how to become a naturalist

Last Updated on January 19, 2023

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how to become a naturalist

How To Be A Naturalist The Easy Way

Here’s a simple promise…

Look outside your front door and you will quickly discover a world of adventure, excitement, inspiration and discovery.

​For thousands of years people have studied this incredible sphere of life, death and cycles of organic and inorganic energy, yet we have only barely scratched the surface of everything there is to learn.

Most of the world’s wisest scientists, philosophers & leaders have looked to nature as a source of knowledge…

​So what would happen if you could learn to understand the world of plants, trees and animals on a deeper level?

We already know that nature based education can inspire brilliant minds… so in today’s article let’s go a bit deeper and discuss some important ideas about how to actually become a naturalist in the easiest way possible.

Maybe you already know you want to explore your local environment on a deeper level… so how will you actually do it?

The most important thing when it comes to developing naturalist skills is that you need to put in “dirt time” (or time in the field). You need to get outside frequently and explore nature.

What makes naturalist skills challenging is when people believe there are specific rules for what you need to learn 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

But that’s actually the hard way to become a naturalist…

So What Is The Easy Way To Be A Naturalist?

In one word… Options.

In my experience developing naturalist skills is much easier when you have lots of options for how to conduct your studies.

This is because some days you might be drawn to learning about birds. While other days you might be more interested in plants.

​Experience has also shown me that people who study both plants AND birds are able to learn much more deeply and quickly than those who only study plants or birds in isolation.

This also enables you to shake things up. You can do a little bit with plants one day and then spend some time looking at trees or weather the next.

The really cool thing is that each different area of naturalist study will also give you insights and build skills for going deeper with the other areas of nature study.

​For example… practicing observation with weather will make you better at observing birds (and likewise with everything else).

​Having options for how you study nature keeps things exciting because you get to “choose your own adventure”.

Here are some reflection questions to help you choose your next outdoor adventure:

  • What am I excited to learn outside?
  • What would be easy for me to do in the amount of time I have?
  • What would be easy for me to do in the locations I have nearby?
  • What areas of nature study am I most passionate about?
  • What areas of nature study have I not done in awhile?

If you ever get stuck and unable to go deeper in a particular area of naturalist curricullum… simply take a break and go study something else for awhile!

For the rest of this article I wanted to offer you a list of options for exciting naturalist activities that you can choose from.

​Next time you want to grow your naturalist skills… just take a look at this list and choose something that feels easy to you, and have fun out there!

Building Your Identification Skills

Identification skills are one of the most basic yet important parts of being a successful naturalist.

Often the plants, birds & trees have very interesting stories to tell… yet part of being able to read those stories comes from whether or not you know what you’re actually looking at.

The basics of plant and tree identification are fairly easy to learn, but applying that knowledge to the many thousands of plants, birds and trees does take time, so remember to be patient with yourself.

Try collecting leaves, flowers, or anything else you might have trouble identifying. It’s a good idea to start by getting a local field guide and learning any potentially hazardous plants like poison ivy or poison oak (Don’t collect poisonous plants!)

Plant Identification Articles:
5 Tips For When You Need Help Identifying Plants
How to identify an herb of the parsley family

Learning To Track Wildlife

Tracking is one of my favorite ways to make naturalist skills practical.

Imagine going out on a landscape and using nothing but your knowledge and awareness of the land to local animals and learn about their lives.

Another reason I love tracking is that it builds problem solving and critical thinking skills.

I truly believe that if we taught tracking to elementary students then the world would be a lot smarter and tuned into the environment.

​Tracking will awaken a love for learning about nature and provide you with hours of excitement and discovery.

Wildlife Tracking Articles:
​How to track animals in the woods
Cat and dog paw prints: How to tell the difference

Observing Animals In Their Natural Habitat

Every time you observe an animal you learn something new. In fact, up until recent history this was pretty much the only way people learned about wildlife.

Animals will show you amazing things about their diet, survival strategies, movement patterns if you simply take the time to watch.

Often these observation won’t even be recorded in books. You could be the first naturalist to observe something new about a local animal’s diet.

Animals will also teach you other things about the landscape by watching how common squirrels & rabbits interact with plants, trees & birds.

Wildlife Observation Articles:
​How to see more animals
How to stalk animals (and not get caught)

Edible & Medicinal Plant Knowledge

Once you know the basics of plant identification… now it becomes possible for you to start learning about the uses of plants.

​Using plants in your daily life is a great way to increase your knowledge and benefit from nature in very practical ways.

It’s one thing to recognize a plant outside… but it’s a whole other level to actually use that plant on a routine basis for food or medicine.

Edible Plant Resources:
​30 day wild food challenge
What can dandelions be used for?

Listening To The Language Of Birds

You can’t call yourself a naturalist unless you know a few things about birds.

Birds have a natural draw and appeal to lots of people. They’re common, fun to observe and also easy to locate.

Many people don’t realize that birds also communicate messages that can be heard and understood by the astute naturalist.

I’ve used bird language to locate water, survival food resources and even the movements of predators like owls, hawks & wild cats by listening for bird alarms.

Bird Language Articles:
How bird language changed my life
2 simple types of communication between birds
​How to find owls with bird language

Seeking Deeper Awareness

When all else fails remember this…

“Being a naturalist is simply about being aware of nature.”

The one routine that I consider to be most important is having a place outside where you can sit and observe nature on a regular basis.

I’ve spent literally thousands of hours sitting quietly & watching nature happen. I still practice to this day in my backyard. It’s not the most epic wilderness in the world but it’s a great place to practice watching & listening.

It doesn’t matter where you live or how much experience you have… everyone has eyes and ears. You simply need to use them.

​Awareness Articles:
​8 best sensory awareness exercises
​Easy guide to nature observation
6 Nature Awareness Questions To Help You Tune With Nature
How To Keep A Nature Journal

Reading The Land Like A Pro

Another important part of being a naturalist is learning to see how everything fits together. This is one of the most under-practiced and unappreciated aspects of understanding nature.

Have you ever noticed that different parts of a landscape have different qualities and characteristics?

  • A forest that grows on the north side of a hill will be very different from a forest that grows on the south side.
  • You find different trees, plants, and animals living in different types of forests depending on their particular needs.
  • Each landscape has points of accumulation for resources and wildlife (like water in a desert)

I created a video to explain some of the most common landscape patterns to look for next time you go outside. Register for the forest secrets video training and you’ll get instant free access.

Being A Landscape Historian

One of the best ways to be a better naturalist is by understanding the land in it’s historical context.

​Nature based cultures often had deep relationships to plants, trees and animals that are still relevant in modern times.

Think about how people would have used your landscape hundreds or thousands of years ago…

  • Can you find evidence of historical usage by looking at water ways or old piles of stones that once were walls?
  • What can you learn about the traditional people who lived in your part of the world?
  • What stories and myths can you find with lessons about navigation, weather prediction, important trees, animals and plant uses? ​
  • How did traditional movement patterns and seasonal routines reflect the layout of the land?

For example, here in Nova Scotia I discovered that a common pattern for people living close to nature was to spend summers near the ocean where they could benefit from an abundance of seafood.

Then during winter they moved inland to the forests where there would be more shelter and easy conditions to hunt moose in deep snow.

There was an entire oral tradition of stories and symbols that make great practical sense in the context of the environment in this part of the world.

Articles that deal with land history:
Natural navigation techniques: how to not get lost in the woods
How to connect with nature
Landscape Ecology Secrets For Backyard Naturalists

Filed Under: Articles, Naturalist Training, Nature Connection

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