How To Find Wildlife While Trekking

A yellow flower, similar to a dandelion, against a diffuse green background

At the end of June we had a fantastic time in Costa Rica, trekking through cloud and rainforest in Arenal and Monteverde, and kayaking through narrow rivers in Torteguero. While wandering through a trail in Arenal near the volcano, one of us nearly walked into a huge spider, while the other stood back to take a photo of the spider they’d already seen. The former was me, so as a result of that lapse I may not be the best person to explore the nuances of finding photographic opportunities while wandering through jungle, and I’m far from a safari guide or wildlife spotter, but we’ve had some success so we’ll give it a go!

  1. Stop to look around. Whenever you have an inkling that something interesting is around – a faint smell, a repeated bird call, or a frizzly sensation of minor fear – you need to stop and focus all your sense. Not only is walking on while trying to concentrate more difficult than when you’re stationary, it’s more dangerous – when you’re in the jungle you need to keep your peripheral vision trained on ensuring you don’t walk into something unsavoury.
  2. Look up, then down, and always look around. When you’re walking forward through reasonably safe terrain, you can take one long look forward and remember much of the obstacles and where they are – rocks under your right foot in five metres, branches above three metres beyond that. This helps to create a map in your short term memory which provides coarse prompts as you take every few steps – they aren’t explicit, but they say “about this time ago I saw something I should be looking at in more detail now”. It’s important to look up to the branches and leaves here – mainly for spiders and snakes – and also down on the ground – again for spiders and snakes. But with the next 10 metres logged, your main focus will be left and right – primarily for spiders and snakes, and this time because you’re looking for photographic opportunities. In some places you’ll want to look directly above (bat caves; wear a hat) and in fewer locations you’ll want to periodically check behind you. I’d welcome feedback on that but this is mainly where you have known predators who are large and hungry enough to attack humans when you’re out on foot – polar bears are a prime example. With most other species, the only reason they’ll be aggravated is because you disturbed them, and you’ll know about that from your forward glances (unless you’re walking backwards, which is rarely clever, and when it is sensible, you have bigger things to worry about).
  3. Look for distortions. Though a huge number of animals, birds and insects are well camouflaged, with practice and heightened awareness you can pick up on tell-tales. A bigger-than-average welt on a tree branch can turn out to be a curled up snake on closer inspection. A green leaf hanging from a green leaf might look pretty normal, but since when did (most) leaves hang directly from leaves rather than branches? A butterfly!
  4. Look for safe places.If you’re under threat, you hide. Many things stay close to hiding places whenever they can – they won’t go out into the open. We’re like that too – we generally feel uncomfortable sleeping out in the open, not because of bugs, but because we’re exposed and visible. Look at the picture of the grasshopper below. I found him in a small fluted, tightly curled leaf in the sparse undergrowth at the edge of primary rainforest in Ecuador. The thing with primary rainforest is that it’s mostly tall trees, with a canopy that blocks out much of the sky and so there isn’t much that grows on the ground. Walking through the rainforest for hours, you can quickly become desensitised and imagine there’s nothing there, but every so often a plant can look too good to be true, and is worth a peer inside – sometimes it’s empty, sometimes it’s hiding a slightly worried but beautiful secret.Grasshopper enclosed by a green curled leaf
  5. Listen. Birds will always see you before you see them. If they don’t like you, they’ll be gone before you hear them make a sound. If they don’t mind you, it’s because they know you can’t see them. Stop, wait for the second and third calls, and try to triangulate. It’s hard in 3D. Then, slowly move around looking for a gap – remember to modify the earlier rule, so first define a circle of a certain diameter you know it’s safe to skulk around in, otherwise you quickly end up falling backwards into uninspected trees. Reptiles that are sunning to accumulate energy will quickly move a short distance when disturbed, but not too far in order to preserve energy. That fast rustle is a give-away. Move quietly and parabolically to try and find them, and as long as you’re careful with your movements, they may stick around.
  6. Think like wildlife. All too often I forget to do this, but it’s the key to understanding how a species operates and where it might be hiding. So, put yourself in the shoes of your sought-after beast, read up a little on its habitat, behaviour and needs, and then when you’re out and about, keep an eye on your surroundings to see if it matches up. With a few notable exceptions, the normal ranges of many species can be quite small, measuring a couple of metres wide. So if you know what lives in shaded, moist areas, look for shaded, moist areas and help your brain out by looking for only those patterns you might expect there (but always watch out for lions!)

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