By Amber Veverka
School’s out and at last kids and families have daylight hours together to enjoy the outdoors. Here are seven ideas for ways to enjoy the natural world during the winter break. The weather may be brisk at times, but in the South, that’s not bad: It means no bugs, no poison ivy, and few allergies.
This treasure hunt combines easy walks in the woods and parks with the lure of technology. Using GPS, geocachers seek out hidden objects – stashes of inexpensive little toys, keepsakes and other items – and typically can remove a “treasure” if they replace it with one of equal value. There are hundreds of hidden geocaches in and around Charlotte, including many in the county parks and nature preserves. Learn more at geocache.com, the official site for global GPS geocaching.
Plant a tree.
It’s not too late to plant a tree, a memory-making activity that, especially if you go with a native hardwood, will pay dividends to generations to come. The key is regular watering the tree’s first year in the ground. The N.C. State University Cooperative Extension provides great tree-planting tips.
Visit one of the area’s lesser-known nature preserves.
Many Backyard & Beyond readers spend time at Mecklenburg County’s major preserves – Latta, McDowell and Reedy Creek – but have you visited the ancient, nationally recognized rock formations at Big Rock Nature Preserve in south Charlotte? Or you can see a beaver pond in action and walk amid the silvery splendor of 100-year-old
Beeches at Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve
beech trees at Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve. Or check out out what Charlotte birdwatchers love about Evergreen Nature Preserve, located in the heart of the city.
Create a holiday decoration out of natural materials.
Younger children especially love gathering natural “treasures” from walks around the neighborhood or in the backyard. Dried leaves, English ivy strands, lichens, seed pods and fallen nuts, with the help of clay or an adult-wielded glue gun, can be turned into figures, animals, or abstract art. Use clear contact paper to sandwich pressed ferns or leaves and tape to a window for an easy, pretty sun catcher.
And old peach basket, fallen bark, clothespin figures form this Nativity scene.
Close-up of the Nativity figures, made with leaves, acorn caps, a milkweed seed pod.
Make casts of animal tracks.
The hoof prints of deer, the muddy imprints of neighborhood cats and dogs – all can be turned into permanent records of the animals that passed. Make a stiff collar of cardboard, held in place with staples or paperclips, to press into the soil around the track. In a Ziploc plastic bag, mix plaster of Paris and water to a pudding-like consistency (or follow the directions on the package) and squeeze the mixture into the cardboard-enclosed area. Assuming no rain, the track should be ready to pry out in a day or two.
Bundle everyone up, throw some heavy blankets or sleeping bags into the bag of the car, and take a Thermos of hot cocoa. Lawn chairs and snacks are a good idea, too. Then head out away from city lights to an open spot. Stars in the winter sky are especially clear. Look for the constellation Orion the hunter, or, near dawn, spot the planet Venus. Get current starwatching tips at StarDate.
If you want to watch stars with a group, the Matthews Habitat and Wildlife Keepers (HAWK) is meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at Squirrel Lake Park in Matthews to check out the night sky and snack on hot chocolate and s’mores. They’ll be there along with folks from the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club.
The Carolina Raptor Center is home to a wide range of owls, many of them recovering from human-inflicted injury. You can build a whole owl-centric day out of a visit to the center, reading a book about owls, and, for the so-gross-it’s-cool activity almost every kid loves: Dissecting owl pellets. Owls eat their prey whole, then cough up gray
Compare the contents of an owl pellet with a bone chart to discover what the owl ate.
pellets of undigested bones, fur and teeth. You can buy sanitized owl pellets at the Raptor Center or online at Carolina Biological and take them apart with toothpicks, then compare your findings to the handy bone chart. Older family members might enjoy building an owl box. Peek in at the daily lives of barred owls (a common Charlotte species) at this owl cam site.
For a few more child-friendly winter nature activities, check out a previous article on this site here.