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Tips for watching wildlife

Wild animals challenge us in many ways. They hide from us. They trick us into thinking they are something else, or even somewhere else. They run or fly away when they sense that we are near.

Being able to see wild animals takes skill and practice. It means we have to slow down, be quiet, and look at things in different ways.

The following tips will help you tune in to the ways of the wild animals around you. Try these tips out the next time you visit a national park or area of bushland - even try them in your own backyard.

Slow down for wildlife

The first thing to do if you want to see wildlife is to slow down and walk quietly. Normal walking is too fast and too noisy for getting close to wildlife. The silent and still space between steps is when you will see and hear animals moving about.

Even slowing down a little makes your steps much quieter and gives you time to look around. Try walking at half the speed you normally do and a new world of sights and sounds will start to appear around you.

The animals that we usually see are the ones that move faster than ourselves. By slowing down, or stopping altogether, even the movement of the slowest animals will attract your attention.

Think about how a cat or a fox walks when it is stalking a bird. By placing its foot slowly on the ground it walks silently. You can also practice fox walking by taking a step so the outside of your foot touches the ground first and then roll your foot inward until it is flat on the ground. Then do the same with your next step. You should find that you can now walk without making any noise.

A different point of view

There are few wild animals that we see eye-to-eye with. Squat down or stand on your toes, then look around. Looking at things from a different height might reveal those animals that we don't usually make eye contact with. You'll also see more if you stop every now and then and look behind you.

A change of focus and scale

By regularly changing your focus from objects close by to things in the distance you are more likely to see a greater range of animals. Similarly, by looking at things closely, the small animals that so often go unseen will come into focus. This can reveal a whole new world of insects, spiders, lizards and frogs.

Why not use your binoculars to bring animals much closer - or turn them around and use them as a microscope for watching insects and other 'mini-beasts'.

Seeing through others eyes

Animals like us have five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. But each type of animal relies on these senses in different ways and senses its world through its unique combination of senses. A kangaroo has good eyesight and excellent hearing, a snake 'tastes' the smell of its prey and feels vibration on the ground through its body, and a tiny bat navigates without sight by listening for the echoes of its own high pitched squeaks. Understanding how an animal uses its senses will give you a better idea of how they experience the world and how they see you.

Know what you're looking for

An animal can be thought of as a combination of a shape, size, colours, patterns and way of moving. They have their own calls, smells, times when they're active, diets, and behaviours. No two types of animals have the same combinations of all of these features: giving every animal its own unique characteristics. From observing an animal as much as you can, it is possible to learn to identify them by using a selection of these characteristics. This may be a body shape, a flash of colour, a distinct pattern of movement, a sound, or even a smell. This is called an animal's 'search image'. The more you see an animal, the more you learn what these key features are and this search image then becomes a part of your own memory.

Taking a broader view

Humans have a field of view that spans almost 180°. You can test this by raising your arms out straight beside you and moving them slowly toward the front while looking straight ahead. If you wriggle your fingers you should detect the movement before you've moved your arms too far. This is because the edge of your field of view (your peripheral vision) is very good at detecting movement.

When you are looking for animals, don't try to just focus on the things in front of you. Regularly scan the edges of your vision to see if there is anything moving around you. You'll be surprised at how much more you see.

Look for difference not 'sameness'

We've all seen a gum tree, a kangaroo, or a magpie - so we know what they look like. But no two animals or plants are exactly the same - nor do they behave exactly the same.

When you see a plant or animal in nature, explore it to see what makes it different from others of the same species. How can you tell one magpie from another? What are the differences between two grey kangaroos?

Once you start to see differences, nature will never seem boring or the same. You will find that each plant and animal is unique with its individual markings and behaviours.

Get acquainted with individual animals. Watch them. Name them. Follow their daily lives. This is something you can do in your own backyard, school ground or local park.

Record what you see

Invest in a small sketchbook, a good sketching pencil, an eraser and a sharpener. Sketching wildlife and taking notes about what you see will help you to remember what you saw. This can be fun and as your sketching and note taking skill improve over time you will get to know the individual animals around you and start to see patterns in their behaviour and movement.

Last reviewed
11 May 2016
Last updated
14 June 2011