Summer 2014

Summertime, summertime, sum- sum- summertime! The flurry of spring is subsiding and the livin’ is easy. Time to relax and brush up on some basics. Are you new to nature, or maybe just getting back into your habitat? Although the nature of Nature hasn’t changed much, our technology and ways of understanding her have. Our Natural Areas Guide has some great places to check out this summer. And we have some tips on how to get the most out of the technology and on being our best for Nature.

In This Issue

Tools of the Trade

Botany Basics

Preserving for Posterity

The Ethical Naturalist

Upcoming Events

Tools of the Trade

Look over here: men using filed binoculars, photo courtesy of Kerry WixtedBinoculars are one of the most useful pieces of equipment a nature enthusiast can own. Useful for birding, hunting, observing butterflies, and going to the opera. But where do you start? Binocs come in “sizes” 7x35, 7x50, 8x21, 8x32, 8x42, 10x 25, 10x50, 20x ARGHH! What do all those numbers mean and what works best for your activity?

A good place to start is the standard for bird watching: 8x42. The first number is the power of magnification. In this example, the object being viewed looks 8 times larger than it appears with the unaided eye. A larger number might seem the way to go – BIG critters with BIG detail - but the larger that first number, the more “shake” of your hands is transferred to the view. A power of 10 and higher and you might want to use a tripod to minimize the shake. The second number, here 42, is the diameter of the objective, or front lens. The wider the lens, the more light is allowed in, the brighter the image. Eventually, the objective is so wide, it affects the size and weight of the binoculars. Remember, you are going to be carrying these around; a couple ounces here and there add up fast. The birding standard 8x42 allows for a good amount of light and magnification without too much weight or shakiness.

There are other numbers and details to think about. The amount of detail seen in low light and image brightness are described by the terms exit pupil, relative brightness, and twilight factor. Of course, you’ll want to optimize light for the brightest image but each of these factors can be affected by any coatings on the lenses so it’s worth putting that into the equation. One caveat: if you are going to be using binoculars in normal daylight conditions, look for a pair with an exit pupil value between 2.5 and 3 millimeters. If you want to look at stars, you’ll need an exit pupil value of 5 to 7 mm.

If using your binoculars for viewing butterflies, look for models with “close focusing” capabilities. Some can focus from three or four feet away. Otherwise, you will have to back up to focus.

Look for a model that has long or extended eye relief to reduce the strain on your eyes. Eye relief is the distance from the eye the binoculars can be held and still display the full field of view. You’re going to be looking at a lot of beautiful things; wouldn’t want to strain your eyes or get a headache.

You’ll want a pair of binoculars that you can adjust to your eyes. Since the distance between our eyes differs person to person, look for a model with a hinge, instead of a pair that are a fixed and don’t bend in the middle. Also, a diopter adjustment feature will allow you to focus both eyes individually, helpful if you have vision differences between the eyes. Finally, consider getting waterproof binoculars (not water resistant). You’ll understand this better after the first time you drop your binocs in the marsh.

Parts of Central Focusing Binoculars: illustration courtesy of

These are the details to keep in mind when shopping, but one of the best ways to try out binoculars before shelling out the dough is to try out what other people are using. Go to some good birding sites and linger (don’t lurk) around a group of birders. Ask them questions. They might let you try their optics. Check out Fishing Bay Natural Area in Dorchester County for some terrific birding opportunities in a variety of habitats:

Binoculars are not just for birding anymore. They are a great tool to see details on smaller subjects without having to move in too close. Insects display all sorts of fascinating adaptations when seen up-close. With the standard 8x42 binocs, you can see the scales on a butterfly’s wing or the compound eyes of a dragonfly. If you are near Cecil County, stop by Plum Creek Natural Area. The vernal pools support a “clutch” of dragonflies. For pipevine swallowtail butterflies (and their imposters), Lostland Run Natural Area is the place to be.

Botany Basics

Field Botany 1962. Scary!Plants! They are all out to get us! You’ve seen Day of the Triffids, right?! OK, so maybe not that bad. Although there are some plants out there that can do you some serious hurt (poison ivy, stinging nettles, Japanese knotweed, et al.) most plants are quite lovely and safe, and indeed beneficial to humanity. They provide habitat for critters – including us, maintain soil structure and function, clean our air, provide us with food and medicine, and are just downright cool-lookin’. There are lots of terrific resources out there to help with identification. Learning to identify a plant will make your field trips more rewarding and will broaden your field skills.

In your field kit, you should have a hand lens. Also called a loupe, this nifty little magnifier will get you into the nitty gritty of plant characteristics. You can purchase a hand lens at any number of natural history and naturalists shops and online. Some have a single lens; some have two or more lenses so you can increase the power of magnification as needed. Most of the cool botanists wear theirs on a lanyard around the neck, so it’s at the ready.

Every botanist has a favorite field guide. Because botany, like all sciences, has its own vocabulary to define precisely the parts of the plant and their characteristics, it’s important to use a guide with which you feel comfortable, and not overwhelmed by terminology. A good guide will have a dichotomous key, a series of paired questions that eliminate options and lead to an identification.

Does this plant have oppositely arranged leaves or are they alternate/whorled?

Are the leaf margins entire (smooth) or serrated (toothed)?

Is the stem square in cross-section (mints) or not square?

And for those linear plants there’s this: Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints. What have you found?

Bonus: hand lenses are also great for identifying details of rocks and feathers and scales.

Some of our favorite guides include:

  • Cool Botanist, phooto courtesy of Paula BeckerNewcomb’s Wildflower Guide - Lawrence Newcomb
    – Uses characteristics and structures easily seen with the untrained eye; simple key in the front, no professional training necessary.

  • Wildflowers in the Field and Forest: a field guide to the Northeastern United States - Steven Clemants and Carol Gracie.
    - Arranged by flower color and shape, which is how most people notice plants. A simple key helps to narrow the search. Full color photos and range maps.

  • Peterson field guides for Trees and Shrubs, Wildflowers, Ferns (Northeastern region). Authors vary.
    - Clear, concise, detailed drawings and color plates, arranged by color where appropriate, uses more botanical terms.

  • Plants of the Chesapeake Bay – Lytton John Musselman, David A. Knepper.
    - A region-specific book that is not just a good field guide but also a good read. If you want to know more than just “what plant is that”, this book gives historical context and habitat descriptions. Arranged by habitat so you can get a feel for where you are. Not a comprehensive flora.

  • Chesapeake Bay: Nature of the Estuary: a field guide – Christopher P. White and Karen Teramura.
    - More than just plants, this guide is organized by habitat and the animals who live there. Includes maps and glossary.

  • Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary - James G. Harris, Melinda Woolf Harris.
    - not a field guide but a terrific companion on the language of Botany.

What are your favorite field guides and websites? Check out our Facebook page and let us know. For novices, or those who want to hone their botany skills, our friends at the Natural History Society of Maryland host classes and events for botany basics.

Preserving for Posterity

So much of what we know about nature comes from the jottings of our predecessors, and not just in database form. Keeping a journal has been a tried and true way of capturing the world around us for thousands of years. Nature journals are more than just a collection of facts; they help us to explore our perceptions of the world, how it works, and our place in it. They may serve as raw material for later works. Henry David Thoreau relied heavily on his journals when writing his published works.

How to Start?

Simple. Figure out how you want to record your experiences and observations. There’s the old standby, a trusty leather-bound book with pencil. Or a composition notebook, or spiral-bound Rite in the Rain™ binder, if you want to go high tech hardcopy. Make your journal from recycled fibers if you are crafty. Or you can go online. Blogs abound and allow you to share instantly with a keystroke. Really, as long as you are comfortable, the medium is your choice.

With nature journals, you can track your findings, sketch a map, draw a landscape, write a poem, or introduce your kids to writing. The latest issue of Habichat includes great tips on journaling for children.

Least Tern Taking notes, photo courtesy of Dave BrinkerWhat to write?

Your perceptions of the natural world are what make your journal special. We each come to this place from different pasts; we may have different strengths in our sensory skills. What do you see, hear, smell, feel, taste (take care on that last one)? What time of day is it? What’s the weather? What’s your mood? Are you there to learn? Are you on a quest? All the little details add vibrancy and life; they make your experiences unique. And use whatever “writing style” you like. Stream of consciousness narrative or iambic pentameter or rebus puzzle – let those creative juices flow.

After you’ve been at this for a little while, go back and look at your earlier writings. You will probably develop your style over time. What and how to include your musings evolves. You may become more precise in your language or comprehensive in your facts but, if you are lucky, you will still be left with questions and wonderings. After all, that’s the art of science.

To read the journals of some notable Maryland naturalists, check out the works of William Sipple, Charles Plitt, Meshach Browning, and Rachel Carson.

Every good naturalist knows you have to share your discoveries. With the advent of the smart phone, this has become “second nature” for many. Sure, you can post it to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or the Vine. But why not add it to a DATABASE that increases the WORLD’S knowledge? Add your discoveries to a data set that is available to a larger audience and help us track the ranges and populations of common and rare species around the region. Here are some terrific sites:

  • Maryland Biodiversity Project
    With a simple mission, to catalogue all living things in Maryland, and straightforward goal: “to promote education and conservation by helping to build a vibrant general nature study community.” Pretty powerful stuff! Learn new organisms and contribute your own finds.
  • Project Noah
    Like the MD Biodiversity Project, this platform allows you to track species with smart phone photos. With Project NOAH, you can create a mission, or specialized database, for a particular location – say, your neighborhood - or for a particular group of organisms – how about dragonflies! Teachers can involve their students in this citizen science effort, documenting plants and animals of their schoolyard. Set up your online classroom and investigate the organisms and processes that add diversity to your ecosystem!
  • eBird
    A joint effort by Cornell University and National Audubon Society, eBird allows you to keep track of your sightings digitally, with maps and lists. It shares these sightings with the larger birding community; you can see what others have found as well. All of these records can then be used as presence-absence documentation and abundance data for researchers and conservationists. A sister site – – helps scientists monitor nesting trends of breeding bird populations.
  • iNaturalist
    Similar to the MD Biodiversity Project but on a global scale. In their words, iNaturalist is “where you can record what you see in nature,meetother nature lovers, and learn about the natural world.”
  • And let’s not forget the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas! In its LAST YEAR of collecting observations of this dynamic and diverse group of vertebrates, MARA is available to all to find out what critters have been found in your part of the state. You can return the favor by searching for frogs and toads, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and turtles and submitting your findings online. We know they’re out there. We just gotta find’em!


The Ethical Naturalist

We unabashedly love Nature. This is not news. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be interested in newsletters like this one. But sometimes our good intentions are not enough; sometimes our enthusiasm gets the better of us. Oooh, I want to get just a little closer to that bird. I’ll just step off the trail here to photograph that flower. Multiply that by only a few people and there can be devastating consequences. The bird has abandoned her nest and the less flashy plants near the trail have been trampled. It is possible to love Nature to death.

Practicing a little self-discipline is hard and not always fun. But if it helps our natural areas stay natural, isn’t it worth it? So here’s a reminder for your next expedition.

(left) Do the Vector Dance: Kerry Kyde; (right) Half retriever, half wavyleaf basketgrass: V. Beauchamp

Consider yourself a vector. Not very flattering, granted, but humans walking through an area can transport weed seeds on their pants or fungus spores on their boots. It’s not a coincidence that the spread of some invasive species can be directly correlated to human travel corridors. And this goes for your dog too. There’s actually a name for this: Mammophily, the tendency for plants to evolve seeds that can be pollinated and dispersed by mammals.

Take a little time at the beginning or end of an outdoor expedition to make sure your gear is clean, brushed off and seed-free. If you are using our waterways, follow the disinfection protocol with your boat and your boots. Our amphibians and reptiles will thank you for not spreading chytrid or ranavirus, and fish and aquatic insects will love you for preventing the spread of didymo.

By now, most people know about the principles of Leave No Trace. Add these helpful hints to your expeditions and Nature will be with us for generations to come.

Upcoming Events

MD Natural Heritage Program
Tawes State Office Bldg., E-1
580 Taylor Ave.
Annapolis, MD 2140
Ph: 410-260-8540 f: 410-260-8596

Maryland Natural Areas News Archives

Photo Credits:

Green Treefrog: Kerry Wixted
Seaside Dragonlet: Kerry Wixted
Scarlet Tanager: George Jett
American Lotus: Kerry Wixted

Parts of Central Focusing Binoculars:
Nature jornal: Dave Brinker
A cool botanist-in-training: Paula Becker
Do the Vector Dance: Kerry Kyde
Half retriever, half wavyleaf basketgrass: V. Beauchamp

Martin Mt. Sandstone Glade, R.H. Wiegand
Piney Reservoir, Garrett County, MD: David Kazyak
Sunrise on Assateague: R.H. Wiegand

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