Blogtober: Lurking

As an introvert in a fairly extroverted job, I often struggle with how to start a conversation with park visitors. This summer, though, I hit on a technique that answers my plight nicely: the “interpreter lurk.” It’s not a formal program, but still helps me figure out which visitors are actually interested in learning more about the park. Here’s how it works.

I use the lurk as part of my usual trail rove. As I hike, I look for something that’s busy with insect activity. At the end of the summer, this often was fulfilled by a patch of blooming Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Wingstem is common along most of our popular trails.

Some wingstem beside the historic canal

Once I find a good patch, I settle in for a few minutes, just watching the insect activity on and around the flowers. I might take out my cell phone to snap photos of both pollinators and their predators for iNaturalist, or I might just observe. Within minutes, a few passersby usually ask, “What are you looking at?”

A native sweat bee (Augochlora sp.)

From there I point out the myriad insects. I like to reveal their behaviors, and how they interact with or depend on other plants and animals the visitors have likely seen in the park. From there, further questions almost always arise, about other insects in the park or even at the visitors’ home. I even had one family ask me how to raise the Black Swallowtail caterpillars they discovered in their parsley plant! (You can imagine my glee at that question, if you’ve read my caterpillar posts on the original Contented Naturalist, such as here and here and here.)

I can also turn the conversation to broader themes if a group sticks around, such as how climate change might mismatch the timing of goldenrod blooms and monarch migration. Other times we might find yet another interesting animal that shifts our focus. I once had started my lurk near several large praying mantises, one of whom had already caught a bumblebee and was devouring it. Not long after pointing them out, however, a passing dog walker suddenly yelped and stumbled, trying to avoid something underfoot. When he regained his footing, he exclaimed, “A snake! A green snake!” A small green snake had crossed the path and disappeared into the tall grass. We all watched as the snake’s path was betrayed by the moving grasses. Soon it emerged at the base of a tree, and slowly wove its way around the trunk. It paused from time to time, exploring some dead vines, before eventually disappearing back into the grass.

Here’s what we were watching before the snake made its appearance: a praying mantis devouring a very unlucky bumblebee.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Likely none of us would have seen the snake if we hadn’t already been stopped on the trail to look at the mantises. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos—I was focused on pointing it out as new hikers joined us. I also didn’t tell folks much about the snake’s life or places. But my comments weren’t needed, either, for watchers (and me) to walk away with a real sense of “Wow!”

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