Observing Nature in the City

If asked to name a favorite place in nature, many people including myself might choose to describe forests, meadows, or scenic ocean views. Some might include state parks or even smaller, more urban settings like the Middlesex Fells reservation where I live in Massachusetts. However, even the most open-minded nature lovers would be hard-pressed to imagine that a weed-laden median strip or street tree could earn the title of someone’s favorite place in nature.

Mina leads us to open up to a type of Nature that is closer than we think – present all around us in our busy cities. She has added a few activities to ease the journey of discovering urban wildlife.

Expanding our Ideas of Nature Beyond Wilderness | Green Spaces in the Greater Boston Area | Cultivating Curiosity about Urban Wildlife | Becoming An Expert on Your Own City (Activity Set) | Next Steps

1️⃣ Rediscovering Street Trees
2️⃣ A Tree Can Be an Ecosystem Too
3️⃣ The Early Bird

Expanding our Ideas of Nature Beyond Wilderness

Oftentimes, we reserve the term “nature” for outdoor places that we perceive as beautiful due to their undisturbed nature. In doing so, we conflate the idea of nature with that of wilderness. While the term wilderness describes unsettled, largely undisturbed tracts of land and its untamed inhabitants, nature is a more broadly encompassing term. There exists a pervasive idea that “untouched” nature is more exciting and valuable than other forms of nature. We cherish opportunities to escape our busy, metropolitan lives and experience the tranquility of “real” nature. Many of us are unaware that there is a wealth of nature to be explored in even the most urban of areas. 

Recognizing that nature can take on many forms isn’t only a refreshing observation; it can also provide an entry point for more people to experience and learn about nature. In 2016, over 50% of the world’s population lived in cities and this percentage is only increasing. Many of these individuals may not have easy or consistent access to the kind of nature one might describe as “wild” or “undisturbed.” The examples of wildlife that thrive in cities are often different from that of, say, national parks, but the resilience and adaptations of urban flora and fauna are arguably just as inspiring.

Green Spaces in the Greater Boston Area

Olmsted’s 1894 plan for the Emerald Necklace

Those of us who reside in the Greater Boston Area are lucky in that Boston boasts an expansive and fairly accessible park system. We owe this system, known as the Emerald Necklace, largely to the vision of a single man: Frederick Law Olmsted. Often referred to as the “father of American landscape architecture,” Olmsted is responsible for several significant American parks including New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park. Over a century ago, Olmsted also designed the Emerald Necklace which includes the Back Bay Fens, The Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, and the Boston Common and Public Garden. Some of these parks, such as the Public Garden, are neatly and ornately landscaped. Other spaces are ecologically significant urban wilds, with many of these parks engaging with new conservation practices to encourage biodiversity. For instance, Arnold Arboretum is adopting “no-mow” practices for certain sections of the park and using native plantings to attract insects and birds. Even the most meticulously manicured spaces can provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Part of EwA’s mission is to illustrate the surprising variety of flora and fauna we can find in urban settings and encourage conservation practices that protect and increase this biodiversity. Our most urban site, the Growing Center in Somerville, is home to many species of insects including a wide variety of bee, wasp, ant, fly, beetle, and leafhopper species. Still, not all cities have the infrastructure or space to create and maintain park systems like the Emerald Necklace, or even parks like the ones we survey at EwA. Even if a city does have such spaces, it may not offer sufficient public transit to make those parks accessible. For this reason, I see great importance in providing resources on urban wildlife that can be observed in even the most crowded cityscapes. This kind of information is not intended to act as a substitute for equal access to green space and should be provided in conjunction with efforts to provide access to natural spaces in all cities.

Cultivating Curiosity about Urban Wildlife

What can one do to explore nature if they live in a city that lacks accessible green spaces?

Before I propose some concrete exercises for exploring urban wildlife, I’d first like to suggest that appreciating urban nature requires a conscious shift in attention and perception.

Many of us experience urban wildlife in the form of pests; we detest the rats, cockroaches, and raccoons that infiltrate our homes and overturn our trash cans. We uproot weeds and apply chemicals to deter all sorts of insects. There is no denying that many of these creatures are frustrating and I would be remiss to suggest that we must embrace them with open arms. But are they disgusting, unnatural?

Rats are widely despised city dwellers, yet are also highly intelligent, bond socially, and have even been found to display empathy. Other types of urban wildlife are not only clever but actually beneficial. One might be surprised to learn that wasps, a commonly disliked species, are actually important controllers of pest populations.

Many species have been forced to adapt to new, urban conditions. Peregrine falcons, for instance, have begun to nest in cities, as high rises provide the perfect vantage point for hunting one of the peregrine’s preferred food sources; pigeons. In New York City, over 30 species of bees can be found along the High Line, an elevated linear park in Manhattan. Paris rooftops also support a thriving beekeeping industry with over 1000 urban beehives.

While some more specialized species are less likely to adapt to such conditions, many urban dwellers are finding similarly new and unexpected ways to survive in harsh city conditions. One need not love all of these species, but adopting an inquisitive mindset can reveal new and interesting patterns and behaviors.

Becoming an Expert on Your Own City

Below are three exercises intended to help you familiarize yourself with the natural world around you. These activities are based upon approaches I’ve used to learn more about urban wildlife and are also loosely inspired by the types of surveys we conduct at EwA. You can try these activities on your street or at a park near you!

What You Need
○ Cell phone
○ The iNaturalist app
○ Notebook, your favorite pen or pencil
○ Handheld magnifying lens or one that you can attach to your phone’s camera

Exercise 1️⃣ | Rediscovering Street Trees

One of the first ways I familiarized myself with my environment was learning to identify trees. While street trees are more common in certain places (such as wealthier neighborhoods), most cities have at least some trees lining their streets or green spaces. The easiest time to learn how to identify trees is during the spring, summer, and early fall when leaves are still present. Tree leaves may differ in terms of shape, leaf margin, venation, and even placement on the branch (opposite each other versus alternating). One trick that helps me identify trees is MADCapHorse. MADCapHorse is an acronym used to remember trees with opposite branching: Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, Caprifoliaceae (such as honeysuckles and viburnums), and Horse Chestnuts.

This Northern Red Oak (Quercus Rubra) was photographed at EwA’s calibration site, a residential street in Somerville | © Jennifer Clifford (EwA Citizen Scientist)

While tricks like MADCapHorse are useful when getting started, the best way to learn to identify trees is to get outside and practice! I sometimes enjoy collecting leaves, pressing them into a notebook, and labeling them (or even drawing them for extra practice). This not only provides a visual guide to local trees but also serves as a fun reminder of how many different types of trees you’ve encountered. And of course, you can always use iNaturalist to get help with IDing unfamiliar leaves.

Once you’ve mastered recognizing a handful of trees in your neighborhood in the warmer months, you can return to observe them in winter. This way, you can come to know these trees by more than their leaves, but also by their bark or buds. For those that live in New England, GoBotany is a wonderful resource for IDing plants using various plant parts including buds. As you pay closer attention to your tree, you will likely notice evidence of visitors such as bite marks on leaves, insect galls, or caterpillars.

2️⃣ | A Tree Can Be an Ecosystem Too

While identifying trees by name is a useful and highly satisfying skill, this next activity encourages one to look at trees as part of a broader ecological system. The concept of an ecosystem is somewhat loose and is dependent on scale. For instance, on a large scale, an example of an ecosystem could encompass a temperate deciduous forest such as those found throughout New England. However, a patch of soil could also be considered a productive ecosystem, as it may provide nourishment and refuge for a host of plants, insects, fungi, and microbes. 

Trees can also be seen as an ecosystem in themselves. To explore this system, you can carefully examine and flip over leaves to see what insects cling to them. If you look closely, you will quickly find that many of these insects are too small to observe properly with the naked eye. Here is where your magnifying lens (or attachable camera lens) will come in handy. Using a magnifying lens will enable you to make out details including tiny hairs, markings, and even entire colors that you may have missed otherwise. Many of these details are key in identifying the insect you are looking at. While not all insects can easily be identified down to the species level, your lens will certainly help you get closer to a precise identification. 

Woolly Oak Gall (Callirhytis lanata)

Gall Wasps (Not yet identified to species)

↑ Both galls above were spotted on the same young Northern Red Oak at EwA’s Arthropod study site in Somerville (MA). Both records were photographed using a magnifying lens attached to our smartphone. The gall on the left is a Woolly Oak Gall (Callirhytis lanata), the result of an interaction between a gall wasp and the tree. The one on the right is another kind of gall wasp, yet looks quite different. There are over 800 species of gall wasps in North America alone!

When I first began partaking in arthropod surveys at the Middlesex Fells, I was struck by both the unexpected beauty and the sheer volume of insects on the trees we observe. Even insects I would have once brushed aside without a second thought — such as flies – fascinated me once I could make out their stunning iridescence. In our surveys, we measure the abundance and composition of insects on a single branch composed of roughly 50 leaves. On a particularly fruitful day, I might come across a dozen insects on one branch. Even in a more urban habitat, you will likely be able to find at least a handful of insects on a single tree. To become familiar with trees as part of a broader system, I would recommend keeping track of a single tree over time.

While almost all trees will host insects, some are more productive than others. Oak trees, for instance, can offer sustenance for some 534 species of moths and butterflies. Native trees will almost always offer more food for insects, so you may want to do a little research into which trees are native to where you live. We’ve observed this phenomenon at EwA’s Growing Center site; nonnative trees there such as the Kousa dogwood show fewer signs of herbivory than native oaks and maples. Over time, you will likely come to recognize your tree’s regular residents and their life cycles.

Exercise 3️⃣ | The Early Bird

Morning commutes look different for all of us. I’ve always enjoyed using my commute to listen to music and, as an introvert, have also appreciated that they serve as a natural conversation deterrent. Perhaps you prefer catching up on podcasts during your drive to work or making the commute on foot or by bike. The obvious downside of headphones or driving in traffic is that both settings make it difficult to pick up on environmental noise, including bird calls. 

Birds are most active around dawn or dusk, which, for many of us, falls roughly around the same time as a workday commute. Waking up early for work or school can feel like a daily struggle, but early morning hours offer an opportune time of day to listen to birds. If you commute on foot, consider removing your headphones for a portion of your walk to tune into the birds around you. If you drive, you could aim to take a few extra minutes before or after your drive to check out bird calls in your vicinity. If you work or attend school in a different environment than where you live, you could even try comparing the types of birds you hear in each place! You might want to pick a regular “sit spot” to observe bird calls. Choosing an ongoing place may allow you to pick up on patterns over time. This is all to say that, no matter how you get to and from your daily obligations, you can likely find a moment of pause to observe the nature around you. 

While learning to identify birds by call may seem like a challenge, there are tools that can help you. If you record calls with a phone or handheld recorder, you can use the website BirdNET. BirdNET uses machine learning to analyze and identify bird calls and currently features 984 of the most common bird species of North America and Europe. While the tool isn’t perfect, it’s a great place to start with recognizing bird calls. iNaturalist also allows audio submissions. eBird, a frequently utilized site among birders, allows you to find bird hotspots near you, upload your own observations, and explore photos and audios taken by other birders. As birding is a highly popular activity, eBird collects high volumes of data and uses it to study bird population dynamics. You can also discover which species are likely to be found at any given location during specific times of the year. Audubon, another bird-focused organization, also collects birders data to provide information on which bird species are most at risk of extinction under different climate scenarios.

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

↑ This Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) (left) and White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) were photographed at EwA’s phenology calibration site in Somerville.

As you learn about trees, insects, and birds, you may begin to piece together the relationships between these different components of your local ecosystem. Plants support insects, which in turn provide food for birds. Perhaps, over time, you will begin to broaden your ecosystem knowledge to include other local flora and fauna as well, or even abiotic factors such as temperature, pollution, or human influence. If you observe your environment on a regular basis (whether that be checking out bird calls on your daily commute, a weekly visit to your chosen street tree, or a monthly outing to your nearest green space) you will begin to notice changes between each visit. Here lies the excitement of building an ongoing connection with place; if you put in the time and pay close attention, you become attuned to even the smallest developments.

This kind of knowledge is invaluable not only on a personal level, but can potentially provide anecdotal (or, if you wish, data-driven) evidence such as changes in species range, occurrence, or life cycle timing that may be the result of climate change or other anthropogenic influence. Recording your observations doesn’t have to mean collecting numerical data; it could take on the form of keeping a dated nature journal, taking photos, or sketching. Keeping consistent records will allow you to recognize and track trends over time.

Next Steps

Everyone deserves equal access to green spaces. Access to green spaces and canopy cover is not only beneficial from an aesthetic or recreational viewpoint; these natural features are also important from a human health perspective. For instance, sufficient tree cover functions as a natural coolant to reduce the effects of extreme heat in cities. The exercises in this article highlight some of the ways in which observing urban wildlife can yield both personally rewarding and potentially ecologically significant findings. However, cultivating enthusiasm about nature in cities cannot occur in isolation; it should go hand in hand with environmental activism projects that aim to expand this access for all people. 

Discovering an appreciation for urban wildlife gives people the information needed to advocate for spaces that better support both biodiversity and human health. This could take many forms; understanding the significance of native plants and trees, for example, might spur pollinator garden projects in local schools or parks. Watching birds build their nests could inspire innovative and specialized designs for birdhouses. Cities are often characterized primarily as problems when it comes to environmental issues. While there is undeniably truth to this stance, we must recognize that many of us live in cities and that they are not going away any time soon. In order to address environmental issues, we must shift our view of cities to one of curiosity and possibility. Nature can and does thrive in urban settings when provided with the right resources. Learning about and encouraging appreciation of urban wildlife is a key first step to building healthier cities for both human and non-human inhabitants. 

📅 If you live in the Boston area, join an EwA Urban Wildlife walk.

by Mina Burton | Updated September, 12th 2021
EwA Nature Activities

First posted on August 21st, 2020. The photos of species in this article are biodiversity records from EwA citizen scientists Joe MacIndewar, Jennifer Clifford, and Claire O’Neill. Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC). The Emerald necklace map is public domain.

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