Online Nature Journal Class,Session #3

As I’ve mentioned before, I started an online nature journaling class through Cornell. [There will also be a separate page showing all of the classes in case you’d like to take the course yourself or maybe want to start nature journaling on your own.]

Here are my notes from today’s class.

Science is a process of making observations while seeking to understand and attempting to explain what you observe. Just as in science, making observations is at the very core of nature journaling. An observation is any information you gather using your senses. Have fun and get creative exploring all the different types of observations you can make… You can challenge yourself to think like a scientist and explore scientific themes that can help you focus your observations and explanations. These themes include observing scale and quantity, looking for patterns, thinking about how form relates to function, exploring natural systems, and noticing change.

Nature journaling is your own creative form of data gathering. Through focused observation, you open up new ways of learning from your outdoor experiences.

In this lesson you’ll be…

  • Expanding your powers of observation.
  • Discovering the benefits of practicing the sit spot technique.
  • Experimenting with a variety of ingredients for making your journal pages come alive.
  • Designing a comparison study to identify and record patterns, connections, and relationships in the natural world.

Opening Your Senses

Slowing down, sitting quietly and observing nature with all your senses can be an awe-inspiring experience. Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Settle in and try not to make a sound. Open your senses and start to take in the world around you.

First, close your eyes and just listen.  Then open your eyes and look around you.  After several minutes you’ll notice that the creatures in the area grow more accustomed to your still presence and will resume their natural everyday habits.  Record what you observe in your journal.

A Sense of Awe

Making observations is at the core of nature journaling. Taking time to carefully observe allows you to notice and appreciate so much more. It’s also a practice that can help you experience a sense of awe more regularly.  Recent research says experiencing awe is good for you—and so much of nature is awesome. Among other benefits, you might feel happier and more connected to others. It can even sharpen your brain and help you think more clearly.

  1. Find a location to try a sit spot. You don’t have to go far. It could be in your yard. Sit quietly for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Do you notice birds or other animals returning after a period of time? Do they return at different intervals? Which comes back first?
  3. Open your journal and set up your page with your name, date, time, place, and weather notations.
  4. Start recording your observations, use as many of your senses as possible and play with including some measurements.

My first focused observation:

I was more focused on observing and taking notes than drawing, so my drawing for today isn’t very detailed.

I had just filled the birdfeeder outside my bedroom window, and watched the birds and squirrels that came to it.  I drew the Chinese Privet tree and the feeder, but also used my cellphone camera to get some images.

I saw White-Crowned Sparrows, Mourning Doves, a California Scrub Jay, House Finches, House Sparrows and an Oak Titmouse. 

I could hear the squirrels running across the roof, to and from the feeders. When the squirrels were around, the birds stayed back from the feeders but didn’t fly away.

I could hear the sparrows “chirp” at each other, and heard the male Mourning Dove cooing to the female as he followed closely after her along the ground. She didn’t seem interested in him and kept avoiding his attentions by scurrying away. I could hear the wind whistling through the doves’ tail feathers when they flew in and flew out.

The White-Crowned Sparrows were more interested in the suet blocks than the seeds in the feeder, and the doves ate the seeds that fell onto the ground. Some of the White-Crowns ate seeds off the ground, too; they kept looking up and around them every few seconds as they fed. Keeping an eye out for other birds and predators?  Some of the White-Crowns also flit up onto the window sill to peck up the seeds there.  They’d look up into the window as they fed.

Didn’t observe long enough to see “intervals” of movement; but I’m looking forward to doing more observations outside at more remote locations.

There was also a young Eastern Fox Squirrel who couldn’t quite figure out how to get the seeds in the feeder, and an adult Western Gray Squirrel who was adept at stealing the seeds.  That squirrel also went over to the hummingbird feeder and tipped it just enough to get the nectar inside to dribble out, and he drank from the feeder!  Ingenious.  [[A “sense of awe” moment, for sure.]]

Western Gray Squirrel drinking from hummingbird feeder

Noticing Themes in Nature

Nature journaling is a thought process—one that builds on itself to generate a deeper understanding of what you’re observing. When you use your observations as a springboard to develop possible explanations, it will inspire more curiosity and more appreciation. As a way to help fuel your own curiosity cycle, start noticing scientific themes and incorporating them in your journal.

  • Scale and Quantity: How big or small? How many are there? What is most common or rare? Noticing the scale or quantity of something can lead to further investigations.
  • Patterns: Patterns are the regular and repeated ways in which something occurs. They may involve appearance, sound, structure, or even behavior. [pattern of a fawn’s spots]
  • Form and Function: This is a “big idea” in biology. Basically, it is that the shape of something is closely related to, and therefore a clue to, its function.
  • Systems and Energy Flow: Systems involve parts working together, and fail when critical components are missing. For example, ecosystems have many different members playing different roles: producers, consumers, and decomposers. Materials and energy flow through this system. Think about where your subject fits into its system.
  • Noticing Change: Living things and ecosystems change constantly. Explore the scope, timespan, and causes of the changes you observe.

My friend Roxanne and I are always trying to learn from what we see and ask ourselves questions about forms and functions.  I’ve been focusing a lot on lichen lately, and have begun to observe the different ways the lichen reproduce.  Some use apothecia through which they produce and release spores, some use soredia (crumbly-looking bundles of algae and fungus cells that they shed – which then go on to form another lichen), some use isidia (structures that look like eyelashes on the edges of the lichen)… and some use a combination of those structures. I used to think of lichen as fairly “commonplace” somewhat “simple” structures, but observation has shown me how complex and varied they are.  I’ve been using a macro attachment for my cellphone to observe some of the deeper details and structures of lichen.  Here’s an example of what Bark Rim Lichen, Lecanora chlarotera looks like to the naked eye and to the macro attachment:

Without close observation, you miss all the details.

The Power of Comparison

Drawing and recording observations about two similar subjects side-by-side on a page provides a simple way to focus your observations and get more from a journaling session. Through focused comparison it’s often easier to discover new patterns, connections, and relationships.

  1. Head outside with your journal and choose two similar subjects—perhaps flowers, tree branches, or rocks—and complete a comparison study.
  2. Try different ways of recording your observations by exploring drawings, words, numbers, and/or diagrams.
  3. Through your study did you notice anything of interest involving patterns, form following function, change, scale or quantity, or systems?
  4. What questions come to mind about your subjects from this study?

I did my comparison study on the feet of American Coots and Mallard ducks.  Coots have lobed toes and very sharp toenails; Mallards have webbed feet and somewhat flat toenails.  Coots legs and feet are a mix of blue gray, green, and yellow; Mallard feet and legs are various shades of orange and umber.  The toe formation, webbing variance and different colors made me wonder why the birds were put together like that.

The Coots are more or less confined to marsh lands.  Their lobed toes give them traction in the water when they’re swimming, but the separation between the toes also allows for more flexibility on land and walking through and over matts of marsh plants.  The Coots also use their feet in dominance battles. I would assume that the light color of their legs and feet make it less likely that predators under the water could see them, and might mistake them for wafting plant fronts.  On land, they WALK rather than WADDLE.

I know that Mallards are the ancestors of all of the domestic duck (except the Muscovy) and they can thrive in a variety of habitats.  Although they nest on ground, they spend a lot of time in the water feeding and displaying to one another. On land, the ducks WADDLE rather than WALK. Obviously, their webbed feet make it easier to maneuver in the water while still allowing them to travel on land.  The orange color, though, is suddenly interesting to me.  Why such a bright and obvious color on their feet? 

I did a little more research on them and discovered that the color of their feet can vary depending on their age and hormone levels. The feet turn bright orange in the breeding season, signaling to others that they’re old enough and healthy enough to breed.

CLICK HERE for the PDF of my notes from today’s session.