Springwatch close encounters
Having a close encounter with a wild animal can be incredibly rewarding. Often these encounters happen by accident, but you can increase your chances of getting up close and personal with the wildlife around the UK with a little patience and some basic skills.
Of course, on the whole wild animals have finely tuned senses that are adapted to ensure you won't see them. But the more time you spend outdoors in search of a close encounter with wild animals, the sooner you develop the skills to increase your chances of getting close.
Do you have your own top tips on having close encounters with British wildlife? If you do, it would be great to hear from you - you can share your knowledge and ideas right here.
When you first develop an interest, the greatest challenge is just identifying what you see or hear. Probably the one thing we are all familiar with is the sound of British songbirds. To have a more rewarding experience, download these animal calls and try to identify which bird sings what song and the sounds of some of our other wildlife.
Field-craft is largely based on common sense. Here are my top tips:
Use your senses
- Be aware of the slightest sound, the smallest movement. Develop peripheral vision. By responding immediately to movement seen in the corner of your eye you increase your chances of spotting an animal tenfold
- Scanning. Make a point of moving your head more - to the left and right, up and down. It may sound obvious but by constantly scanning, you increase your chances of seeing the animals and their tracks
- Knowing where to look for animals. There are certain features that are worth a closer look. Owls and birds of prey, for example, use telegraph poles or fence posts as lookouts
- Sound often betrays an animal's whereabouts, but it is often really hard to pinpoint where the animal is. A good way of identifying the source of the sound is by using your hands, cupped quite close to the ears and slowly panning your head through a horizontal plane. Make a mental note of where the sound is at its loudest then repeat the process
- You can also draw the animal towards you by using sound to attract the animals. Using your hands as sonic reflectors also works well in reverse - especially important with animals with good eyesight. Should your creature decide to walk behind you, it is possible to keep tabs on it simply by cupping your hands in front of your ears and listening to its progress
Whatever your intentions, all people are regarded with varying degrees of fear by most animals. This is why naturalists have developed a whole range of tricks to avoid detection.
The main thing to learn is how to move without disturbing them too much:
- Get there first. You can get much better views of some animals if you work out where they are going to be and get out there first. The golden rule is to behave as though you are being watched the whole time: keep quiet and make any move slowly - that includes turning your head
- Walk quietly and carefully. Maintain constant tension in your legs, slightly bending your knees the whole time. This way you'll have far more control over your weight distribution than if you walk in a relaxed way. It means that if a twig starts to creak underfoot, you can shift your step to avoid breaking it
- Use a deliberate heel-toe action which helps distribute your weight slowly and evenly over the ground
Smell signals: as well as being noisy - we also stink:
- We can't help it and animals find our scent scary. The only way to counteract this is to be constantly aware of the wind direction. The wet finger method you probably all know is very inaccurate. A much better way is to release a light object - a blade of grass, a dead leaf, dry soil - that will all blow away and tell you the wind direction. With a bit of practice you can sense the gentlest wind on your face or wind and so keep a running check on wind direction
- Breath holding. Perhaps one of the strongest human scents is our own breath, so when an animal is unavoidably about to pass downwind of you, try to breathe very shallowly or hold your breath altogether. This may or may not work - but it certainly adds to the excitement of the experience!
The art of invisibility:
- You can't move around or wait undetected without successful camouflage. Obviously make sure your camouflage suits your surroundings: think about where you are going to be watching wildlife and choose appropriate colours
- If you have dark skin you are at a real advantage, because a white hand or face shows up like a beacon in most habitats There are several ways of disguising lighter patches of skin. In summer use green and brown face paint. Look at well camouflaged animals for clues on how best to use the paint. Moths woodcock and nightjar have a muddled blend of browns and blacks and white in their colour schemes. The pale areas help disrupt the outline of the animal. Using the same strategy you can have a few bits of skin clear of paint. And if you haven't got any face paint, you can always find some mud!
- Of all the parts of the human body it's our heads that seem to distinguish us instantly to other animals. Therefore make the outline of your head irregular with, for example, a netting hat which you can stick vegetation too
Hide and seek:
- If you don't intend moving around to get close to animals, then you can consider a hide. But the introduction of a hide into a habitat can be quite disruptive if not done properly. Often you'll have to hide the hide, by carefully blending it into the surrounding habitat
- There are two main ways of using a hide: one is to set it up and try to attract the animal within sight; the other is carefully to introduce it to a location to which you know the animal is likely to return
- To reduce further risk of disturbing the animal you can use a 'walk-away'. This is a second person who accompanies you to the hide and then walks away. The same person can then approach the hide at the end of the day and collect you. The idea is convince the animals that you only visited the hide for a very short time. It assumes animals can't count!
So now you know how to get close to wild animals, how about finding out where to go to see the best wildlife in the UK?