How to See More Wildlife

Mother black bear

A mother black bear pauses during mealtime. © Jeannie Bespoy

The magic ingredient

Spotting an elk or antelope in the backcountry adds an intangible element of wildness to any outdoor experience. One of my most vivid outdoor memories involved staring straight into the eyes of a startled bull elk. He had been foraging along a game trail that a friend and I were following near twilight. We stopped short when his antlered head shot up from some shrubs, merely a few paces ahead. The surrounding forest disappeared as the elk glared, clearly annoyed, before bounding off through the trees. It took a while for the adrenaline surge to wear off.

Spotting a large predator or a rare species of animal can profoundly impact an outdoor experience. Unfortunately wild animals are usually in the business of avoiding humans. Still, there are a few things you can do to increase your likelihood of spotting some wildlife on your next trip into the wild.

Learn about the animals you want to see

Knowledge is key. If you were hoping to spot a desert tortoise in Utah, you’d probably want to know that they only live in the extreme southwestern corner of the state. Moose prefer the wetter parts of the Wasatch Mountains and the north slope of the Uintas. Pronghorn antelope usually stick to the desert flats, blanketed with sagebrush. Take the time to learn about the different animals populating your neck of the woods. Learn about their preferred habitat and where they go to find food and water.

Timing is also paramount. Find out when the animals you’re interested in are most active. Ungulates such as deer, elk, and moose are primarily crepuscular animals. That means they are most active during the twilight hours of dusk and dawn. Predators like bears, mountain lions, or bobcats are usually nocturnal animals. While they are most active during the night, they can usually be seen in the early morning or late evening as well. Plan to be out during these times, and you will likely see much more activity in the backcountry.

Slow down and stay quiet

When hiking or scouting for wildlife, move slowly and carefully. Step softly. Rustling, crunching footsteps will scare off most animals before you’re within eyeshot. If possible, avoid talking. It’s easy to fill the quiet with idle conversation or banter, but even soft chatter can frighten off wildlife.

Remember that many animals have an acute sense of hearing, combined with an incredible ability to pinpoint unnatural sounds. Take note of creaky hiking gear, heavy footfalls, or crackling twigs and underbrush. If you consistently fail to see wildlife, inadvertent noise pollution might be part of the problem.

It’s hard to spot animals if your eyes are glued to the ground. Watching your step is important for keeping quiet (as well as avoiding injury), but if much of your time is spent with eyes on the ground, wildlife sightings are obviously unlikely. Persistently scan the surrounding landscape for movement. If you’re in the forest, try not to focus on the nearby trees and growth. Use your peripheral vision and stitch together the bits and pieces you can see through the foliage.

Sometimes the best way to get close to an animal is to let the animal get close to you. Find a place to settle in and watch for a while—especially if it’s near water or a game trail. Find a spot that is well covered, and stay downwind of the area you are watching. This method can require an immense amount of patience, but you may be rewarded with a closer view than you would ever get otherwise.

Practice stealth

Stick to the shadows. Don’t stand or move in full sunlight, or allow your silhouette to be framed against the sky. Avoid wearing bright or solid colors. The purpose of camouflage is not to make you invisible. Instead, it breaks up your outline so your gangly, human form is not easily recognizable. This can also be accomplished by wearing other patterns, such as plaid or stripes, in natural colors.

If you’ve spotted an animal and you want to get closer, move as slowly as you can tolerate. As you walk, gently place your heel down first. Roll your weight around the outside edge of the foot, then to your toes. Keep your knees bent and place each foot carefully before transferring your weight to that leg. Doing this will force you to move slowly, prevent you from making too much noise, and keep you balanced. Keeping your weight balanced at all times is vital so you can freeze the moment an animal looks your way.

Try to relax, so you don’t look like a predator. If you’re extremely intent on your subject, you might unconsciously display body language that makes you look like you’re out hunting for prey. That’s a signal for many animals to clear out.

A coyote calls out to its pack, on grasslands within Glacier National Park

A coyote calls out to its pack, on grasslands within Glacier National Park

Get some binoculars

While you might be lucky enough to have a close encounter with a wild animal, such experiences are usually rare. Using binoculars can significantly increase the number and quality of your wildlife sightings. Use them to scan distant meadows, streams, ridgelines, or mountainsides. This is often the only way you’ll get “close” to some animals, like mountain goats or bighorn sheep.

Most manufacturers make small, light binoculars that are ideal for hiking or backpacking. A good pair of binoculars will last a lifetime if they’re well cared for.

A note of caution

Some wild animals may turn quickly and violently aggressive if they feel startled, cornered, or otherwise threatened. Bears are famous for getting irate at sneaking humans. Moose frequently stand their ground when approached, especially mothers with calves. So before you become too adept at creeping up on wildlife, remember that some animals need their space.

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