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Beat the Heat: Nature Activities For the Dog Days of Summer

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A sit spot at Shelburne Farms - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Heather Fitzgerald
  • A sit spot at Shelburne Farms

Swimming, vacation, creemees and everything bursting with lush green life; I like summer as much as the next person. However, I don't always love the heat. When it's particularly humid, or when it doesn't cool down at night, I find myself wanting to hide in the basement. Since my son, Jesse, was born 11 years ago, I've been cultivating a list of hot-weather nature activities that don't leave my family wilted and grumpy. Here are some of my favorites:

Learn bird language: This basically just means, "start paying more attention to birds." I've been a novice birder since 1996. (In other words, I am never going to be a great birder.) When I started listening to bird language, I was amazed at how much I was able to see and hear when I wasn't using all my energy trying to identify each bird. My family sits on our back porch — under a ceiling fan — to watch the very ordinary birds in our backyard, and we are regularly swept up in the drama that occurs. We've seen birds ferociously dive-bombing squirrels, and grackles hovering anxiously over their youngsters.

Google "learn bird language" and you'll find multiple books, articles and videos suggesting things you can do to tune in. The gist of it is to just start paying attention to how and when birds make noise. Before you know it, you'll notice the differences between what naturalist Jon Young calls "baseline" and "alarm" calls. You'll also start to distinguish between the sounds birds make in the morning and at night, in sun and rain, and in the treetops and on the ground.

Find a sit spot: Choose a special outdoor place where you and your kids can go each day, or every once in a while, where you can get comfortable being still, quiet and alone. The spot can be in your backyard, at the park down the street, or anywhere that is easy to access. When you come back inside, tell your kids about the plants, animals and sounds you noticed, and listen eagerly to their observations. Even ants and dandelions can be interesting if you look at them long enough.

Go to Secret Mountain: My friend Carolyn, who is wise in the ways of children, taught me about this one. Give a special name to a wild or semi-wild place that's easy to get to from your house. It's great if you can get there without a car. Announce that you'd like to take a trip to Secret Mountain (or whatever you've named your spot). Bring lunch. You'll be surprised by how magical it is.

A hemlock forest in Old Mill Park in Jericho - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Heather Fitzgerald
  • A hemlock forest in Old Mill Park in Jericho

Hunt for hemlocks: Eastern hemlock trees typically grow on cooler northern and eastern slopes, and in shady ravines. They also have such dense needles that almost nothing underneath them can get enough light to grow. As a result, it feels cooler when you're under hemlocks. In the Burlington area, some of my favorite hemlock groves are in Centennial Woods and at Rock Point in Burlington, and in Old Mill Park in Jericho.

Heather and Jesse look for bugs at Rock Point in Burlington - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Heather Fitzgerald
  • Heather and Jesse look for bugs at Rock Point in Burlington

Take the Seven Bug Challenge: I learned this one from my friend, Teage O'Connor, who talks about it on his blog at phyllotaxy.com. "I choose a shrub or tree and then I can't leave until I spot seven different types of insects (when I get antsy I'll include slugs and snails)," he writes. O'Connor does this with the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America in hand, but I don't mind not knowing the names of things. You can get to seven faster by going to a place with lots of flowers and counting repeat visits by the same insect. If you try this, you might find yourself surprised by how happening the insect scene is.

Taking a dip in a brook on Camel's Hump - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Heather Fitzgerald
  • Taking a dip in a brook on Camel's Hump

Walk in a mountain stream: When my family starts getting crabby from the heat, we have a particular mountain stream we like to go walking in. You don't need a swimming hole, just a pull-off on a road nearby. We wear water shoes and climb from rock to rock. Even half an hour of doing this will cool you off as much as a swim because the water is so frigid. Many trailheads start near streams, so keep an eye out for one on your next hike.

Find an old photo of a place you know: Search the digital archive created by University of Vermont's Landscape Change Program at uvm.edu/landscape for historical photos of places you've been before, then revisit them to compare how they look today. I like to search the archive by town.

Here's to fun in the sun — and the shade!

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont and the University of Vermont.

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