Curious Naturalist: The Art of Observation

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle 2014 © Stephen Bruno

Over my many years of nature and wildlife photography in numerous locations, I have become a curious naturalist. I know a lot about birds and animals because I have studied them for years. Whenever I photograph something new, I return home to my study and thoroughly research them.

I find it interesting that frequently people are in such a hurry to walk through the forest, country, and desert that they appear to miss so many opportunities to observe nature and wildlife. Visit my photography website and view a slideshow of my photography.

Once I was photographing a large tarantula when an older couple walked by and the man quickly took a twig and scooted the tarantula off the path and into a pile of leaves. The woman glanced at my raised camera and me and asked if I was photographing the tarantula. I lied and told her no, that I was just observing it. It did not seem to matter much to explain how he interfered with my observation and photography.

Another time I was photographing an Osprey that I had tracked around a lake to a tree high above a well-worn path. Just as I had raised my camera with a telephoto lens and was focusing in on the Osprey eating a rainbow trout, a family walked rapidly passed me talking loudly as they neared the large tree with the Osprey. Unfortunately, the bird became nervous and flew to the other side of the lake. Although disappointing that I had missed the opportunity to photograph the bird that I had pursued so vigilantly, I was amazed that the family never even noticed the Osprey.

There is so much to see when we are in nature if we have the patience and presence to observe. Most people now have a cell phone with reasonable photography capability or a compact camera. If you are not a photographer or prefer to draw, sketch the wildlife that you see and note the location.

Walk with someone who can point out things of interest in the field and explain simple, useful identifying characteristics.This is one reason why I offer photography workshops.

People who view my wildlife photography frequently ask how I get so close to photograph wildlife.

Below are a few of my approaches to photographing wildlife close up:

  • Shifting between my vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
  • Stopping at the nearest desert, forestry office or interpretive center to pick up brochures, trail maps, and wildlife checklists. Asking about any recent wildlife sightings.
  • Following my intuition. If the hair on the back of my neck stands up, wildlife could be near!
  • Being mindful of recent weather and knowing that temperature, sunlight, and precipitation all factor into reading tracks and wildlife behavior.

  • Returning to favorite trees and other locations where I have seen wildlife.
  • Smelling my environment. Most animals carry a specific odor and while it will vary by animal, its scent will be more pungent than the vegetation around me.
  • Responsive to shadows from wildlife and my own casting of shadows.
  • Looking for wildlife movement that is moving against the wind.
  • Cupping my hands behind my ears to increase and direct my hearing.
  • Dressing in layers of earth tone camouflage. I prefer some skin exposure to sense my environment.
  • Walking downwind whenever possible. Letting the wind blow from the wildlife’s direction to my direction.
  • Not silhouetting myself against a light background.
  • Keeping low. Crouching behind boulders or vegetation to break up my outline.
  • Walking with a slow fluid motion and moving like the wind.
  • Watching wildlife actions to see if predators are nearby.
  • Relaxing my muscles since wildlife detects tension.
  • Imagining how specific wildlife in the area spends its days and evenings. Checking field guides to find out about life history and preferred habitats and patterns.
  • Closing my mouth to eliminate teeth shine near wildlife.
  • Something I learn about while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, avoiding using perfumes, after-shaves, scented toilet paper etc.
  • Crushing fragrant plants or evergreen needles and rubbing this on my body.
  • Using binoculars, a spotting scope, or telephoto camera lenses to view wildlife.
  • Holding my camera in front of my eyes as I approach wildlife within a few yards to minimize eye contact.
  • Looking for movement, color contrasts, or shape changes that might indicate wildlife’s presence.
  • Looking near the edges of forests, deserts, mountains, fields, pond margins and treetops.
  • Turning off my cell phone and a pocket radio.
  • Using field guides, checklists, and other resources to identify wildlife and learn about their habits and habitats.
  • Moving only when the wind blows and moving with the leaves.
  • When photographing raptors over water, watching the wind direction.
  • Looking at things from a different height to reveal wildlife.
  • Keeping animal paw prints between me and the sun.
  • Recognizing tracks, scat, chewed or bruised vegetation, scratches in tree bark, hairs snagged on branches or in bark, rubbings on trees and nests are indications of wildlife.
  • When tracking animals following a trail of blood, I carry a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide. If I come across what looks to be brown splotches on leaves or on the ground, I spray the brown dots with hydrogen peroxide to see if it is blood.
  • Watching for ticks that can carry Lyme disease.
  • Finding well-worn trails and paths through the grass that many animals regularly use.
  • Using a stick about three feet long on which I have marked the measurement of the animal’s stride.
  • Viewing wildlife year round. Spring and early fall offer the best opportunities for spotting a wider diverse wildlife.
  • Staying away from wildlife that behaves strangely, appear sickly or are aggressive.
  • Keeping my peripheral vision open to any movement and my ears sensitive to sounds. This way, I seldom miss the opportunity to photograph wildlife even if it is only briefly present. Looking above and below me since wildlife frequently found in niches in the natural vertical and horizontal layers of a habitat.
  • Walking slowly and stopping frequently even when I am tracking wildlife.

Be present and pay close attention while you are practicing these methods to observe wildlife, some wildlife just may be observing you!

8 comments on “Curious Naturalist: The Art of Observation

  1. healingbrain says:

    wow, this list is really valuable. I will read it several times especially when preparing to go out in nature with my camera.


  2. Shana Dean says:

    This is a wonderful post. I love the list of suggestions you offer from all your experience as a wildlife photographer. Your passion, care and respect with the natural world is outstanding!


  3. I appreciate your comment, Patrick. These are some of the things that I have learned over the years photographing wildlife in different areas. I will be teaching more of them in my new photography workshops beginning in April 2014. See for more details.


  4. Thank you, Shana. I am pleased that you like the post!


  5. Lyle Krahn says:

    You have obviously fine-tuned your senses and approach with wildlife. Very interesting.


    • Lyle, thank you for your comment. I believe that my many years sharing time with diverse wildlife has resulted in fine-tuning my senses and approach to photographing wildlife.


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