Backyard Family Safari


A journey or expedition, for hunting, exploration, or investigation (especially in eastern Africa).

Everyone is aware that the origins of the word safari are related to hunting exotic animals in Kenya and other African countries.

The term has morphed over the years to include “camera” safaris. For our purposes we are going to focus on the concept of expeditions to explore and investigate when referring to safaris.

So, instead of taking a dugout canoe down the Amazon River, we are in a kayak exploring a local river or lake. What will we find?

In normal, healthy times, vacationers pay thousands of dollars to visit my home state of Maine–to eat lobster, scamper over the rocks at the shore, swim in icy waters, or fish in our glacial lakes. The same is true where you live. Bird watchers gather in south Texas to view migrations, intrepid adventure seekers invade Idaho to shoot the rapids on its rivers, families camp in national parks, while others tramp though the Olympic Peninsula looking for Big Foot. North America is full of natural wonders and each one is in someone’s back yard.  How often do we ignore what’s close by and go elsewhere for our get-aways?

Not this year. Traveling is not something many folks feel comfortable doing because of the virus. Therefore, it’s the perfect year to look around at the possibilities close to home and even in our backyards. Also, because it’s possible to be outside and practice social distancing, chances to spend time with family and friends abound. Furthermore, what a perfect opportunity to introduce the younger family members (who are often glued to their digital devices) to the magic and splendor of the natural world! We (children and adults) need experiences that wake up our curiosity. Keeping our eyes open on an afternoon safari will lead to many questions about our natural world. Fortunately, we can use our digital devices to find the answers.

Here are two examples of my curiosity being stoked in my own backyard.

I have a little bird bath that sits on the railing of my deck, and lots of different feathered friends drop by. I picked it up last week and noticed black spots under it that kind of looked three-dimensional.  After taking a picture, I opened Markup in my Photos app and used the magnifying feature. Well, those spots turned out to be pretty creepy looking spikes.  What are they?

Using Google Images ( I decided they might belong to the Dothideomycetes class of fungi.  I’m not sure, but I will keep researching because my curiosity has been piqued.

Here’s a critter that caught my attention recently.  I watched it “inch” its way across my driveway on its quest for greenery. I knew it was an inchworm, but what was it really?

I found out that an inchworm is really a caterpillar desperately seeking foliage to munch and will eventually turn into a moth.  I was fascinated by its determined movement, expending so much energy to get across the driveway. Also learned that the name inchworm comes from a bit of folklore. If one fell on you and “inched” its way along your body, it was measuring you “inch by inch” for your casket. There’s a cheery thought.

In both cases, I wish I had kiddo with me so we could explore together because nature is just so cool as well as fascinating!

How do we find places close to home to explore?


  • State parks

  • National Parks
  • Land Trusts
  • National Forests
  • Audubon Preserves
  • Bird Sanctuaries
  • Town & City Parks
  • National Trail Systems

I googled state parks in Maine and counted 12 that are within an hour’s drive, and because I’m over 65–they’re free!

I wondered if anyone anywhere in country would have the same luck. I lived in Des Moines, Iowa for two years while in graduate school so I googled state parks near Des Moines–found three. Then I tried historical monuments and found too many to count. So yes, a little research and we all can find great places to visit for a family safari.

On a traditional safari, one looks for lions, elephants, antelope, rhinos, and so on. But what should we look on a family backyard, local safari?

√ Magnificent animals

Those of you who live out west probably take the American bison for granted. However, I was as much in awe of Bob the Buffalo as I was of the animals I saw in Africa.  Of course, animals do not have to be huge to be spectacular.

This snapping turtle could take your finger off if you get too close! He or she looks like a prehistoric beastie.

With a little cleverness, you may attract wildlife to your yard.

√ Don’t forget the insects! Pollinators and pests–they are fun to spot in the wild.

Can you identify this beauty found in a backyard in California? Every time I think I have its name, I check it habitat and am proven wrong. If you can identify this gorgeous orange butterfly, please tell us in the comments below.

And of course there is my least favorite pest that eats my Rugosa roses every summer.

√ I have only mentioned land creatures.  Some of you have a lake, river, or an ocean as a backyard. What a treasure trove of critters to seek out.  Many folks may be surprised to find out these mollusks do not live in the ocean, but rather in a fresh water lake.

√ Any good expedition that means to explore and investigate cannot ignore the plant kingdom.  A family safari is a grand time to learn about edible and medicinal plants.

Did you know that bee balm, a member of the mint family, makes a tea that can sooth a stomach upset and help reduce a fever? Some folks forage for mushrooms.  Don’t eat them unless you really know what you are doing.  However, their many shapes and colors, like the one below, are fun to spot while tramping along a path or bushwacking through the undergrowth. Again, don’t ingest any plant in any form unless you have expertise in foraging.

Fortunately, some plants and their berries are easy to identify so the afternoon safari might just turn into snack time. Wild Maine blueberries–delicious and healthy.

A scene right out of Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal--fortunately no bears in attendance!

One wonderful thing about modern cell phones is that the cameras are really good. With a little patience, you can capture a wonderful example of the flora and fauna around you. Here’s a raccoon watching joggers on a walking path just a half mile from downtown Portland, ME.

By the way, if you think raccoons are cute, you might enjoy James Blackwood, the Raccoon Whisperer on YouTube.

One last thing to think about–researchers are finding there are many health benefits to spending time outdoors including:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Fending off depression
  • Improving short term memory
  • Defeating fatigue
  • Fighting off inflammation

We hope you have a chance to share a backyard or nearby safari with friends and/or family.  If you need a little inspiration, here’s a camera safari scavenger hunt to use with little ones, your friends, or just yourself.  Little one will need help with some of the vocabulary.

You can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy the rest of the summer and fall.  Organize a fun safari that allows you to explore and investigate the wonders in your own backyard or nearby nature sanctuary, as well as helping you feel better.

Click on the image above to learn more!

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