‘the naturalist’s notebook,’ with nathaniel wheelwright

I SUSPECT IF YOU read this website and listen to my podcast, you are already something of a naturalist, that is, someone attuned to and enthusiastic about the natural world. Perhaps like I am, though, you’re better at figuring out the who–like what bird or insect you just saw–but not always the why of what’s going on, or the intricate patterns unfolding year to year.

Whatever your current level of ID and interpretation skills, plan to sharpen them with help from Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, who is the Bass Professor of Natural Sciences at Bowdoin College in Maine, and co-author with biologist Bernd Heinrich of the new book, “The Naturalist’s Notebook,” which both teaches us to become closer observers and also provides a five-year calendar-journal for recording our observations.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 4, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). Plus: Comment in the box at the very bottom of the page for a chance to win a copy of the new book–and for information about where to enter to win other copies the publisher is offering, too. (Top of page: Bernd Heinrich’s illustration of golden-crowned kinglets in the nest, from the new book.)

q&a with nathaniel wheelwright



Q. Before we get started, I simply must ask, is the “T” in Nathaniel T. Wheelwright really for Thoreau?

A. It really is. I have to say, though, that my grandmother taught me that the family lore was that Thoreau pronounced it that particular pronunciation, THO-row rather than Tho-ROW. But yes, either way it is from Henry David Thoreau who never had any children; none of his siblings had children, but his Aunt Nancy was my grandmother’s great-great-grandmother.

Q. Wow. You were destined from birth for the woods, weren’t you? To investigate in nature, weren’t you?

A. I think I was. I’m the fifth of five boys. I have a younger sister. I think my parents tried various middle names to see if that would work. Anyway, I guess I was the lucky one that got the Thoreau.

Q. Oh, it’s wonderful. Well, I’m sorry I mispronounced it, but it won’t be the first thing I’ll probably mispronounce if we get into scientific words.

A. Well, you’re in very good company. If you go to lots of English classes, that’s how they pronounce it.

Q. My father used to say, “You have the accent on the wrong syl-LA-ble, Margaret.”

A. Oh, yes. That’s why he served you well. It smarted at the time, I’m sure.

Q. Yes. So, “The Naturalist’s Notebook” came at just the right time for me, and it’s already become a favorite gift that I’ve been giving, both for adult friends and also for some young naturalists-to-be, young friends who I’m encouraging to spend more time outdoors. It really combines guidance from you and your co-author—and with lots of his charming illustrations, by the way. There’s also this sort of hefty, gridded, chart-like journaling space at the back to cover five years. Tell us about why you created it that way and why you want us to write things down.

A. Well, it was about 30 years ago that my sister-in-law, Tory Stevens, happened to send my wife and me a handmade calendar-journal that she had produced to keep track of vegetables in their garden, when she planted and when she harvested. It was a simple idea. It was spiral-bound with five days of the month across the top on each page, so open flat it was 10 days, and then 10 years down the left-hand side–a grid of 100 little boxes, 10 days and 10 years.

We started paying attention to our garden. That’s, after all, how she had entitled this gift. But then I also noticed when the first robin appeared in the spring, and when wood frogs were singing from our pond, and when a moose passed by our backyard. I realized that I could use it as a way of just teaching myself about the rhythm of nature.

So, that’s how it started. After 10 years, I wrote her and said, “Tory, would you make me another one?” and I filled that up. I’m right on my third 10-year natural history calendar. So, I thought, “Well, gee, I should make this technique more available to more people, because it’s really worked for me.” It’s been a tremendous teaching tool.

Q. It’s wonderful. It’s funny you say about the wood frog [above], because I know in my backyard very early, even before everything is unfrozen, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a wood frog.

A. Exactly.

Q. But I’ve never written down the exact dates, and I regretted that. In reading “The Naturalist’s Notebook,” it kind of feels like, “Oh, why didn’t I write down every year that I’ve been here what date that was?”

A. Well, start today.

Q. Yes.

A. Thirty years will fly by and then you’ll really have a sense of it. The really nice thing about recording it that way is that if you want to know when red-winged blackbirds appeared or when your daffodils appeared, you can answer that question over really a 10, 20, 30-year span and it takes you about two minutes, less than that.

Q. Right, just scan the grid.

A. Just by scanning the grid. Especially if you kind of circle things that interest you in particular that you’re following. So, that’s really been the gift for me at this kind of journaling, to make it really easy to put the stuff in there but also really easy to pull it out and to start to see some sense in nature.

Q. Near the start of the book, you describe your favorite course of all to teach at Bowdoin, called Advanced Winter Field Ecology, and how each week you focus out in the field with the students about one natural-history question, but a very focused one, and you apply a simple set of skills to looking together for an answer. I wondered if you could tell us how that works, because you’re advocating that that’s a good way for us to be thinking as budding naturalists.

A. Well, I’ve always found it immensely satisfying to know the names of plants and animals, but even more satisfying is to have a sense of the how and the why behind their biology. Often, if you want to go beyond simple taxonomy or naming things it requires kind of formulating a question in your head, maybe a hypothesis, perhaps doing an experiment, a simple little manipulation to see if your idea makes sense or not. So I actually designed an entire semester course around the idea of focusing on a single question that you’re just curious about. It doesn’t have to be a question whose answer will save the world, but something that just enriches how you look at nature.

I guess there’s a second part of this course I should mention, this Advanced Winter Ecology course. I’m at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and as you can probably appreciate, we have long and ferocious winters. A lot of people I meet kind of go into mental hibernation between October and April. They just assume that nothing interesting is happening out in the biological world, and I wanted to show my students and other people that actually there’s just fantastic biology. The colder, the better, because that’s often when animals reveal to you, and plants too, their adaptations for surviving the winter.

So, what we do the way this course is structured is every Friday, the students meet at 8:30. I tell them not to phone me or email me about whether or not we’re going out, because the answer is we are going out, regardless of the weather. We go and collect data, that is, just make some measurements or observations, or do some manipulations and record carefully what we’re seeing for three hours, four hours. We come back for lunch and thawing out, and then we regroup in the afternoon and look over the numbers, look over the sketches, have discussions and arguments. Then the students pull together everything they’ve learned from that morning’s really intense focus on one small question, like do mosses grow on the south side of trees more than on the north side of the faces of trees?

Then they end the day by actually doing a scientific presentation, an actual seminar in effect, to showcase their results. So, by the time we say goodbye at 5 o’clock, we’ve had one long, intense day, but I can assure you the students and I will never forget what we’ve learned in that day.

Q. So, you give these 10 guidelines in the book for becoming an observant naturalist. There are a couple that I want to dig into, but I thought we’ll tick off the list quickly and then dig into those couple. The first one may seem obvious, but I think in this busy world sometimes we forget to indulge ourselves. It’s to cultivate curiosity, that’s step one, yes?

A. Yes. It’s a habit. You can be a curious person or a person who’s so wrapped up in your busy day that you don’t notice things around you. So, I just try to put a few speed bumps into my day. If I’m going out the garbage can to the side of the road, I’ll often set it down halfway and take a look at the leaves that are just bursting out of a bud, and see are they folded? Are they pleated? Are they coiled?

Q. You mentioned kind of the second thing on this list of 10, to learn the name and taxonomy of plants and animals around you. That’s one that you’re recommending. [Above, from the book, various Saturniidae moth caterpillars.]

A. Yes. I think if we’re having a conversation and we don’t really have as much of a vocabulary, it’s sort of a limited conversation. So, one of the first steps is simply to go beyond calling it a thing, or a plant, or a tree, or a shrub…

Q. A bug.

A. Or a bug, for all things that move around and are sort of creepy. No, how much more interesting if you realize it really is a bug? I love it when someone says, “There’s a bug,” and they’re right, it’s…

Q. It is a true bug.

A. It is a true bug.

Q. Uh-huh. So, we’re going to really get acquainted, and then the third step is become familiar with their basic ecology. So, learn a little bit more about their life history kind of, and what they do?

A. Exactly. Where they’re found, what they eat, what eats them, how they’re affected by the weather, what season they’re likely to be found in. So, a good ornithologist or really any birder with any experience, when he or she walks into a particular forest, a pine forest or a broad-leaf tree forest, really already knows what birds are likely to be found just from knowing basic ecology.

Q. Mm-hmm. So, you recommend, speaking of knowledgeable ornithologists, you recommend on your list of 10 guidelines that we go on walks with experts and we take notes, and we ask how and why questions. [Above, from the book, yellow-bellied sapsucker handiwork on a birch trunk, and a ruby-throated hummingbird drinking from the sap wells.]

A. Yes. So, there are a lot of groups of plants and animals that are easy to teach yourself. I would say birds are kind of like that, and flowers perhaps, and trees, and butterflies, but there are others that are really quite difficult. Some very small things or things like mosses or lichens are difficult for me, so if I find an expert who knows that and who will allow me to walk behind them with a pencil and a little notepad, boy, I’ll take notes and have them download everything they know. As far as the how and the why questions, again, that’s going beyond just what’s the name of this, but learning something about its ecology and how it might have evolved.

Q. Yes. You described already kind of in your anecdote about your students and what you’re doing, that the next guideline is scrutinize, touch, smell, listen, measure—you said measuring. So, we’re looking really more closely and we’re taking our time to get as much information out of each observation.

A. Yes. I think when you actually touch things or smell things or taste things, which I do with caution…

Q. I know you’re a daring man. [Laughter.]

A. No, I think you’d be surprised what you can eat, as long as it’s in moderation, like anything else. You can always spit it out if it doesn’t taste good, but then as Thoreau said, “At least you know it by experience, and you can give a true account of it.”

the 10 guidelines

HERE ARE the 10 guidelines from “The Naturalist’s Notebook” that Nat Wheelwright says have been essential for his own growth as a naturalist:

  • Cultivate curiosity
  • Learn the name and taxonomy of plants and animals around you
  • Become familiar with their basic ecology
  • Go on walks w/experts and take notes
  • Ask how and why questions
  • Scrutinize, touch, smell, listen, measure
  • Conduct simple experiments
  • Teach others
  • Analyze your observations
  • Put knowledge into action

Q. So, there’s that, and then I wanted to just mention the eighth, ninth, and 10th ones, because the one I want to really dip into is the one before that, which is to conduct simple experiments. But let’s first just mention that you recommend that we teach others and we analyze our observations and put our knowledge into action.

A. Well, being a teacher is one way to become a learner, so it’s somewhat of a selfish reason often that I teach, because it’s a great way to learn.

Analyze your observations: That’s really the step that most people maybe aren’t used to, but it is where some true deeper learning comes from, where you make recordings of things that you see in nature but then revisit them, pull them out, and scrutinize your observations, the way you would scrutinize a leaf or an insect.

As far as putting knowledge into action, goodness knows we have a world whose environment is feeling a lot of pressure and strain, so if you see an opportunity through observations in your own backyard of how climate is changing, or how species that used to be common you’re just not seeing it anymore, well then, there’s your call to action. Take your knowledge and put it into action.

Q. So the one I loved was “conduct simple experiments.” I think if I told you some of mine I would be embarrassing myself, because they’re too crazy for words.

A. Oh, go for it.

Q. Well, I’m obsessed with moths the last few years.

A. Oh, lovely.

Q. So, mostly I  just go out with my camera in the dark. I met 183 species in my yard so far.

A. Oh, wow.

Q. I’m sure there are over 1,000 based on historic records, but anyway…

A. So, you’re going for the micromoths, aren’t you?

Q. Well, I would have to start to go to the little guys more and more now. I’ve gotten a lot of the big guys.

A. Yes, cool.

Q. But that’s not really an experiment, that’s just observation and then trying to figure who they are and what they’re doing there, and what do they eat and who eats them. (A lot of times the adults don’t eat anything.)

Anyway, burying beetles, sexton beetles. Again, I wonder how could I have turned this into an experiment: Years ago I saw back legs and the tail of a chipmunk sticking up out of the soil [photo of it, above]. Now, I had not put it there and I was kind of horrified at first. It seemed very creepy. Then I thought, “But what is this?” Then I watched and watched and watched, and it was moving. It finally disappeared the rest of the way. From that point on, I started every time I’d have a mouse in a trap in the cellar, I’d put it at that same spot. Sure enough, guess who?

A. Right? Wonderful.

Q. I feed them. Sorry, I’m a little crazy. So, how could I have made these kind of observations [into experiments]? Or again out looking at moths,  I also found bristletails, these tiny, primitive insects; they’re wingless. I’m like, “Well, what could be an experiment about …” Do you know what I mean? I have observations, but … It doesn’t have to be about those, but if you could just give us sort of some examples.

A. Sure. Well, since you mentioned the corpses of rodents, I have to tell you just wonderful story about Bernd Heinrich, my co-author on the book who is such a spectacular natural scientist. By natural scientist, I mean it comes so naturally to him to be a scientist.

I was visiting him. We were chatting about the book I guess at his log cabin in Weld, Maine. I looked out the window because I saw something moving and I realized, “Oh, he’s got a bird feeder.” I noticed a chickadee go down. Then I saw that it was actually not seed he’d put out for them, but he’d actually put out some dead mice that he had snapped in his cabin. The chickadees I realized were landing on the mice and plucking the fur to line their nests.

Q. Yes, they do.

A. So, that’s an experiment that’s a little bit like yours.

Q. O.K., so that is. I do this in the winter, I put the mice out under the bird feeder and blue jays take them and squirrels take them. I have seen birds try to take the fur off like you’re describing.

A. Yes.

Q. O.K., so that’s an experiment. Oh boy, I can pat myself on the shoulder now that I’m experimenting.

A. Sure. Then of course you can, depending upon what your interest is, if you want to get inside the heads of bristletails or chickadees or blue jays, you can say, “Well, what happens if I hide them with a big oak leaf?” Put an oak leaf over the dead mouse. How long does it take for them to find it? What cues are they using? Are they possibly using a sense of smell?

Q. Oh, O.K.

A. So, now you’re making different sorts of discoveries. If I change the location by 10 feet, does it slow them down? If I do it by 20 feet, does it slow them down? Kind of find where that critical point is where they no longer can find something. It’s a pathway to get into the minds of animals, which is a pleasurable place to be.

Q. I see, O.K. Oh, this is so helpful. Now people already think I’m mad as a hatter, so … [laughter]. But that’s O.K., I guess.

A. I don’t. I want you to know I don’t.

Q. Your co-author, he wrote the book “Life Everlasting,” which included the sexton beetles, or the burying beetles, of course.

A. Yes.

Q. Which was fun for me, because I already loved them and I didn’t know much about them and there they were in there. So, that was exciting.

A. They’re colorful, lovely—some of the handsomest beetles we have in North America.

Q. Yes. Now, like crows, I think one of you mention in the book about if you hear crows making a ruckus, go look what’s happening, you know?

A. Right.

Q. Because there’s usually some reason; there’s something happening?

A. Yes, almost certainly. They may have a barred owl treed and they’re mobbing it, or it may be two different family groups that have come into conflict. That’s kind of what I mean about setting up some speed bumps in your life and cultivating curiosity. You’re probably rushing out because you’ve got to be somewhere, but when you hear that cacophony of crows, pause for just a moment. Maybe deviate and go take a walk and see what they’re doing. Then you can get on with your day, but now you will have learned something.

Q. You have a long history, I believe, of studying the Savannah sparrow, yes?

A. Yes.

Q. Should we amateurs really specialize in something, or should we be generalists? I think you stressed in the book the importance of becoming familiar with our most common local species, and I’m afraid in our world today everybody wants rare, rare, rare, maybe at the expense of that we don’t honor the familiar sometimes. We’re in a rush to get to the rarity, you know?

A. Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess I’m really not that way. I think I would be just as happy spending an afternoon really closely watching an American robin poke around, and pulling earthworms up and feeding on beetles on my lawn. So, I guess I’m as interested in delving a little more deeply into the common, and I don’t really need to tick off rarities, I guess. But if you are interested in rarities, which I think is also interesting … I confess, if there’s a rare bird not far from where I live I’ll go look it up.

Q. I know, yes.

A. I won’t lie. But the way to detect rarities is to kind of get a muscle memory for the common species, that is to know them so intimately, so completely, that something that’s not common just screams out at you.

So, that’s why I tell people really pay attention to the dozen different sounds and songs that robins make, and the calls during the different parts of the day. Same with the chickadees and the blue jays. Once you have those down, when you have that unusual red-headed woodpecker that shows up, it will be really conspicuous to you.

Q. Oh, O.K. So, it’s knowing your familiar palette—whether of the sounds or the actual physical appearance of the birds—something different is really going to stand out.

A. Yes.

Q. O.K. I wanted to ask, I have little water gardens and that kind of changed everything in my little world–the little part of the world that I spend most of my time in. Water is so important and seems to diversify a space–everybody seems to come visit the water. Are there little experiments or observations—because I think a lot of gardeners may have water gardens—are there experiments that could … what should I be looking for? I’ve noticed a lot of different insects, for instance—dobsonflies, and caddisflies, and fishflies and stoneflies–things that I guess use water to reproduce. Is there anything about water? I don’t think it’s in the book, but it was a stray question.

A. Well, it’s interesting you mention that. I don’t know if this is what you have in mind, but I’m reminded of an experiment I encouraged my son to do when he was in science class in sixth grade or something. They had to do an experiment, and I said, “Oh, Alex, you’re going to win the class award for the best experiment. We’re going to chase caddisfly nymphs out of their little cases and make them naked, but then give them a choice of different colored paper to reconstruct cases.”

So, there’s an aquatic insect where we did an experiment. Sure enough, they did choose paper, but it turned out it was random. Still, we got inside their heads and it turned out they didn’t have any color preferences, but at least we learned that they didn’t have color preferences. [How caddisfly larvae create portable protective cases of various materials–even small stone.]

Q. I wouldn’t have known to ask them about that. Oh, it’s so fascinating.

So it must be fun having the book out now. Are you going around and presenting and sharing it, and getting a good response?

A. Yes, quite a bit in Maine in particular, but yes, you can imagine for a teacher, the happiest kind of feedback you can get is when people come up to me and say, “Oh my gosh, I’m looking at my backyard in a whole new way.” So, that’s why we did it. Bernd Heinrich and I are giving 100 percent of the royalties to conservation and environmental education, so this is very much a labor of love for us. It’s what our careers have been, and we’re kind of at that stage of our careers where we want to give back as much as we can. It’s just nothing but a pleasure to hear people enjoy looking at his beautiful artwork and reading the book.

Q. And making notations in the book.

A. And empowering themselves to become naturalists and teachers and citizen-scientists.

Q. Well, I promise you I have some young naturalists in training who have their books and we’re ready to go. We can’t wait for the New Year; we’re starting at the New Year, so thank you, thank you.

A. Oh, super. Why are you waiting till the New Year? Start today.

Q. I don’t know. One of the 10-year-olds, that’s what he said, so I said, “O.K., let’s do it.”

A. Good. Well, he can start on scratchpads until then.

a series of short videos, from nat wheelwright

NATANIEL WHEELWRIGHT of Bowdoin College has created a series of short videos called “Nature Moments” that you might enjoy, including the one above explaining why leaves change colors in fall–and how each different color has a different purpose or explanation. You can find all other the “Nature Moments” at this link.

enter to win ‘the naturalist’s notebook’

I’LL BUY a copy of “The Naturalist’s Notebook” by Nathaniel Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich for one lucky reader. (A link to enter to win to win five other copies up for grabs from the publisher is just below, too.) All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, by answering this question:

Is there something particular outdoors you’d like to understand more about–some unanswered question or just an organism (whether plant, animal, or insect) of special interest that you’d like to learn to explore with a sharper eye?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. A random winner will be chosen after entries close at midnight Sunday Dec. 17, 2017. Good luck to all. US only.

PLUS: The publisher of “The Naturalist’s Notebook” is offering a giveaway of five signed copies now, too–so after you comment here, go to this link and enter their contest as well.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 4, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Illustrations from “The Naturalist’s Notebook” by co-author Bernd Heinrich, used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Karen says:

    This kind of observation is so appealing. I do it, but haphazardly. I would appreciate the guidance. I’ve always wanted to be a backyard naturalist. Count me in. Thanks.

  2. Great discussion! Personally, I’d like to develop the patience to sit outside with the various birds to learn which call belongs to which bird. As it is, I know only a few: cardinal, bluejay, hawk. There are so many others in the woods out here to be learned.

  3. David Squires says:

    I don’t get to garden much these days. Sometimes I help friends with their gardens. Two questions. 1) Why, when there are no clouds, is the sky? and 2) Why is the sun’s light so much brighter than artificial lighting? To my eye they seem the same, but plants seem to crave sunlight or special artificial light that is up close and personal.

  4. Carolyn says:

    Every day I am outside I notice something new that makes me curious. My husband and I have collected many books on various nature subjects that have helped us i.d. plants, birds, insects, etc. But they do not always give us the answer as to the whys of what we experience. Every year I make notations on the calendar of the first snow, and first Snowbird, as well as sightings of various birds, etc. Therefore, I know we would love to have this book/journal by Nathaniel Thoreau Wheelwright. Here’s one of my wonders: I am curious as to whether insects can hear a human voice?

  5. Judith McKnight says:

    I enjoyed your pod cast on being a naturalist. When I moved from Texas to North Dakota nature was so different and fascinating . I did Cornell’s Feeder Watch. When I arrived in North Dakota it was a whole new experience. Just fascinating to learn about new birds and plants.

  6. GreenJean says:

    I never heard about the burying beetles!! Creepy…but, cool!…?
    The Naturalist’s Notebook sounds wonderful– thanks for introducing it to me!
    Thank you for your sensational gardening (& other great inpirational topics) podcast– I have loved every one of them!

  7. My husband and I have been counting bats for Conserve Wildlife (NJ) coming out of the church we live opposite for many years. We have also been asking questions about where they go in the winter. We were able to place a recording device in the basement of the church to see if some of them went to this part of the church over the winter months, and we were also wondering about some of our local caves, and if they could be places for these bats to go. Thank you for this wonderful giveaway.

  8. Lisa says:

    Such a wonderful topic and discussion! When I am outside I seem to notice and become curious about many things and always think that (hopefully) someone, somewhere is studying this.

  9. Charla says:

    I see signs around my town about watersheds, as in: you are now entering the ( ) watershed. They have various names, all connected to creeks. What’s a watershed? How is a creek different from a river? Are there creeks and/or rivers below ground? If so, what factors make them below or above? ??

  10. Sherry says:

    Where I live we have a lot of gophers. I mostly plant in wire baskets so my garden will not be eaten. Even though I mildly curse the critters I respect them and wonder what their purpose undergroundl really is. I do notice that the soil mounds they push up are nice and loose and I often collect it to use when putting in new plants.

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