Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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!

 

The Deer in the Desert January 7, 2011

“I love being a part of the hot, blowing, scurrying, madness of the desert. I feel the way the earth does when it rains–dark spots appearing in the dust, heavy with meaning and nourishment. Welcomed. What am I saying? Things full of arrogance and personification, for sure, but true things too. The main problem is that I don’t know how to explain it. I feel like the red rocks.”

So go many of the entries in the field journal I used during my time as an SCA park guide at Arches National Park in Utah. It was a time when my backyard literally was the park and I was full of wonder at the great expanses before me. There are entries detailing how ridiculous it seemed to hang my clothes out to dry in front of towering cliff faces, or drive my “commute” to work through the unbelievable goblin landscape.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tower_of_Babel_ArchesNP_UT_USA.jpg
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The best parts of keeping a field journal are having a place to record and sort these feelings, and then being able to look back on them later and relive the experience. Many of the things I wrote about I wouldn’t remember now otherwise, but when I read about them I can picture the exact moment and place I was writing. I remember the young Say’s Phoebe practicing his landings, “dusty yellow belly and gray everything else.” I remember huddling after a hike to write “in a small curve in a red lump of rock, the sun inching its way toward my shoes.”

One of my favorite experiences from my time in the park is the one written below.  I copied it here just as it is in my journal, incomplete sentences, thousand commas, and all.

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“…As I started my hike through I walked down the hill, into the wash, and came around a corner. When I say came around a corner I mean clumsily, bumbling, heavy, with my head mostly down. Suddenly, there was a deer. Across from me, perhaps 10 feet away. It looked at me, considering, and then went back to eating the scrubby Shinnery Oak. I could hear it crunching and chewing on the little acorns and leaves. It sounded so delicious, the way food always does when animals are eating it. I watched it for a long time. Her, I guess.

Finally I started to walk but stopped again closer to her, and she looked up and straight at me. She walked closer to me and we stared at each other for a long time. Minutes. Her eyes were shiny black obsidian orbs that I couldn’t see into or get a grasp on. Her ears were large and soft, expressive. I wanted to curl my fingers in her hair and bury my face into her neck, breathing it all in. I realized I don’t know what deer smell like.

She had dark lines on her side, I guess from where she had been scratched before. I could hear her breathing and smelling the air.

There is no better lesson in grace than a deer. Nothing to make you feel more like a clumsy, heavy, beast. I felt out of place with my overstuffed backpack, watch, bright clothes. My sunscreen and water bottles and shoes. I wanted to shed these things and follow her over the sandy hill, my feet leaving little prints in the sand.

Finally, she walked by me, slowly, crossed the wash and climbed up the bank. I held my hand out in a childish anthropocentric wave as she looked back once before passing out of sight.

I wonder what she was thinking of when she watched me. She wasn’t afraid, or wary, or judging. It was more expectation than anything–waiting to see what I would do. I should have eaten some oak leaves, but instead I did nothing, trying to prove that I could be silent too. I could also wait and watch and be gentle. I should have nuzzled the ground with my mouth, too. I should have smelled the air, and shaken the gnats off my large soft ears.

Next time.”

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There are times when I look back through my old notebooks, cringe at my awkwardness or naivety, and wish there wasn’t such an extensive written record of such things. Most of the time, though, I look back with a lot of love and compassion for the person who wrote those thoughts. Wide eyed, in love with the earth and the sky, struggling to find words for her experiences in the world. I wonder what I will think in 5 years about the notes I am writing now? The bird drawings and the descriptions of the moon. Will it seem childish or arrogant? Will it still strike a chord within me, help me see that I feel just as excited about life now as I did when I was 12, 15, 19, 24?

I think most of all it will show me that there have always been amazing things to see wherever I have gone, whether it is in the woods behind my childhood home, the red rocks of the fiery desert, or the rolling green expanses around my current neighborhood.

There is always a bird learning how to fly. There is always a place in shadow turning to sunlight. There is always a deer in a wash waiting to meet its glassy black eyes with yours. The only question is will you be there to see them?

 

Animals and “Human” Nature June 23, 2010

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You may be surprised how many kids, when asked if humans are animals, say no! In order to help people feel a greater  connection to the natural world, our close ties with the animal kingdom (to which we do belong, by the way!) are something we need to emphasize more to people of all ages. Humans certainly have some amazing qualities that are not as obvious at first in the rest of the animal kingdom–the ones usually presented are the use of agriculture, music, and art–but the more I learn about animals the more I question even these definitions!  Leaf cutting ants have been shown to actually cultivate and care for a certain fungus, going so far as to ‘weed’ it of harmful parasites and ‘fertilize’ their crops. Some parrots (and an elephant!) have been shown dancing to music. And check out this amazing behavior by dolphins at the Sea World in Orlando. They create bubble rings under water (a skill they have to learn and then practice in order to do it properly) that they then push around and play with:

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I was first inspired to write this post after reading an article about how young birds learn their songs. Scientists studied the areas of the brain that learn speech in young songbirds and humans, and found that the same areas of the brain light up when both humans and birds are learning ‘language.’ Amazingly, this is especially true when both animals are sleeping. Studies have shown that kids learn language better when allowed to take a nap, and this seems to be true for baby birds as well. How amazing is that??! Think about this the next time you hear a bird singing–it used the same parts of its brain in the same way to learn its language just the way you did! The way we all did!

Finally, one more example of behavior that might seem unique to humans at first, but is truthfully anything but–one of my favorite videos on YouTube, and narrated by our old friend Sir David Attenborough. In this video Capuchin monkeys are tested for their understanding of fairness and sharing. In the first part the monkeys are put in separate but adjoining boxes. One monkey has a cup of nuts, and the other has a flint with which to open the container. The one monkey gives the flint to the other through a small hole between them, and then has to wait patiently to see if the other monkey will decide to share the reward with him or not.  In the next test, a monkey is given a biscuit reward in exchange for a white poker chip. This monkey is content until he sees that a different monkey gets a grape (a much better offering by Capuchin standards) in exchange for the same token. He was happy before, but now he would rather have nothing than take such an unfair offering. Take a look:

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I never cease to be amazed by the world around us. I find it fulfilling and wonderful to know that we share so much with our other animal neighbors. How lonely a world it would be, to be unique as humans in a world full of dull reflexive creatures, and how lucky that this is not the case!  In my opinion, this type of knowledge is what will really help inspire people to care about and save animals, and as scientists, educators, parents, etc. we all need to help to get this out to the public. Could you be as cavalier about the destruction of these animals once you knew a sleeping baby bird had some of the very same brain processes as your child?

When I think back on my own life and what I have witnessed in person, I can already think of a few examples of the amazing ways of animals. I’ve seen a small bird teach its young how to forage for food. I’ve seen a raccoon learn by trial and error how to crack and eat an egg. I’ve heard a brown-headed cowbird speak English. I’ve had a dog that would come over to me when I cried.

How fortunate for us to live in a world filled with such clever animal neighbors! On your next backyard safari, see if you can find any examples of animals behaving in ways you didn’t expect. I bet there will be more than you think.

 

Reader Photo Submission -Jamee C. June 7, 2010

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I am very excited to present to you another reader photo submission (you can read our other submissions here and here), this time from Jamee C. of Northern Virginia. Jamee is an excellent photographer and long-time friend of the blog, so she decided to send in some pictures of the wildlife living in her own backyard.

First, she sent in this picture of what I believe is a grey tree frog (if anyone has other guesses, let me know!) that has been living under a dish in her backyard.

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As she was taking pictures it crawled up the side of a fountain. Jamee pointed out–and I agree–that the tree frog blends in so well it would be difficult to see if you didn’t already know it was there!

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Jamee loves watching the local bird life, and she has provided a great habitat for them, complete with seed bird feeders, hummingbird feeders, and two bird baths. Here are some pictures of blue jays enjoying one of the baths in her backyard.

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In this one, one of the blue jays is making a mini-cyclone of the water. Pretty amazing picture–it looks like fun!

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Finally, Jamee sent in this picture of one of the squirrels living in her backyard. She says she loves watching their antics and the one in the photo appears to be eating a nut of some kind.

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A big thanks to Jamee C. for thinking of Backyard Safari and sending in these great photos! Thanks to her from the local Northern Virginia wildlife as well for creating such a great habitat for them in her backyard. I hope they continue to bring Jamee and her family many hours of joy, fascination, and photo opportunities!

As always, if you have pictures or a story you would like to share of your own backyard safari, please send them to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com!

I love the opportunity to get a glimpse into what all of you are seeing out there. Also I should add that almost all of the photos I have taken that you see on this blog are taken with my cell phone camera! It works best for me because I always have it on my person, so I can always be ready to snap a quick shot. You don’t need 100 pounds of camera equipment to get a great picture (although how fun, if you have it!!), so I encourage everyone to get out there and try their hand at a few pictures!

Thanks again to Jamee C. and all of our previous reader photo submitters! I’ll see you out there!

 

Wildlife Sightings April 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 3:34 am
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As I mentioned on Twitter, I spent most of today visiting some of the local areas that I will soon be taking groups of school kids to in order to teach them about the environment. It was a beautiful day and it was great to get outside and walk around.

While the places I visited aren’t exactly anyone’s backyard, they are all easily accessible areas, and further prove that you don’t need a remote wilderness to find great opportunities. For example, today I had a few exciting wildlife sightings!

First, while visiting a local farm, I saw some amphibian wildlife:

Tadpoles! Always a great sighting and promise of new life to come. Tadpoles and caterpillars both go through such an amazing metamorphosis. They can be so common to see that its easy to forget how interesting a process this really is–imagine being born in a completely different state than what you will eventually become. For tadpoles this means not only growing legs, but also losing a tail!

At this same farm I also saw a toad hiding in the grass and was able to get this close-up:

After my visit to the farm I headed out to another environmental area. I walked around for about 40 minutes, and on my way back to the car I saw this fuzzy white thing moving in the grass in a nearby field. I had to squint to see at first, but as I moved closer I saw that the fuzzy white thing was actually a skunk!  I was very excited to be so close to one, and sat on the grass, from a safe distance, to just watch it for a while. Well, the skunk must not have noticed me–there was a heavy wind probably blowing my scent away–and as it foraged it started moving closer and closer. I suddenly realized the mistake I had made by sitting down, and had two options to choose from:  stand up while the skunk was still a small distance away, probably startling it enough that it might turn and spray, or sit perfectly still to avoid detection, but with the chance that the skunk would walk right up to me and suddenly realize I was human and spray then.  The skunk kept heading straight for me, and I started getting more and more nervous. Suddenly, it whipped its head up and looked right at me. I was able to snap this picture right at that moment:

I don’t know if the wind changed, or something else happened that made the skunk suddenly notice me, but it did, and a few seconds later made a hasty retreat:

It was very exciting! I have seen (and certainly smelled) skunks before, but never so close. It was an unexpected treat topping off a really nice day outside. Have you been able to get outside recently? What kind of things have been interesting to you?  I’d like to extend an invitation to everyone to take photos of the natural world around them–plants, animals, rocks, streams, anything!–and share them with this blog! I would love to see what you have found in your backyard and local area. I enjoy taking and posting my own pictures, but I would also love to put up any of your pictures as well!

If you have something you’d like to share, please e-mail it to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.  Please remember that by sending something to this e-mail, you are confirming that it is your own original work and you are authorized to share it! So next time you see something that interests you, take a quick picture! It can be with the most expensive camera equipment or with your cellphone (which is what I used to take all of these pictures today, by the way). Let’s see what we can find together!