Exploring nature in your yard, for fun and health
Updated: Jan 23
With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) looming over us, now is an especially good time to step outside and enjoy the natural world and the health benefits it offers.
As research has shown, walking in a natural setting, especially in forests, can give us more energy and a greater sense of well-being, help reduce stress, lower heart rates, improve the immune function, and help cognition, no matter what age we are. Just looking out the window at trees can lower blood pressure and relieve depression. And the healthier each of us is, the better we’re likely to handle the current viral threat.
The best way to control spread of the coronavirus, as medical experts stress, is to stay at home. Where I live, on a forested mountain in the Blue Ridge, I have a wonderful view of spring unfolding as I ramble the 30-plus acres of forest, ponds, yards, wetlands and shrublands. By the third week in March, thousands of Bloodroot were blooming in the forest, Pickerel Frogs were singing in the ponds, and migrating birds were returning to breed. (See the slideshow below of some species that emerged in early spring where I live.)
But nature is everywhere, even in the smallest yards. An amazing number of species can live there, each with a story to tell. In my yard, I’ve witnessed romance, warfare, friendship, intrigue and much more among species that live far more interesting and complex lives that we might think. I try to keep an open mind when observing nature and use all my senses, including touch, although I avoid contact with many species, particularly animals, because it can be dangerous — for us and for them.
I’ve had some of my most thought-provoking critter encounters while just sitting on my deck. If I’m quiet and patient, many animals adjust to my presence and go about their daily routine, often coming quite close. Last spring, a Louisiana Waterthrush that I’d strain to see high in trees during the breeding season stopped by. Skinks, spiders, butterflies (especially if I set out pots of flowers), and a host of other critters also visit or live there.
Yards can be a great place to take up birdwatching. Carolina Wrens and some other common birds often nest in or around yards, on buildings, or in plant pots, and many others will visit. While having a decent set of binoculars helps to observe birds at a distance, setting out feeders and birdbaths, along with planting native plants that provide food for adults and their young, can bring them closer. Hummingbirds should be arriving soon, and a feeder filled with homemade “nectar” will draw them in. I find birdwatching even more satisfying when I submit my observations to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database free account required), which is widely used by researchers to help track the health of bird populations.
A typical yard, especially one with diverse habitat, can host thousands of species of terrestrial invertebrates on, above and under the ground. In my yard, I’ve observed some amazing ones. When I planted giant sunflowers to see who would show up on them, I discovered Reddish Carpenter Ants “farming” Keeled Treehopper larvae for the sugary “honeydew” they excrete. A magnifying glass can help in getting a closer look at tiny species like these. (In a pinch, I’ve used the zoom feature on my smart-phone camera to see more detail on some tiny creature, or taken a photo of it to enlarge later for further examination.)
Once I picked up a eastern eyed click beetle, almost two inches long, and perched it on my hand to see how such a heavy-bodied bug could take off. As I watched, it pointed its abdomen down, perhaps to lessen wind resistance and serve as ballast, and slowly made a nearly vertical ascent.
Recently, I awoke at dawn to a world shrouded in fog. As the sun came up, I could see dozens of small spiderwebs, bejeweled by drops of moisture reflecting sunlight, on plants all over the yard. By noon, every strand of the messy webs, made by tiny cobweb spiders, had disappeared, leaving me with more questions than answers. On moonless nights in late spring, I often see a fairyland celebration of flickering lights from the ground to the forest crown — fireflies trying to attract mates.
Gardening is also a great way to enjoy nature. Putting in a mix of native plants of various types and heights, and letting some native “weeds” grow, will attract and better support more wildlife than the "green desert" of a mowed lawn. The plants also offer an opportunity to enter another complex, fascinating world. Some also provide good food for us. Trying to get fresh greens right now can be difficult, but dandelions, which taste better before the flower forms, are a good, free option. Books are available to find other common plants that are edible, but beware of poisonous plants. Make sure of the identity of any plant before tasting it. The same goes for mushrooms, which can appear in yards in varying colors, shapes, smells, and taste.
Other species, of clouds, fly high above our yards, and cloudspotting can be educational as well as great fun, especially with kids. Each species has its own shape and behavior that can fire up our imaginations, calm or scare us, and portend changes in weather. If you have kids stuck at home because schools are closed, turn them loose in the yard and encourage them to discover nature on their own, or go out with them. Children tend to come to nature with their minds more open than we adults do, so while it’s good to share what we know with them, it’s also good to give them space to learn and imagine on their own. And their fresh perspective can teach us adults something, too.
Journaling what we find in nature can help us focus on details we might otherwise miss and track changes in nature over the seasons and years. Nature journals can also remind us of our favorite experiences outdoors when we most need it. Many printed guides, apps, and websites are available to help with identification and to learn more about species (see a list of my favorite resources below).
The more we learn more about the natural world, the more clearly we can see our role in it, and the more likely we are to appreciate and protect our environment and our fellow travelers on this spinning blue marble.
© 2020 Pam Owen
Resources for enjoying and learning about nature
Below are just a few of the many, many resources available for identifying and learning about nature (those with asterisks offer identification through submitting photos):
Print field-guide series
Sibley Guides, for birds and trees
Peterson Field Guides, which cover a wide range of species
Kaufman Filed Guides, especially the butterfly guide
Stokes Field Guide, especially for bird ID and behavior
General: iNature* (plants, animals, fungi)
Birds: Sibley, iBird, Birdnet (identifies birds by sound), eBird (for submitting observations)
Plants: Flora of Virginia, Wildlflowers of Virginia, PlantSnap*