April 2012 was a glorious month.
Can you distinguish a late spring from an early spring by the blooming times of wildflowers? Do you know when to expect migratory birds in fall or spring? How many species of reptiles does your homestead harbor? Have you experienced weather conditions like these before, and what happened next?
It’s a fair assumption that most MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers value the nature around them, but it’s fascinating what you can learn if you start taking the time to document and record some of your observations.
April 2013 brought cold, even snow late in the month.
Back in January 2011, we started posting monthly bird observations to our website. As avid birders, we were already paying attention to avian life here, but actually keeping some records promised to be an interesting long-term attempt to understand bird patterns. Almost immediately, we also started blogging about other interesting natural events, such as the date of the first Spring Peepers calling in spring and notes on monthly weather patterns.
Our Natural Events posts, as we started calling them, became a digital journal of our homestead’s ecology, increasingly valuable to us as time went by. Now, in our sixth year blogging about monthly observations, we have some really interesting records on seasonal patterns that can help inform our management decisions, or just increase our appreciation of our homestead ecosystem.
The images included in this post, taken from April records over the past five years, show how imagery can be used to document events and patterns on the farm — check out our full archive for more photography of insects, plants, and much more
April 2014 was WET, causing a variety of problems.
Starting a process like this may seem overwhelming; there’s so much to record, and so many different ways to do it. The many hours spent outside managing a homestead farm are bound to result in countless fascinating nature observations. You might start by focusing on just one thing (birds, weather, wildflowers, pests), or one method (whatever you can photograph in a weekly nature walk, whatever is on your mind as you write in a journal that evening).
We now try to take a planned nature walk every week around our homestead, documenting what we find; having that time set aside as a “task” for a quiet Saturday morning is both productive and relaxing. We also make a point of recording monthly weather patterns for future consultation.
April 2015 was lovely, allowing a controlled pasture burn.
Our Natural Events series has evolved into a monthly photo essay that illustrates our experiences over the past month. Maintaining the series has helped sharpen our observational and photographic skills, while producing a record that we regularly consult. The posts are good motivation to keep the camera at hand more frequently than we might otherwise be inclined to do.
Photographs have the side benefit of recording date & time inherently — we frequently “research” a past natural event by looking through our image database. We also keep written records, often far more than end up in the monthly series, both in free-form journal entries and organized data sheets. For example, we’ve drawn upon our years of bird observations to develop standardized monthly bird record sheets listing the species we can reasonably expect each month.
Having these on hand makes it easier to record birds quickly. We stopped formatting these data for the website because it was too much work for no clear benefit, but we greatly value having these sheets on hand to look back at previous bird patterns for context.
April 2016 brought a hard freeze after a warm winter, killing most of our tree fruit buds and blossoms.
Though we’re far from the first people to integrate phenology (the study of periodic natural cycles) into our lives, we’re really pleased with the approach we’ve developed that combines organized record-keeping for things that really matter, free-form journal notes for more random observations, and regular photography.
For more inspiration, check out this nice piece about phenology from Pam Dawling, or just search www.MotherEarthNews.com for “phenology” to find many useful results (find the search bar in the center of the top of the page).
Lots of great nature guides exist to guide you as well, many published in just the last decade, providing amateur naturalists with tools to identify a great diversity of interesting critters. Our favorites include:
Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney (Stackpole Books, 2010).
Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson (Princeton University Press, 2011).
Garden Insects of North America, by Whitney Cranshaw (Princeton University Press, 2004).
Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner, Princeton University Press, 2005).
Online resources include:
Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.