Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Summer Wishes May 25, 2011

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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.

 

Outdoor Fun for All Ages May 19, 2011

Almost every morning during the week I wake up, eat a banana and–if I’m organized enough and remembered to wash the old congealing milk out of it–pour coffee into my travel mug, climb into the car, and drive in the opposite direction of all the commuting traffic out into the neighboring community in which I work. After much planning, my outdoor days with grades K – 8 are finally here!

For these days I put together a series of outdoor activities and lead each class through them, teaching them about topics they have learned throughout the year in as hands-on a way as possible. Some grades travel to nearby locations like a wetland or stream, while others learn right on the school grounds. They are so much fun, and I have been having a great time! The kids are wonderful and have a lot of great questions and insights.

Unfortunately, I won’t put up the many adorable pictures I have of the kids themselves, but I thought I’d share a few other photos of the days and what we have been up to. Below is a random collection of pictures from a variety of different activities.

I feel very lucky that I get to do this for my job!

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The owner of the wetland’s rule was that everyone had to get at least a little muddy. Many of them fulfilled this obligation!

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And this station didn’t hurt…

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Some crayfish discovered during a macroinvertebrate study.

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A ghostly bee keeper suit watches over some kids learning about hives.

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A local dairy farm shows some kindergartners the different parts of the feed they give their cows. This matched a later activity where I gave the kids vegetables and we talked about the different body parts they kept healthy.

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A sign showing how to get to the “plant art” station at the end of the boardwalk.

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Some clay pots painted by a kindergarten class drying in the window. Later, they filled these with soil and planted seeds in them to take home.

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A large tooth (I believe cow) that students found in the stream during the macroinvertebrate study.

It’s been so fun to go out with all of the different age groups and help them experience nature. I have learned so much and love hearing their thoughts and impressions of the different activities. I end every day with what I call “Nature Letters,” where students pick a family member or friend to write a letter to about their day. They have to include at least (1.) something they learned, (2.) their favorite part of the day, and (3.) something they did that day that they would like to do again with the person they are writing to.  They write the letter first and then draw a picture to match. I LOVE reading what stood out to them about the day and like to imagine the person they are writing to getting the letter. One girl wrote to her older sister, and drew a picture of them collecting litter together sometime in the future. Another included “BEST MOM EVER!” in all cap bubble letters at the end of his. In the example I do with the class I always write to my grandma (hi, Grandma!) so some of them write to grandparents as well, or cousins, or a best friend in a different class. I am very careful with students to NEVER ever say “mom and dad” or “parents,” always “families.” It’s a simple change in words that helps to include every student, whether they are raised by another family member, their dad and stepmom, a single parent, their brother, their two moms, etc. etc.

Anyway, in a second grade class I noticed that one of the girl’s drawings had me in it! In the picture I am holding a ziploc bag with some milkweed seed pods in it, which I used to talk about seed dispersal and plant adaptations. So, in case you have been wondering what I look like, look no further!

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I also want to say that these days are partly made possible by volunteers who come out and help me lead stations. This is especially necessary if a grade has more than one class of students. In these cases I simply couldn’t do the days without them, and I am very grateful there are people who are interested and able to spend time with the kids to teach them about nature.

As a quick public service announcement I just want to say that if you happen to have any spare time (which, I know, is rare), please consider helping out your local schools! I had a very difficult time finding volunteers this year and I know the parent teacher groups are having the same problem. Also, many public schools have had funding for assemblies, art programs, and extracurricular stuff completely cut out, and they would LOVE to have an interested party come in and do some programs with their kids. Maybe you could lead a class or two in an outdoor painting activity? Or bird watching? Or bring in vegetables from your garden? Or lead them in a song about nature? The possibilities really are endless and I’m sure there is something to match up with your specific interests.

If you have a particular hobby or specialty you would like to share with students but don’t know how to get started or what age-appropriate activity matches, please contact me and I will do everything I can to help! I can be reached by e-mail at any time at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

I hope everyone is having a great week getting outdoors. As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Environmental Education and Autism May 10, 2011

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Disclaimer: I am not a trained special needs educator, and am still learning how to best engage with Autistic and other special ability students. This post is about what I have learned so far in my journey to work with students on the Autism spectrum in my school district. Each student is different, and what works for one child might be completely wrong for another. There is also a lot we are still learning about Autism Spectrum Disorders, and so some of what I am writing could change in the future. If you would like to work more with children with special needs, please work closely with their educator to ensure that your activities are as safe and engaging as possible. 

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Do a quick google search for “outdoor activity” + almost any grade and a variety of activities on different topics come up to start you on your way. Do a search for “outdoor activity + autistic students” and it is a completely different story.  To be fair, every student on the autism spectrum is different, and as a result it is hard to write curriculum the same way you can for “neurotypical” students.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been trying to expand programs into the special needs classrooms. It has been a great experience so far, and I have learned a LOT already. I want to make it clear right off the bat, though, that I am writing this just as a novice for other novices. While I hope to take some coursework on this subject some day, I have not yet, and everything I am saying here I have just learned from a few experiences and reading a variety of blogs and websites.  I wanted to write it up anyway, though, because there are so few activity descriptions out there, and even if every child is different I think it can help to at least have a starting point to jump off from.

First, anyone considering doing an activity with a class of autistic students should speak as much as possible to the special needs educator. If possible, go into the classroom a few days before your activity to just sit silently and watch the students–this can really help you feel more prepared. I would recommend listening carefully to the way the educators speak to the students, and the methods they use to communicate with them.  For example, in my class there is one deaf student, so I learned the signs for a few simple words related to my activity like “tree,” and “bird” before going in. You will probably notice that the room is very quiet and there isn’t a lot of extraneous explanation. Students on the autism spectrum tend to do best with direct and specific instruction.

Many times, students with autism also have sensory processing disorders. The details vary greatly for every student, but generally you should avoid loud sudden noises and be willing to stop to take a “sensory break” if necessary.  On this note, the very best piece of advice I can give someone who is interested in working more with these children (or any child, for that matter!) is to always be willing to change your plans. I would even explicitly tell the teacher that you would like them to stop you or step in if they feel that the children need a break or should be doing something else.

It is also useful to provide the teacher with info on what you are planning to do ahead of time–they might want to take the class to the outside area first to get them used to it, or talk about some of the topics before you get there. In some cases, you might even find that the best thing you can do is just provide the teacher with activities and materials to work with the students her/himself.

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(Source)

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When I think about being an educator, I always think of Walt Whitman’s poem “There Was a Child Went Forth.” In the poem, everything a child sees or learns become a part of him. I feel the same way as an educator! Everything I read or experience comes back to help in small, unexpected ways. For this reason, I recommend reading as much as you can from the many blogs, books, and websites available. There is still so much we don’t know about autism, so each source will tell you something a little different. When I was creating the activity written out below, I was wandering around a store looking for different textures to use. I had been planning on using mainly rough textures, when I suddenly remembered a blog post written months ago by a mother of a 4-year-old child on the spectrum. In the post she talked about how he went through a phase where he rubbed playing cards on everything because he really liked the smooth feeling. Because of reading that post months ago that at the time was nothing more than a story, I changed my tactic and gathered together a variety of textures, including smooth and soft ones.

The activity I ended up creating is about trees and their different parts.  I started off by singing this song from the “Sequoia Riverlands Trust” website. It is to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and goes through the crown, branches, trunk, roots, etc. The special needs educator at my school recommended to me that songs with hand motions are useful–that way students can sing or hum along if they want, or can just follow along with the motions.

Next, we went outside to an enclosed courtyard in the school and walked around feeling the bark of the trees, the smooth leaves, the soft dandelion flowers, and anything else we could find. This part went fairly well, except that one student got very upset at first because he had put his jacket on and thus thought he was going out to play. This makes sense to me in hindsight because routines are a very important tool for autistic students, and he has probably been taught specifically that he needs to put his jacket on before he goes to play. This kind of thing will come up when you are teaching, and, if you learn from them, these mistakes will make you better for the next time.

Finally, we came back in the classroom. We ended up doing a finger painting activity where the students drew a tree trunk on a paper and then used their thumbs dipped in paint to make leaves. I had a whole other activity planned for this part, but the teacher thought this would be best instead based on the kind of day the students were having. I had brought the finger paints along as a sort of un-formulated back up plan, and was really glad I did! It makes me look like a bag-lady, but I try to keep as many supplies as possible in the trunk of my car just for this kind of scenario. In the future, I will make more detailed back-up plans like this in case I need to use them with the students.

As I said, we did not end up using the other activity I had planned, but I want to write it up anyway because the teacher said she thought it would work on a one-to-one basis with the students.

To tie in with the tree song, I constructed a tree “puzzle” out of a variety of materials. Autistic students generally like different tactile sensations, so I tried to make it out of as many different textures as possible, as mentioned above.

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I cut the tree trunks and branches out of sand paper for a rough texture, the leaves out of vinyl fabric for a smooth texture, and flowers/fruits out of yarn for a soft one. I made one complete version of the puzzle and taped it to a small white board so the students could look at one and copy it if they needed to. My original idea was for the students to arrange the parts in the proper order onto white poster board to make a tree. I realize now that it might be even better to have the pieces already arranged and have them spend time feeling the different textures and helping them label the parts, although this probably depends on the individual abilities of each child. The completed tree looked like this:

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As mentioned, this one is taped to a white board so I could label the different parts in real-time.

While students on the autism spectrum tend to like different textures, which textures they like depends entirely on the student. In the class I worked with, one student really enjoyed the rough texture of the sand paper bark while another became very upset after touching it because he preferred smooth textures. For this reason, the greater variety you have the better off you will be, with something for each child.

I sent a letter home to the families of these students explaining what we had done that day, lyrics to the tree parts song, and a description of how they could make their own tree “puzzle” if they wanted to. I am a big believer in this type of thing so that the families can work with their child later on what they learned in school–I try to do this with every class I work with, not just the special needs classes.

I had a great time working with these students and I can’t wait to do it again in the future. Again, the most important piece of advice I can probably give is to be flexible, that it will not always go the way you think it will, and that’s okay! In my head I imagined the children being very engaged in the tree puzzle, exploring the outdoor space with awe, and everyone carrying me out of the schools on their shoulders cheering about how great the activity was (…okay maybe not that last part). In reality, one student had terrible allergies outside and starting sneezing, and then became very upset about the horrible and overwhelming sensation of his newly stuffy nose, we changed activities at the last moment, and my entire session lasted half as long as I had originally planned.

I am not there yet, but every time I go in to this classroom I get a little better and a little more aware of how to best interact with these awesome students. I am always looking to learn more, so if you have a favorite resource about engaging with Autistic students or working outside with special needs children, please pass the information my way! If you are a parent or educator and have any insight on what kinds of things your child/student likes to do outside, I would really love that information as well. Also, she probably won’t see it, but I want to give a quick thank you to the simply amazing special needs educator at my school who has been willing to work with me, teach me about her students, and help me be a better educator myself!

If you would like to read more, here are some of the resources I have found helpful so far. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and I am still looking, but it is a place to start!

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AutismSpeaks.org

National Autism Association  

WrongPlanet.net

10 Activities for Autistic Students

Outdoor Toys for Autistic Children

How to Use Play Therapy to Treat Autism

Best Physical Activities for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autistic Children Activities

StarkRavingMadMommy.com

HartleysBoys.com

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Thank you so much for reading! I hope some of this information can be helpful to other environmental educators/outdoor enthusiasts looking to bring the wonderful world of nature into a special needs classroom. If you have any other insights, advice, corrections, or information, please leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com. See you out there!

 

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!

 

25 Inspirations from Nature March 16, 2011

Change has finally arrived to the world outside my window. The snow that poured down just a week ago is gone from sight. The birds are singing and fluttering outside my window. The internet nature-lovers community is on fire with talk of gardens and composting. There is another change happening too–during this in-like-a-lion out-like-a-lamb-at-least-we-hope month, I am turning 25 years old.

One of my favorite personal blogs, Dig this Chick, has a post every birthday where she writes one thing she currently loves for each year she has been alive. I really like reading these posts, and thought I would try my hand at it, with a nature twist.  So here, dear readers, are 25 things that currently inspire me about nature, science, and being outside.

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1. The Sun. Gentle enough to make your take off your jacket and stretch out on the grass, powerful enough to burn you from even 9.3 million miles away.

2. A smooth, round stone held loosely in the palm of your hand.

3. Powering myself over the landscape with just my heart, my lungs, my feet.

3.. Time-lapse videos that show how plants grow.

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4. The smell of the earth after a gentle rain.

5. Evolution. By far the most exciting thing I have ever learned about the world. I see the evidence for it and proof of it everywhere I turn my eyes, and it fills me with wonder.

6. Life finds a way.  I am partly using this phrasing because we just watched Jurassic Park, but also because it is true. I certainly don’t want to force life to always find a way between our concrete and glass, but I really appreciate that it does.

7. Feeling the warmth of the day still radiating from a rock face even after the sun has gone down.

8. Looking for animal tracks.

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9. Holding leaves, eggshells, snow, mud, and yes, sometimes animals in my hands. (Sorry, take only pictures leave only footprints rule! I follow you most of the time, I swear!)

10. Teaching others about nature, and hearing what they think about it. The kids I teach always have really great insights and questions, and I love hearing their perspective.

11. The online nature-lovers community, and everyone who I have “met” through it. This sounds a little cheesy, but I love feeling like I am a part of this group, and I have met many people who have supported me and shared my posts and pictures with others. It has been awesome to see what other people are working on and what they are inspired by. So thank you for all of the kind words and support!

12. Walking under naturally formed archways in the forest.

13. Learning about an animal or plant I’ve never seen before, like the raccoon dog.

14. Splitting apart a sedimentary rock with a sharp rock hammer and wondering what you will find inside.

15. My magical childhood.

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16. Songs with lyrics inspired by nature. This is a little nerdy, I know, but I can’t help it.

17. Making boats out of pieces of wood and leaves and sending them down the creek.

18. This video, which I can’t believe is real.

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19. Queen Anne’s Lace.

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20. A milky clean journal page and a fine tip pen.

21. The signs animals leave behind.

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22. Taking photographs of the natural world around me.

23. The way nature calls to almost all people in some way, even if they don’t know too much about or don’t spend a lot of time in it.

24. Knowing that I am the product of 2.5 million years of humans, 200 million years of mammals, 3.8 billion years of cells, 4.5 billion years of earth, 13.7 billion years of space, and who knows what before that!

25. Being alive! Seeing what there is to see.

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I wonder what will inspire me next year?  How about you, readers? What makes you want to get outside or learn more about the world around you? What keeps you excited and yearning for more? What special connections do you feel for the plants and animals in your backyard?

Thanks for reading, and as always, I’ll see you out there!

 

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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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!