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.

 

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!

 

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!

 

Winter Windows January 24, 2011

Proof that nature really is everywhere! While we should all try to get outside, there are definitely exciting things you can see while sipping cocoa wrapped in a warm blanket! Here is what I woke up to this morning:

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“For frost to form on the windowpanes as well as on trees and grass certain conditions are necessary. Frost is made up of tiny crystals of frozen water. It forms when air that has a lot of moisture in it is cooled below the freezing temperature of water. This temperature, which we call “the freezing point,” is 32 degrees Fahrenheit and zero degrees centigrade, at sea level. When air becomes cooler, it cannot hold as much water as before. The excess water condenses on such objects as the windowpane. Now, if the temperature falls below 0 degrees centigrade, this water becomes crystallized. In other words, it freezes into a coating of interlocked crystals of water. What causes the patterns to appear in the frost on the windowpanes? For one thing, the tiny crystals have a certain structure which gives them a pattern. In addition, there may be tiny scratches in the glass, dust particles, air currents all of which help create the designs that “Jack Frost” makes on your windows.” Source

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For more information on why frost occurs, you can go here. This site also includes info on how to “grow your own frost,” although I’m not sure how safe it is!  I was going to tell you to find frost pictures by just google image searching for it, but when I did a bunch of pictures of women getting.. intimate.. with snowmen showed up as well. Who knew! This might be a better option.

Do any of you have frost on your windows? What kind of patterns does it form? According to the same source listed above, frost covered windows used to be more common when most windows used to be a single pane of glass. Now most windows are made of 2 panes, and are more insulated than before, and thus get less frost. If you do have frost, though, I would love to see a picture! You can always send photos, questions, or ideas in to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

If you don’t have frost growing on your windows, try watching the water coming down your window panes the next time it rains! Are running droplets attracted together? Do they follow the same paths or make a new one? Do they splash, splatter, bounce, trickle?

There is always something new to notice, in every place and every season!

 

 

The Ocean in your Backyard January 16, 2011

Exactly one week ago today I was in a car riding in the sunlight out of Providence, Rhode Island, watching the green of the trees along the road suddenly give way to rocky ocean.

As a Pennsylvania resident, I live close enough to the ocean to visit every once and a while, but I always forget that for some people the ocean is their backyard. And while most of my blog is about finding what is unique and beautiful of your own backyard, every now and then it is good to visit someone else’s! To be honest, I sometimes have a hard time making myself go outside when it is cold and gray out, but last weekend I was so excited about being somewhere new and having rocks to scramble on that the cold registered far below my desire to Explore.

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There was so much to see! Waves crashing on the shore, algae clinging to slippery rock surfaces, shadowy places where snow met the sea, animal tracks carved into a frosty path, shriveled orange and red berries trembling on brittle stems, and a scavenger hunt’s worth of rock formations and textures.

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I also saw something I’ve never ever seen before, which is always an invigorating experience. In this case it was the way the wind pushed the waves back as they were coming in to the beach. It peeled the water right off the top of the wave, sending it back out to sea. The waves almost look like big animals coming in just under the surface, don’t you think?

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I was also astounded to come around a bend in the rocks and find this brilliant green moss/algae/seaweed (any guesses? I am thinking algae) covering the rocks close to the ocean.

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Unfortunately the other pictures I took of this are all blurry! This is because, even though it is silly, I was afraid of having my back turned to the ocean! The amazing power of the ocean frightens me, a bit, and I kept imagining a giant freak wave coming in suddenly while I was absorbed in the green, oblivious to the freight train coming to smash me against the rocks. I think this fear probably comes from not spending a lot of time near the ocean. I kept turning back to check on the ocean like someone walking down a dark alleyway turns to check for stalkers, and as a result this is the best close-up I have of the “algae.”

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Either way, it was a beautiful sight to behold!

Finally, if you are feeling land-locked and snowed in, you can watch this (slightly shaky) video I took of the waves coming in. I was specifically tracking the way they moved into and around the rocks:

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It was an invigorating weekend, and I have to send out big thanks to Julia and Geoff (who once sent in pictures for our first reader photo submission, posted here) for showing me their wonderful “backyard.”

I am going to try to use this momentum to head back out into my own backyard and search for the things that make it special, gray ridge-and-valley days, and all.

What do you have in your own backyard? Is it similar to what I write about or is it a different landscape entirely, like the ocean, or mountains, or swamps? What keeps you inspired to get out and explore your neighborhood? As I learned last weekend, sometimes you have to go away from home to appreciate coming back!

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Update:  In case anyone is interested, these pictures were taken in Beavertail State Park on Jamestown Island, Rhode Island.

 

Notes from the Field November 14, 2010

“Just begin. Any day, any moment. There need be no occasion, no noteworthy event. Think of your beginning as the point where a tossed pebble hits the surface of a pond. Changes and discoveries will widen out endlessly from just such a small point. Take your life as it is, and go from there.”

-Hannah Hinchman, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal.

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I have written a few times about nature journals (here and here), and it is something I just can’t recommend enough for people of all ages. It can be difficult to keep up with a journal of any kind, though, and you have to take inspiration where you find it. To help keep myself inspired, I recently ordered Hannah Hinchman’s A Life in Hand, now her second book about journaling that I own–the other one, A Trail through Leaves, is even more wonderful! Her drawings and words of wisdom help me remember to keep noticing, keep being curious, and keep drawing.

Thanks to the simple act of keeping a journal, today a dead brown marmorated stink bug (yes, those prehistoric looking things swarming your screens and windows) was not just a piece of refuse but something extraordinary to behold. Journaling, and especially drawing, slows you down and forces you to look at the details of things, like the tiny ridges on the insect’s abdomen, the way the wings are carefully tucked along its back, and the way the antennae bend like the crook of an elbow. It also encouraged me to look up the word marmorated–it means “veined or streaked like marble,” and is a beautiful word!

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As Hannah says, just begin! Find an empty page and start to look at what is around you. What do you notice? What are you feeling?  Start with the present and go from there–you never know where it will take you!