“Why don’t I ever see anything cool out in the woods?” If you’re asking this question, that’s great. It means that you’re willing to make some changes to improve your wildlife experiences. If wild animals can easily hear you, smell you or see you, they’re probably going to make themselves scarce. Someone stomping down a trail with jingling jewelry and drenched in perfume isn’t going to see much. Here are some concrete steps you can take that will make you far more likely to start seeing amazing things yourself.
How you move is important. Have you ever tried to sneak into a dark house while everyone is asleep? Every little noise you make is amplified. That’s how you sound to animals when you’re out crashing through the brush, or even just walking down a grassy path. With every single step, take care in where you put your feet down. You don’t have to tiptoe. You do have to be deliberately quieter than you are now. Practice watching your feet and making less noise. You can make this second nature eventually.
It’s hard to emphasize this enough. Human voices are great for communicating with others because they carry well and cut through nature’s rustlings and whisperings. But that’s terrible when you’re trying to avoid scaring off wild things. So, ya gotta zip your lips. If you’re hiking with a friend, try to use nonverbal signals. Nonvoiced noises, like sucking your teeth or short hisses, can be a good way to get someone’s attention. Also, set your phone on vibrate, and for crying in the sink don’t play any music out there.
Try to blend in
Picture a deer hunter wearing blaze orange camo. To us, he doesn’t blend in at all — but that’s because we can see orange. To his quarry, he blends in pretty well, as long as he’s wearing orange camouflage. But put him in a solid orange outfit and he stands out again because his outline isn’t broken up.
Blending in can be tough because different animals see things differently. Mammals mostly see purple, blue, green and yellow. Other colors are indistinct. Birds are very different. They not only can see all the colors we do but also ultraviolet.
So, for best blending, you should wear clothes that more or less match the colors of the environment while breaking up your outline and also not reflecting too much UV (which you can test at home with a blacklight). Commercially available camo does fit the bill, but there are many other options. Use some imagination and you might discover what you need in the back of your closet.
(By the way, blaze orange is a great idea if you’ll be out during hunting season.)
Don’t stink up the place
Humans like to smell good. But think about how you must smell to an animal that can detect scents 20 times better than we are able. That dab of cologne on your neck will carry far on the wind, and animals do not like unfamiliar odors. It puts them on alert, and animals on edge are far less likely to be spotted. When I go into the woods, I prefer to be freshly showered to minimize human scent. I use Dove unscented soap when I wash. I skip the aftershave and even deodorant. Yes, I’ll probably need another shower after my hike to be presentable in public, but so be it. I also routinely use unscented laundry detergent and fabric softener.
On the occasions that I go exploring with others, I usually find myself lagging behind. I’ve had companions finish an entire trial loop well before I’m at the halfway point. I always congratulate them on winning the race, but guess who usually sees more wildlife? The only reason to go faster is when you’re covering ground — for example, if the trail goes through a low-productivity grassy area but I really want to spend my time in the swamp a half-mile farther up.
There are very good reasons to not speed-walk through the woods. It’s much easier to be quiet when you’re going slower, and it’s also much easier to implement the next two points. By the way, slowing down also means being more deliberate in all your movements. Need something out of your pocket? Don’t just whip it out. Picture how a diver underwater or an astronaut on a spacewalk moves. Same with head movements — slow it down.
Look up, look down
For most of us, the natural inclination while walking is to mostly look straight ahead. Many birdwatchers train themselves to look up. Herpers (reptile enthusiasts) often remind themselves to look down. To maximize what you see out there, you need to do both — and don’t forget to look left and right as well! Being effective at this means stopping frequently. It’s hard to look up and keep walking quietly. Besides, you’ll miss stuff to the left if you’re trucking along while looking to the right. I may have mentioned it, but slow down.
Open your eyes and ears
This is the hardest one, but if you understood the last two points (slow down!) then you’ll be able to get this one. Animals stay alive by staying hidden, and the best way to stay hidden is to simply not move. Will you spot an owl sitting in an oak, or a snake lying in the leaf litter? Maybe — but only if you’re looking for them.
What I look for is shapes out of place. Earlier I mentioned how important it is to break up your outline. Animals instinctively know this but sometimes don’t get it quite right. Those are the ones you can spot. Sometimes they’ll be visible from one angle and hidden from another. Look up into a tree as you approach it but also as you leave it.
Listening provides more clues. On a breezy day or in an area where you can hear traffic, this may not be possible. But much of the time, a rustle in the leaves is a great clue to where something is hanging out. It might be just a brown anole — or it might be a flying squirrel. Don’t make assumptions, and always be on the lookout for whatever gifts the day may bring.
Some people get lucky out there, but no one is lucky on a consistent basis. The key to spotting amazing things in the wild is skill, and now that you understand what you need to work on, you can start sharpening those skills today.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.