Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

The Power of Observation May 4, 2010

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A few days ago I found a mostly intact egg-shell on the grass outside of my apartment complex.  Earlier in the day I had seen a large crow swoop in to my balcony and try to attack the mourning dove nest there, so I put the picture up on Twitter, saying “Perhaps some other doves ran into a crow as well?”

After a bit, I received a text message from my father saying that actually the egg hadn’t been eaten, but had simply hatched! We spoke later and he explained how he knew this. The main reason is that he has watched a lot of eggs hatching–he knows that the head of the baby is usually in the wider/more rounded end of the egg, which is what is missing on this one. Also, when a bird is hatching it chips off tiny pieces at a time while rotating in a circle, which makes the uneven edge along the open are that you see in this egg. Finally, he also knows–again from observation–that when birds eat other eggs they usually pierce the center with their beak, not the end.

What great information!  Some of this you could probably find in books or journal papers if you went searching, but my father has obtained this knowledge over a lifetime of being curious, asking questions, and watching.

In my very first post I mentioned “dirt time,” a term my family uses to refer to spending time outside experiencing something. For example, I know different facts about snapping turtles from books and research, but because of dirt time I also know what they smell like. what it feels like when you hold their sides and their webbed feet kick at your hands, and where young ones might be hiding in the mud.

You don’t have to actually be getting dirty for it to count as dirt time, either! I consider my time watching the mourning doves on my balcony ‘dirt time’ as well, and because of it I know how the male and female coordinate switching places on the nest, that the female flies first to a nearby power line when she is relieved, and that they often stretch for a few moments before sitting down.

Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, would be a big proponent of the term “dirt time” if she ever heard the term. To quote from a 1996 PBS documentary, “Without collegiate training directing her research, Goodall observed things that strict scientific doctrines may have overlooked.” She was the first person who really sat and watched just to see what she could learn. Other scientists at the time didn’t see the human-like behavior chimpanzees showed because they already believed it wasn’t possible. It took Jane Goodall spending time and being open to finally see.

I love science, and reading scientific studies and textbooks is a really important part of learning about nature and the environment. Just as important, though, is to have a more visceral love of nature, and this most often comes from spending time exploring and observing. If you are trying to get people of any age to care about what happens to the environment, this is the most important thing to give them!! Of course I believe you should teach students about why they shouldn’t throw trash in a stream, for example, but I also believe that if you take the students to the stream and show them all of the amazing beauty and life that goes on there, the desire to protect it will naturally follow.

The factual knowledge I have about plants and animals is very important and helps greatly in my work, but just as important is the smell of the earth after a rain, following tiny paw prints in the snow on a fallen long, and watching a crow kick up wet leaves in search of worms.

All of us have to nurture this part of learning about the environment. Try sitting out somewhere on your lunch break or when you have a few extra minutes. Just take a look around and see what you notice. Try to ask yourself, “What is really happening here?” For example, are there any birds around? What are they doing? Do they feed on the ground or catch things out of the air? Are they interacting with each other? What about insects? Are there any around? Where do you think they are going? Where would you expect to see them most?

Let’s all take a few minutes today to just follow our curiosity where it takes us. Nothing can replace the knowledge we get from taking the time to observe the world around us! This knowledge isn’t just facts, but also feelings, memories, and associations. They are all important parts of your relationship with nature. Let’s see how much we can learn!

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Backyard Safari’s First Reader Photo Submission! May 3, 2010

I am very excited to present our very first reader photo submission! These photos were sent in by friend-of-the-blog Julia (view Julia’s blog here), and document a recent hike she took in West Greenwich outside of Providence, Rhode Island. She says, “I took my camera along and we were very careful to look for creatures and interesting plants to share with Backyard Safari.  I am so psyched about what we found…Here are the pictures!”

This first picture is of the trail she hiked, which was slightly flooded, and a nearby creek. About the photo Julia says, “This gives you a sense of the forest we were in, which was magical and quiet.  The only thing we could hear was the water streaming and once or twice a bird call.”

Here is a picture of some delicate flowers Julia found on her walk. She says they were one of the only things in bloom at the time. Very pretty!

About this photo she says, “I was literally in the middle of ruminating over the concept of seeing things differently if you look harder, when I saw the leaves below me do a little shake.  I stopped, knelt down, but couldn’t see anything!  Then, my eyes re-focused and I saw this adorable tiny little toad, perfectly camouflaged in the dry leaves.”

This is a great reminder for all of us to take the time to look a little closer and really notice what is around us–look how well it worked out for Julia! After taking a few pictures of the toad she noticed he only had one eye, but she couldn’t tell if it had been lost in an accident or as a deformity from birth.

Julia also sent in this picture of a young fern, saying: “These were also everywhere, in varying stages of uncurling and stretching out into the low-lying canopy.  They are my favorite shade of green.”

Finally, she sent in this picture of a crayfish which appeared “out of nowhere under my feet as we walked on our way back, barefoot, through the creek-path.”  An exciting end to what seems like a great trip!

Thanks a lot to Julia for sharing her pictures and experiences! I loved seeing all of the plants and animals she found and hearing about her hike. She kept her eyes open and as a result saw some things that other people might have missed as they walked through the same woods. Her toad and crayfish sightings prove that there is so much life going on all around us–we just have to stop and look!

This is our first reader submission to the blog, but I hope it isn’t the last! If you see anything interesting in your area, please take some pictures and send them in to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com. Let’s all try to look a little closer, together!