Build your skills as a community scientist and learn how to observe and document wildlife and plants you see along the San Lorenzo River, in your yard or in your neighborhood. This activity is a great way to spend time outside and build your connection with the natural world through the power of observation.
This activity will teach you how to become a naturalist – a person who studies nature. You will learn some common observational skills and questions to get you started on your naturalist journey. As you gaze out your window or take your next walk outside, you can use your naturalist skills to begin observing the world around you, investigating what kind of plants and animals you share outdoor space with and how they change over time.
While being a naturalist is an excellent solo activity, this guide will also share resources for how you can connect with other naturalists and share what you see.
By studying nature, naturalists learn about and help document the world around us. On an individual level, it is incredibly rewarding to get to know your plant and animal neighbors by name. It is also fun to see how plants and animals in your yard or neighborhood change with the seasons or at different times of day. Additionally, data gathered by community naturalists like you is incredibly valuable for scientific research. For example, naturalists help document local biodiversity (how many different species exist in a given place), species abundance (how many individuals of a certain species there are) and species distribution (where species are located throughout a geographic region).
You can do this activity without any additional materials, but we’ve listed some optional materials that will help you get the most out of your naturalist explorations.
- Choose what area you’d like to observe. Any area will work. You can make observations from inside your home or while outside. For example, you might choose to observe what you see from your living room window, what you find along your neighborhood street or what you see in a nearby park.
- Observe the world around you. Here are some sample questions to get you started:
- How many birds, insects or other animals do you see? What do they look like? What are they doing?
- If you don’t see any birds or animals, can you hear any? What do they sound like?
- How many kinds of plants do you see? What do they look like? Do any of them have a strong smell?
- What is the weather like?
- *Tip: Birds, insects and other animals are easily scared, so the best way to observe them is to watch them from afar and to minimize your own movement. Try standing still and only following their movement with your eyes. You can also use binoculars to watch critters from far away.
- (Optional) Write down what you observe. If you have a phone or camera with you, take pictures or videos.
- (Optional) Investigate what you saw! There are a variety of online resources that can help you figure out what critters or plants you’ve been observing. You can also share what you’ve seen with other naturalists. See our Additional Resources list below.
- Repeat again and again! If you continue to observe the same areas, you will likely notice changes over time. Here are some questions you could ask as you continue your naturalist observations:
- Are there any species you regularly see or hear? Are there any species you’ve only seen once or twice?
- Have you noticed any similarities about when or where you see certain species? For example, some critters are most active at night and are rarely seen during the day. Similarly, some types of plants thrive in the full sun, while others prefer to live in complete shade.
- Have you noticed any unique behaviors? For example, the California Towhee is almost always found in pairs – if you see one, there’s likely another nearby!
- Have you seen plants bloom, lose their leaves or change in some other way?
- How does the weather change what you see?
- Do you see different things across different seasons?
There are a variety of phone- and web-based applications you can use to help identify species and to share what you find with other naturalists. Here are two of our favorites:
- iNaturalist: This app allows you to identify plants and animals, share what you’ve found and explore what other naturalists are finding around you. For example, check out this list of plants found in the Coastal Watershed Council habitat restoration site.
- eBird: This app is focused specifically on birds, and it similarly allows you to identify the bird you are seeing, share what bird species you’ve observed and see what birds other naturalists are seeing nearby. For example, check out this community-generated list of birds observed along the lower San Lorenzo River.
Love birds? Check out the San Lorenzo River Mysteries blog written by Jane Mio and Barbara Riverwoman to learn about the everyday occupants and seasonal bird species found along the San Lorenzo River – great naturalists at work!
To all of the Watershed Rangers students, teachers and program partners, although we will not be able to see you in classrooms, field trips and after school programs right now, we hope to provide you and your loved ones with online resources and activities during this time. We know that parents, teacher and lifelong learners are seeking ways to stay engaged and active, and we’re going to be working to bring activities to you through the Coastal Watershed Council blog. Please share these resources and activities with friends, neighbors and parents groups and stay tuned for more.
- Santa Cruz County Office of Education News & Food Programs: Parents are encouraged to call or email their child’s school or district prior to visiting the site in person if they have questions or need services beyond the food program available to their student or to pick up distance learning materials. Please find a master list of all Santa Cruz County food service distribution locations at http://sccoe.link/food_service. Please find an interactive map of all the food distribution locations and service times at http://sccoe.link/food_service_map.
- Speaking with your child about COVID
- Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency
- Santa Cruz County 211