Observing Animals in the Wild: How to Take Nature Photos

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“The Complete Tracker: Tracks, Signs, and Habits of North American Wildlife” is a detailed guide to observing animals through self-camouflage and learning wildlife tracks by sight. 
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Just wearing contrasting garments is often enough to break up the distinctly human form, but tracking clothes should not be brightly colored, and never laundered with brightening detergents.
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The author’s most used portable blind, this Mega Sola from Integral Designs is watertight, bugproof, low-profile, camouflaged, and opens from the front or from either side. It’s one of numerous ultralight bivouac shelters that serve the camera or gun hunter well as a portable blind.

The Complete Tracker: Tracks, Signs, and Habits of North American Wildlife (Lyons Press, 2012) is a concise, thorough guide to the tracks, signs and habits of North America’s most popular species of wildlife. Learn techniques for getting close to animals — from bobcats to beavers, marmots to moose — by knowing the details of their habits and learning a master-tracker’s tips for avoiding detection. The following excerpt is a guide to observing animals and how to take nature photos by blending into natural settings.

You can buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Complete Tracker.

Stalking is a great exercise for becoming attuned to the sights, sounds, and smells of a natural environment, and frequently nets you a great photo. But it’s sometimes necessary to get an animal to come to you. This can be accomplished with bait, scents, calls that imitate animal voices, or by staking out a well-used trail. Shooting from a blind, or “hide,” is the preferred method of most hunters and photographers, however, because ambushing an animal is simpler than stalking it.

The first step to observing animals, of course, is to use the strategies covered in the preceding chapters to determine where the animals you’re looking for are most likely to be. Use a topographic trail map to identify types of terrain that are most likely to be frequented by them, to determine where the best feeding and bedding places are located, and to locate any mapped trails that are the most likely to get into and out of those areas. Once you’ve established an animal’s route and destination, it’s fairly simple to lie in wait for its return.

Remember that animals living near humans usually become nocturnal, because there are rarely humans afoot in the woods after dark. The advantage that this offers is one of surprise, because even the most alert animal is not on the lookout for a person hiding in a darkened forest. Many times I’ve taken an animal completely by surprise by hiding along a darkened trail where it wasn’t expecting a human to be.

Be especially aware of how much better animals see in the dark. At twilight, when the world is balanced on the edge of day and night and features are getting fuzzy to the human eye, most animals can see close-up images (because most species are nearsighted) as well as we do at noon. Never think that just because you can’t see your hand in front of your face, an animal can’t see you move it there. We see well into the infrared end of visible light spectrum, while animals generally perceive more of the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. And because ultraviolet light is most prevalent in what we consider darkness, animals have much better night vision than we do. In daylight, we can discriminate between subtle colors to the point of nonsense, but most animals can run full speed through darkness that would have us colliding with trees. If animals do move about during the day, most confine their travels to within a secluded bedding or denning area where human activity is infrequent, typically in terrain we find difficult to negotiate.

Here’s where the tracker who captures his prey on film has an advantage over hunters who kill game and then must, if they’re worthy of the title, haul the carcass out of the woods. Bedding and denning areas are great places to set up a camouflaged tripod, and wildlife photography is a great way for gun and bow hunters to keep their skills sharp during the off-season. But such excursions typically reach far into rugged country. For sport hunters, a practical side of these exercises is that they can reveal intimate details about every animal in a given territory, and there’s no better way to learn the habits of a trophy, or the best places to find meat for the pot.

Observing Animals: Hides and Blinds

The terms hide or blind describe an artificial cave of sorts whose exterior is indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain, concealing its occupant while providing adequate interior space to move around inside. A blind can be as simple as a camouflage poncho draped over a photographer while he lies in wait at the edge of a game trail, or as complex as the heated plywood shacks used by deer hunters who want the comforts of home while in the woods.

Traditionally, hides and blinds were constructed from natural materials taken from the surrounding terrain. Advantages included lessening the possibility that you might introduce foreign odors, or using a material during construction that could be visibly out of place. Disadvantages included disturbing the terrain, making it noticeably different than it had been to animals that know it intimately.

Even worse is that too-common practice of lopping down live foliage and tree branches to construct a blind. This is not only environmentally irresponsible, and illegal on public lands, but the odor of freshly cut foliage is a powerful olfactory signal to all wildlife in an area that something out of the ordinary has occurred there. The odor of a pine or cedar bough concealing wall, like those made by many deer hunters, is evident to a human nose even 5 months later, and even the most craftily contrived of these is more likely to keep wild animals away. If you must construct a hide from natural materials, use dead, dry foliage, and try to position concealing materials in a way that is not in contrast with the surroundings.

Bivouac Shelters

Better, in terms of portability and convenience are modern bivouac (“bivy”) shelters. These ultralight single-occupant tents are about the size of a loaf of bread when in their stuff sacks, set up in mere minutes, have a low, unobtrusive profile, and are easily camouflaged. Some are made with camouflage print, others can be easily “disappeared” with a camouflage cover augmented with natural foliage. Best of all, these watertight, windproof, and bugproof shelters enable a tracker to set up behind optics, a camera, or a gun, and remain on station there in relative comfort until the job is done, regardless of weather.

One problem that is typical of all tents and shelters — especially when they’re new — is a strong odor of plastic from the unit’s polyurethane coating, and solvent smells from waterproof seam sealers. The odors diminish over time, but for the first several outings you might consider spraying the fabric with an odor killer, like Scent-Killer from Wildlife Research Center, Inc.

Fluorescent Dyes

The man with the brand-new orange camouflage hunting jacket drew stares from his neighbors when he took it from his truck and began kicking it around on the gravel road, scuffing it through the stones and dust, and wiping his dirty boots on it as if it were a rug. People stared in wonderment at the man’s seemingly eccentric behavior, but a few of us just grinned, because we knew that he was just trying to subdue the brilliance of the “hunter orange” dyes that state law required every sport hunter to wear afield.

Probably every teenager learns that ultraviolet (UV) or “black” lights cause certain colors to fluoresce — to glow with a visible light that seems to emanate from the colors themselves. Some laundry detergents are even formulated to enhance that fluorescence, to make clothing appear brighter and less worn.

Almost ironically, there are laundry detergents designed for sport hunters who know that wild animals see best in the ultraviolet spectrum. Ultraviolet wavelengths — most of which are invisible to the human eye — are most prevalent light at night, and evolution has deemed night vision to be necessary for most wild species, so most animals see UV light very well. With that in mind, a tracker, stalker, or hunter should avoid laundering field clothing in color-enhancing detergents.

The Call of Nature

A situation that’s sure to come up — especially for photographers who may shoot undetected for several hours even after their prey makes an appearance — is what to do when nature calls. Urine and excrement are powerful signs of human presence, and left in the open, either is sure to repel any wildlife within a half-mile or more.

The best way to dispose of urine with a minimum release of scent is to urinate into a resealable bottle. This has always been fairly simple for men, and now there are form-fitting devices for women too. A two-liter soda bottle is suitable, but more convenient is a two-liter water bladder, like Cascade Designs’ Platypus, because these can be rolled up and carried in a pocket while empty. Barring that, urinating into a hole at least 4 inches deep, then covering it over with dirt, will hold scent to a minimum. A few drops of red fox scent on top of the filled hole helps confuse any residual odor.

Excrement should be deposited at least 100 yards from the blind in a direction downwind of the one from which animals are most likely to approach. Feces should be buried as deeply as the terrain and your tools permit, and the location well scented with earth, pine, or red fox cover scent. Never defecate within 100 feet of any body of water, and make sure that all traces have been completely buried. Nature will do the rest.

Published with permission from The Complete Tracker: Tracks, Signs, and Habits of North American Wildlife, by Len McDougall (Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 2012). Buy this book from our store: The Complete Tracker.