Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Woods stalking and nature observation

When I first started spending time on trail, my outings were built around gear and fitness. I've always been a bit of a "gear geek", and so I'd always tend to "over pack" for my day hikes and outings. I have gotten better, but sometimes I still take quite a bit of trail kit with me, especially on my longer outings. I also focused my early outings on fitness...carrying a pack load and covering a lot of ground quickly.

Over time, my interest in wildlife and useful plants began to grow. I began taking photographs of plants and animals that interested me, and tracks and signs left by animals.

Mountain Lion track - El Chorro Regional Park

As I became more comfortable in the woods and on trails and develop bush craft skills, I began to shed a lot of the gear I'd previously carried, choosing instead to take a minimalist approach. I've developed some personal practices that work well for me for nature observation when hiking, and I am going to share them in this article. My wish is that you will find them useful and that they will enhance your outdoors experiences.

My first suggestion is that you choose trail clothing that is soft, quiet, and protective. Stiff canvas clothing can be very noisy when moving through thick brush. Fleece hunting clothes are often designed for quiet movement and are ideal for nature observation as well. Military uniforms are also designed to be quiet and are camouflaged and can be bought used for little money.

You should wear gloves so that if you drop something and react without thinking, you will be  less apt to run your hand onto stinging nettle or into Poison Oak or Sumac, and will protect your hands if you need to move a branch away from you. Keep your arms in close with your center line so you can move more easily through brush and narrow trails and avoid contact with these plants.

Shoes should be flexible, light, and soft rubber soled. Moccasins are okay for stalking but can be slippery to walk in. Soft soles moc's allow you to feel dry branches under foot before applying weight and snapping them.

Keep your trail gear items at a minimum, and store them in a pack. If you must bring them, wrap metal objects with duct tape or cloth to quiet them Store keys in a pocket so they do not rattle.

Develop your personal awareness of the environment around you by learning to use all of your senses. Some people like to walk in the Indian stalking  fashion, and that is fine, but I don't know that it is absolutely necessary unless moving through dry leaf litter or some other noisy medium. What you do need to do is to move slowly with your head up, taking in all of your surroundings. Keep your vision unfocused so that you'll pick up subtle movements faster within your field of view. Consider that you are moving in a sphere and be aware of all around, above and below you.

 Dusky-Footed Woods Rat nest.  The males make their nests
In the tree, while the females build theirs on the ground.

Strive to move in rhythm with the natural surroundings. If you move with a measured, peaceful pace, wildlife such as birds will be more apt to allow you to come closer. If an animal steps onto the trail in front of you, you'll be better able to stop quickly and silently to observe them. Many animals only see in a gray hue and rely on smell, sound, and visual movement to cue them to an intruder's presence.

Only walk as fast as you can safely walk with your head up and absorbing everything. Be aware of material on the trail or trip hazards to avoid. The goal is to develop awareness of everything and to become adept at moving as closely to complete silence as you can.

Be track aware. Tracks [and scat] left by animals tell a story of what animals are using the trail. With time and practice, animal tracks can be discerned from amongst a patch of hiking boot prints. Over time you will develop awareness of even the smallest tracks of insects.

Beetle Track in soft sand

Process the smells of the environment as you walk. Is the air dry or damp [water source nearby or rain coming]?  Putrefaction odor would indicate a dead animal or possibly the meat-hide of a Mountain Lion [a safety issue]. Be aware of human smells [colognes, cigarette smoke, food cooking] which would indicate another person in close proximity. Odors that don't belong also tell a story.

Deceased Dusky-Footed Woods Rat found lying beside trail.
Sound awareness; Often in brush or heavy cover you may hear some animal's activity before you actually see it. Be aware of bird calls and alarms, or lack thereof when the woods fall completely silent. When you hear these cues you should train yourself to stop and assess what is the cause of the alarm.  If you inadvertently make a noise and generate an alarm, stop and assess what calls and activity your error has triggered. Be watchful for it may flush a wildcat or other animal from a bedding or hide where it was just napping.

As you move, pause to check your back trail often. At least every 100 meters look behind you.Sometimes you will see wildlife emerge from brush once they judge you have safely passed out of range. It also allows you to be aware if you are being followed by a predator [2 or 4 legged] which usually attack prey from behind.

I also find it useful to find a observation spot on a hillside and rest my back against a tree to watch and listen to the wildlife activity. I have had wildlife walk past me, unawares that I was seated there. I often hear alarm calls and within a moment or so a trail runner that was cause for the alarm calls will come running along the trail below me.

In heavy cover and narrow  trail, trekking poles can be noisy and can catch on brush, thus telegraphing your approach. I prefer a single pole of natural wood, as it is quieter. Be aware of the heavy pole striking ground and making vibration, another way of telegraphing your approach. I prefer to carry my hiking pole lance-like at a low ready position or at trail when not in actual use. A hiking stick is also very useful to recover dropped items by drawing them back to you instead of reaching into brush and becoming snake bit or stung.

Follow the LEAVE NO TRACE philosophy and be litter aware. Recover your own litter and collect litter left by others when you can. Collecting litter is useful for training the eye to see what is not natural and that which does not belong in the environment. It enhances observation skills. Consider carrying a trowel in your kit to use for burying your own scat and that of others. Garden trowels can be had for as little as .99 cents at HOME DEPOT and DOLLAR TREE and are useful for making a safe camp fire pit as well.

In closing, I hope these tips will help enhance your time spent on the trail. If nothing else, I would strongly urge readers of this post to get outdoors more often and spend time enjoying nature and observing wildlife. Excursions need not be long or arduous. Even brief exposure to the out-of-doors will enhance your health, both mentally and physically. And you'll be able to help give something back by collecting and removing litter items you find along the trail, many of which are injurious or toxic to foraging wildlife. Best of all, if you have children or grandchildren, you can be a positive influence and enhance their life experience by taking them outdoors and opening their eyes to the beauty of nature.


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