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.

About timmo53

Biology, natural history and outdoor education
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1 Response to Advice for nature-watchers

  1. Pingback: The naturalist mind | anoutdooreducation

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