How to see wildlife

How to See Wild Animals
©2012 by Pat Wray

Bill Barker’s nice October 4 column about stalking wild game made me think about the first step in the process—that of seeing animals to begin with.
Most people don’t realize that the activity we refer to as ‘seeing’ an animal is actually a two-stage process. Looking at the critter is only the first step. Actually recognizing the animal is the critical second step. All too often our vision sweeps over the landscape without registering the presence of game animals standing in plain sight, or at least plain enough to be seen.
Veteran hunting guides will tell you that helping their clients see an animal they have spotted is often the hardest part of their job.
The first few times I rode with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists I was amazed at their ability to point out animals that were invisible to me…while they were driving. After a lot of practice, I began to pick up on their techniques.
First, they knew what they were looking for. When we drove along I-84 between Biggs and Arlington, they could find bighorn sheep on the hillsides because they weren’t spending their time looking for the entire sheep. They were searching for light-colored rumps. Once they saw one light-colored object they focused on the area and were usually able to pick out a group of bighorns. If you are not already doing so, use the technique when you travel the Columbia River Gorge. You’ll almost always see sheep, and occasionally elk and deer.
Second, they looked for things that were out of place or position. For many trips along Highway 20 between Bend and Burns, the only pronghorn antelope I saw were standing in large groups in open fields. A few trips with wildlife biologists showed me how to look across the tops of sagebrush for heads, horns and tails. Those parts of the pronghorn anatomy look slightly different than the sagebrush horizon and are relatively easy to pick out after multiple attempts.
Of course, most of our wildlife viewing is not done from vehicles, but the principals are the same no matter where you are.
Don’t look for an entire animal; look for pieces. Ears are distinctive, as are tails and antlers. Getting on your knees and looking underneath vegetation can sometimes reveal hooves and legs of animals you would not otherwise see.
Watch for movement. It’s great to see an entire animal moving, but you are much more likely to see an ear flick or a tail twitch. On one memorable occasion I was looking unsuccessfully for a snake I knew to be under a small thicket. I found it only when the tiniest of movements gave him away…the split-second flicker of his tongue. The question of whether I should have been close enough to see the tongue is best discussed at a later time.
Don’t depend on movement alone. Wild animals are patient by necessity and they are capable of long periods of absolute stillness. Look carefully at an area, then take a few quiet steps and look at it again. Often, the change in perspective will reveal a previously invisible critter.
Remember that wild animals are also looking for movement. Keep your extraneous motions to a minimum. It’s better to use bug dope and hunt into the wind than slap at mosquitoes and flies.
Use binoculars, even in timber. You will see legs and eyes, nostrils and knees that you’d miss without the help. Regarding binoculars…buy the very best you can afford—the very, very best. Nowhere is the term “you get what you pay for” as true as it is when describing optics.
With practice, you should become proficient at spotting wildlife. When you feel competent, here is a self-test you can take to measure your ability. During the spring, spend an hour watching a pair of killdeer near their nest in a graveled area. Then walk up and try to find the nest. If you can find it, you pass, provided you can do so without stepping on the eggs.

Author’s Note Regarding the Tragedy in Connecticut: We can certainly expect the calls for tough gun control measures to become strident in the next few weeks…and with good reason. But I hope at least as much effort is expended in trying to answer two tough questions, before we take the easy step of blaming guns. What are we doing to counter the effects of pervasive violence in movies, media and games? And where are we going wrong with our identification and care of the mentally ill, before they become violent?

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