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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fishy Business!

If you have been following my blog then you know that we have really been gearing up for our next contest.  This one is a State Wildlife contest in West Texas.  We woke up before the sun this morning to get to the university Native Plant Center to up with a van that was going to Athens, TX.

This all day field trip was part of a program through SFA and Texas Parks & Wildlife-Nacogdoches Naturally.  Kerry was our guide for the day.  Her husband Jim joined us as well.  We were also joined by David and Joseph.  We were heading to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center for a tour and some fishing.  We had a nice college student, Josh, as our driver.  He happened to be a Wildlife major, so I asked him a ton of questions about his experience.  He was very nice to talk to along the way.  I learned a lot about how his future career really does relate to our projects.  It is always nice to know that what we are teaching the 4Hers is true to its purpose.

This was important to us because in part of our contest there is a possibility that the 4Hers would need to identify a Texas fish species.

When we are arrived, we were amazed at how pretty the facility appeared.  I guess we were just expecting a bunch of holding tanks with fish.  Instead we found ourselves a very nice park that also had large fish tanks that were designed like the native surroundings.

We began a walking tour around the grounds.  We were especially impressed with the VERY LARGE catfish.  They were as large as Brendan!  We also saw the most amazing fish that would open his mouth wide to feed...the paddle fish!  This creature already looked funny with its long flat snout, but watching it feed was incredible.  It looked as if its jaw was off its hinges.

We were then treated to short video followed by a dive presentation.  The diver talked about the various fish as he fed them in a large tank.  I loved that he talked about the 'bully' of the tank as he had to continually knock it back away to allow others to feed.  He talked about the different eating habits of the fish as he fed them also.  The 4Hers especially enjoyed watching the live fish being fed to the larger fish.  One of those little guys managed to stay in the tank for several minutes only to be chased by a larger fish and being eaten by a medium size one!  Poor fishy!

Then we had a shuttle ride through the fishery to see the different steps to the process of producing fish for ponds and lakes throughout Texas.  We were told that a 1-acre pond at the fishery would hold up to 125,000 fries!  That is one crowded bathtub!  All water in these holding ponds were from the Athens Lake.  However, the water is filtered and recycled back into the lake when ponds are drained.

The day had been somewhat overcast so it should have been no surprise that it began to rain.  It all worked out for the best because we were under a pavilion having a picnic lunch.  The skies cleared as we were cleaning and then we were able to take a nice walk through a wooded trail. Jim spoke to the group about the different plants and animals discovered along the way.  We even walked past a pitcher plant bog!  Yay!...I finally was able to view this plant and it was in bloom which made it even better!

We arrived in time to grab a fishing pole and bait to fish on the stocked pond.  This is a fish and release system set up for likely success rate for the youth (and adults).  Only one of our group caught a fish-Henry!  Unfortunately, I was not able to get to him in time to take a picture.  I imagine the fish will get bigger the more he tales the story like any good fish story!  A pleasant way to end our tour.

A special thanks to Kerry, Jim, Josh, and all the other college students who made this a memorable moment.  I am so thankful to have the opportunity to learn with hands-on activities!  By reaching out to the community and helping us have these opportunities you are a great example of 'making the best better!'

Friday, March 30, 2012

Mastery of the Grasses

Today we gathered for last official practice before heading off for West Texas for our Wildlife contest.

We have been in this project for eight years and have gone to the State contest at least 5 times (maybe more...can't keep track).  Every year we kick ourselves for not learning the grasses.  Every year we vow to learn them for the next year.  Every year we fail in our attempts.

It really comes down to time.  I have never really taken the time to sit down and look at the differences.  It is one of those moments we have all had at one point or another...they all look the same to me!

Well, that was until today!  I think we might have figured it out.  I studied the book of grasses I found, including the parts found on a grass.  I then thought about how I would describe each variety of grass, especially looking for details that make them different.  Here is what I discovered about these plants:

Broomsedge Bluestem:  stiff stem with little brooms attached to the top of the stem, decided the tufts coming out of the seed pods reminded us of dust bunnies left in the broom after sweeping (Hey, no one said we were being scientific here!)

Johnson grass:  crown of seed pods on top of stem with somewhat long spikelets. (rhizome root system)

Kleingrass:  crown of seedpods on top with beady seeds (knotty base that extends out before going up)

Little bluestem:  taller than expected given its name, longer brooms coming from the top of stem with long spikelets (fibrous root system)

Plains Bristlegrass:  tall stem that is capped with single stem of beady seeds (fibrous roots)

Rescue grass: seed pods branching out from stem in clumps (fibrous roots)

Ryegrass:  alternating seed pods going up either side of tall stem rhizome roots)

Sideoats grama:  seed pods only grow to one side of the stem with wavy stem (either single or rhizome roots)

Switch grass: crowned with seed pods branching out from stem, pod looks like the W in its name

Texas Wintergrass:  crowned with seedpods branching out from stem with long wispy spikelets

Vine mesquite: (I did not even know it was a grass until I found it in my grass book!) tall stem that droops with beady seed pods along tops, only specimen on our contest with obvious stolen rhizome root system

Wildrye:  reminds me of wheat, so easy to distinguish from the others.

That was what we did with most of our time.  We were able to review all the parts of the contest (a few changes for this contest).  We especially reviewed the land management techniques.  Very different from what we have learned in WHEP, so I hope 4Hers do not get confused with two contests.

It was a great practice.  Maybe we will have some informal meetings before we leave.  I know the boys and I will be practicing a lot in the next two weeks.  trying to make our personal "best better."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Contest Missed

For the last eight years, we have added another project to our list of fun-Forestry.  It is easy to get involved in a lot of projects if you have a lot children who like different things.  Or, as in my case, children who love ALL projects.  However, to avoid complete burn out of this 4H mom, I told the boys they really needed to pick and choose carefully and only 3 projects.  So thankful that my boys do like most of the same fun, or even with this limit I would have had 9 projects to enjoy!  No one has that much time!

Forestry was the hard one to cut.  No one at my house really wanted to take it out of our busy 4H weeks.  However, the decision was finally made due to conflicts in other activities.  I am sure that is why I sat watching the trees today as the light rain came down thinking we were missing something today.  Then it hit me like a lightning was the Forestry contest!

For those of you who do not know about this project, it is a very good project to introduce youth to the forestry industry.  The participants must be able to learn several skills to determine quality of lumber (mainly pine but hardwoods as well).  The 4H website describes it well:  "The forestry project stresses general forestry knowledge, tree identification, insect and disease identification (national level only), compass & pacing, and judgment about land management decisions."

So, when afternoon came around and I knew results would be in, I started calling around to find out how our 4Hers fared at the contest.  I finally got the call in a few minutes ago.  Our teams did not place in the top so would not move on to the next level.  I am sure they worked hard.  I know they had a lot of young newbies in the project this year and the new leader of the project (Wanda) was a great instructor.

In spite of the team not doing well, we did have one 4Her who did excellent.  David placed high point individual for 4H and overall (this is a FFA contest and they are judged separately).  He is our Senior this year and I know he works extra hard to understand the information and skills of the contest.  The best part for him was that he was eligible for scholarships this year.  He was awarded $3000 in scholarships for his outstanding performance today!  I am so proud of him!  Great job!  You represented us well.

So, although we did not participate in this project, I could not end the day without a shout out to the Forestry group. I hope you enjoyed it for all of us.  We were there in spirit!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Show of 4H Fun

Well...we started out with a mess...two 4H events going at the same time.  However, we figured out a way to make it work.  I don't do this often but we split up and went to both projects.

I dropped Sean and Henry off at a Share the Fun practice.  Thankfully, they were planning scenery and I would not have been much help anyway.  I went to the County Fashion Show to take pictures and judge the entries.

The Fashion Show is fun at the county level because we try to have it at a nursing home.  It gives the 4H members an opportunity to give back to the community.  It also allows to have an audience for the members t practice presentation.  We also try to provide food for all involved.  I arrived in time with our vegetable tray to watch the set up.  It was nice to sit back and not worry about outfits for a change.  I took pictures of the county team create a Wow! Window.  In this contest, a group (or individual) creates a shop window to attract customers.  The team did a great job of creating a county fair theme.  On the day of contest they will have 90 minutes to set up their window, so tonight all adult hands were eliminated giving the 4H members a chance to practice set up.

Since I was a judge, I was called back to look at a new contest-Taps, Tassels and Tacks-Shoe Fun.  The idea was to design and create a shoe related to a certain theme.  This year the theme was Stars, Stripes and Clovers.  There were some very creative shoe designs.

I also judged the fashion boards.  These are created to present a themed clothing design.  This year's theme was Clothing Around the World.  This fit right in with Brianna's outfit, which was a specialty creation from Czech Republic.  We also had an entry from Rozalinn for an India design.  Both girls worked very hard to create their fashion boards.

I finished judging these categories just in time to watch the Fashion Show.  They started our show with our sweet little Clover Kid, Valerie.  She created a cute cupcake apron for herself and her doll.  I loved the way she walked down the lane with her doll cuddled in her arms.  She also did a great job answering our questions after the show.  I love working with the little ones.  Everything is so fresh and new!

Next was Brianna in her beautiful Czech creation!  She did a wonderful job of walking the lane.  She also did the best job for the night answering questions for the judges.  I loved her costume.  It reminded me of our days in Germany.  The girls still wear the tradition dress on special holidays or town celebrations.  There is a lot of symbolism behind all the colors and frills!

Treyton was our only Senior this year.  He had a costume as well, marching out in his General MacArthur costume.  He has kept his military hero theme going all year.  It all started with our Share the Fun skit.  Then he used it for a themed food contest earlier in the fall.  Now he showed off his costume in the Fashion Show.  It makes me think of how easy record book time will be for him if he keeps the theme going.

Rozalinn stepped out in her spring outfit.  She had a cute sun dress with jacket.  I loved the material on the dress and the rickrack really set off the dress for a unique look.  It looked so nice and crisp with the seams so perfect!  She has learned so much about the interview process from this project and her food project.

Jasmyne came forward in a black semi-formal with rhinestones.  She looked so beautiful!  This is her first year to participate and she did well.  It is hard to stand before three judges for the interview.  There is still plenty of time to practice.  All the 4Hers worked hard to be ready for our local show.  I am sure they will all represent our county well!

When I picked the boys up, they told me all about the ideas for the scenery.  It sounds like we are going to have simple decorations.  Since the idea is to honor the flag through out the skit, the main focus will be on the flag.  Each character will be in the costume portraying their historic figure and the background will not change.  The idea is a young man questions the importance of the flag to an older gentleman.  So they are siting on a park bench in front of the county courthouse.  The historical characters will come out in costume with props that relate to a scene with the flag.  Hopefully, we can continue this idea as we continue with practice throughout the next month.

We all have a lot of work to do to get ready for the District Round Up.  Looking forward to seeing all the hard work bring fruitful results.

Monday, March 26, 2012

How Did I Get Here?!

Sitting in the Entomology class today, I could not help but ask myself this question.  Ten years ago, I never would have imagined sitting in a classroom learning about insects!  That is what 4H has done to me...taken me in places I never dreamed of going...LOL!  However, I am happy with turn of boys are learning about something they love.  They will appreciate these little creatures more now that they know what they are looking at when they go out in to the woods or in our yard.

Today, the boys learned about the different types of metamorphosis.  Did you know that all bugs do not mature in the same way?  There are three types of metamorphosis:

No metamorphoshis (egg, immature, mature):

Incomplete (egg, nymph, adult):

Complete (egg, larvae, pupa, adult):

They also learned more about the structure of insects and arachnids.  I was lucky to remember that insects were divided up into three parts, but the boys need to know a lot more.

And then they began their adventure into the different orders of insects.   This week they learned about the following orders:

Thysanura (silverfish)
Ephemeroptera (mayflies)
Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies)
Plecoptera (stoneflies)
Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets)
Blattodea (roaches)
Mantodea (mantids)
Phasmatodea (walkingsticks)

It is amazing to me that the boys can learn all these orders.  However, it is even more amazing that they can spell the orders!  They have to spell correctly for the answer to count.  They also have to know the kind of mouth parts and if the insect is beneficial.  Pretty amazing!

And to think we would never have had this adventure if it were not for 4H.  So glad we are able to give the boys these opportunities.  An added bonus today was being able to see praying mantis egg sac.  It was really cool!  Thanks again to our leaders!

Also, Sean did a great job of reviewing our last class.  He and I put together a crossword puzzle with clues from last weeks class.  He gave out the worksheets at the beginning of class and then he gave out the correct answers at the end of class.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Two Hikes, Some Bees and a Service Opportunity

Sounds like a good movie title, doesn't it?!

There are times when our 4H adventures seem to duplicate themselves.  If you were to go back over the last eight years and look at my calendar, you would see the same thing week after week...month after month.  However, I was thinking back to these experiences and know that each was different in its own way.  Maybe you feel that way yourself in the activities that you do...whether it is in 4H or just day-to-day life.  I think that is why I have enjoyed blogging over the last few months...I write what happens and it brings to mind past events.  Each year brought different opportunities as we learned and competed in the different projects.  It makes me wish that I had blogged from the beginning to show how we have changed over the years.

Yesterday, the boys and I woke up and rushed over to the VA clinic to serve sandwiches to the Veterans who came in for blood work.  We have done this in the past.  In fact we are scheduled to do this each month at this time.  We had not done this for several months.  I hate that we fell out of the practice, so when we got a phone call asking us to help once again, we were glad to help.  Unfortunately, that would mean taking the supplies to make the sandwiches.  So, here we were the night before scrambling around our pantry looking for sandwich supplies because we would not have time to go to the store ahead of time.  We found enough supplies to make 40 tuna sandwiches.  

This is when I begin thinking about how this once regular part of our 4H experience was different each time.  We meet different Veterans...we take different food...different 4Hers help...Yes the same event month after month but a new experience as well.  Yesterday that meant staying the course and doing the best with what we had...and trying to be positive with the Veterans we met.  I also realized how much we rely on others to make things go smoothly.  In the past we have always had Myra (our club manager) provide the basics.  Even when she did not come herself, she made sure we had what we needed.  We might bring some of the sandwich ingredients but she brought the staple items.  Yesterday as we made our way to the clinic, we realized we did not have everything we would need.  We arrived begging for supplies from the staff.  How was I to know that we needed baggies to put the sandwiches in?  We have just always had them!  We learned to appreciate the small things and the BIG help we would miss.  A big thanks to Myra for her hard work to keep us on track!  And also another proud moment as I watched the boys take over the serving.  We only stayed a little while but we were glad to help the Veterans.

Then came the first hike!  We met at a large park and hiking trail for our Wildlife practice.  We thought we would be able to find enough plant specimens along the outside of the woods (or maybe that was wishful thinking on my part!).  Unfortunately, we found very little so the 4Hers were anxious to go into the woods.  I was a little leery because it was still quite wet from our recent rain over the last weeks.  

We looked at the trail map and found a short trail that was attached to a longer trail.  Silly me...I thought we would find what we were looking for on the short trail and head back to study other things.  I was wrong and we choice to head down the longer trail...Oh my!  I would not have minded the trail so much if we had been successful.  However, we walked through the muddy trail with only a few specimens to identify.  It wore me out... and Brendan also, obviously, because he was carried most of the long trail!  I took a few pictures of our adventure.  We decided we would just need to find a better place next time.  It was good experience nonetheless as we definitely got our exercise.  

After a good night's sleep (exhaustion does that to you!), we headed out early for a second day in a row.  This time we began our day with a workshop in beekeeping.  We had been to these classes last year.  We had no clue of what we were doing and were too new to have questions.  Now after a year into this hobby, we listened with eager ears and ready to ask questions along the way.  

Mr. Cecil Hunt started the group out with a few basics to understanding the bee.  We learned about the parts of the bee, bee hierarchy, how bees communicate, and the basic set up of a hive.  I was really impressed with his ability to bring all the information together and hold the attention of all the 4Hers (age 3-adult, as parents who came were just as interested as the 4Hers).  We had nine 4Hers attend the class with seven adults (counting the three instructors).  The slide show was very helpful in showing the bee and its life cycle.  

Mr. Bob Ham showed the basic equipment needed for a beginner beekeeper.  I thought there would not be much new information, but stayed to listen.  I was not surprised to learn new skills and techniques.  He mentioned how to light a smoker and told about beginners not lighting the smoker correctly...yep that's me!  So, now I know to light a small amount of pine straw in the bottom before adding more straw to the smoker.  

In between sessions, I also learned about splitting our current hive.  I hope to work on this in the next couple of weeks.  This will be a great opportunity for us to advance in our beekeeping hobby.  Mr. Robert Jones said he would be willing to help us accomplish this goal.  He was also the next to teach us about the basics of beekeeping.  This included the history and the basic set up for beginner beekeeping.  Although we have been keeping bees for a year, I learned a lot about the importance of bee keeping and supporting the hive without being too intrusive.

A big thanks to these advanced beekeepers for taking time out of their busy weekend to teach us about bees this morning.  It was very motivating for us to get back to taking care of our hive and progressing to the next level.

We finished this class just in time to regroup and head out on our second hike.  This time we would go into the Angelina National Forest along with Wildlife Biologist, Dick Pike.  His wife would also join us and share her knowledge.  We began the hike through a recent prescribed burn site.  This burn took place about two months ago and the plants are already starting to emerge.  We learned that some of these plants had just gone dormant during the burn (sweet gum), while others were just able to resist the heat and flames (pine).  Some of the plants would only be present during these early stages of regrowth (spagma moss, not sure on spelling).

We walked the path looking at the plants that were on our contest list, as well.  We found several specimens at different stages of growth.  We then drove to a red-cockaded woodpecker cluster.  We learned that one of the main purposes for the prescribed burn in this wooded area was to protect the habitat for these birds.  They are the only woodpeckers that like to drill holes in live pine trees.  They also like a clear under story for easy flight through the trees.  I asked why these particular birds were so important to protect and Mr. Pike explained that this species of woodpecker was considered a keystone species.  If we lost this bird other species would also dwindle.  It kind of reminded me of The Lorax.  It was interesting to see the different methods used to provide the woodpecker with the needed access to the trees and nesting spots.  There were special metal plates above the holes so other woodpecker species would not drill a larger hole for nesting.  The biologists even went so far as to build cedar boxes that would be placed in cutouts from the living pines!  

Then off we went to a new location that had not had a recent burn.  This was also the location of an old sawmill town (Old Alderidge Mill).  We followed the trail around and found many of the plants from our local contest.  This will be very helpful for next fall...maybe we can make another trip out this way then.  When the 4Hers arrived at the mill, they were told there were bats (endangered bats, of course!) on the premises.  They could not resist the urge to find them and were successful!  I took this time to rest before our hike back.  Brendan had had enough as well and began to fall asleep on my shoulder as we walked back.

So, when Mr. Pike offered to take one more trail to the Angelina River, I chose to send my camera with the group and head back to the cars.  Right after leaving the group at the fork in the trail, Brendan perked back up and asked to be put down so he could catch a frog (the little turkey!).  He had seen Mr. Merrel try for a frog on the way up the trail and he decided he wanted to try it also.  I finally convinced him to leave the frogs to their home and walked the rest of the way to the cars.  I thought I would have a little rest before the others got back.  But, Brendan decided to find a muddle puddle instead.  He was covered in MUD!!!!!  LOL!  So much for a nap! The others returned soon after...they got lost trying to find the river so came back after finding a slough instead.  

Just as we were saying our good-byes, Mr Pike told us about an area of the park that had a field of Pitcher Plants (carnivorous plant species) growing on the side of a road.  He suggested we try to go but we will just have to plan for another day.  It is always nice to have a reason to return to a fun place.  He also told us about a flower species he discovered while walking through the forest.  He named it Pike's Freebird Orchid.  We did not see this flower and I could not find a picture on line.  I guess I will need to ask for more details when we meet again.  He was a very interesting person to guide us...very knowledgeable.  
A big thank you to Mr. & Mrs. Pike and also to Mr. Merrel (our County 4H agent) for setting up this experience.  We look forward to more opportunities to get moving!  All in all, I think we hiked about five miles in the last two days.  So, I guess the 'get moving' theme was successful.  I, personally, am worn out and I think the boys are too.  They sure fell asleep quickly tonight.

Now, if you had just looked at the quick reminder about each of the events on a calendar you would think how boring!  But we really had a great time and learned so much.  We are just 'making the best better' one unique experience at a time!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Don't Try This at Home!!!!

We had a little field trip today, in spite of the downpour.  We made our way to our local community college for a performance of the Peking Acrobats.  Now, although this was not an official 4H outing, we considered it part of our Share the Fun project.  In fact, we were supposed to have a practice for our skit right after this experience, but it did not work out.  This still gave the boys an opportunity to look at stage presence and simple props. 

The performance was amazing!  It is hard to believe all the things these performers accomplished.  I wish I could have taken pictures but it would have been too dangerous to have flash photography during the performance.  So, I have found some pictures of what we saw on line so you could see some of their acrobats.  It would have been almost as interesting to take pictures of the boys watching the performance.  Our youngest was especially transfixed to the stage.  I don't think he blinked once.  At one point in the performance, a man stacked chairs on top of each other and performed flips.  I was a little concerned that he might want to try some these acts when he got home, so I bent over and asked him it he wanted to try it.  He quickly said no as he continued to watch every move that was made!

Some of the other acts the boys enjoyed were the dragon performers and the men jumping through the hoops.  There were also women performing but I guess those acts were too subdued for the boys' taste because they did not mention any of these as their favorites.  However, I was especially impressed by the umbrella twirling (how fitting for today!).  

Also the boys liked the bicycle act at the end of the show.  However, I wanted to laugh because it reminded me of the children's book, Bears on Wheels.

The Chinese instruments and their performance was almost as interesting as the acrobats.  I wish we would have had time to ask them questions after the performance.

A great show!  I will just have to blog about our 4H Share the Fun next week!