The secret of the well-equipped naturalist

By David Spector for the Gazette
July 11, 2020

How might  you equip yourself for an expedition to observe nature? The answers vary with where you’re going, the targeted aspects of nature, how long you expect to be outside, your level of interest and expertise, the time of year, etc. Here are some of my answers for day trips in western Massachusetts.

I am interested in birds, so I carry binoculars. The binoculars hang from my neck and are always available for a closer look. I often bring a telescope and tripod, especially when I’m not walking far from my car. For insects, rocks and other things that may require a closer look, a hand lens is useful, and I often have one in a pocket or shoulder bag.

If you’re out to observe nature carrying three packs of stuff, you’re doing it wrong. Mathias Rodriguez/via Flickr

Sometimes I carry a cheap pocket microscope for even closer views. Carrying optics takes energy, so I also carry chocolate (preferably fair trade).

I like to know what I’m seeing, and I like to learn more than I know. Various field guides to birds and to other organisms often fill the back seat of my car. Specialized field guides, e.g., to hawks, shorebirds, warblers, etc., provide more detail than do broader guides to the birds, and having multiple guides to the same groups gives me the perspectives of different authors and illustrators.

Many field guides have a ruler printed on a cover, handy for measuring small items. One or two field guides come with me in a pocket or shoulder bag. Processing this information takes energy; chocolate helps.

Dehydration is a concern at all times of the year, and I carry water, at least in the car. Chocolate does not help prevent dehydration, but it tastes good.

I like to keep records of what I observe. I note not only the species I see, but also features that help me to identify them and observations of behavior and ecology. Writing implements and paper (note cards and/or a notebook) come with me (as does chocolate).

A seasonally appropriate hat, sunscreen, boots, tick repellent and layers of clothing help keep me protected from the elements. Large pockets and a shoulder bag help to carry chocolate and other gear. If I’m going out at night, I carry a flashlight. A pocket knife with various tools comes in handy for miscellaneous tasks.

Especially in unfamiliar terrain, a map (on paper for me), compass and common sense about finding one’s way come in handy. If I do get temporarily lost, calm and chocolate help.

In winter I carry matches or a cigarette lighter and an emergency blanket, although I’ve never had occasion to use any of them (and I keep in mind the warning in Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”). I have had occasion to use chocolate.

A mule would be handy for carrying my gear, but I have yet to use one.

I always try to carry the most important tools of the naturalist: curiosity and enthusiasm; eyes and ears to gather information; a brain to process the information; willingness to share with others I encounter in the field; and chocolate.

David Spector is a retired ornithologist and former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. For more on finding one’s location without electronics, see David’s earlier essay at

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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