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.

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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!

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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!

 

New Year’s Revolutions January 21, 2011

Confessions: In the winter I don’t go outside very often. I watch too much TV. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep at night. I am squishy in places I was not squishy a year ago. I often forget the reusable bag at home when I go food shopping. My household creates a lot more trash than it needs to. I worry about inconsequential things. Getting properly dressed up in many layers to go out in the cold feels like Work.

While I have never made new year’s resolutions before, I am a fan of new beginnings, and they can happen any time! I have apparently chosen Jan. 21st for mine–although if these don’t work I will just start again later!  I try to be honest with you, dear readers, because I want to show people that you don’t have to be a gore-tex-covered super-fit woodsperson in order to enjoy nature and the world all around you. I also believe that if you have a Love for something, the desire to protect it will naturally follow. If you bring the joy and the magic, the recycling and carpooling will come.

I am at a place now where I miss the free-spirited ease that I had as a child when it came to going outside. In the spring, summer, and fall, I can feel it, but in the winter I struggle. As a kid, there was no hesitation about pulling on our boots and mittens and running out into the cold. We had strategies of wrapping plastic grocery bags around our socks for extra protection so we could stay out longer. We would pull a sled up the same hill over and over again. And there was a comfort in coming in again, coordinating stacks of wet shoes and socks over the heating vents, our cheeks red from the cold.

I know I am stuck in a cycle–I watch more TV because I’m not going outside, I can’t fall asleep because of watching TV right before bed, I worry about things while I am lying awake.

In my attempt to get a new start I have set a series of very accomplishable basic goals.

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  1. Go outside every day for at least 10 minutes a day
  2. Start a “bed time routine” that involves not looking at any screen for at least 30 minutes before sleep (this includes the phone!)
  3. Always take the reusable bag to the car after bringing in groceries and leave it there for future trips. Be generally more aware of the products I am buying, how much vs. how much used, packaging, etc.

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I am not concerned that I have set my goals too small, because I am big believer that “the more you do, the more you do,” and I know that if I can accomplish these things as a baseline, that more will follow.

It’s going to be a great year life, I know it.

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One of my favorite pictures ever, taken by my father.
 

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.

 

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!

 

Backyard Transition Challenge – Amphibians October 1, 2010

I am so happy to introduce the first reader submission to our Backyard Transition Challenge!  Our submission today comes from Donna Watkins of The Nature In Us. About a week ago I noticed some pictures Donna had posted on her Facebook page of eastern gray tree frog tadpoles that were living on her deck. I asked if she would be willing to send in the pictures once their transformation was complete, and happily, she agreed!

Donna has also written up the complete story of the tree frogs on her website, which you can read in two parts, here and here. I hope you all take a look—it’s a great story!

The idea of this challenge is to document changes going on in our backyards and neighborhoods, and what better changes than the metamorphosis these amphibians are going through!

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In school we are taught about metamorphosis and are sometimes shown a series of pictures documenting the changes, but it is rare that we get the opportunity to watch the same set of frogs go through this amazing process.  How unbelievable to think that the small black dots in the first pictures spring arms and legs, that their morphology changes so completely that they are able to take the tenuous steps onto land as a new being, much as our own ancestors evolved to do many million years ago. Many thanks to Donna for documenting these changes in such beautiful and detailed photographs, and for being willing to share them with us here!

So what might you find in your own backyard? What kind of changes are going on all around us, just hidden under a mossy stone, a leafy overhang, our busy schedules? What magic would you like to share?

Thanks again to Donna–and for any one else who is thinking of submitting, please do!! You can send submissions any time to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

See you out there!

 

Backyard Baby Birds August 13, 2010

Have you ever kept a birdhouse in your yard? Ever thought of keeping one?  Well, today’s guest submissions are sure to inspire you to do just that! Although as you will see, birds don’t always need a wooden house to make a home!

Long time reader of the blog John G. sent in this series of videos of birds living in his yard. The first two show the same set of baby bluebirds from their early days out of the egg to the time they start to grow feathers.

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This next video is of the same birdhouse a few weeks later, after those babies had fledged. Looks like there is another brood coming!

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The eggs are such a beautiful blue color!

The next two videos are of an amazing wren nest John G. discovered in one of the potted plants hanging on his porch. They are also taken over time, so this is the same brood of chicks as they get older. I love the second video especially because you can hear the tiny sounds they make! Pretty amazing!

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So many exciting things are going on all around us! Because of the time John G. spent watching the comings and goings of the wildlife in his backyard, he was able to see the bluebirds nesting in the wooden birdhouse, discover the tiny wren nest hidden in his hanging plant, and safely capture these videos while the parents were away.

What kind of excitement would a birdhouse (or hummingbird feeder, or bird bath, or salt lick) add to your life? It takes a little bit of effort to put them up at first, but I promise the pay-off is great!

What kind of habitats do you have in your yard? Is there anything in particular you do to try to attract wildlife? What kind of creatures–big and small–have stopped by? Feel free to discuss in the comments or send me an e-mail at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com. Finally, many thanks to reader John G. for sending in the videos and sparking this great topic!

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