So much can be revealed to us when we immerse ourselves in our surroundings and give our undivided attention to nature! When we slow down and focus our senses, our awareness deepens and we begin to notice more. Noticing, in turn, leads to connection, familiarity, a desire for stewardship, a sense of place, and so much more. By familiarizing ourselves with nature in this way we can also learn to recognize patterns and relationships that exist all around us.
The intention for this guide is to help you build your sensory awareness skills through nature journaling, games, stories, and exercises in mindfulness. So grab a journal, head outside, and let’s begin!
Neary Lagoon Wildlife Refuge is a beloved park nestled at the heart of Santa Cruz. Once a true lagoon (with an open connection to the ocean), Neary Lagoon is now a freshwater marsh. It is an important part of an 850 acre watershed that drains into the lagoon via Laurel Creek and Bay Creek before draining into the ocean through a controlled flood gate.
This is a 44-acre park with roughly 14 acres of freshwater lagoon, and is an important habitat for many animals. Click here to download a guided hike for a 1-mile loop through this beautiful wildlife refuge (PDF | HTML). As you observe wildlife, refer to this guide of commonly-spotted animals (PDF | HTML).
We’ve compiled some of our favorite online resources for digging-deeper into natural history. From virtual tours of other natural history collections to digital field guides that can supplement your outdoor adventures, explore what our community (both local and global) has to offer!
Digital Field Guides
Animal Tracks: Nature Tracking compiles animal tracking resources in order to “make learning to identify animal tracks as easy and fun as possible.” We also have our own animal tracking activity, here.
Feathers: The Feather Atlas is an image database dedicated to the identification and study of the flight feathers of North American birds.
Amphibians: Get to know our slithery and slimy friends through AmphibiaWeb, an online field guide and database of amphibians.
Birds: Identify your backyard birds, keep track of what you observe, and get to know the many birds that you encounter any given day through the definitive resource for birds and bird watching in North America — the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and their Merlin Bird ID app.
Marine Animals: The Marine Species Identification Portal offers information on thousands of different species in the world’s oceans and seas.
Digital Databases, Virtual Tours, and More
Biodiversity Heritage Library: An open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. BHL’s global consortium of natural history, botanical, and research libraries cooperate to digitize and make their collections accessible as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.”
Cloud Appreciation Society: Get a little poetic about nature and explore the Cloud Appreciation Society who urge you to “Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!”
National Parks:Maybe your vacation was postponed, but you can still explore our National Parks through these virtual tours.
Duke University: A database of 3D images of specimens for “Educators Organizing Online Courses Using Biological Specimens.”
The American Museum of Natural History: AMNH hosts a long list of activities, articles, videos and more, for educators, families, students, and anyone interested in teaching or learning about science.
Brains On: An award-winning science podcast for kids and curious adults from American Public Media.
NASA: A vast collection of images, videos, and articles all about space.
Spotting wildlife can be tricky! You can still learn about the animals around us by looking for clues.
Print out the Santa Cruz Animal Tracking Checklist or have it downloaded on your phone to reference out in the field. Bring along tools such as a camera or ruler to assist in recording and identifying tracks. Look around your own neighborhood or walk along a local trail. Great places to look include patches of dirt, mud, or sand that animals could have left their tracks in.
On your Adventure
Pay close attention to the trail and sides of the trail! Be careful to avoid touching plants you don’t know, some of them can harm you such as poison oak. Animals often use the same trails as us, so there is no need to stray far from a trail to find animal tracks.
There are more signs of animals you can look for beyond tracks! Other evidence that animals leave behind are scat, feathers, fur, and nests. You can record these findings in the trail notes or at the bottom of the checklist.
Cats vs. Dogs
How to tell the difference between cats and dogs: Cats have retractable claws that don’t show up on their track whereas dogs’ claws are always out and often show up on their tracks. See images below for reference.
Questions to consider on your tracking adventure
Look around! What animals do you think live in this habitat?
Can you tell which direction the animal was going? If so, try following the tracks to see where they lead.
Do you think the animal was walking or running? Why?
What time of day do you think the animal made these tracks?
What do you notice about the scat? Do you think this animal is a predator or a prey? A carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore?
Need help? Use these tools to learn more from your observations: