The Art of Seeing Nature

by Jeff Beyl

Have you ever seen an owl in the wild? They’re beautiful but can be difficult to spot. But they are out there and can be seen. If we know what to look for. That is the trick in spotting animals of all types in nature be it birds, insects, mammals, even fish; knowing how to spot them, what to look for. There are tricks. Not tricks really. It’s more like being aware of what’s around you and being sensitive to certain things in your surroundings.

Such as movement. This seems obvious. If we see movement in our peripheral vision it’s usually some kind of animal, a bird flitting across the sky or scratching on the ground. The point is well taken however, be aware of movement. Movement can be a deer walking stealthily through the trees, a snake slithering through the underbrush, a butterfly dancing along a flowerbed. Movement can be a squirrel’s tail twitching in the limbs of a tree. Except when moving in a breeze, plants are stationary, hence movement signifies something alive (yes, I know that plants are alive). Movement signifies something free, something we just might want to see.

Sound is also a strong and important way to see in nature. Listen to the environment. Be aware of the sounds around you. Listen carefully. Do you suddenly hear anything different? Perhaps an obvious chirp of a bird, or a scratching underfoot or a hoot in the distance or a splash off to the left. Your ears will tell you the direction it is coming from, turn that direction and your eyes take over. Sound is important in seeing nature.

Color. We are bombarded by color every day. Color is everywhere. If, wherever you are, you suddenly see a flash of blue or red or yellow you’d better look at it. You never know what you might see. Imagine the first person that walked along through an equatorial rainforest, surrounded by green, and saw a Bird of Paradise. Imagine the thrill. If we are walking through a forest the predominant color is green, maybe some brown. But the brown is the vertical trunks of trees. If you see a horizontal brown line it may be an elk, it may be a bobcat, it may be a coyote. If you see a vertical swatch of brown up within the green of a tree it may be a hawk or an eagle or maybe an owl perched within the branches.

Which brings us to lines. Nature has lines. Usually vertical, sometimes horizontal. Be aware of the structure of lines and space around you. Anything seemingly different might be something worth seeing.

Texture surrounds us also. The texture of the furniture in our house, the texture of the plants in our backyard, the texture of the forest, the beach, the plain. Be aware of the surrounding texture and if something seems different, search it out and see what it is. It could be fur as opposed to tree trunks. It could be feathers as opposed to flowers. It could be something smooth as opposed to something rough, or vise-versa.

Food source. This is a good way to see certain types of animals in nature. For instance if you want to see an Osprey or an eagle you might want to look along a river or along the edge of a lake. These birds hunt fish. Fish, being the prey, assure the possibility of the predator. Put some birdseed out in your backyard and you’ll certainly bring out some Black Caped Chickadees and various types of finches and many other types of songbirds. If you’re under water (breathing Scuba, of course) and you see a pile of empty crab shells, you are most likely near an octopus den. Familiarize yourself with what types of food an animal eats, search out that food source and you may see that particular animal.

Habitat. Fish live in water. Birds fly in the sky. Spiders spin their webs–everywhere. Pronghorn Antelope like fields and plains. Dall Sheep like it up high in the mountains. Seastars and anemones, hermit crabs and urchins are in tide pools. If you want to see a whale you need to look out onto the ocean. Need I say more about habitat?

Telltale signs. If you see a deer hoof print along a trail or by the side of a river there’s a decent chance you may see a deer. If you see owl pellets scattered around the base of a Douglas Fir there’s a good chance an owl is perched up inside that Douglas Fir. Different types of animals like different types of habitat. It stands to reason that if you put yourself into that habitat you may see that animal.

Searching for animals can be frustrating if you go about it frantically, but rewarding if you go about it patiently and with just a little preparation. Don’t force it. If you force it the animal will just retreat. They are afraid of us. Whether you’re in the city or the forest or on the beach, if you relax and let nature happen you will see more of nature. Remember the eight points; movement, sound, color, lines, texture, food source, habitat and telltale signs.

Good luck.