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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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?

 

 

 

Winter Exploration January 27, 2011

Yesterday I was working out at the school just as the day was ending. The sky was gray and cold and all of the after-school activities were canceled because of the impending snow.  It was just starting to fall as the buses pulled away, and I decided to stay behind and go for an exploration of the woods behind the school building. I changed my fancy work shoes for heavy winter boots, my ruffled button up shirt for some thermal layers, and headed out into the snow.

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There is a special magic in walking when it is still actively snowing. Everything is hushed and tucked in. Snow slowly covers you as you walk, camouflaging you just like the trees and underbrush. You are alone, but you see the tracks of other animals and realize just how much is going on out here when you are not there to see it.  You think about how many animals must cross this path in the summer and you just never know about it.

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I love looking for tracks. A few years ago I helped track a woman lost in a national park, and it is was a very emotional and, truthfully, exciting experience. I was actually sent to follow those tracks because they didn’t think it was her, but wanted to look at every possibility–otherwise they would have sent someone with more (any) experience!  She had accidentally followed a wash instead of the trail, and in the desert they do look pretty similar. The amazing thing was that you could see in her footprints the moment she realized she was lost. You could just feel it, and know that she suddenly looked up and saw something was wrong. We followed her out across the open desert, where she eventually climbed onto some rocks to try to get a look at the surroundings. We had to circle the rocks carefully to see where she had stepped off again. In the end, it got too dark to safely follow her into a maze-like area of sandstone and we had to go back, but the next morning they sent a helicopter down and found her. She was fine, and did a great job staying safe though out the cold desert night. I never met her but I think I will always remember her name and feel like I know her just a little because of following her tiny footprints over the sand beneath a darkening sky.

Anyway, I highly recommend looking for animal tracks any time you are in the snow, sand, or mud. It can be a great way to learn what kind of wildlife is around even if you can’t see it.  If you live in a suburban area with snow, check the base of trees lining the sidewalk–you will often find a whole series of tracks from squirrels going up and down the tree.

I walked along one of the paths through the snow, plodding my own tracks through the deer and squirrels’. I am always amazed in the winter how an area that was once thick, dense, and lush is now transparent. I stepped off the path and walked easily across an area that was full of growth just a few months ago, and finally came out of the forest into a neighboring field.

There is something satisfying about stepping from a covered area into a wide open one, and I stood looking across the yellow corn stubble into the gray mist of the snow storm that had come down while I was walking.

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I decided to head back.  On the way I found this adorable set of tracks–I knew that animals often walk across the tops of fallen logs to avoid walking through deep snow or thick underbrush, and I love the way the tracks outline this tree against the rest of the snow.

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I also saw this great arch/magical doorway to nature (read more here!). I took some pictures of arches in this same forest back in May, and it is almost shocking to me to see the color difference now.

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Taken in May of 2010

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I eventually broke out of the forest and tromped back to my car. I changed out of my winter boots, shook of my hat and gloves, and started to head home.  It turned out the amount of time I spent exploring was the difference between the roads being just-a-little-snowy and treacherously-snowy. I creeped along and came upon an accident almost immediately. Thankfully, the passengers were fine, and mostly embarrassed about how many people were stopping to make sure they were okay.

I was moved by how many people did stop, putting on their flashers and jumping out into the snow to make sure no one was injured and see how they could help. You see a lot of stuff on the news about the state of the world but I believe that deep down most people do care for one another, and they will do what is needed when that time comes.

It was a long, slow drive but I eventually made it home and curled up on the couch inside my apartment. It was warm and dry, but I knew that out there somewhere in the dark forest, the animals were out and moving through their habitat, covering my boot tracks with their own.

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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!

 

 

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.