Our planet is a sensitive ecosystem.
You’ve heard this right? But what does it really mean?
Probably every kid who has gone through elementary science class has heard the term “ecosystem”.
Here’s a basic definition:
An ecosystem is a collection of living and inorganic landscape elements coming together to occupy the same space and interacting together.”
It’s a nice concept, but how does this really help you?
- Does knowledge of ecosystems make you a better naturalist?
- What do ecosystems actually tell you about the environment?
- Is this really a practical thing?
The answer is a resounding yes! Your ecosystem absolutely tells you a lot.
But it’s really important to keep it practical.
Here’s what I mean…
If you’re familiar with my philosophy of down-to-earth nature connection, then you know I like to keep things, “backyard practical”, because that’s where you always find the greatest opportunities for shifting awareness, behaviour & attitude.
Today, I’d like to give you a new way of exploring nature and ecosystems in your own backyard…
So What Is An Ecosystem Really?
An ecosystem is just another way of saying that everything on our planet is interconnected.
We’ve all heard people say that everything in nature is connected… but almost nobody talks about how to observe these connections with your own eyes and ears.
It’s a shame, because you can’t truly appreciate things that are outside your awareness.
To have practical, first-hand knowledge of your ecosystem is one of the most important skills of the world’s best naturalists.
Whenever I work with my students on bird language or wildlife tracking or general nature awareness instincts, one of my first goals is to instil practical knowledge of how to observe connections in the landscape ecology.
As taught in modern indoor school settings, ecosystems are a very conceptual topic with very little practical understanding.
But when you get outside and literally see the connections happening between plants, birds, trees, soil, water, rocks for yourself, suddenly your relationship with nature will change quite dramatically.
It’s a really important skill!
I know if I can get my students to discover something entirely unique about their land, not from a book, but with their own eyes and ears… the result is truly amazing.
Native humans all over the planet intuitively say that everything in nature is connected.
They all come to the same conclusions because their culture seeks to observe these connections with their own eyes and ears.
It’s the result of awareness and good old fashioned observation skills…
- This is not just a concept.
- It’s a real thing that you can observe (and I’ll show you how in this article).
- Ecosystem awareness plays a huge role in human survival, both in our past, and it will continue to play a role in our future.
So let’s explore how ecosystems help you know your environment:
On one level ecosystems are very complex, but on another level ecosystems can actually be really simple to look at.
Let’s look at some examples.
Examples Of How Ecosystems Work:
Here’s an example from a trip I took many years ago to San Juan island in Washington State.
San Juan Island has an amazing ecosystem.
One of the most notable features is that the island seems to lack any ground predators larger than a fox.
But the incredible diversity of plants & growing conditions brings a high population of prey species, especially things like voles and rabbits.
One particular day, I was exploring an oceanside prairie edging up against a small beach, with a few homes nearby and a good sized forest further inland.
This is where I made a series of simple observations that really illustrate how ecological connections work in nature.
The first thing I noticed was a scraggly red fox lying in the sun of a grassy hillside.
The fox lay there enjoying the sunshine for a few minutes.
The next observation happened right about the time when the fox began trotting off.
I noticed a small group of crows fly up the prairie and position themselves in a lookout post near the beach houses.
A few minutes later I spotted the fox again, hunting along the edge of a fence line.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting…
I noticed there was a Northern Harrier following the fox in a behaviour sometimes called “Wake-hunting”.
Wake-hunting happens when one animal uses the disturbance pattern of another animal to catch their own prey.
In this case the target was voles.
As the Fox trotted along the meadow, it was scaring a wave of voles about 10 feet ahead.
This created an irresistible opportunity for the Harrier to catch easy food. Which the Harrier did quite successfully, multiple times.
But that’s not the whole story yet…
As soon as the harrier caught a vole, that’s when the Crows went into action.
The crows would chase the harrier and try to steal the vole.
Sometimes they were successful. And sometimes the vole would get dropped and lost, so the whole thing would start over again.
This happened over and over again, so many times in fact that by mid-day my exploring party started finding dead voles scattered around the prairie like a battlefield.
But even this wasn’t the end of the connections.
To top it all off… that afternoon the sky filled with a huge number of turkey vultures.
It was one of the highest populations of Turkey Vultures I’ve ever seen.
They were no doubt using their incredible sense of smell to clean up the mess left from the hunting and chasing earlier in the day.
Pretty cool, huh?
Going Beyond Observations of Wildlife
Animal sightings are often one of the most practical and obvious ways to uncover fascinating connections in nature.
But it’s important to realize that the dramatic events on San Juan island would not happen without the unique interaction of plants and biodiversity making space for high vole populations.
An ecosystem starts with the most basic elements & components, and gradually gets more complex.
The result was a tremendous wildlife density that I’ve rarely seen anywhere else on my outdoor adventures.
To really get the most insight about your local ecosystem, you have to track back to the root cause, which is usually linked to more subtle things like plant growth, season & weather conditions.
An Ecosystem Of Moisture, Grass & Wildlife Booms
Here’s a similar example to San Juan island that goes a bit more to the root cause.
There’s a common story in dry climates where you find a very hot and dry summer with mild and wet winters.
A good example is sunny California.
During winter, you get increased rain and moisture, which causes the dry, seemingly dead grass to start growing again.
Yup. It all comes back to grass.
As the grasses grow, the vole populations explode.
And this is when the foxes have babies.
The Hawks all have their young.
And the owls are taking advantage of a more active food source.
This is a sequence of eco systemic connections all relating back to the weather.
But it ripples out into all aspects of the environment, even down to the excrement of those voles, foxes, hawks, and owls.
It puts a new cycle of composting organisms into the soil that wouldn’t otherwise be there if you didn’t have voles, foxes, hawks, and owls… which then helps to fertilize the plants and makes everything grow better.
This pattern can be expressed in many different ways depending on your local environment.
In some parts of the world, grasses are not consumed by voles, but by insects like locusts, which can multiply and consume grass at incredible rates.
It’s a very simple interaction that you can actually observe with your own eyes and ears by paying attention in the dry season.
- What does the grass look like?
- What observations do you make about voles and hawks and owls and that kind of stuff?
- What observations do you make about the insects?
- What is the driving force of wildlife booms & busts in your ecosystem?
Every environment is unique, but they also follow similar rules & patterns depending on the sensitivities of your particular ecology.
In some places the big driver of ecological connections is temperature.
In some places it’s moisture.
In some places the presence of established forests & plant life can mean the difference between lush jungle and dusty desert (This is one of the reasons why de-forestation is such a big issue).
How To Apply The Examples
Okay, so these are cool stories and dramatic examples that illustrate the kinds of connections happening all around us.
But what if you don’t have a San Juan island or California Savanna in your backyard?
Well, you can still observe these same types of ecological connections happening in your own landscape!
- These dramatic stories are happening everywhere, if you simply take the time to open your eyes and ears.
- The most important thing is your own attitude & expectation.
- Most people are unaware of what’s happening in nature because they simply aren’t paying attention.
- Just make a decision to tune in!
The more that you approach nature from a mindset of looking for connections, the more fun you’ll have, the more adventure you’ll discover, and the more appreciation you’ll gain for the sensitivities of your own local environment.
Having practical knowledge of ecosystems will make you a very competent naturalist because you’ll have common sense about nature that most people never develop.
This is not difficult stuff!
It’s simple pattern recognition.
And it’s what the human brain is really designed to do… This is exactly the kind of intelligence that we should be teaching kids in the earliest years of their education.
Before people can conceptualize about math and physics and chemistry on a really abstract level… we can teach critical thinking, pattern recognition & observation skills by exploring nature.
It doesn’t take rocket science to see that the rain is having an effect on the plants.
The fact that you’re reading this article tells me you care about nature. You want to know the environment deeply.
And one of the best ways to care for nature is by developing your naturalist intelligence!
So here’s how…
How To Observe Connections In YOUR Ecosystem
I’d like to give 3 simple steps to help you observe real life connections in your own ecosystem.
You can do this in your backyard. Or a city park. At the beach. Hiking in the woods.
And I would encourage you to keep it very simple… because the more local and close-to-home you can explore, the more impact and integration this will have in your daily life.
Let’s do this.
#1 – Embody Your Investigator’s Mindset
The first thing you should do is go outside and look.
Find a place to sit down, or a small area to focus on.
Then pick something in your surroundings. It can be a tree or a plant, or a squirrel… anything at all.
Just pick one thing to focus on and examine.
Take on the mindset of a great detective like Sherlock Holmes. You’re looking for clues and insight.
Detective skills are all about attention to detail, while simultaneously keeping in mind the big picture.
It’s important to realize that what you see at first glance is not the complete picture.
Understand that beyond the surface, that tree, or plant/natural element is telling you something deeper.
It’s connected to a much larger story.
- What am I observing here?
- What is this telling me?
- How is this connected to other things on the landscape?
Now you’re making observations, and you’re looking beyond the surface.
You’re looking deeper to find details and subtleties that were previously invisible to you… and you’re also looking for connections & relationships to other things in the landscape.
You start to notice things like:
- The tree is dropping shade, so there are different plants growing in the shade of a tree, compared to growing in the sun.
- The tree is growing next to water, causing it to grow larger than trees further away from the water.
- The squirrel is gathering seeds in the tree
- There’s a bird feeding on the ground nearby. Something has created a food source.
#2 – Keep A Nature Notebook
Keeping a notebook helps you externalize and acknowledge your observations.
I recommend keeping a notebook devoted to recording all the observations you make about nature.
Human beings are born detectives & scientists. We innately know how to make observations & draw conclusions.
But sometimes it does take a bit of practice for this ability to come alive and develop to it’s full potential.
So here’s the tricky part…
The very first observations you make about nature will probably be VERY basic.
This tree is growing in the soil”
It seems like such a basic thing… Is this really worth noting?
Yes! I really would encourage you to take your observation and write it down. Just write it down.
I see this tendency in almost every student I’ve ever mentored.
Your observations might seem so basic that the temptation is to discount what you’re noticing.
But don’t discount any observation, no matter how basic or fundamental it might seem.
Writing your observations down ensures that you remember and acknowledge your surroundings.
It keeps you from storing everything up in your head.
Eventually you will start making deeper connections, but for right now we simply need to build up some raw material and practice recording observations.
- What am I observing?
- What else can I observe about that tree/plant/bird?
- What else can I observe about the larger surroundings?
And keep looking until you fill up a page with observations and connections.
This is a really simple activity that will start to open your eyes to what’s happening right in your own backyard.
#3 – Practice Natural Inquiry
Every observation you make about nature is one step in the sequence of a larger story.
Everything is a clue that could be the key to discovering a new and more enriched relationship.
All you have to do is look carefully & ask lots of questions.
Questions are really the key for transforming your most basic observations into PHD level insight about the birds, plants, trees & animals that make up your local ecosystem.
This video explains some of my philosophy around asking questions:
No matter how basic and surface level your first observation might seem… remember there are always deeper lessons and connections.
Now that you have a notebook page filled with observations, the next step is asking questions to help you look closer.
- What are you curious about now?
- What are some next steps you could take to learn more?
- What could you do to examine and gather more information?
- How does this relate to other plants, birds, trees, etc?
If you’d like to learn more about the art of questioning & natural inquiry, I recorded this podcast episode with one of my students as a live example of how this actually works in real life.
You can also try my nature memory journal program to help you record your own observations.
Now let’s get out there and explore our local ecosystems!