Natural History Observations

Natural History Observations

“Each species is a rare source of information, like a rare book. At present humanity has read, only partly, a few volumes and

to a large extent human life has depended upon the knowledge so gained.”

--Robert C. Stebbins (Stebbins 1995)

Here I summarize my own interpretaion based on his curriculum. With such simple tools children and adults alike can record valuable information about the changing landscape that will form part of California’s rich history.

Field sketching kit with pencils, erasors, shapreners, charcoal sticks.

Field Equipment:

backpack or shoulder bag -- for carrying equipment.

pencil, pen, eraser

clipboard with paper or blank notebook





field guides -- to birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, plants, stars, etc.

optional: camera, smartphone

At the beginning stages you do not need to buy fancy equipment yet, such as geographical positioning systems (GPS) units. That can always come later.

1 As you hike in a natural area or study an urbanized landscape looking for clues about the past, start by recording the date (day, month and year) and time in your notebook or clipboard. Also look around at the weather -- is it clear and sunny, overcast, or rainy? Is it cold or hot? In the future you can purchase a small thermometer to carry along with you to take more accurate measurements.

During some of my biological survey work for the United States Geological Service -- Biological Research Division, I had a Kestrel hand-held weather measuring device that recorded temperature, humidity, and wind speed; I held it in the shade of my body at 3 feet high to take readings, then used a mercury thermometer to take ground temperatures (the ground can often be much different in temperature than the air at head-level, and this can affect when lizards and snakes are active). I would also record cloud cover percentage.

For now, however, you can estimate these measurements.

Talking a paper map on a clipboard can be helpful, not only to know where you're going, but to make notes on the map with a pen or pencil: mark your route, make dots of observations of plants and animals, make written notes of interesting encounters.

A friendly Holstein cow inspects my map as I hike in Golden Gate National Recration Area. Make sure you stay safe around livestock on public lands, and do not trespass on private lands.

2 Next, record what landform you are standing on. Is the landscape flat or hilly? Are you within view of mountains, or are you in a river canyon? Even in a city you can see this information, and remnant topography can give clues about the old landscape later when you investigate the history of an area. Use you compass to find north to orient yourself to direction, then draw a simple map showing the hills, mountains, cliffs, rock outcrops, streams, or lakes within your view. If you have a map you can locate yourself on it. Sometimes I use a clinometer, a device to measure the slope of a land surface or hillside that I am on, but this is nonessential.

Is the soil fertile-black or alkaline-white, sandy or rocky or very fine? Wet or dry? Without knowing detailed soil types, you can record some basic information. There are also small charts that tell you how to estimate the standardized size of different soil particles, such as silt, sand, gravel, pebble, cobble, and boulder.

Field sketch in a desert badland, trying to understand the landforms. Ink on paper.

3 You can begin to learn the different plant species present in your area, although this takes time as there are so many. A very good way to learn about a plant is to draw a simple diagram of its leaves and flowers. You can note flower color, plant height, and what growth stage it is in: is it lush and green, flowering, or dried out? If you have a plant guide with you an attempt can be made to identify it. By this method you can begin to learn which plants have been in California for thousands of years and which have been introduced recently from other continents. You may even find a native relict plant growing in an empty lot in the city. You can record these locations on your map with a dot or number, giving the label on the side of the map or on a separate sheet.

These plant observations can be expanded to include information about communities. Record how abundant or rare the plant is, what other plants grow with it, what percentage of the ground is covered by grasses or herbs or shrubs, or what percentage of the sky is blocked out by the forest canopy. Record whether you are in a forest or grassland, a marsh or beach. If you are an a urban area, after time you may begin to see the relict plants such as native oaks growing in yards and parks that tell you this area may have been a woodland years ago. If you have the time you can draw the extent of woodland or grassland on your map.

Notes and drawings of edible plants, and calendar, after years of phenological notes were collected. Colored pencil and paper.

4 Use you binoculars to watch the animals you encounter: birds, squirrels, lizards, frogs in a pond. Using field guides you will graudally learn the species in your area, and you can record these in your notebook. You may also want to pinpoint the sightings on your map, especially if they seem to be uncommon species. Sketching the animals is also a great way to learn more about them. You can also choose to sit and watch the animal and begin to learn its behavior, what it eats, how it interacts with its landscape, the weather, and other animals. I often do this, and learning how to hide myself so as not to disturb the animal has become a habit.

If you do not see animals, you may see their sign, and these can tell equally interesting stories. Tracks, bits of fur or feathers, bones, scat (droppings), rubs or scratches on tree trunks, dust baths and mud wallows, nests, burrows, and browsed vegetation should all be looked for. Sketch them. Field guides are available for animal tracking.

Field sketches of a Western kingbird compared to a nearby Cassin's kingbird. Ballpoint pen on paper.

5 If you encounter a waterway there are a whole set of new observations you can make. Record what type of waterway it is: a pond, lake, creek, river, bog, wet meadow, spring, or ocean? In the city there are often remnant waterways, streams undergrounded in pipes, springs in boxes, or even telling soils or landforms such as ravines now covered by houses that may have once held springs and creeks. Many historic waterways have been drained, covered, or filled and built upon, so a lot of detective work may be needed to find their remnants.

You can get deeper into describing waterways, as you will see on the chapter on salmon: the substrate type (sandy, gravelly, full of cobbles?), water velocity and temperature, channel width, floodplain width, etc.

A creek is discovered walking through El Cerrito; most of the water runs underground now in pipes, surrounded by houses. My sister Margot and I find a relict purple needlegrass growing on a roadside in Richmond.

6 Talk to local residents of the land. Often you can get oral histories of what past landscapes looked like. I remember being on a plant walk in the East Bay on a trail beside a large reservoir. A man in our group recalled growing up near here and hiking in the original canyon before the dam went up, and he described to me the trees that used to grow along the stream, now flooded by a flat expanse of bue water.

You can collect a lot of stories of what happened in a place, the people and events, the ranches and buildings that came and went, for this is all part of our ecological history as well. If you are a Native, ask your elders the old names for places, where good plant gathering sites were, what stories occurred on the land.

This would also be a good place to mention any human impacts on the land. What are people using it for? Is it grazing land or forest for logging? Is it an empty lot with a ‘For Sale’ sign? Is there a lot of garbage, or off-road vehicle tracks?

Discussions about Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) relict at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Listening to Indigenous voices at cultural history on the land, Point Reyes National Seashore

Theresa Harlan, Coast Miwok, discusses cultural traditions, ecology, and history at Point Reyes National Seashore.

7 When your walk is finished, record the time and place, whether the walk was a loop or ended at a distance, and any other comments you might think of.

Back in the classroom: practive drawing land forms and understanding perpsective.

Field sketch of a simplified cross-section of a landscape in the eastern Mojave Desert of California, showing shrub species. Ballpoint pen on paper.

Quick landscape sketch to try to capture subtle landforms in the San Joaquin Valley. Even plains such as this have gravel washes, low hills, ground quirrel burrows. Pencil on paper.

Quick sketch of landforms near Riverside, California, showing grassy terrace, floodplain, stream with riparian trees, alluvial fans, and distance mountains. Feltip pen on paper.

Students of Dr. Thom Hothem photograph a badger burrow on a vernal pool preserve at the University of California, Merced.
Nature journaling with Jack Laws and Miriam Morrill, comparing field sketchbooks.

One of the first methods in historical ecology is information gathering. Anyone can do this -- you do not need a higher academic degree. Biological databases and surveys rely on observations of plants and animals, population trends, distribution shifts, geological and climatic changes, and measurements of rainfall, temperature, humidity, and a host of other things. You do not need to be a scientist to do any of this, and your observations can be very important as part of a library archive for future observers who want toknow what has happened to the world. Much of this book is based on my own observations of speices, their interactions, the slight changes that I can percieve from year to year, as well as the detailed observations of people in the past centuries.

I met herpetologist Robert C. Stebbins at his home one day to share artwork, and we discussed the importance of getting young people out into the countryside to learn to look at things. Even a square foot of soil in a backyard can become quite fascinating if you take the time to observe it. He related how he took groups of school kids to a meadow in Tilden Regional Park to learn to map the webs of spiders that hung on tall grass stems, watching their location change from week to week. The kids did not want to stop after their hour-long class -- activating you powers of observation can be better than TV, they realized. We talked about how observing the natural world focuses your senses, trains your patience, heightens your environmental awareness, and increases your sense of place and belonging. He handed me a protocol he had developed with East Bay Municpal Utility District of Alameda-Contra Costa County for training people how to carry out biological monitoring programs. In it, he says:

“Many of us as children start out with an interest in the wild creatures in our surrounding -- from caterpillars to birds -- but, all too often, the interest fades as prejudices or indifference of adults or peers and the insulation from nature that characterizes industrial society, suppresses such interest. However, fortunately, it can usually readily be revived with proper exposure and guidance”

(Stebbins 1995).