Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

How to… spot wildlife

Adventure naturalist Steve Backshall
© Steve Backshall

Being a wildlife watcher is one of the only good reasons a civilian has for creeping about dressed in camouflage clothing. There’s no doubting that you feel faintly daft standing in a public car-park looking like you’re about to lead a siege at Hamburger Hill, but once you get out into the wilds, it makes perfect sense. To be able to get within sight of anything exciting, you’re going to need to remember the magical six ‘S’s of tracking: style, stealth, stink, sight, scat and sign.


It’s no wonder that armies go to battle wearing outfits that blend with the surrounding  environment, and most animals can see better than the average soldier. Most raptors, for example, have eyesight eight times keener than a human’s. At the very least, go for clothes in dull, muted colours. Pop down to your local army surplus store to get some serious camo clobber (and the cheapest, hardest-wearing outdoors clothing you’ll ever own). Granted, your friends may start to keep their distance, and strangers might take you for a serial killer, but it’s a small price to pay in order to get close to wild animals. If you want to go all out, you can get creative and poke bits of bracken through your belt loops and cover yourself in camo cream, but don’t forget to remove it all before going home or your family will freak out.


OK, so no self-respecting naturalist is going to wander out into the wilds with a boom box over their shoulder blaring out death metal, but don’t underestimate quite how much benefit you can gain from moving quietly and stealthily. It’s one reason I have a tendency to go for light trainers over heavy boots on anything but the coldest winter day; you’re less likely to sound like a stampeding herd of Cape Buffalo. Watch where you walk as well – going off the path in twig-strewn dry woodlands or trying to barge through reed beds can make an enormous racket, as can trying to squelch through an autumn bog or estuary mud. Pick your path carefully and your hit rate will soar. Also remember that most mammal sight is based on movement; a dog will spot a moving rabbit hundreds of metres away but walk straight past one hunkered down silently in the grass. Patience and stillness truly are virtues!


Heavy scented deodorants and perfumes are definitely out. A human being’s sense of smell is pathetic in comparison to the majority of wild mammals out there. Most canids have a sense of smell at least 10,000 times better than a human, and there is evidence that bears and even pigs may be even more sensitive. When out on the Arctic tundra tracking Polar Bear, we spotted a bear perhaps two miles away, just in time to see him lift his nose, clearly scent us on the air and shamble off into the distance. Just a whiff of you or your artificial fragrances will send sensitive animals running. Another thing to think about in the stink category is yet another ‘S’: stay downwind of any wildlife you want to observe – so the wind is blowing from it to you rather than vice-versa. Toss a small piece of grass into the air and note which way it floats away – you want to be approaching any animals from that direction (i.e. downwind) when stalking. It’s a tricky one, this, and not one you often get the chance to use in practice, but useful if you’re thinking of placing a hide, or staking out a potential food source. From experience though, I can tell you that if you do spend hours putting up a hide downwind of a surefire viewing site, the wind will change just as you apply the finishing touches…


The way you use your eyes is actually something you can improve. I personally find searching for animals at night easier than in the daytime, not just because there’s more out and about, but because the beam of a torch concentrates the vision, and cuts out extraneous information. Another essential bit of kit that can do the same thing for you is a pair of binoculars or spotting scope.


I could have called this by another ‘S’, but referring to droppings, faeces – good old fashioned poo – as ‘scat’ helps you to get rid of squeamishness and feel like a scientist or expert native tracker. I’ve managed to so completely get over any worries about the brown stuff that I often find myself taking appropriate pieces apart in my fingers and shoving it under my nose for a good sniff – I have to admit I’ve even had a wee taste of Black Bear scat (in late summer their diet is so catholic that it tastes like blueberry pie!). There are several sections throughout this guide that should help you to basically differentiate the scat from broad animal groups, tell how fresh it is, and a little of what the depositor was feeding on. But please wear gloves or at least wash your hands after handling scat, and don’t eat it – I get paid to do this stuff and can afford an occasional case of the trots!


There is absolutely nothing to make you feel more like a master of your environment than finding a few footprints in the sand, stroking your chin in contemplation and surmising, ‘Fallow Deer, a mother and fawn, here within the last hour and moving off in a westerly direction.’ Of course, you’re almost certain to then round a corner and meet the sheep that actually made the prints (probably eating your sandwiches), but eventually you’ll get some predictions right, and feel like a tracking mystic. The most important part of tracking is not actually your recognition of the sign itself, but of spotting substrates (that means types of material that things live or grow on) that will best hold a print. A classic example would be the clear muddy sides of a river with worn animal ‘roads’ leading away over the banks, or obvious woodland trails after fresh snowfall. Once you’ve sussed what kind of animal made the tracks, their gait and type of movement is easy to assess, by putting yourself almost literally into their shoes.

To learn more about Steve and his craft, buy his book Steve Backshall’s Wildlife Adventurer’s Guide (£14.99; available on Amazon)