There’s something a little bit special about a wildlife encounter. It taps into a childlike sense of wonder that all too often remains hidden beneath our sensible adult facade. For a brief moment we’re transported to a simpler, more natural world, and reminded of how we fit into it.
It’s a thrilling experience, and a feeling that endures long after the moment itself has passed.
But wildlife can be elusive, and spotting it can be tricky. Follow these simple tips to improve your chances of a memorable wildlife encounter whenever you’re out and about.
1. Go where (and when) the wildlife is
Sounds obvious, right? But the number one way to see more wildlife is to put yourself where that wildlife is most likely to be at any given time.
Wildlife is often unpredictable, and luck always plays a crucial role in any encounter. However, you can greatly improve your odds by learning more about the species you want to see, the types of habitat they prefer, and both the times of year and times of day when they are most likely to be active.
By doing a bit of homework, and understanding as much as you can about the species you want to see, you give yourself the best possible opportunity of finding them.
2. Look up, look down, look everywhere
Although in tip 1 we recommend putting yourself where the wildlife is, that’s not always practical, especially if you’re travelling with friends and family who don’t share your boundless enthusiasm for wildlife. The good news is that you’ll find wildlife everywhere you go.
Whether you’re heading to the beach, taking a walk in the park or commuting to work, train yourself to be wildlife aware. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you never know what you might see.
Remember wildlife is unpredictable, and anything could turn up when and where you least expect it. Always expect the unexpected.
3. Dress to unimpress
When it comes to wildlife the last thing you want to do is to stand out. Dressing up in full camo gear is probably overkill, and won’t win you any points in the style stakes, but if you’re out in search of wildlife you’ll want to select subdued, natural colours that help you blend into your surroundings. You also want to move quietly, so choose natural fabrics or low-rustle synthetic alternatives that don’t make loud “swooshing” noises as you move.
NB. The exception to this pretty much universal wildlife-watching rule is if you’re venturing somewhere remote (up a mountain, for example) where you might need other people to find you in an emergency. Always put your personal / group safety first.
4. Don’t Move
That’s right… don’t move. And keep quiet.
One of the most effective wildlife watching techniques is to find a good spot, stay as still and silent as possible, and wait for the wildlife to come to you. It’s trickier than it sounds, but if you can master it you’ll find it pays real dividends.
A person moving around the landscape sends birds and animals scurrying for cover. However, when you stay still and quiet — particularly if you conceal yourself in some way — you become part of that landscape. As long as you stay still wildlife will soon start to emerge and go about its business oblivious to your presence.
5. Use all your senses
When you’re looking for and at wildlife of course your eyes are the primary sense you’ll use… but don’t neglect your other senses. You’ll often hear wildlife before you see it — particularly birds calling or singing in a woodland canopy, hedgerow or reed-bed, or mammals skulking through the undergrowth.
Your nose too can help you detect the presence of some species — foxes, otters and badgers, for instance, can leave a very characteristic odour near areas they routinely scent mark.
6. Remember: you smell
No, really, you do… we all do.
Animals — particularly elusive mammals like otters, badger, foxes, pine marten, stoat and deer — have an incredibly keen sense of smell. Even if they don’t see or hear you (see tips 3 and 4), they’ll catch your scent on the breeze long before you ever see them unless you’re careful.
Steer clear of fancy cologne and perfumes if you’re heading out to watch wildlife. Take note of the wind direction and approach your destination from downwind. Stay aware of changes in the wind and be prepared to shift your position to stay downwind of your subject.
7. Look for tracks and signs
Even when you can’t see the animals themselves, wildlife will often leave traces that betray their presence in a particular location. Learning to decipher the clues animals leave behind can help you focus your wildlife watching efforts in the areas where your target species are most active.
There are lots of good books out there to help you identify the wildlife tracks and signs you find.
8. Go out with a wildlife guide
While heading out on your own to explore a new area is exciting, there really is no substitute for local knowledge. Booking a trip with a local wildlife specialist will give you by far the best chance of hooking up with some iconic local wildlife. As well as finding wildlife for you, a local guide will add to the wildlife watching experience by offering insight into the lives and behaviour of the various species you’ll encounter, and how they fit into the complex local ecosystem.
Ireland’s Wildlife offers half-day wildlife walks, residential wildlife weekends and custom guided wildlife tours on the West Cork stretch of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Find out more about our wildlife tours here.