One of the reasons I started nature journaling many years ago, was to learn more about the plants and animals where I lived. Over the years I have continued to use my journal for this purpose (and for many other reasons, as well). I have gotten to know the birds in my backyard, wildflowers at a nature center, the trees in the woods around my home all by slowing down and paying attention with pen and pencil in hand.
When I go birding in the spring, my nature journal always comes with me. I walk into the woods, and listen for an unfamiliar call or song, and follow it. If I'm lucky, I catch up to the bird singing away in the treetops. I train my binoculars on it, looking for telltale markings. I then pick up my journal and pencil and sketch away, making notes about size, color, behavior and sounds. Back and forth, binocs, journal, binocs, journal, binocs, journal, until the bird flits out of sight. Only then do I pick up my field guide and search, comparing what I saw on the branch, to what is in the pages, using my notes as a guide. Back at home, after pancakes and a cup of tea, I open the field guide once more, and make a detailed drawing of the bird from its photo, so that next time I see and hear it, I'm more likely to remember what I saw. This is how I began to learn the most basic of birds--chickadee, nuthatch, goldfinch--and this is how I continue to learn ever more tricky and evasive species.
During a camping trip last spring, I encountered dozens of warblers while on a short family walk. I had my binoculars, but no journal, and made notes in my head as fast as I could see the birds--orange breast, flashing tail with yellow patches, yellow chin, black-and-white, gray and yellow. Some I knew already, like the yellow and chestnut-sided warblers, and some I never did figure out (turns out several warblers can be described as gray and yellow). When we got to the car and started driving home, I looked through the bird book and wrote down the species I saw (or thought I saw). Then, over the next several weeks, I drew birds.
Now, I may not remember all of these next time I see a specimen, but I will definitely remember that the bright orange chest belongs to the Blackburnian warbler, and that the American redstart flashes its yellow-patched tail (the female being much grayer and duller than the male).
Over the last couple of years, I've started a similar process with dragonflies. I get a good close-up look at a dragon (at first only if it stopped on a log right in front of me--but now I catch them and study them close-up), sketch what I see (if my journal is nearby), take notes about size, color, eye position, wing patterns, etc., and then hit the books.
At first (and often still), all I would figure out was that I did't get enough information, or the wrong kind--I counted the thoracic stripes, but didn't note their exact shape. But this teaches me what to look for next time, and slowly, so slowly, I am sorting out families and, when I'm very lucky, figuring out a few species as well.
It may seem like it should be easier to ID dragonflies, when you can get them into your hand, than birds, which fly around hiding behind leaves, but there are some insanely minute details that distinguish one dragon from another.
Now, not everyone is going to feel compelled to identify and name every bug and beast that flutters by. Maybe it's a writer thing, or a naturalist thing, I don't know. But I do enjoy the mystery of it all, sifting through clues, narrowing down possibilities, making informed guesses and, sometimes, hitting upon the answer. Plus, just the act of getting close-up and personal with a plant under a hand lens, or a dragonfly in hand, or a tree just beginning to bud, asking it questions, waiting patiently to learn the answer, slowing down, watching and listening, bring us closer to that bird or bug or tree, and to nature in general.
Are there other ways to cultivate this mindfulness, this slowing down and getting close to nature? Certainly--poetry, painting, meditation, lying in the hammock on a summer's day all can have a slowing, connecting and grounding effect, and I enjoy them all. But learning a new species through journaling is one of my favorite ways to get acquainted with my wild side.