The "Secret" to Spotting Wildlife
Watching wildlife is a pleasure you can enjoy at any age, and although national parks provide the most spectacular settings in which to do so, even the most urban location offers opportunities. You don't need any special equipment, although a decent set of binoculars is of good use. You can do it in any weather, at any time of day. In fact, you don't even need to leave your house...as anyone knows who has sipped hot cocoa comfortably inside while watching the chickadees brave ice and snow. But if you want to see more than what's outside your kitchen window, you have to go out and explore. And when you do, there are some basic skills that will help you see the wildlife around you. Here's three I find important:
1. Be curious.
Make sure your natural curiosity is alive and well. Some would say that curiosity is something you either have you don't – but even a weak level of curiosity can be nurtured along and strengthened. How do you do that? On your next walk in the woods, try simply asking more questions about what you hear and see. What made that sound? What's under the leaves of that plant? Where is the animal that ate these scraps of pine cone? Which leads me to #2...
2. Be an observer.
Believe it or not, there are people who can walk through the most spectacular natural environment and not notice a single thing outside of their own thoughts and body. For those people, it takes a special act of will to realign their concentration and start taking in the sights, smells, and sounds all around. Also, don't just look at things around you, observe them. There's a difference between "oh yeah, a tree," and "oh, a tall evergreen, with a lot of cones at the top, and a red squirrel barking at me from halfway up."
3. Be patient.
We live in an age of instant gratification, where it's a measure of failure if results are not delivered to us within milliseconds. Our digital lifestyle encourages that expectation, but (thankfully) the natural world does not subscribe to the same sensibility. So don't expect to walk right into the woods and see nature run up to greet you. Find a comfortable place, sit down, and wait. Before long the chirping of small birds will resume, and many other animals will restart their normal routines all around you. If you brought those binoculars, you'll be able to take in a wealth of wildlife while hardly breaking a sweat.
There are many other more specific skills that are helpful in spotting wildlife. One source that I've found is equally enjoyable by both young and old is by Jim Arnosky, appropriately entitled "Secrets of a Wildlife Watcher." He is both a talented artist and observer of wildlife – all his books are highly recommended.
Another recommended resource is the writings of Tom Brown Jr. Although the veracity of some of his "non-fiction" stories may be in question, what seems clear is that he is a person who has great knowledge of the outdoors and observing nature. "Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking" is recommended, and for a taste of his storytelling, start with "The Tracker."
Finally, while not a "skill" necessarily, there's one more bit of advice: share your experience. Tell your family and friends about what you discovered on your latest walk in the woods. Even better, bring them along. Show them. Maybe they will see something you missed. Or maybe you'll just give them a good excuse to get outside, which can be reward enough.