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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Spring Growth April 8, 2011

What a difference a day makes…

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As much as I love nature and being outside, I am not a person who is good at raising plants. I want all of the benefits with none of the work, and I don’t do the research necessary to really care for them well. As a result, I just don’t keep them! Every summer, though, I suddenly wish I had tomato plants. I sometimes go and buy a full grown plant, setting it out on my balcony and heading out every now and then to collect the glowing fruit.

This year, though, I am trying to get a head start. I bought this little tomato starter kit and some seeds, and tried to follow the little set of directions on the back. I’ve already had to ask my excellent Facebook friends for tips, like should you rotate the plants so they don’t get leggy (yes) and now am wondering how I ‘cut back’ all but the strongest seedling. Do I snip it with scissors?  Pull out the whole plant? And how do I know the right time for putting them outside?

It is a learning process, but it has been so much fun just to watch these little guys spring up in the window in front of my work desk. I have watched them grow with speed and force, unfurling their leaves and reaching for the sun. They turn as I rotate them, leaning their faces back toward the light.

I can’t promise they will make it through a whole season of living with me, but I am certainly going to try! In the mean time, I am going to take pictures of them every day, just like I did for the Backyard Transition Challenge last fall. I encourage you to do the same! If not something you are growing, than just something you see changing around you–a bud on a tree branch, a weed in your yard. It is always a great experience to watch something grow and be able to look back and see how far it really has come.

Happy Spring!

 

Spring Rain April 5, 2011

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There was light outside, but those particles never seemed to make it into the room. Everything was dark–not even a color, just shadowy and dull. The couch squeaked and creased underneath me. The padding between my limbs and the bar in the arm rest is wearing thin, surely a sign of too much use.  It was drizzling outside, but for a short time the rain out the window slowed… slowed… and stopped.  The sky cleared a bit leaving a beautiful pre-thunderstorm mottled gray, and the cars going by made tschh tschhh sounds through the puddles.

I sprang up, ready at last. I changed into soft clothes and pulled on my sneakers–the new blue and yellow ones that make me feel like I am a gazelle, a panther, that I could leap forever, although I can tell you now this is far from true. I put in some head phones, tripped down the stairs, and opened the door into fresh spring air.

I ran and walked in intervals–each cycle of running pushing me to the edge of my ability, each cycle of walking just long enough to convince my lungs everything was fine before starting again. I moved past the road and down a bike path, tucked snugly against a line of trees. It felt good to power myself, to ponder my skeleton and its coverings as I pushed my legs across the arc of the earth. While I ran I noticed only the pain in my lungs, but while I walked I saw leaves beginning to unfurl, the dappled sky.

Shortly after I returned home, the sky kept its promise and a dark storm unfurled. The gray darkened to black and low thunder rumbled in the distance. A bowling lane. A truck going by. A boulder rolling. A waterfall.  I nestled in and listened to it surround the house–deliciously plump drops of rain coating everything. As the thunder called out I thought of how much I love feeling safe in the middle of a storm and of all the other people through history who have felt the same way.  Archaic humans hearing water drip from the branches of their brush huts. Ancient pueblo people looking out from stone caves, tucked away from lightning and flash floods. Colonial settlers hearing the rain tap the logs of their newly finished cabin. Maybe even my neighbor, who has a different wreath made out of candy for every holiday, sitting in her room listening just like me.

When I went to sleep that night the rain was still there. A spring rain. A rain full of promise. A rain tapping out a message on every roof and window: “We are the same, we are the same, we are the same.”

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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?