Why now is a good time to become a backyard biologist

You might not be able to visit with friends or drive to your favourite park right now, but a retired curator with the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History has an idea: step outside, stand really still and listen for signs of spring.

As Nova Scotians grapple with tight restrictions on daily life during COVID-19, Andrew Hebda says these unprecedented times also offer a rare opportunity to take note of the small natural wonders we may overlook.

"Go on the front doorstep and then just stand there for two minutes and watch and listen and observe what's all around you," he told CBC's Mainstreet this week.

As the natural world wakes up after another long winter, he said you'll soon be able to hear the din of spring peepers and see migrating birds return home. Take a look in your backyard and you might even see a fisher, mink or skunk.

"Those guys are all on the move right now," he said. "Pretty soon we'll be hearing of bears. Watch for your first blossoms coming out, watch for your leaves and buds."

Alex Mason/CBC

Hebda suggests keeping a daily logbook that details a standard set of observations — the date, time and temperature — plus anything that's new or out of the ordinary. 

Doing this twice each day at morning and dusk will provide a solid set of data, he added. 

"Note the temperature, note what the weather is like. Is it windy? Is it cloud covered?" Hebda said. "It's sort of a bit of a discipline."

The next step is to go online or call up a friend to see what other people have witnessed, and compare results. Hebda said the Nova Scotia Bird Society and a bird song site called Dendroica are good resources. 

Craig Paisley/CBC

Nova Scotia has a rich history of citizen science, said Hebda, even in times of illness.

A hundred years ago, Alexander MacKay, the province's superintendent of education, tasked thousands of schoolchildren with recording the natural world.

Hebda said students watched for budding flowers and other natural events even in the midst of the Spanish Flu, which hit Nova Scotia in 1918.

"And they kept on recording things and passing that information on. It's absolutely astounding," he said. 

The Nova Scotia Museum is also encouraging people to look out for "urban geology," which are imprints of leaves, bird tracks or footprints preserved in cement.

The museum has created a map for people to plot where they find sidewalk fossils. 

"There's a lot around us, but we tend to not look around at what's just in front of us … because we're always in a hurry looking elsewhere," Hebda said. 

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