A Guide to Ultimate Wildlife Watching
We’ve all had it happen. You look up from the trail just in time to see an animal dive out of sight – a swoop of wing, a flash of antler, a slap of a beaver’s tail. The truth is, most animals see and hear and smell us long before we catch their drift. Most wildlife will flee from human presence. Their instinct is to stay and fight or flee from us, called fight or flight, and both can rob them of precious energy. Fortunately, there are simple ways you can help blend into an animal’s surroundings. In return, you’ll be treated to a wildlife show that makes your heart pound and your senses hum. Are you an ethical birder? Find out. Review the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics.
Follow these tips from animal behaviorists to watch wildlife without startling them or sapping their energy. Be prepared with a camera and tripod, binoculars, or a spotting scope. Give animals distance, you are in their backyard now!
Fade Into the Woodwork
- Wear natural colors and unscented lotions. Remove glasses that glint.
- Walk softly so as not to snap twigs or trample wildflowers.
- Crouch behind boulders or vegetation to blend your figure or break up your outline.
- Use at least a 400 mm lens.
- Have the sun at your back – afternoon light is best.
- Aim for featuring wildlife within its natural surroundings, not a full frame profile.
Let Animals Be Themselves
- Resist the temptation to “save” baby animals. They are not abandoned, and mom is watching from a safe distance.
- Give nests a wide berth. Your visit may lead predators to the nest or cause the parents to leave, exposing eggs or young to the elements.
Let animals eat their natural foods. Sharing your food may harm wild digestive systems and get animals hooked on handouts.
“Catch” a Fish View
- Crouch when you approach a stream or lake bank to avoid being seen by watchful fish.
- Keep an eye on your shadow so it doesn’t cross the water.
- Wear dull colors that won’t contrast with your surroundings.
- Move like molasses, smooth and steady.
- Tread lightly to cut down on vibrations that carry into the water.
Come to Your Senses
- A wildlife encounter is a spectrum of sensations. Deepen awareness by tapping your sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight.
- Use your peripheral vision rather than turning your head.
- Look above and below you. Animals occupy niches all around us.
- Cup your hands around the back of your ears to amplify natural sounds.
- Silence can speak volumes. Animals may fall silent when a predator is passing through an area.
- Peer through a hand lens to enter the world of insects.
How to Use Binoculars
Find the subject with your unaided eyes.
- Bring the eyepieces just under your eyes.
- Sight the subject over the tops of the eyepieces.
- Slowly bring the binoculars to your eyes and focus on your subject.
Think Like an Animal
- Imagine how the animal you are seeking spends its days. Check field guides to find out about life history and preferred habitats. As a rule, the border between two habitats is a good place to see residents from both places.
- Look in high visitation areas: trail intersections, perches, ledges overlooking open areas, and drinking sites.
- Take note of the season and guess whether the animal will be searching for a mate, feathering its nest, fattening for winter, or preparing to migrate.
- Dusk and dawn offer best bets for viewing. This time of day is when most animals are active.
- Consider the weather. After a rain, for instance, many animals emerge to feed.