Naturalist in the City

Kamana in the city

I find it amusing that I’m sometimes labeled an “urbanite.” It’s amusing because I’d never label myself that way. Why? Because not two days before writing these words, I was sitting on my back deck at dusk and a white-tailed buck sauntered across my yard within 20 feet of me while in the hollow oak behind me I could hear the purring of baby raccoons waking up. That doesn’t sound very urban to me, yet I understand why that label might seem appropriate. My little city has 12,000 people in it. The city where I work has 136,000 people living in it. The city I do the majority of my shopping in has 179,000 people living in it. If I expand out to the entire region, there are 1,671,000 people within a geographical area of maybe 30 miles. Wow, that’s a lot of heads to count.

With so many people in the area, you’d think that nature would be hard to find, but you’d be wrong. This area seems to value its trees, verges, and green areas, so habitat, while small, is still available for wildlife. It was in this spotty habitat environment that I began studying the core routines of awareness that Wilderness Awareness School teaches.

I’ve taken what these core routines have taught me into environments like downtown Washington, D.C. and San Antonio, Texas, manicured housing associations in suburbia, and dense urban housing areas in the city. To this day I can honestly say I’ve never been in an environment that was totally sanitized of nature. Some elements of nature may be pushed back, but many other elements of nature have simply adapted and remain available for study.

To access nature in a densely populated area, you have to shift your mindset from the blur of city pace and learn to slow yourself down to the pace of nature. You have to learn how to filter out the cacophony of noise and tune into the sounds that nature makes. During those times when the city’s noise makes that impossible, you have to tune your eyes to see movement that’s not associated with its surroundings. But how do you accomplish all that? Let’s explore a little.

Slowing Time

It seems that everybody’s life is rush, rush, rush. It constantly feels like time’s running out and we’re always running up against the clock. There is time pressure everywhere, but if you look around, you’ll notice that the only animals rushing around are humans; every other creature is going through its’ day at a more leisurely pace. Why do you think that is?

The number one rule of the natural world is energy conservation, and the only time I really see that rule ignored is when young are born and parents are trying like mad to keep them fed. So the first thing you need to do is acknowledge that the speed we’re used to running at is out of sync with the natural world. If you’re going to observe nature in the city, you are going to need a mechanism to switch between nature’s time and city time.

That mechanism is found at your Sit Spot. Your Sit Spot should be helping you with patience and calmness, and as you observe whatever creatures pass by, you should be studying them. One of the elements that I study is the pace of activity. The majority of animals, when they’re not playing or feeling threatened, maintain a generally relaxed pace of activity. When you watch this natural pace, it just feels right. If you try and replicate that “just right” pace for yourself, you’ll discover it to be about a quarter of your normal speed. As an urban person, it may take a while to get used to such slow speeds, but as your success with walking observation increases, so will your comfort level with nature’s time.

I know I’m going at my “just right” pace when I can comfortably walk with Owl Eyes on the horizon and have no fear of tripping. Once you’ve tuned into the pace that’s just right for you, you’ll find it remarkably easy to go from city pace to your just-right pace in an instant and then go right back again to city pace. That ability to quickly sync to the pace of nature when something catches your attention will allow you to access nature as you find it while the rest of the folks around you obliviously walk right by. Those students who have practiced medicine driver successfully will find that the momentary slowdown of your pace is all you need to acknowledge the natural being that caught your attention.

City Filters

City filters come in two categories – sight, and sound. My first go-to is always sound. While I’m wandering around, I’m always listening for nature, particularly buzzing, rustling, and bird language. Where my Sit Spot is located, there is leaf litter and pine needles so I’ve become very familiar with rustling and buzzing coming from the ground. Because the creatures that live or work in the leaf litter only show themselves briefly, I’ve gotten used to always turning to that sound because it could mean a lizard, a wasp, a spider, a shrew, any number of birds, or a larger mammal creeping along. The productivity of turning to those sounds must be in the high 70—80% range.

Knowing bird language is highly useful for me as well. Where I live, you can’t see very far ahead in any direction, so I rely heavily on bird language to tell me if there’s something interesting to see. Begging calls in the spring and alarm calls the entire year are the most productive for me. If you hear begging calls and you face the direction of the sound, it won’t be more than a few seconds before you see mama dropping out of the nest to continue hunting. This is how I locate nests in the springtime.

Alarm calls are very useful because the alarmed bird’s vantage point is normally much higher than mine. I know they can see things in the distance that I cannot, so my first response is always the same. I concentrate on identifying who is alarming and try and see their posture. This tells me what direction to look in. The key to exploiting bird calls that lead to other animals is, in my opinion, multi-bird or multi-species alarms. These two, three, or four alarm “fires” are all the evidence I need to investigate, and many times I’ve been able to see the culprit that caused all the commotion. In suburbia, people think you’re a magician when you predict the cat stalking the bird feeder.

But what if the noise is so loud that I can’t hear the rustling or the songs of the birds? In these instances, I tend to keep my eyes open for unusual movement. A bird flying very quickly and erratically (that’s not a Swallow) is almost always being followed by a predatory bird. Large birds and small birds flying together will many times show that the bigger bird is getting chased off. The movement of tall grasses, plant stems, or shrub branches will indicate something moving around. A rapid-then-stop movement around the edge of a garden or building in the late spring and throughout summer can indicate a toad, a frog, a lizard, or any number of other small creatures trying to go unseen.

I also use shapes very heavily. Shapes, that are incongruous to the scene I’m expecting to see, catch my attention. I will admit that this hasn’t been as accurate as the other techniques. Frequently I think I see something that turns out to be a piece of trash or some other innocuous object. On the other hand, I will also say that this technique has turned up the most interesting sightings I’ve had. For example, I learned from an out of place shape that a Great Blue Heron will hunt mice and shrew in the field (that was an eye-opener). In fact, it’s these kinds of out-of-place shapes that have caused me to question several range maps. I’ve seen bobcats where they shouldn’t be, gray fox where they shouldn’t be, and coyotes where they shouldn’t be. Not to mention finding fascinating skeletal remains, and secretive creatures hunting or bathing in or near a water source.

If you’re struggling to find medicinal and edible plants to study in the urban environment, the “look-for-shapes-technique” will also help here. Most people consider these kinds of plants as weeds so look for un-kept areas like vacant lots and places that haven’t been mown recently. These “weeds” will look different than grass or clover and will quickly grow in un-kept areas. The overgrowth may only need to be as little as 3 inches before you see the telltale signs that help you identify medicinal and edible plants.

So there you have it; a few of the techniques I’ve used to experience nature when the world of man calls me away from my home. They are all about being alert to the many clues that nature leaves us and then following your hunches to see if they’re founded. For example, a hole ten feet up in the side of that oak tree; who might live in that hole? How can I find out?

We amateur naturalists know that everything is connected so if you can’t find animals — look at herbs, if you can’t find herbaceous plants — look at trees, and never forget our brothers the indicator species because they’re not only interesting but they’re also food for other beings. The key is to follow your curiosity. Remember this is all about exploring, discovery, and enjoying yourself while growing your knowledge as a naturalist.

Lastly, it’s okay that you don’t see or discover something every single time you try. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve sat in my Sit Spot, knowing the myriad of animals out there, and seen not a single one. The miles I’ve walked in search of a plant I know should be present but can’t find. None of that bothers me, nor should it bother you, because if you’ve been practicing your routines faithfully, when the things of nature do show themselves, you most assuredly will see them long before anybody else does.

P.S. Remember in urban areas, animals may very well behave contradictory to your nature guides. The day walkers may become twilight walkers and twilight walkers may become nighttime walkers. What’s your plan for finding out who’s working what shift in your neighborhood?

Wilderness Awareness School