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Long-Term Nature Study

Here are some great ideas to encourage long-term nature study observations. When we think of nature study sometimes we think of it as a one-and-done thing. “Yeah, I went there and I noticed that, now I’m done.” But there are some long-term nature studies that can be so interesting and beneficial. Here to join me and talk about that today is Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, we were discussing this recently about how you noticed some changes around you. Or sometimes, you even created those changes yourself and noticed that as a long-term nature study opportunity.

Karen: Yes. I noticed those as an opportunity to study nature and what’s going to happen over a certain amount of time, or even an indefinite amount of time, as some cases may be. I have two examples.

Several years ago, probably more than 15 years ago, we had a tree cut down that was growing right next to our fence. The tree service left a four-foot stump. I recognized that as an opportunity to watch a stump decay over years. We’ve all walked through the woods and we’ve seen a decaying stump. But how many of us have had the opportunity to watch it from start to finish? So, I’ve been observing this stump and what happens to it over all those years.

Sonya: That is so good because in my mind it would be like, “I was watching the tree. I was learning about the leaves and all the living things.” Then once it gets cut down it would be, “Okay, that opportunity’s gone, move on.”

Karen: Yes, but nature continues. In the case of that stump, insects move in, woodpeckers come to get the insects, the bark falls off, there are cavities that have been formed within the natural decay, and the woodpeckers and other birds have checked it out as nesting sites. And of course, chipmunks like to be on top of the stump because it gives them a nice observation platform. It’s gone on and on and on and that stump is still there. It’s more decayed, but I’m still enjoying watching what happens to it.

Sonya: There have been so many opportunities for nature study over those years.

Karen's backyard pond.

Karen: Yes. Another example is I have a little manmade pond, and I have a waterfall on it. One of the things that we struggle with is that my pond is not deep enough to not freeze all the way in the wintertime where I live. If I want to keep my fish alive I have to come up with a way for them to get oxygen. The freezing is not the problem. It’s the oxygen. So this year we have put bubblers in the pond to give them the oxygen they need. But I am watching through this winter to see how the freezing of the water on the pond is different because of the bubblers than what it has been in years past without them. That gives me an opportunity for several months of observation.

Sonya: So really in both of those situations, you were the cause of the change.

Karen: In those cases, yes. Though sometimes nature can be the cause. Maybe a storm goes through your area and you lose a big branch out of a tree. You might look at the branch and go “Oh, I have to clean that up now.” But watch where that branch fell off the tree over the next several years and see what changes there are. What does the tree do to heal itself? Or do insects move in and attract woodpeckers and other creatures because of it? What happens? That’s your curiosity. What’s going to happen? You can watch to find the answers.

Sonya: Long-term nature study. What are some of other things that we can do to encourage those long-term observation opportunities?

Karen: Anytime you make a change to your environment or notice a change in your environment it’s an opportunity. Maybe it’s your yard. Maybe it’s your neighborhood. Maybe it’s a park that you like to go and do your nature walks at. There could be something that changes there because of a storm, or maybe something else is happening. In my area we have forest preserves that they’re turning back into prairies, which always confuses me.

There are changes you can watch over time in your own yard. Maybe you want to plant a new tree. If you plant an evergreen tree, does that change what birds come to your bird feeder? If you plant a deciduous tree, does that make any changes in your yard besides the fact that now you’ll have to rake leaves? There’s still that, you’re going to observe this tree. You could plant a patch of wildflowers and not only watch the growth of those plants, but observe what insects they attract. Do they attract any birds? There are all kinds of things that you can do. Milkweed is one of my favorites. Many people know that the monarch butterfly uses the milkweed. That’s what the caterpillars eat. But if you plant milkweed, you can watch that plant grow. You can discover how it flowers, how it makes its pods, and discover the scent of those flowers, which can be surprising. I won’t give it away.

Maybe a storm goes through your area and you lose a big branch out of a tree. Watch where that branch fell off the tree over the next several years and see what changes there are. What does the tree do to heal itself? Or do insects move in and attract woodpeckers and other creatures because of it? What’s going to happen? You can watch to find the answers.

Sonya: No spoilers.

Karen: And you can see the number of insects that use that milkweed as a home, as its own habitat, one milkweed plant.

Sonya: And you can do that just in your own yard.

Karen: Yes. It’ll be something that you will watch all summer long. It’s remarkable how many different insects will use that plant.

Sonya: Now, you mentioned bird feeders. Are there changes we can make with our bird feeders, or bird services?

Karen: Certainly. You can try different types of feeders. For instance, I have what would be called a tray feeder or a platform feeder. I also have a feeder that some birds cannot cling to. It’s just a mesh ball. I put food in that and I have one that is just for peanuts. Only certain types of birds can use some of those feeders. The tray feeder is free for anybody: squirrels, chipmunks, or any bird that wants to come to it. If you have just one type of feeder try adding another type and seeing if that makes a difference in what birds come to your yard. Another thing you can do is add water of some sort. Either buy a bird bath or make your own. I have several. I have the traditional one you can buy at the store and the birds like that. But I also have just the trays you put underneath plant pots to catch the water. I have one of those. It’s shallower than the bird bath. And so even just that makes a difference: what birds use the traditional bird bath and which birds use that shallower dish. I also have a pond with a waterfall. If you can add a bubbler or even some sort of a drip on your bird bath, dripping water into it, does that sound of moving water attract other birds? That’s something you can study long term. And they are not going to flock there immediately. You might have to wait years to bring in some of those other birds.

Sonya: So this is an exercise in patience, as well as observation.

Karen: Yes. So those are examples of things that you can do.

Sonya: I love these examples with the birds, the trees, the milkweed, and the wild flowers. Any other ideas?

Karen: You can do just sunflowers if you want to. And with that particular flower you’re going to attract different bees, different flies. And when the seeds are ready, certain birds get so excited about that type of flower. They know it’s going to produce the seeds for them and they will be there before it’s ready, looking for them.

Sonya: Stand in line.

Karen: Yes. Particularly if you make the habit of planting sunflowers, or other flowers that go to seed that birds like, such as cone flowers and that type of thing, they will be there waiting and being attracted to that. It takes some time, but once they find you, they’re there.

Sonya: It sounds like we can make these changes in our environment and then observe over weeks and months.

Karen: And sometimes years.

Sonya: Sometimes years. But the idea is to keep your radar up. And not just notice the changes that are happening, but for any change you make, think through “What might I be looking for here?”

Karen: Yes, and you might not know. But you can observe it just to find out what happens. You don’t have to know, “Oh, that tree branch fell out. I know this, that, and the other thing is going to happen.” You might say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m curious to find out and I’m going to watch.” That’s the key: being curious and willing to watch to find out what happens.

Sonya: I love that. Great ideas. Thanks so much.

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