Take a break to see more wildlife

TIP: Standing still, planning a stakeout allows you to pry into the daily lives of animals

Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

It was blustery day on North Douglas. The wind moaned as it tossed the branches of the trees. Down on the ground, sheltered by the tree trunks, the air was almost still. Although the wind masked some of the noise, even walking on moss crackled with hidden twigs.

Riley Woodford/ Adf&G
Riley Woodford/ Adf&G

Have you ever tried sneaking through the woods? The more you try to be quiet, the more noise it seems you make. Even if you can avoid stepping on twigs, branches might hiss against your jacket or backpack. The leather on your hiking boots or the rubber of your Xtratufs might even squeak. I made the mistake of stepping on a narrow log that angled up out of the ground. As soon as I put my weight on it, the rotten wood hidden under the moss gave way, a good length of log thudding to the ground. Not quiet.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to get close to wildlife may be to try to not get close at all. Sometimes you learn far more information about your suspect by sitting still, instead of trying to approach closer. As a wildlife spy, remember animals are always watching for you when you are watching for them.

Standing still as soon as you spot an animal may give you a longer chance to observe its activity. Just after the log incident, I heard some high-pitched peeps close by. I froze. A golden-crowned kinglet hopped at eye-level, unusually low, in the branches of an alder. It fluttered and bounced around through the brush, closer and closer, until I could see the yellow racing stripe on its crown. A movement near the ground below the kinglet drew my attention. At first I thought the flash of brown was a mouse, but it moved again and revealed itself as a rusty-brown winter wren. It too seemed oblivious to my presence just a few feet away. I didn't move until they departed the premises.

While you may happen upon animals as you're hiking, sometimes a stakeout where you know they spend time can give a stealthy peek into their lives. Birds, for example, often have a few favorite singing posts. When defending a territory, they make the rounds of their posts repeatedly, and often in the same order. While this most often happens in the spring breeding season, some birds, such as song sparrows, tough out the winter in Juneau. You may hear these birds belting out their songs to defend winter territories even in December.

There's a song sparrow that patrols a territory along the edges of the parking lot where I work. As I walked out to my car one day this fall, I thought I caught a quick snippet of song, so quiet it was more like a bird muttering to himself than singing.

I peered into the brush trying to spot the culprit, and then I heard the sounds off to the left. I walked that way, catching maddening glimpses of movement behind the branches, but not enough to identify my suspect. The bird moved again. I followed. Two more songs, then it darted low to the ground, zipping way off to the right, beyond where I first heard it. So I wandered back to the first spot. I stood back and waited. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a song sparrow flitted low into the bushes, ignoring me. He murmured to himself a few times, rehearsing, before singing a full-volume song.

Many animals have places that are part of their routine. It's much like stopping at your favorite coffee shop on the way to work. Animals will routinely visit places for food, resting, or travel routes. Sea lions like to crowd onto one of the large red navigation buoys in Lynn Canal to rest. Another favorite spot for sea lions, where you can hear the bellowing far out onto the water nearly year-round, is the rocky haul-out on Benjamin Island. Deer often use the same trails over and over on their commute. North Pass, between Shelter and Lincoln Islands northwest of Juneau, is a reliable summertime spot to see humpback whales because of the way the mixing currents interact with the shape of the seafloor, stirring up food. Learning where your animal suspects like to spend time, then lying in wait gives you a better chance of spying on their daily activities.

Other places may be a temporary draw. Although it may sound a little grim, animal carcasses bring in ravens, eagles, wolves or other scavengers (be especially careful to keep a safe distance from carcasses in summer when bears may be among the dinner guests). By noting suspicious gatherings, you can sometimes find the rendezvous point and set up your stakeout to see who else shows up to dine. The spot may be worth returning to several days in a row to see what happens.

Another temporary draw is places animals refuel during migration. Many kinds of ducks, shorebirds and songbirds stop at the Mendenhall Wetlands on their way north or south, depending on the time of year. By regular visits to the ponds, you may find a darting group of tiny western sandpipers, or keep tabs on the rotating members of the duck flocks drifting by. If you hold still, they may even come close enough to watch without binoculars.

• Beth Peluso is an author and illustrator in Juneau and serves as the Watchable Wildlife Program Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She can be reached at beth.peluso@alaska.gov.

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