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?

 

 

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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 Exploration August 2, 2010

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Readers, I have a bit of a confession to make. I really love nature and being outside, but I do not go out as much as I should. This is, truthfully, because sometimes I am lazy and it can be difficult to motivate myself to go. I know this is not uncommon, and something lots of people struggle with, but it is not often written about in nature blogs. I am trying to be honest here, though, to show that you don’t need to be the kind of person who is dying to climb mountains at 6 am every weekend in order to love and experience nature–although if that is what you like to do more power to you!

I should also tell you that I don’t own a single pair of those zip-off nylon convertible pants that make up the stock of most outdoor stores. I wear jeans, almost exclusively, everywhere, and for every activity. This preference is sometimes confused with inexperience, but really I’ve just always done it this way, ever since I was a kid. I usually feel more comfortable in tough jean material, which can take walking through sticker bushes and sliding down sandstone better than thinner fabrics. I’ve worn them in the woods, in streams, up mountains, occasionally to run in, and even swimming in the ocean once. I’m not discouraging the use of professional outdoor clothing at all–I have many friends and colleagues who swear by them–I’m sharing this just to show that in most cases you don’t need to stock up on any certain type of “outdoor wear” in order to explore nature. If you have a preference, please use it, but don’t let the lack of these materials keep you from checking out your backyard!

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I’ve been having a hard time being active lately–I don’t like treadmills because there is nothing interesting to look at, but when I run outside I keep thinking about how far I have to go to get back home. It’s a mental block, and I decided to solve it by just going for a walk. An exploration, really, following my feet and looking for interesting things as I went. I started today, and ended up wandering for a over an hour! Along the way, there was a great number of wonderful things–more than I ever expected to see!

My walk took me from a tree-lined street, along a highway, across a field, down a different highway, and finally on a foot path next to a golf course. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there would be much nature to see on such a journey. This is not the case, of course, especially if you look small!

To begin with, the variety of flowers and butterflies I saw was astounding! Bright pinks, whites, yellows, and purples abounded in both. I also saw bumble bees with full pollen sacs on chicory flowers, grasshoppers, and a lot of other interesting plants.

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In the field I saw these thistle plants along with some bright yellow flowers. The thistle seeds are starting to blow away on the stuff that looks like white fur. Here is a close up:

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I followed the top of a hill beside a paved footpath next to the highway and found this hidden treat growing in a ditch:

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It was also up along the hilltop that I noticed a small dirt path heading into the trees on the other side of the ditch. I broke away from the main road to follow it, and that is how I discovered a very appealing foot-path through some trees beside a local golf course.

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I saw many beautiful things on this path, including daisies, queen anne’s lace, chipmunks, and a few different kinds of insect damage. There were the usual holes on leaves where insects had chewed through, but there were also leaf mines and something called a gall, where an insect egg is laid inside a plant and then lives inside it as a larva.

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Finally, as I moved beyond the path and back through a field, I saw this small hole in the grass. I assume it belongs to a field mouse or some other small mammal.

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I had a really wonderful time on my walk! It’s amazing the things you can see when you slow down and start to really look around you. I expected to see some things, but I never expected to see the plethora of plants, insects, and animal signs that I did. It really motivated me to get out more and keep making that effort.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my main inspiration for starting Backyard Safari was to show people that you don’t need a lot of special equipment or wide open spaces in order to have a relationship with nature. All I started with today were jeans, flip flops, my camera phone, and the small patches of wilderness that make up the spaces between roads and houses in Suburbia. What I ended up with, though, was much bigger!

One of the best things about nature is how wonderful it is in all sizes. If you only have a small space to explore, try looking for the small things in it! A herd of elk or pack of wolves is amazing if you have them, but so is a passing butterfly, a milkweed pod, or a ripening blackberry. The important thing is that you get out there and see what there is to see!

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Tempest in a Teacup

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An important life lesson: Don’t put very bright lights right next to a screen door! If you do, when you open the door all kinds of things will make a break for that beautiful, mesmerizing light.

Last night a cicada (and many other small insects) came inside and buzzed around for a while before I was able to catch it under a glass. I slipped a coaster underneath the mouth of the glass and carried the whole thing outside to let it go. Before the release I took a quick video of it buzzing around in the glass. It was quite a commotion!

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We had to turn the light (a large paper cylinder) off and put it outside for a while to get all of the other insects out. The more you know!

 

A Very Special Guest Post June 23, 2010

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A few days ago I sent an e-mail to my grandparents asking if they would be willing to be interviewed for Backyard Safari. They moved out of their old house into an apartment a few years ago, and I know they watch the birds that come to their balcony. It is important to me to show through this blog that you don’t need to hike for 40 miles into uncharted wilderness to love and cherish nature, so I wanted to ask them how they first became interested in the birds, and what effect, if any, it had on their daily lives.

My grandfather responded with a beautiful e-mail that was so much more than I ever expected. It is an amazing window into his experiences for all readers, but especially for me as his granddaughter. I could never do it justice by paraphrasing, so I want to simply share what he wrote here in its entirety and let him speak for himself.

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“As a child, I was probably only aware of and familiar with robins and sparrows.  Later on, I grew to appreciate the beauty and coloring of the cardinals and blue jays, since they are easily distinguishable.  Then when we lived [at our old house], we had a very interesting mocking bird.  He would sit on the chimney of the house across the street and sing through his whole repertoire, occasionally jumping straight up about five or six feet and returning back down to the same chimney to continue his repertoire.  This could go on for four or five minutes–and the strangest thing was he might even be doing it at 11 or 12 o’clock at night.  During that summer, he also perched on the top of our garage and I would put pieces of apple or grapes on the back kitchen window sill and he would come and get them.  After a while, if I forgot to put the fruit out, he would show up at the top of the garage and wait for his food.  That was the most fun.
I guess I never got into the other birds too much until we moved out here–although we did have a bird feeder [at the old house] which your father installed safely on the top of a pole.  So he fed not only the birds but my continued interest in them.
When we moved where we are now, your wonderful father put up the finch-food feeder and the hummingbird feeder on our deck, both of which have been feeding many birds since then.  So you can credit your dad and mom for my continued interest.  And last year your dad brought the suet holder and suet, so we have a third source for them.
I miss the mocking birds–we never seen any anymore here.  But on most every day we do have goldfinches and purple finches, hummingbirds and cat birds, black- capped chicadees, cardinals, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and many sparrows or similar types, including the chipping sparrow.  Still a few are a mystery.  It all proves nature is beautiful and a part of God’s plan.”

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My grandparents have created a wonderful little ecosystem a few floors above the ground at their new apartment. Thanks to their work keeping flowers in bloom and bird feeders full, they have a plethora of different kinds of birds that stop by, and as a result my grandfather can identify and enjoy a variety of species beyond what he describes knowing as a child. My grandfather was born in 1920 and grew up near a major city, in a time before all of the environmental education and nature camp efforts that are now in place. His life-long interest in birds, however, proves that the wonders of nature can many times speak for themselves.

I talked to my parents about this post and they wanted to make it clear that, despite the credit my grandfather gives them, they were only ever responding to his already-existing interests. The same way you would purchase a birthday present for someone based on what you already knew they liked, they enjoyed helping my grandpa with bird feeders because they knew he was already interested in the birds. This is a great thing to think about! Is there anyone in your life who might enjoy a bird feeder out their window or on their balcony? Even if they don’t have the initial interest my grandfather did, you might be opening up a whole new world for them with something as simple as a hummingbird feeder or a handful of birdseed. For that matter, you might be opening up a whole new world for yourself!

I hope my grandfather’s eloquent words can inspire us to take notice of all the beautiful things around us, to learn from them, interact with them, and make them a part of our lives! I hope it also inspires us to share these experiences with others, either in the form of an extra bird feeder, a bug box, pictures, or –you guessed it– a blog post.

Many thanks and even more love to Grandpa Backyard Safari for sharing these wonderful thoughts with us. I hope your bird neighbors give you (and us!) inspiration for many years to come!

 

Empty Nest Syndrome May 19, 2010

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I’m sad to say that our young mourning dove friends have all flown, before I could even get a good picture of them! It’s amazing how fast they grew up–I wish I had checked for babies a little more often, but I would have had to scare away the parents in order to get a good look and I just wasn’t willing to do it for now.

After all of that sitting and waiting on the nest, through rain and cold, one day I came home and one of the doves was sitting on the railing in front of the window. It flew away after I moved into the room and I ran to the other window to see if anything was sitting on the nest. Nothing! So I ran outside to the balcony and saw that all of them were gone!

I have to admit I am a little sad. I miss knowing that they are out there. The benefit of it, though, is that now when I see a mourning dove I know it could be one of “our” doves–the babies that were incubated, hatched, and fledged from a little potted plant on my balcony.

One of the most impressive things to me about the mourning doves is their extremely punctual nature! Everything they did was very textbook — the male and female changed places on the nest every day at 9:30 am and 5:30 pm, and they were on the nest for exactly 4 weeks–the amount of time every source gives for the hatching and fledging of young.

I’ll miss the doves. It was such a great experience to share my living space with them while it lasted. Every time I peeked out from behind a curtain there was that dark black eye, watching my movements, looking out–as all parents do–for anything that might try to hurt its young. Watching them stretch their wings after a long night sitting on the nest I could see that we’re really not so different.

So good luck to the next generation that is now flying off to find their own potted plants! And remember–there is an open space on my balcony for anyone who wants to give me dove grandchildren!

 

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!