Get outdoors and experience the beauty of autumn with these fun activities.
There is something both magnificent and fragile in the beauty of fall. With the crimson, yellows and orange hues of maples, oaks, ash and sumac, we marvel at the incredible palette of colours brought on by shortening daylight hours and cooler temperatures. At the same time, we recognize that the golden blush of fall will give way to the browns and greys of November and eventually to the stark white of winter. Perhaps it is the ephemeral nature of fall’s loveliness that makes it so special and memorable.
It may be tempting to huddle in front of the heater, but grab a sweater, a hat, muster up some enthusiasm and get the kids outside. There are adventures to be had!
1. Make an Acorn Whistle
We know that oaks produce acorns each year. What is less known is that every 5 or 6 years Red and White Oaks produce a massive amount of acorns – as many as 10 times the number of nuts in a typical year. This is called a “mast” year. Scientists believe that this abundance of nuts helps to ensure that at least some of the acorns will grow into trees.
To make an acorn whistle, visit your local park or nearby forest and look around. Find an oak tree (the leaves are deeply lobbed). Hunt for an acorn and remove the cap. Take the cap and place your thumbs over the hollow in a v shape (see photo). Blow over your knuckles. You should hear a whistling sound. If you don’t, shift your thumbs around until you hear a sharp, clear whistle. Watch out for incoming dogs!
2. Play the Squirrel Game
This is a great family or party game that will get everyone outdoors acting like Red Squirrels.
These energetic creatures hang out around evergreens, such as pine, spruce and hemlock. They love cones and can often be seen shucking one by pulling off the scales and flicking the pine nut straight into their mouth. A Red Squirrel can shuck an entire cone in under a minute! You’ll often come across piles of chewed cones (known as middens) near a stump or log.
Red Squirrels are very territorial. Listen for their shrill chatter as they scamper from branch to branch. They have been known to drop a cone on your head if you get too close!
Red Squirrels need to hide enough food to last the winter. They cache their food (cones, nuts and seeds) in piles near the base of trees. This game challenges players to find hidden food the same way the Red Squirrel does – with their sense of smell.
You’ll need some uncooked macaroni and mint extract. Have a parent or older child hide little piles of macaroni near the base of trees along a marked trail. Make sure no one is watching. Cover the macaroni with some leaf litter or rocks (like real squirrels do) and add a drop of mint extract.
Let the players loose, and see how many piles of food they can find in a set amount of time. They’ll have to hunker down and sniff!
3. Tell the Temperature with a ‘Thermometer Cricket’
While it’s still warm, head out at dusk to the edge of a woodland or to a park with trees, and listen for the sound of a Snowy Tree Cricket – a gentle, low-pitched chirrup. (Check out their song at www.oecanthinae.com/4099.html). Be sure to pack a watch with a second hand or a stop watch.
Now, count the number of chirrups over 8 seconds. Add 5 to the number of chirrups and you’ll get a fairly accurate reading of the temperature in degrees Celsius. For example, if a Snow Tree Cricket sang 10 times in 8 seconds, the temperature would be 15 C (10 + 5 = 15 Celsius).
While you’re in the woods, see if you can spot the cricket or any interesting wildlife or flowers. Keep track with your Signs of Fall chart (see sidebar).
4. Make Autumn Colours
The spectacular display of colours in fall is one of nature’s greatest triumphs. But how does it happen? Inside every leaf is a green pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll uses energy from the sun to manufacture a sugar called glucose which provides food for the tree. At the same time, leaves absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. This is called photosynthesis.
As the temperature drops in the autumn, the chlorophyll begins to break down revealing other pigments that were masked by the green. We begin to see colours like yellow, red and orange.
For this experiment, you’ll need a variety of green leaves, a coffee filter, a coin, scissors, a pencil, rubbing alcohol, aluminum foil and paper.
Step 1: Take the coffee filter and cut one strip about 2 cm wide. Cut a point at one end of the strip.
Step 2: Tear up the green leaves into small pieces and place them in a jar. The smaller you can make the pieces, the better. Carefully pour in just enough rubbing alcohol to cover the leaves. Let stand for 24 hours. Cover the top with aluminum foil to avoid evaporation.
Step 3: Tape your coffee filter strip to a pencil and hang it so that the very tip of the strip touches the alcohol. Leave it for about an hour or so. Various pigments in the leaf should move up the filter. What colours do you notice? Those colours were in the green leaf all along. What you have created is called a chromatograph. Leave it overnight to dry. Use your chromatograph as an autumn bookmark.
5. Create a Signs of Fall Chart
On a large sheet of bristol board, make a “Signs of Fall” nature chart based on the list below. Feel free to add other events such as first frost, first snowfall, last cricket song, etc. Include a column for the date it was observed. Leave room on the chart to glue on photographs and maybe actual specimens such as colourful leaves and seeds.
Signs of Fall
October and November are full of signs that nature is preparing for its winter slumber. Try to witness as many of these events as you can and add them to your chart.
- The southward migration of many birds continues. Hardier species such as sparrows and juncos are now making their journey. Keep your bird feeders well stocked. Early October can be the busiest time of year for our avian visitors. Be sure to scatter some seeds on the ground, too.
- Check out the flocks of migrating ducks (e.g., goldeneye, scaup and mergansers) on local lakes and rivers. You can get a great view at the Lakefield Sewage Lagoons on County Road 33.
- Watch for White-tailed Deer feeding along the edges of cornfields and woodlots at dawn and dusk.
- Coyotes are very vocal throughout the fall months, especially at dawn and dusk.
- Salamander hunting is at its best. Look under flat rocks, logs and old boards. Gently return the rock, log or board to its original position.
- See if you can spot small red (male) or yellow (female or immature) meadowhawk dragonflies.
- The whites, purples and mauves of the different species of asters dominate fields and roadsides in October.
- Autumn is the time of falling leaves. Gather up leaves from different trees, such as red maple, sugar maple, silver maple, white birch, and red oak. What colours did you find? The spicy fragrance of fallen leaves is October’s signature smell. Enjoy!
- Flowers continue to go to seed and to use ingenious strategies for seed dispersal. Watch for sticky “hitch-hikers” (e.g., burdock), parachuters (e.g., milkweed), spinners (e.g., maple) and brightly coloured “eat me up and poop me outs” (e.g., cherry).
- In our forests, evergreen species such as mosses, club-mosses and some ferns and wildflowers stand out prominently against the brown leaf litter and deserve close observation.
- Pegasus (with the Great Square) is a time-honoured constellation of fall. It looms high in the southeast sky.
This article originally appeared in our October/November 2014 issue titled “Fall Into Nature,” page 16.