Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Wordless Wednesday – Summer to Snow January 12, 2011

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08/31/2010

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01/12/2011

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For more pictures of how this same tree has changed with the seasons, check out our backyard transition challenge here!

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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!

 

Fall Changes in your Backyard October 8, 2010

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All across the eastern United States trees are exploding into a collage of color–red, yellow, orange, sometimes all on the same leaf! The daily commute to work, to the bank, to the grocery store has become an expedition seeped in color and change. Wasn’t that oak tree green just yesterday? When did the air start filling up with all of these blushing leaves?

When I was younger my brother and I used to run around the backyard trying to catch leaves as they fluttered down in their erratic descent to the earth. I still remember the feeling of looking up at those trees–so tall, towering high above me, swaying with some kind of ancient rhythm, sending their leaves down upon us in a shower of treasure. Seeing the leaves change color and start to fall still fills me with excitement all these years later (and if a leaf happens to flutter near my while I am walking, I would be a fool not to try to catch it, right??). This excitement and wonder is something I hope to pass on to the kids I work with in the schools.

The way leaves change is an amazing process and, like all things in nature, one that we should understand and appreciate! I was recently asked by a 3rd grade teacher to come up with an activity that helped explain fall transitions and I have since done it with a variety of elementary school ages.

I am going to explain the way I do this activity with kids, but I hope you will read on even if you do not have any just to learn more about why leaves change color and fall every year! Also if you are working with kids, keep in mind that you might have to make this more or less complicated depending on your age group!

I recommend starting this activity–and your own learning process!–by giving kids a few minutes to search through the leaves and find one that they really like. I then have them come up with one thing they find beautiful about their leaf, and one question they have about it. I learned pretty quickly that just starting out with a complicated explanation of the process does NOT capture kids’ hearts and imaginations. Anyone can learn facts, but the most important thing you can give someone is a Love of nature, a Passion for it, and a Curiosity about what makes it work. If people have the Passion, learning naturally follows. The idea of having them examine the leaf first is that eventually they will start to ask questions about what made it the way it is, and will want to know what I am about to tell them, rather than me just telling them they should.

It is difficult to explain why the leaves change without first explaining the very basics of photosynthesis. I like to do this using a small whiteboard I can carry around outside–I started using this a little over a year ago and now always take it with me–most kids find it helpful to have a quick picture drawn to explain concepts and I like having that option no matter where I am.  First, I draw a tree with one big leaf, explaining that what I draw for that leaf represents what happens to all the leaves on the tree.

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Next I ask kids how we, humans, get energy–by eating food! Do trees have mouths to eat food? They do not, so they have to make their own energy.  I explain that they use the sun for energy, and also water, drawing as I go. I show that water can come from the roots of the tree, and also can move in and out of a leaf.

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I explain that the part that makes the leaves green (chlorophyll) uses sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars (glucose). The tree can then use these sugars as food! To help them understand this (and tie into the game we do next) I colored a clothes pin green and glued a magnet on the back so it sticks to my board. I put it in the center of the leaf, explaining that it represents the chlorophyll.

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I then show the sunlight coming from the sun as a yellow strip of paper, which I clip in the clothes pin.

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Next, I show a blue strip of paper coming from the trunk of the tree into the leaf to represent water and also clip it in the clothes pin.

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I explain that the chlorophyll has turned this little “packet” of sunlight and water into energy, which can move back into the tree for it to use as food.

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Now comes the really exciting part of how trees lose their leaves!  If you google search “why do trees lose their leaves?” you almost always get the answer “because there is less sunlight for photosynthesis.” Over and over again this answer is given. This is true, but it is only part of the truth. Ask yourself, if it is just the sunlight changing, why don’t evergreen trees lose their leaves too?

The change in sunlight helps trees know that it is time to lose their leaves. It is a signal to them that the seasons are changing and soon it will be winter. This is the same signal that is used by birds to know to migrate and mammals to know to hibernate! How cool is that??? In most cases, it isn’t even the sunlight that tells organisms things are changing but actually the amount of darkness in between, or how long the nights are. I find it truly remarkable that so many different organisms with very different ways of living all use the same cues to know winter is coming.

So why do trees lose their leaves? Well, we already talked about how there is water moving in and out of a leaf. What would happen to the leaf when all of the water in it froze during the winter? It would be destroyed! The tiny ice crystals would puncture through the membranes and cell walls. So, instead of wasting all of its nutrients and water on a leaf that will be destroyed in cold weather, the tree starts to remove everything useful from the leaf. This means the chlorophyll also goes away, and once the green color is gone you can see all of the yellow and orange colors that were always there in the leaf, but hidden beneath the green! After most of the nutrients are removed, the tree builds a layer of cells between the branch and the leaf called the “separation layer,” which once complete causes the leaf to fall off.

Evergreen needles (which are leaves, by the way, they just look different!) have a smaller surface area and are also protected by a waxy coating, so they don’t have to worry about water in the needle freezing the way deciduous trees do.

When I was trying to come up with a hands-on activity to go along with this rather complicated explanation, I saw mention of a “photosynthesis tag game.” This is a pretty cool game you can read more about here, but I wanted to make sure kids understood that it wasn’t just the change in light that affected the leaves. I made up a new game where the class was divided into 3 groups. One group all got green clothespins, like I used on the white board. They were leaves, and the green clothes pin was their chlorophyll. One group got the yellow strips of paper, and were sunlight, and the last group got blue strips of paper and were the water moving through the tree into the leaves. I explained that each time I said “go” represented one day, and in that time each “leaf'” had to get a piece of blue paper and a piece of yellow paper from the other students and clip them in their green clothes pin. This meant that together they had made one piece of energy for the tree to lose. After each round it would have it be nighttime and collect all of the clothespins into a pile. To represent the beginning of fall, I had students tear their pieces of paper in half, showing that there was less sunlight and the trees were providing less water to the leaves. Eventually, students were only clipping tiny pieces of paper in their clothespins and then I had them all fall down to represent the leaves falling. We gathered back together to examine our pile of clothespins with paper strips, and I explained that now that these leaves were gone, the tree could use this stored energy all winter long, the same way a bear uses the fat from the food it ate in the summer while it is hibernating.

Note: the next time I do this activity I will use pipe cleaners instead of strips of paper–the pieces blow around a bit too much so it is hard for kids to hold on to them, and once they are ripped up you can’t use them again. Instead I will have kids fold their pipe cleaners in half, so I can just unfold them later to use again.

The story of why some leaves change color and fall and why others don’t is a fascinating one, and one that I hope we can all learn and share! I did not understand this process very well myself until I was creating this activity, and it really increased my enjoyment of the fall leaves around me! What a difference it makes to look out at a hillside blooming with color and understand how the trees “know” to make this change and why it is happening. How interesting to realize that those trees standing bare in the winter are just like the hibernating mammals curled up tight with their tails covering their noses! How unbelievable to know the geese honking overhead are feeling the same drive to fly south that a tree does to lose its leaves.

In short–what an amazing world we live in! Soon it will be winter here and we will be covered in snow, but for now a cacophony of pigments, chemicals, and changes are swirling around you, just waiting for you to stop and ask the question, “Why?”

 

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 Transition Challenge September 21, 2010

This is just a quick update about our ongoing Backyard Transition Challenge. I was calling it our “Tree Transition Challenge,” but I want to make it clear that it doesn’t just have to be a tree to be included! This challenge is just about taking notice of all of the things changing around us, and learning more about the way they do it.

The Backyard Transition Challenge started in August when I realized that I have never been sure if autumn leaves change color on an individual tree gradually or all at once. Every year it seems like one minute they are green and the next thing I know everything has changed! So this year I decided to take a picture of the same tree every few days and document the changes as they happened, and invited all Backyard Safari readers to do the same!

It is not too late to join us, and you can document anything in your backyard! It could be a plant in your garden that is growing or ripening, the stars as they move across the night sky, a creek bed turning from dry dust to flowing water, the angle of the light, or the seasons changing. It all depends on where you live and what you see every day!

In order to join the Backyard Transition Challenge all you have to do is take pictures of something as frequently or infrequently as you see fit (although the more frequently the better you can document the change!), and send them in to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com once you feel you have documented enough. Later, I will post them on this blog (with credit, of course!) so we can learn about these different transitions together.

Personally, I am taking pictures of a certain tree I see every day to see the changes it goes through from summer into winter. After the leaves have all fallen off my tree–because in the way of these things I now do think of it as “mine”–I will put all of the photos together into a time-lapse movie.

For now, here is a sneak preview of the changes my tree has made from August 2nd to September 20th:

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It has been great fun taking notice of the way things are changing and I have learned so much already! I really hope you join us. As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

The Life of Trees August 11, 2010

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Look up! What do you see?

I was exploring my neighborhood today in search of some backyard wildlife when I walked under an oak tree planted by the sidewalk. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a riot of acorns growing heavy on the branches. I walked underneath the tree to get a glimpse of what I thought of as the “squirrel’s eye view.”

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Acorns are interesting because they contain something called tannin. Tannins are chemicals that makes things bitter to the taste, and in many cases are used by plants as a defense against getting eaten by animals. Pine needles, for example, have high levels of tannin, which is one of the reasons why you don’t see them eaten as often by deer as their broad-leaf counterparts. The tannins in acorns are harmful to certain animals, including humans. Some Native American tribes used to let acorns soak in water to remove the tannins before grinding them up into flour. There have also been deaths of cattle reported during times when there are a lot of acorns on the ground, due to them getting too much tannin in their bodies.

Some animals, however, have adapted to these higher chemical levels, either physiologically or by changing their behavior. Bears and some insects seem to be able to handle consuming high levels of tannin. Squirrels might be able to as well, although some think that squirrels and blue jays that cache acorns might wait for ground water to remove the tannins before they eat them.

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I love cases of coevolution like this, or when two or more species change in relation to each other. Acorns are too heavy to be dispersed by wind, so one of the main ways acorns move around is by squirrels and blue jays storing up caches of the seeds to eat later. The animals can remember where most of their stores are kept, but some inevitably get lost either by accident or as the animals take their secrets to their grave. This allows the “baby” oak trees to grow in a new location where they are not competing with their parent tree for sunlight, food, water, and nutrients. The interesting thing is that in order for this to happen the acorn has to be just the right size—big enough to have a hearty supply of food for the animal, but small enough that it can carry it around in its jaws. Basically, the beak or cheek sizes of the blue jay and squirrel, determine how big an acorn can be!!

I encourage everyone to hold an acorn in their hand the next time they see one and think about this amazing fact–what you are holding is the perfect shape, size, and weight for a squirrel’s mouth or a blue jay’s beak. Think of everything that went in to that process! Larger acorns getting left behind and losing the genetic race because they were too cumbersome for birds long gone, a squirrel–how long ago?–that could carry more acorns in its cheeks surviving longer, reproducing more, and passing those traits on to its offspring. It’s a wonderful thing to think about!

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After finding the acorns I decided to see what else was growing in the trees around me. I noticed these spiky fruits growing in a tree nearby. I am not always great at tree identification–something I would like to work on–but luckily have the magic of the internet, where you can type in almost anything and find someone else who has already searched for it. After a quick search for the very technical term “tree with spiky ball seeds,” I learned these pokey fruits belong to the Sweet Gum tree. Apparently these fruits are also called “space bugs” and “conkleberries!”

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A bit further on I found some more acorns, but noticed that this tree only had a few grouped together, as opposed to the giant clumps in the first one. I am guessing this is a different type of oak tree, but unfortunately do not know quite enough myself to make the distinction. If anyone has any ideas about the difference between these two, please e-mail me at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com!

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A bit later still I saw this black walnut tree with fruits. If you have not smelled a black walnut before, I recommend you to do so the next time you see one! They have a very specific smell, one that I still associate with my Nana’s (grandmother’s) backyard from when I was a child. I still remember clearly the way they start to fall apart after rotting on the ground awhile and the way your hands smell after holding them.

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Finally, I started looking at the way light looks coming through a cluster of leaves. It is always beautiful to me, the way leaves overlap and change color with the light. I encourage everyone to spend a few minutes–even seconds–looking for this the next time they are walking down the street, or even from their house to their car. If you have the time, laying under a tree and looking up is even better!

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I like the leaves of this tree because they look like what you would draw if you were making a cartoon version of a tree. Their round edges are sort of comical, don’t you think?

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Trees are a wonderful thing to explore, especially in a backyard habitat. Even in urban areas you can usually find a tree planted every so often, and even if it is straining against concrete it still has a great story to tell! So take a look at your tree neighbors! Are they all the same type? What’s different about them? Do they have fruits or flowers blooming right now? Is it changing color? What can you learn about it that you didn’t know yesterday? I would love to hear about what you find! I hope you enjoy the exploration as much as I did, and as always, I’ll see you out there!

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Transition Challenge Update August 8, 2010

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A few days ago I announced Backyard Safari’s first ever Tree Transition Challenge. I mentioned briefly that the challenge didn’t just have to be documented in pictures, but could also be documented using drawing, painting, or any other creative way you can think of!

I thought I’d show a quick example of what I mean. I decided I would try to document the same tree using both photos and drawings as an experiment. It turns out that the drawings can be helpful in unexpected ways. For example, the quality of the picture I take depends a lot on the sunlight and time of day. The picture I took on August 6th is a bit gray and washed out because of the overcast skies. Because of this, the picture doesn’t show very well the 3 to 4 very bright red leaves that have turned in the middle of all the green!  With drawings, I was able to document it anyway.

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I’m no professional artist, so you’ll have to take the drawing with a grain of salt, but it was a fun exercise to turn a photo into a drawing that was actually more accurate in some ways (and less accurate in others)! My plan is to put all of the photos and drawings together in the end to show the transition in a sort of fast-forward slide show. I’ve never done this kind of thing before so it will be a lot of fun to try! I really encourage everyone to take up this challenge as well in whatever capacity they feel up for! I’ve already noticed I’m more aware of the seasonal changes I see around me because of documenting what I’ve come to think of as “my” tree.

So good luck to all with the challenge! I think it will be a great experience all around!