Getting to Know a New Observing Site

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By Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.

Canada geese at a favorite pond near Cranston, RI. A place we got to know very, very well.

When you get started on a science project that entails outdoor observing, much of the time you will make repeated visits to a single place. This might be a creek or pond, a favorite section of the seashore, a nearby patch of woods, or even a city park.  Amateur nature observers, particularly new ones, might decide after a few trips and a few hours spent in a particular place that there's "nothing to see here--move along."

This is unfortunate, because if you take the time to really get to know a natural place, your observations will become more and more varied and sometimes, even remarkable.  What makes this hard is that you do have to take time, and lots of it.

Let's say you make observations at a nearby pond about once a week.  You drop by, you walk around the area, sweep the area with your binoculars, maybe measure air and water temperatures, and jot down bird or other species you see in your field notebook for recording later in Volksdata or a conventional notebook.  If you don't see something remarkable right away, it's easy to get bored and stop coming.  Like I said, getting to know a natural site takes time.  How much time?  Based on my experience, at least one year.

For one thing, you really don't know a place until you've seen it in all the seasons of the year. The changes in species just between spring and summer can be startling if you're paying attention.  Experience has shown also that as you become more and more intimately familiar with a area, you see more each time you go there.  There are many ways to explain this; observing skills sharpening with practice, for instance, but my spouse and I have discovered through years of experience that the more time you spend at a particular spot, the more you see.

Years ago we had a favorite pond in Cranston, Rhode Island that was a great place to observe dragonflies.  On any given summer day you could easily see a dozen or so species.  But because we visited the pond regularly over a period of about two years, eventually we identified no less than 26 species at a pond you could circumnavigate at a mild walking pace in about two or three minutes.  Of course, along the way we also saw all kinds of birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, etc.

It also helps to keep an open mind as well as an open eye.  If your "goal" is to see one particular kind of animal, for instance, you may blind yourself to other unexpected wonders.

Bottom line: to be a good observer you have to learn your observing locations intimately, and that takes time.  But it will be time richly rewarded with many exciting observations and finds.  You might even find something new.

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One Response to Getting to Know a New Observing Site

  1. We’ve been at Hilton Pond since 1982 and it’s a rare day when I go out and don’t see something new. 🙂

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