Spring weather is finally here at Mason Neck State Park, and with warmer days we see not only more park visitors but more park wildlife. We also see many visitors exploring nature for the first time. Nature and wildlife watching can be confusing, even frustrating, for a beginner, since wildlife is often shy and doesn’t want to be seen. The same tricks animals use to hide from their predators or prey are the ones they use to hide from you. So here are a few tips for beginning your search for wildlife.
When looking for wildlife, make sure you’re dressed sensibly. Multiple layers of clothing are best since weather can change unexpectedly. In spring and summer, that means long pants (they’ll protect you against ticks and mosquitoes much better than shorts will), a short-sleeved shirt and a lightweight jacket. Wear hiking boots or at least sneakers that have good traction. A hat, bug spray and sunscreen will be handy as the weather warms up too. Essentially, dress so you can comfortably stay outside a long time. The longer you can spend outside, the better your chances of seeing wildlife.
Also consider the location, time of year and even time of day where you’ll be watching for wildlife. Your chances of finding wildlife improve when you know what animals to expect, even more when you know enough about your desired animal to predict its habits, e.g. its preferred habitat. If you can’t do advance research about local wildlife, check with park staff when you arrive. We are more than happy to help you find interesting trails and to tell you what’s been seen lately. In my experience, early morning and late afternoon are excellent viewing times for wildlife, particularly birds. Rainy or cloudy weather can produce a surprising amount of wildlife as well. I’ve seen normally nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (most active at dawn & dusk) species, like beaver, out in the middle of a dark gloomy day.
Finally, make sure you have the right equipment for wildlife watching. Binoculars are essential, so you can see distant wildlife. You also should bring field guides for the kinds of wildlife you expect to see. Check your local library if you don’t own copies. Many parks’ visitor centers also have a good reference library of field guides for you to consult, and may even have lending copies as well. See this blog I posted recently for more details on what clothing and equipment you should bring for a park visit.
this very cool birding blog
What was that?
When you do see wildlife, practice good viewing skills. Note the following about your animal:
- Overall shape and size.
- Color, including whether it has markings such as spots or stripes anywhere.
- Shapes and colors of beaks, ears, tail, etc.
- Behavior displays.
- Sounds it makes.
The more clues you can pick up, the more likely you’ll be able to identify the animal. If you can’t identify an animal by yourself, park staff will also need as much information as you can give them to help you identify it later. Often different animals look very much alike, and the little details are how you can tell them apart.
Lastly, when you’re out at a park, do always keep in mind the cumulative impact of your encounters with wildlife. There were many more watchers before you and will (hopefully) be many more after you. Your goal should be to disturb wild animals and their habitat as little as possible, leaving it nearly unchanged behind you. If you can watch the wildlife without animals even realizing you’re there, perfect! Watch for these alarm signs in animals that you’re observing, too. If an animal stops feeding and raises its head sharply, appears nervous or aggressive, changes its direction of travel, exhibits a “broken wing” display, or circles repeatedly, that means it’s uneasy about your presence. You should back away or otherwise leave the animal alone when it displays these signs.
Hope to see you at Mason Neck State Park soon!
See also my previous blog on wildlife watching tips & tricks.