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The Art of Observing: The School of Nature

Getting Started

All Animals magazine

All Animals July/August 2009 Wildlife Feature frog

Heather Fone/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

Knowledge and the right tools can open a budding wildlife observer’s eyes to the mindboggling diversity of the natural world.

Begin by familiarizing yourself with the habitats near your home: Is the landscape woodland or prairie, wetland or desert, meadow or coastal grassland?

Identify the trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants in your yard and the birds and other animals who use them. Learn what and when the animals eat, and find the local watering hole.

“Start small,” Pauli recommends. “You will be amazed by the number of species found by simply turning over a log, board, or rock or by spending a half hour in your backyard.”

Expand your perspective to the animals in your region by tagging along on nature walks given by the local Audubon Society or other conservation groups. Many wildlife sanctuaries and city parks also conduct citizen science initiatives that invite participation in nature.

“Activities such as these can help jump-start beginning wildlife watchers,” says nature writer Debra Firmani, who with her 14-year-old son Marcus dedicates two days a week to counting birds for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch—a winter-long survey of birds visiting backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America.

Expert wildlife tracker Paul Rezendes stresses the need to open the senses when observing nature.

“As soon as you walk in the forest, you are bombarded with information, but people’s minds are always going so fast,” says Rezendes, who wrote Tracking and the Art of Seeing and The Wild Within.

“There have been times when I was walking in a beautiful forest, nice smells in the air, birds chirping in the canopy above, and 15 minutes later I was in another type of environment and didn’t even notice the change in landscape. It happens to everybody. But to see animals, you have to be present and attentive. You need to be looking.”

Walk softly, stopping often to listen to your surroundings. Binoculars or a spotting scope will help you pinpoint the source: a woodpecker’s drumming; a chipmunk’s warning chirp; a pebble tumbling down a rocky incline, displaced from above by a bighorn sheep.

With a magnifying glass, you can zoom in on small evidence such as feathers, fur, and chewed grass. Use a field guide to help you identify animals, their tracks and other signs, the foods they eat, and where they typically live. “I’ve never seen a field guide I didn’t like,” says Pauli, who buys one in each state he visits.

He recommends those with good pictures and field distribution maps, and he suggests borrowing one from the library first for a test drive.

As you begin learning species’ names, habits, and characteristics, keep a journal noting animals’ sizes, colorings, sounds, and behaviors, as well as nests or burrows used. Draw sketches and jot down the time, location, and weather.

While Pauli scribbles notes directly in his field guide and uses stickers as marker points, Marcus keeps a journal in which he documents details and sketches the animal from a variety of angles. “This helps me keep track of trends in certain species and their habits and populations from year to year,” Marcus explains.

The data he has been compiling since he was 6 years old will yield a wealth of information for future ornithology projects.

Keep reading: The Signs of Life»

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