Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More Photos by Rachel

Just a couple more photos from Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge. Because they're pretty.


Yesterday we took an afternoon trip to Sag Harbor to the Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is small; the loop trail is only three quarters of a mile long with a spur trail to the beach, but it is a unique jewel in Long Island's crown because over the years, the birds there have learned that people bring them food, and will land right in your hands to eat! I have never seen this anywhere else; we have hand fed squirrels in Boston and used to do the same in college at Drew University, and we did hand feed birds at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh--but those weren't wild birds, and they didn't land on us, they flew by and snatched food from our outstretched palms. These are wild birds who have learned this trick, and we just never tire of it. Julia said a number of times that this was her favorite place in the world, and that she wished she could live right there.

We usually visit in the depths of winter, because of course you get the greatest number of birds on you when they have almost nothing else to eat. However, we had so much snow and such cold temperatures this year that I had to keep putting the kids off. It's even colder there because you're right on the water, and it just isn't fun to be there if you're freezing. Also, I wasn't sure if there was any sort of snow removal there because although it's a popular place, it's still a trail. Although it seems that many birds hang around right near the front of the trail, so I guess if you just walked in and stood you'd still get birds. Regardless, early spring is still fine--the woods are just beginning to green up, but the leaves aren't on the trees yet and I imagine there aren't too many insects yet, so our friends were still hungry.

The easiest birds to attract are the sweet little black capped chickadees. They are bold and brave, sitting in your hand and choosing just the right seed. The tufted titmouse, with its big eyes and cute little hairdo, is the next most common visitor to our hands, followed by the nuthatch. The last time we went we were lucky enough to have the red headed downy woodpecker land on us several times, but this time we didn't get that privilege, although we did see a few. The squirrels will follow and yesterday we saw a few chipmunks for good measure, but for some reason, the squirrels won't get close enough to hand feed--they will accept donations that you toss over, though. (This vexes Julia and Emma, who love to get squirrels to come and take nuts right from their hands in Boston.) Dozens of cardinals will follow you throughout the refuge, but they will never land on you. We have tried and tried, and they desperately want the seed--they will take what has fallen to the ground as soon as you move away, but they simply refuse to get close.

The biggest surprise yesterday was from our fellow visitors. We saw four other groups while we were there--ranging from couples to a group of five--and not one of them had come with seeds! One lady said they used to sell seed at the front, which I then vaguely remembered from one of my first visits, but they didn't have any out now. Luckily, we had a gallon bag of sunflower seeds, the birds' favorite, so we shared with everyone we met. If you ever go, don't bother with mixed seeds! We had chickadees flinging that seed around and only taking the sunflower seeds--they can afford to be picky, I guess, when they have devoted followers! Anyway, it was a wonderful time, and Rachel got some of her usual fabulous photos.....

Friday, March 4, 2011

School Year Winding Down

It seems crazy to say that our school year is winding down at the beginning of March, but I can clearly see the end of the tunnel. The three younger kids are actually finished with a few elements of the year, such as health and some language arts books, and are within sight of being finished with others. Other subjects, history being the most glaring example, are going to need some intensive work in order to finish, but we'll get there. Rachel, having more work to do, just plugs away and will finish in June, but still, I am going to have to finish the requisite length of the school year doing more unschooling than bookwork with the younger ones.

This is fine, since I have always flirted with the idea of unschooling but am too A-type to actually implement it. Spring is gardening time, and gardening is a perfect unschooling science opportunity. We have shelves and shelves of nonfiction kids' books, which originally I started collecting with the idea that they would be handy for homeschooling but in actuality do a lot of sitting around because we forget they even exist, or we follow book lists in our curriculum. Sometimes it's actually easier to get books from the library than to look through our extensive collection! After all, the library is organized, and our bookshelves...are not. Rachel's most recent English assignment is Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," and I was on my way to the library. Matt reminded me that we have that book somewhere--well, DUH! I was an English major! Of course we have that book, and many, many more classic works of literature--but finding it was quite another matter. Besides, as I pointed out to him, it was highly unlikely the book would be checked out of our library, and so we'd be helping by adding to circulation statistics. So with time at the end of the year, I picture letting the kids pull from a plethora of interesting subjects--from rainforests to birdwatching to the Salem with hunt to atlases--and just seeing where they lead us.

Creativity is also huge around here. Right now Julia is sewing a stuffed rooster from felt, fabric and buttons. She got a kit for her birthday but decided that rather than follow the strict pattern, she'd make her own--and I have to say, it's cuter than the kit's version. Drawing takes up copious amounts of time, and once I order more felting needles the kids have been loving that, too. Of course Rachel can spend hours with her camera, and the younger kids have been playing with mine, taking photos and making videos. Lola the hamster also provides hours of creative time, because Julia and Emma delight in making complicated courses for her to run out of recyclables, spending hours planning, cutting, taping and then playing with Lola in the run...when I was a child, I did this too, but the difference between me and my kids is that the mazes I made would hang around for months--I think that the kids actually prefer making the mazes, because they are constantly adding on or making new ones. Then there's writing, reading and the numerous pretend games they play. I think we can fulfill more than enough academic hours even when the workbooks are finished.

Rachel has found a place at the local community theater working the lights. This started a few months ago, when I volunteered at the theater as the box office manager. Rachel came with me a few times, and we had fun together. I told her I thought that she would have a lot of fun in the theater even if she decided she didn't want to be on stage, so we spoke with the lighting director, who loves sharing what he knows and is always in need of help. He called her for the next show, running now, and has been really encouraging and complimentary to her. She wants to keep working on that, and I am encouraging her to put herself out in the community. We are also increasing the social life of the homeschooling teens in our area by planning purely social outings like movies, ice skating, browsing at the mall, etc. This gives Rachel and her friends ways to simply hang out as they'd do if they went to school--with homeschooling, there are so many field trips and classes planned, but rarely time to just be together.

We are waiting to hear if she has been accepted to a volunteer position this summer, too, which would allow her to go camping with a group of peers somewhere in the country to work on an environmental project. We should hear about that in the next few weeks and are really hoping she can go. In May, she and Matt are going to take a road trip to Wisconsin together to check out the Conserve School, a semester school she hopes to attend in the spring next year, where she would get to learn all aspects of environmentalism as well as new sports such as skiing, ice fishing, canoeing, and extreme camping.

We have a big family reunion in July, which we're all looking forward to. My niece and her husband are opening their house in Delaware and we are also chipping in on a huge rental house; between the two we will house 32 people, ages about one month through 75 years. We're looking forward to the beach, the boardwalk, plenty of talk, food and card games and just being together, and are especially excited that my sister Amy and niece Chloe will be there, visiting from Vienna. We hardly ever get to see them, so it will be a treat.

Finally, to my extreme delight, we have decided to forego organized sports and are instead working with some homeschooling friends to start meeting at parks to play sports--you know, the way we USED to, just meet up with friends to play baseball or kickball or soccer or basketball, without all these horrible schedules and fundraising that you have to endure when you sign up for Little League or Police Athletic League or any of those other leagues. Don't get me wrong; I think sports are valuable for kids. However, since my kids don't have to abide by a school schedule, I REALLY loathe being forced to abide by school kids' schedules when it comes to sports! I have had enough of having every weekend from March until June or from September to November completely ruined by having to sit at ball fields half the day, and I have definitely had enough of the practices being scheduled two or three or four times a week at 5:30 in the afternoon, wrecking dinner completely. Not to mention that during sports times of year, even if the day has been warm and sunny, by that time of day it is usually windy and cold! I have had more than enough of freezing half to death watching sports and a bunch of kids I have no desire to know playing them! Call me snobby, but it's the truth. Playing sports with homeschoolers means we can meet during the day, when the spring days are gorgeous, and the kids can play rather than stand around with all the endless waiting that leagues entail.

Another year gone by in a blink. Can't believe it, but I'm kind of getting used to it.