Wild Ideas: Exploring nature in your yard, for fun and health

With the spring practically upon us, now is a good time to step outside and enjoy the natural world and the health benefits it offers. 

By Pam Owen

Even in the smallest yards, nature is there. An amazing number of species can live there, each with a story to tell. In my yard, I’ve witnessed romance, warfare, friendship, intrigue and much more among species that live far more interesting and complex lives that we might think. I try to keep an open mind when observing nature and use all my senses, including touch, although I avoid contact with many species, particularly animals, because it can be dangerous — for us and for them. 

I’ve had some of my most thought-provoking critter encounters while just sitting on my deck. If I’m quiet and patient, many animals adjust to my presence and go about their daily routine, often coming quite close. Last spring, a Louisiana waterthrush that I’d strain to see high in trees during the breeding season stopped by. Skinks, spiders, butterflies (especially if I set out pots of flowers), and a host of other critters also visit or live there.

Yards can be a great place to take up birdwatching. Carolina wrens and some other common birds often nest in yards, some on buildings or in plant pots, and many others will also visit. While having a decent set of binoculars helps to observe birds at a distance, setting out feeders and birdbaths along with planting native plants that provide food can bring them closer. Hummingbirds should be arriving soon, and a feeder filled with homemade “nectar” will draw them in. 

A typical yard can host thousands of species of terrestrial invertebrates on, above, and under the ground. In my yard, I’ve observed some amazing ones doing some amazing things. When I planted giant sunflowers to see who would show up on them, I discovered red carpenter ants “farming” keeled treehopper larvae for the “honeydew” they excrete. A magnifying glass can help in getting a closer look at tiny species like these. (In a pinch, I’ve used the zoom feature on my smart-phone camera to see more detail on some tiny creature, or taken a photo of it to enlarge later for further examination.) 

Once I picked up an eastern eyed click beetle, almost two inches long, and perched it on my hand to see how such a heavy-bodied bug could take off. As I watched, it pointed its abdomen down, perhaps to lessen wind resistance and serve as ballast, and slowly made a nearly vertical ascent. 

Recently, I awoke at dawn to a world shrouded in fog. As the sun came up, I could see dozens of small spiderwebs, bejeweled by drops of moisture reflecting sunlight, on plants all over the yard. By noon, every strand of the messy webs, made by tiny cobweb spiders, had disappeared, leaving me with more questions than answers. On moonless nights in late spring, I often see a fairyland celebration of flickering lights from the ground to the forest crown — fireflies trying to attract mates. 

Gardening is a great way to enjoy nature. Putting in a mix of native plants of various types and heights, and letting some native “weeds” grow, will attract and support more wildlife better than a mowed lawn. 

Species of clouds fly high above our yards, and cloudspotting is educational and great fun, especially when done with kids. Each species has its own shape and behavior that can fire up our imaginations, calm or scare us, and portend changes in weather. 

If you have kids stuck at home, turn them loose in the yard and encourage them to discover nature on their own, or go out with them. Kids generally come to nature with their minds more open than we adults do, so while it’s good to share what we know with them, it’s also good to give them space to learn and imagine on their own and for them to share their own take on nature with us. 

Journaling what we find in nature can help us focus on details we might otherwise miss and track changes in nature over the seasons and years. Nature journals can also remind us of our favorite experiences outdoors when we most need it. Many printed guides, apps and websites are available to help with identification and to learn more about species (see sidebar below for a few of my favorite resources).

The more we learn more about the natural world, the more clearly we can see our role in it, and the more likely we are to appreciate and protect our environment and our fellow travelers on this spinning blue marble.

 


Resources for enjoying and learning about nature

Below are just a few of the many resources available for identifying and learning about nature (those with asterisks offer identification by submitting photos):

Websites

  • Animals: VirginiaHerpetologicalSociety.com; BugGuide.net; AllAboutBirds.org
  • Plants: USWildflowers.com; VAPlantAtlas.org
  • Mushrooms: MushroomExpert.com
  • Clouds: CloudAppreciationSociety.org; cloudatlas.wmo.int/en/cloud-identification-guide

 

Print field-guide series

  • For birds and trees: SibleyGuides.com
  • For information on a wide range of species: HMHBooks.com
  • Butterflies: KaufmanFieldGuides.com
  • For bird identification: HachetteBookGroup.com/contributor/donald-stokes/

Apps

  • General: iNature* (plants, animals, fungi)
  • Birds: Sibley, iBird, Birdnet (identifies birds by sound), eBird (for submitting observations)
  • Plants: Flora of Virginia, Wildflowers of Virginia, PlantSnap* 

About the Author

A native-born Virginian, Pam Owen is a writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist. Her favorite quote is “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction,” by E. O. Wilson.

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