Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Safety Tips for Prey Animals

SOS Naturalist, Tom, with the Western screech owl
The Western screech owl
Above are some photos of a Western screech owl, a member of the Sierra Outdoor School raptor center.  What is the first word that comes to mind when you see her?  There is a good chance you thought "cute."  Her diminutive stature(not much taller than a soda can) and big eyes make us humans view her in the same way we would view a puppy dog—adorable, harmless and the like.  In doing so it is easy to overlook the fact that the Western screech owl is a raptor, a bird that hunts and kills other animals for its food. 

For the duration of this article, we'd like you to pretend that you are a prey animal of this owl. Take your pick of what you'd like to be.  These owls will take the usual small mammals (mice, rats, etc.) and birds, but are also known for eating reptiles (snakes and lizards) and even insects, sometimes catching them while in flight.  Not even the aquatic animals are safe—these owls have been known to capture and kill trout and crayfish.  If you'd rather be dead than be eaten by a screech owl, know that they've been seen scavenging roadkill.

You are now pretending to be a prey animal of this owl. How would you avoid getting eaten?  Consider that this animal is nocturnal and has a relatively large set of powerful eyes, well suited for hunting at night.  Hiding in the darkest of shadows will not help you.  Do you think that slithering or crawling under the cover of leaves, snow or shrubs will keep you alive?  Consider yourself lunch…owls can use their ears to triangulate the location of their prey without ever seeing it. 

Source: Flickr, Dominic Sherony
Perhaps you are thinking that you could hear or see the owl coming and maybe even fight it when it arrives.  Looking at the owl’s image, you probably noticed that it camouflages well in a forest setting. What you can’t see in the photo are tiny serrations on the owl’s flight feathers that makes the owl's flight nearly silent.  As for fighting back, consider that the owl has incredibly strong talons relative to its body size, allowing it to crush the life from its prey. The rear talon, called the hallux, penetrates the prey’s body, injuring vital organs and potentially severing the spinal cord.   

By now you’re probably thinking that, given no other option, you’re best off leaving the Western screech owl’s territory in search of a safer life somewhere else.  Consider that there are an estimated 400,000 of them in North America ranging from Alaska on down through Mexico.  Hiding in the desert is not an option because they are there, too.  You could try travelling east but you will ultimately meet this owl’s cousin, the Eastern screech owl. 

Since neither running nor hiding is an option, perhaps some knowledge and a little luck will keep you safe.  Keep your ears open for the following sound:

The owl’s name is a misnomer and better suited for its close relative the Eastern screech owl.

If you want to stay alive, be careful around their nesting sites—abandoned woodpecker holes and natural cavities in trees and cacti.  They favor nesting sites near canyons and drainages and will nest up to 6,000 feet above sea level.

An owl in its nest.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps a mating pair of these birds have moved into your neighborhood and recently had offspring. Think the adults will be too busy to eat you?  Think again.  The female bird will be busy with the hatchlings, but the male will still be out hunting and bringing food back to the nest.  Also consider that those little hatchlings will be leaving the nest in a month or less and be out mating within the year.  If you think you can wait out their stay until they die consider that the oldest Western screech owl ever recorded was 13 years old.  As a side note, consider that the single owls are equally as dangerous—the males are known for flaunting their dead prey animals around the mouth of their nest to attract females. 

If by now you are thinking that being 100% safe from a Western screech owl is impossible—you are correct.   If you do get eaten, know that you have become part of the metabolic process of a truly cool animal.  Just consider it’s genus—Megascops—a name that would be equally suitable for a fire-breathing robot.  And the species name? kennicotti, named after the American naturalist Robert Kennicott. 

American naturalist Robert Kennicott.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
If nothing else, we hope that you have a new appreciation for:
1)How great it is to not be a prey animal of a Western screech owl.
2)That while Western screech owls may be cute, they are far from being harmless.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Senescense: Why leaves change color

Here at Sierra Outdoor School we have few large trees that provide the bulk of our autumn color: black oak, big leaf maple, and Pacific dogwood. All of these trees are deciduous - meaning that each year they shed all of their leaves, remain leafless for a period of time, and then grow all new leaves. The process where the leaves prepare to fall from the tree, or the cells gradually deteriorate as they age, can be referred to as senescense. During this process of senescense, the pigment levels in the leaves change producing the much awaited fall colors.

Pacific dogwood leaves changing along the ditch trail at S.O.S.
The change in day length and temperature signals deciduous trees to begin the process of senescense by first sending any nutrients available in the leaf to other parts of the tree. The next step is to breakdown chlorophyll, the pigment that gives leaves their green color and allows for photosynthesis to occur. As the dominant green pigment slowly disappears, other colors are revealed: yellow, orange, red, and purple. After the chlorophyll is gone, the other pigments will breakdown. At the same time, the cells of the leaf stem are changing so that the leaf will eventually fall off the tree and leave a sealed, leaf scar behind.

Unusually colorful black oak leaves at S.O.S.
In addition to light and temperature, water availability also helps to determine the intensity and duration of the fall colors. If you live in an area with maple, dogwood, and sumac trees they are known for their bright red and orange leaves. These colors are at their peak when temperatures are low, yet above freezing, and also after an early frost. While less intense colors are created from rainy and overcast weather. These photos were all taken along the ditch trail here at S.O.S. Wherever you are, we hope you take the time to enjoy these beautiful changes around you!

Big leaf maple leaves in various shades of yellow

If you'd like to learn more about autumn colors, check out these reference pages:

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Where are they now...2015-2016 SOS Naturalist Interns?

Every year SOS says hello and goodbye to some great Naturalist Interns. This post is dedicated to the amazing people from the 2015-2016 school year. Let's see where they are now!

Andrew Martin (Summit)

Andrew is enjoying teaching children in the outdoors at Sierra Outdoor School as a Naturalist. He loves living and working in the mountains and SOS is the perfect place for him. He is excited about his new roommate, Juno, his puppy, and about learning and working with the SOS raptors.  

Beth Thompson (Owl)

Beth is working at Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio, as the Program Coordinator Administrative Intern. She is communicating with the schools prior to their arrival to gather information for their visit to the OEC. She also develops the schedule rotations for the naturalists. As one of three administrative interns, she mentors a third of the naturalists and provides input and advice on their lesson plans and teaching techniques. While her position does not require that she works with any of the birds from the Raptor Center, she is putting in the time to handle an Eastern Screech Owl right now!

Emma Ervolina (Glacier)

Emma is working as a Naturalist at Greenkill Outdoor Education Center. Greenkill is a branch of the New York City's YMCA. She teaches anyone from elementary to college folks about the diverse flora and fauna on their 1,150 acre forest.

Karl Koehler (Jellyfish)

Karl is working at Catalina Environmental Leadership Program on Catalina Island. He gets to go sea kayaking and snorkeling all the time with kids and loves every minute of it.

Laurel Marks (Peregrine)

Laurel is working as a Naturalist in the beautiful coastal redwoods at Mendocino Outdoor Science School. She lives in a yurt among the giant trees and takes kids hiking in an old growth redwood forest that's 1,400 years old, to explore the tide pools, and on a fun challenge course. In November she is off to Australia, New Zealand, and Bali to teach Outdoor Education

Lizzie Hoerauf (Salamander)

After leaving SOS, Lizzie had a wonderful road trip back to Virginia. The highlight of it was hiking the Grand Canyon from the rim to the river and back in one day - 18 miles and totally worth it. She spent the summer working for Friends of the National Zoo at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute as an educator at their residential Nature Camps. She had a blast hiking along parts of the Appalachian Trail with the campers while learning about the Smithsonian's breeding efforts for highly endangered species. After a great summer, she made her way out to Minnesota to begin her Naturalist Fellowship at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center.

Madeleine Burke (Trillium)

Madeleine is working in the beautiful Yosemite National Park as a Field Instructor for Nature Bridge - Yosemite. She is having a great time exploring the park and surrounding areas while taking kids on all sorts of adventures. 

Stephen Ligtenberg (Monkey)

Stephen is in the middle of a three month European tour. He started in the Netherlands and since then has traveled through Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and is currently exploring Estonia. His photo is from Nimis, Ladonia. Ladonia, an independent micro-nation on the west coast of Sweden, known for its life sized drip castles and driftwood structures. In the next couple of months he will travel through Germany and Poland and then various countries in southeastern Europe. He is currently participating in the Adidas Sickline Whitewater Kayaking World championship in Austria.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Meet Our New Naturalist Interns!

We have eight new naturalist interns at Sierra Outdoor School for the 2016-2017 school year! They are all super excited to join the team. Here's some interesting information about them!

Robin VanHouten
Nature Name: Sun Dog
Hometown: Granite, Maryland
Fun Fact: Robin's dream job as a kid was to be an astronaut... and he still hasn't given up on that dream.
Best Nature Experience: He has seen a moose, bears, a grey wolf, and a mountain lion (only 30 yards away!).
If you could only eat one food item for the rest of your life what would it be? Bruschetta- roasted garlic, aioli, pesto, tomatoes, and good bread!

Amanda Colley
Nature Name: Salamanda
Hometown: Wingdale, New York
Fun Fact: Amanda was a part of a reforestation project in Ecuador and helped plant 1500 trees.
Best Nature Experience: While she was teaching and searching for amphibians, she witnessed hundreds of young toads emerging from the water for the first time!
Preferred superpower? Teleportation!
Brenna O'Halloran
Nature Name: Turkey Tail
Hometown: Eagan, Minnesota
Fun Fact: When living in Wisconsin, Brenna learned how to sail and wind surf on lakes.
Best Nature Experience: While she was snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands, she saw amazing organisms like an octopus and she swam with sea lions and sea turtles.
If your life was made into a movie, which actress would you want to play you? Emma Stone.

Cassie Petrilla
Nature Name: Cricket
Hometown: Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Fun Fact: Cassie has traveled to every state except Alaska and Hawaii.
Best Nature Experience: While she was in Wyoming guiding hunters on horseback, she saw a grizzly bear catching fish in a river! 
If you could only eat one food item for the rest of your life what would it be? Peanut Butter.

Connor Reinecke
Nature Name: Lizard
Hometown: Bellingham, Washington
Fun Fact: Connor likes to build his own furniture.
Best Nature Experience: While camping in the North Cascades he came across several streams with trout. Since the water was shallow, he was able to run around and catch them by hand. He never felt more like an animal.
If you were a smell, what would you be? Fresh cut grass.

Elise Adams
Nature Name: Coyote
Hometown: Davis, California
Fun Fact: The weirdest thing she has ever eaten is beetle larvae.
Best Nature Experience: Elise got caught in a thunderstorm while backpacking in the Uinta Mountains and she found refuge in a cave.
Preferred superpower: Flying.

Kelsey Roberts
Nature Name: Goose
Hometown: Jackson, Wyoming
Fun Fact: Kelsey had two pet chinchillas growing up, their names were Chip and Dale.
Best Nature Experience: She used to guide sea kayaking trips in the Puget Sound and would often look in the water to find hundreds of sea jellies under her kayak!
If you could be a mythical animal, what would you be? Sasquatch.

Lauren Black
Nature Name: Blackberry
Hometown: Norman, Oklahoma
Fun Fact: Lauren once swam with wild dolphins in the Indian Ocean. 
Best Nature Experience: While in Colorado she climbed to the top of Mt. Audubon, which is 13,300 feet in elevation, with 18 other people.
If you could have one superpower what would it be? To be fluent in every language in the world.

Click to find out more about our Naturalist Interns   and our Naturalist Internship Program!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Start a School Environmental Club in 8 Easy Steps!

Hello students!

Have you recently come to Sierra Outdoor School and want to continue the fun?
Did you write an earth pledge in our Raptors and Conservation class and want to follow your dreams of helping the planet?
Are you coming to Sierra Outdoor School in the future and are wondering how you can prepare for an awesome experience?

Then creating an environmental club at your school may be the perfect idea for you!

Making a club at your school can sound like a lot of work, but with our easy 8 step guide you'll have it up and running in no time!

Step 1) Gather your friends!

Get a group of friends together and talk about your goals and dreams for an environmental club.  Are there things you learned about protecting the planet, saving the animals, and reducing your earth footprint at Sierra Outdoor School that you want to continue doing at school? 
Did you get inspired by the story of Olivia's Birds (, who raised over $200,000 to help the birds in the gulf oil spill?
Or did The Wolves Are Back, a story about how returning one species to an ecosystem can help all the plants and animals that live there, make you want to help the wolves and all the animals in the world?
Well then an environmental club is a perfect place to get started!  
Make sure you have at least 8-10 people interested in starting a club, then all you need to do is get a teacher or parent advisor!

Step 2) Get a Teacher or Parent Advisor!

All clubs need an advisor or supervisor, but this person does not need to be a scientist or expert in ecology, they simply need to be enthusiastic about helping students and the planet!  Getting help and advice from school administrators and teachers can be helpful as well, they may even have some ideas as to what projects could be done to help your school be more sustainable!
3) Come Up With a Goal!

You don't need a lot of members to start your club, but you do need some good goals for your club!  Coming up with a clear mission statement is a great idea, as well as a plan for how to recruit more people to join the club.
Here are some ideas for a mission statement from a great resource on starting an environmental club:(source:

The mission of the environmental club is to: 
·  provide students with the opportunity to learn more about their surroundings and participate in service projects at school and in the community
·  promote environmental awareness and develop social and life skills
·   increase student awareness of environmental issues and give them the ability to make a change
·  provide opportunities for students to become directly involved in a variety of projects relating to the environment
·   promote awareness of environmental issues and the responsibility and opportunity each of us have to make a difference.
Your mission statement can  include many things, but make sure it's something that everyone can agree on and get excited about!

4) Have Your First Club Meeting!
This is a great way to gather support for your club, promote it to new members and come up with some ideas for projects you might want to do as a club.  Post flyers around the school, make announcements over the PA system, and maybe even bake some cookies to share with everyone that comes to check out the club.
Don’t give up if only 5-6 people come- remember that they will tell their friends and word will spread- and who knows, maybe someday you could even have 100 members of your environmental club!

5) Promote Your Club!
Hold events at your school! Get the word out at school spirit events, sports games, and other special events.  Ask a local store to donate ice cream and then give it away to everyone that takes a quiz to find out their ecological footprint!
Organize a lunchtime or after-school event to celebrate Earth Day on Friday April 22!

6) Find a Project To Do!

Here's a list of ideas to get you started!  Remember, it's always a good idea to talk to your principal and administrators first because they might have a project that they may want your help on to make your school more sustainable and green.

·         Have a “wear green” day to raise awareness!
·         Show an environmental film and hand out free popcorn!
·         Gather all your friends and create a green school mural!
·         Create a school-wide "green" newsletter with tips, advice and announcements so everyone can go green!
·         Go on an environmentally-focused field trip- some good destinations include community gardens, landfills, recycling centers, and local non-profits serving the community!
·         Perform skits/songs with a green message at assemblies!
·         Create environmental tips for your school website, newsletter, or bulletin board!
·         Start or promote a recycling or composting program at your school!
·         Start a school garden!
7) Fundraise!

Many local businesses are excited to help students accomplish their goals and would love to offer donations in the form of snacks for meetings, supplies or projects or money.
It’s always important to thank businesses that support your club, and a fun way to do this is to make t-shirts for all club members with a list of sponsors on the back.

8) Keep the momentum going!

Make sure that you write down meeting minutes, all the projects you accomplish, and a list of all the sponsors, teachers, parents and students involved because some day you will graduate and a new group of students will want to continue the great work you started!
You may even inspire other schools in your town to start environmental clubs of their own!
Remember that there are endless projects that you can accomplish to help your school go green, educate and inspire your friends and classmates, and help the planet!

As Olivia says in her book Olivia’s Birds:

“We are the future generation, and even though one person can make a difference, together we can change our planet.  Thank you to everyone who is working to help out environment.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What Is Your Play Personality?

Recent research has shed light on the importance of play. Play is not just important for children, but people of all ages.

Sierra Outdoor School provides opportunities for students to play on the high ropes course

What Is Play?

Play is any activity that is done for its own sake, apparently purposeless. It has inherent attraction and frees you from a sense of time and consciousness of self. Play can produce surprise, pleasure, and new knowledge. 

How Do We Play?

Just as people learn in different ways, people also have different styles of playing. Read the following descriptions to learn your play personality. You may find one play personality describes you perfectly, or you may be a combination of two or more personalities. 

The Joker-- This play personality is the classic class clown. They use social strategies to make other people laugh. 

The Kinesthete-- This player likes to move. They may play athletic games, but competition is not their main focus. They like to feel the result of play in their bodies. 

The Explorer-- The explorer may be a physical, social, or emotional explorer. They may enjoy research or discovery.

The Competitor-- Do you know someone who likes to stick to the rules? They may be a competitor. These players play to win whether the activity is social or solitary, active or observant.

The Director-- These born organizers enjoy planning and executing scenes and events. They love being in charge of the players or the stage.

The Collector-- Whether they collect objects or experiences, these players hold the best collections. They may enjoy solitude or social experiences with other collectors.

Artist/ Creator-- The artist or creator finds joy in making things. These things may be beautiful, functional, or  goofy.

Story Teller-- This player has an active imagination. They may enjoy creating and telling stories or engaging in the stories of others.

Students visiting SOS from Casa di Mir Montessori School doing the limbo at a Hillbilly Hop Dance

Play Is Beneficial To Emotional, Physical, and Intellectual Health

Research collected by Stuart Brown has shown that students who play regularly have an increased likelihood of achieving their academic and career goals and have healthier living practices including the social, physical, and interpersonal dimensions of their lives.
People who play throughout their lives stave off neurological problems later in life, they are better problem solvers, are more equipped to navigate and adapt to the world. Play provides emotional distance to decide how to react to a problem. It is the truest expression of our individuality.
When was the last time you played?

SOS Staff being goofy and dressing up for an ugly sweater competition 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter Precipitation: Rain, Sleet, Snow, and more!

The winter here at Sierra Outdoor School has been a wet one so far, as El NiƱo visits California this year. As several of our school groups have been here spending time learning outside in all sorts of weather conditions, we decided to share some information about how different types of precipitation are formed.

The most common types of winter precipitation are those that most people can name: rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow. What many people are unaware of is that all winter precipitation begins as ice or snow crystals up in the cold cloud layer. If these crystals get big enough that the air rising from below can no longer support them against gravity, they begin to fall as precipitation. What they are by the time they reach the ground depends upon the air temperatures they encounter on the way down.

The four main types of winter precipitation. Source:
Rain, for example, begins as those ice or snow crystals and falls into a layer of air that is above freezing--and therefore, warm enough to melt it. If that warmer air continues all the way down to the ground, and the water droplets are 0.5 millimeters or larger, then we experience rain. If the droplets are smaller than 0.5mm, then technically it is classified as a drizzle.

Freezing rain occurs when those falling rain droplets go through a shallow layer of cold air near the Earth's surface--shallow enough that they do not have time to freeze in the air, but instead freeze upon contact with the ground. This leaves a coating of glaze, or ice, and may cause dangerous travel conditions as roads freeze or the weight of the ice brings down power lines and tree limbs.

Sleet occurs when raindrops, having melted from ice or snow crystals in the clouds, fall into a thicker or higher layer of cold air than freezing rain does. This gives them time to refreeze into ice pellets before they hit the ground. These ice pellets usually bounce, have a distinctive sound, may be spherical, and are usually transparent or translucent.

Snow falls when the ice or snow crystal travels through temperatures below freezing in all or most of the atmosphere from the cloud level to the surface. Large wet snowflakes occur when the snow falls through a layer of air where the temperature is above freezing, but is shallow enough that the snow does not have time to completely melt. Snow crystals come in all shapes and sizes, not just the familiar six-pointed star shape (which is called a stellar dendrite). These different shapes are shown in the chart to the right.

There are more than just these four main types of winter precipitation. One of the others that we have already experienced this winter is snow pellets or graupel (pronounced "graw-pull"), which many students think is hail. Hail is a dense ball of ice that is bigger, at least 0.5mm (or 0.2 inches) thick, and commonly is formed in a thunderstorm as strong updrafts hold the ice aloft until it grows big enough that gravity wins. During severe thunderstorms, large hailstones can cause damage and injury. Depending on the temperatures when it was being formed, hail may have clear ("hard ice" formed as the outer layer melted and refroze) and white ("soft ice" formed as other ice and snow crystals attached to it) layers if sliced open. In contrast, snow pellets or graupel are typically smaller than 0.5mm thick, are milky white, and do not need thunderstorms to form. They are made of "soft ice" and are formed as ice and snow crystals connect and merge with the surface of a partially melted snowflake on its way down to the ground.
Graupel, or snow pellets. Source:
Large hail, with golf balls for scale. Source:
Please be sure to check the weather forecasts on our website before coming up to join us on the hill, and pack accordingly! Remember, we are not located in the town of Sonora, but 2,000' feet above it with very different weather. With all types of winter precipitations, it is great to have layers that you can put on or take off, and a waterproof outer layer (rain jacket, poncho, rain pants, whatever you have) is essential as we spend at least some time outside for each class. Bring waterproof boots if you have them and if you don't, bring multiple pairs of shoes and lots of thick, warm socks. Keep an eye on our Facebook page to see photos and posts about what is currently happening at Sierra Outdoor School!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Fuel Break Helps Limit the Oak Fire

Visitors coming to the Sierra Outdoor School this year will notice something different on the drive in: a wildfire scar along a section of Old Oak Ranch Road from the Oak Fire. On September 8th two fires started along Big Hill Road and quickly burned up hill and joined together. The fire reached Old Oak Ranch Road before the fire was contained about half a mile away from the school. The fire burned 108 acres.

Oak Fire as seen from Sonora.  photo Steve Leontic

Oak Fire near Old Oak Ranch Road.  Photo

Besides the quick response of local firefighters and aircraft, a recently completed fuel break played a crucial role in slowing progression of the fire and limiting its spread. Work on the two-mile long, 300-foot wide shaded fuel break was started in September 2014 and finished that spring. The goal of this project was to provide fire protection to the local area and improve forest health. Fuel breaks will not stop a fire themselves, but slow a fire’s spread and provide defensible space. On September 8th that’s what it did. 

An example of a shaded fire break similar to the one on Old Oak Ranch Road. The picture on the left shows the forest before treatment with dead trees and thick brush.  The picture on the right shows the same forest after treatment. A shaded firebreak is not a clear cut.  Vegetation and other flammables are reduced under the canopy.   Dead trees and tall brush are removed so not to serve as a fire ladder to the canopy.  Ground brush is removed to reduce flammable material.  Trees are selected for removal to create breaks in the canopy and lower limbs and dead limbs are removed from trees.   Uncleared, overgrown forest next to the fuel break along Old Oak Ranch Road averaged about 200 trees per acre, treated areas in the fuel break averaged around 40 trees per acre.  Photos Texas Land Trust

The Picture on the left is from the Cone Fire Northern California. The fire burned quickly through the overgrown forest. The crowded forest allowed fire to reach the and burn the canopy. The picture on the right is from a shaded fuel break in the Cone fire. Note the tree spacing from thinning, lower limbs trimmed, brush cleared, and no ladder fuels allowing ground fire to climb to canopy. Here the fire burned slowly and cool. Photos American River Watershed Institute. 

“The fuels reduction work done on Old Oak Ranch Road, by the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council, was instrumental in keep the fire on the ground and not up in the crown of trees” SOS Director Mike Olenchalk remarked. As the fire raced up the hillside, the drought stricken trees burst into flames and the fire soon was burning in the tree tops. When the fire encountered the shaded fire break, the fire was only able to burn along the ground and unable continue its spread in the forest canopy. This bought valuable time for people to evacuate and for first responders to arrive on scene. The fuel break created defensible space from which firefighters could attack the fire.

“Cooperators on this fire break project included the Forest Service, Cal Fire, the California Department of Corrections, PG&E, TUD, Old Oak Ranch Conference Center, Sierra Outdoor School and the Highway 108 FireSafe Council.” Stated president of the Highway 108 FireSafe Council Glenn Gottschall. The project funded was with federal grant funds.

Additional fuels reduction projects are continuing around and on campus to provide fire protection to the local area.