Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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.



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  I would love to hear from you!


Backyard Festivals September 7, 2010


What is better than a community coming together?

I’ve been to a few festivals in the past, mainly in cities where they sometimes pop up unannounced, but this was my first time volunteering for one.  This festival was put on by the organization I work for, with the goal of raising money for the environmental education program. The amount of work the volunteers put in for this cause is staggering, and I’m so grateful for it!

Festivals are a great way to get outside and see something new without having to travel too far. At this one I was able to spend the entire day outside interacting with local children and getting their hands dirty. There were also plastic duck races in a nearby stream, animals to meet, workshops about using cold frames, growing your own food, and identifying wild herbs, and lots of great local food.



All of these tents are put up early in the morning by a slew of volunteers–the one on the far left had local musicians playing throughout the day.



This station was run by a family who lives in mountainous (by East Coast standards) Pennsylvania, almost completely off the grid. They have a variety of animals, and brought many of them down to the festival, which were a big hit! The man in the overalls also built a compost-able sawdust toilet complete with hand-washing station just for the event, which he carried to and from his property.



I ran the kids’ activity station. I came up with three options to choose from: nature journals, butterfly magnets, or a scavenger hunt with a prize. Kids could choose to do any or all of them, and some made multiples of each craft.



The nature journals were a big hit, which I should’ve known because they were the messiest! I wanted to do this craft because, as you probably know by now, I am a big believer in nature journaling! For this craft I cut up old manilla folders for the covers and then 10 pieces of white paper for the inside. I punched holes in the top and tied them together with string. Kids were then able to decorate the cover or the pages using paint and natural materials. As one co-volunteer pointed out, it was fun to watch the kids realize that there were no paintbrushes, and then decide what to do next. I brought some natural materials with me that I found outside my house, like leaves, acorns, acorn caps, walnuts, feathers, and stones, and the kids experimented to see what kinds of shapes they could make with each. Some of them also glued the leaves to the cover itself. It was a lot of fun!

I really enjoyed seeing what the kids came up with, including many things I had never thought of when I planned the activity. I highly recommend this as an activity to do with kids, and as one you could do in a variety of settings. They tried using the different parts of feathers, dipping a stone into three different colors of paint at a time to make interesting blends, rolling a walnut around the paper, and so on. Some of them even went searching around the tent for their own materials.



Here are some of the materials we used.




Next, they had the option of making butterfly magnets. I was mainly working with younger kids so for this activity I cut wing shapes ahead of time and then let them decorate them. They also decorated a clothespin and glued it on to the wings to act as the butterfly’s body. A pipe cleaner around the clothespin for antennae, a sticky magnet to the back, and viola!–you have a colorful refrigerator magnet that you can clip important papers in. This was a fun activity but there a few things I would do differently next year. For one, I would like to find more reused materials, instead of going through so much construction paper. One idea I thought of too late was to cut the wings out of old seed catalogs or other magazines people were going to throw away. I also would like to have some pictures of butterflies changing from caterpillars next year, so it is a bit more educational.

One important thing I have learned from working with kids is to always be flexible with what you want them to do! Some of them have their own ideas and I would always rather them be creative and explore their options then make them stick to my original plan. For example, one girl really wanted to make a flower instead of a butterfly. She knew what she wanted and had come up with the idea herself, so I quickly cut a flower shape out of extra paper and she colored that in instead. I poked one of  the extra pipe cleaners through it as a stem and not only did she walk away happy but I got a great idea for a future craft!



The last activity choice the kids had was to go on a scavenger hunt. Usually when I do scavenger hunts with kids I list items for them to find in nature, like a yellow flower, or a mushroom, or something red. This time, however, I made it more community based and interactive. Kids (and adults!) had to accomplish tasks like: Meet an organic farmer, Meet someone who composts, Find a piece of trash and throw it away, Name 3 signs an animal might leave behind, and Meet someone who eats food they grow themselves.

People picked up a sheet with ten of these tasks to complete, a pencil, and went off. This activity attracted a wider range of ages, which included a few adults and some teenage groups–some of whom made it into a competition! The prizes for completing the scavenger hunt were these animal totem stones:




I had seen these stones a lot as a kid in American Southwest gift shops. There are many areas with petroglyphs out there, and people make these stones into magnets or sell them in baskets next to the cash registers. A recent post by Marghanita Hughes of The Little Humbugs reminded me of them, and I decided to make them for the scavenger hunt! I especially wanted to do this kind of prize instead of giving out some plastic doodad that would end up in a junk drawer, the trash, or worse, swirling around the ocean somewhere.

To make these animal stones I simply looked up some pictures of ancient petroglyphs for inspiration and then drew on the stones with a sharpie. I also drew footprints of local animals–a wonderful idea from a fellow volunteer.



I tried to keep track of what type of drawing people liked best. It seems that adults tend to like the footprints while kids like the animals, and everyone likes the swirly turtles!

In the end, it was a wonderful day. One of my favorite things about this festival was the way it used everyones’ strengths to make something magical happen. It was really a convergence and showcase of all of the different skills in the area.

As I mentioned, it was my first time being part of something like this, but I will definitely do it again in the future! It was a great chance to get outside, eat delicious food, and connect people to their local environment. What more could you ask for than that?



Look A Little Closer May 7, 2010

Today I went out to visit a local tree nursery that belongs to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. I am taking a class to the nursery next week and I wanted to get an idea of what we would be seeing. It is right off a major highway, so it is nearby and easily accessible, but once you turn up their driveway it is lush and secluded.

It is a beautiful area that the kids are really going to love–a place to explore where they can have some freedom while still being safely contained. There are Canadian geese, interesting flowers blooming, fallen logs. a small creek, and plenty of trees to practice identifying.

One of the employees graciously showed me around and at one spot he pointed out this amazing find:

Can you see it?  They have marked the area with the orange flags so no one runs over it when moving the lawn.  This is actually a killdeer bird nest! They nest right out on the open ground, and it is amazing how well the eggs blend in. They are speckled to look like stones and when the babies hatch they will already be able to move around. This is important because they don’t have the protection of a “normal” nest!

Let’s zoom in a bit:

Aren’t they beautiful?

Personally, I’ve only really seen killdeer in tidal areas like the beach, but they apparently often nest far from the water. If you want to see what the adults look like you can check out a picture here. They are one of the birds that will pretend to have a broken wing in order to lure predators away from the nest.

To be honest, I am not sure if I would have seen this nest if I had been by myself! It is a good reminder for me to keep looking closer and really notice my surroundings. The employee I spoke to said the eggs will probably be hatched by the time I come out to the nursery with the kids, so we might be able to see the “little fluff-ball” babies running around. I can’t wait!


Happy Earth Day! April 22, 2010

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Happy Earth Day Everyone!

As you have probably heard, today is Earth Day–a day that inspires everyone to do something extra for the environment. So what interests you? Do you want to go for a walk? Watch the birds visiting your bird feeder? Plant a tree in your yard or nearby? Turn off the TV for an extra hour?  Spend some more time in your gardenThe possibilities are endless!

Not sure what you want to do?  Here are a few websites that might help you out!

If you’re looking for somewhere to go outside of your backyard, try using the National Wildlife Federation’s ‘Nature Find‘ website, that can help you “get outdoors wherever you are.”

They also have a great compilation of activities to do with your kids or by yourself, which you can find here. I would have loved doing any of these things as a child, and many of them I would still do now!

You can also take part in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Pick 5 for the Environment,” in which you pledge to do five different things to help make the world a cleaner, greener place.

If you are looking for an Earth Day event to attend, check out the Earth Day Network’s event search, which you can find here.

There are so many things to do, this list could go on and on.  I encourage you to join any events or rallies that speak to you, but most importantly I encourage all of us to just go outside! If we each tried to learn just one new thing, what a difference it could make!

Let me give you an example.  In my last post, I mentioned the mourning doves that have set up camp on my balcony. The other day I went out there and discovered that the doves have actually made a nest out of one of my plants and have laid eggs!  They are almost completely hidden from my normal view, which is why I didn’t know they were even there until I went out to water the plant and a bird suddenly exploded out of nowhere. Take a look at how clever this nesting site is:

This is what I see when I look out at my balcony.  But look what is hiding on the other side of this plant!

(Note: Picture was taken after I accidently scared the bird away! It came back a few moments later)

I did some research and found that dove couples split up the time they sit on the nest, with the male usually sitting during the day and the female sitting at night.

Well, today, as part of my own personal Earth Day celebration I went for a walk around my apartment building to see what I could find.  In addition to seeing the new burrows the groundhogs are digging out in the retention pond and a bunch of starlings (uh oh!), I saw a whole group of mourning doves foraging in the grass by one of the buildings!  This is very exciting to me, because it means I probably know where the birds are going when they are not sitting on the nest. Also, because of the way the nest time is shared, I know that I probably saw the females of each couple, searching for food and getting a much needed stretch after hours of sitting still. How amazing, that in just a short walk what was once half a story is now a complete one. Now I know where the birds I share my home with are going, and what their plans are like.

There is so much going on all around us! The more familiar you become with the types of species you have, and eventually even with the individuals, the more interesting your world will become. Likewise, the more we know about the world around us, the more we care about what happens to it! So don’t worry too much if you don’t have a fleet of seedlings to plant, or a giant poster to hang out your window in honor of Earth Day! Just get out there and see what you can see!

In the end, I believe these are the things that will truly make a difference!


Pick it up PA Days! April 8, 2010

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As part of the Great American Cleanup, Pennsylvania is having “Pick it up PA Days,” from April 17th to May 1st. Now that the weather has warmed up it’s time to get out there and try to make our community a better place for both people and wildlife!



There are a lot of resources on the Great American Cleanup of Pennsylvania website that can help you get started. If you live in Pennsylvania, you can search for an event in your area by county here. Events usually consist of meeting a group of interested people at a certain site, and then working together to clean up the road sides, stream banks, and nature areas nearby. Some events offer coffee, a free potluck lunch, and/or prizes for the types of trash found (oldest, most interesting, largest amount, etc.). It all depends on how involved your community wants to be! If you don’t see one on the list yet for your county, you can start one and follow our own vision of what it should be!

You can also contact your local PennDOT representative in order to get free gloves, vests (for visibility along roads), and trash bags. 

If you are a teacher and are looking for some resources to use in your classroom or a way to get your students more involved, check out this website for educators here.

The Great American Cleanup of PA also welcomes anyone to save a copy of their logo and make t-shirts, buttons, brochures, put ads in their local paper, etc. etc! You can do this by downloading the jpeg from the website, or by saving the image below:



I’ll see you out there!