Why I count the wild

Perhaps you should too.

written Nov 30, 2018 (last updated Sep 5, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Why count

Biking and counting

I bike to work, even when it rains. I do that by choice; it adds adventure to my day and focuses me on the moment (and it’s low carbon). I know this is puzzling to most people, driving their comfy cars to work. Yet, once you’re hooked on commuter cycling, it can be the most satisfying way to travel. Counting the wild is similar.

To most people, counting the wild is at best a useful thing for other people to do. At worst, people do not understand that it’s important. They instead equate it with what they see as quaint, old fashioned hobbies like train spotting and stamp collecting. Yet, for those of us counting the wild, it’s hard to imagine not doing it. It connects us to a much larger world.

Importance isn’t enough

I’ve been thinking lately about how I promote wild counting and casual nature watching. My standard pitch to my ecologist colleagues, and students, has always been that they should do it because it’s important. We don’t know how nature is responding to the many human-driven environmental changes (with few exceptions). Long-term monitoring is fundamental to detecting and reacting to changes in nature. We’d know much more about changes in nature if more of us were counting our pieces of the wild.

I’ve come to realize that importance by itself is not a big motivator. The acknowledged importance of long term monitoring hasn’t resulted in professional ecologists all personally counting the wild. Most just like to analyse other people’s’ long-term counts. In the same way, everyone’s increasing awareness of rapid global warming hasn’t caused a massive shift from cars to bikes. Importance, alone, is just a recipe for wanting others to do it.

Counting the wild is satisfying

What’s not widely known is that counting the wild, like biking, can be immensely satisfying. Paying close attention to the wild things around me puts my life in a much bigger perspective. There’s magic and mystery, and drama, all around when I pay close attention to nature. Every place is filled with stories, from an urban wasteland or a back garden to a national park. Counting the wild both puts me in the moment and connects me to the changing seasons and years.

The Christchurch City Council in New Zealand last year advertised commuter cycling on their bus fleet with the slogan, “Feel More. Ride More.” That captures it really well. Both commuter cycling and counting the wild have the benefits of feeling more, and making more of the moment.

This is all something I stumbled onto by accident. I didn’t know any of it when I started counting.

Advertising biking
"Feel more Ride more" says a Christchurch bus, encouraging people to ride their bikes.

How I started counting the wild

I started counting the wild back in 2003, on my bike rides to work, when I returned to my home town of Christchurch to start a job at Lincoln University. I started counting because I knew it was important. By then I was already aware of how little knowledge there was of the long term changes to nature, how quickly the environment was changing, and how simple and consistent counting can be useful.

Something that made a big impression on me at the time was a seminar on farm ecology at Landcare Research, in Lincoln. Landcare Research [now Manaaki Whenua–Landcare Research] is the New Zealand government’s terrestrial environmental research institute. The seminar was well attended by a mix of local scientists and farmers. During question time there was a conversation about whether the numbers of Australian harriers, the most common bird of prey in the area, were locally increasing or decreasing. Some thought they’d increased, others that they were in decline. In this audience of experts, I was surprised that nobody knew. Worse, there were no data being collected locally that could give a definitive answer. And counting harriers is very easy!

I didn’t want my counting to be difficult, or become a burden, so I started simple. At the time I also didn’t have the identification skills, the technology, or the motivation, to contemplate something more ambitious. I tip-toed into counting the wild because I knew it was important. It wasn’t until after I started that I learned how satisfying, and fun, it can be.

I started by consistently noting observations of a few species on a piece of paper attached to my bike handlebars (this is 2003, pre-smart phone). I started with birds of the species that were present in the forests of wider Christchurch area before the city was founded. These were now rare birds and on many rides I saw none at all. That was my point. My hope was that I would see these birds increase over my lifetime as the city took more responsibility for its local biodiversity. My fear was that I’d see them decline. I also added a small selection of easy to see and easy to identify larger birds, including Australasian harriers. And, I added butterflies, of which there are few species locally, and I added fresh roadkill.

counting the wild from a bike, using paper and pen
This is how I initially counted the wild from my bike, starting in 2003 on my bike ride to work. Get a closer look at that piece of paper and what it means.

Then I got hooked. I’ve since expanded the species I count as I’ve increased my identification skills and invented more efficient ways of recording my observations, with my shorthand and smart phone. My bike rides expanded to to all bigger bodied birds, then all birds. I added large fungi, which are prominent on the roadsides at some times of the year. I added some notable plants and their flowering times. When my son was born, in 2008, I added wild counting to my weekly run, which I first did while pushing his pram around my run route during his afternoon naps. Soon afterwards, I expanded to counting at all the other places I went.

heading home counting the wild using my iPhone
My iPhone mounted on my bike handlebars on my evening ride home from work. Open is my FileMaker Go database that I use to count assorted wild species along my route.

Counting the wild is a personal journey

Counting the wild has become a personal journey of increasing awareness of the wild stories at play around me. The more skills I’ve gained, and the more species I’ve learned, the deeper has grown my sense of place.

At every place I go, the wild species now tell me stories. They tell of recent hardships and successes, and of alliances and enemies. They tell stories of their landscape and how it’s changing, and of grand histories, both recent and ancient. Some of those stories are vibrant and optimistic. Too many others are of struggle and decline. Everywhere I go today the wild speaks of winners, of losers, and change. Always change.

Recording these wild stories is a privilege, and it is something that I’m now happy to regard as my personal responsibility. It’s also great fun connecting together with others doing the same, both in New Zealand and around the world, through iNaturalist and natural history societies. I’ve discovered that there are amateur naturalists in many places quietly noting down the changes in their local wild. In most places this happens under the radar of environmental institutions and without their support. As a result, there is also little standardisation of methods or data entry. I see huge potential for us to all do better.

Feel more, count more

Counting the wild is more than just casual nature watching, where you hunt about for interesting living things. It’s quite different from specimen collecting where you seek out good specimens of new things you’ve not found before in an area. It’s also very different to “forest bathing”, where you soak up the natural green ambience and relax.

When I count the wild, I’m focused on noticing every individual of my chosen group of species. My mind isn’t drifting in a green leafy blur or hunting for curiosities; it’s focused on capturing the moment. I notice the individuals, what they’re doing, and the species they’re interacting with. It’s this consistency, and completeness, of my counting that reveals robust patterns and trends, something that’s difficult to do from casual nature observations. I appreciate the way it forces me into the moment.

Counting the wild is so much more than just doing something that’s important. It makes every day more unique and filled with drama. There’s a quiet pleasure to be found in doing something so rich in meaning. You’ll find it waiting in the wild around you.

Tawhairaunui track
A forest track is more than a pretty wall of green or an interesting place to find natural curiosities. It is a library of natural stories, some ancient and some modern. With study and practice, you can learn how to read those stories. These stories are also still being written, especially as the world is steered into unprecedented environmental conditions. You can use wild counts to tell these stories of nature's change where you live.

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