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This weekend let’s go out and look for trees that are flowering. Whether you walk around the block or visit an arboretum, I bet you are going to discover more than you realize.

Certainly you are going to find trees with beautiful, colorful showy flowers like this desert willow. The buckeyes, horse chestnuts, tulip trees, catalpas, magnolias and fruit trees all have attractive flowers.


Do you have any ideas who might come to visit these flowers? In our desert willow we regularly have hummingbirds and carpenter bees. We’ve also noticed tiny birds, called verdins, poking around the flowers. The hummingbirds are collecting nectar, the bees collect pollen and nectar, and we aren’t sure what the verdins are after. They are probably drinking nectar, but they also catch insects. In the summer they love to eat the tomatoes in our garden. We forgive them though, because they are so tiny and cute.

You might have trouble spotting the flowers on certain trees, like this mesquite. They form catkins that don’t have petals, so may not look like flowers at all. Insects often pollinate trees with big, showy flowers; trees with small flowers may be wind pollinated.


Other tree flowers may be oddly shaped or peculiar compared to annual flowers. Check out the bell-shaped flowers from a bottle tree (Brachychiton populneum). From the side the flowers are whitish, and are hard to see. Facing the flower, however, the interior is dark red.


If you have studied flower parts, then tree flowers can offer some challenges. Sometimes trees will only have male flowers or only female flowers. Mulberries are examples of trees that have separate sexes. One tree will be female and produce fruit and seeds; another will be male and produce only pollen.

It's a good idea to jot down the date when you see trees in bloom. Recording the time of bloom gives information about phenology or dates of reoccurring natural phenomena. This information can then be used to study how plants respond to such things as weather and climate changes. Each tree has it’s own time to bloom and over the years you will see patterns.

If you can’t get outdoors, or you are interested in seeing more photographs of trees, check out the beauties at Julie Walton Shaver’s Tree Growers Diary. The Autumn in the Land Movie is particularly worthwhile if you love trees.

One of our favorite things to do is bird watch. These lively creatures are interesting because they are colorful, active and can be found almost anywhere. We can hear them sing and chirp. This time of year birds are migrating, building nests and raising babies. There is a lot of excitement in the bird world.

You can simply look out the window and spot birds. Take a few minutes to see what kind it is and what it is doing. We learned our birds by figuring out a few at a time. We keep a notebook full of drawings and notes next to our favorite birding window. Each year we've had regulars who we recognize and also new birds. Last year we had house finch males with yellow on their heads instead of the more typical red or orange. This winter we had juncos for the first time.

What can you do to encourage birds? Many people start by making simple bird feeders, such as the classic peanut butter on a pinecone rolled in birdseed. You can make another simple feeder by stringing fruit such as raisins, grapes, cherries or orange sections on a bit of twine or string and hanging it out. Just be careful because scattering food for birds can also attract unwanted guests, including bears in some areas! We have problems with roof rats so we only feed thistle seed. Niger thistle seed attracts colorful birds like finches and doves, but not pigeons or rats. Check with your local Audubon Society for recommendations.

Making cards full of nesting materials can be a fun project that is easy to do with supplies from around the house. Gather index cards or three-inch by five-inch card stock, yarn, thread, hair, or anything else you think a bird might use in its nest. Brainstorm about what might be useful to a bird. Poke holes in the index cards (enough for all participants) with a hole punch or nail (with an adult’s help). Tie a 12-inch piece of string, yarn or ribbon through one hole to serve as a hanger. Loosely stuff the rest of the holes with a variety of nest making supplies, making sure the birds can pull it out fairly easily. When you are finished, go outside and hang the cards in bushes or trees where the birds will find the materials. Check over time to see which materials they chose first, second, etc. Refill the cards as needed.

These supplies are actually useful to birds. We once had a bird fly away with the end of a kite string, spreading the string throughout the neighborhood as it unwound from the spool.

If you get serious about birding, you might think about planting a bird garden. Find out abut which native plants in your area provide food or shelter for birds and add a few to your garden. Providing water through a birdbath or pond is also helpful as long as the water is kept clean and fresh. Check for more information in books, magazines and on the Internet.

Finally, even if it is raining and nothing is happening outdoors, ask your child what it would be like to fly like a bird. Then pretend you are birds. Spread your wings and soar and swoop together.

Happy flying!

Music is usually considered to be one of the arts, but scientists are interested in sound and music too.

Take a few minutes to sit quietly and just listen. What do you hear? I hear the hum of the computer and the keys clacking as I type this. Do you hear your computer? Beside me I hear a cat purring, behind me the mice are rustling in their cage as they eat their morning snacks. Every once in awhile the parent birds in the shrub outside the window bring food back to their babies and the babies make a terrific racket. Further away I can hear doves cooing and once in awhile, a car passing. These sounds were all around me, but until I sat still and listened, I didn't really hear them. Why do you think that is true? What is sound anyway?

Let's investigate sound by creating some musical instruments. First gather a few materials. A clean, empty tin can with ridges makes a great start. Ask an adult to help you find one, perhaps from the recycling bin. Make sure it doesn't have sharp edges. Now find pencils or chopsticks, rubber bands, balloons, small plastic combs, and some clean, empty bottles with narrow necks.

Think about how you can make sounds using these items. The best musical instruments are the ones you design yourself, but here are a few ideas to get you started. Tap the can with the pencil. How does it sound? Now try rubbing the pencil across the ridges of the can. Try rubbing fast and then slow. You have made a simple guiro, a ridged instrument used in Central America. Do you have anything else with ridges to try?

You can also put a large balloon over the open edge of the can and fasten it down with a rubber band. This creates a cool drum. Or simply blow up a balloon and then hold the opening flat as you let the air out. Can you make a squealing noise? Blow up the balloon, tie it and drum on it.

Can you string the rubber bands across anything to make a guitar? Tie some rubber bands tightly and make others loose. Do they sound different?

What can you do with the bottle? How about blowing over the opening? Hold the opening of the bottle at your bottle lip, and then blow air across the top. This how the musical instrument called the flute produces sound.

Gently touch your various musical instruments while you are playing them. Do you feel anything? You should feel a wavering or vibration. If you are blowing a recorder, can you feel the vibrations on your lips? If you tap on a desk, can you feel the vibrations it makes?

Sound travels as waves, which you feel as vibrations as it passes through the instrument. Here on earth the waves can pass through air because it is made up of gases, and so you can hear someone calling you for dinner. What about in space, where there aren't any gases or substances for the sound waves to pass through? Scientists have predicted, and astronauts have verified, that sound does not pass through empty space.

Oh, I hear the phone ringing, time to go. Now I'm wondering how a telephone works!