So, you’re stuck at home, can’t go to work/university but want to fill your time with something useful. I suggest this is the perfect opportunity to learn more about wildlife. This is the kind of knowledge that’s hard to gain without some practice. Courses are available, but there is still no substitute for spending time practicing by yourself or with family. An opportunity like this, at the perfect time of year for a lot of wildlife, won’t come along again so we urge you to make the most of it.
With all species learning, start with a few easy, familiar species and build on that knowledge a little at a time. Every new species you learn gives you another reference point with which to compare the next new one. The more you know, the faster and easier your learning and discovery of new species will be.
To many ecologists, plants are a bit of a mystery. To many other ecologists, knowledge of our native plants is the very foundation of our understanding of wildlife habitats. Which group do you aspire to?
Plant knowledge takes time, but you have to start somewhere. Get a good field guide (see below) and get out there. Sit down in a meadow, a woodland, a local park or even just alongside roads as you take your daily walk or cycle and work out what’s around you. Start with easier things like trees and shrubs or the more obvious flowering plants. Leave the hard stuff like grasses and sedges for another time.
Probably among the easiest of wildlife to observe, because there are always some to look for wherever you are, as well as the hardest, because they move around so much. Bird knowledge is seen by some as unfathomable; a mysterious magic skill attainable only the jedi masters of ecology! To others, bird knowledge is a basic indispensable skill, learned from childhood, never forgotten and always improving. It all depends on your perspective.
Birding is not a ‘special skill’, it’s just something to practice. Start with the familiar, local species and expand your knowledge one species at a time. Get a good field guide and spend time looking through it at the pictures to learn the range of families. The key here is to focus on the shapes of the birds, before looking at the colours/markings.
Remember, everyone has some bird knowledge already. We could all tell a duck from a robin from an eagle at an early age, based on a combination of shape, size and markings. Take whatever knowledge you already have and build on it.
For a further challenge, try to learn the calls and songs of the species around you. Again, start with the familiar. Download some recordings (there are many online sources) and perhaps play them instead of music while you are doing something else like cooking or driving. Set your downloads to shuffle randomly and gradually you will recognise the differences. Then you will know what to listen out for when you’re outside and loads of mystery birds are singing at you. Start with Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Wren, Dunnock and anything else that’s common in your area.
Mammals are easy………………………as long as you forget bats and cetaceans!
Wherever you are, there are unlikely to be more than 20 species of non-batty, terrestrial mammals. Read a book and go for it. Learn about their ecology, their tracks and signs and the differences between a few harder-to-separate species groups.
Consider buying a camera trap (anything from £100 upwards will work well) to reveal more of the hidden mammals around you.
Maybe get a bat detector (£100 upwards) and start to learn about this slightly more challenging group.
Finally, if you live near the coast, buy a telescope (or a boat!) and look for cetaceans.
Invertebrates are a real challenge and, with so many species to choose from (about 28,500 in the UK!) it’s hard to know where to start.
It’s probably best either to learn the differences between all the orders of insects or to choose one which excites you and have a go.
Some of the reference guides are expensive and some groups need a microscope and lots of patience, but here’s a couple of easier groups to try:
If you have a pond in your garden or ponds/rivers/wetlands nearby, now is the perfect time to have a go at learning dragonflies. With a little effort, you’ll find they are actually quite easy as even the best dragonfly sites only have 15 or so species. Start by looking at the brightly coloured adult males and then move onto the generally more cryptic females.
If you can afford a moth trap (from about £120 up to £500), maybe your garden could become a happy hunting ground for your next wildlife learning challenge. To anyone with a few woodworking skills, there are moth trap design plans available on the web. Mine cost me about £45 plus a bit of effort.
Although the number of species peaks in late spring/early summer, any time from March to November is good for a reasonable range of species. Get a good book and some clear pots to put them in and off you go. Avoid nights with a big moon or cold/windy weather and aim to trap on overcast, warm, humid nights.
To identify them, just look through the images in the book until you find the right one. Then read the text for more ID hints, to see if it is found in your area and to check it’s supposed to be around at this time of the year. Once you’ve learned the basic families, your speed and efficiency will increase quite quickly.
Probably best to avoid the ‘micro’ moths at first!
There are very many books available, but these are good ones to get you started.
The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose ISBN 9780723251750
Collins Bird Guide by Mullarney et al ISBN 9780007268146
Collins Complete Guide to British Insects ISBN 9780007298990
Britain’s Mammals by Couzens et al ISBN 9780691156972
Britain’s Dragonflies by Smallshire and Swash ISBN 9780691181417
Field Guide to the Moths of Britain and Ireland
by Paul Waring et al ISBN 9781472930293