How to spot elusive wildlife

Full disclosure: I’m a biologist by training, so the following is not a guide to tracking or harassing wildlife. The following is a guide to how to have fun watching wildlife discretely, non-invasively and safely – both for you and the wildlife in question. It’s important to always minimize your impact on critters in their natural habitats.

Let’s talk about that feeling you get when someone is staring at you. You know the one I mean; you can almost feel the weight of someone’s—or something’s—gaze on your back. Did you know that animals can probably experience that same feeling too? I can certainly attest to this. In my experience doing biological fieldwork with shorebirds, they react very differently to humans who are explicitly looking for them than to humans who are oblivious to their presence. As some researchers suggest, it’s probably some wild animals’ wariness of predators or competitors that predisposes them to this sense of being stared at. For field research, there’s even specific guidance on how to ‘reduce impacts of researcher presence’ on wildlife.

But while we may lack the smoking gun to firmly conclude that wild animals ‘know’ they are being stared at, we can be sure that many wild animals—especially those that are typically prey species (think mice, rabbits, or deer, for example)—don’t want to be seen. So if that’s the case, then how do you see them?

There are a few options, and all of them allow you to keep a safe distance from wildlife without causing unnecessary stress. I’ll be using the term “critter subject” to describe the wildlife you’d like to spot in the following list.

1. Think like a wild animal, particularly one that doesn’t want to be noticed. Don’t strut out into the open while talking on your Smartphone and wearing your loudest colours if you want to see wildlife! Keep an appropriate distance, be quiet, try to stay out of your critter subject’s line-of-sight and move slowly. You can even try to stay down-wind, and definitely stay well out of the critter’s path if it’s on the move. You don’t want to cause any unnecessary stress to wildlife. And for those just tuning in, a macro shot with your 150mm camera lens falls into that “unnecessary stress” category as soon as you disturb, distract, or otherwise bother your critter subject. In many places there are laws protecting wildlife from unnecessary disturbance.

2. Choose the right time. If your critter subject has flown south for the winter, only comes out at night, or happens to be preoccupied with wee ones or the ‘amorous disposition’ leading to that end, you’ll have to wait. The migration factor is obvious, but bear in mind that wildlife—particularly birds and bats—en route to their summer or winter homes need all the energy they can get to complete their journey, so disturbing them is not a good idea. Nocturnal animals that are active during the night must be left alone during the day, since they’re facing all or most of the same pressures, like competition, predation and human threats, during the night that diurnal wildlife experience by day when they are active. Just think of how you feel when someone wakes you up while you’re sleeping! Finally, wild animals that are breeding or caring for their young need lots of space and don’t deal well with disturbance at those times. Stay out of the way.   

*An afterthought to this section is to avoid poor weather. Just like us, your critter subject needs to hunker down during a storm and doesn’t need the added stress of unexpected gawkers. It’s a good rule of thumb to just leave wildlife alone during poor weather.

3. Choose the right place. Use a field guide or a good natural history book or website to determine the suitable habitat for your critter subject. If it’s a sensitive or rare habitat, then plan to read only. You don’t need to put any additional pressure on habitats that are vulnerable, since the species that rely on them won’t and can’t stick around if their habitat becomes degraded.

4. Use binoculars. Simple enough, right? But haven’t we all been in situations where we couldn’t see something that someone was trying earnestly to point out to us high in a tree or off in the distance? Binoculars are an essential tool for safe, discrete and incredibly rewarding wildlife-viewing and by magnifying your critter subject, they help you get a better appreciation of its distinguishing features like colour or shape. Choosing the right binoculars is key, however, and the highest magnification is not always the best option!

5. Use a spotting-scope (aka, a compact telescope). A spotting-scope is the next step up from binoculars for those who are serious about wildlife viewing. Spotting-scopes are for more patient, stationary wildlife viewing where high magnification is desirable. With a scope you can also be farther away for your critter subject, reducing the chances of disturbance. Choosing a spotting scope can be an art in itself and there are numerous options depending on features, price, size, etc. Choosing the right tripod or other mounting device for your needs is also crucial. It’s been said that a $3000 scope mounted on a $50 tripod is actually just a $50 scope…

6. Use a camera. This one has been obvious since my mention above of macro shots with 150mm objective lens! A reliable analog or digital camera can allow you to capture precious shots of your critter subject that allow you and others to experience its beauty, majesty and wildness over and over again. Just be sure to turn off your camera’s sounds to avoid disturbing any critters. If you’re adventurous, you can combine your digital camera with a spotting scope or binoculars to try digiscoping to capture some stellar close-up—and editable—pics of your critter subject. It even works for Smartphone cameras with the right adapter.

7. Use your eyes. That’s right: spot your critter subjects with those high-tech gadgets nature gave you. I’m not suggesting that you ignore what I said above about using binoculars, instead this is a reminder to look for “indirect signs” of wildlife with your naked eyes. Indirect signs of wildlife include things like tracks in snow, mud or sand; broken or trampled blades of grass, snapped tree branches and missing green shoots on saplings (signs of browsing deer or moose); scats (aka, poo), signs of meals or predator activity like scattered feathers, eggshells or owl pellets, and obvious musky odours that smell like very weak skunk spray; well-travelled wildlife pathways that appear in the underbrush or along waterways, including deer trails and even beaver or otter slides along river banks. This is just a sampling of the indirect signs you can use to identify wildlife that doesn’t want to be spotted.

8. Use your ears. Just like using your eyes, it’s important to use your ears to spot wildlife without actually seeing it – and that’s particularly true for birds. Listening for sounds of movement, calls or vocalizations made between individuals and the activity of other wildlife in a given area will help you determine if your critter subject is nearby. Though there is a daunting amount of birdsong underway during the late spring across Canada, there are many resources available to help you figure out what you’re hearing, including the vast Macaulay Library collection at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In that collection you’ll also find the calls of frogs and other species. Assuming you’re not causing any disturbance, hearing sudden changes in birdsong or other wildlife sounds in an area can be a sign that a predator or other threat is lurking. For example, some birds will switch to ‘alarm calls’ when a hawk or other bird of prey flies over.

There are of course other ways to spot wildlife that doesn’t want to be spotted, including using very high-tech gadgetry like infrared goggles, UV lighting, motion sensors and camera-traps, but those are beyond the scope of this article. On the theme of camera traps, however, please do have a look at the incredible Smithsonian Wild collection of camera-trap footage (including video) captured for a number of species as part of field studies taking place around the world.  

So there you have it. Happy wildlife-viewing, and don’t forget that it’s all about having an enjoyable experience that’s safe, discrete and disturbance-free for your critter subjects!


Alexander MacDonald hails from the wee hamlet called Hall’s Harbour, NS, on the Bay of Fundy. He graduated from McGill with a BSc after spending a semester in Panama through the joint Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute-McGill University Panama Field Study Semester. He has worked in the ENGO sector for groups including CPAWS Nova Scotia (cpawsns.org), and served on the boards of Nature Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Environmental Network. He was also a National Councillor for the Canadian Environmental Network during that time (cen-rce.org). After moving with his wife to Ottawa to complete an MSc in Biology at the University of Ottawa, he alighted at Nature Canada, where he manages the organization’s national protected areas program. He currently manages the Lac Deschenes Important Bird Area Naturehood initiative based in Ottawa-Gatineau, which focuses on celebrating, educating, protecting and monitoring a globally significant wildlife habitat right in the nation’s capital. In his spare time, he also fronts the indie folk-rock band Umbrella Protest.