Nature Study Like a Pro

Lots of families do nature studies during their homeschooling years, making yet another nature study sound rather average. So, being the over-achievers we are, we decided to take your average nature study one step further with a population survey on the coyotes in the undeveloped area behind our home. Since we moved in, we have seen at least three that we could identify, but have only photographed two.

The area is very overgrown in places, and with several known coyotes, following a few common sense rules is a safety-must.

Rule one: Nobody goes bushwhacking alone.

There is a certain amount of safety in numbers, and while it is not a garantee of safety, it does offer a much better chance at it. The worry isn’t just the coyotes.The area is full of brush, downed trees, and prickly pear cactus—making getting injured easier. Getting hurt without backup nearby, and able to help really stinks. Having extra eyes on the surroundings also increases the chances on seeing one of these elusive canids.

Rule two: Always go armed for exploration & defense.

I am not talking about firearms, necessarily, although it isn’t a bad idea in areas where certain predators are known to live. Generally speaking though,pepper spray, a pocket knife, good walking stick, and whistle will take care of most concerns.

Rule three: Bring a first aid kit & always have your phone on and charged.

Please do not make me explain this.

These are the safety rules I insist on having followed every time the boys want to go walking in that area. Does this sound like overkill? Perhaps, but recently a coyote attacked a 9-year old girl near Dallas, and was later seen stalking a jogger. Yes, this coyote was probably alone, possibly injured and/or ill. We will know once they track it down, but even still, when winter hits prey becomes scarce. As a result, we will be enforcing these rules at all times.

In the morning, when we know coyotes are more likely to be out and about, we walk the perimeter of the wooded area. I’m not a fan of bushwhacking when it is not necessary, because it makes too much noise, thereby scaring off anything we might want to photograph anyway! We take a camera, notebook and pencil with us to document what we see, and where. Your phone will do an adequate job on most photos, but if the creature is a distance away, it will not give you the results you want. Even the coyote on this page was too far for my 300mm lens to get a really detailed photo.

When we capture photos of various animals, I’ll spend a few dollars and have some prints done. There are a number of very affordable online suppliers for photo printing, so there is no need to worry about printing at home when the online choices are so inexpensive.

One thing we have discovered, is that the coyotes have left scat all along the perimeter, just outside the fenced yards. This seems to be the line marking their territory from that of ours. At this point, we have not seen them wandering the neighborhood, but of course I would not put that past them.

Describing animals in order to identify individuals

Birds and snakes are harder to identify on an individual basis. However, coyotes are not. Of the three we have been able to see and describe, Coyote #1 has red along its ears, head and back of neck; and is small and lean. Coyote #2, seen on this page, is more buff-colored all over, with some cream/white along its chest and throat. It is also larger and appears more muscular than Coyote #1. Coyote #3, which we have not yet been able to photograph, looks more speckled in the face and along its back.

We do not know if there are others, but after observing these three, and hearing them at night, we are reasonably certain there is one more lurking about.

For your study, I recommend finding animals that are fairly easy to identify unique individuals. Although, if that is not possible, you could certainly just count the number of a particular bird species or grasshoppers you see. The key is to be as specific as possible, detail as many of the individual features as possible.

In the same way, you can learn to spot differences between individual animals of a species. Study each animal you encounter, and you will start to see the differences.


What do I record?

It varies according what what information you are seeking, but here is our list:

1. Number. How many have you seen? If it’s a large number, estimate, but try to be accurate.
2. Color. Do any of the animals have identifying patches, different coloring, etc? Note this.
3. Size. Maybe there is a really chubby squirrel somewhere, or a really hungry-looking coyote.
4. Location. Where did you see it? Some animals have a very large range, others very small. Know the species you are observing, so you know whether to expect the same animal elsewhere.
5. Number of times spotted. Regular visitor, or just passing through?
6. Identifying characteristics. Scars, torn ears, missing tail. All of these things can help you identify individuals.

The size of a bluejay’s crest and cheek patches, shading on a squirrel’s back, and physical size are all ways that you can describe different individuals within an animals population. If you can identify gender, that is one more piece of information. Some animals are sexually dimorphic, that is, they have very different features between male and female. In birds, this means that the females are often less flashy and blend in better. In coyotes, the females tend to be smaller, but not always.

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