There are only a few things that you need to know to get started because you are about to embark on a learning adventure that will last a lifetime.
The great aspect of watching wildlife is that it doesn't take a lot of equipment, and you can do it just about anywhere, even in your own backyard. Local and state parks provide another great opportunity because birds and animals in these areas are generally more comfortable with human activity and will not bolt at every movement. Once you become comfortable with your ability to approach wildlife, you can venture out into open wooded areas where you are more apt to find the more reclusive species.
One important aspect of watching wildlife is your obligation to them. Animals and birds should be observed from a distance, especially if they are with their young. Canadian geese are very beautiful and graceful birds, but if they are protecting a group of goslings and you want to see one get ugly, just get a little too close. If you get too close to a nest, mockingbirds and many other "docile" birds will dive at your head to try and divert you from their nest. While these mock attacks won't inflict injury, if you are being attacked, you're the one that's causing them harm. Intruding too closely can cause stress, which is hard on birds. It can also cause them to abandon their nest if they feel threatened themselves.
Keeping your distance is also a key factor in being able to observe wildlife in a relaxed atmosphere where they will do something besides guarding against your intrusion. Use your subject's behavior as a guide. If the animals or birds that you are watching appear to be stressed, you should leave quietly and return at a later time. Repeated visits of a few minutes at a time will get them accustomed to your presence and eventually they will lose their fear of you.
If you take notes on your outings, you'll be able to track particular bird species and chart their seasonal activities and migrations. It's always exciting to see the return of various birds in February and March, many of which are the harbingers of spring and warmer temperatures. If you keep track of each year's migrations, you will know when to expect particular birds in areas they've frequented in the past.
Beyond a comfortable pair of walking shoes, all you need is a good pair of binoculars
, a notepad, pen and a tall walking stick
. A fanny pack or backpack
comes in handy for miscellaneous items such as water or a snack, but they're not a necessity unless you plan on an extended excursion.
Don't need a walking stick, you say. The stick isn't because you're incapacitated in some manner; it's to steady your binoculars. Binoculars that are best for observing animals and birds in the wild are those that enable you to keep your distance while still providing enough magnification to enable identification and close observation of their particular activities.
Binoculars that are ideal for these purposes are very powerful. Their increased power magnifies your movement as well as the image you are focusing on. One way to decrease this distracting movement is to cut yourself a walking stick that is tall enough to meet your eye level. You can then rest your binoculars on the top of the walking stick and eliminate the jitters as well as relieving the weight. While this technique won't be as rock steady as a tripod, it does give you a great deal more mobility, and the walking stick will also come in handy on treks in rough terrain.
If you're young enough that you don't want to be seen dragging a stick around then you might want to take a techno-trip. New developments in optical technology have produced some pretty amazing binoculars with image stabilization. They range in price from a few hundred to several thousand, but their capabilities for producing razor sharp images, from hand-held positions, is truly remarkable. Canon makes a nice light-weight pair at a very competitive price.
You may enjoy walking with your dog during your outings, but leaving pets at home should be your number one rule when embarking on a walk to watch wildlife. At the very least, they will hinder you, at worst, they will chase or injure the wildlife you intend on observing.
Keep your own welfare in mind. Large animals, especially predators, are not always passive. Avoid animals that behave in an unusual manner, especially those that appear aggressive. Their aggressive nature could indicate an illness such as rabies.
It's important to remember not to feed wildlife. While you may feel that you are "helping" them, you are actually causing them harm. Nothing good can come from creating a human dependency for animals or birds. This is especially true for bears and alligators. In Florida, a majority of alligators that are killed or relocated as "nuisance" alligators have been fed until they lost their fear of humans. Communities in many mountainous regions report similar problems with bears due to their tendency to succumb to a free lunch. Last year in Yellowstone Park, a Japanese tourist was gored when he tried to feed some ice to a buffalo that "looked hot". If you remember that you are a watcher, your outings will be free of bruises and broken bones.
Finally, you must remember to respect the property rights of others. Crossing a fence just to "watch" an animal is no different than hunting without permission. If you cross a fence without permission, you're trespassing.
Numerous books are available for identifying animals, birds, wildflowers, butterflies and insects. You can start your first steps toward an adventure into the world of wildlife watching at your local library. With a little diligence, you'll be able to impress your friends by pointing out red-tailed hawks and yellowbellied sapsuckers as casually as one might identify a Ford or Chevy.
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
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