One of the best ways to learn about the natural world is to ask an expert for help. Even experienced naturalists can benefit from talking with local amateurs that know their corner of the world better than others can ever hope to.
You might visit a state or national park and ask a ranger about what you might expect to see. There is, of course, the occasional distracted or misanthropic employee that will not bother to engage your curiosity. But these kinds of people are not the rule. Most rangers are living their dream, of making a living around nature, and love nothing more than to tell you about it.
My advice is to start with a state park that doesn’t get inundated with weekend visitors. You might even decide to visit during the middle of the week. Nature has a funny way of showing herself a little more willingly when there aren’t so many people around. And you will be more likely to find someone with time to talk. If you’re lucky you may even get a tour.
Several years ago Erik, Michael and I were visiting Merchant’s Millpond State Park in the coastal area of North Carolina. It was late in the year and most of the leaves were gone from the trees. Only pine needles and a few brown beech leaves were all that were left on the trees. The forest was mostly a latticework of bare branches.
As we were finishing our dinner a ranger came by to check on us. It was obvious that he was less interested in our camping fee than in our experience at the park. There was almost nobody else around and he was curious why we had visited. I told him that we were just out to enjoy the forest and to look for birds. I told him that I was also an entomologist and that, believe it or not, insects could be found at such times if you knew where to look.
One thing led to another and we soon learned that Merchant’s Millpond State Park was one of the buggiest places on earth – a real find for someone that likes insects. Our new ranger friend told us about hoards of mosquitoes, deer flies and ticks that kept a lot of people away. But he also told us that were ways to avoid these pests. He then told us about some of the real treasures of the park. When we returned a few months later, he realized that we really appreciated our visit. He then invited us to come back and join him and his wife on a canoe trip into the remote areas of the swamp.
This was a trip the three of us will never forget. The canoe ride was, by itself, a new experience for Michael and he learned the art of paddling fairly quickly. We were surrounded by large cypress trees and there were dozens of turtles sunning themselves on half-submerged logs. Duckweed and pond lilies were abundant in the water and kingfishers, cormorants and herons watched us from their many riparian perches.
An hour into our trip took us to a narrow arm of the swamp. Swollen cypress trunks supported an arching canopy overhead. And then we saw our first water snake. It was sunning itself on a bush like a string of tinsel on a Christmas tree, and completely surrounded by water.
Then we started seeing snakes more regularly. Some of them were water moccasins, a beautiful yet venomous snake of southern wetlands. I knew this species lived in wet areas but I was not prepared for the surprise of seeing one swim. At times, individual snakes would start across the water in a zigzagging pattern just as if they were moving across the forest floor. Our ranger friend picked one up right out of the water with a paddle, showing no more concern than if he were picking up a floating piece of wood.
Then Erik and Michael were given flashlights, taken to a few hollow trees and (quietly), shown some of the rarely seen native bats sleeping upside down inside the cavity. Our most memorable moment was the alligator that we saw on our way back. It was first noticed by the ranger’s wife in a deep part of the swamp surrounded by duckweed. Things got a little interesting even after we stopped paddling and our momentum brought us to within a few feet of the reptile. It was one of those intense moments you don’t forget. For its part, the alligator hardly paid us any attention.
There are a lot of great nature moments that you will miss unless you ask a ranger what to be on the lookout for. Nature abides by her own time schedule and living things behave differently depending on where they occur. You may walk all the way through a park and see only common species if you only follow your own advice. And you may pass within minutes of a real treasure that you didn’t even know was there.
Some years ago I travelled with my friend Steve to Amherst Island on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. We went during January and the countryside was covered in snow. The ferry from Millhaven (on the mainland) to Stella (on the island) took less than half an hour. The lake was choppy and the sky was gray – as it often is during the winter. But we arrived in good spirits, eager to see some of the island’s birds.
We were particularly looking for snowy owls that were known to come to the island in the winter. One doesn’t expect to see owls in the middle of the day. Owls, after all, are nocturnal – or so we suppose. In fact northern owls do not always follow this rule. Living in a land that experiences long periods of darkness and long periods of light, they make use of hunting opportunities as they present themselves, irrespective of light.
After a bit of driving around we found our first one. They were resting on the ground on top of the snow – white balls of feathers with dark flecks on their wings. They were wary and we kept our distance. As we became more familiar with the island, we learned that there was plenty for them to eat. In fact Amherst Island is home to several owls. Saw-whet owls, long eared owls, short-eared owls, barred owls, snowy owls and boreal owls can be seen there on a regular basis.
But our most exciting find was the northern hawk owl that we found the following day on the mainland a few miles east of Millhaven. This is a northern owl that is rarely seen anywhere near the United States. In fact you have to really know where to look to even see one in Canada. I have spoken to many birders (much more experienced than I am) that have never seen one.
The only reason we were so fortunate was because of Steve’s connections to the birding community in the area. During our second day on the island, Steve received a message that one had been spotted not far from Millhaven. We quickly changed our plans and drove to the spot as quickly as we could. After driving on many back roads, we finally found it – perched happily on a telephone line looking for signs of rodents.
There are people all around you – both where you live and where you might travel on vacation – that know where interesting species might be seen. They can make the difference between an average walk in the woods and an unforgettable wildlife experience.
If you happen to be visiting an undeveloped country, however, finding somebody to talk with about nature can be a challenge. Most of the parks you might want to visit will not have rangers or guides on staff. In fact there may not even be accessible hiking trails. Many countries are making the wise decision to protect wild areas but lack the funds to employ the help they need.
A good alternative is to contact one of the many ecotourism groups scattered throughout the world. You will want to do your homework or you will certainly pay more than you might like. But the time you spend will be worth the effort.
Some years ago while visiting Costa Rica, we found ourselves on the Osa Peninsula looking for insects and other kinds of wildlife. The area is a rich lowland tropical forest and we were amazed by the species diversity. There were brightly colored tortoise beetles and lizards that “walk” on water (and that are considered Christian lizards as a result). Giant fig trees lined the roads and many bird species that I couldn’t identify were flying all around.
It was easy to let the day get away from us. Evening came much sooner than expected. We had been hoping to find a place to camp but couldn’t even find a side road that would accommodate a tent. In the end we pulled into an eco-lodge and paid several hundred dollars for a single night’s sleep. I wasn’t very happy about this but made the best of it.
Then, when we discovered that a nature guide was taking a group out the next morning, we decided to sign up and go along. It turned out to be the highlight of our trip. We hadn’t even made it out of the small parking area before we saw a sloth high up in a tree – sitting with its back to us and otherwise motionless. If it knew we were there, it made no sign of it. We watched it do nothing for quite a while and then moved on.
Through the course of the morning we saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and squirrel monkeys. There were iguanas and other lizards. We found a second sloth and an eagle flying high above. Jaçanas, woodpeckers and macaws (along with many other species) kept our binoculars constantly at our fingertips. And all of these were seen from the same road that we had just travelled on the day before. The big difference was that our guide knew where to look and what to expect.
Now allow me to change subjects momentarily and bring your attention to a new awareness that is happening in many fields these days. Health care providers are slowly waking up to the fact that nature has a much more profound effect on our sense of wellbeing than previously realized. Mental health professionals are now prescribing nature walks and other therapies that take patients to parks, arboreta and other natural areas. More and more hospitals are being built with natural places for patients to enjoy. Even school teachers are finding that energetic students will be better behaved if they are taken outside and exposed to nature.
One of my favorite recent findings is the work done by Reese Nelson on college students taking standardized math exams. He placed house plants in one area of a testing center and kept another area without plants. He found that students taking the exam near plants not only did better on the exams but that their stress levels were less too.
These new findings might seem obvious or intuitive to those of us that have been seeking natural places all our lives. Yet these formal efforts are bringing the importance of nature to a wider group – a group with decision-making potential. The reason that I bring this up is because now, more than ever before, you can find park rangers and informed amateur naturalists that are willing to go the extra mile and accommodate your interest in the natural world. It is now becoming a civic service in many places, not just a habit of a few hobbyists.
Daphne Miller (a general practitioner in San Francisco) was recently made aware of the impact conscientious rangers made after visiting a conference where she heard of the work of some rangers in Yosemite National Park in California. The rangers had realized the positive effects the park was making on the mental health of many visitors and were working to meet their needs. Miller’s work, recognizing the larger utility of this finding, is being called “ranger therapy” in some quarters. In fact, there are rangers that have now been trained to provide “nature prescriptions” to visitors that need this kind of natural medicine.
Now I realize that this may sound a bit odd to some – somewhat like the psychotic and well-heeled city slicker asking the happy country bumpkin for help with a flat tire. I don’t intend it that way. I think we should take the natural world more seriously than this. Those that have made career decisions to be in nature have, for a long time, lived on lower incomes than many of us. And the reality is that their efforts have often been ignored or trivialized. It’s a positive thing that we begin to recognize the importance of their work.
The more we ask these natural experts for help, the more we promote the natural world that they represent. Asking for their advice is the best part of their job. It will also help you make the most out your time in nature.
Daphne Miller’s reference to ranger therapy is in Richard Louv’s, The Nature Principle (see page 82), published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011. Nelson’s University of Idaho dissertation on the effects of testing center plants (Mitigating stress in college students by enhancing testing center environments through passive interaction with plants) can be found on the UMI website (http://gradworks.umi.com/32/20/3220450.html - accessed 3/27/12).