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The Backyard Challenge

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Forward and introductions by blog sponsor Teri Franzen Photography.

During the spring of 2020, we began to navigate a new normal in which even going to a store became a stressful ordeal. Toilet paper was suddenly a commodity and encountering others, imperiling. Through this time of shutdowns and closures, many of us have rekindled the joy of our immediate family and the solace in spending time in our own homes. Having that sanctuary where safety is guaranteed is critical now more than ever before.

Spending all this time at home produces another threat borne of boredom and restlessness. The study of ecopsychology suggests that, because we evolved from the natural world, confinement to our man-made modern structures can contribute or lead to depression. Only in recent centuries have we moved more and more into highly developed, urban areas. During this challenging season, as we are spending even more time in our houses, it is critically important to find creative ways to explore our natural world in our own outdoor spaces.

This month's challenge celebrates the many forms of nature that we find as we journey outside and embark on our own backyard safaris. Thank you very much and congratulations to our many photographers, near and far. This blog features photographers Barbara Levy, William Thomas, Cheryl Utter, Chris Harasta, Diana LaBelle, Diana Meyn, Gina Vaughan, JoAnn Rhode, Lisa Campbell Wickens, Mary Lou Shapinas and Stan Edwards. Winner of the one hour, one-on-one photography workshop with Teri Franzen Photography is announced at the end of this blog.

1. The Raptor Tree

Think that dead tree in your backyard is merely an eyesore just waiting to fall? In fact, it's quite the opposite. Dead trees create intriguingly beautiful designs. They also play a critical role in every ecosystem, including our yards. Unencumbered from dense vegetation, birds of many species use the bared branches as lookouts or as high perches from which to call for mates. Birds and mammals alike use hollowed trees for roosting or for raising their families. Insectivores find a whole host of creatures on which to feed. As a tree decays further, the wood breaks down, providing rich soil to replenish the earth.

This image of an eastern screech owl was submitted by Kaela Chase who tells her story about a surprise visitor found in a dead tree in her backyard. "We were getting trees taken down in our backyard and in one of the hollow parts of a dead tree we found this guy! At first we did not think the owl was alive. We kept an eye on it for a while and when we checked back, it had opened its eyes. Later it began moving around in the hollow part of the tree and tucked itself up almost out of sight. We were so happy to know it was alive. Finally, after checking one last time, at 11:30 pm the owl had flown away! We are glad it was okay and hope to hear it hooting around our house in the future"

2. Songbirds

Songbirds, with their vibrant springtime colors, are easily the most visible wildlife in our yards. They are also the most vocal. During springtime, we awake to the singsong voice of northern cardinals or the squeaky toy calls of the American goldfinch. Even if you don't live near a woodland, by investing in a feeder system and keeping it clean and well stocked, you will be guaranteed a variety of feathered visitors throughout the seasons. Below are a just a few of the common songbirds that frequent the yards of our contributors.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

A drawn-out cold front plagued us during the early springtime. Even our migrants seemed a little perturbed. JoAnn Rhode shared this image and story, "We had these two rose-breasted grosbeaks visited our home on this snowy morning. It looks like one of them is checking the thermometer; maybe deciding to head back to somewhere a little warmer."

Lisa Campbell Wickens had a wonderful close opportunity with another Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Lisa wrote, "This was an exciting visitor to my backyard feeders. This bird has been hard to capture because it comes and goes fast, spooking easily. I heard it in the morning right around sunrise but didn't have much luck due to the low light. Later in the afternoon, I saw it again up in a nearby tree. The lighting was really nice and I photographed it through my kitchen window. He loves the mixed seed over any other items I have set up in my yard and often comes when no other birds are vying for the feeder."

Northern Cardinal

Rain and wind didn't stop this northern cardinal from attempting to woo the ladies. Fortunately for us, it also didn't stop Mary Lou Shapinas who captured this beautiful image. Mary Lou wrote, "I took this one Thursday when the weather was so bad with rain and strong wind. This male Cardinal was trying to impress the female Cardinal but she rarely showed up when he was there....poor guy."

Black-capped Chickadee

Another weathered warrior photographed by Mary Lou Shapinas is this black-capped chickadee, "This was the same day as the Cardinal picture. I love little Chickadees, they are such characters...bold and fun to watch. When I took this he was trying sooo hard to hang on. I even chuckled out loud and even more when I looked at the picture!"

House Wren

This house wren may look sweet and shy, but only if you don't try to steal his nest! Diana Meyn wrote, "Each spring a feisty little House Wren returns to our yard to rebuild his nest in our nesting box. The male wren rebuilds a twig, grass and feather nest in the bird house, and then sings his heart out hoping to attract a mate. Any other bird that comes near is aggressively chased off by this tiny bird. Wrens have a fierce temper and will harass and peck regardless of the intruder’s size.

American Robin

American Robins are one of the earliest passerines to appear during springtime. Although we often won't see them in our yards through the winter, these hearty songbirds typically travel only as far as the nearest food source. Chris Harasta and her family have made an event out of capturing images of wildlife during their local outings. Chris wrote, "My family and I have made a game of wildlife photography. We're trying to snap a photo of every animal in our area! This is an iconic and sassy bird of spring, the American Robin."

Red-winged Blackbird

If you have a pond or live near water, you might be lucky enough to host a family of red-winged blackbirds in your yard. Stan Edwards has been working hard to photograph the colorful shoulder patches of this male that frequents his home oasis. Stan provides us with some interesting natural history about these omnivores, "There are at least 22 subspecies of Red-winged Blackbird, most of which look virtually alike. Did you know that the longevity record for the Red-winged Blackbird is 15 years and 9 months?"

Anna's Hummingbird

It may look like our local ruby-throated hummingbird. But this is an Anna's hummingbird photographed on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. Barbara Levy writes about their year-round visitors, "In the winter, hummers in the wild can die of starvation or cold. They use nectar to fuel their amazingly high metabolism which allows them to speed around, catching insects if they can. We’ve set up feeders and planted some of their favourite winter-flowering shrubs, one of which is, "Mahonia aquifolium, the Oregon grape. This image was photographed following a surprise snowfall which turned our evergreen backyard into a winter wonderland."

Baltimore Oriole

Nectar feeders won't solely attract hummingbirds. Baltimore Orioles also have a sweet tooth. In May, setting out an orange slice or jelly might entice them to stick around for a day or two. Lisa Campbell Wickens wrote, "Last year I started backyard birding. This is helping me to learn more about birds. Baltimore Orioles love grape Jelly, insects, oranges and sweet sugar water. I set up all of these items in my yard (minus the insects) and they came to my sugar water within the first few hours I put it out. The female is pale in color with less black. The Male will migrate through first, followed soon by the females."

3. Mammals

The success of a backyard ecosystem is illustrated by the variety of wildlife species that you encounter. In the spirit of "if you build it, they will come", you can't set out feeders to attract the birds without enticing a few mammals. The most common of which are the rodents native to North America. There are feeder systems that will discourage squirrels and chipmunks, but it's easiest to set aside a small station where the mammals can feed without disrupting the birds, as Cheryl Utter has done.


This sweet chipmunk was photographed by Cheryl Utter who wrote, "A regular here, this chipmunk has his own feeding station in my backyard. The name 'chipmunk' comes from word ajidamoo which translates literally as 'one who descends trees headlong'. "

When wildlife is raising a family nearby, rather than fleeing a scene, they will stand their ground as Gina Vaughan has likely discovered. Gina wrote, "The chipmunk was on my fence, heading towards the bird feeder. I went out into my backyard and started taking photos, so excited to see him! But he seemed frozen. I have read that when chipmunks are afraid, they run. That is what I have always known them to do. This little one didn't. Not until I went away."

Birds will often perform a broken wing act to lure you from their nest, and have been known to attack the source of a threat. Wild animals have a strong sense of responsibility, at times risking their own safety for the protection of their young. Pay attention to the signs and walk away to give them space if you see any of these behaviors.

Red Squirrel

Less common in urban or suburban backyards, red squirrels are more often found at a forest edge. Diana LaBelle explains the intriguing behavior she photographed in this next image, "I captured this red squirrel licking the branches of a tree. Investigating this behavior, I learned that red squirrels have a sweet tooth. In spring, just when their food stores may be running low, red squirrels often harvest the sap of sugar maples to supplement their diet. They will gash the limbs of the tree with their teeth, let the sap ooze, and return hours later when the water in the sap has evaporated leaving a concentrated sweet syrup."

Red Fox

Stan Edwards photographed this red fox in his backyard. Stan wrote, "Red Foxes are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world and are known to populate nearly every county in NY state. This little fox took a short rest near my back yard one sunny afternoon. There is a den nearby each year and I have seen the 'kits' chasing each other in my upper field."

Black-tailed Deer

Whether you live in the woods or a residential area, in the local regions of upstate New York, we are all treated with frequent sightings of white-tailed deer. The population is so strong that hunting is permitted during the winter months to keep it in check. This next image tells a tale of a situation even more dire with their black-tailed cousins in British Columbia. According to photographer and poet, Barbara Levy, "On Salt Spring Island, we have an abundance of Black-tailed Deer.

"Sadly, according to the Salt Spring Conservancy, 'Reduced predation (by the few cougars who inhabit the island or swim over from Vancouver Island) and hunting pressure have allowed deer populations to increase far above natural levels.'" This has caused over-browsing of native vegetation, resulting in "reduced diversity and abundance of birds." Said Barbara, "Still, I love to see our deer, who graze year round throughout the forests on our strata’s common land, which is like a nature reserve, and in our 'backyard'"

4. Flowers 'n Sprigs

Few homes in North America are complete without vegetation, either outside in the yard or in containers on a porch or in the house. In the spring of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, that number increased as record numbers of homeowners turned their attention to gardening. Many seasonal shops closed early, their supplies exhausted soon after they'd opened their doors. People turned to gardening for a variety of reasons, as an outlet from the stressful, warlike environment, a learning activity for children who were now schooled at home, or for the practical purpose of creating their own food stores. Many were gardening simply to create a source of beauty in this place where they are suddenly spending the bulk of their time.

Loebner Magnolia

Cheryl Utter photographed this Loebner Magnolia on her property on "May 1st in a brief burst of sunlight on a cloudy day." This small hybrid tree is a cross between Magnolias kobus and stellata and provides fragrant blossoms early in springtime.


William Thomas photographed this rhododendron flower in Maryland. Similar to azaleas, the easiest way to distinguish between the two species is the number of anthers. True Rhododendrons have 10 and azaleas only five. While the leaves of this plant remain green throughout the year, it is during the late springtime when they burst forth with spectacular, colorful blossoms.

Bearded Iris

The iris is named after the "greek goddess who wore rainbows" and is found in a variety of colors. One of the most popular perennials in the springtime, bearded irises are often sold as potted plants during Easter season. They can easily be transferred to your garden in a location with direct sunlight for 6-8 hours each day. William Thomas photographed this beauty at his home in Maryland.


Gina Vaughan photographed this lovely vine growing from her neighbor's yard onto Gina's fence. Species that grow as vines are able to colonize large areas quickly. This ingenious

adaptation allows plants to thrive in areas where soil is scarce. Gina provided this fitting quote, “All that I am is a terribly brave small thing, with a terribly brave small life, and a terribly brave love that spans eons.” ― K. Ancrum, The Weight of the Stars

And the Winner Is...

Congratulations to Diana LaBelle who is the randomly selected winner of the one hour one-on-one workshop with Teri Franzen Photography! First names were entered into the online Random Name Picker Utility, Each featured photographer's name was submitted once for the feature and a second time if they included a natural history write-up or otherwise interesting caption.

Please stay safe everyone! And don't forget to submit to the Virtual Vacation blog for a chance to win a $25 giftcard to Beyond the Print.


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