How to be a Naturalist

Rebekah Beall, Seasonal Naturalist writes about some of the amazing discoveries she and students have found in the field.

As a naturalist, my day often includes taking a class (or three or four classes in a row) on a hike during a field trip.

When I lead a hike, we stop at the trail sign marking the transition from the grassy picnic area to the shaded path through the woods. I tell the kids they have a job to do. Some crowd close to me or even begin to edge onto the trail. Others--less comfortable, perhaps warned of poison ivy and ticks--stand back, twitching from foot to foot.

I describe how naturalists explore nature, ask questions, and share their discoveries with others. I tell them I expect them to be naturalists on the hike too. This responsibility tends to open their eyes (and ears and noses and hands and brains) to nature along the trail.

We trace the creek to a rock crossing and climb the ridge, stopping here and there depending on what we notice. The kids most often encounter palm or pocket-sized wonders:

Two orderly rows of tiny, clam-shell-shaped katydid eggs ultra-camouflaged on a stick
Did I know what kind of insect they came from or even what they were for sure? No, we guessed together and talked about camouflage. Back at my office I looked the eggs up in the fantastic book Tracks and Signs of Insects by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. I tell kids that doing research is part of being a naturalist too.

Oak tree galls pecked open by hungry woodpeckers searching for insect larvae
This find inspired a discussion about interactions between plants and insects--in this case how insect larvae caused an oak tree to form a growth called a gall around the larvae, providing the larvae shelter and food. Then these particular unlucky little larvae made a winter snack for a bird. Food web in action!

The fattest toad ever with cricket antennae still sticking out of its mouth
Again, food web in action! Yes, it did pee on my hand (you would too if a giant picked you up because if you were lucky the giant might drop you again) and no, it did not give me warts (that’s a myth). Those bumps help the toad keep from drying out and produce a bad-tasting toxin to keep it safe from predators.
A wolf spider carrying her spiderlings

My personal favorite find by a student! I love spiders. They have superpowers. Some can change color; some can walk on water; some have eyesight good enough to watch you watch them. Wolf spiders carry their young for a few days after they hatch. Finding a spider provides a chance to discuss what we fear and why we should respect even the small animals that gross us out.

The kids may not remember—after they stomp the trail mud from their shoes and board the bus and return home—all the information I tell them. But I hope they remember the feeling of flipping a log, poking into a hollow tree, or rambling up a dry creek bed to make a discovery of their own.


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