September 5th, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Learning Nature 101a

This is not for expert naturalists, who already know more than I do about how to learn more.  This is for people who, for whatever reason, suddenly want to know "What's that bug?" or "What's that new plant in the parking lot at work?"

These suggestions are not meant to be too directive--there are dozens of paths to any given piece of the puzzle--but they may help some shorten the journey, if they want to shorten the journey or are being hassled by a determined small child full of that early-childhood curiosity.

1.  At the bookstore:  look in the children's nature section as well as the nature section, for a basic book on what you're trying to learn.   Even a child's book on, say, "life at the pond" may tell you what your toddler wants to know, and give  you a clear, if basic, idea of what comes next.   In the nature section, look at the available field guides and see if you can recognize the things you already know (perhaps a cardinal, in a bird book, or an oak tree, in a tree book).  You will probably find that one series makes more sense to you than another--and that's the one you should buy, no matter what anyone else thinks of it.   Your first books in "learning nature" are starters--you may graduate to other books later, so don't worry too much about getting the "wrong" ones.  Important: make sure any book covers the area where you are.   A book on western birds, when you live in Massachusetts, won't help much. 

2. Online:  In the past 3-5 years, a lot of very useful online databases have begun to show up, some more useful to novices than others.  Search engines are your friend in the wilderness, but you should know about a few of these right up front: 
    For insects and arachnids:   You can browse its huge database of images, and read its forums, without registering, though to submit a photo for ID, you have to register.  But it's free and it's easy to use. 
    For dragonflies and damselflies:  OdonataCentral  It has state and county-level checklists, as well as pictures (but you have to click on the "camera" icon of a listed species to see the picture.)
    For butterflies and moths:   Set up similarly to OdonataCentral, with state and county-level checklists.
    In many other cases you can get species lists (or a guide to someplace where species lists are stored) by Googling on [statename] [county/area name] [what  you want to know].  Sometimes it works better if you put the county or area name first, sometimes the state name first--you may have to Google more than once if you don't find something useful the first time.  For instance, "Texas Williamson County native plants" or "southern Colorado birds".  Notice the sites that host such things.  These will often be sites hosted by universities, government agencies, or environmental organizations--and those will  have other information you're going to want later.

3.  Finding experts:   Though you should try to figure out what something is from your field guide (it's the way to learn more and more about plants, birds, whatever)  sometimes you'll be stumped.  When you're stumped for more than 48 hours (and sometimes less) it's time to find an expert.    Across the country there are experts in everything, and some of them (not all) will answer questions from novices.  To find an expert, consider these basic sources: educational institutions (colleges, universities, science high schools), state and federal agencies dealing with plants and animals (county agricultural agents, state wildlife agencies, U.S. Dept of Agriculture, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service), and nature/wildlife oriented organizations (Audubon Society, Native Plant Society, etc.)   Yesterday I found someone to identify a snake from a not-great photograph of the snake by starting with a site hosted by the University of Texas (it's one I'd know about before.)   There was a contact for "comments"--I emailed that, with a description of the snake and its behavior, and said I had some lousy images of it  and would anyone be willing to look at it.  That person contacted the snake expert at the Texas Natural Science Center for me, he emailed me, I sent the best images I had, and this morning the snake was no longer a mystery snake.   I had been through three field guides and the online guide at the herps site without being able to ID it--it was easy and quick for the expert. 

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Learning Nature 101b: visual aids

Additional tools for learning nature can be as expensive or inexpensive as your budget allows. 

First, most people benefit from visual aids: magnifying glasses, binoculars, microscopes (dissecting microscopes in particular) and cameras.  Digital cameras are incredibly useful in learning about nature, even the simplest point-and-shoot ones. 

Magnifying glasses, especially for children, are a wonderful tool.  Most of us have trouble seeing tiny things clearly--the glass allows butterfly eggs, tiny insects, leaf venation, the details of lichen on a rock, all to become easily visible.   Plastic magnifying glasses (inexpensive) are good enough for most field trips. 

Binoculars bring the distant near--and thus more visible.  Children often have trouble with binoculars and their adjustment, but older children and adults usually find them easy to use.   The kind of binocular you'll want depends a lot on what your favorite targets are: for butterflies and dragonflies you'll want to be sure the binoculars are "near-focus" but for most birds you don't need that capability.   People argue endlessly about binoculars--if you're not already using them, relatively inexpensive (under $150) ones can teach you  what you can and can't do, and what you like and don't like about the ones you have...and later you can get the "perfect" ones for you.  Do pay for quality glass, more than absolute magnification: a smaller crisp image is better than a larger blurred image.

Microscopes.  A school-level dissecting microscope is a really cool thing to have around (put a little pond water or algae in a glass dish and wow!) and will let you define flower parts much more easily in small flowers.  

Cameras.   The hands-down best tool for documenting what you've seen and helping with identification.   If you have a digital image of something, you don't have to lug all your field guides out to the field, or try to remember if that bird had an eyestripe that was straight or kinked, or if the bird with the eyestripe also had wingbars, or the bird with the wingbars was the one without the eyestripe.   You can bring the image home, look at it on the computer screen while going through field guides--or you can email it to an expert for help.   Beyond the obvious stuff (even a bad picture of a cardinal looks like a cardinal)  you need, again, good glass--good lenses--in the camera in order to capture the details that make ID possible.   You also need some basic photo-manipulation software so you can crop, resize, and sharpen your images in a non-lossy format (which means your software needs to be able to take the original jpeg the camera handed you and turn it into something non-lossy--and then turn it back to jpeg.  

If you're already into photography, you know what you like.  If not, start with  the simple--a point-and-shoot with the best glass you can afford (ask a camera shop and also try some test shots with it.)  You need to be able to see clearly when what you're shooting is in focus (easier with some cameras than others.)  Autofocus is fine for some things, but cameras do not understand when what you're after is the detail of the wasp partly behind the flower--so you have to have a way to focus manually as well (or miss a lot of shots.)   Some zoom is also very, VERY useful.  If you're at the SLR level already,  go for the best lens, then reaction speed (how long after you press the shutter does the camera take the shot, and what is the delay in repeated shots?), then at least manual focus option and ideally manual control of aperture and shutter speed, then zoom capability, then pixel depth (megapixels--more is better)  then motion-reduction if you don't  have very steady hands.

In my opinion, everyone can have access to a magnifying glass.  If I had to choose between binoculars and camera for budget reasons, I'd recommend an inexpensive digital camera first....and then inexpensive binoculars before moving to a better camera...the super binocs and the microscope would come later.  But if your real interest is in tiny things, the microscope might come earlier in the progression (because an inexpensive camera won't do as good a job at tiny things--can't focus really close), and if your main interest is birdwatching, then good binoculars first and then a good camera.  (Incidentally, my dream lens for nature photography including birds is a $7000 lens.   Costs a lot more than the rest of my camera equipment put together and explains why I don't have it.  What I've got instead isn't as spiffy, but I  can take plenty good enough pictures with it, and since I'm not a nationally known bird what?) 

For some of my bird pictures, here's my "birds" gallery on LJ:

Not all were taken with the same lens setup or at the same distance--some are "grab" shots where I had just one chance to catch that bird--but they were good enough for ID. 
woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Nature Learning 101c Setting Goals

Aside from small children (who do exactly this) almost no one wakes up one morning wanting to know everything about everything right now.   We get interested in nature for a reason...we have some kind of goal in mind when we first wonder "What's that?"  (If we have a toddler, the goal may be to retain our sanity while the young explorer is demanding to know everything about everything right now.)

It helps to write goals down--not to feel guilty about if you don't achieve them, but to make them "real" to yourself.  Set your first goals modestly--don't try too much too fast.  For instance, if you start out knowing nothing about the native plants and animals of your area, you might decide to learn to recognize at sight five common local trees, five common local birds, five common local wildflowers,  five common local butterflies within the next year. 

Or, if trees or birds are your main interest, you might decide to learn to recognize all the common local birds, or all the common local trees (but if you're in a tree-rich or bird-rich area, give  yourself more than one year to learn them!)

Or you might decide to learn to recognize the different groups of insects common to your area--to know beetles from true bugs, bees & wasps from flies, butterflies from moths, etc. 

You might decide to keep a record of everything you see on a daily walk, or what's in the park across the street, or what's in your own yard, or birds seen on a trip. 

Goals can also include (should also include) learning more about the plants and animals you've learned to name and how they interact.  Why are some trees full of birds' nests and others aren't?  Why do certain plants grow only in lowlands or uplands or rocky soils or sandy soils?  What does this bird/animal/insect eat?   The more you learn, the more questions you will come up with--new goals for your studies--and the more you will find to notice and enjoy wherever you are and wherever you travel.  

If you're new to learning nature, I'd urge you to learn a few things in a number of different areas: some grasses, some trees, some shrubs, some wildflowers, some birds, some mammals, some butterflies, some dragonflies, and so on.  Then, if one area hooks you more strongly, go more deeply into that. 

I'd also urge you, though you start with simple field guides and common names, to learn (at least write down, in your record of what you see and learn) the scientific names, and to learn a little about classification.   If you know, for instance, what "nightshade-like" flowers look like, then you'll find it easier to look up a new wildflower that's closely related.   You'll know that the mysterious little gray and yellowish bird is some kind of warbler, that the little brown butterfly is some kind of skipper.

Goals can help a lot.  When I realized that we had a lot of native sparrows spending the winter on  our land--and I had thought all sparrows were just "little streaky brown birds"--I decided to spend one winter concentrating on the sparrows, nothing else.  Day after day, with binoculars, camera, and field guides...and gradually the "little streaky brown birds" came clear to my eyes, my mind, and my memory, so that now I can recognize them at a distance, even without binoculars much of the time (and given my eyesight, that's a miracle!)  When a new sparrow shows up (as has happened a few times since) I immediately know it's not one of the usuals...which means less work figuring out what it is.

My long-range goal is to identify "everything" that lives on our place.  That isn't going to be possible in my lifetime, most likely, but it's worthwhile  to try (over 700 species and still counting...)