As biodiversity becomes increasingly threatened, naturalists are more important than ever

Peterborough Examiner  – May 24, 2024 – by Drew Monkman  

Whenever I’m out birding, I’m easily distracted. As much as I’m watching and listening for birds, part of my mind is also paying attention to the trees, flowers, insects, fungi and whatever else I happen to notice. Quite often, the highlight of the day has nothing to do with birds but is something else entirely like an uncommon butterfly, a salamander under a log or a particularly beautiful patch of wildflowers. I try to keep in mind that focusing too much on any one aspect of nature can lead to a kind of tunnel vision which makes you miss out on other things. I’ve noticed over the years that this is a common affliction of anyone who falls into the trap of specialization, be it birds, plants, fungi or anything else. As biodiversity becomes increasingly threatened, it’s vital to to take an interest in all living things – in other words, to strive to be as well-rounded a naturalist as possible.

What is a naturalist?

There are many definitions of what it means to be a naturalist. At the simplest level, if you have a love of nature, pay close attention to  the myriad forms of life around you and enjoy learning more you are a naturalist. Naturalists value and find never-ending interest in all the diversity of living things. They enjoy recording observations and are observant of all taxa (groups of organisms) be they birds, mammals, insects, plants or even fungi and bacteria.

Although most nature lovers have a favourite taxa, a true naturalist strives to never lose sight of all the interesting species and species’ relationships around us. This holistic approach means you’re always learning and are always excited about discovering new things.

Habits of mind

            To pause, observe and appreciate the wonders of everyday nature requires a different mindset than we normally have with our surroundings. It means stopping to look deeply at what we take for granted or something we’ve never noticed before. It could be a so-called weed on your lawn or the brilliant green moss on a rock after it rains.

            As much as anything, it’s essential to practice patience. Watch and listen intently, all the while being open to the whole. Refuse to let the more-than-human world go unnoticed. You must also be happy with getting pushed out of your comfort zone and embracing what you don’t know – and in many cases what science itself doesn’t know. The true naturalist takes pleasure in discovering just how limited both our individual and collective knowledge actually is.

A naturalist’s year

            To a very large extent, “seeing” means knowing what to expect. In fact, the cornerstone of most plant and animal identification is knowing what you’re likely to find given the habitat and the time of year. It’s a way to mentally organize and retrieve information about the natural world. In addition to bird activity, I make a point of paying special attention to the following aspects of nature over the course of a year: January – the tell-tale tracks of mammal activity; February – snow fleas and spiders on woodland snow; March – the emergence of the first flowers on trees and shrubs ; April – the amphibian chorus; May – the spring ephemeral wildflowers; June – nesting turtles; July – butterflies and dragonflies; August – the insect chorus; September – asters, goldenrods and fungi; October – brook trout spawning in streams; November – the evergreen plants of the forest floor; December – lichens on rocks and tree bark. These, of course, are only examples. Each month offers infinitesimally more to catch our attention.

We need more naturalists

            A desire to connect with and learn about nature is still not commonplace. Most people remain oblivious to the sounds of the birds and insects around them, the exquisite forms of  wildflowers and, most disconcerting, how the natural world is being severely degraded. This separation and disconnection from nature underlies many of the problems we’ve created with our technologies and lifestyles. Too many of us still believe that nature is something “out there”  rather than something in which we are as deeply embedded as any other organism.

            According to a report just released by Policy Horizons Canada on “plausible” near-term global calamities that could reshape Canada and the world, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem collapse is the second most serious threat to our future – right after people no longer being able to tell what is true and what is not. As Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes in “Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness”, we need to “cocreate and inhabit a nation of watchers, of naturalists-in-progress, none of us perfect, all sharing in the effort of watching, knowing, understanding, protecting, and living well alongside the wildlife with whom we share our cities, our neighborhoods, our households, our yards, our ecosystems, our earth.” In other words, we need more people who are paying close attention to what’s happening with all elements of nature and in this way help scientists and conservationists identify areas and species that require the greatest protection. Having more well-rounded naturalists is nothing short of a conservation imperative.   

            Despite all,  an interest in nature is probably greater now than ever in the past. As just one example, take the recent City Nature Challenge (CNC) held in late April. The CNC is a global “bioblitz” competition engaging cities around the world to document as many plants, animals and other organisms as possible within a designated location and time period. Peterborough placed first in Canada among cities under 100,000. Using the iNaturalist app to identify and document their sightings, local naturalists made over 2,070 observations and tallied 577 species. An impressive 89 observers took part which was more than double last year’s number. Across Canada as a whole, over 4,700 people participated.  

            Learning to identify some of the myriad species around us has never been easier. Other than iNaturalist or its kid-friendly “Seek” offshoot, the only other app you need is Merlin Bird ID. I also recommend websites such as,,, (dragonflies and damselflies), and (frogs and toads). As for books, some of my favourites include The Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks: Third Edition, The Sibley Guide to Trees, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Insects of North America (Princeton Field Guides) and Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada.

            If you’re looking for inspiration to spend more time in nature, I also recommend reading “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature” by David George Haskell. As much poetry as science, the book reveals all of the species and species interactions that are connected to one square metre of forest floor. Delving into everything from fungi to whitetail deer, the book is also a testament to the powers and joys of close observation.

Personal benefits

It is not an overstatement to say that paying close attention to nature makes for a more interesting life. Above all, there is the realization that every species is far more interesting than you can even begin to imagine. When seen through a naturalist’s eyes, the invisible becomes visible, along with the recognition of how little we were noticing before.

The “green wallpaper” that so many of us call nature  – but have essentially ignored – gradually becomes a fascinating community of distinct beings, each with amazing stories to tell. It becomes no less than your “neighbourwood”.  As a naturalist you also notice time in a new way. Different sights, sounds and smells come to define a different time of year. The day to day changes in a given place are dramatic when you start paying attention. There’s also the growing awareness that whatever tiny part of nature’s spectrum caught your attention at first – perhaps a towering oak tree – is intimately connected to countless other parts without which it could not survive.

As a naturalist you never stop learning. You can visit the same woodlot or wetland over an entire lifetime and still only graze the surface of what there is to observe and understand. Rather than being a source of frustration, I find this endlessly alluring. 

Drew Monkman

I am a retired teacher, naturalist and writer with a love for all aspects of the natural world, especially as they relate to seasonal change.