Winter wildlife watching
In collaboration with Julie Audet, wildlife photographer.
Wildlife watching can be enjoyed all year round. Of course, you’ve got to make a bit of an effort to increase your chances of discovery, because watching is one thing, but finding a creature is quite another, so you have to keep in mind that adapting is the order of the day!
Each period of the year brings its fair share of changes, both in terms of the species present on the ground and of the environment itself. These are two elements among many others that we must take into consideration. If winter is sometimes limiting when it comes to the physical exploration of different areas, it can conversely be very generous and provide an impressive number of clues, thus making wildlife easier to discover.
Tracking with the help of wildlife clues
What on earth is a wildlife clue? Well, it’s simply anything that’s present or left behind by an animal (or several animals), regardless of the duration of the presence, regardless of the species. A long list of clues can be studied, and you’ll get better at recognizing them with time, but what you need to know first is that in wildlife watching mode, detecting clues is essential.
To recognize them, think of the area before you as a great painting and scan it by section, from top to bottom, in a 360-degree sweep. During winter, snow is surely the most revealing clue. It enables you to study the area a little more closely. Footprints, shelters, resting places, and diet, sometimes even escapes, fights, and hunts, are all elements that can be decoded in the snow. To this can be added sounds, smells, excrement, food leftovers, and different animal matter (hair, feathers, bones, etc.), as well as scratched, nibbled, or broken branches, etc. Obviously, forests during winter also enable a better reading of the entire deciduous tree vegetation layer, now bare, which greatly facilitates the search. But the animals aren't fooled. Since one of their main challenges is finding winter shelter, some have truly mastered the art of hiding or camouflage, particularly during the long chilly season!
To optimize your activity and make everything pleasant, plan on wearing good warm clothes, because this activity sometimes requires long periods of immobility. So you should favour insulating layers and clothing that breathes, without forgetting to bring a few spares, including a decent pair of thermal socks. Multi-layering is also a must if your travels require expending energy, before and after your waiting period. You’ll also have to remember to bring a nutritious snack and of course, water. For longer waits, a coffee thermos is a welcome addition! Among my must-brings, I never leave without foot and hand warmers, an abundant supply of which I never regret having in my bag since they allow me to make my outings last! Besides all my photographic equipment, a tubular polyester microfibre scarf and snowshoes are also on my must-bring list for my winter wildlife watching excursions.
Keeping your distance at all times
Please note that during winter, many animal species reduce their activity to the minimum to avoid an unnecessary expenditure of energy. Some even go as far as reducing their habitat area. Others must get away and migrate in order to find food. In both cases, the cold and the weather hazards can be quite limiting for their travels and for their food search and can sometimes lead to very difficult conditions that the creatures have to overcome. This requires expending a considerable amount of energy, in addition to adapting their diet to the limited resources on hand. That’s why during winter, a number of species reduce and restrict their activities to ensure at least bare survival!
For all these reasons, the wildlife watcher must exercise additional caution and be extra respectful during winter, keeping in mind that for the animal, escaping is a huge energy drain, which can even in some cases be fatal, especially if the creature is already weakened by the harshness of winter. At all times, the distance between the watcher and animal must be respected. If the animal flees in your presence, you're probably too close or perceived as a threat. Whether you’re on foot or in a vehicle, the best thing to do, as much for the animal as for yourself, is to stop and contemplate the scene which you have the privilege of witnessing.
Respect, always and above all else!
In all cases, respecting animals is the order of the day. Respecting nature isn’t only a basic rule, it’s also a matter of judgment. When wildlife watching, whether equipped with a camera or binoculars, or as a simple observer, the activity should always be done while revering nature, with good intentions, and adopting ethical behaviour at all times. Broadly speaking, it means being able to wildlife watch without changing the environment or animal behaviour. This is a fundamental value which should be shared and adhered to, but which we must still defend today. We can't say it enough: nature is our collective heritage. Its preservation is everybody's business.
You now know that in many cases winter wildlife watching can be shorter and much more difficult because the possibility of seeing an animal on the move is rather reduced. You now understand why studying the terrain and the clues is so important and how once face to face with an animal, the watching process can turn into a real moment of grace, which we must know how to fully appreciate. And especially, don't worry if you return home without having spotted a single creature; this is among the risks that even the greatest photographers have to face! The trick is to get out there as often as possible and be patient.
Here's wishing you a great outing!
About Julie Audet
Julie likes to share her extraordinary passion for nature and wildlife through photos and words. The unique perception of nature that she captures in her camera’s eye is both extremely personal and imbued with great sensitivity. From biology to photography, her work reveals deep values, at the origin of a very current objective: raising awareness about respect for nature.