What are some "secret hazards" naturalists should know about your area?

I’ve always thought of the Southern Appalachian Mountains as a relatively safe and tranquil area. However, I’ve heard lots of folks from other regions visiting the mountaintops who have encountered some “problems” on their journey. Gravel roads with steep drop-offs down slopes or cliff faces apparently make people dizzy or afraid of heights circling up to the top of the ridges.

Also, many people searching for species like Yonahlossee Salamanders and Golden-winged Warblers, assume that range maps in larger field guides are accurate and end up at elevations much too low and/or microhabitats much too dry or wet, too forested or too open, to see them. Also, many don’t understand that carefully peeking under logs (and especially gently putting them back afterwards) or going out during a warm night rain are the best ways to find many creatures like salamanders or endemic snails & millipedes. Frequently, they’re not just waiting for you along the trail, and require a bit of work to actually locate. Stinging insects, like “cow killers” (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/97850670), can also be super painful learning experiences for those who assume they’re harmless since they don’t resemble dangerous organisms like related paper wasps or hornets (also insects to be wary of while exploring). Meanwhile, sensationalized species like timber rattlesnakes are calm, reclusive, and really aren’t anything to worry about; and definitely don’t share any location where you found them with strangers or anyone you don’t closely trust (poaching, extirpation concerns, etc.)

In short, I guess I’m wondering if there are any short, key tips atypically shared in field guides or other reference materials, about how to “not die” (or miss celebrated biodiversity) in your region?

7 Likes

East Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana: the high humidity will kill you. Eighty-five degrees here is not like 85 in Utah. When the weatherman gives a heat advisory, listen.

About the heat index/wet bulb temperature: What is the Heat Index and Why is it Used? | The Weather Channel - Articles from The Weather Channel | weather.com

8 Likes

Many people new to exploring California go hiking with their socks or ankles exposed, and end up with their shoes full of sharp painful burrs, grass-seeds, etc. Those “golden hills” of California are that color because of dry invasive grasses, many of which have barbed seeds that can really dig into flesh. One shouldn’t hike those hills, especially in summer, without good ankle protection. Bears here in late summer have so many seeds stuck in their fur, it looks profoundly uncomfortable.

7 Likes

In Manitoba, the winters can be brutal. Prolonged spells of -20C to -35C. Mind you, at that temp, there is not much out and about. Summers can be very hot, +25 C to +35 C. So If you plan to come here, prepare for the weather. Shoulder seasons are not too bad. Occasionally we get outbreaks of mosquitoes that can pass on equine encepalitis (dangerous to people as well) or west Nile virus. We now have the ticks that transmit Lyme, and in the bush, all ticks and biting flies are a problem. We don’t have a big blackfly problem (rivers are too slow!), and tabanids have not really been a problem. In the bush and in Parks, this might be different. There is nothing really dangerous - in remote areas black bears are around, and occasionally a mountain lion. No snakes to speak of! In the north, around Hudson’s Bay is tundra, and I don’t know too much about it.

4 Likes

The chiggers in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, USA - invisible and you never think of them until 2 days after a hike when you have 100 red bite blisters on your legs, from your ankles to your hips (despite wearing boots, long pants, and spraying with DEET). And the bites itch like crazy and heal slowly.

7 Likes

NYC is good for nature where you can find it, which is all over the place if you know where to look.

If you use a cell phone be aware that in NYC, during summer’s hottest spells and winter’s coldest cold snaps the temperatures can be so extreme that an iPhone like mine will shut itself off and refuse to work until it has cooled off/ warmed up enough to feel “comfortable” again.

And in NYC, be aware that somewhere like Central Park may look totally wild, but most of its most notable trees and many of its other plants were planted, so are not spontaneous/wild.

Generally speaking there is not much in the way of secret hazards to watch out for when iNatting in NYC. Just learn what poison ivy looks like, and stay away from getting it on your skin.

7 Likes

One unexpected “hazard” in Ohio every fall is Desmodium seeds. Almost impossible to get off without ruining your clothes.

15 Likes

In the lower Midwest/upper South, insects can be quite obnoxious in lowland areas, but the really bad one is Lone Star Ticks. In early to mid May they emerge en masse and get everywhere. They become less common by June but the end of July through first frost, peaking in August and September, is “seed tick” season when the young ticks hatch and want their first blood meal. It’s very unpleasant. This observation’s from Virginia but I’ve experienced similar situations in Illinois and Missouri: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/56273611

3 Likes

Do you mean only natural hazards? Most of my concerns are human in origin, from the relatively benign (like old mine adits and tunnels that are unsafe to enter) to the actively malevolent (e.g. illegal pot grows in remote areas patrolled by men with guns). I know what to do if I get lost or need to find food/water/shelter, etc. when I’m out exploring, but beyond just avoiding areas where these hazards might be present, there’s not really a good way to be prepared for those kinds of things.

5 Likes

Yikes! I know the feeling but never that bad!

Eastern Massachusetts has virtually nothing that is seriously dangerous. Mosquitoes probably have the greatest chance of doing serious harm so spraying yourself when appropriate is important. Two other general tips that could save you some frustration/discomfort/or worse;

If not wearing permethrin-treated clothes or otherwise pay attention to where you walk to be conscious of ticks. There typically aren’t ticks on a well-maintained trail but any instance where there is vegetation a few inches high or more there can be ticks, especially along game trails and transitions between woodlands and open areas. If you do go off trail simply check your pants every so often and check thoroughly at home.

My big tip though is to thoroughly understand poison ivy. Knowing what it is and what it isn’t is very helpful, but especially understanding that it’s an oil that causes rashes and that there are things you can do to eliminate or greatly reduce a rash after exposure.
Doing this flash card-style quiz works wonders in becoming familiar with and separating lookalikes: https://www.birdandmoon.com/poisonivy/
And this five minute video gives a great explanation of urushiol and how to prevent rashes: https://youtu.be/4oyoDRHpQK0

5 Likes


In the aridlands of Southern California, the bareness of the landscape makes it dangerously easy to succumb to Charismatic Organism bias.

See those juicy grasses at the base of this hill? It’s tempting to iNat them and then ignore the brown top parts, but those brown top parts were filled with a huge number of native mosses (all of which were absent from the vicinity of the grass).

5 Likes

I grew up in the very rural northern california mountains. People would always say “oh it must be wonderful to have so much wild land around you!” but really, the amount of accessible public land is bigger in San Francisco than it is out there. Most of the places near where I grew up weren’t safe to go at all because of illegal pot grows, and now illegal meth labs. It might be “public” land but if you go there you’d get shot, and the cops don’t even go near those areas. We were constantly having to warn out-of-town visitors not to go places without a local to escort them.

In the line of more natural hazards, ticks - they have a truly horrifying array of diseases you can catch from them, and some areas you will be picking dozens of them off your clothes just from brushing against the wrong bush. Once I decided to count them out of boredom, and found 107 on the same small plant by the path…

Poison oak is another one, people are pretty bad about recognizing it. One of my friends used to call it “tourist toilet paper”.

We have West Nile Virus out here so mosquito bites can be a bit of a concern and should be avoided if possible.

Especially in recent years, wildfire is an often overlooked hazard. There are some amazing places I love that I simply cannot go to during summer months, because I know it takes 45 minutes by winding dirt road through chaparral to get out again. If a fire starts anywhere between you and the exit road, you’re out of luck.

7 Likes

And, as you say, it comes in a bewildering number of forms. The leaves have different shapes and colors. It can look like a vine, shrub, or a small tree. And, the winter dormant stems and branches are quite easy to overlook.

5 Likes

Learned this the hard way last summer. Atrocious.

1 Like

Well, if it won’t do me any good, I just won’t bother…

I’ll post about the place where my heart is. The Dominican Republic is beautiful, but one hazard in rural areas in particular is human scat, sometimes left right out in the open on a riverbank or back beach. You don’t know what diseases its “depositor” may have.

Getting into more nature-related hazards, if it rains in the hills, there will be a delayed flash flood in the lowland streams; a small stream that I can walk across ankle deep in normal conditions can be a deadly torrent in the few hours after rain.

Along the shore, enjoying the reef and sea life, you may find the wave action or current is stronger than you anticipated. Even if you are a strong swimmer, you’d best have a good pair of fins and your wits about you.

6 Likes

Try using a credit card, gift card, etc., to scrape them off.

There are of course all kinds of natural hazards when going out exploring here in Southern California; mountain lions, wandering dogs, bears, ticks, poison oak, stinging nettle, goatheads and other burrs/thorns, flash floods, fires, steep slopes, loose scree, etc etc. However, the most consistently dangerous thing is people, which there are a lot of even in “wild” areas. Illegal marijuana grows (much of the Mojave Desert), illegal immigration corridors (along the Mexico border), arsonists, vandals, gangs (depends on area), poachers and so on are the things that are the most dangerous because unlike most natural hazards they will chase you down malevolently if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are places I will not take people to due to the presence of various kinds of activities, and unfortunately oftentimes you cannot find these things out unless you’ve been in the area for a long time.

Otherwise, specific challenges/hazards vary very widely considering how diverse California is, and each location is different in terms of what one needs to be aware of.

Thanks,

Arthroverts

5 Likes

That’s a great quiz! Some look-alikes were missing (e.g. box elder, virgin’s bower, fragrant sumac, kudzu). I might take this idea and modify it for my botany students. It would seem like a good way to earn extra credit and learn something useful for life along the way.

2 Likes

The biggest problem here in Oman is not the place being unsafe, but people thinking it isn’t safe when it is. When people hear, “In the Middle East next to Saudi Arabia and Yemen” their thoughts instantly go to terrorists, war, crime and extreme rules regarding clothing. It is far safer (and cleaner) here than any other country I have been to. The crime rate is so low to the point that it is national news when someone steals some copper wire. And there are so few tourists here that all beaches, wadis, and everything else (besides the souks and grocery stores, but even those are far less busy than anywhere else I have been) are practically empty.
The only warnings I have are:

  1. Don’t come in the summer. 120 degrees Fahrenheit summers are simply not fun, especially when the winter and fall have such good weather. It is also surprisingly humid considering it rains so little here (I lived in Houston Texas for a long time so I know what humid is).
  2. If it rains, do not go anywhere, and most importantly stay away from all wadis during the rain.
  3. If you go to Salalah, don’t get in the water unless you want to get strange parasites from the snails, but that is not an issue anywhere else.
8 Likes

Cape Town has Table Mountain, just above the city - and each year tourists are tempted to amble up in slip slops and T shirt. A walk in the park. They get lost, the path ends at a sheer drop for the rock climbers. Or the Tablecloth rolls in over the top of the mountain and a sunny summer day turns bitterly cold.

We have the Atlantic Ocean. Cold Benguela Current and riptides. ‘Please swim where lifeguards are on duty’

PS having read the others.
Plants - climber’s friend and blisterbush.
Walk aware of snakes - look where you step next.
And, people of course.

4 Likes