Budding Urban Naturalists

By Rob

During the past few weeks I’ve gotten to go on a few outdoor adventures with my wife.  She’s truly the perfect adventure partner, always up for getting dirty or sweaty, equally enjoying chasing some bird down a trail to snap a picture or making a coffee stop.  And she knows quite a bit about what we’re looking at while outdoors (Maria: he’s being sweet).


Coffee…the most important part of going outdoors

I’ve always found many positive things in the outdoors, solace when getting over a heart-ache, adventure while orienteering, quiet conversations while fishing with my family, and the chance to push my physical limits when biking and running.  A new aspect I’ve recently started adding is that of an aspiring naturalist.

Why even bother with understanding the outdoors?  You can feel a rush while running down a wooded trail without knowing that one your right side you pass a white oak and on your left a sycamore.  Would I enjoy the outdoors less if I never knew that willow trees prefer riparian zones or that mallard duck males usually don’t have a white patch on their chest?  I live in a city and work in an office building.  Being able to distinguish the songs of a mourning dove from a rock pigeon is not going to make me better at my job or a faster runner.  So, why bother learning about the detailed names of what I see in the outdoors?


Taking advantage of a self-guided nature tour

Well, I’d have no business wasting your time reading this if I couldn’t come up with a few reasons, right?

  • First, there’s a child-like joy in knowing the names of things. You know how children always ask “Daddy what is that?” They have a fascination in just learning what things are called. It reminds me of reading Helen Keller’s autobiography—it seemed the first time she experienced true bliss was when she was able to run to all manner of objects for her teacher to spell their names into her hand.

  • I’ve begun to appreciate the complicated interactions of multiple animal and plant species and the associated complexities of trying to protect nature.

    Maybe not everyone’s favorite mammal, but important in his food web!

    Of course, this goes beyond just naming things. It’s like going from just walking down a trail and seeing pretty flowers to understanding how to best conserve plant diversity. For example, if you’re just on a walk near a lake, you might see a zebra mussel. Mussels are mussels, they’re all basically the same right? Is there any difference between them and any other shells that are lining the lake bottom? After some research into the roles and interactions with other species, and it turns out that these zebra mussels can spit out an algae that when combined with some bacteria that also becomes infected by a virus to create toxic botulism…yeah, that’s not a good thing.


    Zebra mussel, Wikimedia commons

  • Being able to name what we see outdoors can create a desire in us to protect nature. And when we want to protect nature, we have to build an understanding of the complexities of this undertaking. Each species, each taxa, is incredibly interconnected with all of the others in its habitat—singling out one species for protection becomes nearly impossible.

Where did all of these musings begin? On a recent Sunday, the wife and I were sitting at home when deciding we needed some fresh air.  Actually, the wife needed to play her Pokémon Go… I claim no participation in this…. None! (Maria: don’t let him fool you, he likes it too!) We began our walk to River Front Park on Pittsburgh’s South Side by stopping at a hillside made of slate rock, except for two intriguing brick arches.  Wondering if this could be Pittsburgh’s version of the Great Sphinx of Giza waiting to be discovered, we crafted some fanciful ideas and then moved on.


What began initially as a quest for Maria to catch mythical creatures of her own, and to find a rumored boat selling ice cream, we made our way to the Monongahela River and the park which is located along the riparian zone.  A tall purple flower  first caught our fancy.


After walking a short ways, she stopped and pointed out something hiding in the tree leaves that only she could see (she has a gift for spotting birds!).  Once I saw it, which took a few moments of asking, “where is it again?” I grabbed my camera while she had her phone out scrolling through a bird identification key.  We finally found the name, two Northern  Mockingbirds.

Now the real hunt was on and the virtual one on her phone forgotten (and the battery was running low anyway).  We tried to identify a sparrow-like bird, but the stubborn thing wouldn’t hold still long enough.  (Like he had better things to do, right?)  After that, we snapped a photo of a mallard duck.  Normally, these ducks, while cool, don’t really stand out.  This one however, had an unusual white patch on his chest. It turns out that it could be a domestic variety or has leucism, but not easy to figure that part out.


He did have the Mallard curled tail feathers, just can’t see them in the picture.

After that we were startled by three little goldfinches fluttering in front of us. Just before they took off, we managed two photos.

Our final conquest was small songbird with a bit of rusty orange on its body.  An adult was feeding a juvenile. The only picture we managed was of the hungry little one’s behind, so not a lot of help for identifying it.  Once at home, however we poured through a book and decided it was probably a house finch.

None of these species are rare or otherwise noteworthy.  So, why did we get so excited with each chirp we heard in the trees?  There’s something with being outdoors and knowing something’s name that simply taps into that child-like delight.


Or if you’re Maria, everything gives you child-like delight

Beyond the joy of exploring, there is something to be said for the vigilance of amateur naturalists as well. There are only so many professional biologists, and yet sometimes the amateurs can be of the greatest assistance. Perhaps there have been more dead fish in this area lately, or these songbirds haven’t been calling in the morning like they normally do—the amateur naturalists might be among the first to sound the alarm and alert biologists to changes in local habitats. Citizen science naturalist efforts have even made huge impacts in understanding biodiversity across the country. For example, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Counts have been a major part of bird monitoring for over a century, and National Geographic’s The Great Nature Project invites amateur photographers to document their environments all over the world!

Well, Maria and I will both keep learning, but I will leave you in closing with this quote by Aldo Leopold:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

Keep exploring!




2 thoughts on “Budding Urban Naturalists

  1. Karl and I love id’ing birds and wildflowers when we hike, too! There is a lot of joy in spotting a new bird then figuring out what its name is 🙂

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