Sitting quietly lakeside, I watched a family of ducks swim into view. I knew trouble was on the way.
Not because ducks are fierce, but these ducks were about to swim below an owl perched in ambush. Moments later, there was a dive-bombing owl and a lot of fierce quacking and splashing. The ducks got away and the owl had to keep looking for dinner. During the time I’d sat there, five people had hiked down the trail, but none had noticed the owl. It’s not surprising: wildlife has to be good at hiding to either stay alive or get a meal.
And there’s a lot of wildlife out there, often hiding from us. Here are some things you can do to see more critters, more often, and teach your kids how to do it too.
Crepuscular Is Cool
First and foremost, most animals aren’t active during the middle of the day. Most are crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk—or fully nocturnal. You’ll miss most of the action if you wake up, cook breakfast, do the dishes, and then decide to go see what the wildlife is doing—they’ll already be down for their midday nap. The exceptions are hawks, which wait for afternoon thermals to form, and cold blooded critters like lizards on cool days. Wake up for sunrise and the birds’ morning chorus, go for a sunset stroll or go sit by the river after dark.
Manage Your Ripples
When humans wander through the woods, we send a wave of ripples that leads wildlife to hunker down. A bird hears us coming, chirps out a quick alarm and flies off. Another bird further down the trail hears that alarm call, chirps out their own, and flits into a hole in a tree. A fox recognizes the alarm calls and freezes right near the trail, camouflaged against the base of a tree. We walk by, thinking the woods are silent and deserted.
There are ways to limit these ripple effects we send out. The first is to sit still and be quiet. Eventually the wildlife will either forget you’re there or decide you’re not a threat and go about their business. Limit your noise. Wear minimal scents and lotions—many animals have a sense of smell orders of magnitude better than ours. And leave the pooch at home or in camp: dogs are very closely related to wolves, and wildlife will respond accordingly and get out of Dodge.
Live on the Edges
Wildlife likes edges. The edges of meadows give deer cover they can bolt into if a predator shows up; raccoons feed on the edges of streams, hawks and eagles perch in trees where they can spot prey below. Sandpipers follow the tide line. Bears loiter where rivers flow into the sea or spread out into wetlands. In rivers or oceans, look where currents merge—this stirs up nutrients and insects, which attracts fish, which attracts larger fish. Find where two types of habitat meet and watch those spots.
Use Your Ears
Not everything wants to be seen, but can be heard. Birds and frogs sing—they need to defend their territories and attract mates. Skilled birders can identify birds by song, easier than getting a good look at a tiny little brown creature flitting about in the treetops.
Look Up, Look Down
We tend to look for things at eye level. But most critters will be high in the treetops, soaring in the sky or perched on telephone wires. Or they’ll be going about their lives in the leaves on the forest floor, under logs, under rocks in tidepools or any number of places where we don’t tend to look for them. I once discovered a family of adorable mosquito-eating bats living happily and undiscovered in a friend’s office. How often do you really look in the crack behind the mailbox, anyway?
The Lost Keys Trick
Sometimes sneaking up on wildlife is futile: their senses are just too sharp. When this is the case, just pretend to be interested in something else. Approaching a pair of snowy owls once, I knew there was no way a 6-foot tall human would go undetected. So I acted like I’d dropped keys somewhere in their marshy field, and walked around aimlessly, head down, looking at the ground, not approaching them directly. They decided I was just some clueless bumbler, and stayed relaxed while I got a good view before retreating.
Appreciate the Small Stuff
We tend to think of “wildlife” in dramatic terms: the grizzly pulling down an elk or the eagle snagging a fish. Don’t overlook the wildlife that’s all around you: the squirrels and jays flitting about the campground, the crows dive-bombing the hawk to get it out of their territory, the tiny crabs scurrying around in tide pools. It often packs the same drama…just at smaller scale.