Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Sing for Spring May 1, 2011

Although the weather is still waffling between cold rains and sunny days, it is safe to say that Spring has officially arrived. The trees are green, birds are singing, and thunderstorms rumble across the sky.  Signs of changing seasons are different depending on where you live, of course–for people close to a water source, one of the signs is surely the resounding chorus of frogs and toads.

A wonderful Backyard Safari reader recently sent in this video of an American toad (Bufo americanus) singing for a mate in his backyard.  You can hear another toad singing nearby in the background.  I love watching the way this toad’s throat fills with air with each trill.



In many species of frogs and toads, the individuals you hear singing are the males. They sing to attract mates.  They make the sound by taking a breath and then pushing the air through the voice box and into a sac in the throat.

This website is specific for Michigan amphibian species, but it is one of the few sites I found that lets you listen to samples of different frog and toad songs. I’ve also heard that if you play the songs outside at night some frogs and toads will answer back if you are present. Sounds like a fun experiment to try!

Have you heard any amphibians calling in your backyard? What other signs of spring do you always count on? What tells you that warm weather is officially here to stay?

As always, if you have any pictures, videos, or stories you’d like to share, please send them in to  I would love to hear from you!


Backyard Transition Challenge – Amphibians October 1, 2010

I am so happy to introduce the first reader submission to our Backyard Transition Challenge!  Our submission today comes from Donna Watkins of The Nature In Us. About a week ago I noticed some pictures Donna had posted on her Facebook page of eastern gray tree frog tadpoles that were living on her deck. I asked if she would be willing to send in the pictures once their transformation was complete, and happily, she agreed!

Donna has also written up the complete story of the tree frogs on her website, which you can read in two parts, here and here. I hope you all take a look—it’s a great story!

The idea of this challenge is to document changes going on in our backyards and neighborhoods, and what better changes than the metamorphosis these amphibians are going through!


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In school we are taught about metamorphosis and are sometimes shown a series of pictures documenting the changes, but it is rare that we get the opportunity to watch the same set of frogs go through this amazing process.  How unbelievable to think that the small black dots in the first pictures spring arms and legs, that their morphology changes so completely that they are able to take the tenuous steps onto land as a new being, much as our own ancestors evolved to do many million years ago. Many thanks to Donna for documenting these changes in such beautiful and detailed photographs, and for being willing to share them with us here!

So what might you find in your own backyard? What kind of changes are going on all around us, just hidden under a mossy stone, a leafy overhang, our busy schedules? What magic would you like to share?

Thanks again to Donna–and for any one else who is thinking of submitting, please do!! You can send submissions any time to

See you out there!


Amphibian Friends June 17, 2010




Evolution, replayed right before our eyes–a life begun in a jelly egg floating in the murk, a childhood wriggling through the wet, an adolescence growing limbs and losing a tail, and finally an adulthood spent as an ambassador between the worlds of land and water.

I have talked about or posted pictures of amphibians many times before on this blog, which you can see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Frogs, toads, and salamanders are wonderful for people of all ages, but kids especially seem to love them!  One of the great things about amphibians is that their habitat is so much fun to be in. Searching under logs or wet leaves for salamanders and toads, and in ponds and mud for frogs are great experiences for kids! Amphibians are also nice to investigate because they (at least in my personal experience) don’t usually bite! I try to be careful about recommending holding wild animals to anyone, which is something I discussed in the ‘David Attenborough Laments‘ post, but I also want kids to have the same kind of hand-on experiences that I was lucky enough to get as a child. One of the ways I try to balance the experience of catching amphibians with also protecting their delicate skin is by letting the kids find them but then immediately putting them in a tupperware container with some leaves in it.  The kids can then take their time examining the critter without any sunscreen or bug spray from their hands absorbing into the amphibian’s skin. It also gives a great opportunity to talk to kids about why they should try to put these animals back where they found them!

Here are some more beautiful pictures of amphibians, sent to me by my father. He took these while working outside around the house, which as I’ve mentioned before now has a small pond in the backyard.



This amazing little guy is a grey treefrog.  Great camouflage, don’t you think?  I don’t remember finding these around the house when I was growing up, and I am curious to know if the addition of the pond is what brought them here.



My dad first found him in a potted plant, and returned him to it after taking pictures.




Here is a picture I took of the same type of frog stuck to the window (high up, I should add!) overlooking the pond. Check out the sticky toe pads!



Finally, here is a picture of the pond, with two frogs eyeing each other up. It’s amazing the amount of different wildlife this pond brought to our yard in such a short time!

If you have a child, I hope these pictures inspire you to take them outside to see what kind of amphibian wildlife is around you! If you are an adult, I hope these pictures make you ask, “Why do kids get to have all the fun?” and go looking for some as well! You are never to old to scramble through the mud after all things jumping and squirming.  If you see anything fun, feel free to take a quick picture and send it in! I would love to share more of your experiences with our readers.

As always, I’ll see you out there!


All the Small Things May 25, 2010

I had another great day today exploring a forested area with a group of students. They were second graders, and we spent the morning searching through the woods to see what we could discover!



The students found a few different salamanders–this one is especially tiny! Take a look at the zoomed-out picture to see just how small it really is:



This is a perfect example of how great kids are at looking at nature. This salamander is so small, I am not sure that I ever would have found it if I had been by myself!  I have been making a point lately to start each day by telling the kids that they have something very special that I and the other teachers do not have–they are close to the ground! They have a completely different view than most adults because of this, and can notice things that are not readily apparent to us from 5 and 6 feet off the ground.

For one of the activities I sent the kids to search for seeds. In the process I showed them how some birds, like crows, kick their feet through the wet leaves on the ground to search for worms living underneath. The kids then went out through the forest and searched–this is how they found the salamanders! They also found a lot of pine cones and acorns. One student found a very small acorn and when he took the cap off we discovered there were tiny little ants with eggs living underneath! It was really amazing to see, and gave us a chance to talk about different perspectives. Imagine all of us walking along like giants as a whole colony of ants live out their lives in a tiny acorn cap next to the path!



The kids also found this large millipede, which I found out when I heard a bunch of screaming! I did some google searching and the only name I can find for this guy is the latin one: Apheloria virginiensis corrugata. If anyone knows the common name, though, let me know!



Finally, the kids found some of these walnut seeds as they searched around in the leaves. If you look closely around the lighter brown edges where the seed is open you can see the little teeth marks left behind by a squirrel or chipmunk that has been gnawing at the seed!  After I noticed this I was able to pass them around and point out the tiny little lines the teeth made, which led to a talk about different ways you can tell an animal is present even if you don’t see it.

I talk a lot on this blog about looking closer and noticing the little things around you–going out in to nature with children is a great way to do just that! They found so many interesting things during our time together today, many of which I am not sure I would have seen if I was by myself. We can all learn something from these students, and try to really look closely at the world around us!

The next time I go out I’m going to try to do this–if an entire ant colony can be living under an acorn cap, imagine what else could be happening right under our noses!


Backyard Safari’s First Reader Photo Submission! May 3, 2010

I am very excited to present our very first reader photo submission! These photos were sent in by friend-of-the-blog Julia (view Julia’s blog here), and document a recent hike she took in West Greenwich outside of Providence, Rhode Island. She says, “I took my camera along and we were very careful to look for creatures and interesting plants to share with Backyard Safari.  I am so psyched about what we found…Here are the pictures!”

This first picture is of the trail she hiked, which was slightly flooded, and a nearby creek. About the photo Julia says, “This gives you a sense of the forest we were in, which was magical and quiet.  The only thing we could hear was the water streaming and once or twice a bird call.”

Here is a picture of some delicate flowers Julia found on her walk. She says they were one of the only things in bloom at the time. Very pretty!

About this photo she says, “I was literally in the middle of ruminating over the concept of seeing things differently if you look harder, when I saw the leaves below me do a little shake.  I stopped, knelt down, but couldn’t see anything!  Then, my eyes re-focused and I saw this adorable tiny little toad, perfectly camouflaged in the dry leaves.”

This is a great reminder for all of us to take the time to look a little closer and really notice what is around us–look how well it worked out for Julia! After taking a few pictures of the toad she noticed he only had one eye, but she couldn’t tell if it had been lost in an accident or as a deformity from birth.

Julia also sent in this picture of a young fern, saying: “These were also everywhere, in varying stages of uncurling and stretching out into the low-lying canopy.  They are my favorite shade of green.”

Finally, she sent in this picture of a crayfish which appeared “out of nowhere under my feet as we walked on our way back, barefoot, through the creek-path.”  An exciting end to what seems like a great trip!

Thanks a lot to Julia for sharing her pictures and experiences! I loved seeing all of the plants and animals she found and hearing about her hike. She kept her eyes open and as a result saw some things that other people might have missed as they walked through the same woods. Her toad and crayfish sightings prove that there is so much life going on all around us–we just have to stop and look!

This is our first reader submission to the blog, but I hope it isn’t the last! If you see anything interesting in your area, please take some pictures and send them in to Let’s all try to look a little closer, together!


Wildlife Sightings April 30, 2010

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As I mentioned on Twitter, I spent most of today visiting some of the local areas that I will soon be taking groups of school kids to in order to teach them about the environment. It was a beautiful day and it was great to get outside and walk around.

While the places I visited aren’t exactly anyone’s backyard, they are all easily accessible areas, and further prove that you don’t need a remote wilderness to find great opportunities. For example, today I had a few exciting wildlife sightings!

First, while visiting a local farm, I saw some amphibian wildlife:

Tadpoles! Always a great sighting and promise of new life to come. Tadpoles and caterpillars both go through such an amazing metamorphosis. They can be so common to see that its easy to forget how interesting a process this really is–imagine being born in a completely different state than what you will eventually become. For tadpoles this means not only growing legs, but also losing a tail!

At this same farm I also saw a toad hiding in the grass and was able to get this close-up:

After my visit to the farm I headed out to another environmental area. I walked around for about 40 minutes, and on my way back to the car I saw this fuzzy white thing moving in the grass in a nearby field. I had to squint to see at first, but as I moved closer I saw that the fuzzy white thing was actually a skunk!  I was very excited to be so close to one, and sat on the grass, from a safe distance, to just watch it for a while. Well, the skunk must not have noticed me–there was a heavy wind probably blowing my scent away–and as it foraged it started moving closer and closer. I suddenly realized the mistake I had made by sitting down, and had two options to choose from:  stand up while the skunk was still a small distance away, probably startling it enough that it might turn and spray, or sit perfectly still to avoid detection, but with the chance that the skunk would walk right up to me and suddenly realize I was human and spray then.  The skunk kept heading straight for me, and I started getting more and more nervous. Suddenly, it whipped its head up and looked right at me. I was able to snap this picture right at that moment:

I don’t know if the wind changed, or something else happened that made the skunk suddenly notice me, but it did, and a few seconds later made a hasty retreat:

It was very exciting! I have seen (and certainly smelled) skunks before, but never so close. It was an unexpected treat topping off a really nice day outside. Have you been able to get outside recently? What kind of things have been interesting to you?  I’d like to extend an invitation to everyone to take photos of the natural world around them–plants, animals, rocks, streams, anything!–and share them with this blog! I would love to see what you have found in your backyard and local area. I enjoy taking and posting my own pictures, but I would also love to put up any of your pictures as well!

If you have something you’d like to share, please e-mail it to  Please remember that by sending something to this e-mail, you are confirming that it is your own original work and you are authorized to share it! So next time you see something that interests you, take a quick picture! It can be with the most expensive camera equipment or with your cellphone (which is what I used to take all of these pictures today, by the way). Let’s see what we can find together!


Backyard Wildlife April 4, 2010

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Here is some local amphibian wildlife for you! My father sent me this short video of an American Toad calling at night in my parent’s backyard.


My parents built a small pond in their backyard a few years ago, and have had many animal visitors since! Turtles, frogs, toads, great blue herons, and a plethora of small birds all stop by to take advantage of the water source. Here is a picture of the pond during the daytime. Can you spot the Green Frog?



What if we zoom in a bit?


  It may seem peaceful and quiet in your backyard, but look closer! There are battles for survival going on all around us. Creatures big and small are hunting for food, competing for mates, protecting their territory, and trying keep from being something else’s dinner.  If you see something happening and want to know what type of animal it is or why it is behaving that way, try doing some research at your local library, on the internet, or e-mail me at, and I will try to help in any way I can! 

Keep your eyes open—there is so much to see out there!