Wildlife viewing tips and tools

Get pointers on how to glimpse animals in the wild.

The basics

  • One of the simplest ways is to use your car as a portable blind while driving through areas which allow vehicles. When you see an animal, such as a turtle on the edge of a road, or a songbird feeding in a tree, pull safely off the road and sit quietly. Wildlife will often tolerate vehicles, but sense a person on foot as a threat.
  • Another effective method is to hike into an area and find a spot to sit that offers a good vantage. Places where different habitat types met, such as the edge of a beaver pond can be particularly good. Sit quietly, using available brush and vegetation to break up your outline, and slowly turn you head and move your eyes to scan the area before you. The flight of a butterfly, the twitching of a deer's tail or the call of a songbird will catch your eye or ear. Slowly raise your binoculars, focus in on the source, and enjoy.
  • Walking slowly through an area helps you learn about habitat, trail systems, waterways and wildlife movements. Go slowly, pausing often to scan the area and to listen. Look for tracks, droppings, gnawings and other signs or clues that wildlife is near.
  • Wildlife is most active in the early morning and late evening hours. Getting up a little earlier or staying in the field a little later can be worth the effort. Weather can also influence animal activity. Calm periods before a winter snowstorm or just after a heavy downpour can be productive for viewing wildlife.
  • Don't overlook the more common and conspicuous wildlife you encounter. The behavior of a Canada goose or chipmunk can be as interesting as that of a coyote.
  • There's also a micro-world of wildlife all around. Study a dragonfly, ladybug or ant colony in the comfort of your own backyard or neighborhood. Magnifying glasses are great tools for studying these small creatures.

Looking in the right place at the right time

  • Wildlife depends on habitat (food, water, shelter and space) for survival. Knowing the habitat an animal uses and where that habitat is found is the first step in successful wildlife viewing. Some kinds (species) of wildlife in Massachusetts are found in only certain kinds of habitats such as terns on barrier beaches or bald eagles on major water bodies. Other species like raccoons, white tailed deer, turkeys and black capped chickadees use habitats ranging from deep woods to suburban backyards.
  • Daily and seasonal timing is also a critical factor when looking for wildlife. Hawks, sparrows and chipmunks are only active during the day. Owls, bats and opossums are most active at night. Choose your viewing times based on the wildlife you hope to encounter.
  • Set your viewing schedule to match the changing seasons. Turtles and bullfrogs emerge from winter dormancy shortly after the red-wing blackbirds return on their spring migration. These animals will remain active throughout the warmer months only to disappear again with the onset of winter. The colder weather brings wintering blue jays, pine siskins and evening grosbeaks to forests and feeders while sea ducks from the northern Canada winter on the coastal waters of the state, leaving for northern nesting territories in spring.
  • Migration is an exciting time for wildlife watchers. Catching the peak of the fall hawk migration, or being surrounded by brightly colored spring warblers provide sights and sounds not soon forgotten. Consult field guides and join a local bird or nature club to learn more about prime times and places to witness migrations.

Wildlife viewing tools

  • Binoculars are standard equipment for wildlife watchers and are indispensable for seeing and identifying animals in the field. The most popular models magnify the subject 7 or 8 times and are lightweight, weather resistant, and moderately priced. There are many variations on the traditional design, including compact models that fit easily into a fanny pack or belt pouch and large binoculars with greater light-gathering capability for viewing in low light conditions. Check with an optics dealer for advice on a pair that will meet your needs.
  • A spotting scope and tripod will extend your viewing range considerably. Scopes typically magnify an image from 20 to 60 times and can have fixed or zoom magnification lenses. Once wildlife has been located with binoculars it's often possible to find the subject with a scope for a better view. Practice with fairly stationary objects, such as a perched hawk or wading heron, before trying to follow and focus on a running deer or flying duck.
  • Field guides can help you identify the wildlife and wild plants you encounter. Many have drawings and photographs which point out an animal's distinctive features, colors, or patterns, called field marks, which greatly aid in identification. You'll find birds, butterflies, wildflowers, and even whales in field guides.

Wildlife photography 

Wildlife photography and videography are growing in popularity almost as fast as wildlife watching. Preserving wildlife memories through photography or video is a satisfying hobby and adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience. Equipment is a matter of personal preference, not to mention personal finance. The best times for photography are often early and late in the day, when the rich, golden light produces dramatic shadows and increased color contrast. Show animals exhibiting natural behavior in their natural surroundings by keeping distance between the subject and the camera. If you approach too closely, the bird or animal may flee, spoiling the viewing and photo opportunity for yourself and others.

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