How to become a backyard naturalist

Collectively, humanity is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are all looking for safe activities to keep us busy. Even better if those activities can engage our minds, get us away from staring at our phones, and make us feel like we’ve DONE something.

I teach introductory biology at Mt. Hood Community College, so my colleagues and I have been thinking about what kinds of activities our students can do to learn from the natural world without going too far from home. Today I decided to have my students look for an example of sexual reproduction in nature, and built an assignment around what they observed. It’s spring, so there are plenty of flowers to be seen- this is not a big ask. I myself spend most of my outdoor time on walks around the neighborhood, admiring the flowering trees.

So how do you cross the threshold from casual admirer of nature to naturalist? All it takes is curiosity, and acting on that curiosity. Here are my tips for taking your outdoor time to that next level:

  1. When you go outside, bring a journal. Write down anything you observe that is interesting to you.
  2. Try to find living things that were not put there by humans. In cities a lot of plants are cultivated and not naturally occurring, but there are plenty of insects, birds, fungi, mammals, and others that have made the urban environment their home. Each time you go out, choose 3 species that you want to learn to identify, and if you can, take photos of them.
  3. Upload your photos to and get help identifying them!
  4. Compare your species to similar species, and notice similarities and differences that can help you tell them apart. Write these down in your journal.
  5. Repeat!

Global citizen science project

My iNaturalist project is up and running! I am collecting observations of coral-feeding nudibranchs, such as the one below. These awesome creatures often mimic their coral food, making them really difficult to find, but super cool looking! The more observations we have from around the world, the more we will know about where different species live and what types of corals they depend on. This information helps us study the evolutionary history of these diverse animals. Check it out here and share with anyone who spends time at coral reefs!