Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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!

 

Bird Nests in Your Backyard March 3, 2011

Today it is 33 degrees outside. Tomorrow it will be 41. Saturday, 52.  There is a lot of rain in the forecast, but on March 12th a “full day of sunshine” is proposed. Do you know what this means, readers?  In the northeast United States, spring is coming.

As you may have guessed from my recent posts, I will be very happy to see winter go. In the mean time, though, I have noticed a surprising benefit to the leaves being off the trees.

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Bird nests! If you keep an eye out, you can see them easily right now through the branches of trees, without the dark foliage to camouflage them. I sometimes see them in my neighborhood, nestled against the bare bark. I also sometimes see bird and squirrel nests in the trees while I am driving. I usually am not able to stop to take pictures, but I enjoy seeing them and getting a glimpse of how animals are living and raising their young.

Last year, when this blog was still a baby, I discovered a pair of mourning doves nesting on my balcony. They eventually laid eggs and hatched a squab. I really loved having them there and was sad to see them go.  Last May I also had the opportunity to see a killdeer nest and have a reader submit video of bluebird and wren babies living in his backyard. All of this means I am very excited to have the chance to look at some bird nests up close before all of the leaves grow back and birds take up residence again.

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The change in season also means that birds are going to start building new nests soon. Gathering material to build nests is a lot of work, so some people put out “nest material holders,” for birds to visit and borrow from.  You can buy professional versions of these, or you can make your own. Here is a crafted nest material holder shaped like a little house, and here is one made from a mesh onion bag.

One of the professional sellers also has a lot of great information about how to make your own and what materials to use. I am going to copy and paste some of that info here, but please know that I got the info from another website: http://www.bird-house-bath.com/nesting-materials.html

 

“You can put out centralized stashes of nest material. It can be natural materials like straw, small sticks, and twigs, or man made items such as yarn and string. Always use natural colored, un-dyed man made items. Try putting out any combination of the following:
– Thin twigs
– Dog and cat hair – If you have dogs or cats, and we do, you know what a cakewalk this one is. Simply brush pet and pull insane volumes of hair from the brush. Later, you can be enormously amused that the cute little bird babies outside were raised in a nest from your pet hair – as your pet glares out the window.
– Human hair – from your hairbrush
– Thin strips of cloth – cut about an 1 wide and 4-6 inches long
– Feathers – old down or feather pillows are a resource for this
– Long dried grasses
– Yarn or thread or string cut into 4-6 inch lengths
– Pieces of cotton, fluff. We actually purchased an inexpensive cotton filled throw pillow on clearance for this and had enough nesting materials to share with all our (equally strange as ourselves) birding friends for several seasons. Next time, it’s a smaller pillow!
– Long wilted leaves from daffodils, tulips or iris
– Small strips of cellophane – cut thinly and 4-6 inches long
– Spanish moss
– Regular moss – Once a season we pick some moss while on walks and lay it out to dry for a few days, them add to our nesting materials supplies.
– Pine needles – plenty of that to go around in most places.
– Milkweed silk – this one is favorite of several species of birds and worth collecting a few pods if you can. American goldfinch and orioles use ot often.
– Horse hair – Do you ride or know anyone that does? Horse hair from manes and tails is great stuff and very strong!

Items we do not use:
– Dryer lint. While there are several opinions about this, we tend to stay away from anything that may harm the birds. If you get dryer lint wet, when it dries it is hard and crumbles apart. Also, it is unclear if dryer sheets or other chemicals used when washing clothing is harmful for birds so we choose to not go there and give them items we are positive will not hurt them. Laundry detergent or fabric softener residue just does not sound good to us. Maybe it will not hurt them is not enough for us to test.
– Plastic sacks such as grocery bags – We have seen these suggested and think it is a very bad idea. Who has not seen a plastic sack after it has gotten wet and then dried up? Maybe you set on a damp spot at one time. They get hard and brittle and the logo dye cracks of them in flakes.”

This website recommends putting these materials out now (early March) to get birds started. I also want to echo what they said about using plastic–I have read that many birds are running into trouble by using plastic fibers in their nests that don’t insulate the way natural materials do. As a result, the eggs don’t stay warm enough and do not hatch. For this reason do not use anything plastic, and the more natural materials you can provide, the better!

I want to end this post by linking to some really amazing bird nest videos from the always lovely Sir David Attenborough. These should get you inspired for the upcoming nesting season!

First, here are some very clever ways that birds camouflage their nests. If you like to craft/sew/make things you should especially watch this! It is astounding to me that birds can do such delicate work with only their beaks!!

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Next we have one of my favorite examples, the Australian bowerbird. In addition to building a large covered structure, this bird collects and organizes found objects into pleasing arrangements to attract a mate. Some birds only collect blue items, others have a variety of colors. It is a lot of fun to watch the birds placing everything just so, and examining with a critical eye.

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Finally, here is a type of nest I had never seen before looking up the previous videos. It is a giant “apartment complex” of straw that houses hundreds of birds. Keep watching until the end so you can see their little heads poking out!

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I also want to give a shout out to one of my favorite nature blogs, www.goexplorenature.blogspot.com. The author recently said on Facebook that she is building a nest with her sons out of materials they find on neighborhood walks. She is going to be posting about it soon (I believe tomorrow, Friday), and I encourage you all to check it out!

So what about you, dear readers? Have you noticed any bird nests around? Have you seen any birds building yet around your yard? Do you ever put out building materials for them? What other signs of seasonal change are you noticing and looking forward to?  What do you hope the next season will bring?

 

 

 

Fox in the Snow – Reader Submission February 2, 2011

*Edited to include more photos*

As you may have seen scrolling across the green screen maps on your local news station, the east coast of the United States has been locked in snow for the past week. The area where I live had it a little easier than some places–in the morning I planned on writing about the branches encased in ice and the snow turned hard and sharp overnight, but by afternoon could have written instead about the bright sun glinting off a thousand reflective surfaces, the ice dripping away into the gutters.

The home of today’s reader submission, however, is in an area that has been repeatedly buried in snow, resulting in school closings, treacherous roads, and power outages. Regardless, reader John G. knows that magic is around every corner, and has sent in the following pictures of winter wonder in his backyard.

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The first is this great sighting of a red fox walking along a forest path just past his backyard–he could see this from the window of his house! Red foxes are such beautiful animals, and I like that this one is getting a break from the tough travel through snow and brambles by walking on the same path as people, dogs, and horses.

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Here is a close-up of the same fox. What a wonderful animal!  Love the coloration and its small pointy face.

Next, he sent a really beautiful picture of a place in the snow where a bird must have suddenly taken flight.

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Can you see it?

I haven’t noticed any of these myself yet in my search for animal tracks in the snow, but I will definitely keep my eye out from now on! What a great find. It’s amazing how each wing tip is so distinct in the glimmering snow. I wonder if this type of print look different depending on if the bird is landing or taking off? If you are interested in more pictures like this, I would recommend just google image searching “bird wing prints in snow.” There are some really neat ones, like this and this.

Finally, he sent in these pictures of the ice-covered brambles, pine trees, and other plants near his house–a result of the most recent snow/freezing rain storm. You can see just the kind of gray low-hanging weather we are dealing with in the background in some of them. They are great photos, so I will just let them speak for themselves:

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So how is this season treating you, readers?  Are you frozen solid in snow like John G., and myself? What kind of things are you doing to stay happy? What kind of plants and animals are making themselves known in your neighborhood? For our friends in more tropical or southern hemisphere-ical (I can make up words, right?) locations, tell us something bright and warm about your day!

Many thanks to John G. for sending in his backyard wonders! I love seeing what people all around the world are finding in their backyards, so please send pictures toaskbackyardsafari@gmail.com or post them on the Backyard Safari Facebook wall to share.

As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

The Deer in the Desert January 7, 2011

“I love being a part of the hot, blowing, scurrying, madness of the desert. I feel the way the earth does when it rains–dark spots appearing in the dust, heavy with meaning and nourishment. Welcomed. What am I saying? Things full of arrogance and personification, for sure, but true things too. The main problem is that I don’t know how to explain it. I feel like the red rocks.”

So go many of the entries in the field journal I used during my time as an SCA park guide at Arches National Park in Utah. It was a time when my backyard literally was the park and I was full of wonder at the great expanses before me. There are entries detailing how ridiculous it seemed to hang my clothes out to dry in front of towering cliff faces, or drive my “commute” to work through the unbelievable goblin landscape.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tower_of_Babel_ArchesNP_UT_USA.jpg
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The best parts of keeping a field journal are having a place to record and sort these feelings, and then being able to look back on them later and relive the experience. Many of the things I wrote about I wouldn’t remember now otherwise, but when I read about them I can picture the exact moment and place I was writing. I remember the young Say’s Phoebe practicing his landings, “dusty yellow belly and gray everything else.” I remember huddling after a hike to write “in a small curve in a red lump of rock, the sun inching its way toward my shoes.”

One of my favorite experiences from my time in the park is the one written below.  I copied it here just as it is in my journal, incomplete sentences, thousand commas, and all.

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“…As I started my hike through I walked down the hill, into the wash, and came around a corner. When I say came around a corner I mean clumsily, bumbling, heavy, with my head mostly down. Suddenly, there was a deer. Across from me, perhaps 10 feet away. It looked at me, considering, and then went back to eating the scrubby Shinnery Oak. I could hear it crunching and chewing on the little acorns and leaves. It sounded so delicious, the way food always does when animals are eating it. I watched it for a long time. Her, I guess.

Finally I started to walk but stopped again closer to her, and she looked up and straight at me. She walked closer to me and we stared at each other for a long time. Minutes. Her eyes were shiny black obsidian orbs that I couldn’t see into or get a grasp on. Her ears were large and soft, expressive. I wanted to curl my fingers in her hair and bury my face into her neck, breathing it all in. I realized I don’t know what deer smell like.

She had dark lines on her side, I guess from where she had been scratched before. I could hear her breathing and smelling the air.

There is no better lesson in grace than a deer. Nothing to make you feel more like a clumsy, heavy, beast. I felt out of place with my overstuffed backpack, watch, bright clothes. My sunscreen and water bottles and shoes. I wanted to shed these things and follow her over the sandy hill, my feet leaving little prints in the sand.

Finally, she walked by me, slowly, crossed the wash and climbed up the bank. I held my hand out in a childish anthropocentric wave as she looked back once before passing out of sight.

I wonder what she was thinking of when she watched me. She wasn’t afraid, or wary, or judging. It was more expectation than anything–waiting to see what I would do. I should have eaten some oak leaves, but instead I did nothing, trying to prove that I could be silent too. I could also wait and watch and be gentle. I should have nuzzled the ground with my mouth, too. I should have smelled the air, and shaken the gnats off my large soft ears.

Next time.”

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There are times when I look back through my old notebooks, cringe at my awkwardness or naivety, and wish there wasn’t such an extensive written record of such things. Most of the time, though, I look back with a lot of love and compassion for the person who wrote those thoughts. Wide eyed, in love with the earth and the sky, struggling to find words for her experiences in the world. I wonder what I will think in 5 years about the notes I am writing now? The bird drawings and the descriptions of the moon. Will it seem childish or arrogant? Will it still strike a chord within me, help me see that I feel just as excited about life now as I did when I was 12, 15, 19, 24?

I think most of all it will show me that there have always been amazing things to see wherever I have gone, whether it is in the woods behind my childhood home, the red rocks of the fiery desert, or the rolling green expanses around my current neighborhood.

There is always a bird learning how to fly. There is always a place in shadow turning to sunlight. There is always a deer in a wash waiting to meet its glassy black eyes with yours. The only question is will you be there to see them?

 

Nature Set in Stone November 30, 2010

Brick lined streets, open store fronts, new built on old, planes, trains, and undergrounds! My husband and I recently returned from a brief whirlwind tour of London, during which we walked (and walked and walked) through the streets, ate delicious food, and saw what we could see. I also want to say a quick thanks to all of the great people we saw there, some of whom have made the jump from my husband’s cricket blog over to my nature one–it was wonderful to meet you!

It is always fun to go explore a new place, and I saw a lot of great city nature like pigeons, magpies (extremely smart birds that can recognize themselves in mirrors), and little parks blooming green through the gray limestone buildings.  In addition to the nature itself, though, there were many other signs of the great influence it has on us as humans. One of these is all of the plants and animals that make an appearance in the art and architecture all over the city. I have never thought to look at these specifically before, but I am sure that in the future I will see it in every city and town, not just London.

Once I noticed this I spent the rest of the trip on the lookout for creatures carved out of stone and metal in addition to the living ones. As with so many things, once I noticed I realized they were everywhere! I continued the search into the British Museum, where I found a bounty of nature represented in historical artifacts.

Below are just a few of what I found during our trip:

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A deer running through a forest on a wall carving in the British Museum

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A cricket (I believe?) as a hieroglyphic symbol in Egyptian writings from the British Museum

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A large fish (catfish? koi?) adorns a lamp-post on the street in London

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A close up of part of an ungulate (hoofed animal) of some kind from the Egyptian section of the British Museum

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A close up of a sunflower held in the hand of a Hindu god in a statue in the British Museum.

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A lion stands guard over Trafalgar Square in London.

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A close up of one of the many animals adorning the gate leading into Shakespeare’s Globe Theater near London Bridge.

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A close up of a ram’s head in the Egyptian section of the British Museum

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A close up of a conch shell in the hand of a Hindu god on a statue in the British Museum

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A close up of hieroglyphics, which contain many animal symbols to represent letters and sounds, like a goose, a cricket (or is it a wasp?), and a falcon.

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As I mentioned, once I started looking I found nature represented in art, architecture, and artifacts all over the city. It was especially interesting in the British Museum–I had planned on going to the Natural History Museum, but when I realized we only had time for one decided on the British Museum instead, and it was exciting to see how much nature was still there after all! I am excited to keep looking for this kind of representation in the future, especially at other art and history museums. Who knows how many examples of this are hiding all around us that I’ve just never noticed before!

What kind of examples of this are there where you live? Is there something you walk by every day and just haven’t noticed before? Have you ever incorporated natural themes into decorating your own room or home? We are all more strongly influenced by nature than we realize, and as always, you can find nature anywhere if you look hard enough!

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Activity for parents/teachers: Take kids on a scavenger hunt through a city, town, museum, or even your own house to see how many representations of nature they can find! How many different types or species can the recognize? Are there more animals or plants? Were they made recently or a long time ago? If cameras are available take pictures of each example and make a collage to hang up at home or in the classroom. Optional: Make a bingo board of different plants/animals for kids to take a long–see if anyone can find enough examples to win!

 

Backyard Baby Birds August 13, 2010

Have you ever kept a birdhouse in your yard? Ever thought of keeping one?  Well, today’s guest submissions are sure to inspire you to do just that! Although as you will see, birds don’t always need a wooden house to make a home!

Long time reader of the blog John G. sent in this series of videos of birds living in his yard. The first two show the same set of baby bluebirds from their early days out of the egg to the time they start to grow feathers.

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This next video is of the same birdhouse a few weeks later, after those babies had fledged. Looks like there is another brood coming!

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The eggs are such a beautiful blue color!

The next two videos are of an amazing wren nest John G. discovered in one of the potted plants hanging on his porch. They are also taken over time, so this is the same brood of chicks as they get older. I love the second video especially because you can hear the tiny sounds they make! Pretty amazing!

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So many exciting things are going on all around us! Because of the time John G. spent watching the comings and goings of the wildlife in his backyard, he was able to see the bluebirds nesting in the wooden birdhouse, discover the tiny wren nest hidden in his hanging plant, and safely capture these videos while the parents were away.

What kind of excitement would a birdhouse (or hummingbird feeder, or bird bath, or salt lick) add to your life? It takes a little bit of effort to put them up at first, but I promise the pay-off is great!

What kind of habitats do you have in your yard? Is there anything in particular you do to try to attract wildlife? What kind of creatures–big and small–have stopped by? Feel free to discuss in the comments or send me an e-mail at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com. Finally, many thanks to reader John G. for sending in the videos and sparking this great topic!

FaceTweet it!

 

Backyard Exploration August 2, 2010

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Readers, I have a bit of a confession to make. I really love nature and being outside, but I do not go out as much as I should. This is, truthfully, because sometimes I am lazy and it can be difficult to motivate myself to go. I know this is not uncommon, and something lots of people struggle with, but it is not often written about in nature blogs. I am trying to be honest here, though, to show that you don’t need to be the kind of person who is dying to climb mountains at 6 am every weekend in order to love and experience nature–although if that is what you like to do more power to you!

I should also tell you that I don’t own a single pair of those zip-off nylon convertible pants that make up the stock of most outdoor stores. I wear jeans, almost exclusively, everywhere, and for every activity. This preference is sometimes confused with inexperience, but really I’ve just always done it this way, ever since I was a kid. I usually feel more comfortable in tough jean material, which can take walking through sticker bushes and sliding down sandstone better than thinner fabrics. I’ve worn them in the woods, in streams, up mountains, occasionally to run in, and even swimming in the ocean once. I’m not discouraging the use of professional outdoor clothing at all–I have many friends and colleagues who swear by them–I’m sharing this just to show that in most cases you don’t need to stock up on any certain type of “outdoor wear” in order to explore nature. If you have a preference, please use it, but don’t let the lack of these materials keep you from checking out your backyard!

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I’ve been having a hard time being active lately–I don’t like treadmills because there is nothing interesting to look at, but when I run outside I keep thinking about how far I have to go to get back home. It’s a mental block, and I decided to solve it by just going for a walk. An exploration, really, following my feet and looking for interesting things as I went. I started today, and ended up wandering for a over an hour! Along the way, there was a great number of wonderful things–more than I ever expected to see!

My walk took me from a tree-lined street, along a highway, across a field, down a different highway, and finally on a foot path next to a golf course. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there would be much nature to see on such a journey. This is not the case, of course, especially if you look small!

To begin with, the variety of flowers and butterflies I saw was astounding! Bright pinks, whites, yellows, and purples abounded in both. I also saw bumble bees with full pollen sacs on chicory flowers, grasshoppers, and a lot of other interesting plants.

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In the field I saw these thistle plants along with some bright yellow flowers. The thistle seeds are starting to blow away on the stuff that looks like white fur. Here is a close up:

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I followed the top of a hill beside a paved footpath next to the highway and found this hidden treat growing in a ditch:

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It was also up along the hilltop that I noticed a small dirt path heading into the trees on the other side of the ditch. I broke away from the main road to follow it, and that is how I discovered a very appealing foot-path through some trees beside a local golf course.

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I saw many beautiful things on this path, including daisies, queen anne’s lace, chipmunks, and a few different kinds of insect damage. There were the usual holes on leaves where insects had chewed through, but there were also leaf mines and something called a gall, where an insect egg is laid inside a plant and then lives inside it as a larva.

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Finally, as I moved beyond the path and back through a field, I saw this small hole in the grass. I assume it belongs to a field mouse or some other small mammal.

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I had a really wonderful time on my walk! It’s amazing the things you can see when you slow down and start to really look around you. I expected to see some things, but I never expected to see the plethora of plants, insects, and animal signs that I did. It really motivated me to get out more and keep making that effort.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my main inspiration for starting Backyard Safari was to show people that you don’t need a lot of special equipment or wide open spaces in order to have a relationship with nature. All I started with today were jeans, flip flops, my camera phone, and the small patches of wilderness that make up the spaces between roads and houses in Suburbia. What I ended up with, though, was much bigger!

One of the best things about nature is how wonderful it is in all sizes. If you only have a small space to explore, try looking for the small things in it! A herd of elk or pack of wolves is amazing if you have them, but so is a passing butterfly, a milkweed pod, or a ripening blackberry. The important thing is that you get out there and see what there is to see!

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