Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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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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!

 

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 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:

.August 2nd

.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!

 

Into the Forest August 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 8:57 pm
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In honor of “Wordless Wednesday” I will make this short!

Trying out a new set of “blend-able” markers I bought on sale yesterday. They seem promising! I’ll have to add them to my field journal “tool kit.”  Is there anything you just need to have with you when it comes to pencils, books, pens, and other writing/art supplies?

 

Shadow Play August 22, 2010

I’m your follower in the light,
Yet I’m invisible at night
At various sizes I appear
I won’t harm you, have no fear
What am I?

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I was walking into town yesterday, letting my eyes roam as usual to see what there was to see. I noticed the same acorns I took pictures of for an earlier post and the way some leaves had turned brown on the branch of an otherwise green tree. These things were interesting, but it wasn’t until something dark caught the corner of my eye that I really got excited.

Shadows! Of course! Why did I never notice them before? They are almost always there, making shapes and distortions beneath our feet. Once I thought of it it seemed so obvious–go on a shadow hunt and see what different kinds you can find! I spent the rest of my walk examining the ground and comparing what I saw. It turns out there are quite a few different kinds of shadows.

The first, and most fun to look at in my opinion, are shadows of trees that really show the shape of the leaves. Some of these have defined edges:

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Some shadows have fuzzier edges:

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In some places almost all of the ground is in shadow, and instead of seeing the areas where the light doesn’t get through the leaves you see the places where it does:

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There are some areas where the shadows don’t just show leaves–the branches of the tree are also visible in shadow form on the ground!

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Finally, I decided to just watch the shadows for a while and see what happened. I noticed that when the wind blows you can see the leaves shimmying and shaking in the shadow just like you would if you looked up at the tree. It’s interesting how some parts of the shadow move and some do not!

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Looking for shadows really enriched my walk! It is definitely something I will do again and I am planning on trying to document shadows more in general–of animals, trees, cars, buildings, etc. It’s all about taking notice of the little things that are around us every day.  I’d also like to repeat an experiment that we did once in elementary school. You go out to a parking lot or side-walk at different times of day and have someone trace your shadow with chalk. If you went every hour on a sunny day, for example, you could track the way the sun moves in shadow-form and have a sort of human sundial! If you wanted you could then go out and stand in the center to see what time the shadow tells you and compare to a watch to see how close you got. I google searched and found this brief tutorial on making human sundials from Crayola.

What kind of shadows do you see? How are they changing? What catches your attention? I’d like to challenge everyone to go on a shadow hunt of their own, either on a walk specifically for the purpose or just by keeping your eyes open as you walk from your house to your car or out to your mailbox. If you see anything you’d like to share please e-mail it to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

So what do you see?