Improving your Nature Observation Skills

Nature observation is inspiring, unpredictable, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.

You can enhance your nature observation experience and even improve your ability to spot wildlife by mastering a few techniques. When preparing for a hike or a camping trip , take a few moments to practice these simple skills and you will be amazed at the value it adds to your outdoor experience.

1. Before you hit the trail.

Study a map of the area noticing the shape of the land and where water sources are located. Look for transitional areas, fields bordered by woods or creeks feeding into ponds where animals are likely to move in and out. Your goal is to spot wildlife before it spots you. Checked or camouflage-patterned clothing helps blur your outline, but you also need to be positioned so your scent, your shadow and your movements don’t give you away.

2. Think like a wild creature.

Predators, including humans, have eyes in front of their heads; in prey species the eyes are on the side of the head. Predators have better depth perception, while prey have the advantage of a wide field of vision. The sight, sound and smell of a human frightens most animals away. If you get used to noticing movement at the edges of your visual range, you’ll see more than if you’re staring straight ahead or down at your feet. I find it helpful to practice developing my peripheral vision and my deep breathing when stuck in traffic or on waiting on a long line. Practice fox walking (keep your weight on your rear foot until after you gently set your front foot down) to help you walk quietly in the woods.

3. Use all your senses.

Cup your hands behind your ears to help you locate the source of sounds. Learn to distinguish bird songs and calls, frogs, rodents and other animal voices. Every utterance has a meaning, whether it’s to alert others to a predator, announce territory, attract a mate or locate a family member. Have you ever noticed that animals have wet noses? Moisten your nostrils to enhance your sense of smell. Feel the difference between the packed down trail earth and the loose leaf litter and twigs off trail. This is helpful when traveling at night. Practice walking short stretches with your eyes closed. Did your hand touch that spider web or protruding branch or did you walk into it? Trust your intuition. If you feel like you’re being watched, a curious or frightened animal may be just off trail waiting for you to move or turn away.

4. Practice practice practice.

In addition to developing your peripheral vision, try fox walking to see how close you can get to your cat or dog before your pet notices you. If you have access to a pond or lake, try fox walking to see how close you can get to a duck, a goose – or a green frog. Try sitting quietly for five minutes, gradually increasing the length of time you can sit without fidgeting. Many people use simple deep breathing exercises to help slow down while still remaining alert.

5. Location location location.

Now that you’ve studied your map, be on the lookout for those transition areas on your hike. As you approach these areas, slow your pace and focus your vision on the most distant ground, scanning the area. Find a spot with a slight rise, a rock or tree to prop your back against, dappled shadow to soften your outline and a dry, cushioned spot to sit and wait. Wind carries your scent even farther than 25 feet, so make you’re down wind. You want your scent to blow behind you, not in front of you.

6. Dawn and dusk are prime time.

Plan to arrive at your destination at least 90 minutes before sun rise (first light) or stay an hour or so after sunset. This is the time most animals are active. Some are going home for the day; others are just starting their nightly activities. If you are settled and still, blended into the environment, animals will go about their normal business rather than hiding or running away.

7. Blend in.

Even the shortest human towers over most wildlife. With our frontal vision staring down at them, our sudden, jerky head and hand movements, our heavy-footed gait and the fact that our scent travels 25 feet in all directions on a windless day, most animals will detect us before we ever notice them. While traveling to your destination stop frequently, scan the area. If you notice a horizontal line among the vertical trees, is it the spine of a four-legged animal or a broken tree limb? On sunny days use shaded areas to conceal your shadow. Light hitting your back outlines your silhouette, which is just as revealing as when your shadow stretches out ahead of you. To conceal human scent, some nature observers keep their outdoors clothing in a box with wood chips or crush native plants.

8. Spotting wildlife successfully. 

The more you know about where an animal is likely to live, whether it is active during the day or at night, where it builds or finds shelter, when it breeds or if it migrates, the easier it will be to narrow your identification if you only catch a glimpse. I spot more animals when I’m engaged in writing, relaxed, still and using peripheral vision. By posing no threat, several species of animals including blue jays, catbirds, chipmunks and even deer will step out of the shadows to check you out. There are techniques for making noises that will cause animals to come out of hiding, but because humans pose such a threat to wildlife, I refrain from doing this.

9. Develop patience.

In our results-driven culture, speed is rewarded, but in the natural world this just doesn’t apply. The more sounds, sights, smells, textures and patterns you can identify, the more you will realise just how much you’ve been missing all along.

10. Lifetime learning.

I just learned that rabbits are easier to approach just before a storm. I also just learned that the robins I watched out my window all winter have migrated to Canada and the robins eating the worms from the lawn all spring and summer came here from the south. I still don’t know why these things are true, but I’ll eventually find out. Mastery of any skill takes a life time. I spend as much time reading and researching as I spend in the field. It is the best investment I have ever made.

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