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NatureZen: Nature, Together

words and photos by Melissa McMasters

Most of the time in this space, I share photos and stories about the wildlife I’ve encountered. But there’s another element to nature exploration that makes it even richer: experiencing it with other people.

Next weekend Memphians will have the opportunity to experience nature together during the City Nature Challenge. From April 26-29, we’ll be part of a friendly global competition to see which cities can record the most observations of wildlife using the iNaturalist platform. It’s about gathering real-time data about the plants, insects, and birds that call our cities home, sure, but it’s also about getting outside with our neighbors. Whether you can’t tell a bluebird from a blue jay or you can identify 25 warblers by song alone, next weekend (through events hosted by Overton Park Conservancy and our partner organizations) is the chance to see nature through the eyes of your community.

Students amid a field of bright yellow mustard plants
Our last large-scale Memphis BioBlitz was in 2016, and it included a field trip where I was introduced to the beauty of T.O. Fuller State Park, which will host several events in the City Nature Challenge.

Many of us remember that sense of wonder we had as kids the first time we saw a colorful bird at the feeder, or a butterfly perched on a flower. As the Conservancy has offered more community programming over the years, I’ve gotten to enjoy watching kids move from fear of insects to delight as a leaf-footed bug trips delicately across their fingers. So far my favorite kids’ program has been the walk where we asked Snowden students to draw their favorite thing that they learned about in the forest. I loved seeing all the millipedes and butterflies, but my favorite was the dramatic enactment of my warning never to touch a velvet ant because their sting is so powerful they’re sometimes called “cow killers.”

Drawings of a velvet ant and millipede, and kids gathered around a small butterfly
That velvet ant is *thrilled* to offer the full fury of its bum to anyone who dares to get too close.

One of my favorite ways to share nature is volunteering for community science projects (just like City Nature Challenge!). For twelve years now, I’ve assisted on seasonal butterfly counts in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park and elsewhere in West Tennessee, collecting data on how many species and individuals are present year over year. By now the counting crew has been at it long enough to reminisce on great counts of the past (that year with all the phaon crescents!) and near-disasters (the spring it was so cold that we saw four butterflies all morning; the time the mosquitoes were so thick that we spent the whole day thrashing around and still wound up looking like we had chicken pox). I think it was the count when someone apologized for misidentifying a pearl crescent by yelling “Sorry…I’ve got phaon fever!” that I truly knew I was among my people.

A tally sheet of butterflies, two small orange butterflies
My counting buddy Allan uses our tally sheet to measure the size of a crawfish chimney; pearl and phaon crescents start to look alike after six hours in the heat!

So many of my memorable nature experiences wouldn’t have happened without someone else guiding me along. There are multiple vagrant sparrows I’d never have seen without being lucky enough to run into Jim, one of our friendly local birders. A couple walking a trail in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert had become so enamored of the Sonoran blue butterfly that they showed us how to find their eggs on Dudleya plants. A man who’d retired to Texas and set up a wonderland of feeders around his camper sat with me and introduced me to the individual birds he’d gotten to know during the pandemic. I have no photos of these people, and in many cases don’t know their names, but I can remember how our shared excitement made me feel.

Roadrunner eating a mealworm
This one goes out to the lady who taught me that if you give a roadrunner mealworms over a long enough period of time, it will slink up to you like a cat.

Of course, my favorite people to share nature with are my co-workers here at the Conservancy. On countless walks through the woods, and in staff meetings where we share our recent wildlife sightings, I’ve learned what makes everyone’s heart sing. Andrew is incredible at finding where snakes are hiding, Malle loves to dive deep into research but is just as happy drawing the birds she sees, and Kaci finds the beautiful artistic potential in a cicada’s wings or a wildflower’s petals. Fields can translate the songs of the birds into human words and thrill to even the tiniest moth, Eric can detect the minuscule differences between the buds of different elm trees, and Heather can turn a simple stick into a craft project that kids remember months later. Abigail loves waking up to the morning birdsong, Tina is never happier than when someone hands her a garter snake, and Kim’s enthusiasm for learning about new creatures is only exceeded by her amazing ability to spot them from comically long distances. I can’t think of any better people to learn alongside.

Conservancy staff
Most of the team on a visit to Memphis Botanic Garden last summer

For a perfect coda to this topic, while I was in the middle of writing this email, I got a text from Fields that she was walking in the Old Forest with a new friend and they’d run across an Eastern whip-poor-will. This is a nocturnal bird that’s more often heard than seen, and outside the city limits at that. I turned around and said to Kim, “There’s a whip-poor-will; we gotta go!” and we headed for trail marker 12. What a magical experience to see a bird for the first time, knowing that it was spotted by someone visiting Overton Park for the first time! While we probably will never see that individual bird again, every time in the future that we walk with Carolyn, I know we’ll all remember geeking out about this snoozy little nugget.

Cryptic brown bird perched on a log
That mustache!


Kim, Carolyn, Melissa, and Fields
Whip-poor-will fan club

So…come out and enjoy some nature with us next weekend! The full list of local events is at Overton Park Conservancy is hosting seven different Nature 101 walks on Saturday, April 27 between 9:00 AM and noon, and we’d love for you to join us for one or more. (Sign up here.) Of course, you can also download the iNaturalist app and participate on your own–any observations you make within Shelby County between Friday 4/26 and Monday 4/29 count–but we hope to see you at an event too!

The results of the challenge will be shared on May 6, and we’ll see how Memphis stacks up against the more than 600 participating metro areas around the world.

Thanks to our partners at Memphis Botanic Garden, Memphis River Parks Partnership, T.O. Fuller State Park, University of Memphis – Meeman Biological Station, and Wolf River Conservancy for helping create an exciting weekend.