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: http://www.amphibianark.org/the-crisis/chytrid-fungus/

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: http://www.summitdaily.com/news/10581819-113/chytrid-frogs-bacteria-bats.

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)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and TerraCycle

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2011, Americans recycled or composted 34.7% of waste.  These numbers have improved from 28.5% in 2000, 16.7 percent in 1985 and 5.6% in 1960. Even with this growth there is still more that can be done.  In 2001, Tom Szaky, then a 20-year-old Princeton University freshmen, began producing organic fertilizer by packaging worm poop in used soda bottles.  Seeking further ways to recycle, Szaky expanded his operation to new realms and created the company, TerraCycle.

Today TerraCycle is considered the leader in the collection and reuse of non-recyclable, post-consumer waste.  The mission is to eliminate the idea of waste, by creating waste collection programs for previously non-recyclable, or difficult-to-recycle, waste. The collected waste is then converted into new products, ranging from park benches to backpacks.  The company works with 100 major brands in the United State and in 22 different countries.  In 2011, Terracycle added 30 new waste collection programs and the staff grew to more than 100 employees globally.  The program also managed to donate $3 million to charities for collected waste.

At Sierra Outdoor School we are always on the hunt for ways to be more environmentally-friendly, so we recently started our own TerraCycle program.  We looked for items that we could collect that worked for us and created a system to easily collect and store those items for shipment.  Schoolwide chip bag collections have begun, so remember to clean out and TerraCycle your chip bags when you are here.  Staff members will inform you of where the nearest collection stations are.  Additionally, staff members have begun collecting hummus containers, Larabar energy bar, Clif bars, and writing instruments.

We encourage you to TerraCycle with us at Sierra Outdoor School and to even begin to TerraCycle at your home, school, community organization, or corporation.  So how do you get started? Learn more by visiting t http://www.terracycle.com.  There are a wide variety of collected items to choose from, with everything from Colgate toothpaste containers to Capri Sun pouches.  Find items you can collect and store.  You can even accumulate points and cash them in to earn prizes or donate to a charity.

Thanks for reading and good luck!
Kim ‘Cedar’ Pedersen

Friday, February 7, 2014

Great facts about common birds at SOS

Here at SOS we are lucky to see a great variety of wildlife, from Monarch butterflies to Scorpions and Mule Deer to Black Bears, the Stanislaus forest never ceases with activity around our campus. Of all the wildlife living in our forest, birds are the most frequently spotted. Although so called “common” species such as the Dark-eyed Junco and Stellar’s Jay are sometimes overlooked, they actually deserve a double take. Here are some interesting facts about birds which are regularly seen on and around SOS campus.

Dark-Eyed Junco
- This species is one of the most abundant in all of North American with an estimated 630 million individuals
-The most commonly seen Junco here at SOS belongs to the sub-species Oregon Junco, which proudly displays a dark hood and pink beak along with white outer tail feathers
- Although females are responsible for nest building and incubation (the act of warming eggs in order to hatch them), both males and females share nestling (hatched birds still in nest) and fledgling (juvenile birds out of nest but still dependent upon parents) care

Steller’s Jay
- Although “blue” in coloration and “Jay” by family, Stellar’s Jays represent a completely different species from the Blue Jay which is found only east of the Rocky Mountains
 - Steller’s Jays and Blue Jays are the only New World (Americas) Jays that use mud to build their nests
- Steller’s Jays are habitual nest robbers, like many other Jay species, and have been seen robbing Junco and other song bird species’ nests of eggs and nestlings

Common Raven
- Ravens are among the most intelligent of all birds – sometimes working together to raid seabird nesting colonies and stealing eggs from other songbird species’ nests
- Although commonly mistaken for the American Crow, the Common Raven represents a completely different species and can be identified by its bigger size, rounded tail during flight and larger beak
- Ravens are known for their acrobatic performances they often show off in the air, doing turns and dives and sometimes even playing “catch” by constantly dropping and catching a stick

Red-tailed Hawk Photo
Red-tailed Hawk
- Red-tailed Hawks are the most common hawk in all of North America
- They are distinguished by their reddish-orange tail seen in soaring flight
- Males and females have been observed locking talons while diving toward the ground during a courtship ritual
- SOS has a captive female Red-tailed Hawk at the Raptor’s Center – take our raptor’s class to find out more!

Watch for more common birds in the future!

*All photos and some information are courtesy of allaboutbirds.org

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sierra Outdoor School’s Naturalist Internship Program

In addition to providing great learning opportunities for elementary and junior high students at Sierra Outdoor School, the program also plays an important role in training future naturalists. Every year SOS hires seven naturalist interns who teach day time classes, staff all night classes and learn and grow as students and teachers of the natural world.

The naturalist interns come to SOS with a variety of backgrounds in the sciences including biology, environmental studies, forestry, and geology. All interns have their Bachelor’s degree and many arrive with extensive teaching experience including formal student teaching, teaching certificates and experience in classrooms abroad.

While at Sierra Outdoor School, the interns learn to teach the daytime classes through the guidance of the permanent naturalists, many of whom have more than 15 years of teaching experience. Through observing and team-teaching classes before they are checked off to teach them alone, the interns are able to receive valuable feedback from the naturalists on their teaching content and management. This collaboration also allows for curriculum improvements and helps to keep the classes at SOS current and interesting.

Throughout the school year, interns have great opportunities to advance their knowledge of the natural world through field trips to museums and parks, and trainings which range from creating a professional resume to classroom management to snow ecology. Interns also have the opportunity to visit two other outdoor school programs in order to observe classes by different instructors in a different setting.

Since the internship program started in 2006, a total of 65 have completed a school year as a naturalist at SOS. Some of these interns have gone on to careers as classroom teachers, staff naturalists at other outdoor schools and many other hold environmentally-minded positions including LEED building certification and other non-profit work in the environmental sector.

The internship program at SOS makes a great impact on the lives of its interns and spread a message of conservation and natural science appreciation to a much larger audience.

Meet this year’s interns!

Interested in an internship at SOS? Applications for next year are currently being accepted! Find more information here:

Monday, January 13, 2014

SOS’s Top 3 Most Impressive Animal Sightings in 2013

At Sierra Outdoor School, we are always observing the natural world around us.  Unique animal sightings make for exciting moments.  Here are the most remarkable creatures spotted by naturalists and students at Sierra Outdoor School  in the year of 2013.

Sierra Nevada Ensatina

During hunts for decomposers, several groups of students have found the Sierra Nevada Ensatina, a type of salamander. As amphibians, salamanders are cold blooded and their body temperatures depend upon the outdoor air temperature. This explains why they can often be seen basking on rocks in the sun.  When it gets too cold, they take shelter underground where it is warmer and some even hibernate.  Some of these critters are special in that they breathe through their skin and can regenerate their tails.   

Flying Squirrel

The elusive and legendary Northern Flying Squirrel was spotted around the gym at SOS by several naturalists.  Contrary to the name, these creatures do not actually fly but glide.  They use a flap of skin, or paragrim, on their sides to help them coast from tree to tree.  Flying Squirrels can be found throughout North America, east of North Carolina and all the way out to California.  They enjoy eating mushrooms and help the spread the spores of the mushrooms they eat.

Jerusalem Cricket

Students and teachers from Fauncher Creek were thrilled to find a Jerusalem Cricket on the blacktop one evening in November.  Go figure, this creature just so happens to be nocturnal.  Full grown Jerusalem Crickets can be as big as two inches.  When threatened, these bugs may emit a strong odor and inflict a painful bite.  The origin of the name ’Jerusalem Cricket’ is highly debated.  However, the nickname ‘Potato Bug’ comes from the story that this creature could eat an entire potato for one meal.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for more impressive creatures out there. Comment below to share your findings!

- Kim "Cedar" Pedersen

Thursday, December 12, 2013

(Frozen) Pond Life Class with NVLA

On the morning of December 12th, 2013, trail group B from Napa Valley Language Academy headed off to their Pond Life class, but this was not your typical Pond class. Due to the below freezing temperatures that we've had since the 7th, there was a 3" layer of ice covering the pond! This didn't stop these students from doing some hands-on data collection.
Chaperone and students determine the turbidity.

Searching for life in the pond

Measuring the temperature and depth of the pond.

In addition to collecting data, the students had a chance to observe nature, learn about haikus, and write one. Here are a few examples of what they came up with:

The pond never moves
It will always be in place
Yet, I will travel
-Mario Calderon

The pond is frozen
Yet trees around jump with life
But all life seems calm
-Azrael Hillyer

After exploring the pond and writing they headed into the lab to discover what microscopic life might live in the pond. Luckily we have a tank of pond water in our lab that is full of life, where as the 38 degree water from the pond would not have much life in it. The students found ostracods, oligochaetes,diatoms, volvox, parameciums, and more.

Here's what some students had to say about Pond Life class: "I really enjoyed the class. The pond was beautiful with snow and ice, and I liked getting to see all of the organisms you cannot see with your eyes.", "It was great looking at all of the life in the pond, both at the pond and through the microscopes.", "It was amazing to see microorganisms and how small they are."