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How To See More Animals

To get closer to the critters, you need to look like a tree and smell like a raccoon.

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“Coon urine” You must be kidding!” Jessi had crawled through countless briar patches with me in search of elk and other animals, but she didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or run back to the trailhead as I breathlessly explained my latest scheme for spotting more wildlife. “I don’t care if it’s fake, and I don’t care if it hides our scent from every beast in the forest,” she exclaimed. “I don’t want you spreading that stuff around our tent!”

Since darkness was falling in Pennsylvania’s Moshannon State Forest and I’d already doused half the campsite in fake raccoon pee, we reached a quick compromise. I’d let Jessi sprinkle a sweet-smelling acorn scent over the coon urine, and I’d keep my next potion–a deer attractant so pungent they call it “Triple Strength Sex Appeal”–stowed deep in my pack. Later that night, after a massive, snorting buck nearly trampled our tent, I concluded that there are better ways to see more wildlife.

Make yourself invisible

Animals use ultrasensitive eyes, ears, and noses to detect backpackers bumbling down the trail. Become part of the sights and smells of the wilds, and you’ll see more wild animals.

Mask human aroma on backpacking gear. Hang it outdoors or near a smoky fire, dust it with baking soda, or wipe it with a fragrant plant (spicebush, winterberry, or pine).

Wear muted, patterned, long-sleeved clothes.

Birds will notice a bright red jacket among brown trees, but will be less startled by colors that blend in. A pattern similar to the terrain, such as camouflage clothing in leaf, weed, or rock patterns, will hide you from animals that see gray tones, such as bobcats and caribou.

Move slowly and quietly without sneaking. Body language that resembles a creeping predator–slinking among brush and moving in the animal’s direction–frightens wildlife.

Avoid eye contact. Staring at animals frightens them. Wear a brimmed hat to hide your eyes, or avert your gaze when approaching wildlife.

Sit still. Tromping through the woods with a squeaky pack, most of us see only hind ends. Drop the pack and hide in the shadows or sit with the sun at your back. Just make sure you’re not the tallest object in the area because wildlife will recognize the out-of-place shape.

Work with the wind. Stay upwind of wildlife so they don’t smell you before you see them.

Timing is everything

No matter what you do to make yourself invisible, you won’t see animals if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Pick the right time of day. Hawks, vultures, woodpeckers, and humans move during the heat of midday, but most animals wait until dusk and dawn. Nighthawks and bats skim fields and streams for insects. Deer and elk eat dew-laden plants in open fields. Stick around and carnivores will come to feast on the deer. Cover flashlights with red cellophane for low-impact nighttime spotting.

Look in spring and fall. That’s when wildlife is most active. In spring, hungry snakes and bears are emerging from winter’s sleep and snowmelt-filled vernal pools harbor mating salamanders and frogs. In fall, hawks and songbirds migrate, while foxes and mink hunt all day to fatten up for winter.

Go where the animals go. Riparian areas attract critters galore, especially at twilight; keep a fair distance so that you don’t discourage the thirsty from drinking. Many species prefer transition zones, where fields meld into forests and foothills flatten into plains, since they provide food and shelter close together. Position yourself on the edge of these zones so you can see animals moving in both zones.

Follow traffic patterns. Some animals travel trails and avoid difficult areas above treeline or along windy ridges. Look for wildlife on trailed hillsides. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and most wild felines are the exception.

Check the weather. Drizzle and clouds often increase animal movements, but stormy, windy weather sends them running for cover. The first day following several rainy days, take a seat in a good spotting zone and watch fauna emerge in search of food.

Consult field guides. By brushing up on your wildlife trivia, you’ll learn that pronghorns, bobcats, and weasels are extremely curious and will investigate a fluttering bandanna; that weasels’ high metabolism means they must hunt all day; and that nocturnal muskrats come out on cloudy days.

Watch the critters right under your nose. You may spot a rare bird, a squirrel teaching its young how to crack open nuts, or the artistry of a wasp building a mud or paper home. Or just sit by a stream and watch for salamanders, fish, turtles, and crawdads.

Watch without stalking

Once you spot wildlife, stand still until the animal relaxes and goes back to

whatever it was doing. Now take a better look. The easiest way is with binoculars (see Vision Quest,” October 2000, for a review of lightweight binoculars).

Getting closer is tricky since you may scare animals, causing them to waste the precious energy that they need to survive. If you move in for a better view, don’t make a beeline for the animals, but look down and walk slowly in random directions, as if you were looking for lost keys. Freeze whenever the animal looks at you.

While we’re on the subject of respecting wildlife, let’s talk about lures and calls. In some parks, calling tapes and other lures are illegal because they unnecessarily disturb mating animals. Some people suck on the backs of their hands to attract predators (who think it sounds like a hurt rabbit) and birds (who think it’s a bird invading their territory). If you choose to try this, be ready for what may approach you.

In the end, your best tool for seeing more wildlife may be visiting the same places again and again. Not only do you learn where animals live, breed, and feed, but your odor becomes part of the environment and wildlife feel less threatened by you. In essence, you become just another forest animal.


Audubon’s regional guides include mammals, birds, amphibians, and plants in one book. I use Field Guide To the Mid-Atlantic States when I backpack in Pennsylvania (Knopf, 800-733-3000;; $19.95).

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