Monthly Themed Articles

Each month, Kirsten Carlson, our Education and Outreach Coordinator, shares a themed article about what’s happening in nature that month. Scroll down for older articles.

If you have an idea for a monthly article – or if you want to volunteer as a contributing writer – please email Kirsten at [email protected].

October 2021: Seasonal Cues

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

Using only your sense of touch/feel, how would you know when one season ends and another begins?  Perhaps you feel a change in temperature?  Colder in the mornings than normal but still warm during the day?  Maybe you feel a cold rain and wind?  Add another sense such as sight (a little ambiguous as different organisms see light and dark in very different ways).  Do you think you could hear when seasons transition?  Rachel Carson believed so as written in her book, Silent Spring.  What cues do you use to know when seasons change?

Autumn is upon us.  How do organisms “know” to prepare for the oncoming winter?  What sensual cues do you think they respond to as guides to prepare for winter?  Isn’t that what autumn is all about—preparation for winter?  Go outside and observe the behaviors of organisms this time of year.  What’s happening?  Leaves change color and may fall to the ground.  What tells a plant to do that?  Some fruits and nuts ripen.  Squirrels and blue jays gather acorns and other nuts to bury in the ground only to find again when winter hunger sets in.  How do they remember where they placed all those acorns and nuts?  Many birds and some insects, such as the monarch butterfly, migrate south to overwinter in climates that meet their winter habitat needs.  Some mammals grow a winter coat before winter even sets in.  Worms burrow deeper down in the soil.  What do our native reptiles do?

How do they all know to perform such behaviors?  They use nature’s cue cards.  And basically, it all comes down to an organism’s chemistry.  You are already probably familiar with this concept.  If you experience continued sun exposure, specific cells in your skin receive those sunlight wavelength signals and respond by making a chemical to protect your skin cells from damage.  The result, a tan!  The same idea occurs in organisms who cells respond to the various signals from amount of daylight/darkness in a 24-hour period, difference between the daily low and high temperatures, angle of the sun, orientation of star patterns, changes in weather conditions, and soil temperature, just to name a few.  Organisms luckily do not use just one cue, but a few so that they can respond appropriately and without haste. 

For the blue jay and the squirrel to know to hide their food and then to find it again requires environmental cues to alter their brain chemistry to help them remember where their food is stashed.  These same cues cause the hair of some mammals to grow a thicker coat, and for ant and monarch butterfly to have their “blood” chemistry change to something similar to anti-freeze.  These cues also tell the turtle to burrow down in the lake or pond, slow their breathing, and “sleep” until they receive signals to emerge in the spring.  And these cues also cause the leaves of trees to breakdown chlorophyll (the green pigment), store as many other compounds in their roots, and to drop or modify their leaves.

There are many more examples.  You can research some on your own to help you understand how organisms are adapted to respond to seasonal changes.  You are sure to be amazed!!


September 2021: Telling the Story in a Picture

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

Photo of day old American Robin hatchling in nest with two unhatched eggs.
Day old American Robin hatchling.

Why do you take pictures?  Perhaps as a tangible remembrance of an event, to collect and document information, as a hobby, etc.  Each photo we take has personal meaning and story to each of us while it may elicit a different meaning and story for another.  I enjoy taking photographs of nature because my pictures tell the story of my home and experiences that I can share with others.  They help me to remember what I have seen, with whom, and where.  They all relate back to my story.  The point is that we each take pictures for different reasons and each photograph has a story to tell each of us.  You are the author of your own photographs.

One particular reason I use photographs is as  an aid to learn about the subject, to notice patterns and discrepancies; they help me to find some extraordinary aspects that I may have missed by “just walking by.”  Photos help me to wonder and ask questions to research later.  Taking nature pictures allows me to reinforce my connection of being a part of nature.  For example, examine this picture of an American robin nest I found in my yard.  What do you notice?  What do you not notice?  What emotions does it evoke?  What questions do you have?  What story does this picture tell you?  I ended up taking a photograph each day of this nest until the three robins fledged.  What a story I have to share in those pictures about the egg laying process and development of songbirds.

Nature is full of extraordinary wonders that can be shared through photographs.  Oak Heritage Conservancy hosts an annual amateur photography contest.  Entries are due by October 31.  It’s a free event for people of all ages.  This year’s theme is “Nature Next Door.”  To find out more about this contest, visit https://oakheritageconservancy.org/get-involved/photoexhibit/.  There are divisions for youths and adults.  Get outside and take those pictures to tell the story of your wanderings as you explore nature near you, whether that’s at a nearby preserve or state park, when you go pick pumpkins this fall, or in your own backyard.

The photo contest is made possible by the Indiana Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.


August 2021: Looking to Nature to Find the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

Indiana native writer, Gary Ferguson, wrote in his book, The Eight Master Lessons of Nature, that “what introduced me to the ebb and flow of the world, to the daily playlist of chirps and buzzes and snorts and whooshes” were the ordinary encounters that most of us have experienced, such as lightning bugs, bees, and oak trees.  These experiences left him “with the extraordinary sensation of being a part of it all.”  Throughout his life, these experiences also helped him to realize that “the natural world remains a ready source of essential lessons, each one helping us better understand what life really needs…to thrive.”  And through these experiences a common underlying theme arose: interdependence or connections among different species, including humans, in a shared ecosystem or even planet. Take the ordinary oxygen we breathe each moment through our noses or mouths and feel it flow through your vessels to each of your individual cells.  Have you ever thought about where that oxygen is made and the extraordinary feats required to get it to you and how or why you and your cells even require it? 

Have you ever looked beyond the “ordinary” in nature to find the extraordinary?  Think about the ordinary dandelions, their leaves, flowers, and seeds, we often find in our yards in the spring and fall.  (Hmm, why not summer?)  We add their bitter leaves to salads, make jelly from their flowers, and feel child-like when we blow the seeds to watch them float and drift in the wind.  We use herbicides on our lawns to get rid of these pesky plants as they transform our nice, green, uniform lawns into fields of broad-leaves and flowers.  What is extraordinary about these flowering plants? They provide a food source for many (over 100) insect species and a good handful of vertebrates (over 30), like birds and fresh-out-of-hibernation rodents in spring.  Their roots help aerate the soil for worms and other soil-dwelling species to use as a navigation route to the soil’s surface.  I think the most extraordinary aspect of the dandelion is its seed fluff, which consists of about 100 bristles, collectively called pappus.  This structure forms a stable ring of air around the pappus, adding drag to the seed, allowing it to stay airborne to disperse into new habitats to germinate and make more dandelion plants.  Humans can do a similar thing with parachutes.

Nature is full of extraordinary wonders; we just have to look beyond the ordinary to find them.  As Gary Ferguson states, “it’s time to wake up the tissues of perception that have been there all along [in nature and realize] [w]e are nature.”