To spot wildlife, think in terms of patterns. Observe carefully and make yourself familiar with the patterns of water, rocks, or vegetation, then be alert for subtle changes in those patterns that might indicate wildlife.
Scan landscapes slowly, watching for movement. Be alert for shapes that are just a little “out of place” in the texture of the environment. Horizontal lines, such as the line of a moose’s back, often stand out among patterns of vertical light and shadow in forests. Colors can be clues too; some animals, such as Dall sheep or black bears, are significantly lighter or darker than their usual surroundings.
Watch for patterns on the water, too. Glass-calm water is ideal for spotting marine mammals, birds and fish, but animal activity can be visible even in choppy water. Ripples and splashes on the surface are signs of wildlife movements. Note anything that disrupts the pattern and texture of the water’s surface. Watch for dimples, rings, or swells that indicate underwater movement. Keep an eye out for movement across the surface as well, such as the skimming flight of a murrelet.
Let the animals themselves be your viewing guides. A cluster of feeding gulls can indicate a school of baitfish, which might also be attracting humpback whales. You might be led to notice a prowling lynx or coyote by Steller’s jays nagging from spruce branches above.
Use senses other than sight. Every once in a while, turn off the car engine or stop talking and listen for footsteps, splashes, breaths, calls or songs. Sniff the breeze—our human sense of smell is inferior to most animals’, but we can still detect the musty scent of crow feathers or the barnyard odor of a porcupine’s den.
When to Look
Mornings and evenings are often the best times to watch, as many animals conduct most of their business in the hours at the edge of night. Remember—during an Alaskan summer, dawn comes early, so to catch the stirrings at first light, you might have to set your alarm for as early as 2 a.m.
Along the ocean, tides make a difference for wildlife and wildlife viewers. High tides concentrate resting shorebirds and allow spawning salmon better access into some streams. Low tides reveal tidepool creatures and draw a wide variety of animals into the intertidal zone. Check the internet, local natural resource agencies, or sporting-goods stores for tide tables.
The “edge” zones between different habitats can be among the best places to scan for wildlife. Edges contain elements of the neighboring habitats, attracting wildlife typical of both sides. For example, edges where forests transition to meadows, marshes or tundra can offer chances to see forest wildlife that might otherwise be hidden among the dark branches.
Spotting wildlife is just the beginning of the adventure. Once you’ve located an animal, settle in, observe it, and learn something about its life. Did that swooping eagle come up from the water with a fish, or did it miss? What kind of shrub is that moose munching on? Where is that yellow warbler going with its beak full of insects?
Familiarize yourself with the tracks and signs you might find in the field. Not only do signs such as these help you find and spot wildlife, they teach you more about the animals’ lives. Check your library or a bookstore for field guides to tracks. Participate in a tracking workshop and gain field experience with experts.
Take Notes and Keep Lists
Keeping records of what you see can help make you a more careful observer and refresh your memory weeks or years later. These can range from checklists (some observers note how many as well as what species) to field notes with sketches and details on behaviors, weather and habitat.