Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Backyard Tree Changes November 6, 2010

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The brilliant colors and swirling leaves of Fall are starting to fade now as the trees become bare and Nature’s works of art are raked into quiet piles along my street.

The tree I studied for my submission to the Backyard Transition Challenge is now empty of leaves, and I have compiled all of the pictures together into a short video showing how the colors changed throughout the season.  I took pictures of this same tree every 1 – 3 days from August 2nd until November 3rd. Over these 93 days I watched as my tree began to turn red, first in small blushes on the ends of a few branches, and finally blooming across the entire tree in a grand finale of sorts, as all of the leaves fell off just a few days later.

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(Note: I recommend making this video “full screen” so you can see the pictures clearly. You can do this by pushing the button with 4 arrows in the far right of the YouTube screen)

The video goes through the pictures once quickly, and once more slowly so that the smaller changes are visible.

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I did some research and learned that the red color in the leaves comes from a chemical called anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is a pigment that acts as a sunscreen of sorts for the leaves, and as the production of green chlorophyl slows in the leaf in Autumn, this pigment (and the pigments that make yellow and orange colors) becomes visible. Not all leaves have anthocyanin, and some scientists think they might help trees hold on to their leaves longer by reducing the freezing point of the leaf.

I noticed a few different patterns while watching this tree.  First, the north facing side of the tree, which I didn’t take a picture of, turned red long before the south-facing side (the side I photographed). In this hemisphere south-facing slopes tend to get more sun, so I wondered if maybe the south-facing side changed slower because it had more access to the sun than the other side of the tree. I looked around at other trees to see if this was a trend, but I couldn’t really find one so my hypothesis is untested for now and it could have just been a coincidence. Have any of my delightful readers ever heard of one side of a tree changing faster than the other before?

I also noticed that a few branches started to turn red first. Before starting this project I wondered what the order was–did all of the leaves start to change at the same time, or did one branch at a time, or did leaves change from the inside of the tree out, etc.  It seems that at least for this tree it did in fact start in different branches.

Finally, I also realized that the reason why I often felt like trees were green one moment and in full color the next is because it’s kind of true! The tree had only small amounts of color for a long time before finally exploding into its full red. Not only that, but all of the leaves were gone from the tree just a few days after it turned its brightest colors.

The series of pictures below shows how the tree looked over time:

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08/02/10

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09/07/10

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10/07/10

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(10/26/10)

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10/27/10

The day after the above image!

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Of course the transitions my tree experienced won’t be the same as the ones other trees are going through! Different tree species probably change at different rates, some may hold on to their leaves longer, and of course the colors will be different. Even so, it was really interesting to track the changes going on in my backyard and see what I could learn from them. Taking notice of this one tree enhanced my view of other Autumn changes, and I was much more aware of them than I have been in the past. I already have plans for next year–I’d like to take a zoomed in picture of the same leaf every day, to see how the color spreads within it. I would also like to take pictures of multiple tree species to see how they are different. Finally, I might just keep taking pictures of this tree to see what it looks like when it snows, and when the leaves start to grow back again in the spring.

What kind of changes are going on in your backyard? Did the trees around you change color? Do they still have their leaves? Are some changing faster than others? Take a quick look around and see what you can find. I promise it will enrich your life for the better!

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11/03/10

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If you documented any changes as part of our Backyard Transition Challenge, or have any thoughts or questions, I would love to hear from you! I can be reached by e-mail at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading–I hope we can all be active participants in the natural world around us and take notice of the many wonders growing and changing all over Planet Earth!

 

Fall Changes Sing Along! October 29, 2010

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I am very excited to announce my first ever Backyard Safari Sing Along! I originally wrote this song for a kindergarten class to help them learn about some of the changes plants and animals go through during the Fall, but I just had to share! This song focuses specifically on what bears, trees (deciduous only!), and birds (migrants only!) do as seasons change from summer to winter. For people who live in states/countries that go through these seasons, I hope this video will be a useful way to remember some important fall transitions. For those who don’t, I encourage you to make up your own examples and lyrics that match what you experience!

If you want to perform this song again at your own pace, here are the lyrics and the hand motions that go along with it.  Thanks for watching!

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Backyard Safari Fall Changes Sing Along Lyrics

Spoken: First we will be bears:

Sing: When it’s warm (aaah sigh)

We eat all day (eating motions)

When it’s cold (brrrr! Shivering)

We sleep away! (pretend to sleep)

 

Spoken: Now let’s be trees:

Sing: When it’s warm (aaah sigh)

We grab the sun (stretch arms into air)

When it’s cold (brrr! Shivering)

Our leaves are done! (shake arms all around)

 

Spoken: Now we’ll be birds!

Sing: When it’s warm (aaah sigh)

We chirp and play (tweet tweet noises)

When it’s cold (brrr! Shivering)

We fly away! (Flap arms to fly)

 

 

Fun Fall Colors October 26, 2010

I have a lot of big blog post plans coming up that I hope to share with you soon, but in the meantime I wanted to take a moment to share some of the wonderful fall colors I have been seeing near my backyard.

Lately it seems like everywhere I go I am struck by the unbelievable colors swirling around me–vivid reds, greens fading into yellows, bright oranges, and sometimes all at once! Anytime I go for a drive I just want to pull over and take pictures of what I see to share with you. I am drinking it all in, and decided that at least a stop at a local farmer’s pumpkin stand was begging to be documented! So here, for your fall viewing enjoyment, are just a few of the colors and textures I saw there. I hope you will all take a few moments to see the changes going on around you and appreciate the beauty in the natural world!

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I admit to not always loving the cold in the winter or a soaking rain, but I also know that there are beautiful things to find in those places if I look for them. Writing this blog has really helped me slow down and take notice, and I am interested to see what my attention will focus on this winter.

Sometimes people feel silly saying out loud that something is beautiful, or for wanting to kick leaves around, or splash in a puddle. These are considered “kid things,” and once you become an adult you are supposed to be serious, keep your head down, and just get through the day. One of the biggest things I hope to accomplish with this blog is to give everyone permission to shrug off these rules and follow where their interests lead. Think that bug looks funny? Linger just a moment longer to see what it does! Feel the urge to have the wind in your hair? Stand outside after checking the mail and let the leaves swirl by. Think the colors around you are brilliant and beautiful? Take pictures of them even if people look at you funny and make a slide show to share!

There is so much to see and do–as always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Fall Changes in your Backyard October 8, 2010

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All across the eastern United States trees are exploding into a collage of color–red, yellow, orange, sometimes all on the same leaf! The daily commute to work, to the bank, to the grocery store has become an expedition seeped in color and change. Wasn’t that oak tree green just yesterday? When did the air start filling up with all of these blushing leaves?

When I was younger my brother and I used to run around the backyard trying to catch leaves as they fluttered down in their erratic descent to the earth. I still remember the feeling of looking up at those trees–so tall, towering high above me, swaying with some kind of ancient rhythm, sending their leaves down upon us in a shower of treasure. Seeing the leaves change color and start to fall still fills me with excitement all these years later (and if a leaf happens to flutter near my while I am walking, I would be a fool not to try to catch it, right??). This excitement and wonder is something I hope to pass on to the kids I work with in the schools.

The way leaves change is an amazing process and, like all things in nature, one that we should understand and appreciate! I was recently asked by a 3rd grade teacher to come up with an activity that helped explain fall transitions and I have since done it with a variety of elementary school ages.

I am going to explain the way I do this activity with kids, but I hope you will read on even if you do not have any just to learn more about why leaves change color and fall every year! Also if you are working with kids, keep in mind that you might have to make this more or less complicated depending on your age group!

I recommend starting this activity–and your own learning process!–by giving kids a few minutes to search through the leaves and find one that they really like. I then have them come up with one thing they find beautiful about their leaf, and one question they have about it. I learned pretty quickly that just starting out with a complicated explanation of the process does NOT capture kids’ hearts and imaginations. Anyone can learn facts, but the most important thing you can give someone is a Love of nature, a Passion for it, and a Curiosity about what makes it work. If people have the Passion, learning naturally follows. The idea of having them examine the leaf first is that eventually they will start to ask questions about what made it the way it is, and will want to know what I am about to tell them, rather than me just telling them they should.

It is difficult to explain why the leaves change without first explaining the very basics of photosynthesis. I like to do this using a small whiteboard I can carry around outside–I started using this a little over a year ago and now always take it with me–most kids find it helpful to have a quick picture drawn to explain concepts and I like having that option no matter where I am.  First, I draw a tree with one big leaf, explaining that what I draw for that leaf represents what happens to all the leaves on the tree.

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Next I ask kids how we, humans, get energy–by eating food! Do trees have mouths to eat food? They do not, so they have to make their own energy.  I explain that they use the sun for energy, and also water, drawing as I go. I show that water can come from the roots of the tree, and also can move in and out of a leaf.

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I explain that the part that makes the leaves green (chlorophyll) uses sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars (glucose). The tree can then use these sugars as food! To help them understand this (and tie into the game we do next) I colored a clothes pin green and glued a magnet on the back so it sticks to my board. I put it in the center of the leaf, explaining that it represents the chlorophyll.

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I then show the sunlight coming from the sun as a yellow strip of paper, which I clip in the clothes pin.

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Next, I show a blue strip of paper coming from the trunk of the tree into the leaf to represent water and also clip it in the clothes pin.

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I explain that the chlorophyll has turned this little “packet” of sunlight and water into energy, which can move back into the tree for it to use as food.

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Now comes the really exciting part of how trees lose their leaves!  If you google search “why do trees lose their leaves?” you almost always get the answer “because there is less sunlight for photosynthesis.” Over and over again this answer is given. This is true, but it is only part of the truth. Ask yourself, if it is just the sunlight changing, why don’t evergreen trees lose their leaves too?

The change in sunlight helps trees know that it is time to lose their leaves. It is a signal to them that the seasons are changing and soon it will be winter. This is the same signal that is used by birds to know to migrate and mammals to know to hibernate! How cool is that??? In most cases, it isn’t even the sunlight that tells organisms things are changing but actually the amount of darkness in between, or how long the nights are. I find it truly remarkable that so many different organisms with very different ways of living all use the same cues to know winter is coming.

So why do trees lose their leaves? Well, we already talked about how there is water moving in and out of a leaf. What would happen to the leaf when all of the water in it froze during the winter? It would be destroyed! The tiny ice crystals would puncture through the membranes and cell walls. So, instead of wasting all of its nutrients and water on a leaf that will be destroyed in cold weather, the tree starts to remove everything useful from the leaf. This means the chlorophyll also goes away, and once the green color is gone you can see all of the yellow and orange colors that were always there in the leaf, but hidden beneath the green! After most of the nutrients are removed, the tree builds a layer of cells between the branch and the leaf called the “separation layer,” which once complete causes the leaf to fall off.

Evergreen needles (which are leaves, by the way, they just look different!) have a smaller surface area and are also protected by a waxy coating, so they don’t have to worry about water in the needle freezing the way deciduous trees do.

When I was trying to come up with a hands-on activity to go along with this rather complicated explanation, I saw mention of a “photosynthesis tag game.” This is a pretty cool game you can read more about here, but I wanted to make sure kids understood that it wasn’t just the change in light that affected the leaves. I made up a new game where the class was divided into 3 groups. One group all got green clothespins, like I used on the white board. They were leaves, and the green clothes pin was their chlorophyll. One group got the yellow strips of paper, and were sunlight, and the last group got blue strips of paper and were the water moving through the tree into the leaves. I explained that each time I said “go” represented one day, and in that time each “leaf'” had to get a piece of blue paper and a piece of yellow paper from the other students and clip them in their green clothes pin. This meant that together they had made one piece of energy for the tree to lose. After each round it would have it be nighttime and collect all of the clothespins into a pile. To represent the beginning of fall, I had students tear their pieces of paper in half, showing that there was less sunlight and the trees were providing less water to the leaves. Eventually, students were only clipping tiny pieces of paper in their clothespins and then I had them all fall down to represent the leaves falling. We gathered back together to examine our pile of clothespins with paper strips, and I explained that now that these leaves were gone, the tree could use this stored energy all winter long, the same way a bear uses the fat from the food it ate in the summer while it is hibernating.

Note: the next time I do this activity I will use pipe cleaners instead of strips of paper–the pieces blow around a bit too much so it is hard for kids to hold on to them, and once they are ripped up you can’t use them again. Instead I will have kids fold their pipe cleaners in half, so I can just unfold them later to use again.

The story of why some leaves change color and fall and why others don’t is a fascinating one, and one that I hope we can all learn and share! I did not understand this process very well myself until I was creating this activity, and it really increased my enjoyment of the fall leaves around me! What a difference it makes to look out at a hillside blooming with color and understand how the trees “know” to make this change and why it is happening. How interesting to realize that those trees standing bare in the winter are just like the hibernating mammals curled up tight with their tails covering their noses! How unbelievable to know the geese honking overhead are feeling the same drive to fly south that a tree does to lose its leaves.

In short–what an amazing world we live in! Soon it will be winter here and we will be covered in snow, but for now a cacophony of pigments, chemicals, and changes are swirling around you, just waiting for you to stop and ask the question, “Why?”

 

Memories in Our Backyards September 2, 2010

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The morning is cool—dew clings to the grass and my footsteps crunch along the gravel driveway. My father is taking pictures as we all march up the long driveway and out to the bus stop at the end of our lane. I am wearing new clothes, my hair is brushed (for once!), and I am excited about the new supplies in my backpack, although I think I called it a bookbag, then. My brother, parents, and I are accompanied by our golden retriever, who walks with us to the bus stop in the morning and comes up the yard to greet us when we come home, and a scattering of geese–two pale yellow and a gray speckled one I named Domino. My brother and I are the geese’s parents and they follow us this way almost anywhere.

Every year for most of my younger life this scenario is the same, although there are not always the geese. When Autumn comes I still feel these memories tugging at me–the crisp air, the walk, the weight of clean blank notebooks waiting to have their margins filled with doodles.

Signs of fall are different for everyone–it could be the leaves changing, the night sky turning, the end of fresh peaches, or the blush of orange across a pumpkin. For my family, one sign that fall is coming to stay are the Touch-Me-Nots that grow next to our old bus stop at the end of the driveway.

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This plant actually plays a big role in my childhood explorations. Before I call it Touch-Me-Not, I call it Jewelweed. They are one in the same, but for me the name changes just like the seasons. In the summer it is Jewelweed, a shade-loving plant that grows in large clumps. This plant may seem rather ordinary from afar, but the real secret comes when you put the leaves underwater, where the underside of the leaf transforms from a pale green to a flashing silver. This was a great trick as a kid, and one I now try to show the next generations as an environmental educator. We also used to use crushed Jewelweed stems to stop itching from mosquito bites, poison ivy, or other stinging plants.

In the fall, the word Jewelweed transforms to Touch-Me-Not in my mind as the plants’ small purse-like flowers come out and the seed pods hang heavy off the stems. These seed pods–which you can see on the right in the above picture–are the most exciting part of the Touch-Me-Not, and can provide endless entertainment in general and especially while you wait for a bus to arrive. I believe Anna Comstock–the first person to take students and teachers outside to study nature in the 1890s–described them best in her Handbook of Nature Study.

“The little, straight, elongated seed pods are striped prettily and become quite plump from the large seeds within them. Impatient? We should say so! This pod which looks so smug and straight-laced that we should never suspect it of being so touchy, at the slightest jar when it is ripe, splits lengthwise into five ribbon-like parts, all of which tear loose at the lower end and fly up in spirals around which now looks like a crazy little turbine wheel with five arms. And meanwhile, through this act the fat, wrinkled seeds, have been flung several feet from the parent plant and perhaps to some congenial place for growth the following spring.”

This is what this description looks like in real life:

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In this last video especially you can see how quickly the pod disappears once it decides to go! I managed to catch the pod after one of these explosions so you can see the “crazy little turbine wheel with five arms” and “fat, wrinkled seed” Anna describes.

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Isn’t it amazing how the seed pod transforms?

I should mention that the Touch-Me-Not pictures in this post are the very ones (or perhaps I should say their great-great-great-great grandchildren) my brother and I spent countless time next to while waiting to see a flash of the yellow bus coming down the hill. On a recent visit I walked up the old driveway to visit the Touch-Me-Nots again. The dog that once followed us is gone now, buried under a wall in the front yard. The geese have been gone even longer, lost one by one to perils in the forest behind our house.  A different dog–just as loyal even though missing most of our childhood–kept me company instead.

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Even though I am older now and out of school, this feeling of Fall always comes back to me, shifting as the Earth shifts on its axis and the season approaches. There are more signs like the Touch-Me-Nots, if I stop to think about it. There is also the appearance of the constellation Orion over the horizon. There is frost on the car windshield in the mornings. Leaf stains on the sidewalk.

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http://ironraven.net/day6am.jpg

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There is so much for us to learn–so much knowledge to pass along to each other. Imagine the people who walk and drive past Touch-Me-Nots every Autumn, and never know the Big Bang force contained inside the pods, or the silvery jewels hidden under the leaves. Likewise, I am sure there are plenty of things I do not know that each of you hold dear to your hearts. What kind of secret knowledge do you have that you would like to pass on to your children, to your neighbors? Do any parts of nature inspire certain memories of a time, place, or person the way Touch-Me-Nots do for me? Is a certain time of year heavier with these memories? It can be anything, big or small. A trip across a mountain range or a certain smell wafting in your windows at night. Whatever it is, short or long, happy or sad, I hope you will share with us in the comments.

I believe that these are the gifts we can give each other. The world sometimes seems like an impossibly large place—remembering the train ride through rural India, realizing the sheer number of people in the world going about their daily lives—but it can also be small: made up of people just like ourselves, heavy with memories, gains, losses, and wisdoms. Every person must have something that is known to them alone: the specific way shadows move across their room, the weight of a certain stone,  the feeling of rough wool running through their hands, the glint of ripples on the water, the way Touch-Me-Nots explode on your fingertips. The more we can share these, and learn them from each other, the better off we all will be.