Whether you see some deer, have a fox cross your path, or spot a moose, there’s something disproportionately delightful about encountering wildlife. Even seeing something pedestrian like a possum feels really fun.
If you’d like to have more of these kinds of encounters, and a deeper experience with nature as a result, my guest has some tips for making them happen more often. His name is Dave Hall, and he’s an outdoor educator and guide, as well as the author of The Naturalist’s Companion: A Field Guide to Observing and Understanding Wildlife. Today on the show, Dave and I first talk about the safety and ethical considerations around observing wild animals. We then discuss the best places to spot wildlife (and how it could be in your own backyard), whether there’s a best time of day to encounter animals, and the approach to take so that the animals don’t know you’re there, or if they do, feel comfortable with your presence. Dave shares the gaze to adopt to spy more animals and the signs that will help you find them. We end our conversation with how to practice what Dave calls “spontaneous acceptance,” which may allow you to chill with a beaver.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Field guides and nature-related books that Dave recommends:
- Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking by Tom Brown Jr.
- Peterson Field Guides
- Timber Press Field Guides
- Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign by Paul Rezendes
- What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young
- Touching the Wild by Joe Hutto
- Beaversprite: My Years Building an Animal Sanctuary by Dorothy Richards
- Dave’s previous appearance on the AoM podcast: Episode #157 — Primitive Pursuits & Winter Survival
- AoM Article: A Primer on Identifying Animal Footprints
- AoM Podcast #739: Rewild Your Life
- AoM Podcast #194: The Field Notes of Theodore Roosevelt
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Whether you see some deer, have a fox cross your path, or spot a moose, there’s something disproportionately delightful about encountering wildlife. Even seeing something pedestrian like a possum feels really fun. If you’d like to have more of these kinds of encounters, and a deeper experience with nature as a result, my guest has some tips for making them happen more often. His name is Dave Hall, and he’s an outdoor educator and guide, as well as the author of The Naturalist’s Companion: A Field Guide to Observing and Understanding Wildlife.
Today in the show, Dave and I first talk about the safety and ethical considerations around observing wild animals. We then discuss the best places to spot wildlife and how it can be in your own backyard, whether there’s a best time of day to counter animals, and the approach to take so that animals don’t know you’re there, or if they do feel comfortable with your presence. Dave shares the gaze to adapt to spy more animals, and the size that’ll help you find them. Winter conversation with how to practice what Dave calls spontaneous acceptance, which may allow you to chill with a beaver. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/wildlife.
All right. Dave Hall, welcome back to the show.
Dave Hall: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So we had you on the podcast a few years ago to talk about how to survive in the winter. You got a new book out called The Naturalist’s Companion, and it’s all about getting out into nature and observing wildlife. I’m curious, why did you feel like you needed to write this book? Why do you think it’s important for people to get out, not just in the nature and walk around and enjoy the trees, but actually learn how to observe animals?
Dave Hall: Yeah, it’s funny, I’m not a professional biologist by trade, it’s an obsession, really. And what I’ve noticed is that sure, people do get outside. They get out and they power walk, they hike, they go camping, but it always seems like it’s this mission-driven thing, and I’m very content with just being there. And what happens when you’re just there, meaning you don’t really have a goal. It’s really just to be a witness, to be an observer, is that I see a lot of things. I see tons of things, and I’ve talked to professional biologists and birders and they’re like, “Wow, how do you see all that stuff?” And so I felt it necessary to put down in words what I’ve been doing.
I’ve literally had professionals say, “What do you do? I wanna know.” And so really, when I wrote the book, I had to think long and hard about what it was I was doing, and what’s cool is that it doesn’t take any technology, really. It just takes some mindset, the gift of giving yourself some time, and getting out there and putting these skills into practice. And really, what’s to me so cool is we are all here because of these skills. I’m a primitive skills enthusiast, as you know, and we all came from a heritage that used these skills on a daily basis to hunt, to fish, to learn about their environment. So that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think you talk about it in the beginning of the book, a lot of people get out into the woods and they’ll enjoy the scenery. But something else happens when you encounter wildlife. It never gets old for me. Even when I’m out in the wild and I come across an armadillo by surprise, it’s so delightful. I’m 40 years old, it’s still as cool as when I was a little kid.
Dave Hall: Yeah, no doubt. And to me, it is an utterly complete joy to be in the presence of an animal, especially when they don’t know you’re there, just watching them do their thing, hunt, groom, rest, whatever it is they’re doing. It’s just a complete joy. And for me, it’s really about, one of the reasons anyway, is about relaying that joy and getting people hooked on becoming better observers because it is so much fun.
Brett McKay: Okay. So you talk about the book, you can see wildlife anywhere, you can go to a city park if you want, but if you are planning to go out into the wild, like out into the wilderness to observe animals, the same safety precautions you take for any hike or if you’re gonna go camping overnight, apply. So you’re gonna bring survival gear, dress for the weather, address for the elements, know how to get in and out of where you’re going, but then also now you’re observing animals, you gotta think about animal safety. And people gotta remember that these are wild animals, and I think people have probably seen those videos of visitors that go to national parks and they get attacked by bison. They get out of their car and they walk up to the bison to get a picture or selfie with the bison and I’m thinking… They’re thinking, “Well, these are in a national park, these must be domesticated,” but these are still wild animals. You have to respect them as wild animals, and you got an important safety rule when it comes to animals, it’s this. At no time should you knowingly approach animals that have the ability to harm you. So keep that in mind when you’re out there observing animals.
Dave Hall: Yeah. And I had that very thing almost… Well, it did happen to me. I was fortunate that the buffalo did not make contact with me, but when I was 20, I was in Custer State Park, and I thought I was safe. I made a big semi-circle in this big open meadow, and these two male bison, they were way up by this Visitor Center, decided it wasn’t cool that I was nearby and it was just luck that I didn’t get gored to death. I played dead, I didn’t know what else to do, but you literally, I felt the ground rumble and tremble from their presence, it was… You start praying to anything that you can in that moment, it’s terrifying. And that was a wake-up call. I was ignorant and young, and yeah, I have a healthy respect for what an animal can do, especially these big land herbivores. They’re incredibly powerful.
Brett McKay: So safety, keep your distance, and don’t approach animals that can harm you. Don’t do anything that will startle them. Recognize the fact that there’s wildlife out there that could possibly kill you. What about ethical considerations? Are there any principles that people should take or keep in mind about respecting wildlife while they’re out there observing animals?
Dave Hall: Yeah. And it’s an interesting topic because on one hand, all of the skills that I’m putting in the book can be used for hunting, assuming that what you’re hunting is legal and you’re following all the rules. On the other hand, we don’t wanna unnecessarily stress out an animal. We don’t wanna harm an animal and make its life harder. It’s pretty rough out there. And so I think that really comes down to the individual in that situation, what are your intentions, because if you’re deer hunting and everything’s legal, that’s a management tool that for the most part has been used quite well. And I’m thinking about New York state, ’cause that’s where I live.
When it’s an animal that is not, say, a game species and we’re just trying to get experiences so that we can learn about that animal, we do have to consider being invisible, are we invisible to that animal? If we’re not and the animal is aware of us, are we stressing it out? Or does it notice us and it just keeps its distance and everything’s fine. And that’s something where you really have to be aware of your own impact on the environment. And the thing is, is that people have adverse impacts on animals all the time, and they don’t even know it. You know what I’m saying? They literally tear through the woods on motorcycles, or they’re running or they’re loud, and animals are constantly moving away.
And so these skills will give you the space in which you start to recognize your impact on animals because they won’t necessarily be 200 yards away. So yeah, I think it’s really important to always question your intent and the long-term impacts of what you’re doing on animals. I have beavers that live in my pond right now, and I’ve actually befriended them to some degree, and I have to ask, is there gonna be a long-term impact, a negative impact, on their lives, and my assessment was no. And so I ended up befriending them, and one of them comes over and visits me every night when I sit down there, and she’s not gonna do that to anyone. I’m the person in her life that she can do that with. So yeah, I think it’s a very important question to consider.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And this will come up too when we start talking about how there’s things you can do to lure animals, get them to kinda come closer to you, and sometimes that might be okay, sometimes it might not. We’ll talk about that when we get to that point.
Dave Hall: Sure.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about guidebooks. Are there any guidebooks that you recommend for people?
Dave Hall: Sure. Besides my own, which is less a guidebook and more of a how-to, I’ve got a stack here on my desk. Tom Brown has a great series of field guides, many of them having to do with nature awareness and tracking. There’s great field guides, like the Peterson Field Guides. They have guides for everything. And one of my favorites is Eastern Forests, which isn’t a field guide to animals so much as to habitats and symbiosis and things like that. Timber Press is doing some amazingly beautiful guides to regional specific wildlife. I feel like they’ve really upped the game and created a new baseline for what’s awesome. Stokes, they have a series of guides. There’s a book called The Tracking… Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes, and a couple of books that aren’t necessarily field guides, but I highly recommend is John Young’s, What the Robin Knows, Joe Hutto’s Touching the Wild, and then a really great book called Beaver Sprite by a woman named Dorothy Richards, and that’s a story about her relationship with the beavers that lived on her property, and it gives you a sense of the importance of making those contacts with individual animals. Well, there’s a few.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And you recommend people actually get a field book, like a field guide where it has the illustrations or the pictures, instead of just relying on Google image search. What’s the benefit of having the book as opposed to relying on the Internet to help you identify wildlife?
Dave Hall: Yeah. They’re both out there these days, I often refer to the internet, but there’s nothing like really reading about an author’s experience. For example, Paul Rezendes’ book, he’s, A, an amazing photographer and amazing naturalist, and he has these great stories. So it’s not just, “Otters do this, A, B, and C.” He’ll talk about his personal experiences, and that to me just is much more interesting and less dry than a field guide. That it doesn’t mean I don’t use field guides, I do it all the time, but there’s something to me that’s much more appealing about that personal touch that you get with a book like Joe Hutto’s, Paul Rezendes, Dorothy Richards. But yeah, it’s important. And some of the books, you simply want them for their density. You want as many mammals in there as you can for your region, simply ’cause you’re going out trying to identify things, and they’re out there too. Lots of great books. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It made me think about Theodore Roosevelt wrote a couple of books on wildlife observations, and they’re great, because not only does he describe what the fawn will look like, but his personal stories… Yeah, as you say, it adds something to it that you wouldn’t get if you just looked at the internet.
Dave Hall: Yeah, for sure. And that’s always what I look for in a good book. It’s like, Yeah, yeah, we all know beavers chew bark and make dams, but I wanna hear something that’s unique to them, a unique story that makes them in an individual.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about best places to observe wildlife. So it can be done anywhere, you can look out your backyard, you can probably see a squirrel or a rabbit, but if you wanna go beyond just the backyard observation thing, where would you recommend people to go to increase their chances of spotting wildlife?
Dave Hall: Yeah, it’s really funny. I literally, and I’m not being short with this, but anywhere. And the reason I say that is because most of our population lives in urban settings, and when I have the chance, when I have a little extra time, I divide it when I’m looking for wildlife between urban areas and more rural areas. And the reason is, is there’s just a density, at least where I live, which is in Ithaca, the south end of one of the Finger Lakes, there is a density of bird life, wildlife.
And to some degree, when you see these animals or birds, they’re somewhat used to people, so that when you do happen to get that glimpse of a fox, it might be willing to hang out at the edge of the golf course a little longer than a fox at the edge of, say, a cornfield. And I’ve spent a ton of time in the last, say, two years, seeing more mink than I have ever seen in my life, and it’s 100%, not 100%, but huge percent all urban mink, and I’ve learned a ton from watching these animals in a semi-urban environment, and so that’s the short answer.
But really, anywhere an animal can meet its needs, those basic needs of shelter, water, places to hide, places to raise their young. Places to do whatever they need to do. And so depending on what you might be interested in, you may have to seek that out. For example, I am going to look for moose up in Northern New York, and they’re not down here in the Finger Lakes. They’re up in our mountainous area, and that’s more akin to Northern Ontario. And so I have to go looking for that species. And while I’m looking for that species, I may also find other species that are akin to the barrier Forest, like Canada Jays or black back woodpeckers and things like that. So really anywhere, but when you get specific or you have a desire to find a certain animal, you may have to seek out that habitat.
Brett McKay: One tip you give, I thought was really useful in the book is look for transition areas and ecosystems. So the line between forest and prairie or just grass or grass in water, because those are areas where maybe the animals will hang out in the forest most of the time, but they’re gonna go out to the grass to feed or they’re gonna go to the water to get water. So look for those transition areas, I think that’s a really good…
Dave Hall: Yeah. And there are all kinds of transition areas. The bank of a creek, that is a one big fat transition area, all kinds of them, and they all offer something different and they can be big ones, like the ones you gave us an example, which was a forest and then you have a more meadow type environment, but they can also be miniature. I was trying to show the kids that I work with a tiny little transition area, and there was a field and somebody had left a bunch of lumber there and it was starting to rot, and that lumber offered a habitat, shelter for the local voles, but they would go out into the field to feed. And so sometimes those little transition areas are almost… Go unnoticed ’cause they’re so small. They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned the urban wildlife, you talk about that in the book. I think that’s really interesting, ’cause that can lead people to think about what’s going on in their own environment in their backyard. So here in Tulsa, I live in the suburbs, the Tulsa suburbs are sort of semi-urban, but we have tons of coyote, there’s tons of deer. There’s foxes. I’ve also seen bobcat nearby, which is crazy. Every time I see a bobcat, I’m like, “There’s a wild cat, there’s wild cats out here in Oklahoma,” it’s crazy.
Dave Hall: Oh, they’re amazing. And that’s something that wasn’t in our area say 25, 30 years ago, and their numbers have done really well. And I think the last two sightings I had were both within city limits of Ithaca, so that’s pretty cool.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay. So best place to find, you can… Anywhere, but look for transitional areas where maybe forest turns into meadow or a meadow turns into a lake or a river. Are there best times of day to observe wildlife?
Dave Hall: Yeah. And that’s funny because when you read a lot of the books, they’re gonna say a lot of animals are nocturnal or a lot of animals are crepuscular, which means they’re active during the dawn or the dusk kind of thing, sun’s coming up, sun’s going down. And it’s not necessarily true. And I’m gonna use mink for an example. That’s what the books will say, they’re crepuscular, but what I have found is they’re gonna be active any time of the day, as long as they’re comfortable being active. And what that means is if they’re not too hot or they’re not too cold, they’re gonna be out hunting, or they can be out hunting.
So for example, in the winter, when the coldest time of the day is typically in the middle of the night, they’re gonna be out a whole lot more during the day because it makes sense in terms of energy conservation, especially when it’s sunny and bright. If there’s a storm out in the middle of the day, well, they’ll hedge their bets and wait until night. Conversely, if it’s too cold, they’re gonna wait it out. And so a lot of animals are said to be this or that, but really it has to do a lot with comfortable operating circumstance. We know that before a storm, for example, animals such as deer are gonna be out in the meadows grazing to fuel up so that they can ride out the storm with a bit more energy, and then they’ll come out after the storm.
So the best time of day, avoid it. Not avoid it doesn’t mean you should stay inside, but if it’s super hot, super muggy, things are gonna be denning up, riding out the heat in their den, just kind of just trying to stay comfortable. But when it’s comfortable, animals will be out. I’ve seen foxes out during the day bears, coyotes, mink, otter, you name it, the middle of the day, beavers even. So a lot of that stuff is, I think, based on limited experience by whoever wrote the guide book.
Brett McKay: Interesting. Okay. So let’s talk about staying invisible to animals, anything you need to do to stay invisible, a camouflage, what are your tips and tricks there?
Dave Hall: Yeah. So one of the biggest problems, especially for new people is I think a lack of self-awareness in the sense of recognizing that yourself, not saying you or I is enemy number one, but people in general are seen as a threat to wildlife because they’ve been shot at and trapped and it can be hard. And so understanding what baseline is, baseline is when an animal is acting in a life-supporting way, and so as you’re moving into an environment, A, you wanna be quiet, you don’t wanna be loud, and to some degree, you wanna be camouflage, although that’s a somewhat a secondary concern because if you’re loud or apparent, you’re gonna get busted and those animals are gonna go away. But as you slow down and you’re quiet, you’re gonna start to see animals more and more.
And the idea is to ask yourself, “Does the animal know I’m here?” And if not, “Is it acting in a baseline manner, baseline life-supporting?” And if it’s fleeing from you, well, maybe you’re the cause of that, and that’s a good time to do a little self-reflection and assessment of your approach. So those are the some of the tips, and I see people who say, in quote, “I love to get outside”, but they’re constantly scaring things away, whether they know it or not, and so just slow down, painfully is really important, don’t have an agenda of getting anywhere, go 100 yards in your afternoon versus a mile and a half, or whatever it might be, and really go, submit to the experience of just being quiet and slow and that will pay huge dividends.
Brett McKay: And you talk about you don’t hear the word camouflage like you found… Come across plenty of wildlife and got pretty close with wearing a regular jacket or whatever, it wasn’t anything special.
Dave Hall: Yeah. Yeah, as I said, it’s secondary because you could have the best camouflage on in the world, but if you’re loud and you’re moving quickly, you’re gonna get busted. And yeah, it’s true. Most of my encounters, I do tend to wear drab clothes, but I don’t specifically wear camouflage, and I have incredibly consistent close encounters with animals that are not aware of me at all, and I’m thinking about mink, I’ve been watching a pair of otter all winter. I don’t think they’ve ever been aware that I’ve been standing off shore watching them, because I’m still…
Brett McKay: So you talk about this thing called the fox walk, what’s that?
Dave Hall: Yeah, so that’s something that Tom Brown coined. Although I would say that it’s a walk that indigenous people, those who are still living, hunter gatherers still do, but really it’s a way of making sure that your senses are up, meaning you don’t have to look down at the ground because you’re going too fast on your trip, but what you’re doing is you’re basically holding your weight on your back leg, your front foot comes forward much more slowly than a normal walk, and you gently touch the ground, but before you roll it flat and commit, you’re saying to yourself, “Am I gonna crunch leaves or break twigs and announce myself”. And if that is the case, you gracefully move your foot towards a better spot and then you transition your weight, and so it’s probably 10 times slower than a normal walk, but you’re slower, your quieter, allows your senses to be fully up and engaged, and then when you see something, then you can slow down even further, and if your choices warrant you to go closer, then you can move into a stalk or what I’ve been calling a stealth walk, and that’s where we get into the primitive skills of getting painfully close to an animal if you need to or want to.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now, back to the show.: So another tactic you recommend for people to get close to animals is just finding a spot and sitting there for a really long time, what’s been your experience with that technique?
Dave Hall: Oh my gosh, yeah. And if there’s anybody out there who hunts, this is the technique that the vast majority of hunters use, you find a promising spot either on the ground or possibly on a safe tree stand, and you wait, and the idea is you know where you’re going ahead of time, not always, but you pick a spot that is gonna be promising right, the middle of the woods may result in a place that were some deer comes through or coyote, but once again, you’re looking for a promising spot that offers the animal something. So a transition area, a spot near water. And so what this can do is it forces you to be quiet, it forces you to be still, and it’s amazing what can happen. I mean, I’ve literally had animals sitting on me, nothing huge, but… Like squirrel and mice and things like that sit on you, and they don’t even know you’re there because you’re just a stone, you’re a little sage sitting in the woods, and I’ve had tons of things come by. I’ve had Fox at close quarters. I’ve had bear, I’ve had deer, mink, all kinds of things, I mean it’s just countless.
I’ve had snakes slither over my feet. So yeah… So if you’re doing things right, they don’t know you’re even there, you’re just a bump, you are the log with a bump on it, and if you play it cool, they just keep going and you’ve just had this kind of crazy experience. So yeah, sitting can be an incredibly powerful thing to do.
Brett McKay: It just require… It takes a lot of patience.
Dave Hall: It does, and that is something that I think a lot of people will find challenging. We are a society that does not encourage sitting still or being just present, and so some things that can help if you find yourself fidgeting or just drifting away from being present is work a very quiet craft in your hands, for example, like if you know how to make string or carve a stick or fidget with a little piece of grass, anything can help. And then my experience is then once you kinda get in that zone, which you’ve slowed down, you’ve invested in that experience, it’s almost like you don’t wanna ruin it and things start… Magic will start to happen.
Brett McKay: You also recommend people change the way they look or view their environment when they’re out there trying to observe wildlife, and that you talk about softening your gaze… What do you mean by that?
Dave Hall: Yeah, so that’s another skill that I learned through both Tom Brown as well as Jon Young. Tom calls it wide-angle vision, Jon Young calls it Owl Eyes. And the idea is, instead of just looking directly at something, which we do… We do that, that’s pretty much all we really do in the modern world, where you’re say looking at a screen, looking at the road, looking at the blackboard or whatever they use these days, looking directly at something is one way to use your eyes, but the other way is this wide-angle vision, and the idea is… And the way I coach people to do it is you put your hands up left and right as if you’re looking through a window and you notice each hand equally, and you spread your hands slowly until you get to your periphery, wiggling your fingers, if you have to, and if you’re still paying attention equal left and right, you’re gonna notice that you’re not really focused on any one thing, and you can remove your hands, but you wanna stay in that head space, and what that does is it makes you more sensitive to motion.
So for example, you’ll be in wide-angle vision, and you’ll notice, say up to your upper right, the flick of a Robins tail up in a tree, but then off to your left, down the hill a little, you see a flick of a deer’s tail, and when you notice something that catches your interest, then you can use your more focused vision and identify it, but it’s pretty amazing and it’s a fun thing to do. So for example, when I approach a new environment, I just try to soak it in, and I’ll do a combination of both focused vision, as well as wide-angle vision, and it’s amazing if you give it time what starts to pop out. And I do that in any environment, it might not be a big landscape, it might even be a thicket, and I’ve done that with the snakes that use my thicket as their little sanctuary, and I’ll look in and I see nothing, and I just wait and I wait and then it’s like, “Ah I saw a little movement of a tongue, or I saw that that animal move just a little bit”. And so once again, that investment of not rushing, so… Yeah.
Brett McKay: It seems like that’s a good meditative practice.
Dave Hall: I think so. I think all of these things are good meditative practice and perhaps a nice antidote to our frenzied selves.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about animal behaviors and just understanding the life cycle behaviors of an animal that can help us spot the more. What are some life cycle behaviors that people should key in on in general, ’cause every animal is gonna be different, right.
Dave Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But in general, what are some things that people should think about if they wanna increase their chances of encountering wildlife?
Dave Hall: Yeah. So to start at the very basics, it’s that fundamental asking of am I witnessing a baseline behavior or a non-baseline behavior, and non-baseline is interesting because that means the animal is either in the very least concerned and the very most fighting for its life. Whereas baseline is life-supporting behaviors, those are things like, Oh, you know feeding young, feeding yourself, building a nest, sleeping, preening, all those things, right. And then it gets more interesting because you can start to ask more in-depth questions, and that’s called an ethogram, and really that’s just a list of all potential behaviors, and I like to go through like the yearly life cycle of animals when I think about it, for example, right now, birds are migrating, they’re gonna be nesting soon, they’re gonna be denning, if you’re younger animals, those things are being born right now, you have young animals coming out, all these things need to make a living while they’re making a living, they might become prey, it all becomes incredibly dynamic and interesting.
And so for the rookie or the person who’s really trying to wrap their heads around it, just be a witness and just ask basic questions, because if you’re not sure, you don’t wanna fill in the blank and be wrong, so you might see an animal doing something and you’re not sure, and really what I recommend is make a short list of potential things, be open to maybe you’re wrong with your presumptions and give it time, because animals are so dynamic and interesting that they will constantly give you mysteries. I have many mysteries that I’m really not sure about, and maybe with time they’ll get answered, and maybe not, I don’t know, but the idea is don’t rush trying to just put a name on what you think you’ve seen. But, yeah, and one of the more interesting behaviors that I’ve dubbed like cycles of vulnerability are these highlights in an animal’s time when they are especially vulnerable. For me, that I think about fish that are safe in the deep lakes, waters of Cayuga are forced by biology to swim to the shallows to spawn, it’s not a conscious effort or thought, they just have to do it.
Biology is saying, swim up that shallow creek, breed, lay eggs. Get out of there. But while they’re up there, they’re incredibly vulnerable, right. And there’s just things like that, that when you think of any individual animal, they go through these yearly life cycles and points in their life when they’re especially vulnerable to predation, to being hit by a car or whatever it might be, because they’re moving, they’re young, they’re migrating whatever it might be. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah so, yeah you talk about mating and spawning is a time when the animals are particularly vulnerable, but then they’re also very active, that’s a good time to think about, but you also talk about like the environmental factors that could make animals vulnerable, and will give you maybe new opportunities to reserve wildlife ’cause it’ll kinda basically put them out of baseline, so a flood…
Dave Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Or if there’s a drought going on, or any kind of the inclement weather or like a wildfire, that’s gonna change how the animals behave and you might find opportunities to spot them more often.
Dave Hall: No doubt. And one of the more striking examples that we had in the last few years when the pandemic just started, we were all working from home, my wife was on a couch learning how to use Zoom, and we were also in the East… At least in New York, we were in a bit of a drought. And I waved to her, I was gonna go up to the bedroom and read, and it was right around dusk, and I’ll be polite, but she said there’s an effing bear outside. [chuckle] And she was correct, there was a bear outside. And in the first 20 years of our living in our house, we knew that we had seven bears on our property, that spring alone in early summer, we had seven bears on our property, and that was because there was this extra pressure on bears because the environment was forcing them to seek food and opportunities that were risky because they were basically starving, so yeah, that’s an example of the environment inflicting something on them that isn’t always there every year, and so yeah, we had some fun encounters with bears that year, and that bear actually had cubs in the tree. So she was desperate trying to find anything to feed these little bears.
And fortunately we were able to take down our feeder while she was up in the tree and taught her that this isn’t a place to get a free meal ’cause that’s a bad thing when a bear learns where there’s easy access to grain or garbage or anything like that.
Brett McKay: Now, it’s funny you mentioned the pandemic, I remember when lockdown was at the very beginning and pretty much no one was going out, do you see these reports of just wildlife in downtown areas that, it was like, “What the heck is… Why is there a deer in the middle of this downtown? We haven’t seen that”. But the deer were like, “Well, there’s no humans here, there’s no cars, I’m gonna go check things out”.
Dave Hall: Oh, no doubt. I think that happened everywhere, we found that in Ithaca, like everywhere else we had bear, we had raccoons out during the day, there were deers in the center of the city where there were never a deer. Yeah it was remarkably interesting.
Brett McKay: So a fun way to track animals is actually look at their tracks, and that’s where the field guides can come in handy ’cause it’s gonna show you, “Okay, was this a Fox or is this a Coyote or, etcetera, etcetera”. But besides tracks, are there any other signs to be on the look out for to help you spot wildlife?
Dave Hall: Yeah, no doubt there are so many cool things that can be discovered and it’s interesting because a track, if we’re gonna get really kind of specific, most people think it was a track, right, it’s the footprint, but things to look for, and some of these are seasonal and some of these aren’t, but like for example, otter and beaver will push up through thin ice and leave plates of ice off to the side, so you can be like something came up through there, and depending on its size, you can usually narrow it down to like, “Is it a beaver? Is it an otter? Possibly a Muskrat or a Mink”. But there’s things like chews, there’s scat, rubs, the dens and nests that these animals create, there’s kill sites, so you might find evidence of bones or feathers or hair. The otters that I’ve been watching have left some beautiful slides down the slope near where they live, and that’s a fun different kind of a track that we don’t often get to see because they’re not… The animal isn’t that common where we live.
And then there’s things to do that aren’t exactly physical, the idea of listening and being tuned into animals that way, because animals right they’re on either baseline or they’re not, and when you’re listening for that, you can also be pointed towards literal animals. So if animals are acting as if they’re scared or agitated, it’s good to pay attention because they literally may show you where the foxes or where the owl is or whatever, and so that’s another way to tune in and learn from animals.
Brett McKay: Yeah, my favorite ones to be on the look out for are runs, so my backyard, it backs up to a green belt, and you can see the coyote runs, right, “Why is this weird trail there, there’s… No one walks there”. “Well, those are Coyotes”.
Dave Hall: That’s fantastic. [laughter]
Brett McKay: The other one I like to spot when I’m out just hiking is looking for resting sites, so the scene where you see a bunch of grass press down and you think, “Well, that’s probably where a deer was resting, so there might be deer nearby”. Those are my favorite ones to key in on. So yeah, look for different signs besides the animal prints, but look for things like on runs, look for chew marks, bears will claw things, deer when they’re running, they’re gonna scrape their antlers on stuff, and you can see that on the trees as well. That’s another one I like to look for when I’m out and about.
Dave Hall: Oh my gosh. And speaking of bears, so when the bears came to our house, I still wanted a bird feeder, but I couldn’t just hang it off a branch, so I put up a cable, and now I lower it and raise it on a cable with the idea that it’s out of reach of the bears, and so last summer, one of our dogs who’s a hound, was sniffing the tree more than she might normally, and I looked and a bear had come at some point, and I could see the claw marks as it went up the tree, but my system worked. And so, yeah we get bear sign and we’ve had… Left her scat on our property. It’s amazing, they’ve really made a strong comeback in the last decade or so.
Brett McKay: What’s your take on calling or influencing animals so they come closer to you.
Dave Hall: Yeah, so once again, that’s something that really needs to be done with some great consideration if an animal is legal to hunt and you’re in season, there are lots of products that you can buy, deer calls and grunts and duck calls and that sort of thing. For the person like myself, I generally do it as a way to understand their language and motivation, and I largely do these things sparingly, meaning I wanna understand this animal, and so I wanna know if my theory is correct, will this sound or putting out this bait work. And if it does, and I’m satisfied, I typically stop doing it. But I’ve learned something and I’m that much more aware of that animal’s motivation and everything that goes on to… That’s part of its life. And I’ll give you an example. So long ago, when we moved into our house, we had this big big garter snake that I named Helen, and Helen, I could tell was a female because she was much, much bigger than the males, and she had one eye, the other eye had been scabbed over and scaled over and she couldn’t see and she was really cool and rather intimidating size for a garter snake, but we got comfortable with her around the side of our house and she would bask in the sun along to the foundation.
And I thought to myself, “Well, how can I call her? Can I call her? And I didn’t know if I could because I knew, A, if I made too much noise, because I was thinking of using sound that she would take that as a threat because she’s not only a predator, but she’s a prey species, but I felt, “Well, what does she eat? What would she be interested in?” So I took a small twig and I kinda crept in and I took that twig and I just raked it gently against some dry leaves, and she immediately perked right up, lifted her head and came to me, you know, and I have this big snake for a garter several feet away from me. And then the question is, “Well, what was she thinking? What did that sound like to her”. And in my mind, it sounded like an Earthworm or some bug that she’d be interested in, and it worked, you know… And then another way that we used to, I’m gonna say in quotes, call her, is we would hold an earthworm and sneak over her and hold it in our hands, and she would notice this twitching, warm.
She never questioned why there was a warm in the air, and she would literally take it out of our hands, and she didn’t really notice that it was our hand, she just noticed there was something to eat. So calling is a very interesting thing, you do have to be ethical, you don’t wanna be leaving piles of donuts out for bears and habituation them, but it can be a real good lens in which to view wild life and really start to understand what influences them, what appeals to them, what… It gives you a greater lens to their greater life cycle, because it’s a really great lens to look at an animal through… They have their yearly influences, so for example, foxes around here, their urine gets very spunky, you could move that and put it somewhere else, and then the fox over there might be interested and then make mark on that. We have porcupines, we have deer that all can be influenced.
Brett McKay: You have this one chapter on this idea of spontaneous acceptance, what is that? And walk us through that.
Dave Hall: So that chapter diverges greatly from the other ones because everything else is based on, for the most part on being a fly on the wall, being invisible, being quiet and all that, spontaneous acceptance is a much different approach. And there’s really two big categories, and the first one is… Well, in both categories, the animal knows you’re there, so it’s very different, you’re there, the animal knows you’re there, and the first approach you’re really trying to express through body length that you’re a benign indifferent force. So for example, our friend Sarah, who is our neighbor, she farms on her land, and she does this unintentionally, but because she’s up in the fields every day, working in her little barn, working with her horses working in the fields, the local Turkey or the fox were like, “Oh, it’s just Sarah”. And they see her as just part of the landscape.
For somebody who’s not always on the landscape so much, you really wanna check in and watch that animal, you’re probably not real close, and you’re just pretending to forage or you’re digging a hole gently, or you’re just doing something that looks like you’re indifferent to them. You’re not a threat. The other way, and this is a little bit more… Oh, I don’t wanna say new agey, we all trickle when you hear that, but when, for example, you spend time in wilderness to the point where you’ve really slowed down, animals perceive that mentally, if a person really slows down and their brain waves are different than the harried modern brain waves, animals can sense that and they can sense your intention and they may actually come to you, and in both cases, they may actually come to you because they’re seeing you as a non-threat, and they know what your intentions are.
And I can only say that because I’ve had enough experience in these realms where it’s like, this seems like a real phenomenon, and so it’s a hard thing to quantify, but I was in Algonquin Park for 15 days on a solo, and Man, as soon as I got past the agenda of having to go and I just submitted to being in that wilderness, you know, magical things happen and I’ve had animals enter my camp site and they hang out and they’re like Whatever, I’ve been able to paddle pass things like Beaver and herons without them acting in the least bit alarmed. And that’s an odd thing because normally they should be alarmed and they’ll hear you coming and fly away or take off, so that’s a very different concept, and it’s something that I think when a reader is interested, they have to really check in with themselves and be willing to do a little bit of soul searching, if you will, and just slow down and give themselves time to really sink into the experience, because animals are not fools, you can be slow and pretending and somehow they’ll know if your intentions are not necessarily wholesome or good yeah, they know.
Brett McKay: Yeah you talk about you had this experience with the beaver in your pond, you called them mural…
Dave Hall: Mural, yeah.
Brett McKay: Mural, the beaver, and you just kinda… You got used it, you’d come into the pond and he wouldn’t get freaked out, he just kind of like, “Well, you’re just part of this environment that I’m in”.
Dave Hall: Yeah, and I’m glad you brought that up because mural was kind of one of my more significant introductions into the work that people like Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall or [0:42:27.8] ____ do, where they really learn about an animal, not because they’re looking through a scope, but because that animal has accepted them and they’re allowed access into that animal’s world, and so with me, I really became obsessed, and actually, I have a pair in the pond right now that I’m still observing, but mural gave me the gift of allowing me presence, and I had to earn that, because if I had done anything to threaten him or to make him think that I was anything less than a friendly force, I would have breached that trust and he may have just left the pond or gone completely nocturnal, but what mural did allow me was in a way, an odd friendship. I would… It took a while, but I would go down and I would tell him I was coming. I’d say, hello. Who’s the beaver? I had this funny routine, but the idea was to get him used to my body shape the way I walked, to know that I’m just here hanging out, and before you know it within…
I forget the timeline, but he would slowly got closer and closer, and within six weeks or a couple of months, he was eating on shore, grooming on shore within five feet of me, total baseline behaviors, because he saw me as a non-treat, and then that allowed me access to things that Beavers do and beyond the things that we typically know. So, yeah, it’s an incredibly valuable thing. And what the beavers have done is I’ve now become an advocate for beavers because I do lectures on beavers now, and I talk about how important they are and how utterly valuable to our planet they are, they’re probably the most important species we have in North America, and a lot of people don’t think of them that way, but they’re really just remarkable animals, so… Yeah, mural was an awesome experience.
Brett McKay: Well, Dave, this has been a great conversation where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Dave Hall: Yeah, so my website is davehalloutdoors.com, there’s the book links, and I don’t know, it’s a fairly new site, but I plan to put up lectures and if I’m gonna be running any classes, so… Yeah, that’s my website.
Brett McKay: Fantastic well Dave Hall thanks for your time it’s been a pleasure.
Dave Hall: I appreciate it, this has been awesome. Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Dave Hall, he’s the author of the book, The naturalist companion, it’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, davehalloutdoors.com, also checkout our show notes at AOM.is/wildlife, you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com sign up, use code “Manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us your review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.