Birds & Birding

Notes from Silver Creek: Natural Born Scientists

February 20, 2013

A young scientist collects 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.


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

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

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