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When you go outside for nature study, there are so many things you could take with you. You see a lot of different options: “Oh, this equipment will help you do this,” and “This equipment is necessary.” It can be very overwhelming and confusing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just talk to somebody who has done nature study for many years and has narrowed it down to say, “These are the tools that are most helpful”? Well, we’re going to do that today. We’re going to talk with Karen Smith, who has decades of experience doing nature study, and she’s going to tell us her favorite nature study tools.
Sonya: Karen, it’s good to have you back. We want to talk about nature study tools, and when I think of tools, I get this mental picture of hauling a trailer full of equipment with you as you try to go down the path. It’s like, “No, wait! The trailer’s in the parking lot. We need to go back there.” What are really the best kinds of tools to take with us? Is it just our notebook? What are your favorite tools?
Karen: Let’s start with the ones that are handy to have, but maybe not totally necessary to have with you when you are in the field.
Sonya: So these are some of your favorites, but we can pick and choose if we need to?
Karen: Yes…A magnifying glass is a very basic tool. They come in all different sizes and magnification powers. Choose ones that fit your family. For younger kids, I recommend that you get ones that have larger lenses in them so it’s easier for your children to use. There are also pocket-sized ones that have multiple lenses that you can stack so you can change your magnification.
Sonya: And what kinds of things would you use that for? I know it makes something bigger, but give me an example in nature. What would you use it for?
Karen: Maybe your child wants to look at an ant. That’s a good thing that he can magnify. Young kids like to magnify anything because it’s a very new perspective for them and it makes things more interesting. Sometimes, just seeing something from a different perspective can help you look at it more carefully. Maybe you see a bug on the flower and you go, “Oh yeah, it’s a bee,” but have you looked at it with a magnifying glass to see more of the detail on that bee’s body?
Sonya: You could see more closely what it’s actually doing there.
Karen: Yes, so it’s different things like that. They’re easy to carry, and probably something you want to bring with you every time. Pocket ones obviously will fit in your pocket, but even the larger ones for young children are not that large to carry.
Sonya: Yeah, and they are not that heavy either. Good, so magnifying glass. Okay, what else?
Karen: Field guides.
Sonya: You always say “field guides.”
Karen: I do, because field guides are so important. They help us identify things, but they don’t just help us to know what we’re looking at. They help us to look at it in greater detail because you need to know certain things about what you’re trying to identify in order to use the field guide. So you’re learning more about the thing that you are trying to identify.
Sonya: Just because of the process of trying to find it in the field guide.
Karen: Yes. I like ones that have photographs. So as you are looking through those photographs trying to identify the thing you’re looking at, you will also will see things that are similar to that. And looking through a field guide helps you to determine and think more carefully about “What makes what I’m looking at different from the other things here? What are the similarities?” So you’re learning along the way. You’re gaining knowledge about things that you’re not even looking at.
Sonya: It sounds like that’s an advantage you don’t get by using a nature-study app.
Karen: Correct, and once you identify something, and you go to its entry where all the writing is, the field guide will usually give you some other general information about that item too: its size; its habits; if it’s a flower, when it blooms; in insects, where they’re most prominent. That sort of thing you don’t get when you just take a picture and identify it.
Sonya: I know we talked before about your favorite nature field guides. Can you just name a couple of your favorites? Readers can take a look at that post, but just whet our appetite here. What are a couple of your favorites?
Karen: Audubon’s are very good, particularly for people who are just beginning. They’re easy to use.
Sonya: And are those only for birds?
Karen: No, they’re for everything: birds, insects, butterflies, mushrooms, rocks, you name it, they have it.
Sonya: Whole gamut, okay. So Audubon.
Karen: The National Wildlife Federation has some that are that are very nice and so does Princeton. So those are the ones that I find that I use the most. You may just be beginning, and that may be overwhelming for you to have one of those that’s a full-size field guide.
Sonya: Well, I’ve heard that you should get your regional ones.
Karen: Many people do, because that’s where they are comfortable starting. It’s not overwhelming to them. If you start there, I recommend that once you get the hang of using it and you’re comfortable with it, move up to a full field guide because plants and insects and birds don’t always know what region they’re supposed to be in.
Sonya: (laughs) That’s true. They cross the boundaries sometimes.
Karen: And because those are more limited field guides, they tend to just have the most common things that are in your area. So you may find something that lives in your area that’s not in your field guide, because it’s not as common. It didn’t make the cut for the field guide.
Sonya: I’m getting a picture now, though, of hauling my five-volume set of field guides out into the field with me. Is that what you do?
Karen: No, I leave mine at home.
Sonya: You do? How does that work?
Karen: There are things that you can do. As you’re doing drawings, make sure that you note down features of whatever you’re looking at that will help you to identify.
Sonya: Like size?
Sonya: Okay, so things you can’t capture in a drawing, maybe.
Karen: Look in your field guides ahead of time, when you’re at home. Browse through them. There’s information in there such as what you need to identify things and the different features. Look through those so you’re familiar. So if you see a bird, you know you’re going to look at the color, the size, the beak size, and does it have an eye stripe or a different colored cap on its head? Become familiar with the terminology, so when you are using your field guide, you know what it’s asking for. When you’re in the field, you can take a picture, but not to identify it right then. You can use that picture for reference later. You can jot down some notes in a notebook, or do a nice careful drawing; it depends on what you’re looking at. Some things just don’t hold still for you to do a good drawing.
Sonya: Yeah, and it wouldn’t hold still for you to leaf through your field guide in the field, so you capture what it is in the field for when you get home.
Karen: You can use your field guide later. So that’s field guides. You don’t have to bring them with you. You never know which one you might need when you’re in the field, especially if you’re like me and nature study is usually spur of the moment. So you’re not going to bring your whole library with you. Binoculars can be handy things in the field. They help you to see things that are way up in the tops of the trees. My daughter looks at birds that like to hang out in the tops of the trees. My husband uses them to look at mushrooms that are in trees that he can’t get to, and he doesn’t want to go stomping through the undergrowth until he knows he really wants that mushroom. So if he can identify it from a distance, that’s a good thing. Sometimes you’re in a location where you can’t get closer to what you’re looking at. So maybe you’re on one side of a river, and there’s something on the other side you want to see. Binoculars are great for that. They’re also good for looking at things that you don’t want to get too close to, like maybe a wasp nest.
Karen: Yes, and bring binoculars in the field with you, obviously, if you’re going to use them in the field. Sometimes I bring mine, sometimes I don’t, it just depends on if I want to carry them or not.
Sonya: And have that thing hanging around your neck.
Karen: Yes, but there are harnesses that you can get for at least some of them. Instead of the weight on your neck, it’s on your shoulders and your back, and it’s much more comfortable. It makes it easy to use your binoculars that way.
Sonya: Nice. Now those are a more expensive item, and they come in a range of prices, I’m sure, but I think that would make a good wish-list item for Christmas gifts for your family.
Karen: I would think so. A nice pair of binoculars as a family gift would be a good thing.
Sonya: Your other family members could pool and give it as a gift to your whole family, and boom, you’re done. I love that idea. All right, so binoculars in the field, magnifying glass in the field, field guides at home. What else do we have?
Sonya: Okay, now I’m picturing this big, sensitive, fragile, glass microscope that we used in high school biology and it’s like, “Carry it carefully, Joey. Don’t drop it as we cross the bridge.” Why are we taking a microscope in the. . . I’m assuming we’re taking it in the field? Tell me more about this choice.
Karen: There are different types of microscopes. I would not take a full-size one in the field. I have one of those at home for looking at things, but in the field, you can take a pocket microscope. It won’t be as powerful, but you can still see some microscopic things with it, or even use it as a magnifying glass if you have something that you just want to set it on. Magnifying glasses are handheld. They give you a bigger viewing area, so they’re great for seeing things like insects up close. Pocket microscopes are good for things that don’t run away that you can set the microscope right on top of: a leaf, or maybe a flower bud, or a rock.
Sonya: Do you have to put them on a little slide?
Karen: No, you don’t. You just set the microscope right on top of it.
Sonya: So both a magnifying glass and a microscope enlarge the item. You said the magnifying glass is good for things that move or or things where you need a wider field of vision. And then the microscope, you could use that in the field?
Karen: Yes, a pocket-sized one.
Sonya: What kind of magnification do you need on that microscope though?
Karen: I can’t remember what mine is. I want to say there are ones that go up to 100 times. And you can see you can see microscopic things with them.
Sonya: That you could not see with the magnifying glass?
Sonya: But you keep yours at home, except you have your pocket microscope with you.
Karen: I have a pocket microscope, but the full-size I leave at home.
Sonya: And do you think that’s really necessary, or is that just a favorite thing you have and people can pick and choose?
Karen: Neither one of them are really necessary, but for some kids it gets them more interested. “I can see the surface of it, Mom, but what if I look at it closer?” You never know what’s going to hook your child into nature study. So having some of those tools available can sometimes be the thing that gets your child interested. A pocket one, again, is very easy to take in the field. Full-size, leave at home if you want one. They’re usually something that you will have if your child does high school biology, but you can always borrow one from a friend.
Sonya: Or put it on your wishlist.
Karen: But, of course, I have one.
Sonya: Of course you do. You probably have a whole series of them. (laughter)
Karen: Just one, just one. And I do use it.
Sonya: Okay, so what else? What other tools would you recommend?
Karen: A camera.
Sonya: We have talked about taking pictures.
Karen: Taking pictures of things when you’re in the field is useful, not just to identify it right then and there, but so you can reference that picture later for identification purposes. You can also have a record of your nature walk outside of your nature journal. Some kids don’t like to draw. We’re all different.
Sonya: For those who don’t like to draw, it’s just frustrating and it sours the whole experience.
Karen: Yes. Give them a camera. Not just to snap a quick picture, but to take pictures from different angles and pictures of different features so that they’re still looking closely at it. Then they have those different pictures to put together as a record of what they saw.
Sonya: They could add their notes of what they observed, about its habits and where it was, and all that. I like that idea. So those items are things we need to purchase, we need to collect, maybe over time.
Karen: And they’re not necessarily something that is convenient to take with you for nature study. There might be something you have to leave at home. So for those, pick and choose what fits your family budget. What fits your children and their interest in nature? Don’t buy a pair of binoculars or a full-size microscope if nobody’s going to use them.
Sonya: Yeah, that’s a good point. Now do you have other tools that you would recommend that are not quite so. . . I was just thinking, let’s not say “expensive.”
Karen: Hefty? You wouldn’t want to carry in the field?
Sonya: Not quite so “intimidating,” shall we say?
Karen: Yes, more common household items.
Sonya: Things we might just have laying around that we can grab and go.
Karen: Yes, a bucket. A bucket is a great nature-study tool. You can carry things in it and you can put things in it to observe. I don’t know about your children, but every place we went, my kids had to collect rocks. Buckets are great for carrying those rocks.
Sonya: I’m going to let the kid carry that heavy bucket. “They’re your rocks, kid. You’re carrying the bucket.”
Karen: They’re the ones who have the most energy, let them carry them. Buckets are also great for putting water things in: minnows, tadpoles, some aquatic insects, that type of a thing. Put a little bit of water in your bucket, dump them in, and you can look at them—now they’re contained and not swimming and running all over the surface of a pond or a stream or something like that. You can contain them, and when you’re done, just dump them back in. So buckets are a great thing for that. Buckets are wonderful. To go with the bucket, you might like a net so you can catch those things that you want to observe. Try and find a more all-purpose net. There are ones that you can get for using in water and ones that you can get for using in grass and catching insects. But if you can find one that can be used for both that will serve you well for both of them. There are nets out there that you can do with both. Just look for one that doesn’t have large holes and has smaller holes but you can move it through the water. It needs large enough holes so you can move it through the water, but small enough that things aren’t going to get away. So a net is a great thing, and that’s also lightweight to carry. So you can give it to your child and say, “Here, we’re going to use this net today. You can carry it.” It’s lightweight. . . A pocket knife.
Sonya: A pocket knife?
Karen: Yes. There are things that you might want to cut open; there are things that you might need to use the pocket knife for. It’s a handy tool to have with you, so bring a pocket knife. You might want to cut open a piece of fruit, or a seed, just to see what’s inside. It’s great for different things like that. Plastic containers, small plastic containers, clear.
Sonya: Are we talking like zip-top bags?
Karen: Those can be useful, but you want something that’s hard-sided.
Sonya: Oh, okay, so the the not-fully-disposable, you-can-use-them-several-times plastic food containers. Like for leftovers?
Karen: Yes, like for leftovers. Maybe they’re deli containers. Something like that would work very well, as long as it’s got a lid that fits tightly. Smaller is better because it’s easier to use when you’re catching those insects. You can take the lid and the container, and you can come up onto the insect and just capture it between them. Most of the time, they’ll fly right into the container. It’s a very useful thing.
Sonya: So I’m assuming the containers should be transparent?
Sonya: But it doesn’t matter about the lid, I would think.
Karen: No, if you have a transparent lid that will make it easier for you to look down into the container to see, but whatever you can find and use will work. It does not have to be a clear lid, but the container itself should be transparent.
Sonya: I’m assuming that you shouldn’t keep something in there too long because there wouldn’t be a lot of air once you put the lid on.
Karen: Correct. So these are for observation purposes. And then release them when you’re done looking at them. So to go with that, jars—canning jars—work great, as well as “critter keepers.” Just look online for “critter keepers;” you’ll find them. There’s an assortment of things out there: some of them are little containers that have a screen on them and a little door so you can put your specimen in. And some of them are larger plastic containers with vents for air. And so they come in all different shapes and sizes and configurations. Those are handy if you want to keep something longer than just for an observation.
Sonya: Okay, tell me about the the canning jar. How would that work?
Karen: Canning jars work great because you have that ring that tightens the lid down. You don’t want to use the canning lid.
Sonya: I’ve often seen it with holes poked in it.
Karen: Yes, but that’s dangerous for the insects that you’re keeping in there because they oftentimes will crawl up to the top of the jar and cut themselves and that’s not good for them. So you want to use something that does not leave those sharp, jagged edges. Paper towels can work. You can tighten those down. As long as it lets air pass through, that’s what you want. You can also buy plastic screen that you can cut to the size of the opening for your jar and then just tighten that down with the ring for the canning jar and so those work very well. That’s what we use. Those are great if you want to keep something longer term.
Sonya: Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.
Karen: Yes, something like that. Then, this is another great tool, and you don’t even have to bring it with you because you can get it when you’re there.
Sonya: Oh really? What is this?
Karen: A stick.
Sonya: Okay, what do you use a stick for?
Karen: Poking at things, moving things off the trail that you don’t want on the trail, all sorts of things. Maybe there’s things that you can’t quite reach, but you can with the extension of a stick; you can reach it and bring it closer. Sticks can serve a dual purpose as a walking stick, if you find the right one, and when you are finished with your nature walk, you can put the stick back where you got it from.
Sonya: Yeah, it’s multi-purpose, and I’m not going to say “disposable,” but you borrow it.
Karen: They come in different shapes, and you find one you like and take it with you. That’s a great tool. Sticks are wonderful.
Sonya: Now do you haul all of this stuff with you? I mean, we talked about some things stay at home, but you’ve got your bucket and your containers and how does this work practically?
Karen: Jars and critter keepers, I keep those at home. But plastic containers, or even just those zip top bags, you can keep several of those in a car very easily. A pocket knife I always have with me. Bucket and net, if you have room in your car just to leave them there all the time, leave them there. Because then they’re always there for you. You don’t have to remember to pack them.
Sonya: We had this little waterproof zip bag, like a tote bag, and we put our nature notebooks in there, and then we had just a couple of field guides we actually took with us, and then some plastic bags. Okay, I’m going to add to your list. You can tell me if this is necessary. A friend of mine would always take a blanket, an old blanket.
Karen: That could be a good thing.
Sonya: She used it to put on the grass. You can sit there while you’re drawing or whatever.
Karen: There are also ones that they sell now that are cloth on one side but then have waterproof material on the other side and they fold up. I think they’re some sort of a picnic blanket? We have friends who have them.
Sonya: That’s beautiful because sometimes the grass is so wet. And then the other thing my friend mentioned was hand wipes. I thought that was brilliant. Put that in the bag.
Karen: Now we always have those in the car already.
Sonya: Well, that makes even more sense. They’re already there because you’re going to need them for more than just nature study. Just keep them in the car.
Karen: Yes, those are good things to add too.
Sonya: I love all these ideas. Are there any other tools that you want to mention?
Karen: Yes, there are tools that you always have with you everywhere you go that are the most important to take with you.
Sonya: Do tell.
Karen: Your eyes, your ears, your nose, and your hands for touching things that are safe to touch. But ears, eyes, and nose, those are the ones you’re going to use the most. You can use those all the time when you’re out in nature. They’re always with you, and they’re the most important nature study tools.
Sonya: It seems like we’re used to our eyes, but maybe we don’t see everything we should see though.
Karen: Not always.
Sonya: We tend to rely on our eyesight a lot in nature study, but I love how you’re including ears and nose as well.
Karen: Yes, learn to listen and smell just as much as you look when you are out in nature because it will help you identify things and it’ll help you see more things. Your nose can tell you all sorts of things like the flowers that are blooming. You can smell those. If they are fragrant when you’re out in the field, and there’s a lot of them blooming, you can smell them, you can distinguish between different ones also. But you can also smell the differences in the areas that you might walk through. If you’re coming upon water, there will be a difference in the smell than if you are walking in the woods. There is leaf litter, pine needles, or even just the pine trees, the scent that they give off.
Water. Different types of water have different smells. Swamps and creeks and rivers will smell differently. Lakes will smell differently than ponds. So if you’re using your your nose to smell, you’re going to start distinguishing those things. And sometimes you will know that there’s an area coming up that might be a little marshy that you might have to walk through before you even get to it so you can be prepared. But that’s part of nature study: using your eyes, your ears, and your nose. And really, those are the only essential tools. Yes, everything else you can have, if you want to, but those are necessary.
Sonya: Yes, and as you said, they’re always with you, so they’re very convenient. You don’t have to remember to pack them, just to use them. That’s great. Thanks so much for sharing your favorite tools. It’s been very helpful.