Stars In Your Eyes

December 9th, 2013 by

Astronomer and naturalist, Jennifer Rupp, has long had a love affair with the stars. Now she gets to share it with you!

winter star mapIt may be so cold your ears, toes and nose protest, but you just can’t beat the clarity of a winter sky for astronomy.  The moisture is out of the air, the dust is frozen down, and the nights are long and start plenty early for everyone!  

Ever heard of Orion’s belt?  That’s what is referred to as an asterism.  Asterisms are shapes in the sky that are really easy to find and remember.  Another asterism you may be familiar with is the Big Dipper.  Do you know in which constellation the stars of the Big Dipper lie?

Orion starsOrion’s belt is of course in the constellation of Orion.  He is the great hunter of the winter sky, and easily visible due to all the bright stars that create his shape.  If you really want to impress your friends, find the three stars hanging at almost a 45 degree angle from the middle star of the belt.  This is Orion’s sword!  If you look closely on a clear night, or have access to a pair of binoculars, you can see that the middle star of the three in his sword is actually not a star at all!  It’s a nebula, where stars are being created.  You can see all the gas surrounding the baby stars that are just beginning their long, long lives.  It is called the Orion Nebula—for obvious reasons.

The stars in Orion are bright enough that they have names.  The more yellow-orange colored star on his tallest shoulder is called Betelgeuse.  His other shoulder, the yellowish-white one, is called Bellatrix.  Do either of these names sound familiar? One more familiar name close by in the night sky is Sirius.  It is part of the head of Orion’s hunting dog, Canis Major, and the brightest star in the sky.  You can’t miss this white-blue star!

These names may be better known as movie or story characters-and satellite radio providers, but the stars have been around much longer and are worth getting to know as well!

Some Really Mammoth News

October 14th, 2013 by

Naturalist David Brenzel has been even busier than usual at the mammoth dig site!  They’ve formed an interesting and important theory about our mammoths and he shares it with us. I’ve included a couple of his photos here; all eight are available on our Facebook page.

Indian Hills Community College Science Club digging at the mammoth excavation site.

Stratton Bond (left) and Brandy Millikin (right), Indian Hills Community College (Ottumwa) Science Club, September 21.

I’m just back from the Oskaloosa mammoth site–my 5th trip in a month. With school back in session, teacher demand is high to visit the site with students and experience digging first hand. The Indian Hills Community College (Ottumwa) Science Club came September 21.  Grinnell College brought their introductory geology class October 5. It was the Cornell College Archaeology Club October 12 with various teachers and naturalists sprinkled throughout. In-between, there’s been a parade of geologists trekking to the site to study the bones and test a new theory about how the mammoths ended up here. 

Dr. Deborah Waggett, Castleton State College, Vermont (right); on sabbatical for a year to study with Dr. Art Bettis UI Department of Geoscience (left).    Setting up a GPS base station at the mammoth site, October 2.

Dr. Deborah Waggett, Castleton State College, Vermont (right); on sabbatical for a year to study with Dr. Art Bettis UI Department of Geoscience (left). Setting up a GPS base station at the mammoth site, October 2.

It has been said get three UI geology professors in a room and ask their opinions and you’ll get four, so it’s remarkable Dr’s. Art Bettis, Frank Weirich and Holmes Semken, Jr. have come to consensus about the origin of the bones. The fossil bed has always been noteworthy for its depth of 2+ feet. The bones weren’t buried flat on the ground, some are standing almost straight up! We’ve long assumed they eroded from their primary deposit and were transported to the site in a flood, where they were dumped into a deep pool. But looking at the layers of sediment we exposed in the course of digging over the summer, the professors developed a new theory: that we have discovered a deep ancient spring that drew these elderly woolly mammoths to it to die. Like some professors coincidentally, their teeth were worn, they couldn’t chew very well and were hungry all the time, but at least they weren’t thirsty. So we’re no longer searching for a primary deposit–we’re in it! The new game plan: trace the shoreline of the pool around this ice age spring to find the missing bones. The landowner has multiple springs emerging from the same geological stratum for about 300 feet along his creek. They are all worth checking for fossils.

Dr. Chris Widga, Illinois State Museum (left) with Dr. Holmes Semken, Jr. (right) examining gnaw-marks on a mammoth tibia (shin bone).

Dr. Chris Widga, Illinois State Museum (left) with Dr. Holmes Semken, Jr. (right) examining gnaw-marks on a mammoth tibia (shin bone).

Last week we hosted a visit by Dr. Chris Widga, assistant curator of geology, Illinois State Museum, and expert on ice age megafauna. He confirmed we’ve discovered three individuals–all woolly mammoths, likely two old bulls and an aging female. That makes the site unique in the Midwest.  It’s not unusual to find multiple mammoth remains in a gravel pit, but those bones have been transported a long distance and are far removed from their sites of origin. We know our mammoths lived right here and are buried with the evidence of a wider ice age community. There’s a treasure chest of ecological information here about mammoth times (e.g. seeds, wood, pollen) and years of digging and research fun ahead determining how these incredible beasts lived.

City Chick

October 10th, 2013 by

Nature Center board president Rebecca Mumaw was the driving force behind the passage of the ordinance allowing backyard chickens in Cedar Rapids. She and CR-CLUC (Citizens for the Legalization of Urban Chickens) have since helped other communities craft ordinances to spread the “chicken love”. There is no question that Rebecca loves “her girls” and they return her affection with amusing antics and delicious eggs. Rebecca shares her thoughts with us on why she remains committed to raising chickens at home.

chickens in snowFour years ago the city of Cedar Rapids approved zoning ordinance changes to allow its citizens to keep up to 6 hens in the backyards. The Indian Creek Nature Center was involved from the beginning and gave immediate credibility with the city council. The Nature Center also offered to teach classes to potential backyard hen owners about the basics of keeping a few hens. Together with the city and the neighborhoods, we crafted an ordinance that addressed both the concerns of the neighbors and city officials.

I am pleased to say our work has resulted in an ordinance that the city of Cedar Rapids considers a success story in community and city council cooperation. Over 200 people have taken the backyard chicken class at the Indian Creek Nature Center to learn how to become backyard chicken keepers. The ordinance and process has been used as a model in several communities in the U.S. as cities continue to encourage sustainable living practices. Surrounding communities have been encouraged by our success and enacted ordinances of their own.

Kids enjoy getting up close with a chicken as they learn to raise hens in their backyardEncouraging backyard hens has had many benefits for the hen owners and for the community as a whole. Keeping chickens is a healthy way of gardening that provides free fertilizer for the garden that needs no packaging or transporting. Backyard composting reduces the amount of methane produced in landfills reducing the carbon footprint of the home owner and the city as a whole. The hens eat garden pests reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides in the yard. Since the hens eat kitchen and garden waste, less waste needs to be transported and disposed of by the city. Best of all, the eggs of free-range hens are healthier than the eggs of caged hens. They are locally produced and consumed making Cedar Rapids more sustainable and resilient.

Raising chickens in the city is no longer a big deal. It is now just another way to healthfully garden in your own backyard – and it’s fun! Chickens each have their own quirky personality and place in the flock. We spend hours watching them in the garden. If you’d like to learn more about the joys of raising urban chickens, join us at the Backyard Chicken Class at ICNC or visit our Facebook page at

Why Join the Nature Center?

September 30th, 2013 by

hikingWe have a new member special going on right now at the Nature Center – first-time members who join now get BONUS membership months! Our usual membership cycle is March through February each year, but if you join now, your membership will be valid until March of 2015! That’s a big bonus! Nancy Lackner, our Development Assistant and membership guru, shares her thoughts about why it’s important to join. I think they’re all pretty darn good reasons.

Children get answers to scavenger hunt questions from the Honey Fest Honeybee at the Indian Creek Nature CenterWhy become a member of the Indian Creek Nature Center? Let me count the reasons.

(1) Help keep a corner of Cedar Rapids green, beautiful and open to everyone to enjoy.

(2) Keep the resident groundhogs’ playground open.

(3) Support healthier habitats where children and wildlife can roam and thrive. (Sometimes children and wildlife are synonymous. A topic for another time.)

(4) You’ll know your membership dollars will be valued and used wisely.

(5) So children can hear a frog chorus in spring, catch and release butterflies in summer, taste honey in fall, watch bald eagles soar in winter, and smell fresh air all year long.

(6) Because it’s a great time of year to join! Purchase a new membership in September 2013-February 2014 and it won’t expire until March 2015. So you get more than a year of benefits for your investment! The sooner you join, the longer your membership term.

(7) Because it feels good to do something beneficial for our planet…and the groundhogs, the frogs, the butterflies, the bees, the eagles, and you.

Why local honey?

September 16th, 2013 by

Fresh, comb honey

Fresh, comb honey

When people stop into the Creekside Shop, we are often asked, “What’s the big deal about local honey? How is it different than what I can buy at the grocery store?” Aside from the importance of supporting small, local producers (which we know is important), there are some differences in honey you buy from the Nature Center and honey you buy at the grocery store. First, you can be sure that the honey you purchase from the Nature Center is 100% pure honey. Some large producers add sweeteners, fillers, even just plain water to their honey. What is in our bears is just pure and simple honey. Also, our honey is “raw” honey – it isn’t processed or pasteurized.  Our honey is extracted straight from the flats, strained and bottled. Occasionally – usually during the winter and spring – we have to gently warm the honey enough to make it pourable but we don’t heat it enough to kill off the beneficial minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and powerful antioxidants it contains.  It has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties, too.

Bees on IronweedRaw honey helps digestion, strengthens your immune system, stabilizes blood pressure, helps colds and sore throats, helps heal abrasions,  and more.  Many people swear by local honey when it comes to lessening or even eliminating allergy symptoms. Local honey contains small amounts of pollen specific to the area and ingesting a spoonful of honey daily is like taking a mini-vaccine. Your system builds up an immunity to the pollen and your allergy symptoms lessen or disappear.

Our bees doing a great job of producing honey for the Nature Center, but as demand increases, we sometimes can’t keep up. At those times, we buy honey from other local producers in Linn and adjacent counties. Most, if not all of those producers have gone through our beekeeping program here at the Nature Center and we know they are producing honey to our standards.  You can always be assured that the honey you buy at the Nature Center is pure, LOCAL honey!