Cathy Taylor conducts her “Amateur Naturalist” program at Paris Mountain State Park in Greenville, S. C.
With Cathy, a half mile hike can take two hours and feel like five minutes. On a hike down the Turtle Trail, she shared the tools of her trade: magnifying lenses, binoculars and bug jars. Back at the park’s classroom is a collection of field guide books, a microscope, nets and buckets. Various animal skulls, a collection of scat replicas, birds’ nests, shed snake skins and an aquarium stocked with tadpoles and minnows from the park’s lakes provide specimens for study.
Keeping a Nature Log
Cathy also keeps a nature log, recording sightings, observations and their dates. The most important tool, she emphasizes, is a healthy dose of curiosity.
How do you identify an unknown specimen? Cathy points to a small, frilly, white flower as an example. First she observes it closely perhaps with a magnifying lens. How many petals does it have? How are they arranged? How are the leaves arranged? Do the leaves have any unusual characteristics, such as hairy or shiny surfaces? How tall is the plant? Where is it growing? What grows next to it?
Identifying the Starry Campion
Although she admits she’s not an artist, Cathy draws a picture of the specimen in her nature log. Drawing can be a better memory aid than a photograph for the simple reason that it forces the mind to notice and record all these details. Once she returns to her library, she consults her field guides. To be certain of the identification, she then searches the internet for photos and information, entering specific characteristics of the plant in the search engine. The small, frilly, white flower now has a name: Starry Campion.
Identifying Birds and Other Specimens
Crossing a small creek, one of her students spots a frog several yards away and half submerged. Cathy lends her binoculars for a close-up view. Unfortunately, sometimes even binoculars cannot help identify an animal. It may be partly hidden or it may move too quickly. In that instance, a naturalist may have to depend on other identifying characteristics. For example, while observing a bird, note its size relative to common birds such as crows, robins or sparrows. What shape is its silhouette? Does it have any distinctive field marks? What is its flight pattern? And what is its habitat? Some birds prefer feeding on the branches of a tree, while others prefer the tip top or the trunk; still others hunt on the ground.
The Swallowtail Likes Dog Fennel
Later, Cathy illustrates the importance of observing the specimen’s surroundings to learn more about its ecological niche. Once, on a nature hike, she was pointing out a dog fennel plant when a butterfly landed on it. One of the students asked, “Why did it land there?” Turns out it was a Black Swallowtail Butterfly, a species fond of dog fennel.
Cathy recommends taking advantage of state and national park learning programs to build skills and knowledge. They can be found on state park websites such as the South Carolina State Parks website, Southcarolinaparks.com . To search for programs at national parks, go to National Parks Service website, NPS.Gov.
Cathy has kept a nature log for a number of years. Nature logs record the date, place and details of a sighting. They are useful for consultation in the following years to predict the appearance of a species. They can be very scientific, recording time of day, temperature, weather etc. Or they can become a creative project. Some naturalists sketch, paint, and write poetry to embellish their logs.