How to Spot Animals in the Wild
Your experience in wild nature will be enhanced by these wildlife viewing techniques…Posted Aug 27, 2013
Viewing animals in the wild can be the highlight of any nature experience. I grew up in a Canadian park bordering Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Here it was common to spot moose, bear, wolves and lynx, sometimes right in our own backyard (and once, in the hallway of our house). But you don’t have to live in the wilderness to spot wildlife. Wherever you live, you can increase the likelihood of seeing birds and mammals by remembering a few key tips:
Look for transition areas
Like humans, animals spend much of their time near food and water. Transition areas like estuaries, river banks and shorelines are good candidates for diverse wildlife viewing, because they allow access to food and water along with protection from potential predators. Animals like deer need open sunny areas where there is herbaceous growth and shrubs, but they also want to be close to a forested area for shelter. The soil, mud or sand next to a waterway is also a good place to observe animal tracks and learn about animal behavior, providing it hasn’t been disturbed by human feet. Other likely locations include south facing slopes in early spring (the fresh spring greens attract all manner of wildlife) and meadows near a forest’s edge.
Consider the time of day and year
While some animals are active at all times of day, many birds and mammals choose dawn or dusk to feed and travel. Watch any bird feeder or listen to the dawn symphony to see that breakfast begins as the sun rises. Deer and other ungulates are most active and easily spotted one or two hours around dawn and sunset. Animals also tend to be most active during mating season and when rearing their young. They may be easier to spot when feeding in open areas like meadows, fields, roadsides and waterways.
Know your target species
If you are looking to view a particular species of wildlife, learn about their habits and food supply. For example, don’t look for bears in winter. Instead, know when they come out of hibernation in your area and what food is available at that time. In our neck of the woods, bears emerge in March or April and head for the fresh spring growth in the local farmer’s fields. Driving down the highway on a sunny day in springtime, we can often spot two or three black bears feasting on new spring greens, or see them at the estuary nibbling on fresh seaweed and shellfish. Later in the summer, those same bears are deep in the forest eating berries and digging for grubs. When fall arrives, they are often fishing for salmon by the river’s edge. Knowing what local animals eat and where they travel is one way to increase your chances of finding them.
Watch for animal scat, trails, tracks, runways and other signs
Tracks and other signs of animal passage will tell you a lot about wildlife behavior. They may also increase your chances of spotting the real thing. Mammals like deer, moose, foxes, and elk often create runways through the underbrush that identify the areas where they travel. Aquatic mammals like beavers and otters leave telltale signs near the water’s edge, including scat, lodges, dens, dams, flattened muddy trails, chewed wood, and even—in the case of otters—water slides. After tracking a racoon for several hours one day, I learned that racoons, like humans, will take the path of least resistance through a forest. This includes walking across every fallen log within reach. You can increase your chances of spotting animal tracks, and often animals, by raking a sandy area next to a water source. Checking back usually reveals a highway of birds, rodents, and other mammals travelling to and fro. Raking a regular trail will help make the tracks more distinct and give a better idea of the track age. A general rule of thumb is that tracks are most easily spotted in areas covered by snow, mud, and sand.
Bring the right equipment
A powerful pair of binoculars is a must-have for anyone interested in spotting wildlife up close. Not only do they protect you from potential encounters with large mammals, giving you the distance you need to stay safe, but they often allow you to observe wildlife unnoticed. Disturbed wildlife may be unable to feed or migrate safely, which may in turn disrupt their rate of survival. Keeping your distance while still getting an up-close look is one way to improve the experience for everyone. To improve the experience still further, I use a spotting scope (20x to 60x). Although heavy when hiking long distances, the scope is worth the effort when viewing of marine mammals like sea lions and whales from shore or watching far-off birds or wildlife interact and rear its young. A zoom lens on a digital camera is also great, but a trail cam that can take time-lapsed photos and has motion sensor trigger is a far more useful tool. If available, this tool can help you identify what kind of wildlife is using an area and when, so that you can focus your limited time more effectively. It will capture images that you could never get safely in person.
Stay still or move slowly and quietly
Humans are large and smelly enough that most wildlife knows we are coming before we even get close to viewing them. One way around this is to get comfortable in a wildlife viewing area before dawn or dusk and sit patiently and quietly until they arrive. You can also climb a tree, mount a tree-sit, or hide yourself in shrubbery with the aid of camouflage (but not during hunting season!) or behind a hunting or viewing blind. Make sure you are downwind of your quarry and avoid bringing pets that might disturb wildlife by barking or running. However, a well-trained canine can alert you to wildlife long before you would suspect their presence. If you do need to move when wildlife are present, do so from a distance, walking slowly and quietly. Watch the ground for branches or other debris that might alert them to your presence if stepped on. If you can, try spotting wildlife from a canoe or kayak: nothing is quite as stealthy as water travel.
Listen to the other wildlife in the area
Wild animals interact daily, often with dramatic results. Over the years I’ve learned that a loud ruckus of crows or robins usually means a bird of prey is in the vicinity. Both robins and crows will mob owls on the hunt. Ravens and seagulls will do the same to eagles, who just might be relieved of any meat they are carrying. In a similar way, birdsong and bird behavior will often change if predators like hawks are in the area, warning other birds to scatter or protect one another who share the same flock mentality. Frogs go silent when something approaches, so try paying attention to the changes around you.
Practice your animal and bird calls
Making wildlife calls may be an art, but practice will increase your chances of sounding like the animal in question. My father taught me calls for owls, loons, and song birds, which can be made simply by framing two hands over the mouth in various positions. For a simpler bird call, try summoning owls and hawks or mink by making rodent sounds (like squeaks) with puckered lips. A good way to learn bird and animal calls is to listen to recordings (and the real thing). Identification is the first step towards mimicking.
Whatever strategies you use to increase your chances of spotting wildlife, remember that maintaining your distance and avoiding contact is an important way to ensure wildlife remains in its natural state. If wildlife is constantly disturbed, their ability to thrive will be in question. More learning and enjoyment comes from watching from a distance rather than seeing how close you can get. It is also essential not to feed wildlife or leave waste out where they can become habituated to humans. As the saying goes, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” The same goes for other species.
Patrick Walshe is a Registered Professional Biologist who spent his childhood watching and tracking animals in the Quetico-Superior wilderness bordering Northern Minnesota.