From the Field

Easy Nature Adventures to Enjoy Near You

February 23, 2021

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Dr. J. Drew Lanham bird-watching. © Travis Dove / TNC

It’s not a secret that participation in outdoor activities has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Many people are discovering their local parks and trails. Bicycles are difficult to find, as are open sites. National Park visitation is up. Hunting and fishing license sales are up. The parking lots at many hiking trails are full.

But it’s also true that learning new outdoor activities can be daunting, and expensive. It doesn’t have to be that way, especially when it comes to enjoying local wildlife.

Over the years, Cool Green Science has covered many wildlife activities that can be enjoyed in a backyard, a city park or a vacant lot. This guide gives an overview of some of the activities we’ve covered, with links to more in-depth guides to get you started.

All of these activities are low-tech without any need for expensive gear. A good field guide or two might help, but really all you need is your curiosity and some focused attention. There’s a surprising amount of cool wildlife out there. Have fun going out and looking. And let us know what you find in the comments.

Bobcat tracks in the snow. Photo © Eric Aldrich

Tracking

Tracking is one of the most family-friendly wildlife activities; you can enjoy it anywhere there is a patch of open ground. Kids love deciphering the mysteries of animal tracks.

Following tracks is often the best way to learn habits of undisturbed wildlife. Oftentimes, you never know many elusive animals are roaming your neighborhood – until you see their tracks. It might be difficult to catch a glimpse of a raccoon, but you may be able to follow its nightly routine via tracking.

Want to get started? Our field guide to tracking in your neighborhood will help you identify common wildlife tracks, and how to follow them.

binoculars and field guide
A birder’s best friends. Photo © Karine Aigner / TNC

The Yard List

Birding is perhaps the most user-friendly wildlife activity. Birds are just about everywhere, and they’re visible. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need binoculars. With so many apps and online guides, you have many options for identification.

One of the best ways to get started is to keep a yard list: a list of birds you have seen in the vicinity of your home. I started keeping one after reading my colleague Justine Hausheer’s guide; in the past year I’ve seen 47 species. I consider myself a pretty observant backyard naturalist, but the fun of adding to the list has made me even more alert. I’ve seen some cool species – western wood peewee,  ruby-crowned kinglet, house wren – that I’ve never observed in my yard previously.

I’ve never been much of a lister. But keeping a yard list seems to make me look for wildlife even more. Here’s how to get started.

fox with a rabbit in it's mouth
This mother red fox brings back a rabbit for her kits lunch. © Darren Colello/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Predator Spotting

There are many reasons to head outside: exercise, adrenalin, solitude, fresh air. And I enjoy the outdoors for all of those reasons. But I’ll be honest: when I am jogging or hiking, I still find it difficult to be present. Nature meditation? Forget it. My mind is still racing.

But looking for a creature? For me, it’s very focusing. It requires all my senses. My worries, the news, my work…all fade away. It is just me looking for a creature. It helps to have a goal.

Mammal predators are often quite elusive. They require great observational skills and often woodcraft to see. The good news is, many have moved into human environments. So get out there, get focused and start looking. Here’s how to spot a red fox. And a bobcat. And how to enjoy the coyote chorus happening this time of year. And when you do see predators, here’s a guide to help you make a correct identification.

owl on a log
A short-eared owl. Photo © Jerry am Ende/TNC Photo Contest 2018

Owling

Great horned owls are one of the most charismatic creatures to watch. They are both vocal and visible. Even better, they’re one of the most adaptable large birds in North America. There’s a good chance that a great horned owl lives in your neighborhood or at a nearby city park, woodlot or farm.

Now is the best time of year to go owling. You don’t need to be a life-listing birder or skilled field naturalist to enjoy spotting and listening to owls. It’s the perfect outdoor activity for the whole family. And if you are a serious bird nerd, the winter offers more rare owl opportunities, too.

Here’s my guide to owling.

Duck Spotting

Find open water right now, and you’ll find waterfowl. It’s as simple as that. Ducks are colorful and fun to observe. But identifying them can present challenges. A good field guide or bird app will help make your visit to a local pond or winter a waterfowl watching success.

But the challenge is compounded by the fact that abundant and aggressive mallards hybridize with other species frequently. And people raise ducks, which escape or are released. So you may see a duck that looks like nothing in your field guide.

Don’t worry. Here’s a guide to the weird ducks you might see out there.

Duck poo could be the Achilles heel of invasive carp control. © Chris Barnes / Flickr

Scavenger Hunt

A scavenger hunt is a fun way to get kids looking with a purpose. It makes nature observation into a game. A scavenger hunt simply involves finding items on a predetermined list. While scavenger hunts don’t have to involve nature, the challenge of finding plants and animals makes for a more rewarding quest. But you have refrain from making a scavenger hunt a chore, or burdening it with too many “lessons.” The search is the reward.

Want to have a successful nature scavenger hunt? Here are some tips.

Nature Journaling

“Almost every time I talk with someone about keeping a “nature” journal they say something along the lines of, I’d love to do that, but I can’t draw.” So writes Cara Byington of nature journaling. But you don’t need to be an artist or writer, you just need to be curious.

As Cara goes on to note, “Honestly, learning everything else — about drawing, sketching and painting, perspective, birds, plants, mammals, reptiles, geology, the list of things you can learn is endless — is the point and the fun of keeping a nature journal, or adding nature observations to an existing journaling practice, in the first place.”

Read more about starting a nature journal.

Exhibit A. Grow up outdoors and you get your fair share of snake stories….one of my favorites is still the Anaconda at the Jacksonville Zoo. Well, the anaconda, the dead rabbit and about 10 third grade boys on a field trip. [I was a chaperone for the boys.] White rabbit caught in its thick coils – underwater – snake’s head was up on a little shelf. And the rabbit’s ears were floating straight up. Kind of like it was cuddling with the snake. Except, you know, it was just tenderizing. And then the third grade girls discovered it and there were tears. And squeals. Journal of Cara Byington, December 2017

Mothing

Here’s an excuse to slop some overripe bananas and beer on a tree. Seriously. Mothing is the hobby of finding and identifying moths. It’s become more popular, in part because it’s pretty easy (you don’t even need the bait, but it does add to the experience).

There are as many as 500,000 moths in the world. There are undoubtedly some living near you. You may have to wait until it’s warmer, but here’s a great evening activity. And many moths are much more beautiful than you think.

This guide by naturalist Ken Keffer gets you on the path to mothing glory.

large moth with pink, white and blcak on wings
A white-lined sphinx moth. © Renee Grayson / Flickr

Shed Hunting

Across North America, deer shed their antlers at this time of year. Finding them is a fun and popular treasure hunt. Perceiving an antler on the landscape requires all the concentration you can muster (another way for me to stay present), the perfect way to add to your early spring hike.

Like almost anything, shed hunting can be taken too extremes, even stressing deer and elk herds. Please avoid wintering areas while the animals are still there; stressing them at this time of year can kill them. Here are some tips for responsible antler searching.

A big day of shed hunting. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Miller)

Pocket Gopher Quest

This is an admittedly obscure outdoor activity. I suspect the number of pocket gopher watchers can be counted on one hand.

But pocket gophers are common over much of North America. But they are often out of sight, out of mind. They are cute little creatures (at least I think so) and seeing one is its own art form. Basically, you lightly disturb their den, and the light-sensitive gopher will patch it up, offering you a close-up view. Here’s my complete guide to the weird sport of gopher spotting.

Pocket gopher spotting illustrates a fact about nature activities: you don’t have to participate in an organized sport or something covered in Outside magazine. Pick a local creature that interests you and try to see it. You may develop new techniques. You may make observations useful for citizen science.

pocket gopher peeking out of burrow
Peekaboo pocket gopher! Photo © Wade Tregaskis / Flickr

You might learn a pileated woodpecker’s territory, or see the spectacle of red-winged blackbirds defending their territories. Or perhaps you’ll see a Carolina wren nesting in an old shoe, or note a deer of unusual color.  Even with common creatures in familiar places, there are surprises and revelations. Get out and look. Let me know what you find, and let me know what other nature activities you’d like to learn about.

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