Nature has always been a source of solace and healing, and that fact takes on added significance today. As we all try to keep to ourselves in order to protect our own health and that of our loved ones, spending time in quiet, uncrowded, natural places is the balm that appeals most to our souls.
The added benefit of seeking out the natural world right now is that it is full of wonders—especially glimpses into the lives of the “others” who still do, truly, live alongside us in their natural habitats. You certainly don’t have to reside in the wilderness to spot wildlife. Wild animals are there with you, wherever you are, right now.
Here are some helpful tips for increasing your chances of eyeing something or “someone” spectacular when you go outside and stop to take a long look.
1) Learn the best times to look
While some animals are active at all times of the day, many birds and mammals choose dawn or dusk to feed and travel. So, as a general rule, you’ll have the best opportunity to see wildlife if you get outside before the sun rises or linger there as the light slowly leaves the evening sky.
Watch any bird feeder, and you’ll see that breakfast begins at first light. Deer and other ungulates are most active and most easily spotted one or two hours on both sides of dawn and sunset. The good news is that these are also the best hours for photographers: the soft light of the “blue hours” and the “golden hours” makes for the best photos.
Seasons also make a difference in wildlife activity; and there, too, we’re in luck. Spring bird migrations will give you a chance to see many unusual species. And, animals tend to be more active when they’re rearing their young, which is usually in spring.
If you should happen to live along the ocean, tides can make a difference for you. High tides concentrate resting shorebirds and allow spawning salmon better access into some streams. Low tides reveal creatures in tidepools and draw a wide variety of animals into the intertidal zone. Check the Internet for tide tables.
2) Bring the right equipment
Taking along a pair of binoculars will allow you to observe wildlife from afar unnoticed—and give you the distance you need to stay safe. Disturbed wildlife may be unable to feed or migrate safely, which may, in turn, disrupt their rates of survival. Binoculars don’t need to be extremely powerful; those with lower magnifications, such as 7x or 8x are small and light (and therefore easier to hold), giving you a wide field of vision and brighter images in the half-light of dawn and dusk.
Although heavy to carry when hiking long distances, a spotting scope (20x to 60x) is probably worth the effort when viewing marine mammals—such as sea lions and whales—from shore or watching distant birds. An added benefit with a spotting scope is that it can attach to a digital camera via an adapter, in a technique called digiscoping.
If you have a camera, preset it for the correct ISO, f-stop (aperture opening) and shutter speed for the specific light conditions and anticipated movement of your subject. Watch for opportunities to be eye level with an animal or look for elements that could serve as backdrops that could embellish the natural scenes, such as flowers or a large tree. One way to keep your interest charged is to visualize an image that you’d like to capture and work to get it, even if it takes years to accomplish.
Bringing along wildlife identification sheets and field guides could help you differentiate animal species quickly, especially those at a distance. They could also give you an idea of the types of animals you can expect to see in your particular environment.
3) Dress to blend in with your surroundings
Animals will sense your presence long before you’ve settled down for a vigil, but your choice of clothing will still help to lessen your impact. Bright, colorful items are more likely to deter rather than attract wild animals. In nature, bright colors, such as blue, red and yellow, often warn predators that an animal is dangerous or toxic. By dressing in earth-toned clothing, such as black, brown, gray or green, you become less noticeable to wildlife.
Try to wear “silent clothes.” Comfortable garments that don’t rustle are best. Dress in layers without a lot of fasteners; unpeeling strips of Velcro can scare animals.
If you’re stationary, ideally you can hide inside a constructed blind, but otherwise conceal yourself by shrubbery, a stand of trees or another obstacle that shields you from an animal’s direct line of sight. If walking, move against the wind as much as possible.
It’s also a good idea to avoid wearing colognes and scented lotions and hair products, since they can be picked up by animals with keen senses of smell.
4) Know the species in your neighborhood
A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to spotting animals, especially smaller ones that are hard to see at first. Before leaving home, read up on the habits and habitats of the animals you think you might come across—what they eat and where they tend to congregate and rest. It’s a good way to increase your chances of finding them.
Learning those fundamentals can be just the beginning of your adventure. Once you’ve located an animal and observed it, go deeper. Did that swooping eagle come up from the water with a fish, or did it miss it? What kind of shrub is that deer munching on? Where is that osprey going with a stick?
5) Pay special attention to transition areas
The “edge” zones between different habitats can be among the best places to scan for wildlife. They allow access to food and water, along with protection from potential predators. Edges contain components of their neighboring habitats, attracting wildlife typical of both sides. For example, edges where forests transition to meadows, marshes or tundra; estuaries; riverbanks and shorelines offer opportunities to see wildlife that might otherwise be hidden. Deer, for example, need open, sunny areas where there is herbaceous growth and shrubs, but they also want to be close to a forested area for shelter.
In early spring, a south-facing slope attracts a variety of wildlife with fresh, spring greens.
6) Think in terms of patterns
Observe carefully and make yourself familiar with the patterns of the rocks and vegetation where you live. Then, be alert for subtle changes in those designs that might indicate wildlife, such as shapes that are just a little out of place in the texture of the environment.
Horizontal lines, such as the line of a moose’s back, often stand out among patterns of vertical light and shadow in forests. Colors can be clues, too; some animals, such as Dall sheep or black bears, are significantly lighter or darker than their usual surroundings.
Watch for movement. Glass-calm water is ideal for spotting the stirrings of marine mammals, birds and fish, but animal activity can be visible even in choppy water by ripples and splashes. Anything that disrupts the pattern and texture of the water’s surface—such as dimples, rings or swells—could indicate underwater movement.
Sometimes, the animals themselves can be your guides. A cluster of feeding gulls can indicate a school of baitfish, which might also be attracting humpback whales. You might be led to notice a prowling coyote or lynx by Steller’s jays scolding from overhead branches.
7) Watch for animal scat, tracks and runways
Tracks and other signs of animal passage increase your chances of spotting the real thing. Mammals—such as deer, elk, foxes and moose—often create runways through the underbrush that reveal the places where they travel. And similar to humans, most other animals will take the path of least resistance through a forest, walking on roads or across fallen logs.
Aquatic mammals, such as beavers and otters, leave telltale signs near the water’s edge, including dams; dens; chewed wood; flattened, muddy trails; lodges; scat (droppings) and, in the case of otters, waterslides.
By raking the sand on a shore and checking back later, you may discover a “highway” for birds, rodents and other mammals. Raking regularly will make the tracks more distinct and give you a better idea of a track’s age.
You don’t need to be able to name a species from a glance at its tracks or scat, but a basic grasp of how to interpret marks left in mud, sand or snow will help you find wildlife and teach you more about animal lives. Check online bookstores or libraries for field guides to tracks. One of my favorite tracking books is The Complete Tracker: The Tracks, Signs and Habits of North American Wildlife by Len McDougall, published in 1997.
8) Be still (or move slowly and quietly) and listen
An eagle can spot a hare’s ears twitch from a mile away; a bear can sniff out a source of food from even farther away than that; and an owl, high up in a tree, can hear a mouse scurrying through leaf litter. Most animals will see, hear or smell you long before you are aware of their presence. Depending on how far away you are and how you act, they then decide to stay, flee or defend themselves.
To encourage them to stay, keep silent and as still as a statue—not only to evade detection but to avoid spooking an animal. Hide behind cover if possible. If not, crouch down to shrink your profile. Leave pets at home and silence your mobile phone.
If you do need to move when wildlife is present, walk slowly and quietly. Pay attention to where you’re putting your feet; it’s easy to trip if you’re moving through tangled undergrowth or in murky conditions. If you can, try spotting wildlife from a canoe or kayak; nothing is quite as stealthy as water travel.
Quietly listening can help you locate wildlife. Animal calls, cracking twigs or the flutter of birds’ wings let you know that something is near. A loud ruckus of crows or robins usually means a bird of prey is in the vicinity. Both types of birds will mob owls on the hunt. Ravens and seagulls will do the same to eagles. Similarly, birdsong and bird behavior will often change if predators, such as hawks, are around. Frogs go silent when something is approaching, so pay attention to the changes around you.
9) Practice patience
The art of wildlife-watching requires creativity, enthusiasm, love and a lot of patience. But sitting quietly for a while and waiting for nature to reveal itself to you is often more relaxing and more rewarding than you ever imagined.
10) Take notes
Keeping records of what you see can help you become a more careful observer of nature and refresh your memory weeks or even years later. Your notes might range from species’ checklists to field sketches with written details on behaviors, habitats and weather.
A few wildlife-watching don’ts
Humans have the power to change wildlife behaviors and habitats for the worse. Adhere to these guidelines to prevent adverse consequences:
• Never feed wildlife. It may seem compassionate to feed hungry wild animals, but handouts have the potential to hurt their digestive systems or make them dependent on future aid from humans.
• Keep a respectful distance. Maintaining your distance and avoiding physical contact ensures that wildlife remains in its natural state. If animals are constantly disturbed, their abilities to thrive diminish. More enjoyment and learning come from watching from a distance than seeing how close you can get.
• Don’t interfere with mating, predation or other natural behaviors. Often, wild animals are not accustomed to humans and will not necessarily see you as a friendly presence. Interacting with them, especially if they are mating or exhibiting predatory behavior, can be extremely dangerous. If they decide you are a potential threat, they may try to harm you to warn you away.
• Preserve habitat by following leave-no-trace principles. As much as possible, try to leave no mark of your passing. This means taking your trash with you and leaving the environment as you found it.
Encountering wild animals in their natural habitats—even close to home—creates positive memories that will stay with you for a lifetime. Even if your “sheltering in place” doesn’t allow for you to take a walk outdoors, remember that a trail cam that can take time-lapse photos by a motion-sensor trigger can keep you connected to the wildlife around you.
No matter how stressful our times or how stringent regulations become, I know that frequent doses of nature will get us through.
As almost never before, here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,