Caravans and Cranes at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge


For several weeks we’ve been noticing the steady stream of migratory birds passing overhead and stopping in the fields nearby our house. Mostly we’ve seen Canada geese, but the other day to our surprise a sandhill crane stopped right at the edge of the yard. It visited with us for a few hours then flew west toward the Idaho border. This inspired us to do the same, taking a trip to the site of the largest nesting area of sandhill cranes in the world.



Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge lies just across the Salt River Range from Star Valley, and the drive through Caribou National Forest  follows a spur of the Oregon Trail called the Lander Cut-off. From Star Valley Ranch on Highway 89 we headed west to Freedom, then north for a few blocks to pick up Idaho 34. We passed no other vehicles once we crossed into Idaho, and we spotted some great wildlife like bald eagles and turkey vultures as we headed toward the refuge.



We were surprised to find the Lake has very little open water; instead, it’s a actually a large shallow marsh with bulrush and cattail as far as the eye can see. We took a right on Grays Lake Road and headed to the Visitor’s Center, which isn’t staffed until summer but still has indoor exhibits during the spring and fall. From there we took the short drive behind the Visitor’s Center up to an overlook that gives a sweeping view of the marsh. Bring binoculars is a must (though there is a free viewing scope for use), and with them we could watch dozens of sandhill cranes feeding in the marshes.


The other must-see spot for us was along Highway 34 which follows the southern edge of Grays Lake. At Bearvertail Point, open water becomes visible and there is a wide shoulder where we pulled off the road. Here we saw various geese and ducks floating in the water, and the kids liked being a lot closer to the action this time around.


Five of Hearts kept a detailed list of the birds we could identify on the spot and notes on those we couldn’t, and at the end of the day we were pretty pleased with all that we had seen :)

1. Red-winged blackbird
2. Magpie
3. Bald Eagle
4. Canada goose
5. Turkey vulture
6. Goldfinch
7. Mountain bluebird
8. Mallard duck
9. Robin
10. Sandhill crane
11. Red-tailed hawk
12. Snow goose
13. Trumpeter swan
14. House finch
15. Crow
16. Long-billed curlew

Star Valley Scuffins



Scones or muffins? Sometimes on Sunday morning with a hungry family ready for brunch, it’s a hard choice. This past Sunday, the best choice was BOTH.

4 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk with 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar (let sour for 5 minutes)
2/3 cup coconut oil
2 flax eggs (a total of 2 tablespoons flax seed meal mixed into 6 tablespoons water)
2 apples peeled and diced

Mix the flour, baking soda and spices.
In a separate bowl mix the milk, sugar, oil, and flax eggs.
Mix the dry ingredients into the wet.
Add in the apples.
Scoop the batter onto parchment paper or a greased pan (an ice cream scoop works well).
Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Makes 12-14 medium-sized scuffins




Bathtubs at Breakfast

DSC08797 We’ve had water (and sometimes sand) on our minds quite a bit lately. We’ll be spending the summer in California’s Inland Empire, and the news about the state’s record drought is making us more aware of our water use. A recent article about the limits of California’s mandatory water reduction plan really brought home how much hidden water it takes to make the food and drink Americans consume every day.

In order to make this idea of a “water footprint” easier for the Younger Fives to picture, we spent a few days in homeschool calculating how many bathtubs of water (the average size is 60 gallons) it takes to make cow’s milk, almond milk, and soy milk. For us at least, the results were pretty jaw dropping.


Cow’s Milk: The water footprint of dairy milk is higher than the others because of the water it takes to grow feed. In California, cows are fed mainly alfalfa, which accounts for 15% of California’s total water use.
Cow Glass
Milk Gallon


Almond Milk: Almonds also get a lot of attention in California’s drought as they account for 10% of the state’s total water use. This one took the most math to figure out, as there are no direct calculations about almond milk’s water footprint. For our calculations, we used data showing 23 almonds make 1/4 cup, each almond requires about 1.1 gallons of water to grow, and it takes 1 cup of almonds to make a quart of almond milk.
Almond Glass
Almond Gallon


Soy Milk: Soy doesn’t have as much of a direct connection to California, but its role in deforestation in the Amazon Rain Forest is problematic. Organic soy may be a better choice, but we’re not sure if there’s a difference in the total water use between organic and non-organic soy milk (or for the other milks as well).
Glass SoyGallon Soy

While our findings haven’t changed what appears on our breakfast table, it has definitely changed how we picture the items we pull from the fridge. And we haven’t even started to imagine the water it takes to make food items such as cereal and oatmeal (though we hope to soon). Now that we know they are there, it’s sure hard to ignore the bathtubs at the breakfast table.

Cow’s Milk Information
Almond Milk Information
Soy Milk Information

Of Cabbages and Colorings

DSC08778Red cabbage. It looks pretty ordinary at first glance, but this week in homeschool we discovered its amazing color-changing potential. From bright pink to purple to blue, cabbage juice is the perfect indicator for watching acids and bases at work. DSC08780 Getting the idea from a book at our local library, we first cut up a medium-sized red cabbage and soaked it in cold water for 45 minutes. We then strained the liquid (we kept the cabbage leaves for coleslaw) and put 1/2 cup into 6 different glasses. DSC08781 From there the fun began! We first put a teaspoon of baking soda into 3 of the glasses and watched the liquid turn a deep blue color. Then we tested out some different items to see what kind of change they would cause in both plain cabbage juice and cabbage juice with baking soda. We started with vinegar and marveled at the color change in both the plain and baking soda glasses. We then moved on to orange juice and soy milk until we used up all 6 glasses. DSC08782After recording their observations, the Younger Fives had time to ponder some of the curious results of the experiment. Why did vinegar turn the cabbage juice one shade of pink and the orange juice turn it a different shade? Why did both the vinegar and OJ turn the blue liquid with baking soda back to purple, the original color of the cabbage juice? We found some online resources to be particularly useful in helping us understand what we observed, especially the following TED-Ed video on acids and bases.   And perhaps the best part of kitchen chemistry is that all the reactants we used were fit for human consumption. The young scientists were adamant that we save some of the cabbage juice to try after the experiment, so that’s what we did. They all agreed that fresh cabbage juice is not the most refreshing drink ever, but they sure had fun picturing the intense shades of pink it would turn once it reached their stomachs! DSC08784