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Nature books that explain and entertain

The Daywatchers, written and illustrated by Peter Parnall. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company; London: Collier Macmillan Publishers. 127 pp. $16.95. Night Dive, by Ann McGovern, photographs by Martin Scheiner and James B. Scheiner. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 56 pp. $12.95. Project Panda Watch, by Miriam Schlein, illustratead by Robert Shetterly and with photographs. New York: Atheneum. 87 pp. $11.95. 101 Questions and Answers About the Universe, by Roy A. Gallant. New York: Macmillan Publishers; London: Collier Macmillan Publishers. 82 pp. $10.95. From Spore to Spore: Ferns and How They Grow, by Jerome Wexler. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 48 pp. $9.95.

One of the quickest, easiest ways to learn about almost anything is to read a children's book on the subject. It may be that the book is in fact more interesting to adults than children, which seems to be the case with ``The Daywatchers,'' by Peter Parnall.

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The author admits, in the introduction, to his possessive and romantic fascination with hawks, a consuming interest which began in childhood, and colors this record of his personal encounters with a wide variety of hawks. These encounters provide the information in his beautifully illustrated and well-written book.

Personal experience is also the means for telling the story of ``Night Dive.'' However, for this book, Ann McGovern chose to invent a 12-year old girl to tell the adventurous story of underwater exploration by night, and what creatures and structures, including a sunken ship, one might find. The story is based on the McGovern family's experiences, and there are some good, sometimes slightly comic, photographs to illustrate.

``Project Panda Watch'' tells the story of Chinese and American scientists' efforts to find out what pandas do in their native habitat. Zoo-watchers will be just as curious as the scientists and will learn quite a bit from this account. Actually, they may learn more about how scientists do field research than they do about pandas' secret lives. Most of the time pandas just eat, but this book tells why they spend so much time at it. The rather scratchy but effective drawings of pandas -- and scientists -- in the wild complement photographs of the playful bamboo-eaters in captivity nicely. By the way, did you know there is a bamboo crisis? Learn all about it right here. This book has a useful glossary and bibliography as well.

To really learn all about something, you have to ask questions. And that's just the point of ``101 Questions and Answers About the Universe.'' Roy Gallant, director of the Southworth Planetarium at the University of Southern Maine, has compiled the most-asked questions from elementary school children into a neat package, complete with concise answers. Some of the questions are obvious, some very astute. And many are the sort adults would like to ask but don't for fear of sounding silly, questions like ``What makes the sun shine?'' or ``Why is the sky blue, and why is it black out in space?'' The author redeems silly adults by noting that even ``astronomers wonder what the expanding Universe means. Did the expansion begin with the Big Bang? . . . And will the Universe just keep on expanding forever? Or will something stop it?'' Some of those questions are basic to learning about our universe, so thank you, Mr. Gallant.

Going from the macrocosm to the microcosm, we come like Alice in Wonderland to a world beneath our feet, a world so odd it's hard to believe. ``From Spore to Spore'' needs its subtitle ``Ferns and How They Grow,'' or we might expect talking caterpillars sitting on mushrooms! As it is, the strange stages of fern life are unfolded in the real-life photographs that accompany the text. Readers learn how to grow a fern from start to finish -- from spore through prothallium to fern to sporangium to spore -- and a good deal about the history of this ancient group of plants.

Mary S. Cowen reviews nature books for the Monitor.