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How to Observe Nature Like a Naturalist

A beautiful backyard with sunlight streaming through the trees.
Tyler Mabie/Shutterstock

Getting bored with your backyard? Thinking like a naturalist can give you a new appreciation for the ecosystem you have right there at home.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, your city, state, and national parks are likely still closed. Even if they’re open to the public, the crowds of other people put you at risk of infection.

However, if you have a yard of any sort, you can get your nature fix right there! These tips will help you cultivate a new appreciation for what you have right in your own backyard!

Why Become a Backyard Naturalist?

What happens when you observe like a naturalist? You see more of the natural beauty all around you.

Most animals try to hide from humans. With the right tactics, though, you can blend into the landscape, and they’ll venture out. And as you train your eye to notice subtle things, you’ll see wildlife that you’d otherwise miss.

It also helps to know what you’re seeing. Naturalists learn about the flora and fauna around them, so they can appreciate and understand what they’re observing. A tree in your yard becomes more interesting when you know what kind it is, and which animals depend on it for life.

9 Tips for a Beginning Naturalist

You don’t need any experience to get in touch with the nature that surrounds you. There are some things you can try while just hanging out in your yard.

Cultivate Patience

When you first go outside, many mammals, birds, and insects will make themselves scarce. Hiding is an important way for animals to stay safe from predators.

However, if you sit still long enough, those animals might stop seeing you as a threat and venture out again. For example, a rabbit that hid under your porch when you stepped outside will probably come out to nibble grass if it doesn’t hear any frightening sounds for a while.

Pick a comfortable spot and sit patiently. Don’t expect nature to show itself fully right away. If you have pets, consider keeping them inside temporarily so they won’t scare away the wildlife, either.

You might also want to switch spots on different observation days. Picking a different spot in your yard can make a surprising amount of difference in what you’ll see if you wait patiently.

Change Your Field of Vision

Even from the same spot, simply looking higher or lower can show you lots more of what nature has to offer. Above, you might see the motion of birds and leaves, and a beautiful backdrop of sky. Look down, and you might notice small creatures traversing your lawn.

Of course, you can always face a different direction for a new perspective, too.

Get Up Close

Closeup of moss that looks like a tiny forest.

While sitting still has its benefits, you can also move closer to really observe nature.

If you sit down on your lawn and look closely at the grass, you might notice insects or different plants hidden among the blades. Gently lifting a rock can unveil a secret world of bugs. Viewed up close, a tree trunk might be home to fungi.

Studying mossy rocks or logs reveals a world that looks like a forest in miniature. Getting up close and personal gives you a new perspective on the smaller life-forms that share your yard.

Try Different Times of Day

If you’re not adhering to a normal schedule thanks to COVID-19, you have a great opportunity to observe how nature changes throughout the day in your yard. For example, the birdsong you hear early in the morning might be different from what you hear at twilight.

Experiment by going out at different times, and in different kinds of weather, to see how nature changes and adapts.

Avoid Distractions

You might want to bring your phone or a book to occupy you while you wait for nature to adjust to your presence. At some point, though, put your distractions away and immerse yourself in observation. You’ll definitely see much more that way.

At first, simply staring at your yard might be boring, but it’s good to challenge to see how long you can sit still without distractions. Over time, you’ll get better at noticing nature in its subtle forms, like the flit of a fly or the way a plant’s leaves tilt toward the sun.

Take Pictures

Someone taking a photo of pretty garden flowers with an iPhone.

Your phone can serve as a distraction. Sometimes, though, it can help you with your observations. Experimenting with nature photography is a great way to cultivate a naturalist’s eye.

If you take some pictures, you’ll notice more of the natural beauty in your own yard when you look at the photos later. You’ll see things in the photos you missed while you were outside. Just don’t spend the entire time on your phone—you’ll miss a ton if you never put it down.

This is a good time to put your phone in Airplane mode. Then, you can use the camera without the distraction of notifications and messages popping up.

Start a Journal

In a nature journal, you can sketch what you see, jot down names or descriptions of plants and animals, or simply record how you feel.

If you don’t know what to write, your senses are a good starting point. Write down what you see, smell, and hear. Touch a leaf and describe its texture. If you’re familiar with edible plants in your area, you can write about taste.

Experts say that a nature journal can help you become a better observer. No matter what you write, simply thinking about how to record what you see will help you tune into nature.

Open Your Mind

Humans place a lot of arbitrary value on nature. We see wildflowers in a field as beautiful, but dandelions on a lawn as ugly.

You’ll appreciate your yard more if you notice these preconceptions and open your mind a bit. Weeds, rats, and bugs are all part of nature, too. Every living thing is interesting to observe—even those that are considered “pests.”

Learn What’s Around You

A field guide to local wildlife can make your observations more fun. It will inform you which plants and animals you should be able to spot in your area.

You can also download the Seek app, which allows you to scan images of natural life-forms and tells you what they are. Learning to recognize and name different living things will really make you feel like a naturalist.

You don’t have to venture out into the wilderness to cultivate a naturalist’s mindset. Even if you only have a tiny patch of lawn, you can do it from home. And stay-at-home orders make this the perfect time to get started!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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