Thursday, December 18, 2014


The Sierra Outdoor School has been getting much needed rain showers, and with those showers appear nature’s oddballs—mushrooms.  Mushrooms are part of the Fungi Kingdom and are actually only a small part of a much larger organism.

Apples of the dirt
A mushroom is much like an apple on a tree—existing to carry and spread seeds.  The mushroom version of a seed is called a spore.  The “tree” a mushroom grows on is called the mycelium, an underground network of hair-like fibers.  The mycelium can be as small as a few square feet and as large as several thousand acres. 

Mycelium in yellow.  Found growing under log.

What appears to be cob webs is actually mycelium.
Mushroom examples and their lifestyles
Shaggy Mane—Shaggy Mane mushrooms grow in the forest here at SOS but can also be found growing out of lawns in the suburbs.  They are characterized by a “shaggy” cap growing on the end of a stalk.  The underside of the cap contains gills from which spores will eventually drop.  Shaggy Mane is a common example of a saprophyte, an organism which gets its energy and nutrients by digesting decaying plant matter. 

Shaggy Mane just beginning to make an appearance.
Mature Shaggy Mane
Puffball—Unlike the Shaggy Mane, the Puffball lacks gills and a stalk.  Late in its life cycle it will dry out and emit a “puff” of spores.  Puffballs are mycorrhizal, which means they get their energy from trees through a mycelium to root connection .  The mycelium in turn acts as an extension of the tree's root networks and brings in more water.  
A trio of puffballs.
Turkey Tail—Can you guess how this mushroom got its name? Turkey tail is part of a group of mushrooms called polypores. Instead of having gills, polypores have a system of pores(like your skin) on their underside.  Like the Shaggy Mane, Turkey Tail is a saprophyte, getting its energy by digesting the wood it grows on. 

So the next time you see a mushroom remember:
1) An underground network of mycelium lies beneath it.
2) Their function is to spread spores for reproduction.
3) They assist in decomposition and can help the roots of trees.
4) They come in many shapes and sizes.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pig Post Post

Here at Sierra Outdoor School, we do not believe in wasting resources. In efforts to reduce our waste we have many programs including an Energy Competition where students can monitor their energy usage, a kitchen with all reusable materials, reusable water bottles for sale, and finally our cutest way to minimize food waste is our "Pig Post". Some people may compost their food waste at home, here the pigs do that for us: we call this "Pig Posting" (get it? :D). 

One of our naturalists, Ed (or Squirrel), has four pigs that live here near the school. These pigs are fed all of the food that students and adults do not eat during their stay at SOS. As a part of a public school system, we are required to prepare a specific amount of food per person per meal, whether they eat it or not, according to California State guidelines. This leads to leftovers at each meal. Our "Pig Post" program feeds the pigs instead of adding to the landfill.

After each meal students will bring up the food that is not eaten (see tater tots and tortellini bellow), and put it in the Pig Post Bin. 

After the food has been placed in the bin, the food gets placed into sealed (animal-proof) containers and left behind the kitchen until Ed (naturalist and pig owner) has a chance to pick it up.

The food is then stored in a refrigerator either on campus or at Ed’s home until it is dinner time!

The pigs are fed twice a day. They eat about 40 pounds a day (a little less when they are younger, a little more when they are older). The leftovers from one meal for 100 students feeds the pigs for an entire day.We host anywhere from 50-500 students a week generally eating 2-3 meals here a day. By feeding the pigs our leftovers about 11,000 lbs of food waste per school year is put to use instead being sent to the landfill (for us, that would be all the way to Nevada!). Since there is a little more food than our pigs can consume in one year, the extra food waste is given to fellow local pig farmers. And just in case you were concerned, we do not serve any pork! 

What do you do to limit food waste? 

What do you with your food waste? 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Meet Our New Interns!

We have had an amazing first few months of the School year with many incredible schools discovering the wonders and beauty of nature.Our 2014-15 Interns have been working hard learning more everyday becoming proficient Naturalists. As great enthusiasts of nature and science, the interns cannot wait for the rest of this school year to take students out on one of our hands-on classes in the forest. See you soon!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Intern Projects - 2014

Each year, interns complete projects to improve the school and leave their mark. Past projects have included new trails, additional teaching spaces, and even a stream to keep the pond healthy.

This year the interns will leave behind a multitude of helpful and creative projects.

A lover of tracking, Devin captured the footprints of many four-legged residents and painted them all over main campus. Since natural tracks can sometimes be difficult to find, the painted tracks are a fun and exciting introduction to tracking. Try to figure out whose prints are whose.

Justin and Molly worked to improve a past intern project, a secondary amphitheater closer to main campus. They doubled the size of the stage area, added more benches, and added steps. Upon the completion of this project they dubbed the amphitheater, the Covanshrein Theater, a combination of the last names’ of interns who worked on the project. Now there is another place on campus to learn, sing, and dance!

Kim gathered GPS data and created a mural of California and Sierra Outdoor School. A special thank you goes to Ian Reilling and Phil McDonald for help with the map-making. The mural highlights California's national parks, major cities, and areas students typically visit as well as buildings, trails, and important spots around campus. Use the mural to figure out where you are, where you've been, and where you're going!

Putting her chainsaw certification to work, Lara dropped several incense cedar trees in a field west of campus. By doing this, Lara thinned out the forest, which will help to prevent forest fires like the Rim Fire that was about 5 miles away from campus in August!

Nancy created an additional teaching space, Ponderosa Point, near north of the main campus. Ponderosa Point is an open area with massive yet comfy tree benches with wood burned illustrations of science concepts such as photosynthesis and the energy pyramid. It's the perfect spot to rest your legs and reflect at the end of a long hike.

With a permit from the U.S. fish and wildlife services, Rachael prepared numerous talons, wings, and skins to be displayed in the future S.O.S. museum. She compiled some of the animal parts and pictures from her game camera on campus to create a visual display. The game camera was made possible by collaboration with CSERC.  Rachael also earned a grant for a solar powered pump for the pond, so the pond will be self-sustaining!

All of these projects were only possible from the help and support of the rest of the wonderful S.O.S. staff. Thank you to all of those who helped!!!

When you visit, keep your eyes peeled for these projects!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Welcome to our new winged-ambassador!

Sierra Outdoor School has an exciting new ambassador at the Raptor Center! We received a female Western Screech Owl from Stanislaus Wildlife Center near Turlock, California on Monday. The owl is an adult that was being kept illegally as a pet. Due to being raised by a human, this owl cannot survive in the wild as it did not develop hunting or mating skills from its parents. This is the second bird of our Raptor Center that must be cared for due to being taken in illegally by humans. Remember, if you find a bird or raptor or any other wildlife, you cannot raise it as a pet. If it is healthy, leave it alone. If it is injured, call a veterinarian or wildlife center.

Western Screech Owls are one of three Screech Owl species found in North America but this occurred recently when Eastern and Western Screech Owls were classified as different species. Western Screech Owls are nocturnal animals, cavity nesters and carnivores that eat mammals sometimes bigger than they are, such as cottontail rabbits and Mallard ducks. Our fully-grown female weighs just half a pound: that is the same as a 8 oz glass of water! 

Check out the WSO call:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Gold Nuggets Everywhere!

There are gold nuggets all over the hillsides of Sierra Outdoor School! Although not worth over $1,300/ounce like the precious metal, these gold nuggets (Calochortus monophyllus) are still a valuable addition to the forest. They are one of the first wildflowers to bloom each spring and they sprung up just last week. Here's a photo of them scattered among the bear clover just below Sonora dorm.
If you look closer there are beautiful maroon spots on each petal and at the base of each petal is where insects will find the nectar. These flowers are endemic to CA - that means they're only found in CA.
Below is a photo of the very first kind of wildflower to bloom this spring. 
It was in the same location as the gold nuggets, but about a week earlier. 
This is the mountain violet (Viola purpurea) and its seeds are spread by ants as they feed on them.
What is blooming in your area now? What are you looking forward to seeing bloom? 
I can't wait for the leopard lilies and shooting stars to bloom here.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Signs of Spring!

Whether you are a morning person or a night owl, you have probably noticed that the days are getting longer. With more hours of daylight than the short and cold days of December, the staff here at SOS has been getting pretty excited about spring! Over the past few weeks, we have been noticing some undeniable signs of a fast approaching change in seasons. I invite you to join me in discovering three recent signs of spring, including the shifting night sky, the early emergence of some spring buds and flowers, and the increasing number of frog encounters up here at Sierra Outdoor School. Enjoy, and happy spring!

Night Sky 

Although longer days means more fun outside, the onset of spring and summer also means less time to see the night sky and the wonders it holds.  The past few months, we have had the pleasure of showing students “the Winter Hexagon” during star watches.  The hexagon is an easy way to identify 6 different constellations in the night sky, starting with Canis Major, and moving counterclockwise to Orion’s foot, through Taurus, Auriga, and Gemini to finally end the hexagon on Canis Minor. 

Although the winter hexagon is disappearing, Leo is rising closer to sunset, and mars will soon be visible in the constellation Virgo earlier in the evening.  The earth is making its orbit around the sun and we are quickly approaching the vernal equinox, or spring equinox.  This year the spring equinox will be March 20th, at which time the earth will be receiving about equal hours of daylight and darkness.  When the Summer Solstice comes around on June 21st, we will have the longest day of the year, or for you sky watchers out there, the day with the shortest night of the year.  After the summer solstice, the days will start to shorten again, and nights will get longer until the autumnal equinox in September, followed by the winter solstice in December.  The diagram below portrays the earth’s orbit over the 12 months of the year.  Notice the tilt of the earth in the diagram to the right (towards the North Pole) and how the northern hemisphere receives more sunlight in June than it does in December.  This tilt of the earth is the cause of our seasons and is responsible for the shorter or longer day and night lengths each day of the year.  We also started Daylight Savings Time (DST) this past weekend and now we have an extra hour of daylight in the evenings until 2am on November 2nd! Spring is arriving quickly and summer is just around the corner. J  


In the past month, we have had a variety of species of plants start to bud and bloom.  Our first flower to bloom on campus this year was the Silver Bush Lupine of the Fabaceae family.  Otherwise known as Lupinus albifrons, this flower was spotted the end of February outside Juniper Dorm’s southern entrance. 
Silver Bush Lupine
Fuchsia-Flowering Gooseberry, of the Grossulariaceae family, was a close runner up as it was our second flower to bloom this season, also outside Juniper dorm’s south facing walls.  Also called by its Latin name, Ribes speciosum, this flower is upside-down and is red and tube shaped. 
We have also been lucky enough to see the emergence of purple Ceanothus flowers as well as buds on our Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale).  Check out the pictures below!  Although it has been springtime in the valley for quite a few weeks now, Sierra Outdoor School is about 4000 feet above sea level, and has a slightly later spring than other parts lower in California.   More and more flowers are emerging every day around here and we can’t wait for the forest to be in full  bloom!
Fuchsia-Flowering Gooseberry

Western Azalea


Around Sierra Outdoor School, we have been hearing and seeing Pacific Tree Frogs more and more over the past few months.  The Pacific tree frog can begin singing as early as December in CA, and sometimes will sing until August.  Pacific Tree Frogs have a very distinct call that is recognizable to even the untrained ear as it is featured in many movies and soundtracks with frog sounds.  These frogs have a loud “wreck-eck” or “rib-bit” call that they repeat over and over, frequently in large choruses. 

Since January, we have been hearing these songs coming from frogs up the hill at the Sierra Outdoor School pond.  They seem to sing more loudly as evening sets in, and continue to chorus through the night.  After researching these incredible creatures a bit more, we found some interesting facts we wanted to share about these unique amphibians.  You might already know that frogs are born in the water as eggs.  When they hatch they are called tadpoles and remain under water until they mature.  After growing legs and lungs, the froglets can begin to spend time on land where they finish the rest of their life as a mature frog.  Frogs are found on every continent except Antarctica and are known to be indicator species because they are both predators and prey for many animals.  They eat mainly insects, worms, minnows and spiders but don’t need to drink water… because they absorb it through permeable skin!  Frogs are definitely unique and interesting creatures.

Unfortunately, since 1980, frog populations worldwide have been on the steady decline.  Due to climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and a nasty disease called Chytrid fungus, frog species populations have been decreasing and have even gone extinct in many places.  Historically, only one species of amphibian has gone extinct per 250 years; however, the rate has drastically increased since 1980.  Chytrid fungus makes the skin thicken, which for amphibians that drink water through their skin, is a huge problem.  Amphibians affected with Chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, are no longer able to absorb water, electrolytes, and salts through their skin and become sick or die as a result of it.  For more information on Chytrid fungus please visit this helpful website:

In the last two decades about 170 species of amphibians including frogs have gone extinct.  At least 2,400 more species are going through major declines in population numbers.  These numbers are expected to rise unless we can help find a solution to the Chytrid fungus, habitat destruction, and pollution problems posed by our modern world.  Recently, researchers from the University of Colorado have been exploring the possibility to save frogs and bats from these diseases using bacteria.  You can read more about this exciting new research here:

We feel extremely lucky to have frogs up here around our pond and are thrilled that so many kids and adults have had the pleasure of hearing their chorus at night.  Hopefully you will also get to experience these beautiful creatures when you visit SOS!


If you have already visited Sierra Outdoor School, we encourage you to look for signs of spring in your own backyard!  Trees will be blooming, days will keep getting longer, and weather will be getting warmer.  

If you are heading to SOS in the near future, we are excited to have you and hope you will be able to observe some of the signs of spring we have experienced lately. 

Happy Spring!
-Shadow (Lara Getz)