Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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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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!

 

Human Nature April 13, 2011

(Source – Tim Allen)

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Are you an animal? Are we part of an ecosystem? Are humans still evolving, with all of the other creatures around us?

The answer is YES, my friends. YES. We are mammals, we are animals, we are vertebrates, we are multi-celled organisms. We came from this world, our ancestors changing through time and space, stepping trembling webbed feet onto land and scurrying into burrows to avoid a hungry dinosaur, and reaching nimble fingers towards a glistening, golden fruit, and stepping out from the edge of the forest into unknown, open grasslands. Spreading across the world, over land bridges and expanses of ocean. Using fire, planting seeds, training other creatures to be our friends and tools. Wheels and pack animals allowing us to carry things in a way we never could before,  developing specialties, building stronger houses. Learning about sanitation and disease so our loved ones could survive. Building strange contraptions that let us capture a moment in time, hear our mother’s voice on the other end, exchange information with people around the world. The world, once huge and incomprehensible, gets small. We share medicine, scientific advancements, philosophical wisdom with each other.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

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We share terrible things too, but the point here is that we aren’t some creature that appeared out of the blue and proceeded to change everything–we are born of this world, born of these animals and these plants, born of these bacteria and these oceans.

We believe we are so different from everything else (and everyone else) in the world, and it hurts us. It makes us feel like we can do anything we want, but just as harmful, makes us feel like we are hopeless, terrible creatures who have ruined everything.  I believe that if we want people to care, to conserve, we need to bring back the positive aspects of being a part of the world. We need to acknowledge the amazing progress that humans have made. Our creativity, our innovation. We need to use the qualities that have brought us here to help us into the future.

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(Source)

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I love when people embrace our place in the ecosystems of the world, and so was very excited to hear about the new BBC Earth program “Human Planet.” Each episode profiles people living in a certain landscape, like mountains or forests. It is simply amazing, and I love every second of it. The will of humans to live, and the universal desire to create a better life for your children than you had for yourself, is astounding.

I was really struck, watching the show, by the many advancements humans have made–advancements that required a single person to decide that the way their world was then wasn’t the way it always had to be. In one area, someone long ago carefully planted young mangrove trees, stringing the tender roots slowly across a river. Today, there are astonishing living bridges of thick, intertwined trees, allowing people to cross safely even during monsoons. In another place, a bat hunter once decided that if an opening was cut in the forest, many bats would probably try to fly through the easier-to-navigate short cut, and maybe, just maybe, a net could be strung up to catch them.

It is this ingenuity that has allowed us to not just survive, but thrive, in almost any environment.

My favorite part of the show was a story of a family in Tibet. They lived high in the snowy mountains, and wanted their two children to go to school. Their young girl was about 8 or 10, and accompanied her father on a 6 day trek along a frozen river through the mountains to get to the village where she would start school for the first time. It was very dangerous, and at a few parts along the way they had to navigate narrow shelves of ice about to break through, or climb down a “ladder” made of iron spikes driven into the rock. At each difficult section the father coaxed his daughter through, explaining how to move and where to put her feet. She was scared, and he guided her gently and with obvious pride at her accomplishments.

I have never had to do anything so difficult or life threatening, but it reminded me a bit of exploring the woods with my own father–crossing a river on a wire strung from bank to bank, or on a log that had fallen across. Probably the same age as the girl in Tibet, I was sometimes afraid, and I remember many times where my feet were pointed to certain safe locations, and I was encouraged to continue. I am sure there are other lucky people out there who could see their own lives in this experience as well. That love is so universal, and remains the same whether a situation is life threatening or just a weekend outing. It is the driving factor behind so many of our accomplishments, and we are all better for its existence.

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A father helps his daughter over a narrow part of the ice. To learn more about the “school run,” check out this post from Tim Allen: Source

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I was also, of course, moved by the amount of work and dedication this family put into their children going to school. Their love for their children was obvious, and shone through everything else. Next time I am driving to work I will think about how at least I don’t have to walk for 40 miles over thawing ice to get there. If they can do that, what can’t we all do?

It is time for us to embrace our humanity–to revel in it, to put our unique set of skills to use. Too often in conservation “people” is almost a dirty word. I disagree! Much of the damage people have done has been–truly, when you really come down to it–to give our children a better life, to help our parents live longer, to help stay in touch with each other, to have a comfortable place to sink into at the end of the day. If we continue to feel far away from the natural world, it can only get worse. But if we embrace our humanity, if we see ourselves in every woman, man, and child out in the world, if we use the same creativity and ingenuity that brought us fire, fishing poles, arrowheads, shelves, blankets, bridges, wheels, and nets to create a better place for our children and their children–now that is a future I would like to see.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

 

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!

 

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?

 

 

 

Winter Feelings February 21, 2011

Just a few days ago I was sitting right in this same spot, all of the windows in the house open, letting the spring air blow in, watching the hardened ice packed along the roads melt away. Today I sit and hear the cars splatter cold slush and watch the snow nestle onto tree branches. All of the grass that peaked out on Friday is covered once again.

I would like to be a person who is continuously thrilled by the things around them, no matter what they are. I am very happy, and love nature, and can always find something good in an outing, but when a close friend recently said the name ‘February’ should be changed to “Self-Esteem-Killing Darkness Home Stretch,” I had to agree!

Many times for my job I am in and out of classrooms and teacher meetings, but sometimes, especially in the dead of winter, I work from home. There are a lot of great things about this, but it can also be lonely. Finally, in an attempt to just get over it already, I moved my desk from a dark area of our main room to the second bedroom (until now still filled with boxes from moving 7 months ago) under a window.  It has made a world of difference and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner! I feel closer to the world and out of my own head. I sit in the sunlight and can see how it changes throughout the day.

One of the things I loved most about visiting southern India was that there was always something happening. People riding by on scooters and bikes, older aunties out for walks in their saris and running shoes, people selling snacks on the beach, a movie set going up, a game of cricket with a ball made from old bike tires.

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You might think that someone who loves nature and was raised as far from crowds as possible wouldn’t like being in the middle of this, but I really enjoyed the activity and still miss it just over a year later. My husband had different views of growth and expansion than I did and it’s been a great experience to consider different opinions and evaluate where I stand. I think I have a deeper love of people now than I used to. After all, people are nature too.

I recently read this post from a blog of a couple called “Married with Luggage.”  It is about a couple who ended up selling their belongings and are currently 143 days into traveling the world for as long as their money will let them. I like the post best, though, because they do not start off as people who don’t think they need a lot of things or don’t want a house or car, etc. They got to the point they are now over a few years by thinking carefully about what they really wanted, making lists, and working towards those things.

I am working on my list now. What do I really want? This Mary Oliver quote from “The Summer Day” poem gets around a lot on nature and inspirational blogs, but I have been thinking about it recently–

“…What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

What do I want? I want to live in both worlds–quiet dark forests and bustling streets, lonely stony outcrops and crowded shops. I want to dare to be happy. I want to make and write and teach. I want to see the great natural spaces of the world and I also want to know the habits of the bird living outside my window and the leaves fallen on my sidewalk. I want to be okay with feeling the cold now because next it will be warm and then it will be hot and then it will be cold again, and each is worth experiencing if only because it is my life. This is my only life! I will not have another.

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Sunrise

…”the sun

blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.”

– Mary Oliver

 

 

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!