How to start learn your flora and fauna... anywhere!
Now we already mentioned this in 10 steps towards your career in wildlife conservation (AND 8 steps to take today to step into your dream career) but honestly, there’s nothing more impressive than showing up as a volunteer on a survey with a good idea of the flora and fauna that occur there – and even better if you know how to identify a few of them already…
When you’re out with a student and they say,
“Is that Banksia dentata?” or “is there a chance we’ll catch Pseudomys nanus here?”
It’s like *jaw drop* *dang! girl*
It’s not difficult shit – but that “taking the extra step” mentality screams to me *get that superstar a job… now!*
As an ecologist, you are usually hired for your knowledge of bigger-picture processes, survey methods and broader-scale habitat-related information. However, so often people will ask you –
“You’re an ecologist right, what’s this?” “what’s this?” “what’s this?”
Even if it’s the first time you’ve visited a place!
There are so many thousands of taxa in any given area which can discourage people from learning their flora and fauna – the undertaking feels too massive.
It’s ok not to know everything. But you’ll be surprised how far “knowing something” will get you. And the sooner you start, and the more time you give to it, the better you will become.
The formula (if you want one):
start + regular time commitment = knowledge at “nature guru” level
Once upon a time, I was scared about doing a massive drive across Australia in a short time period. As I aired my fears, my housemate asked –
“Susie, how do you eat an elephant?”
I looked at him, surprised. He said –
“One bite at a time”.
Weird I know, but that advice has stuck with me for a long time now and I use it whenever I feel I am faced with what seem like impossibly large tasks. How do you tackle it? Break it down into manageable “bite-sized” pieces. And slowly, surely you will “eat your elephant” (metaphorically, of course!)
This advice was practically made for learning your flora and fauna – especially in areas with rich biodiversity. We have compiled 13 tips for getting started:
- Just start
- Regular time commitment
- Get familiar with the species (in theory)
- Get experience with the species (in the field)
- The nitty gritty specifics.
- Keep track of your progress.
- Commit to plants
- Start local
- Join a local wildlife group
- Buy a pair of binoculars.
- “Spend time with experts in the field”
- Take the pressure off yourself
- Enjoy exploring the natural world in a different language: latin!
So, let’s jump into it!
1. Just start.
Start with the most common things you see around you and build from there. You might be surprised at how many cross overs there are once you get into it.
2. Regular time commitment.
I used to study the species lists of places in areas I wanted to work for 15-30min a day as a manifestation. While it sounds extreme, it served me well.
Creating a habit and making something a part of your daily or weekly routine is a sure way to make it a priority, and incorporate it as a part of your identity.
For example, I always wanted to be a “knowledgeable ecologist”, an “expert in my field”. I thought to myself, how would someone become this? And things I came up with were: spend time each day learning my species, improve on identifying birds and frogs by call, read research papers and other documents about the habitat we were working in, and so on.
By committing regular time to these activities, they slowly became part of my identity – and the species identification came so seamlessly that I no longer needed to maintain these habits.
Just an idea – of course, do what works for you.
3. Get familiar with the species (in theory)
A great general starting point is to find a “species list” for an area or habitat which has “all the possibilities”. You can then look more specifically within this list and work through these options until you have a good general idea of what’s around.
Using a local species list in tandem with field guides is a great way to “put names to faces”.
4. Get experience with the species (in the field)
Get out there and put your knowledge to the test. Walk the line between trying to identify everything you see and not getting bogged down in details or feeling lost.
Initially it might be best to focus on categories, like birds, then trees, then smaller plants and so on. Build up your knowledge base at your pace. While at first, you might not feel very competent, if you stick with it, slowly, surely things will come to you.
Maybe commit to a regular 30 min walk around your local wetland, or walk on a trail in a nature reserve each weekend.
Ultimately, the more time you spend in nature, the more in tune you will become with it.
5. The nitty gritty specifics.
Once you have a good understanding of the species you are seeing and identifying more commonly, you can hone in with more specific questions.
Ask around: there are so many ways to answer your questions:
- Facebook identification groups
- iNaturalist – sign up for free and upload your images for identification
- Google Lens
- Ask people you know to be knowledgeable and interested (your supervisors on volunteering projects, other people on field naturalist trips, etc.)
And once you receive an answer – check it. Google it or look it up in a field guide. Make sure you agree with it and you understand why it is what it is (what features eliminate all other possibilities) before you commit the name to memory.
6. Keep track of your progress.
Start keeping a species list of what you’ve experienced (and maybe a wish list, of species you’d like to experience!). I also keep a photo journal, especially when learning my plants, to keep track of my progress.
7. Commit to plants
Don’t be afraid to start tackling plants – the earlier the better. I always start learning the most common and iconic species first, usually trees, and then move to the finer or more seasonal species when I am “more able to notice them”.
Amazing resources for plants include field guides, iNaturalist and FloraBase (in Western Australia) or equivalent databases for other states of Australia, contacting the Herbarium or someone you know to be proficient in their plant identification.
8. Start local
Start with your local areas – the plants and animals you experience daily – and then the areas you might be working for sustained periods (i.e. volunteering on a survey) and expand from there.
9. Join a local wildlife group
There are so many options for local nature groups in most towns where you can surround yourself with like-minded enthusiasts. Field Naturalists, your local BirdLife branch or wetlands trust and other novelty nature groups. If you can’t find one, what about starting your own?
10. Buy a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars are incredible tools for all nature babies – and they change the way you see the world. Especially when birdwatching…
Starting with taxa such as birds is not only useful and transferable, but can also be easy as there are lots of identification resources and bird-focussed nature groups out there.
“Why birds?” Well, birds are often studied enough to have good field guides and information available, diverse enough to keep you interested, abundant and ubiquitous enough to keep you aware and limited enough to stop you throwing your hands in the air because there’s “too many”.
For anyone who’s said “why birds?”, I would say “why not birds?”
11. “Spend time with experts in the field”
Sometimes you encounter people, maybe your supervisor on a volunteer project or a naturalist in a local group whose knowledge of the natural world speaks volumes.
These are the people you can learn from, who can become your mentors. Ask them questions, ask them how they started and ask them to explain why they have identified species the way they have – what features were important?
Finally, there are just two important steps to go –
12. Take the pressure off yourself
13. Enjoy your journey exploring the natural world in a different language: latin!
And one final tip –
When signing up to a longer-term volunteer project (such as a biodiversity survey) – look at a species list first (see step 3) to get familiar with what might be in an area.
If you can’t find one online, ask the co-ordinator.
Trust me – by doing this you already stand out as someone who is interested before you’ve even arrived. Team leaders will be more likely to invest their time in teaching you and you will get more out of the experience. You’re welcome.
Have you got questions or feel inspired by what you’ve read? How are you going with your plant and animal identification?
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