One of the main reasons I spend so much time outdoors, and I am sure many of you would agree, is to see and be around wildlife. Whenever I am out in the woods, I am constantly scanning the area for every type of wildlife I can find, to the point I sometimes forget to look where I am walking. I am fortunate to have seen so many species that other people have not had a chance to witness in the wild.
It is not always that easy. Take my friends from Florida for an example. These long time friends come west to take part in an elk hunt every year with me. Over the years I have finally got them set up with the right equipment and clothing so they won’t freeze to death while visiting us.
After all the preparations, practice and number of years here, they still can’t see game in the woods. A typical conversation will go something like this:
Me: There he is, your bull is standing just to the right of that big rock.
Him: Where, I don’t see him?
Me: 150 yards, there in the clearing, starting to walk towards the trees.
Him: I still don’t see him.
Me: How can you not see him he is standing right there?
Him: I still don’t see him.
Me: It’s the big brown thing the size of a horse, wait ... never mind, he is in the trees now.
This quaint little scenario has played out dozens of times in my life. In my days guiding flats trips in the Keys looking for bonefish and tarpon, it was a daily occurrence with clients. Flats fish have a mirror like color to them so they reflect the color of the bottom, making them difficult for all but the well-trained eye to see. The fact is, there is an art to spotting wildlife in the woods.
Most people look for the entire animal standing out there in the wide open. Wide open is the way people see animals in magazines and on television. In the wild you will rarely see the entire animal all at once.
Before you get serious about game watching, birding or wildlife photography, make certain you don’t have any vision problems. Anyone over 40 knows that vision deteriorates with age. Having corrective lenses or contacts bringing your vision back to 20/20 is a great place to start.
Start with a visit to your optometrist. While there, make sure the doctor checks you for any type of color blindness. Any limitations you may have for distinguishing colors will be a real handicap to overcome looking to spot game. Especially if you have problems with browns or greens.
The natural light outdoors is far different than the light emitted by the fluorescent lights that are all over our homes and workplaces. Most people spend their life at work with these lights, along with televisions, computer screens, and flat panel televisions.
Our eyes have adjusted to these lights, perhaps too much. All that time spent in “unnatural light” has had an influence on the way our eyes collect light and the way our brain processes the information it receives. Fortunately, the cure for this malady is simple; spend more time outdoors.
Whenever you head out to the woods carry binoculars and a camera. If you have a cell phone, it probably has a better camera than most of the pocket sized ones you can buy. Using the binoculars will teach you to look for and pay attention to the small details of the animals you see.
You might start with bird watching, even if it is just around your home. The birds are all delicately colored and oddly shaped. Watching them with binoculars will teach you to pick up on the small details of their bodies, wing and tail feathers and feet. Focus on the slightest of movement the bird makes.
When I was learning to shoot clay pigeons on the skeet field, the instructor always said to follow the bird with your eyes, from where it leaves the house until it hits the ground. Don’t stare at the entire clay bird, rather, concentrate on the leading edge of it as it moves through the sky. That same concept holds true for spotting wildlife.
Once you have learned to spot these birds easily in the wild, you are halfway there. A bird is about the size of an elk’s ear. Picking up on the birds in the woods with your naked eye should become easier with a little practice.
When you get up into the woods, pick out a place where you can look across an open area with trees or dense woods on the far end. Stare at a single tree and look for something unusual about it, such as a knot, lightning strike or chunk of bark missing. Once you have an idea in your mind of what you are looking at, walk over and see it up close for a comparison.
When you start looking for deer, elk, bears or turkey in the wild, start looking for shapes, lines and colors. Animal legs make vertical lines while their back makes horizontal lines. The horizontal line should stand out in a forest full of vertical lines from trees. A deer’s head makes an oval shape, just as does his hind end.
Look for colors that stand out or do not fit in. The backside of an elk is a yellowish color. To me, those rumps stand out like a sore thumb. Antlers appear to glisten when the sunlight hits them. You may only see a quick flash as an animal turns his head.
It is difficult to see game when you are moving. Aside from looking where you are stepping, it can be difficult to notice movement in the woods around you. Movement is the secret to spotting animals.
Most of us use our peripheral vision when we drive. This is where you see movement in your side vision while looking straight ahead. Peripheral vision is used when you notice the car coming up to the stop sign on a road that intersects the one you are on.
Train your eyes to use all peripheral vision when you scan the woods for game and don’t stare at any one spot. Concentrate on the smallest of movement, such as a head turn flashing an antler, an ear twitch on a doe, or a woodpecker that flies five feet to the next tree.
Don’t allow yourself to get tunnel vision. Keep your eyes relaxed and look at the big picture in front of you. See the entire forest, not the trees. If you catch a bit of movement, but aren’t sure, look away, and then look back to see if it moved. Sometimes just tilting your head a bit can change the way you see something.
Keep in mind that most wildlife does not want to be seen by you. Sometimes and animal will have no idea you are, if you are stealthy enough as you make your approach. The unsuspecting animal is the best to observe but usually they see us long before we see them.
My wife is excellent at spotting animals in the wild. She picks up on everything from turkeys to bears. She says her secret is to always be scanning, moving your eyes constantly. It works for her because very little escapes her view. When I have her along, I don’t have to look so hard because she will just point it out to me. Besides, I have enough trouble watching where I step.
Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a Director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the Posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email email@example.com
For outdoors or survival related questions or comments, feel free to contact him directly at his email firstname.lastname@example.org