Beginning Naturalists


(This 727th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 6, 2005.)


I often receive inquiries from readers about how to become involved in natural history activities. I try to respond to the specific questions, but a recent note from Colleen Gibbons raises this matter in more general terms. She wrote, "I have long wanted to become involved in a local hiking-nature-birdwatching  group. Would you be able to steer this beginner in the right direction?" And she added, "Are there books that you would recommend?" I devote this column to my answer to Ms. Gibbons and others who have similar questions.


This is a good time of year to offer responses to that inquiry as spring is just around the corner. (I'm sure that old timers are chuckling as they read that forecast but, already as I write, some of those bright-breasted, early migrant robins are arriving to displace their less colorful relatives who spent the winter with us.)


There are many western New York organizations that bring together people interested in various aspects of nature. Here is an admittedly only partial listing:










You can find out more about those organizations through their websites or your local library.


Unfortunately, however, simply contacting those groups or even attending their meetings will not always help you to get involved. Unless you are an extrovert, you'll still find yourself alone at such meetings for regular members will have gravitated to their long-established friends.


For that reason I recommend that you initially go about this in an entirely different way. I offer two alternatives.


First, I suggest that you participate in the Iroquois Observations program. You can get information about it on the web or you can contact the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge (585-948-5445) to obtain a schedule. This is a program at the Refuge specifically designed to help beginners get started. Experienced birders set up telescopes for you to watch mostly waterfowl but other birds including eagles as well and they assist you with identification. You need no equipment whatsoever to participate -- they'll supply what you need -- and the leaders are excellent. The first of these Saturday programs will be on March 19.


Iroquois Observations also sponsors evening "owl prowls". On these outings recorded owl calls are played, the owls respond and often approach to where you can see them by flashlight. I have joined such trips many times but continue to find them exciting.


A second way to get started is to contact the Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in Java (585-457-3228). They have excellent nature programs of all types and in particular Sunday family hikes from 3-4 p.m.


Both Iroquois Observations and Beaver Meadow are sponsored by the Buffalo Audubon Society, which will also be opening a Bird of Prey Center in Joseph Davis State Park in Lewiston later this year.


Participation in these activities offers important advantages. First, you won't be on your own. You will find yourself with other beginners who have similar concerns. Second, you'll find the leaders ready and willing to respond to questions and to suggest what you might do next to extend your interests. You can talk with them, for example, about identification guides, equipment like binoculars, other activities like the annual Allegany Nature Pilgrimage to consider, and the best organizations for you to join. Third, you will get to know personally at least some of your fellow beginners and, even more important, your activity leaders. You'll find that these friendships will help you as you explore further.


One thing I encourage you not to do is rush out and buy the first binoculars and identification guides you come across. You should take your time in making such decisions. You can get help on this from experienced naturalists like those on these outings. I also recommend the staff of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Blasdell for assistance.


I offer just one reservation about field guides. More experienced naturalists will often use guides that are quite technical and can confuse matters for beginners. For example, I regularly refer to the new Sibley guide for bird identification. It is excellent for advanced birders, but for beginners I recommend Peterson's Birds of the Eastern U. S., a book I have used through its many editions. For similar reasons, although I more often use Newton's wildflower guide, I recommend Peterson and McKenny's Northeastern Wildflowers for beginning botanists.-- Gerry Rising