Observing and identifying fall flora and fauna is a sure way to learn and have fun.
Nature bursts with activity before settling in for a long winter's nap, which makes autumn a great time to experience the wild. All living things seem to react to the shorter days and cooler weather. Heading out as a family to find out what different species are up to is the best kind of educational autumn fun.
BHG.com talked to lifelong outdoorswoman Susan Ebert, publisher and editor of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, to get expert tips on wild times with wildlife.
Sample your state parks. Ebert's favorite places for experiencing plants and animals up close are state parks. "At a state park, no matter what state you live in, park rangers are extremely knowledgeable about the animals and plants in their park and would be thrilled to talk to you about them and answer your questions," Ebert says. State parks often have marked nature trails, interpretive displays and nature centers devoted to plants and animals in their park; experiencing these with your kids is a treat in itself.
You can also try national, county and city parks; reputable wildlife parks (look for those doing conservation work); protected wildlife areas; and even your local zoo (especially if it is committed to designing natural environments for the animals). Start a list of possible viewing opportunities by doing some research:
Invest in field guides to your region. Part of the fun of getting outside among wildlife and plants is identifying what you've found. "One of the easiest ways to get started is to get a good field guide to the birds and flowering plants in your area," Ebert advises. "Find out which among them are endangered or threatened in your region -- field guides, a park ranger, or a phone call or online visit to your state department of natural resources can tell you which species to look for." Select native species in your field guide so you know what they look like and how they behave; then make a game of finding them when you're out and about. "It's a lot of fun for you and your family to hunt for those rare and endangered species and see who is the first to spot them out in the wild," Ebert says. She's partial to Peterson field guides and also likes the Audubon guides, or any thorough guide to your part of the country. Check with your favorite bookseller for these or for National Geographic or Kaufman Focus guides.
Flower-finding tip: When selecting a guide to flowering plants, Ebert suggests choosing one that is color-coded. "Then, if you're seeing a pink bloom, instead of paging through an entire book looking for it, you turn to the pink-banded section to narrow the search," Ebert says.
Tracking down tracks. Another fascinating thing to do in the wilderness or in your own back yard is to look for animal tracks. "Identifying animals by their tracks is great fun," Ebert says. Coyotes have expanded through North America, so you might see their tracks. Raccoons are all over, too. Tracking is fun along creek beds, where it's been muddy and dried out a little, preserving the tracks. In places where animals come to drink water, you'll find all sorts of tracks to identify. Animals, like people, are creatures of habit -- they tend to use the same watering holes and pathways.
Don't overlook the little things. Small can be equally interesting -- and easier to find. Insects, mosses and lichens are everywhere, which gives you lots of opportunities to find and identify them. Again, Ebert suggests putting your hands on a good field guide. "You might find that one of your children gets attracted to something really obscure. I remember my delight as a child when I discovered a jewel-colored scarab [beetle] in my back yard, and my sister got obsessed with lichens and mosses. There are little things that are going to be around no matter where you live."
Whet your wildlife appetite. Get your kids excited about identifying birds and other animals by having them learn before they look. The Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter presents photographs, songs, videos, identification tips and other information. Clicking around their site is fun and educational.
Another online treasure trove of animal recordings and related information is The Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics (BLB), which houses one of the largest collections of recorded animal sounds in the world -- approximately 28,000 recordings of more than 1,000 species. Click on BLB Catalog; then choose from among songbirds, non-songbirds, insects, mammals, and herps and fishes.
Learn about migration, mating, and other seasonal behaviors. Chances are, no matter where you live, you can witness migration, mating and "winterizing" behaviors. Every year, songbirds, eagles, ducks, and geese fly south to winter in warmer regions. Ebert suggests checking your trusty field guide or consulting a park ranger for information on migration patterns through your area.
Those amazing monarchs. "One of the most spectacular migrations is the monarch butterflies," Ebert says. "All of the monarch butterflies in North America migrate down through what's called the central flyway in the fall. It funnels from all over the continent down through Texas to the Mariposa Mountain range in Mexico. Mariposa means butterfly. Depending on where you are, you can often see clusters of monarch butterflies passing through your area in the fall on their way to Mexico." You can track the migration and find out all about monarch butterflies on the University of Kansas Entomology Program's Monarch Watch Web site.
Ducks are doing it, too. Also be on the lookout for the impressive annual duck migration. "Ducks in Canada, North Dakota, Minnesota, and other northern parts will migrate the length of the entire United States over the late fall," Ebert says. Keep your eyes peeled for them flying over in formation. They stop over where water is plentiful.
Cranes are whooping it up. One of Ebert's favorite wildlife-viewing opportunities next to Mariposa Mountain in Mexico is on the Gulf Coast of Texas, the winter grounds of the world's only large colony of whooping cranes. From October through April, about 200 whooping cranes overwinter in Texas at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. "These amazing birds are more than 6 feet tall," Ebert says. "They mate for life and spend a year or two raising their young."
Speaking of mating. October and November are breeding season (called "the rut") for white-tailed deer and elk. In Montana, you might hear bugling elk calling nonstop, rounding up their harems of females in Yellowstone Park, Ebert says. "Their behavior is very interesting to watch. The males will try to intimidate each other by pawing, snorting, posturing, and shaking their heads. Fighting with antlers or horns is a last resort."
Be eagle-eyed with binoculars. Wherever your wildlife viewing takes you, a good pair of binoculars enhances the experience. Beyond that, take along water, sensible clothing and footwear, extra warmth and waterproof gear in case the weather changes, camera(s), bug repellant, and a notebook for anyone in your group who is inclined to journal your expedition or sketch your discoveries.
Blend in with a blind. If you get super-serious, you can build a so-called blind, which allows you to blend in with nature so animals don't run off when they see or hear you. Ebert suggests this approach:
"All birders and other wildlife viewers know that the less obtrusive you are, the more you'll see," says Ebert.
Become a back-yard sanctuary. Once you and your kids have first-hand experiences with wild things, you'll be hooked. The good news is that even when you're not on a wildlife outing, you can view wildlife right out your kitchen window. Put out a birdfeeder and a birdbath and refill them faithfully with seed and water. In no time at all, word will get around and you'll have regular customers. "You can put out nectar for hummingbirds and corn for squirrels," Ebert suggests. "Anything you do to attract local wildlife in your back yard helps them in their daily quest for sustenance and gives your family wonderful viewing opportunities."
Whether you're in your own back yard or out in the wild, you can witness the miracles of the wild world together as a family. Instill in your kids a reverence for living things and experience awe together in the face of the magnificence of Mother Nature. These are lasting memories and life lessons, courtesy of a simple and inexpensive autumn outing.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.