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Springwatch close encounters

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Simon King Simon King | 10:46 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009

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.


With a little bit of common sense you could have a close encounter with an otter

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

Avoiding detection
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


Keep quiet and you could spot a cuckoo

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


A hide can get you closer to nature

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?


  • 1. At 9:31pm on 15 Jun 2009, sparkleDeniseM wrote:

    I've recently been on holiday in Kilmory, Auchnamara. For the first time ever i watched a Otter in the wild. The sun was setting & it was still warm enough to sit down & watch her as she started to lazily roll on dried seaweed. What a sight it was, i was in heaven. Don't ask me how she didn't smell me or see me but she didn't.
    I sat there for a while watching her/him & then it just curled up & went to sleep. Ahh bless.

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  • 2. At 9:50pm on 15 Jun 2009, Nuturix wrote:

    Hi all,

    my tip is this. If you want to see Grass Snakes up close in Spring, firstly catch a female (she's usually larger with a much more triangular shaped head than the male)and no doubt she'll welcome you with a whole lot of smelly gumph, which you do not wipe on the grass, but instead you wipe it on your walking boots/trainers etc.

    Then release the female, find a nice warm spot to relax and watch the males visit your walking boots, sometimes as many as eight or nine, checking out your shoes. But a word of advice, before you do this, tuck your trouser bottoms in your socks or you could end up with a grassie up your trouser leg.

    Regards and have fun


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  • 3. At 11:35pm on 15 Jun 2009, cath120 wrote:

    Hi all,
    With some animals they get use to your smell and your habbits. I work in [Personal details removed by Moderator] North Wales my job is to take care of my animals and sometimes on my rounds I see kingfishers flying up and down the pond, wild gees with there youngh and even dragonflys. I have even got nest (swallows) in my pens and they dont seem to mind me.
    Have fun

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  • 4. At 09:11am on 16 Jun 2009, fionawykes wrote:

    Hi there,
    I watched Simon King's programme last night and it made me realise how lucky I have been. Over 2007 and 2008 we shared our garden with a family of red squirrels. We have a big fir tree about 6 metres from our kitchen window and could watch the squirrels coming and going all day long. Then the real treat came in the Spring when we saw four or five babies descending the tree and playing around. I should explain that i don't live in the UK anymore but in Eastern France on the border of Luxembourg. Red squirrels are not that rare here (we don't have any greys)and are often seen in suburbs. We, however, live on the edge of countryside and felt so privileged that they chose our garden (despite a lot of neighbourhood cats prowling around - our cat had a go at chasing them but it didn't stand a chance!) They must have had good sources of food around because they didn't go for the bird food. They did enjoy the wisteria seeds, though. We got the occasional empty pod dropped on our heads! Then one day I saw a pine martin coming down the tree, and although I didn't see any sign of destruction, we didn't see any more of the squirrels. We live in hope that one of the young ones will come back and have its own family.
    I'm not a great one for wearing camouflage and lying down in a field to watch rabbits but I have a tip for Simon - take up horse-riding! I have got up very close to deer in the forests here when I've been riding. In fact, neither horse nor deer seem to notice one another until they are within sometimes just five or six metres of each other and then the fun happens as they both go full pelt in opposite directions!
    This is a great region for birds, too. The fields at the back of our house are full of red kites and woodpeckers and haw finches are regular visitor to the garden.
    How lucky we are!

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  • 5. At 11:23am on 16 Jun 2009, rain_bird wrote:

    Hi All,
    I enjoyed watching Simon King's close encounters programme last night, however, being a biology researcher I feel I have to comment on his use and encouragement of tape luring to attract birds.

    Tape luring is a very effective way of attracting birds, however it should be used with extreme care as it can be a source of considerable stress to the birds. If played too long, or too close to nests, or at the wrong time of year it can cause prolonged stress (if a breeding bird thinks a rival is in its territory it will spend a lot of time and energy looking for it rather than feeding itself or its young), and even nest desertions.

    I think Simon was a little cavalier in his promotion of a technique that can easily cause stress. When talking about calling in cuckoos (with his own voice rather than a tape), he said that some birds fly away from the mimic assuming the territory is occupied. Even if the effect is short lived, surely this is still a negative impact on a rapidly declining species?

    I dont want to be too negative, trying to get good views of wildlife is a fabulous way to spend your time & his explanations of tricks to try were great. It was just worrying that he promoted tape luring along with less intrusive techniques without emphasing the need for considerable caution. Imagine the potential impact if every viewer last night goes out to try tape luring - come on Springwatch, you are usually more careful than this.

    Happy (considerate) watching!

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  • 6. At 11:54am on 16 Jun 2009, nonagenda wrote:

    a super programme last night, Simon, - thank you! Although living in the SW of France offers different opportunities from the UK, may I suggest you try another tactic for close contacts with lizards. I find that stripping off to sunbathe and lying very still, encourages them to explore, first one's feet and then legs, until they finally settle happily on one's back to share the sun with you. The larger, beautiful green lizard also seems fascinated with my midday snack in the garden, regarding the event on a wall, a few inches away.
    I have regular nocturnal visits from an entire family of toads who squat a centimetre from the house wall and seem to enjoy a gentle stroke on the head and back, while watching and waiting.

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  • 7. At 12:23pm on 16 Jun 2009, margaret955 wrote:

    what a wonderful programme last night,full of your usual information.thank you,I have started to gain the confidence of some of the birds in my garden,while I just sit there,I have some wonderfull characters come in,Blackbirds,sparrows a couple of blue tit (not yet gained their confidence nor my little coal tits) one pigeon a magpie who terrorises the cat next door (poor cat is getting it from all fronts including my terrier)I want to put some bird boxes up for next spring so hopefully by springwatch next year I will have little ones to video to send into the programme,Simon you are always a pleasure to watch and so full of info just like Bill (come back Bill!!!!)thanks Simon

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  • 8. At 7:17pm on 16 Jun 2009, cameracnut wrote:

    I loved the fieldcraft skills guide last night. Thank you very much. I haven't got much to add I'm afraid. I usually sit and wait quietly and see what pops up.

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  • 9. At 8:29pm on 16 Jun 2009, jonkles wrote:

    A great programme, I'm fortunate enough to have a wood containing a Badger set just a short walk from my home, if I stand perfectly still, with my back to a tree, I'm surprised how near the badgers get to me and only detect my presence when they get down wind of me. I have even had rabbits pass right by me without detecting me. Re: Lorraine's comments about tape luring - Simon King was very careful to advise anyone not to prolong the use of any recorded sounds. As for the possibility of every Springwatch viewer actually going out and following his lead, well it's never going to happen, I'm sure most viewers are armchair naturalists.

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  • 10. At 10:12pm on 16 Jun 2009, martinmore wrote:

    Loved Simon King's programme last night. It is wonderful to earn the trust of any wild animal. Last year I had a tame blackbird who used to come to the kitchen door for scraps. One day I sat in the garden with another chair beside a table nearby. The blackbird came and sat on the vacant chair beside me as if to say I want to sunbathe as well. He spent at least 10 minutes there preening himself and not at all phased. I just couldn't believe it - and a couple of days later he did the same again. It was funny but a great experience.

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  • 11. At 11:59am on 19 Jun 2009, John Hackney wrote:

    Thought it might be useful to relate how I managed to obtain close up footage of Civets while visiting India.
    I was staying in a Jungle Camp in the Himalayan Foothills when at night I heard an animal 'raiding' the leftovers from my 'dinner' outside my room.At first I thought it was a cat (domestic variety) but then, through the window,I caught a glimpse of a long,bushy and striped tail - that certainly got me interested !
    I had my Camcorder with me so it was now a case of how to video this 'mysterious' animal.My solution was to set up the camcorder on a tripod outside my room window with it pointing at a table on which I then placed the plates and leftovers from 'dinner'.I made sure the Camcorder was visible (at around 10ft) from the room window.
    Next I set the Video Camera on 'standby' and reversed the LCD screen so it could be clearly seen from the window.After that I went back inside my room and drew the curtains leaving just a small gap to see through.I was then able to control the Camcorder from inside the room using its 'remote control'.
    After that I went to bed and waited for the 'rattle of dishes' which would tell me the 'animal', which turned out to be a Civet, had arrived.A bit of a compicated system but it worked !Once I heard a noise outside I crept up to the window and by looking at the Camcorder screen (the table and Civet were for the most part out of sight under the window)I could see what the animal was up to.I could then by using the remote record and zoom in and out as required.
    Over a period of several weeks I got at least an hours footage of Civets.At first I used the Camcorders infrared to record but then in order to get better quality video set up a lamp by the table as a light source.If anyone would like to see some of the footage i obtained (at lower quality than the original diital footage go to
    www.youtube.com/CHUKA2007 (CHUKA2007 is my youtube login name)and click on the picture of the Civet on the main page. I'll also see if I can upload the video under the Springwatch videos. John.

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  • 12. At 12:42pm on 19 Jun 2009, Michelle_Iona wrote:

    I've had some amazing close encounters with wildlife - like many of my encounters with the Scottish wildcat, the most memorable being when one started hissing at my car as I waited for it to get out of the road or my close encounter with an otter on the Bynack Burn where we both sat looking at each other for a few minutes it on one bank me on the other. I've also had the privilage to see red deer very close up, red squirrels, siskins, and greater spotted woodpeckers from my work window 3 feet away and young barn owls and merlins when accompanied by licensed ringers. All my life I have been close to wildlife and with a little patience and lots of good luck anything is possible. I loved seeing the humpbacked whale dolphins and basking sharks in the sound of Sleat from my college window or the pine martin that ran in front of me on wednesday night - my best view of one yet. My best piece of advice would be to keep your eyes open when driving in the Highland's late at night because you will see the most amazing wildlife.

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  • 13. At 08:57am on 03 Oct 2009, chartseven wrote:

    About three weeks ago on a warm evening we were sitting out in the garden drinking a glass of wine (as you do). Our garden is not very big and we are less than half a mile from the centre of Godalming. As we sat there a fox walked through the garden about fifteen feet away. Five minutes later a badger walked through and five minutes after that another, smaller, badger. There was also a bat circling overhead.
    In the last few weeks we have seen a barn owl perched on our neighbours TV aerial (arnt they big?) and two tawny owls circling over the garden making a racket.
    Wildlife is alive and well in this part of Surrey

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  • 14. At 8:00pm on 16 Mar 2010, paticia capone wrote:

    We live 3 miles from the city centre of Nottingham, in a little oasis. 3 years ago we met mrs fox, who was so tame she would take food from our hands. Dining with us most nights. Were now on our third generation and the family grows.
    Recently they now share there dinner with the badger clan. so far a family of 4. Eating together and so close you could touch them. V ideo footage to be posted when we figure out how.. Isnt nature amazing!!
    From a happy patricia watchin all this from bed!

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  • 15. At 12:51pm on 25 Mar 2010, Sam Unsprung Researcher wrote:

    Thanks for your comments everyone!

    Sounds fabulous Patricia - We look forward to that!

    Sam :)

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  • 16. At 9:41pm on 30 Mar 2010, Francis Spring wrote:

    Billy Badger wrote:

    I think there are signs of the badgers returning to the set at the bottom of the garden - and it's not even April yet!

    Determined to get some delights captured with the camcorder this year.

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  • 17. At 3:00pm on 03 Apr 2010, Alison Kelly wrote:

    Last summer I found a Tawny Owl roosting in a beech tree in my garden. It became my daily routine to walk to the tree each morning to see if she was there and each evening after dark, to sit on my terrace and watch as she flew around my garden. After about 2 months she disappeared. This morning I saw some activity in an old apple tree. At first I thought it was one of the many wood pigeons that visit, however to my delight realised that it was a baby tawny owl. I watched as he/she flapped its wings and flew hesitantly over to the larch and then as it walked gingerly up a branch to the trunk of the tree. It is still sitting in the same spot, huddled up against the trunk and watching me as I tidy up the pond! Despite looking for its mother (with the use of binoculars) I have been unable to spot her. No prizes for guessing what I'll be doing tonight!!

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  • 18. At 9:19pm on 01 Jun 2010, marilynm53hud wrote:

    In spring 2009 andI was walking my lurcher between a border of trees and a stream. Ahead of us was a fox cub, on its own, swinging its tail and out for s stroll! When we caught up with it, the cub rolled on its back and dropped the dead mouse it was carrying. It touched noses with my foxy looking lurcher and we moved on quickly in case the mother was about. There was no fear, just curiosity and an interest in my dog.

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  • 19. At 3:29pm on 09 Jun 2010, terry wrote:

    When walking on my local rec I saw a pigeon pinned to the ground by a bird of prey.The pigeon was being stripped of it's feathers. I stood and watched, horrified. Suddenly a crow appeared from the trees and divebombed the bird of of prey. It released the pigeon which flew off. After a brief moment the bird of prey flew after the pigeon, but gave up the chase. I realise this was not an act of kindness by the crow but it's instinct to attack a bird of prey. Strange, because crows are also attacked by other birds as they are seen as a threat. I felt privileged to watch this mini drama inside a semi built up area and hope the pgeon recovered, although it may have died of shock. Any comments??

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  • 20. At 10:54pm on 09 Jun 2010, oldtomg wrote:

    This is not a current sighting, but read on anyway!
    On 4th January I was watching the birds feeding in the garden when a little bird landed on a bush just 10 feet away from the window. It sat there for a wee while, long enough for me to take in its markings, then flew off, heading north.
    It wasn't a bird I recognised so I checked a Britain's birds book and found I had just seen a Cirl Bunting. What was it doing seven miles south of Edinburgh in the depths of a freezing cold winter?
    A local bird "expert" said sagely "don't think so!", but I couldn't find another bird with these markings. Any comments?

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  • 21. At 8:48pm on 14 Jun 2010, Jo Porteous wrote:

    I had a close encounter with an Elephant Hawk Moth this morning which was on the front door (sliding) of the building I was working in situated in Llanrhos, near Llandudno, North Wales. I rushed home for the camera after work and luckily it was still there. The moth remained in place even when the door was being opened and closed. Has anyone else seen one recently?

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