Posted in family life, sqt

{sqt} – seven reasons to visit the sonoran desert museum

A few weeks ago my parents and I took the kids down to Tucson to visit the Sonoran Desert Museum. Despite its name, it is not very much like a traditional museum (although it does have an art gallery) – it is part botanical garden, part naturalistic zoo, and part museum. And all of it is exceptional. We were there for over six hours, impressive enough with three littles even before factoring in the 2 hour drive to get there, and we still didn’t get to see or do everything. But here’s a taste of what we did experience!

  1. So many native plants! – The museum irrigates their grounds, so that while the desert there isn’t representative of any exact part of the Sonoran Desert, all the plants that are native to the region can thrive in a smaller, more accessible space. I could have spent the whole day just looking at the plants and reading all the information about them.
This cactus was one of my favorites – I loved the shades of color running through its prickles. Those broad spikes earned it the name Cat’s Paw, or, more evocatively, Devil’s Tongue.
  1. The Hummingbird Aviary – While we didn’t visit at the optimal time of year for birds, bees, and butterflies, there were still a lot of hummingbirds zipping around the aviary. All the kids loved looking up into the branches to see if they could spot a bird, and Aubade got especially excited when one flew just over her head and landed near her. The aviary has a large informational sign as well for help in identifying the different species of hummingbird, which I appreciated!
  1. The Desert Bird Aviary – Yes, there are two aviaries at the museum! In this aviary, there is a wide range of different birds – we saw doves, ducks, cardinals, orioles, and quail, and my mom commented that she’d seen even more types on a previous visit at a different time of year. There were places to sit and be still and watch the birds, with water features trickling through the center of the aviary, creating an overall very calm and peaceful atmosphere. We had to be sneaky and peek under bushes to find most of the birds though 🙂
  1. The Animal Shows – Every day, the museum hosts at least one live animal show where a docent will bring in a variety of native Sonoran species and talk about them with an audience. Unfortunately, I had to miss most of the show on the day we went because it was lunch time and Aubade was having a hard time – but Rondel and my dad absolutely loved it. The docent asked for questions and actually meant it, engaged with the audience, and explained things well. Rondel even asked several questions himself, loud and clear! And at the end, a few of the animals stayed up at the front for people to look at more closely and even pet. This was Rondel’s favorite part of the entire day, and I wish I hadn’t missed out on so much of it.
  2. The Animal Exhibits – The exhibits here recreate the natural desert environment, and can often be viewed from multiple levels. All the riparian animals have underwater viewing areas, for example, and cliff-dwelling animals like the ocelot can be seen from two different vantage points. We saw a beaver curled up in his den, and a playful river otter swam around by the window for a long time with Aubade and Limerick. He would swim right up to the glass and around in circles and back again; Aubade kept jumping back giggling saying that he almost touched her and Limerick kept trying to explain to her that the otter couldn’t actually touch her because there was a glass wall in the way 😛
  1. The Raptors – My mom and the kids also saw an ocelot, a fox, and a mountain lion, but I have no pictures of these because I was too distracted by the Harris hawk family winging over the desert. It was such a beautiful and wild thing to see, the hawks on the wing, or perched on top of the saguaros like sentries overlooking the land, glorious and fierce.
  1. The Packrat Playhouse – If you have little kids, this is a great place to stop in and play! The museum limits the number of people allowed in at a time, and restricts the time spent to a half hour, so you’ll probably need to reserve your time in advance and come back later. But after several hours of walking in the sun looking at plants and animals, a little time out of the sun climbing and sliding and tunneling was perfect for the kids.
Rondel and Aubade in the mouth of a large rattlesnake statue, pretending to be eaten
A couple of packrats didn’t get back to their burrow quickly enough and ended up as rattlesnake food!

Honestly, I could keep going. The views are spectacular. The offshoots from the trail with nests for solitary bees or gardens for butterflies are fascinating and beautiful. The day we were there, the museum had a rocks and minerals event going on and we got to learn about a lot of the different rocks that are part of the Sonoran desert – and even take samples home! The reptile and amphibian houses captured Rondel and Limerick’s attention for ages, with so many unique types of snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, and more, and a wonderful display describing the life cycle of an amphibian.

In short, if you are anywhere near Tucson and in any way interested in the Sonoran Desert (or birds, or animals, or plants in general), I highly recommend the Sonoran Desert Museum. It can be a bit pricey, but there is a lot to see and do and it is very much worth the cost – just plan on spending the whole day there!

Again, here is the link for the museum’s website: https://www.desertmuseum.org. Check it out!

I’m also linking up with Kelly for quick takes again this week – head over and read the rest of the linkup!

Posted in family life, wwlw

what we’re learning wednesday, episode 11: field trip to lowell observatory

Through a fortuitous combination of a Groupon deal for tickets to Lowell Observatory and my mom’s travel bug, we were able to travel up to Flagstaff for a weekend and take Rondel and Limerick to the observatory one evening while we were there, without worrying about a late night drive home or an overtired Aubade.

I had been to Lowell before, but not since before college, so I didn’t remember much, and it was of course all new to the boys. Paul and I split up near the beginning, and I went with Limerick who absolutely loved every inch of it. He sat through an entire 45 minute talk about the solar system, explored the old telescope through which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and got to see both Jupiter and Saturn through the massive telescopes set up for public use. (He was so cute looking through them – he had to climb all the way up the ladder to look through the view piece, and he kept pausing to tell me about everything he could see: storm bands on Jupiter, the four Galilean moons, Saturn’s rings, and some of Saturn’s moons as well, until the observatory volunteer told him that it was time to let someone else have a turn 🙂 ). Lowell also has a large globe that can display in three dimensions images of various planets and moons, and Limerick enjoyed experimenting with that as well.

I think both boys’ favorite part, however, was the Solar System walk stretching through the heart of the observatory grounds. The walk starts with the Sun and has a sign for each planet along with two bronze markers in the sidewalk denoting the aphelion and perihelion of each planet’s orbit. The distance between the markers is all to scale, of course, and reveals just how close together the rocky inner planets are compared to the outer gas giants. We’d done a smaller scale model in our house, but when you have to keep walking and walking to find Neptune, because the scale is larger, it has more of an impact. We did the walk through twice, marveling at how elliptical some orbits were compared to others (Mercury, for example, has a distance of almost 24 million kilometers between its aphelion and perihelion, while the near and far points of Venus’s orbit are only 1.5 million kilometers different), and probably would have done it again if it hadn’t gotten too dark.

While Flagstaff at the end of October is cold in the evenings, it was definitely worth it to be above the city in the dark, clear air; the boys had never seen the sky so full of stars, and I was able to show them the cloudy glow of the Milky Way arching across the night sky as well. It made me think of how humanity must have seen the heavens throughout history: a tapestry of light spread wide above them, telling the stories of their people, singing the praises of God. For both science – the desire to learn, to know, to explain – and story – the desire to remember, to understand, to give meaning – are fundamentally human and find a home in the stars above.

Posted in family life, information

flamingo chicks!

With both boys in Zoo Camp for the week, Aubade and I spent the morning visiting the zoo at her pace. Despite the heat, we had a really nice time together – and ran into an unexpected adventure along the way!

Apparently, at the beginning of the summer, the Phoenix Zoo received 11 greater flamingo eggs from the San Diego Zoo to supplement their flock – and decided to try to train them to go on walks and mingle with people, since they were going to have to hand rear them anyway. So, as we snacked by the Children’s Trail, a zookeeper came up to us and told us that flamingo chicks would be coming out for a walk in just a few minutes up by the vulture exhibit. Needless to say, we cut our snack short and made our way over.

IMG_5896

The chicks are about 7 weeks old and just starting to grow their contoured wing feathers; everywhere else they are still fuzzy with down, and they haven’t begun eating the diet that will provide them with their characteristic pigmentation. They are also still a bit wobbly when they walk, and it was so adorable when they would have to hop on two feet and flap their wings to keep their balance. Having been raised as a group instead of as single chicks (greater flamingos only lay one egg at a time, and the chicks do not socialize with the rest of the flock until closer to maturity), they have become inseparable. They also still retain some of the snuggliness of babyhood, and a few climbed up into the zookeepers’ laps to cuddle after their walk.

IMG_5911While they asked us to stay about 6 feet behind the flamingos during the walk itself (or stay motionless off to the side), as the flamingos can be distracted easily, we got to be very close to them during the huddle at the end. Aubade even got to spray some water on their feet to help them cool down!

IMG_5917

If you’re local and want to see the flamingos yourself, they are currently walking around the Children’s Trail every day at 7:30, and most days at 9:30 (depending on how hot it is). Their walk starts near the vulture and owl exhibits, although I’m sure the exact tour varies from day to day. It’s definitely not something that happens all the time, and worth braving the heat for in my opinion. Just walk out for the poop while you’re following them around!

Posted in sqt

schnepf farm peaches

I remember, as a child, picking strawberries and sweet corn and blueberries and apples and Concord grapes, each in their own season, and bringing home the harvest to delight in and preserve. The seasons and the fruits of the land are different here in the desert than they were in the Northeast where I was young, but they are still here.

For example, it is May, and the peaches are ripe! Some types of peaches need more frost hours than we get here, but quite a few are adapted for the climate, and Schnepf Farm (about 40 minutes from our house) happens to have a peach orchard. The grove we picked in was the oldest at around 20 years old – these were established trees with a lot of fruit.

This was the kids’ first time in an orchard, and they responded in characteristic ways. Limerick absorbed everything I told him about how to tell when a peach was ripe and ready to pick, compiled it in his head into a rule, and proceeded to analyze every peach in his reach according to said rule (he does the same thing with the blackberries at home – and he really does end up only selecting the best).

191174

Rondel smelled the peaches before we even entered the orchard, tried to find the most heavily laden trees, and then got distracted looking for bugs.

191187

Aubade wandered around after the boys, commenting on everything she saw (especially the fallen/half-eaten/smashed peaches on the ground), getting excited about the bugs and about being lifted up to reach the higher peaches, and helping me take the picked peaches back to our box.

191186

We didn’t get too many – we don’t eat much jam, and we don’t use frozen peaches much compared to other fruits – but we have plenty to eat and enjoy, and it was good to be there: to see and touch the plants and the soil that birth some of the food we eat; to smell the fruit of the land; to hear the wind whisper in the leaves; and to taste the sweet juice running over in every bite as it only does in a freshly-picked peach, as the Psalmist writes of the blessings of God, “You crown the year with Your goodness, and Your paths drip with abundance.” (Ps. 65:11)

I didn’t follow all the {sqt} rules this week, but I’m still linking up… 🙂 Go read the rest of the linkup at This Ain’t the Lyceum today!

Posted in hikes

gilbert riparian preserve

With all the sicknesses going around the family, we haven’t made it out for a hike in a few weeks, but we were able to visit the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert for a new experience and a bit of a respite from the city.

IMG_0525

IMG_0551

The preserve is only about 15 minutes from our house, but it feels like we’re in a completely different environment once we’re there. There are several large basins, with trails weaving between and around them, and a myriad of native plant life. There were butterflies everywhere, and rabbits scurrying around under the mesquite trees with their little white tails bobbing. Ducks, turtles, and fish live in the water, and we even saw a large goose strutting down the path! Unfortunately, because the basins are filled with reclaimed water, they aren’t safe for swimming or wading in, which was disappointing for the kids, but they still appreciated the beauty of it.

On the parking lot edge of the preserve are some activity areas, including a dinosaur dig sandpit, a collection of Arizona animal footprints, and a lot of walls for climbing on. We honestly ended up staying around the climbing walls for the majority of our time at the preserve, and the kids seemed to really enjoy them.

Another nice aspect of the preserve is that it is directly adjacent to the Gilbert Public Library; a little boardwalk bridge connected our play area to the library lot, and the walk wasn’t far at all.

IMG_0550

We went over around 11, when the heat became a bit too much for us, to cool off, refill our water bottles, and spend some time reading. This particular library has a huge children’s section, with the picture books arranged by topic on sparsely filled shelves, enabling children to easily browse on their own for books that look appealing. I can imagine it would be difficult to locate a specific book of interest, but it is ideal for finding new books to try out, which is what we did.

I will note that our morning at the preserve and library so exhausted Aubade that she napped for a solid 3 hours that afternoon, and the boys flopped onto the couches and watched a movie. Everyone was worn out, mostly from the heat but also from the climbing.

We will definitely be going back, and hopefully we will get to explore the trails around the basins more thoroughly in the future! As the weather gets cooler I expect it to be an even nicer experience, but even in the heat I highly recommend it since the library is there to provide some relief afterwards.

For more information about the Riparian Preserve, including its location, visit the City of Gilbert site here!

Posted in family life

an oasis in the desert

I took my children to the lake last Thursday.

Yes, even here in the desert we have lakes! They are mostly manmade and act as water reservoirs… but they also serve as beautiful oases, especially when temperatures start rising.

IMG_9519

My sister-in-law joined us for a couple hours with her four kids, which was especially good when Limerick got in too deep and started panicking and needed me – that extra pair of adult eyes and hands makes a big difference sometimes. It was also fun for us just to spend time with them! But we stayed after they needed to leave and it was equally wonderful in different ways.

IMG_9554

I mentioned our day trip to someone and they instantly reacted with the words, “what a chore!”

I still haven’t been able to figure it out.

It isn’t a chore to spend time outside, in the natural unbuilt environment, enjoying the beauty of creation. In fact, it’s something I’m constantly striving to do more often! I want my children to love and respect the natural world, to feel connected to it and desire to protect and preserve it; they won’t if they are never exposed to it. And we were so lucky on this particular day to be visited by a herd of wild horses. I mean, how often do you get to see large wild animals like that? We were all in awe – even Aubade kept pointing and exclaiming in wonder as they moved through the water.

It isn’t a chore to take my children out on an excursion – at least not this type of outing. Rondel and I both struggle in crowded indoor environments, or in highly structured populated activities, because of the constant sensory bombardment and social expectations. Limerick and Aubade are both still noisy constantly-moving little people (as they should be!). So when we’re outside, away from the artificial stimuli and the obscure social norms of the city, free to make the sounds we want to make and move our bodies in comfortable ways without bothering anyone, it is incredibly relaxing and refreshing.

It isn’t a chore to be with my children, to let go of my own pursuits and just focus on them for an afternoon, enjoying the small details of life with them. They remind me how exciting a lake bed scattered with shells can be; they delight my heart with their surprised laughter at things that are now old and familiar to me. After you’ve been to the beach a few times, you anticipate the way the waves knock into you; when you’re only 1 or 3 or 4, each new wave comes as a surprise and a gift.

IMG_9614

And it certainly wasn’t a chore to watch Rondel and Limerick playing together for hours, intent on their exploration of this new world, sharing it with each other as best friends do. On the contrary, it was a gift for me as a parent to see my children growing and deepening in their relationship with each other in such a natural and unforced way.

I know these days are fleeting. For only these few years will I have such a strong influence on their lives, and such a deep connection; I don’t want them to stay little forever, but I do want to live these years with intentionality. Of course it takes a bit of planning and organization to take three small children to the lake for the afternoon. But the riches all of us reap as a result far more than outweigh that work of preparation. For us, places like this are more than just real and physical oases in the desert: they are also oases of renewal for our souls.

Posted in family life

going to the zoo!

The boys – especially Rondel – have been deeply interested in dinosaurs for quite a long time now, and are beginning to branch out into animals of all types. It really began with the Planet Earth documentaries that I would put on for them during Aubade’s nap times, and has continued with a short series called Africa’s Deadliest that is just as overly dramatic as the name suggests but which contains some great footage of wild animals as well as a lot of scientific facts. When we found and caught a lizard (well, rescued it from a bowl it had fallen into, to be more accurate) not too long ago, he was entranced: he understood intuitively how to hold it gently and carefully, and let it climb all over him with no fear, and ended up playing with it for 45 minutes before releasing it so it could return to its natural habitat.

So I was not surprised when he asked to go to the zoo this week, nor when he actually showed in interest in seeing the animals instead of just the dinosaur exhibit and the splash pad! And it was a good day to go!

We did of course have to visit the dinosaurs:

Obviously we couldn’t observe any live, wild, natural animal life here – but we had some discussions about the different types of nests made by different dinosaurs (we compared the twig nest of the Citipati – a feathered broody dinosaur – to that of the Diabloceratops, which was too large to brood its eggs and most likely made a mud nest like a crocodile), as well as about how the different types of dinosaurs might react if they saw us!

From the dinosaur trail the bighorn sheep exhibit is also visible, and Aubade got very excited when I pointed them out and told the kids what they were. She leaned forward in the stroller as far as she could, waving and yelling, “Hi!” – and then she turned to me, smiled, and matter-of-factly said, “Baa!” It was neat seeing her make the connection between the distant animal on the mountainside and the fuzzy white blob in her Moo, Baa, La La La board book by Sandra Boynton.

When we left the dinosaur trail, it seemed like a lot of the animals were active and awake – we got to see baboon, mandrills, oryx, cheetah (unfortunately they were difficult to see, but we did manage to spot them), otters, flamingos, zebras, and more! The flamingos were standing right by the fence, so we stood on one leg like they did, and noticed how they could turn their heads all the way around backwards to use their back like a pillow, and wondered why their large beaks only ever opened a very small amount.

Per Rondel’s request, after a cool-down break at the splash pad we visited the Tropical Birds trail, which includes a small aviary. Apparently, it is mating season at the zoo – so all the birds were awake and showing off their finery! The male peacock had his full tail fan extended, and kept shaking it at the peahen, making a surprisingly loud rattling noise when he did so. In the aviary, the male argus pheasant was strutting around on the path, making a call that the zoo keeper told us he only made during this season, instead of hiding in the back corners as he tends to do the rest of the year.

IMG_8684

Rondel was absolutely captivated. He approached the bird slowly and quietly, and held his hands tightly back so he wouldn’t accidentally touch it (he would jump out of the way if the bird turned around so that he wouldn’t end up touching his long tail feather!), and just squatted down gazing at him for a long time, as other groups of people came and went.

IMG_8689

Limerick was a little less certain, but he eventually went over as well. I was super proud of both of them – they are often very impulsive and active kids, and they had no trouble at all adjusting their behavior to what was needed by the animals. We talked a bit here about how a lot of viruses can jump between birds and people, so if we touched the birds we could get them sick or they could get us sick… my molecular biology background always ends up showing itself somehow 🙂

We finished up with the tiger and the Komodo dragon. I had never actually seen the Komodo dragon exhibit at our zoo, but Rondel instantly remembered them from the new Planet Earth series and was incredibly excited about them. They weren’t moving much – just soaking in the sun – but they are impressive creatures. We noticed how it was basking in the sun to soak up the energy it needs as a cold-blooded animal, and counted its claws (five on each foot, just like us, in case you wondered).

And of course we played on the Komodo dragon statue for a while!

IMG_8693
This is what I get when I tell the kids to smile at me… I guess Rondel is somewhat close?

IMG_8697
Playing together – I think they are subduing the Komodo dragon so it can’t fight them.

The most wonderful thing about homeschooling is the ability we have to follow our interests – obviously in going to the zoo for a whole morning instead of adhering to a lesson plan or a class schedule, but also in deciding when to linger at an exhibit and when to move on, when to talk about the details of how an animal lives and when to stick to the basic overview, when to focus on the live animal exhibits and when to simply just have fun. The experience we had today was so real and so rich that I wouldn’t trade it for any classroom I’ve ever known.