Contrary to what you might think, the end of summer is a great time to get into nature. With dark nights approaching and temperatures dropping, this seems counter-intuitive, but hear me out. Winter is the perfect time to reset, think about the things you've enjoyed through spring and summer and perhaps start honing in on your skills ready for the next year!
In the winter, there's more time indoors to get stuck into books, blogs and research. You'll really feel that longing and excitement when spring comes, if you've paid attention to those subtle clues that spring is on the way. From buds on the trees, lighter mornings, the first snowdrops, it's such an exciting time for nature lovers! So think of winter as investment in your spring and summer return.
Now your interest is peaked - where to even start? Read on to hear my best tips and advice, for outdoor explorers wanting to form a better connection with nature.
NATURE IS FOR EVERYONE
The first thing to say is that it is for you.
I have ended up becoming a bit of a generalist when it comes to the outdoors. I know a little bit about everything but not a lot about one thing. When I first started getting into the outdoors, I knew very little about the wildlife and the habitats. I knew that nature made me feel calm and reduced the anxiety, but I didn't know how to see and learn all the amazing things that others knew!
START SMALL, DON'T DO IT ALL
This is definitely a mistake I made! Choose one thing to start with that you're interested in. Trying to learn birds, wildflowers, butterflies, mushrooms and tree ID all in one go, will be overwhelming and put you off. Pick something manageable and make that your focus. I suggest wildflowers or trees for a beginner. They're easy to spot and don't move around much.
ABSORB THROUGH EVERY DAY SOURCES
Use hashtags on social media to follow the things you're interested in such as #wildflowerhour, #wildflowersuk or #butterflyidentification. I've just started following mushroom enthusiast accounts and hashtags such as #fantasticfungi because that's what I'm personally trying to learn about at the moment.
Last year I focused on butterflies. The hashtags will appear in your feed automatically on Instagram which is really useful. Social media can be a more positive and active experience, if you're learning or interacting with others. Don't be afraid to get help from other enthusiasts either, they're always happy to share tips!
SUBSCRIBE TO NEWSLETTERS
If you're not as into social media then there's plenty of newsletters to subscribe to from wildlife organisations and charities. Some good ones to start with will be your local wildlife trust, or whatever your interest is. Maybe Butterfly Conservation or RSPB or the Woodland Trust. You'll get the latest news straight to your inbox for a speedy flick through on your lunch break, or with your breakfast in the morning.
FOLLOW THE SEASONS
A eureka moment for me was when I was first learning wildflowers and butterflies, was that the seasons do a lot of the hard work for you. Nature follows a pattern through the year and repeats itself. Start paying attention to what is appearing each month as the seasons shift. The earlier you start in the year the easier it is to follow.
There's very little in January and then it gradually begins to increase as spring appears and explodes in summer! There's a lot of yellow flowers at the start of spring, with some of the first butterflies to emerge in the UK always being the Brimstones or Red Admirals. This is useful because it helps you narrow down your ID, but also helps you tune in to how the environment is changing with each season. Noticing the relationship between wildlife is also important for knowing what you might expect to see in nature.
KNOW YOUR LOCAL HABITAT
Staying local helps the process because you get really familiar with one place and watch it's cycle. You're also more likely to actually get there more often. Familiarity may not seem exciting to start with but you'll soon develop a relationship with an area and know it's every corner. It's also important to recognise what habitat you're in and what species you might expect to see.
For example, if you're looking for butterflies, find meadows and grasslands on a calm and sunny day. Or if you're into mushrooms go to a woodland in late autumn after there has been damp weather followed by sunshine. If you identify a Chalk Hill blue butterfly in your garden, (you either live on calcareous grassland which is extremely unlikely!) or you know you've misidentified it as it's more likely a holly blue. This will all come from paying attention to familiar places.
TAKE PICTURES & IDENTIFY AT HOME
Field guides are great but the likelihood of correctly identifying something in the field when you're first starting out is slim. Take lots of pictures , go home and use multiple sources to try identify things and keep practicing.
Guides and books with photographs are preferable over ones with illustrations so check before you buy, and read the reviews. There's some great sources online now and so many groups of active people on Facebook that will love to help you ID your pictures. Some apps like Seek and iNaturalist are good, but don't always work well outside with limited signal, so you're better off trying at home.
TRAIN YOUR EYE
This one gets better over time but still a good thing to remember. The more you look for things and start to join the dots with how nature interacts the more you'll see. Then you'll wonder how you ever didn't see it before. Keep focused on what's going on off the path, you'll see all sorts of things scurrying about or chirping up in a tree. Sometimes going alone can help with this just so you can pay attention without any distractions. Use your senses and take your earphones out. You'll have a much more immersive experience.
Just take your time and make your walk more of a meander than a mission. Take time to be less focused on a goal or a destination and just open yourself to learning whatever comes your way. Don't be disheartened if you didn't see four different wildflowers and successfully identify two trees. Try just sitting in one place and observing and often nature just comes you.
Lastly and most importantly remember to have an adventure! Getting outdoors is supposed to be fun so enjoy being outside whatever the weather and have fun learning something new! You can explore so many new places based on what you want to get into and I encourage you to research your local area or even plan your day trips or holidays on your new found interest. Just simple things like "where is the best place to see wildflowers in Somerset" - you never know what hidden gem you might find...
Thanks for reading - Find me over on Instagram @ranger.lauren