Nature journal entries summer 2020

  • June 22, 2020: So far no Monarch butterflies have been spotted in our home gardens. Plenty of cabbage whites, a few painted ladies a couple weeks back, and a tiger swallowtail. Very wet spring, especially June, but now it’s turning hot, slightly above seasonal averages (80-85F, overnight lows 50-55F).  Two young praying mantises captured this past week. (see photo).fullsizeoutput_39c
  • Native varieties of milkweed that support Monarchs:
  • June 23, 2020: Hot (91°F, 4:45pm) and sunny, light winds. spent a couple hours in the am working in the garden – build trellis for trumpet vine in terrace garden (using dead maple tree branches), pull and burn weeds. Small ~1″ orange patterned BF (fritillary) (?) surveying the lawn, tiger swallowtail, quail, cabbage whites, lots of honeybees. Snow peas, lettuce, scallions doing fine; beans starting.
  • July 15, 2020: Beautiful day again today, slightly cooler than “average”, maybe heading for about 85°F. Saw Comet Neowise last night, very clear, but some low hazy clouds did dim the view a bit. That’s my 1st comet ever.
Posted in Personal essay | Leave a comment

Advice for nature-watchers

Advice for nature-watchers (with notes for butterfly enthusiasts):



Bumblebee queen on aster


Just- hatched praying mantis








The most important thing about venturing out is being patient and observant. Rushing is almost always counterproductive. The main idea is to connect with living creatures and natural processes, which must occur on their terms, not yours. Slow down.

As I indicated in my post “The Naturalist Mind“, lugging around field equipment is not necessary or helpful. As outlined below, just bring a few items in your “field kit” beyond what you need for your comfort and safety (water, map, food, first aid kit, safety blanket, etc.), depending on the season, the terrain, the length of your outing and your familiarity with the surroundings.

    • A simple field kit includes a notepad, small sketchpad, or small journal, one that fits in a shirt pocket, along with a pen or pencil, and maybe a pocketknife to sharpen the pencil. Colored pencils can be useful as well.
    • Most people carry a cellphone, which can record video, take photos, and capture notes, even where there is no cell service. However, you may find that a notepad and pencils better suit your outdoor temperament, and they wean you of your phone, which can be an annoying reminder of what you may be trying to leave behind. Taking notes or making sketches helps you remember things, like when and where, how many, size, color and markings, or what the creatures were doing. Pausing to jot a few notes or make a quick sketch has the added benefit of slowing the pace of your outing. Personally, I like to take photos of smaller creatures and plants for later identification and documentation, so I keep my phone handy for that, but muted/ ringer off/ as unobtrusive as possible.

Special comments for butterfly-watching:


Painted lady

    • The one item of special equipment that really helps is a pair of binoculars that can focus just a few feet away (“close-focus”). Anything closer than 12 feet is probably good enough, but some binoculars can focus as near as 2 feet. Manufacturers don’t always report this feature of their binocs, and some of the numbers they do report are incorrect. The best is to try before you buy, or go out with someone who can help you choose good butterfly binoculars and learn to use them.
    • Other factors to consider when choosing binoculars include whether you wear glasses or not, your budget, and personal preferences (size, shape, ease of use…).
    • Pentax 8×24 UCF WR (~$100; close focus 8ft) / Cabela’s HD Intensity 8×42 ~$150; close focus 6 ft) are good binocs for butterfly watching. There is no need to buy a very expensive ($500-$1000) pair. Both of the above models claim ~13 ft close focus, but according to my measurements, they are better than advertised. 
    • More in-depth reviews of butterfly binoculars:

Probably the most useful and detailed consideration of butterfly-watching (as opposed to collecting) can be found in R.M. Pyle’s Handbook for Butterfly Watchers, out of print now to the best of my knowledge, but still available on the used book market.

What about field guides? For many nature enthusiasts, guide books are a must, but I think your time out of doors is better spent observing nature itself than staring into the pages of a guidebook.

The goal is to strike a balance between observing things without the foggiest notion of what one is looking at, and spending one’s time deciding exactly which species of warbler or termite this is. My rule of thumb for guidebooks and all other paraphernalia is simple: to the extent that they satisfy one’s curiosity and stir the imagination, they are assets. Otherwise, they get in the way. I often compromise by leaving the guidebooks in the house or in the car, and challenge myself to be able to identify what I saw from memory, sketches and notes.

Posted in Personal essay | 1 Comment

Ladybug Hill

I awoke one September day with autumn in my blood.  The academic year had just begun with its comfortable, addictive commotion –anxious, hormonally charged faces, the smell of new books, the ring of cash registers, and the chatter of new acquaintances and old friends.  But as soon as classes were over, I headed north toward Stanley, just east of the Sawtooth Mountains.

My visit caught the Sawtooth Valley in mid-autumn stride.  Aspen touched by early morning frost clattered against the backdrop of the Salmon River.  A raven quorked on high afternoon thermals.  Within minutes of stepping out of the car, I decided to climb along a familiar ridge to get a better view of the Sawtooths and distance myself from the ranch and the road.

With hunting season still a week away, a herd of elk lolled high above on the sage-covered hillside.  I chugged slowly up the ridge, pausing every few hundred yards to catch my breath.  Alerted by a Clark’s nutcracker scolding from a solitary pine, the elk slid behind the summit and disappeared into the forest.  When I arrived at the top, slightly dizzy from the thin air and the view, a hilltop cairn formed by outthrust chunks of decomposing granite offered a nice resting spot.  I sat there for several minutes soaking in the last few drops of summer in the valley.

A makeshift flagpole stuck in the rocks had been toppled by the wind, and I decided to set it right again and secure it with some fence wire wrapped around rock anchors.  As I picked up one of the rocks, my hand and arm were soon awash in ladybugs, scurrying and nipping at my salty skin.   Confused, I gingerly replaced the rock and tried another stone nearby.  Again, I was greeted with an agitated crimson swarm –a third rock, a fourth, and several more.  The significance finally dawned on me: I had stumbled across a ladybug hibernation site.

Underside of rock with hibernating ladybugs.

Energized by my incredible luck, I raced back down the ridge to share my find with the couple who lived on the ranch at its base.  Betty and Craig had settled there in the 1950s and for more than twenty years he was a trapper and a hunting and fishing guide, mostly for wealthy clients who came over from Sun Valley to get a taste of the Idaho backcountry.  As always, they were eager to have a visitor.

“Saw your car go by.  You already been climbing up on the hill?”  Craig asked, noticing my sweaty clothes.

“Yeah, and you won’t believe what just happened up there …what I found up on top!”

“Did you find my ladybugs?”  he grinned.

I must have looked like an idiot. My incredible discovery wasn’t such big news after all… we sat down to tea and didn’t talk about the ladybugs again.

When I got back to campus, I realized that serendipity had opened a window on one of nature’s most durable and precious secrets. Craig had undoubtedly come across the ladybugs on a fall hunting trip at least twenty years ago, but how much longer had this hibernation site been there?  And how do ladybugs find their way to this site each fall and why this site in particular?

For the next six years, I studied the ladybugs, trying to learn from these gentle creatures nestled in their rocky home. I collected ladybugs in winter and studied their tolerance to cold and to freezing, monitored their arrival at the cairn in fall and their dispersal in spring.  Oddly enough, winter aggregations on ‘ladybug hill’ include two different species: Hippodamia sinuata –sometimes called the 9-spotted ladybug– and H. caseyi, found in far fewer numbers. A single cluster of beetles may contain between several dozen and a few hundred individuals.  There must be a definite survival value in the communal gathering of large numbers of beetles at this location, although it is still not clear what that might be.

The ladybugs aggregate under rocks and in crevices beneath thin crust of snow. As cozy as this sounds, the nests are not warmed by the metabolic heat of huddling ladybugs. Their metabolic heat production is kept to a bare minimum for survival, because one of the greatest challenges that over wintering ladybugs face is making their limited fat reserves last through eight months of hibernation.  Accordingly, temperature readings under uninhabited rocks are indistinguishable from the temperature profiles in the nest itself.

The cairn itself sits exposed on the shoulder of a hill overlooking the Sawtooth Valley, home to Stanley, Idaho –one of the coldest spots in the country.  Winter winds on the ridge top can be quite strong and I have often needed to dig a snow shelter to make working there bearable.  But regardless what I feel standing up there on the exposed, gusty hill and despite the fact that we have been taught that the temperatures on a mountain top are usually colder than those at lower elevations, the ladybug nests are actually some of the warmest places in the valley.

On clear winter nights, dense cold air sinks to the valley floor displacing the lighter, warmer air, which rises up the ridge.  The temperature difference can be dramatic.  One January night, when the valley was -22oF, temperature readings in the cairn were +22oF. That’s a strong incentive for ladybugs to find their way back to the rock pile before winter sets in.

The most intriguing mystery of all, though, is how the ladybugs manage to find their way back to that same hilltop cairn, year after year.  The homing process is even more of a puzzle when one considers their life cycle. Over wintering ladybugs arrive at the cairn in September and remain until May, waiting in suspended animation for the return of spring, when they migrate down to the valley floor in May to begin feeding on aphids that drink the juices of the early wildflowers in the alpine meadows.  They mate, deposit their larvae and die there.  The best estimates are that summer-born ladybugs probably live just a few weeks, so the beetles returning to the ridge top the next fall are two or three generations removed from the spring migrants.  Ladybugs are not strong flyers and, in any case, it seems unlikely that any beetles survive the entire summer and lead others back to the cairn.  Yet, this cycle of emergence in late May, followed by a few generations summering in the valley and the return of the surviving grandchildren or great-grandchildren to the hibernaculum has repeated itself for years on end.

What drives this unerring migration to the same spot?   There are several north-south ridges in this valley, and exposed cairns of decomposing granite sit atop many of them.  Yet, season after season, I have found no evidence of ladybugs at these other sites while every fall thousands of ladybugs congregate at the cairn on ladybug hill.  To appreciate how ladybugs navigate –what they sense and how they respond– is next to impossible for visually oriented humans.  The ladybug’s umvelt, her sensory sphere, might involve some visual cues, but olfaction and chemoreception are probably much more important.  Not all of them survive the winter; so is it possible that migrating ladybugs detect the nesting site by the scent of their fallen ancestors and settle in?  Or do prevailing thermals give them a lift and then peter out at this particular ridge top, depositing them here in much the same way that the hiking trail led me and Craig and probably others before us to rest on this pile of granite?  I still don’t know.  I may never know.  But the fact that ladybugs manage to return to it decade after decade is remarkable enough to keep me coming back, too.

After observing these ladybugs for five consecutive winters, many of my original questions spawned new lines of inquiry, but most of the answers are still incomplete and few of those are intuitively obvious.  True understanding requires patience and durability –a kind of mental staying power that derives from a balance of resolve and resignation –traits that I like to think sustain the ladybugs in the bleakest January.  It requires willingness to taking the long view –something that is hard to reconcile with the values of a society in which complex issues are reduced to sound-bites and ‘disposable’ is a good thing.  While we seek newer and faster, ladybugs require several generations to make their cyclical migration, which includes several months of just staying put, a reminder that sometimes progress is best made by holding back.  And they are satisfied with things that work; their rock pile is safe and reliable and they do not seem to be looking for something better.  Nature does not strive for perfect or optimal, only good enough.

Some winters, I would bring a group of students to ladybug hill.  They were generally impressed and charmed by the sight of ladybugs in their hibernaculum, and, like me, they had plenty of questions.  But for most of them, the enthusiasm was short-lived.  I know that by leading them to the site, by sharing this gift with them, I am denying them the same opportunity for discovery that made it precious to me.  Still, I suspect that many of these young adults have never contemplated sustained natural processes before, much less been encouraged to make their own detailed observations of species and their natural histories or to appreciate the importance of long-term study of seasonal change and year-to-year variations.  They haven’t been given the tools or the skills necessary to make long-term connections –connections that could help them see themselves in a larger context.

The ladybugs have taught me many things but this might be the most important lesson of all:  how important it is for us to seek alternatives to the thrill of instant rewards, to slow down and to foster an ethic of attentive patience, forbearance, cooperation, and a respect for the persistent resourcefulness of all living things.

Adapted from Whole Terrain 12:25-27 (2003) Whole Terrain

More about resilience

Posted in Personal essay | Leave a comment

The naturalist mind

Many people trudge through life and miss a great deal of wonder and satisfaction that is right at their fingertips. As Proust observed, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Nature is right there before us, if we would only stop and look.

Becoming connected with nature and natural processes can happen in out in the woods, in a field, or in your own backyard; it can begin in childhood, or at any other stage of life. What does it take? Patience, desire, an inquisitive attitude, and a regular habit of walking go a long way. Add a note pad and a pencil or pen, and you’re traveling in style.

What’s a naturalist?

When it comes right down to it, what is a naturalist? You might try the dictionary, but even good dictionaries can be disappointing: “one versed in natural history, the study and description of organisms and natural objects”, or “one who follows the tenets of naturalism, the system of thought that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural laws and causes.” Somehow, these definitions fall short  …something is missing or off the mark.

What is lacking, in my opinion, is a clear sense of the drive and motivation, the skill and aptitude, the process and the joy involved. After all, being “versed in” natural history sounds like the result of a period of training, something that can be achieved after years of careful, probably tedious, study. And while many naturalists share a special kind of patience and attentiveness, what has been called “a quiet eye”, it is worth considering what that patient attention is turned toward, and it is important to recognize that even young people without any formal training may have strong innate naturalist tendencies, just as other people exhibit musical intelligence or emotional intelligence.

It is one thing to say, as the definitions do, what a naturalist should think or do or know, but the real question in my mind is how they got there. In fact, I would go so far as to say that becoming a naturalist is not so much a matter of mastering a body of knowledge as it is acquiring habits of mind. “Naturalist” is not a line to be crossed; it is a zone of being.

Howard Gardner[1], the author of the concept of multiple intelligences –as opposed to a single measure such as IQ– puts it this way: a naturalist “is an individual who demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species –the flora and fauna –of her or his environment.” To be sure, the skills involved in recognizing species of organisms extend to other things –rocks, cars, stamps, wine –as any connoisseur or collector can attest. And while some naturalists are primarily collectors in this sense, others are much more concerned with recognition of patterns, for example, of change, interaction, movement, or behavior, and the issue of species identification is a minor concern, an afterthought. Equally important, if Gardner is correct then we should be able to recognize naturalist intelligence and cultivate it.

Pattern detection, recognition, and analysis are aspects of nature study that motivate me. The questions that pop into my mind are not “What are they?” but “What are they doing?” I’m more concerned with what’s going on, than what species of bug or bird it is. “Was it carrying something in its beak? Is there a nest nearby? Is it building the nest or feeding its young?” Of course, knowing what type of bird, male or female, when they court and raise their young, whether they are residents or just passing through are helpful in deciphering patterns of activity. But understanding what they’re doing provides a more intimate view of their world, and in the end, connection and understanding are what I want.


Connecting with nature does not require escape or immersion in the most spectacular, postcard-perfect scenery. For many naturalists, connection with the natural world arises out of fondness for particular creatures that inhabit a place we hold dear.

We must start our journey from where we are, and we must learn to accept nature on its own terms, not ours. Connections will be and should be made in our own backyard, if only we take the time to slow down, pay attention, and appreciate the living creatures that share the space we call home.

You probably are better off without a lot of special equipment. The most important thing is your mind, not the things you carry. However, a notepad, small sketchpad, or small journal, one that fits in a shirt pocket, along with a pen or pencil, and maybe a pocketknife to sharpen the pencil are very useful. Taking notes or making sketches helps you remember things, and sketching is one of the best ways to hone your perceptual skills[2]. In another section I recommend what to include in a simple field kit.

The mental connections between seeing, writing, sketching, and understanding are deep, intricate, and tangled, ranging well beyond this discussion. But there is little doubt that the mental steps involved in processing a scene and turning it into words or pictures can be as valuable as rewarding, and so the field journal has become an essential for many naturalists.

In Bernd Heinrich’s words, “As a little kid I used to draw to preserve or “discovers”. Later I got, by pure happenstance, to look beyond the images of nature, but they still had to be preserved somehow. Precision of language was required for scientific papers –no less than precision of brush strokes or pencil. …and when I see something wonderful –whether on the surface or at a level of mechanism below it– then I want to either keep it, or pass it on. I’m not sure there is a difference because one can’t pass anything on until one first grasps and holds it.”

In a nutshell, there are just two important rules to follow:

  • Slow down. I have met very few people for whom this is not good advice. Walking is ideal. You may drive or ride a bicycle to a field site, but once you are there, walk.
  • Sketch or take notes. If you need help getting started or want to improve, Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves[3] contains many different techniques and exercises. This elegant book elevates journaling to a high art.

[1] Howard Gardner (1999) Intelligence reframed: multiple intelligences for the 21stcentury. Basic Books, New York, 304pp.

[2] For some excellent naturalist sketches, take a look at any number of Bernd Heinrich’s works; Winter World is one of my favorites.

[3] Hannah Hinchman (1997) A trail through leaves: the journal as a path to place. Norton, New York, 224pp.

Posted in Personal essay | 1 Comment