Notes from Silver Creek: Natural Born Scientists

A young scientist captures insects at Silver Creek Preserve. Credit: Sara Sheehy/TNC

A young scientist captures insects at Silver Creek Preserve. Credit: Sara Sheehy/TNC

By Dayna Gross, Silver Creek preserve manager

It was a normal Sunday for us.  Mid-morning, we walked down to the creek to throw some rocks in the water and look for critters.

My boys were standing on the bridge, throwing stones, and I walked down the road to get them a few more rocks.  My five year old, Ben, said to me, “Mom, don’t go over there.”

I asked why and he said, “Because there is a bird asleep in that tree.”

I looked up and sure enough, a nighthawk was sound asleep on one of the horizontal branches.  I asked Ben how he knew it was there and he looked at me like I was not the smartest person in the world and said, “Because there’s a bunch of bird poop on the ground there.”

Watching my boys grow up on The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve in south-central Idaho–where I work as manager–I am amazed on a daily basis how much they notice. 

They know exactly where to find big spiders (“where there are lots of bugs, Mom”), the big black beetles (walking across the dry spots along the road, of course), the ladybugs (on that pokey green plant) and the frogs (where the banks hang over the water).

They have learned habitats simply by looking for the bugs and critters that live there.  Long before formal training, they have keen observational skills and know what questions to ask.

They are, in essence, highly effective little scientists.

A scientist asks questions and seeks answers to those questions through testing and observation—much like a five-year-old on a hunt for frogs.

We have learned how to study and research, record numbers and measure results.

Recently, I have noticed this focused vision has detracted from my natural ability to observe.  As Albert Einstein noted, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

This realization has informed me as a land manager and a scientist. There’s nothing more fulfilling than experimenting, exploring, and learning.

My kids have rekindled my interest in insects and soil, those essential components of the preserve and the ecosystem that we so often overlook while researching water quality, sedimentation, riparian vegetation, trout and birds.

And they have made me answer questions I long forgot to ask.  Why are there more mayflies this year?  Why do fish eat bugs?  What bug are they eating?  Can I eat that bug?

As Rachel Carson so eloquently observes in her 1956 book A Sense of Wonder:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision,  that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last through life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

We see this sense of wonder clearly in children.  It can inform how we see the world—and how we conduct our work as conservationists, land managers and scientists.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


Dayna Gross has been with The Nature Conservancy since 2003 when she started as the Silver Creek Preserve assistant. She is now the Silver Creek watershed manager. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon in landscape architecture and is currently licensed as a landscape architect in Idaho. In 2005, after a hiatus from Silver Creek, she earned a MS in recreation management and conservation from the University of Montana where her thesis focused on the social acceptability of stream restoration. She has a passion for water conservation and high desert ecosystems which have led her to work in the freshwater field in central Idaho. Her husband is a landscaper, an avid fly fisherman and skier, and her two young boys are budding entomologists and artists. They currently live on Silver Creek Preserve and enjoy hiking, exploring, painting, and anything that brings them outside.

Comments: Notes from Silver Creek: Natural Born Scientists

  •  Comment from Justin Petty

    Ben and Abe have the best backyard imaginable!

  •  Comment from Laura

    A wonderful conservationist and her family in a special place.

  •  Comment from John D

    Wonderful story providing an interesting perspective on life. It helps explain why I like the kid in me!

  •  Comment from Neil Bachman

    That Ben and Abe can grow up in a natural environment such as Silver Creek is a gift beyond measure!

  •  Comment from Jenny Emery Davidson

    I love the chain of questions about bugs: Why are there more mayflies this year. . . to . . . Can I eat that bug? Thank you for this lovely glimpse of the fascinating details at Silver Creek – from a resting nighthawk to the big black beetles – and the reminder to open our eyes and wonder.

  •  Comment from Shannon

    What a great blog Dayna- nature is not the only great teacher, but so are our children. It’s such a gift to have their perspectives on life!

  •  Comment from Ken Miracle

    Great blog Dayna … thanks for making a difference in nature and with our next generation of conservationists.

 Make a comment


Diverse Conservation

Call for Inclusive Conservation
Join Heather Tallis in a call to increase the diversity of voices and values in the conservation debate.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is edited by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and managed by Lisa Feldkamp, an American Council of Learned Societies fellow with the TNC science communications team. Email us your feedback.

Innovative Science

Infrared Sage Grouse Count
The challenge: find a chicken-sized bird in a million-acre expanse of rugged canyons & bad roads. Infrared video to the rescue.

Wildlife Videos In Infrared
Infrared enables us to see minor variations in temperature. See how this technology is revolutionizing conservation science.

Nature As Normal
TNC Lead Scientist Heather Tallis is researching how to make people see nature as critical to life through three lenses: education, water and poverty.

Latest Tweets from @nature_brains