Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Exploring by Bike July 1, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 9:22 pm
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Today started out as just one of those days–I felt listless and irritable about meaningless things. I spent a long time on the phone with tech help, and spent some of that time yelling at the robot operator. I would never ever do that to a real person just doing their job, so the poor automated message guy bore the brunt of my anger, repeatedly telling me he didn’t understand what I was telling him, as I replied with loud variations of connect-me-to-a-real-person-i-don’t-care-about-serial-numbers.

As the light started to change from the regular daylight to that golden evening glow I decided to dust myself off and go out for a bike ride. There is a path a friend and I talked about going on and I thought I’d better find out if my out-of-bike-shape self could actually even make it before I shamed myself in front of someone else.

It was a nice ride–my legs really are out of shape for pushing the bike along but the evening was cool, the light beautiful, and the wind streaming in my face.  I rode as far as the downhill slopes would take me and then took a break to investigate a wetland area beside the road that I always see while driving but never up close.

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I’ve been noticing a lot of these wetlands along highways recently—I assume someone is planting them as an efficient natural way to slow runoff from the roads and collect water during rainstorms, but I’d love to know who! Do lots of companies do this kind of thing or is there some kind of state run movement?

To emphasize just how much you can find nature even in the middle of a city, suburb, or road, I took a picture of my bike from the other side to show you:

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I couldn’t make it back up the hill without stopping, so I used the break to get a closer look at the colorful wildflowers next to the path. In the past I would have felt self-conscious having the drivers see me pushing my bike or dawdling in the weeds, but I’ve gotten better at not worrying what people passing by think of me.

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I always think of the phrase “a riot of flowers” when I see them growing all together like this. I just can’t think of a more perfect expression for their bold, unapologetic nature and strewn positions, like they are spilling out across the earth.

I zoomed in on this milkweed flower and was surprised to find a bee visiting, moving deftly between the petals. I tried out the zoom on my phone camera, but it isn’t as focused as I had hoped.

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Hidden off among some bushes were these tasty jewels, ripening in the fading sun. I decided to leave them for the birds, as my many classes teaching kids about runoff made me too paranoid about what may be washing down from the golf course next door. They sure do look good, though!

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It seems like I have to learn the same lesson over and over that I won’t have any ideas to blog about if I don’t go outside. I somehow convince myself it is the other way around–that some great idea will inspire me to head out the door, but it is almost never the case. It is only once I am there that I notice all of the great things around me and come home bursting with thoughts to get down in writing.

It was really fun to explore the neighborhood by bike, especially from the safety of the bike path. In an ironic twist, I almost got hit by a car on this trip, when I spent 99% of the time away from roads. I was waiting at a cross walk, following all the rules, pushing the walk button and waiting for the sign. I have flashy lights and also there was still full light to see by–not just that dusky light that makes everything blur together. Luckily (?) I am too paranoid to trust other people to notice me, so I watched the other cars through the corner of my eye as I started across. I noticed that 3 rows of cars were moving forward, when only 2 should have as the one waited for me before turning left and quickly realized he didn’t see me at all. I screeched to a halt midway through the road as a big rusty truck made his way through. The driver saw me then and apologized out the window with a “my fault.” I do think he meant it and that it had probably scared the crap out of him, so I just continued on my way.

There seems to be some debate among the biking community about wearing helmets–I don’t understand it enough to really comment on it now, but this is a good example of why I will always always always wear one–not to mention the fear of smearing myself on something completely of my own accord. I can too vividly imagine my family members lamenting ‘why didn’t she just wear a helmet’ and how horrible it would be for them, and I don’t really trust other people or myself to not mess up.

I read recently that crossing at cross walks can sometimes be more dangerous than crossing in the road, because if you are right in the middle of the road cars have to see you, while they might not always at a cross walk. Even though I was on a bike path at the time this is something I will have to keep in mind and explore more in the future.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to have this post take such dire turns! Don’t worry Momma, I promise I am careful :).

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Anyway, I made my way home safely, enjoying the air sliding by me.  Despite the drama near the end, I had a wonderful time getting out in my neighborhood and seeing it from a new angle. I could go a lot farther than I can just by walking, and while also getting to see things up close that I otherwise have only seen from the car. I also got to see a number of groundhogs and rabbits that I wasn’t fast enough to catch on film.

I will be interested to see how the journey to travel by bike continues, and what happens next!

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(Note: I know this picture is sideways–I kind of like it this way!)

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Do any of you dear readers explore by bike? Are you at all comfortable riding on the roads and if so, how did you get there? Do you prefer to see the natural world by wheel or by foot? Feel free to leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

I hope everyone can spend some time exploring their neighborhood this weekend. As I learned again today, you just can’t imagine what you might find until you’re out there! As always, I’ll see you out there.

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On the Move June 20, 2011

I went out for my run at dusk tonight, making my way along the sidewalk through flickering waves of lightning bugs. My faltering night vision made the distant landscape a blur of dark green trees, a smudge of grass, a watercolor wash of gray sky. The houses along the street had turned their lights on, something which always makes me wonder about the people inside and seems quaint, even if it is not.

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Photo Credit

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After many weeks of alternating short walk/run intervals, I can finally run for longer periods of time without my brain wondering why I am doing this to myself and questioning every step. The Couch to 5K program helped me very much until about week 5, when I just couldn’t keep up mentally with the transition to long periods of running. I like being able to tell myself that it is only __ minutes until I can stop, that out of my entire day this is no time at all, and that I will get a break soon. I still use the Couch to 5K app but now choose whichever interval I want and sometimes stay on the same one for a long time before moving on, rather than following the prescribed path.

I can finally run in 10 minute intervals at a time, and it feels amazing! This isn’t a lot for many people in the world, but it is a lot for me and I am happy to be here. I am also starting to see that it might someday be possible to run more than this, perhaps even for some real distance, without wanting to stop every second of the way.

I am only at this point because I very specifically did whatever worked best for me without questioning it or telling myself I should be better.  For example, I am not great with competition. It is not the thing that motivates me. If I am having a bad run, I just tell myself that there will always be another run the next day, and the day after that. Instead, I challenge myself in small ways–I always pick a point just a little further to run to after I am supposed to stop, I try to keep my pace faster just a little bit longer, etc. In my case the thing that will get me outside the most is finding the joy in a great song, the power of my own body to push me forward, and a good breeze moving through the trees.

But maybe you need something different! Maybe you need to have someone yell at you to push through it, maybe you need to put up pictures of someone climbing Mt. Everest, maybe you need a friend to chat with, and on and on. The key here is to find what works for you and not let any person, book, or blog, tell you that it isn’t the right way to do it. For me, it is to tell myself that any action I take today is better than what I did yesterday, and trust that it will grow from there. I encourage you to explore what might help you get outside more, to listen to your instincts about how you are feeling and trust that you know best. Because who could know better than you?

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The days are going by and I am working on my summer goals. So far I’ve planted green pepper and tomato plants out on my balcony and added some colorful bits here and there to make it a nicer place to spend time in. I started taking walks around the neighborhood with a friend, which has been a lot of fun. I’m surprised how easy it was to turn our usual talk-while-sitting gatherings into talk-while-walking ones. Also, as of this Friday I have begun to work on one of my main goals: to use a bike instead of the car for local trips around town. I am very excited to have a shiny new hybrid starter bike to help me put this plan into action.

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Not to mention the very awesome detachable basket…

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I’ve never used anything besides a mountain bike before, and the thinner tires are an interesting change. I’m also scared of riding on the roads and get tense every time a car passes me even on our quiet streets, but I am really excited to experiment with it and see how it goes.

I am also interested in exploring another avenue of being moved by my own power. Since I started running a few months ago I have been thinking about this a lot and have a new appreciation for the human body from an evolutionary point of view. It’s just amazing what we are capable of, and every part of it astounds me. Even our ability to store fat is awesome–what a great adaptation that helped our ancestors survive all kinds of trials in the past. And sweating! Did you know that humans/primates are the only type of animal with sweat glands on virtually all the skin? This means we can regulate our own body temperature in a way few others can.

I am truly grateful for this new view of my body through the lens of where it comes from and what it is capable of. It has definitely changed me for the better.

I encourage everyone to find something–anything, outdoors or not–that they do only for themselves, and find the way of following that interest that works best for them. There are so many exciting things in the world, and only this one life to do them in! Why not learn how to climb a mountain, how to can food, how to speak Spanish, how to play badminton, how to identify bird songs, how to jump from one rock to another, how to make a good cup of coffee, how to use pastels, how to follow animal tracks, how to play the mandolin, how to look for crayfish, how to catch fireflies, how to take on the world……

You are the product of one million years of human evolution, 200 million years of mammals, 3.8 billion years of life. You share the world with 7 billion other people. Many of them dream with you, and wake up with you. All of them want to be happy and healthy just like you do. There are 5,489 other species of mammals in the world giving birth and raising their young just like you. There are 1,000 different kinds of conifer trees turning your breath into oxygen to be used again. With that kind of support all around us, what aren’t we capable of?

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Crow Funeral June 12, 2011

[Note: This post contains pictures of a dead bird. I never like when an animal dies, but I do like to use the opportunity to look more closely at the beautiful details an animal otherwise seen from a distance.]

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This morning I awoke early, around 6:30, and just couldn’t go back to sleep. Now, I love sleeping, and usually spend Sundays sleeping until the afternoon, so this is a rare event for me. On impulse, I decided to walk downtown to a coffee shop. I set off, without headphones or music, just enjoying the sleepy streets and early bird songs.

I spent about an hour reading a book and drinking coffee, and then headed home again.  I was intending to make a blog post of different bits I had seen on my walk–a broken robins egg, a painting of the solar system across a sidewalk. As I neared home, however, something much more interesting occurred.

First, I noticed something black near the edge of the path. I couldn’t make out the details of it and assumed it was a piece of tarp or plastic. Of course I just  had to find out for sure, and just as I was making fun of myself for always checking bits of nothing on the ground, I made out the soft edge of a bird’s wing. It turned out what I had thought was plastic was in fact a dead crow.

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(Note: I couldn’t help but be reminded here of the fossil of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx. Magnificent!)

(Image by Gareth Dyke)

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I racked my brain trying to remember if it was there when I first passed. I feel sure I would have noticed it, which means it got there somehow in the hour I had been gone. But how? Had an animal dragged it there? Had it just fallen from the sky? Why was it splayed out like that? Rigor mortis? Something else?

It was then that I noticed the sounds coming from the surrounding trees. Other crows.. many of them. They were cawing and cawing. It seemed I could make out the sound of some younger crows punctuated by the low gravel of the adults.

I went back to the dead crow to take a closer look.

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This time as I stepped close one of the crows broke out of the trees, flying over my head and then taking post in a single tree that stood nearby.

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I stood watching for a long time–the crow never stopped cawing at me, as if telling me to mind my own business. I tried to record the other sounds coming from the trees but unfortunately they were too far away to be picked up on my phone.

While it may sound strange, crow “funerals” are actually fairly well documented. There are many accounts of dozens–sometimes hundreds–of crows gathering around a fallen fellow. You can read some of them herehere, and here. This behavior has also been seen in magpies. The question is, why?  Mourning? Reverence? To let everyone know there is a change in the social structure? To eat it as food later? To let everyone know that whatever this crow did was dangerous and they should not repeat its behavior? Maybe they even killed this crow in the first place?

Regardless of what the answer is, it was a really wonderful experience. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity of the animal kingdom, and while I do not know the reason for these crow gatherings for sure, I would certainly not be surprised if the answer involved some attributes that we tend to assume are only human.

Fellow blogger Go Explore Nature told me she and her son also recently saw a crow funeral after a crow died in the front yard of his elementary school. Have any of you readers ever experienced a gathering like this? Under what circumstances? What did you see?

This experience was also a good reminder about all of the exciting things happening in the natural world around me. For a brief moment I thought that maybe the crow funeral was some sort of fate–a reward for the unusual circumstance of getting up and out early. I know, however, that the truth is amazing things are always happening out there all around us! Whether we are there to see them or not is a different matter.

I hope everyone is having a good weekend! As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Summer Wishes May 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 6:14 pm
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As I mentioned in my last post, my days are currently filled with nature outings with kids in a local school district. The school year is ending, however, and my schedule will change with it.

Almost 2 months ago I brought running back in to my life. My goal is simply to feel physically capable again. I am specifically going for this amorphous I’ll-know-it-when-I-feel-it goal rather than any kind of weight or calorie number. I feel weird about endorsing products, but the “Couch to 5k” program was really helpful in getting me started, especially one of the many matching iPhone apps. The app lets me play music from my phone but also counts down the time and tells me when to run, walk, and when it is halfway so I can turn around and end up at home. I don’t think I would have been able to keep up my motivation without this. It helped a LOT to have a set amount of time I would be running for and have a goal to work towards. I’ve recently switched to a more ‘barefoot running’ style (on the balls of my feet using a minimal shoe) and had to start over a bit with slower times, but I am still using the app.

I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying running this time around. I’ve gone out a few times here and there in the past but it never really stuck. Now I actually look forward to it. I think part of it was changing my goal to focus on being strong and capable.

Taking this one step has encouraged me to take more, and a recent post by travel blog Married with Luggage got me thinking about what I really want and what I can do every day to achieve it. Then I remembered fellow nature blogger Go Explore Nature‘s 2010 fall and summer nature ‘bucket lists’ and decided to make one of my own.

So without further ado, here is a list of things I would like to add to my life and work on this summer:

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1. Get a road bike with a basket and start using it instead of the car for local trips (grocery store, downtown etc.).

2. Finally plant the tomato and pepper plants I grew from seeds in a real container (I probably should have done this a while ago–oops!). Remember to actually take care of them.

3. Turn our balcony into a place that is fun to hang out in, spend more time there. (Small table and chairs? Lanterns? More plants?)

4. Use running as a way to explore new places. (Try out local parks, trails, and explore on vacations. I recently went running while at a friend’s house in another state and it was really fun to see everything from that level!)

5. Try to add more evening walks to our week.

6. Start drawing/nature journaling again. Try going to a place specifically to draw.

7. Take better advantage of the many farmer’s markets that take place in my area

8. Local baseball team games! My husband and I love going to these and I am excited for the season to start again. Outside, deliciously bad stadium food, free giveaways.

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We’ll start with those 8 for now and see how they go.  The one problem is the top 3 things I’d like to do pretty much all involve some initial money investment. As a person who tends to get very excited about things for short periods of time, I hate to put in the money if I’m not sure it will really stick. I will try to get creative with my planter boxes and balcony furniture and scour Craigslist for a cheap bike, but if anyone has suggestions for how to do these things more affordably, I’m all ears!

I’m glad to at least have made a list–I might not accomplish all of it, but if I never made the list then I definitely wouldn’t. What kinds of fun things would you like to accomplish this season? Maybe you’d like to take up fishing, learn how to cook a local vegetable you haven’t tried before, take a walk around the neighborhood, or climb that nearby hill you see every day? For our southern hemisphere friends, maybe you’d like to try to get out more even in the cold? As Married with Luggage asks on their blog, what can you (and I!) do today to make our lives happier?

So come on, summer! Let’s see what we can do.

 

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.

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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 askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.  I would love to hear from you!

 

Spring Growth April 8, 2011

What a difference a day makes…

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As much as I love nature and being outside, I am not a person who is good at raising plants. I want all of the benefits with none of the work, and I don’t do the research necessary to really care for them well. As a result, I just don’t keep them! Every summer, though, I suddenly wish I had tomato plants. I sometimes go and buy a full grown plant, setting it out on my balcony and heading out every now and then to collect the glowing fruit.

This year, though, I am trying to get a head start. I bought this little tomato starter kit and some seeds, and tried to follow the little set of directions on the back. I’ve already had to ask my excellent Facebook friends for tips, like should you rotate the plants so they don’t get leggy (yes) and now am wondering how I ‘cut back’ all but the strongest seedling. Do I snip it with scissors?  Pull out the whole plant? And how do I know the right time for putting them outside?

It is a learning process, but it has been so much fun just to watch these little guys spring up in the window in front of my work desk. I have watched them grow with speed and force, unfurling their leaves and reaching for the sun. They turn as I rotate them, leaning their faces back toward the light.

I can’t promise they will make it through a whole season of living with me, but I am certainly going to try! In the mean time, I am going to take pictures of them every day, just like I did for the Backyard Transition Challenge last fall. I encourage you to do the same! If not something you are growing, than just something you see changing around you–a bud on a tree branch, a weed in your yard. It is always a great experience to watch something grow and be able to look back and see how far it really has come.

Happy Spring!

 

Once More with Feeling March 7, 2011

Yesterday, a gentle rain fell over central Pennsylvania, saturating the struggling earth and melting away the last remnants of ice clinging along the roads.  It was that good kind of rain, the kind I imagine makes the earth sigh and open its arms. I thought about how soon my husband and I will play catch in the yard. I picked out clothes for a “30 for 30 challenge” I started today, including flip-flops, capris pants, and two dresses. Spring was coming and I was ready.

In the late afternoon I sat watching the rain out the window when suddenly, shockingly, it turned into snow right before my eyes. The snow got heavier and heavier, swirling around in a miniature blizzard just outside the glass. It snowed for the rest of the evening and through the night, leaving us buried in a winter wonderland that rivals anything we had in December or January.

When it first started snowing yesterday I was sad about it, but this morning I woke up and the branches were stacked with snow, the sun was bright and reflecting off every surface, and I just wanted to go outside.  I can’t explain it, but my number one rule besides “Try to make yourself go out even if you don’t want to because you will be happy once you get there,” is “If you DO want to go out, go NOW NOW NOW before it is too late!!!”

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I dug my long underwear out of the closet and my winter boots out of the car (Note: Do not keep winter boots in your car! The walk from the house to get them will defeat the whole purpose), and set out to see what I could see.

The air was crisp but not freezing, in the way that it sometimes is when snow keeps everything close and muffled. My boots squeaked and crunched and the sun shone on everything. The snow was stacked high on every surface, and the low bushes and rocks were now just mysterious lumps along the ground.

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I am not a morning person but today was out early enough to enjoy the empty sidewalks before anyone shoveled (sorry, neighbors, for packing the snow down with my boots so it is now impossible to remove!). There weren’t even animal tracks yet, as if the squirrels and birds were as stunned as I had been to see a finally green world erased and white.

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In one spot there was a “wild” overgrown area right off the path. The sun was hitting it directly and it looked really beautiful. Welcoming and magical and quiet. I took a series of photos of it using my iPhone, which is currently the “camera” I use for everything. I am not a professional photographer, and I was amazed when I got home at how much the scene didn’t translate into the photos at all!  I had to laugh to see this three-dimensional wonderland show up as a flat and tangled place.

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I think it would have been better if I had kneeled down to take the picture instead of standing, so you felt like you were on the same level as the plants. To my photographer readers, anything else I could do in the future to capture this kind of busy space more accurately?

I continued on, craning my neck and standing right at the base of trees to get a “squirrel’s eye view” of all of the bright snow on the branches. I like how the snow makes this branch look like a feather from underneath:

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All in all, it was a lovely walk. I came in with red cheeks to the smell of coffee I had started in the coffeepot before I left. I hung my jeans up to dry by the door, and sat in front of my window to watch the world go by and write this post. I am making the effort not to be miserable about this snow for at least a couple more days, but really I didn’t have to work for my happiness this morning. Sometimes the yellow sun is reflecting off the brilliant new snow and what can you do but feel joy that you were there to see it?

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