Getting Close to Wildlife by Stalking

Just watch any cat and you will see excellent stalking skills. I've observed them, learned from a friend that is an American Indian, and used common sense and trial and error to learn how to get close to wildlife. I break my approach into two parts. The first is the distant approach and the second is the close approach. I define the boundary between the two approaches by the point at which the animal takes note of me as a possible threat.

The Distant Approach

My goal during the distant approach is to get as close as possible without alarming the animal. If you have a choice, it's best if they do not see, smell, or hear you. Staying out of sight is fairly straightforward. If you approach from behind them they will not see you. Depending on the terrain, keeping quiet can be tricky. If you are on hard solid land or in grass you can walk slowly and not make much noise. If you have to deal with dry leaves, fallen sticks, or iced-over snow you are going to make noise. If you are stuck making noise because of the terrain, use a zig zag approach so that it does not sound like you are getting closer and closer. To avoid being smelled, do not wear perfume or cologne, or carry fragrant things or food. If you must carry food, keep it wrapped tightly in zip lock bags. Double bagging can help. Note the wind direction. It is best if the wind is coming from the direction of your prey. This will prevent your smell from reaching them and will also carry some of the sound you make away from the animal.

As you approach your prey, observe them. Do not take your eyes off them if you can avoid this. You must notice when they have observed you. Even more important is knowing the moment that they feel threatened. It takes some practice and experience with each creature to know when they have observed you and when they are threatened. Common signs of being noticed include their head snapping in a position such that they can observe you. Some animals would face you, while ones that see from the side will face their dominant eye in your direction. They may track your movement, or keep looking back to you. Their muscles will tense when they are concerned for their safety. They may move to a nearby sheltered location. As soon as they show any sign of being threatened you must freeze. Try to choose a comfortable position to freeze in, as you may need to stay frozen for some time.

The Close Approach

That was the easy part. Once the animal becomes used to your being at this distance it is a great time to take some photos, but wait! Move very slowly. Any movement could cause the animal to panic and flee. Move your camera to the shooting position. If your camera has an optical view finder or an EVF keep your camera near your face after you take photos. I like to keep the camera just below eye level so that I can point the lens at my target. To take more photos lift the camera very slowly back into shooting position.

Let's get closer. Choose your approach carefully. You will have to move very slowly and your prey is watching closely. Your goal is to be non-threatening. Moving in the direction of your prey is sure to be noticed. Watch carefully for any muscle twitches or small movements that might hint at a panic. A zigzag approach can work well, but so can the straight-in approach. Take slow ½ steps and watch your footing. If you trip, your prey is sure to panic. Keep taking photos as you approach and remember to move the camera slowly. Eventually you will reach your ideal photo distance or you will panic your prey and if you are lucky, you see where it goes and can start again.

Sometimes you may have the wonderful experience of an animal coming to check you out. Do not panic and do not move quickly. Take some extreme close-up photos if you can.

Warning: Animals with young are extremely careful and may attack you if you appear to be a threat to their young. If a bird attacks you, cover your face. If a bear charges you, run down a hill if possible: their short front legs make it difficult for them to go downhill forward. If they run they will fall down. Make lots of noise and do not climb a tree as they can do the same or shake it. If all else fails fall to the ground and make a ball. Sticks and rocks can make good weapons, but remember that if you hurt an animal it will get angry so use discretion and stay calm.

Tip: Have fresh batteries and lots of available frames when you start your approach. Having to change film or batteries can panic your prey.

Tip: Camouflage colors can help, but don't kid yourself, your prey will spot you in the best camouflage.

Tip: Choose an ISO that is fast enough to allow shutter speeds that you can hand hold.