Several years ago, shortly after I moved to my current home, I was asked if I would be interested in participating in an on-going project regarding raptors–Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Owls, and other large birds.
As a life-long admirer of Nature my response was an unequivocal ‘yes’.
The task assigned me was relatively simple: Check the status of a Golden Eagle nesting site and determine whether or not a mated pair of eagles were using it.
What was not so simple was getting to the area where the nesting site was: I had to drive forty-five minutes from my home, follow six and a half miles of a very unpaved and ungraded road, and hike more than two very strenuous miles along a very narrow and steep trail to a substantial upthrust formed thousands of years ago, where I effectively perched precariously, trying to maintain my balance, while at the same time attempting to hold a pair of binoculars steady, focused on a rock face several hundred feet high, where the nesting site in question was located.
Over the years since taking on this particular activity, which requires my attention once a week for at least four months each year, I have fallen from the aforementioned upthrust into a gully almost directly below it, skinned both knees, reduced the amount of natural padding otherwise found on the back of my lower front, landed face down in a clump of wild roses, properly identified Poison Ivy with various parts of my anatomy, fetched a near-sighted toad from the interior of my pants, almost stepped on several rattlesnakes and bull snakes, encountered no less than three mountain lions, a bear cub, coyotes, a wild turkey, a flock of pheasants, a sexually aggressive and quite determined male prairie chicken, a herd of mule deer, moose, owls, hawks of various sizes, and assorted rodents, been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, almost hit by lightning, almost smothered by rock slides, mud slides, and avalanches, and have to say:
I wouldn’t trade a moment of it for anything.
Of course, when people learn all of this about me the response, more often than not, is: Why? Why would you do that? Why would anyone subject themselves to such punishments and misfortunes?
Because it is all worth it. Because each time I go out to check on the eagles in question I am almost certain to see something, hear something, smell something, experience something I have not known before, all courtesy of wildlife: The opportunity to see a male Golden Eagle tag-team hunt with a mountain lion; watch in awe and amazement as a female mule deer gives birth, and witness a snake swallow, whole, a small field mouse.
Of course, to do all this, to experience it properly requires a certain commitment and effort on my part. A commitment and effort I invite you to accept, as well. A commitment and effort, however, that requires a measure of planning and forethought:
In order enjoy wildlife in its natural surroundings, in order to watch wildlife you need to do certain things:
1) Make time to watch wildlife
Very rarely, if ever, do wildlife operate on the same schedules as humans. Therefore, in order to watch wildlife you must be willing to commit time to doing so. I suggest setting aside at least four hours. Six hours is better. Eight hours is ideal.
2) Plan to watch wildlife early or late
Wildlife, especially raptors, are most active early in the day, as in just after dawn, or late in the day, just before dusk. If you want to see wildlife plan to do so at these times. Otherwise, your wildlife viewing experience may be shortchanged.
3) Plan for the weather, dress for the weather
As previously noted I watch a Golden Eagle nesting site, which requires my attention at least four months a year. When I first agreed to this task I did not realize or know that the female Golden Eagle begins preparing its nest in March.
When there is, frequently, snow on the ground.
As previously noted to reach a place where I can observe this particular nesting site requires traversing a substantial trail, the majority of which is located on the north side of an unforgiving mountain. For those who don’t know or are not aware a northern exposure tends not to receive much direct sunlight. Consequently, when it snows the snow does not readily or quickly melt. In fact, it tends to drift. To get to my viewing position, then, requires I slog through drifts deeper than I am tall. Drifts that tend to collapse just as I reach their summit. To address this issue requires I wear several layers of clothing for protection against the elements, warmth, and common sense, and snowshoes. Which I do, readily, given I have stepped onto what I took to be packed snow and discovered, quickly, but too late, it was nothing more than a thin crust over an air pocket.
Then the weather changes as my observations occur and so, too, do my clothing requirements. On more than one occasion I gone to check the nesting site wearing nothing more than a sleeveless t-shirt, hiking boots, and long pants. (More on the latter momentarily.)
But at the same time I know, from hard experience, that just because the weather is good does not mean it will remain so. So I take along a day pack containing a rain slicker, gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, and a change of socks.
4) Dress for success
A moment ago I noted that when I go to check on eagles I wear long pants. There are several reasons for why I do so, none of them having to do with me having what Tom Robbins called ‘skinny white legs’. I wear long pants to protect my legs against , sunburn, bug bites, probable injury, and the possibility of being bit by something substantial such as a snake. I have never been attacked by a snake, but if I wear long pants, specifically denim jeans, they serve as a physical barrier against the snake successfully sinking its toxic and poisonous fangs into my flesh.
I may often wear a short-sleeve shirt in warmer weather, but I also take along a long-sleeve, heavier shirt made of something such as flannel for when the temperature drops suddenly. Which it has been known to do. For example, I went to check the birds one day when it was sunny, seventy-five degrees, and cloudless. By the time I had made my descent to the trailhead the temperature had dropped more than thirty degrees, the sky was gray and humid, and a wind of at least fifteen miles an hour was blowing. In fact, by the time I reached my vehicle I was actually, sufficiently cold; later I learned I was just this side of experiencing hypothermia, the abnormal condition of low body temperature, which can be brought about by exposure to the elements.
Previously I noted as well I wear hiking boots when I go on these treks. Nothing expensive. Nothing exciting. Just functional boots that fit properly, that are water-proof, and protect my feet from injury by way of such things as jamming my toes into a shallow rock or boulder, tripping over exposed tree roots, blisters, or other hazards along the trail. Again, like the long pants, hiking boots can and do provide protection should an encounter with a snake occur. I know a fellow who went hiking to see wildlife, stopped, started walking again, and realized as he was getting into his truck he had something hanging off the heel of one of his hiking boots. Examination of the debris revealed it to be a very small rattlesnake that had gotten underfoot and had responded by biting him. Fortunately for this fellow the snake’s fangs were far too small to inflict any damage and the thickness of his boot was such the snake was rendered harmless.
Finally, regardless the weather I wear a cap. A cheap, inexpensive cotton baseball cap. I do this for several reasons. First, wearing a cap saves me the bother of having to comb or brush my hair should the wind come up. Not that such superficial personal hygiene matters should be a concern when watching wildlife, but if I can keep my hair out of my eyes, so much the better for my personal well-being and safety. Second, a cap provides my head, face, and neck shelter from the sun and possible sunburn, especially when I am outdoors for hours at a time. Third, a cap comes with a bill, that can shadow my eyes and facial expressions from being seen. This may sound odd, but it really isn’t. Remember how I mentioned awhile back about encountering mountain lions? I did. And I did so without injury, with the reason being, I believe, because the great cat could not see my eyes. If a wild animal cannot see your eyes they are apparently less likely to attack.
5) Eat, drink, be well
Regardless of how long you go when you go to watch wildlife always take something to eat and drink. Foodstuff as simple as a candy bar or two, or something more sophisticated such as name brand energy bars. As to the liquid you take, keep it simple: Water. I know there are many gurus and experts who recommend you take along a power drink when doing things such as wildlife watching and hiking, but believe, water is better for you. I usually take a water bottle capable of holding thirty-two ounces on my person and have another thirty-two ounce bottle waiting in the vehicle when I ready to leave. With few exceptions I am able to consume the contents of both bottles before I start the engine and head home for the day.
6) Preventive medicine
I mentioned it briefly a moment ago, but more is needed to be said on the matter: Sunscreen. Always take it, always use it. Wildlife viewing can be an enjoyable experience until you realize your neck, face, ears, nose, and lips are sunburned. I don’t burn easily but when I do the aftermath is unpleasant for all.
7) The eyes have it
Wildlife viewing is an activity that can be done in a variety of ways: From a safe distance, from inside a vehicle, from a blind in a tree or man-made platform, or from a shaded place under a great tree. Regardless, to make the experience truly enjoyable you need to be able to see what you are looking, and that calls for a good pair of binoculars or a scope. I prefer a pair of Bushnell 10 x 50 Permafocus binoculars. They allow me to see what I want to see, when and how I want to see it, and the Permafocus feature saves me from having to constantly adjust the focus as I follow eagles and hawks through the air. I also have access to a scope that brings the wildlife viewed up close and personal. Which can have a drawback, especially if the animal in question has been feeding on fresh kill.
8) Keep your distance
Speaking of fresh kill it cannot be said enough or often enough: Always maintain a safe distance from wildlife. They may look harmless but they can and will turn dangerous without warning. I have heard far too many stories about people who did not keep a safe distance from wildlife while they were viewing them and found themselves on the wrong end of animal sound and fury. Here, where I live, not a year passes without a report of someone being gored, attacked, assailed, mauled, or injured by wildlife that unexplainably took offense to being observed.
If an animal such as a deer or elk turns toward you and its ears flicker or if it suddenly becomes nervous and jumpy you are too close and need to move away.
9) All things in moderation
If you find yourself in a situation where an animal you are watching suddenly becomes uncomfortable with your presence you need to move away. But do so slowly, without drawing attention to yourself. Some animals, such as mountain lions, react to extreme and sudden sound and motion. If you deny them such characteristics it is probable you will also reduce the odds of being attacked.
10) Do not approach, chase, or harass wildlife
Although digital photography is advancing at incredible speed with new technologies I remain something of a traditionalist, preferring my Canon AE1 35mm SLR for taking pictures of wildlife, and get some impressive pictures using a 50mm lens or a 70-210mm lens. Of course, such lenses have physical limits and getting a picture of an eagle or a bear or a moose may not be possible because the subject matter is too far away. So I pull up a rock or a fallen log, sit, and wait. I don’t pursue my subject matter because doing so may result in injuries to all involved.
11) Leave pets at home
I have a dog. A wonderful dog, well-mannered and more than sufficiently trained to obey my hand and voice commands. But show him a squirrel, a robin, a common field mouse, and forget about him behaving. He becomes a creature possessed. Which is why I leave him at home when I go to check on the eagles, even though he could accompany me on a leash. Furthermore, dogs have a stressful effect on wildlife just with their presence. The bigger the dog the greater the stress induced.
12) Make the most of your time
I noted previously I spend upwards of eight hours at a time watching a pair of Golden Eagles. But I do not stay in the same place during the eight hours I watch this pair of skywalkers. I will hike further up the abandoned horse trail I am on and look for other forms of wildlife, which I often find. I will explore the area I am in by taking pictures of flowers and grasses that grow throughout the area. I will examine the rock formations in the area. I will take note of such things as butterflies and small birds, along with shy forest creatures that move quickly up the far side of trees and through the seas of tall grasses that line the trail. In doing this I make the eagles less stressed, especially the female, which spends hours at a time sitting on the nest. When I disappear from sight the male tends to take flight from a nearby roosting tree and goes off to hunt.
13) Respect others who are viewing wildlife
Because I hike so far back off the beaten path I don’t encounter very many people, but when I do and find them viewing wildlife I do what I can to respect them and their position by keeping my distance, by not making any more noise than necessary, and by leaving them alone. In doing this I assume others, when they encounter me, will do the same.
14) Do NOT feed the wildlife
Previously it was suggested you bring something to eat and drink if you spend any amount of time watching wildlife. You should. But you should NOT give any food you have to wildlife. If you do they will come to expect it and dire consequences may result: The wildlife may eventually starve to death because they have acquired a preference for human food over food more appropriate to their dietary requirements.
15) Respect private property rights
Not far from where I live there is a piece of land called a ‘conservation easement’. It originally belonged to a massive working ranch, but the owners of the ranch deeded it over to an open space program with the understanding that in doing so they would be able to use the land to graze stock on. Which they do. But at the same time they encourage wildlife to use the land. Which they do. During hunting season, especially, one can see huge herds of wild elk on the conservation easement. Because the land is owned by an open space program the wildlife cannot be hunted when they are on it, and I suspect they may know this, which is why they gather there.
The presence of the elk herds on the easement, not surprisingly, tend to attract attention. Attention that has been known to bring problems: The wildlife watcher armed with a throw-away camera that only has a 50mm lens on it. A lens that does not do a sufficient job on photographing elk that tend to be camera shy. So this wildlife watcher will climb the split rail fence that defines the boundaries of the easement to get a better shot of the elk herds, will spook the herds, and may find themselves on the wrong end of a charging bull elk, which has no patience or understanding what is assumed to be a threaten against his harem.
Of course this causes the would-be shutterbug to flee the easement, and tends to attract the attention of law enforcement, which, like the bull elk, has no patience or understanding for a potential threat against a given population.
16) Don’t encourage wildlife to perform for you
- How many times have you seen the following? How many times have you done the following:
- Tried to make a ground squirrel sit up and beg for a shelled peanut?
- Tried to make a small bird fly to your hand and take a treat there?
- Tried to feed or pet a deer or elk or mountain goat?
- Just so you could get a photograph?
Don’t. Just don’t. There are reasons for why these creatures are wild. Keep them that way. In the end the photographs you do get will be much than the staged and forced ones otherwise attempted.
17) Avoid animals that act unusual
In Nature animals and birds live and die by a variety of means: Natural causes, justified murder, age, illness, and disease. If an animal or bird acts strange avoid it. It is very likely it is sick and dying. Such creatures, when in this condition, are not agreeable to being intruded upon and may attack accordingly.
18) Keep a journal
Once you have begun watching wildlife, and once you have decided where you want to watch wildlife, start taking notes by way of a journal. I have a small wire-bound notebook I carry with me. In it I record the date I went wildlife watching, the miles I traveled to and from the place I went to see wildlife, the distance hiked in and out, the relative temperature, the wind speed, cloud cover, etc. I also note the number of fellow wildlife watchers I encountered on the trail, the wildlife I saw, the numbers of a given population, the trees, bushes, grasses, and flowers present. When time allows I review the contents of my notebook and share the data gathered with other wildlife watchers. Doing so reveals some very interesting things and their relevance to humanity.