By Katie Finch

Last week I found a Mourning Cloak butterfly while cleaning up the yard. It was tucked among the bottom logs in a stack of firewood. If it hadn’t flapped its wings I would have never seen it. The coloring of the underside of the wing was the perfect imitation of rotting wood. However, the gentle flapping when disturbed revealed the rich blues and yellows of the inner wings.

Two strong feelings arose in me. One was concern. Mourning Cloaks overwinter as butterflies. The pile of wood I was moving is where it had settled down for the winter. It nestled itself among the decaying logs covered with a blanket of fallen leaves. I did my best to replicate the conditions in the back of the yard and then let it be.

The other feeling was the desire to document this sighting. When I returned inside, I pulled out my notebook and jotted it down, leaving space for more documentation later.  For lack of a better title, this notebook is my nature journal. It holds observations of my experiences outdoors. Sometimes they are lists of birds at my feeders. When I’ve wanted to spend more time with something, they are sketches of a plant or animal I’ve found. Sometimes they are just a date and a discovery or occurrence, like “Wednesday, November 3, 2021 First Snow, 3 inches at home.”

Nature journaling is a common practice for those who appreciate the natural world and want to learn more. It is a common lesson in the environmental education field to encourage attention, questioning and data collection. For me, keeping a nature journal has been a journey of fits and starts over many years. Initiated by the joy of blank, new notebook and freshly sharpen pencils, my journal is often stalled by the burden of perfectionism.

When I think about nature journals, I default to beautiful sketches done with ink and watercolor, appealing composition, and a little text that has the look of casual handwriting but the precision of a digital font. I think of published books done in this journal style or workbooks on how to nature journal. They are gorgeous to flip through. I own some of these books and admire more in bookstores. They bring me joy but also leave me little unsettled. Their attractiveness is always accompanied by a rain cloud of envy. I think, I can’t possibly create that in my own journal. And I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed from others too. 

But I’m learning to tell myself I don’t have to. While a nature journal page can be a carefully composed page of accurate drawings and detailed notes, they don’t have to be. I’ve had to remind myself that journals are personal. They are the creators’ response to the world. And more than anything, they should be truthful.    

Photo by Katie Finch

A nature journal is a valuable tool that helps the creator more closely observe the world around them. The practice of slowing down, noticing, questioning and reflection is undeniably valuable as not just a scientific practice but a human practice. For me, the act of writing something down also helps fix it in my memory. And it gives me a record to refer back to in future projects or questions.

In looking back at journals I’ve created, there is a pattern. Most of the journals start in spring, have a large break in summer and pick up again in fall. There is most often documentation of fall leaves and the first snow. In fact, this year I haven’t thought much about my journal until last week and the discovery of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.  Part of me feels guilty that I am not more consistent. I am bothered by the holes, the gaps in information. But I remind myself that this is not meant to be an obligation. The changing of seasons is what attracts me to journaling. The opening and renewal that of spring and the slowing and closing of fall. Especially fall. Documenting the last of something is a way of honoring its presence and also saying goodbye.   

If considering starting a nature journal, keep in mind it could be drawing. It could be writing. Or a combination of both. Dates and location are important but after that, the format is open. I highly recommend a good writing utensil. My favorites are an Ultra Fine Sharpie and lead pencil.  

Your journal can be a log book of your explorations or discoveries. It can be like a field guide with details descriptions of plants and animals and how to identify them. It can be a phenological record, documenting seasonal natural occurrences- the arrival of the first migrating bird, trees leafing out, or amphibians laying eggs.  It can be a reflection of your own experience. Or more likely, a combination of all of these things.     

Photo by Katie Finch

A lot of nature journaling happens on a public level. There are books, scientific research, and lesson plans based around journaling about the natural world. But the joy comes from doing it for yourself for your own reasons without the expectation that you will have to submit it for anyone’s approval. The best advice I’ve read about journaling was from a recent blog post by Paula Peters on She writes,  

“A journal should be a playful, helpful, adventurous, extension of yourself. A sandpit for exploring your responses to the world. Something a bit frowsy, a bit lop-sided, a bit ramshackle at times. But at other times it will resonate with a rare quality.”

However, perfectly or imperfectly I do it, documenting and then looking back at my observations of the natural world is a reminder that I am part of a constantly changing world. A world the progresses but also follows a pattern. A world that is linear but also cyclical. Things come around again and again in their own season. There is comfort in the return of Red-winged Blackbirds in spring, the movement of Canada Geese in the fall, and the first snowfall. Observing nature is grounding. It is astonishing and surprising and worthy of notice.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.