By Katie Finch
Recently, I heard about an uncommon bird nesting in a forest near my house. With a little information from someone who found it, I went out to try to spot it. But I was left with more questions than bird sightings. How, in acres and acres of forest, did someone find that bird and that nest? Was it luck? How much time do they spend looking for birds and other wildlife? What did they know that I didn’t?
This experience also made me think about our intentions when we go outside. Many of us go in to nature expecting to see “something”. And what we mean by “something” is usually a large animal or something rare or unusual. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
As we enter the spring season and are drawn outside by the return of warmth, songs and blooms, here are a few ideas about seeing “something” based on my outdoor adventures.
- Go out early or late. Many animals are crepuscular, meaning they are active in the hours around sunrise and sunset. As days get warmer, the heat of the day is rest time. Those times on the edge of the day and night are cooler and tend to be quieter times for human activity too. The effort it takes for me to get up early to hear the spring dawn bird songs seems daunting, but worth it. The exception to this are those cold-blooded animals, such as frogs, snakes and turtles that need the heat from the sun to warm them. But even they can get overheated and will move to shadier spaces to regulate their body temperature on really hot days.
- Go slowly and quietly. Or just stay still. As humans, we make much noise when we are outside, even if we think we are being quiet. The crunch of leaves under our feet, the vibration of our phone or even the movement of our clothes against each other gives away our presence. Try picking a spot to sit where you can be comfortable and still. And look and listen to what happens around you. Sitting still can be hard! Our culture does not cultivate the art of sitting quietly. You might have to start small, just sitting for a minute and work your way into longer sits. The longer you are still, the more likely you are to go unnoticed.
- Go out frequently. The more often I explore outside, the less weight I feel on each experience for something to happen. And the more I’m outside, the easier it is to notice changes that occur in the same spaces. Especially in the spring, changes are happening on a daily basis, which can be something to notice. Additionally, the more I’m outside, the more I learn, which helps grow my understanding of the world around me.
- Use tools. We already have the best discovery tools – our senses. However, there are a few tools that enhance our senses and change our perspective. Binoculars help us give a name or description to that small bird flitting around in the tree tops. They also allow us a good view while keeping our distance. A magnifying glass, while perhaps not your typical adventure tool, can open a whole new micro world.
- Ask others. I would have never known those birds were nesting near my home if I hadn’t heard it from someone else. I just didn’t know to look for them. Other people can be great resources for what is happening. This communication can happen in more than just a one-on-one conversation. It can be through social media, sightings recorded on community science databases, such as eBird.org, or organizations, like your local nature center.
- Learn more. When I walk in the woods with a forester, there is a difference in the way he looks at the woods based on his knowledge. He is able to make more sense of the woods than I am. As we learn, the outside world goes from being a mass of green and brown to a more nuanced space, each spot with a purpose and each resident a niche.
- Adjust expectations. So much of our experiences are shaped by our attitude. And much of our attitude is shaped by our expectations. I always thought the saying about low expectations being the secret to happiness was bogus. But there is a lot of truth in that. It doesn’t mean goals are bad. Goals are integral to achieving new things. But when we go out expecting to see something amazing, we may be left disappointed and are less likely to go out again. Try going out open to what happens. When I have fewer expectations, I find it easier to be curious and wonder-filled about whatever happens and I enjoy the walk more.
- Be good. To have high quality outdoor experiences, we bear some of the responsibility when we go out to take good care of those places. When it comes to wildlife, we want to be careful that our actions to not interfere with theirs. That means not feeding wildlife and keeping our distance and not disturbing their natural behaviors. Even if it means forgoing an awesome picture.
- And don’t forget, plants are cool too. A botanist once asked a group of students, “Do you know why I decided to study plants?” Excepting a deep, meaningful answer, everyone laughed when she responded, “They don’t move.” In our quest to connect with our fellow animals, plants may get overlooked. But they have their own struggles, strengths and beauty too.
Sometimes spotting wildlife seems like magic. And a magic that happens to some people but not others. And sometimes you get lucky. You turn a corner and there’s a fox in your path. Or look down from an overlook to see a weasel sneaking through the brush. Or sometimes it seems like the whole world is asleep except for you. But the time we spend outside is not a waste. The fact that we can move our bodies or just be outside is wonderful. Regardless of what you see.
Katie Finch is an educator at Audubon.
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 open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.