoyed a final ride on the top deck, soaking in the scenery and reflecting on the beauty and blessings of the week.

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Then it was all ashore as we unloaded the boat and repacked our cars for the trek home.

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It was an amazing week…

Simply magical.

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How grateful I am for this time of rest and renewal and the people I got to share it with!

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Longwood Gardens

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Last Friday, following my graduation ceremony the previous night, we found ourselves headed east for another big event. In preparation for her upcoming wedding at the Philadelphia temple in October, Grace decided to receive her endowments at the same temple. This was a special milestone in Gracie’s spiritual journey as she prepared to make covenants with Heavenly Father in the House of the Lord that would serve as a strengthening force and great personal blessing to her throughout her life.

She invited me to escort her on her first time through the temple, and it was a joy to take that journey with my sweet girl on her special day.

When Gracie made reservations at the Philadelphia temple months before her July 27th appointment, it was our hope that Toby and I would both be able to accompany her. Our ability to slip away with Grace for the weekend hinged on making sure all the other kids were stable and ok to be left at home. It all worked out and God’s hand was in the details. Ozzie continues to be safely settled in at his trauma-care facility in Erie. Braden was invited by his Pap (His former adoptive father who is battling cancer) to spend a weekend with him this summer, so we made plans for that weekend to coincide with Gracie’s endowment ceremony. Molly and Rusty coordinated their work schedules so that Tyler would only have to be home alone for a minimal amount of time. And because everyone is in such a good place emotionally, we found that we were able to drive to Philly with no concerns.

Along with Toby and I, Grace was also joined by her fiancé, Zach’s parents, and sister, Andrea. Zach chose to drive out with us on Friday with his family meeting up with us at the temple on Saturday morning.

Knowing what a gift it was to have this alone time with Zach and Grace, we allowed Grace to pick a fun excursion for Friday afternoon, and Grace didn’t even hesitate. She knew exactly where she wanted to go.

Less than an hour outside of downtown Philadelphia, is one of America’s most impressive outdoor spaces: Longwood Gardens.

Last time Grace visited this historic Philadelphian landmark it was Christmas. Zach’s sister, Andrea, had taken her there and she was blown away by this place that was cloaked in Christmas magic. She loved it and took hundreds of pictures. She couldn’t wait to return and was eager to visit it during the summer months when the outdoor gardens were in bloom. She couldn’t wait to share this special place with the rest of us.

We arrived and stepped into a floral wonderland, laced with magnificent architecture, roving entertainment and timeless edifices of American History.

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The land that would one day become Longwood Gardens was purchased from William Penn in 1700 to be used as a farm. In 1798, twin brothers Joshua and Samuel Peirce began planting trees, and, by 1850, the land had become one of the best collections of trees in the country. Known as Peirce’s Park, the land was a popular destination for visitors. However, due to declining interest by the family, the trees came under threat of being cut down by a local lumber company. Pierre du Pont stepped in and bought the land to preserve it.

However, du Pont didn’t just preserve the land. In fact, he begun adding to it and created much of what can be seen today. When du Pont died in 1954, he left most of his fortune to the Longwood Foundation to maintain and improve the gardens. Today, more than 50 years after du Pont’s death, his gardens continue to delight visitors 365 days a year.

We arrived, purchased our tickets, and headed inside.

Once inside the gardens, we found there were several destinations worth checking out. The most impressive area, in my opinion, was the Conservatory, which features over four acres of indoor gardens.

Gracie was especially eager to show us the green hallway that leads to the bathrooms in the conservatory. This is one of Gracie’s favorite places at Longwood Gardens, as her favorite plants are ferns…the very flora that covers the walls of that hallway.

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While in the Conservatory, we stopped to check out the organ installed by du Pont. With over 10,000 pipes, this organ was one of the largest private pipe organs in the world when it was installed here in 1929. Visitors can walk around the organ to learn about its history and even get a glimpse into the inner workings through a window. We stayed her long enough to enjoy a few songs and soak up the beauty of the ballroom.

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We found the Conservatory composed of room after room of tropical plants from around the world.

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Outside was an amazing waterlily display with aquatic plants from across the globe. It was stunning, truly a photographer’s dream with its huge lily pads and colorful blooms.

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Other gardens on the 1,000-acre property range from roses and peonies to wisteria, conifers, and an allée of catalpa trees. There was a dahlia garden, an idea garden, an edibles section, and a long fence covered by clematis of many varieties.

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At the far side of Longwood Gardens, near the wooden treehouse, we found the Italian Water Garden, one of my favorite spots at Longwood.

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The water display in the sunken area was patterned after one at the Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy, with great care by Mr. du Pont to keep the perspective symmetrical – the water pool farthest away is 14 feet longer than the closest pool assuring that these would all look the same length.

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These fountains were not the only water display at the gardens. Located in front of the conservatory we discovered the main fountain garden.

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After a two-year, $90 million renovation, the Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens has opened. The new fountain replaces the garden’s original fountain, and much of that original plumbing can be seen in a small museum next to the fountain.

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The new Main Fountain Garden features 1,719 jets that shoot water as high as 175 feet into the air. Standard fountain shows are performed 4-5 times each day and are 12 minutes in length. These shows are set to a variety of music from classical to modern pop.

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While we were visiting, the Festival of the Fountains was going on. The timing of our stroll around the gardens resulted in us missing out on the nighttime show, but we did catch some of the daytime musical production as we were walking by.

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We ended up spending 3 hours in the gardens but could have spent days. I was amazed at how extensive the gardens were. The entire experience was a feast for the senses. As it was, I left with my SD card filled with hundreds of photos. I simply couldn’t keep myself in check. Longwood Gardens truly is a small slice of heaven here on earth.

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Mason Neck Park

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Our week in Virginia was spent camping near my old stomping grounds of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. This area of the country was the place we called home during my pre-middle school years. I have so many sweet memories of this area.

Living so close to Washington DC meant that when relatives and friends would visit from out of town we would take advantage of the many historic and cultural sites to be seen in DC. Because of the abundance of things to see and do in the heart of Washington DC many visitors don’t realize all there is to see and do outside of the city limits.

Fairfax County was where we spent most of our week exploring and playing. Within a few miles of our campground we had a dozen different state and county parks just waiting to be explored…parks that offered boat rentals, bird watching, biking and hiking trails.

One evening, following Rusty’s day at technology camp, we decided to explore Mason Neck Park. We picked one of the trails that offered a view of both the river and the marshland and headed off.

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It was a gorgeous evening and this particular trail offered a spectacular variety of scenery to enjoy.

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The boys enjoyed collecting shells along the beach,

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And searching for local fauna among the abundance of lush flora.

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Snakes, frogs, fish and birds were abundant.

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It was fun seeing this experience through my boys’ eyes… So different from how my girls would have navigated this same landscape.

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While I took photos, trying to capture even a smidgen of the beauty before me through the flattened lens of a camera, the boys immersed themselves fully in the sensory wash of sights, smells, sounds and textures.

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It was such a fun shared experience with my guys and I was glad that we postponed our visit to Mason Neck Park until Rusty could join us in the evening. It made it more fun that he was there. The setting sun brought cooler temperatures and a golden glow to an already magical vista as we finished our hike and headed back to camp for the evening.

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Custer State Park

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Yesterday we spent the afternoon at Custer State Park. Having never been there before, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this stop. It was a $20.00 entrance fee since our America the Beautiful park pass didn’t cover the entrance fee since this was a state park rather than a national park. We hoped the visit would be worth the entrance fee.

I think I sometimes find myself believing state parks to be sub-par to national parks. They are the parks that didn’t make the cut, and weren’t epic enough to make the list of National parks…second string players, so to speak. And sometimes this can be the case, but it certainly wasn’t the case for Custer State Park.

It was one of the most beautiful parks we have ever visited, national or state.

There is nothing ordinary about Custer State Park. It was the first state park in South Dakota and is the largest state park in the state.  

As we entered this spectacular reserve, it took only minutes for the enchantment to beguile our senses. The towering pines sheltering the roadway, the gentle, flowing creeks, the massive granite outcroppings- was nature at its most bewitching.

And taking center stage in this transcendent landscape was one of the most powerful icons of the American West- the bison- shouldering his way into view, unchallenged master of this wild world.

The bison, or buffalo, is the official logo of Custer State Park and its main claim to fame as a wildlife refuge.

The story of the buffalo is a tragic one. Once 30-60 million strong, herds of buffalo covered the lands of the west in the 1700s. By the end of the 1800s they had dwindled down to fewer than 1000 and were in danger of extinction.

But the story doesn’t end there. Preservation measures began soon after with laws passed to protect the buffalo of Yellowstone National Park. At Custer State Park the conservation efforts began as well and now they find themselves home to the second largest buffalo herd in the country, 1300 strong, with around 400 new babies born to the herd each spring.

At the front gate we were directed to head first to the visitor’s center. We were told that there we would be directed which way to drive to see the buffalo herd according to where the park rangers had spotted them that day…

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Found them!

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We needn’t go any further than the visitor’s center. How convenient. They had the buffalo there waiting for us!

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 The huge bulls knew they had the right away and we were thrilled with the up close views as they ambled across the road, bringing traffic to a halt. Walking with the cows were a sprinkling of spring calves that were a thrill to watch.

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It was unreal.

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The sight of those majestic creatures so close to the car took my breath away. The kids were shaking with excitement and Toby and I looked at each other and declared the experience worth every bit of that $20.00!

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And that was only the beginning!

Once we made our way through the sea of bison we parked in the lot of the newly built visitor’s center. Opened only since May of this year, this building, and the interactive exhibits inside, were wonderful.

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The exhibits revolved mainly on the icon of the park…the American Buffalo. Here the boys approach a buffalo virtually and get to see the signs of danger and the warnings to look for before the buffalo charges.

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At this station everyone stepped on the scale to see how the combined weight of our family measured up to the weight of a buffalo.

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Then we headed into the theatre to watch a wonderful 20-minute film about the park and the buffalo. It was entitled, “Spirit of Tatanka” and was narrated by Kevin Costner.

From there we left to drive Wildlife Loop Road, where we spotted more buffalo, prairie dogs, deer, and antelope.

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Then we came across an unexpected animal…

An unexpected, interesting critter that was waiting to make our acquaintance- the park’s burros…

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better known as the infamous begging burros.

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These burros originated from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak. When the ride was discontinued years ago, the burros were released into the park and have become a popular visitor attraction.

These panhandlers stop traffic along the Wildlife Loop Road and are without a doubt the most photographed animals in the park.

Luckily I had read about the famous begging burros and came prepared for the experience, having packed an extra bag of carrots in the cooler.

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As soon as we pulled up they were at the windows looking for a handout.

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We then parked and got out of the car so all the kids could have a chance to feed the burros.

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They were so sweet and friendly.

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Ozzie lovingly squeezed one around the neck saying, “He’s just like my best friend, George.” (My parents’ donkey)

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Once we had exhausted our carrot supply we were back in the car. We left Wildlife Loop Road and headed UP, towards higher elevations to see the other site Custer State Park is known for: the granite needles.

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Towering high above the park are awesome granite spires, surrounded by tall pines. The views are spectacular but to get to those views we had to head up, up, up.

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It was knowing about this drive that made us consider renting a car. The drive up to the spires consists of a narrow road, with hairpin turns, and steep cliff drop offs. There is no way the bus could have made it,

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Especially with three of these tunnels, cut out of the granite boulders, that had to be passed through to reach the top.

There is no way the bus would have fit. It was quite the harrowing drive,

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But boy was it worth it!

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Check out these views!

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Unreal, right?!

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At the top of Custer State Park, at 6, 145 feet, is Sylvan Lake. The reward for that drive is this view:

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I don’t know that I have ever been in a prettier place.

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We walked around the lake and allowed the kids to climb on the granite boulders and explore the cracks and crevices.

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Toby joined them.

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It was a magical place and we could have spent hours hiking and exploring but, alas, we had a dinner reservation to get to, so after an hour of exploring, we climbed back in the car for the ride back down the mountain.

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Pictures truly can’t do justice to the magnificence of Custer State Park. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, don’t hesitate, don’t question… just go!

 You’ll be glad you did!

Great Falls National Park

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“And the air is full of the roar

And the thunderous voice of waters.” IMG_5930 (2)

One of our excursions while in Washington DC was to Great Falls Park.

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Mimi Joy took us to this National Park five years ago on our way to Thanksgiving in Virginia and we were so impressed that we wanted to visit again and take the two little boys.

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We began on the Virginia side of the falls. Here we began our visit in the visitor’s center where we learned more about the history of the gorge, the falls, and the canals that were built here under George Washington’ presidency.

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While the Virginia side is pretty, it is nothing compared to the Maryland side of

“The Niagara of the South.”

So next we drove 20 minutes around the gorge, crossing the Potomac river, to get to the opposite side of the falls.

It is here you can see the locks of the original canal system built during the late 1700’s.

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The scenery was breathtaking (even with the muddy waters caused by recent heavy rains.)

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The walk out to main falls took us along wooden foot paths and over a series of smaller falls.

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We finally reached the main falls.

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Here we took pictures of the big kids in the same spot

they were in 5 years earlier when we visited.

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Now all the kids…

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As we stood looking over the falls it was hard to believe we were only minutes away from a major metropolis. We felt like we were tucked into the deep wilderness,

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not outside the nation’s capital.

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It truly was “Breath-Taking!”

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“There is pleasure in the pathless woods.

There is rapture in the lonely shore.

There is society where none intrudes.

By the deep sea and music in its roar.

I love not man the less

But nature more.”

– Lord Byron

Bird Banding and Stream Study- Part 1

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Today was a “typical” Friday.

We spent the day banding birds and checking the pollution levels in our local streams…

you know, the usual stuff. 🙂

Actually it was “Field Trip Friday!” and we spent our last field trip of the year visiting Powdermill Nature Reserve. It was one of the best outings we have ever been on!

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This was our first time visiting Powdermill Nature Reserve, but when I read about the details of the outing on Molly’s school’s website I knew it would be a big hit with the kids, especially Rusty (my science lover). The outing was almost  2 hours away, but the drive was beautiful.

We arrived at 9:00 am. The outing was split into two parts: Bird banding in the morning and Stream study in the afternoon, with lunch in between. To get to the Avian Research Center we took a 10 minute hike through the woods.

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When we arrived we were greeted outside by one of the specialist who was holding two bags. Out of the bags he pulled two birds that had been caught, banded, and were ready for release.

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We then walked over to the edge of the field where he showed us how they catch the birds for banding. He unrolled the “mist net”, a very finely woven net that catches the birds as they fly into it, and then traps them in net “pockets.” The netting is so fine that the birds often don’t see it. He explained that it works best on overcast days when the sun isn’t reflecting off it, with their busiest days occurring during migration. He explained how effective these nets were, as well as being safe for the birds. They have 65 of these nets on site and on their busiest day caught and banded 604 birds.

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He then took us into his lab where the research takes place. We all crowded in and watched as he walked us through the steps that follow a capture. He had three birds on hand that they had just caught.

The first bird he pulled out of the bag was a hummingbird. It was tiny, weighing only as much as a penny. He said that they are among the toughest to band due to their small size.

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He showed us the different band sizes they use, depending on the type of bird it is. Look at the size difference between the band used on a hummingbird and a band used on an eagle:

The tiny humming bird bands are stored on a safety pin.

The tiny humming bird bands are stored on a safety pin.

After recording the birds data and banding it, he opened the window and the hummingbird flew away.

The next bird he pulled out of a bag was a male Flicker.

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First he checked the feathers to determine the age of the bird and then measured its wing length.

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He then determined the percentage of fat on the bird by examining the fat pocket at the base of the throat.

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Then he weighed the bird by placing it head down in a cone that rested on a digital scale.

IMG_3325 (2)After recording all the data in a national database, he banded the bird and it was sent to another researcher for a project they are working on.

The final bird he banded was a Gray Catbird. He said that this was the most common bird they caught.

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Here, at this site, they band on average 10,000 birds per year with a recapture rate of 4,000 birds per year.

The next stop at the Avian Research Center was the glass testing tunnel. We were turned over to another researcher who explained to us the research they were doing.

She told us that they second most common cause of death for birds worldwide was collisions with glass, causing 599 million deaths a year.(The number one cause is ferel cats) She said each home was the cause of 2 bird deaths a year on average. She explained that what they were studying there at the research station was how the use of UV coatings on the glass prevented birds from colliding with windows.

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After many of the caught birds receive their bands they are then taken over to the flying tunnel where they take part in the study that is being done.

At the end of the tunnel there are two panes of glass: one standard and one with a UV coating. The birds are released into the other end of the tunnel and are recorded to see which pane of glass they fly toward. At the end of the tunnel, before they reach the glass, they are caught in a net to prevent harm to the bird. This is the final stop before they are released back into the wild.

Gracie was especially fascinated with this research since she wrote a paper on this very thing earlier in the year.

After we were done we walked back through the woods to the Nature Reserve Center. It was time for lunch! We had a 30 minute break before part 2 of the tour began. We enjoyed our packed lunch on the back deck and then walked around the exhibits inside while we waited to go down to the creek.

On the wall was a fun game called:

“What Bird Are You?”IMG_3250 (2)By following a flow chart of questions you could find out what kind of bird you would be. It was funny to read the determining questions and see what the kids picked for their answers.

So just in case you are curious as to what my children would look like if they had feathers and wings,

here are the results of our little quiz…

Grace would be a Swallow:

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Molly would be a Puffin:

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Rusty would be a Duck:

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Tyler would be an Ibis:

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 and Ozzie would be a Kiwi:

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Part 2: Stream Study!

More Camp Fun!!

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This past week was spent in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, as the girls and I attended Young Women camp with our church. As illogical as it may sound, spending this past week with 100 teenage girls was just the break I needed from the drama of a certain 10-year-old boy at home. 🙂 Getting away and heading into the woods was the just the boost I needed to recharge my “batteries”, refocus on the bigger picture and spiritually refill my bucket so that I could go back home a better wife and momma. It was wonderful laughing with the girls and other leaders, and stepping away from the distractions of the world for a short time. Camp week was just as Kimberly Rinehart describes:

“Camping is more than just getting away.

It’s the clear blue sky, the song of a bird, the beckoning woods, the wide open spaces.

Camping is greeting the breath of dawn unhindered by the walls of city life and watching the sun set in ribbons of  color as it says “goodnight” to a perfect day.

Camping makes hearts grow lighter and food taste better.

It’s sharing songs around a campfire and gazing up in silence at a star-filled sky.

Camping is more than just getting away. It’s the thing we need to rekindle the spirit of a simpler time, refresh our hearts with nature’s beauty, and remind us that life doesn’t have to be so complicated after all.”

The theme this year was, “Come Unto Christ,” with COME serving as an acronym for the focus words: covenant, obey, minister and endure. Each day there were devotionals, scripture study and focus classes that revolved around the word of the day. As the girls studied, discussed and applied what they learned they gained a deeper understanding of what it means to covenant, obey, minister unto others, and endure to the end, as daughters of God.

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The girls at camp spent their days working as levels and their nights sleeping as levels with their 2 adult leaders. This year Molly was a 3rd year girl (It was her third year at camp) and Gracie was a 5th year girl, which meant she got to serve as a youth leader and help plan classes and devotionals for the 1st year girls she was assigned to. I was there as the leader over the 7th year girls. These are the 18-year-old girls that choose to come back to camp the summer between their senior year and the start of college. The activities that fill the girls’ days vary depending on the level and the certification that is needed for that level. Their days are spent going on hikes, swimming, canoeing, knot tying, building and cooking over fires, identifying constellations, animal tracks, plants, using a compass, etc.

Gracie canoeing.

Gracie canoeing.

In addition to certification activities and spiritual focus classes a large part of the girls’ days are spent serving and ministering to others. Around camp we have a way of acknowledging and rewarding kindness, hard work, selflessness, and Christ-like behaviors. The leaders and youth leaders carry around tokens that are handed out to the girls when they see girls being Christ-like in word and deed. The girls can then take the tokens they earn and spend them at our camp store that is managed and run by the 7th year girls. It is a fun way to encourage and acknowledge all the good choices and kindness we witness while at camp.

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One of the big service projects for the week happened on Wednesday when we weeded and mulched the beachfront area of the state park we were camping at. We spent 4 hours working and with the man power of 100+ girls we were able to spread 10 truckloads of mulch. The park was incredibly grateful for the 380 man hours of service we gave them and the girls were able to experience the blessings of working hard as a team as well as the satisfaction of a job well done! Go girls!!

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After a hot, sweaty morning working with mulch the girls enjoyed some beach time at the lake…

Beautiful girls!

Beautiful girls!

The 7th year girls also headed up additional fun, free-time activities for the girls. These were optional activities that were offered for those who wanted to participate. They were a chance to just have fun, be silly and enjoy girl time. Here are some of the relay games they offered…

The "post it note" race.

The “post it note” race.

The girls having "fat Santa" races with balloons and large sweat suits :)

The girls having “Fat Santa” races with balloons and large sweat suits 🙂

There is so much good that comes from Young Women camp for these girls: They are spiritually fed, they are able to escape the distractions and pressures of the world for a while, they are able to learn new skills, be silly with each other, serve others, become more Christ-like…but one of the greatest blessings that come from escaping into the woods for a week are the friendships that grow from that shared experience. Not only among the girls but among the leaders as well. What a joy it is to stand in the darkness of the camp commons and hear the giggles of girls, coming from the cabins, as they talk, laugh, share and bond with each other.

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Molly and Miss Rosie

Molly and Miss Rosie

 On Saturday we arrived home tired, stinky and sore. Physically I was drained, but emotionally and spiritually I was recharged and filled to capacity. Heading into the woods for  week with 100 teenage girls and leaders was just what I needed. 🙂 I am so grateful for the amazing, inspired leaders that made the “magic” happen. What a joy-filled week it was!!