Watching wildlife when travelling can be an exhilarating experience, but it can also be challenging. In this feature IW Founder, Calvin Jones, takes a look at some of those challenges, and how you can overcome them on your next wildlife trip.
For any wildlife enthusiast one of the real highlights of travelling has to be the opportunity to see new things. Whether it’s a weekend city break, a two week holiday or an epic travel adventure, the chance to explore unusual habitats and experience some of the unfamiliar wildlife they harbour adds an exciting new dimension to any trip.
But the differences that make travelling such a thrilling prospect for the wildlife lover also introduce challenges. At home you have a lifetime of experience to draw on. You know what to look for and where and when to look for it. But when you travel much of that hard-earned knowledge and experience is rendered almost inert.
I experienced this first hand again recently when I arrived in Western Australia. It’s hard to imagine a place more different to my local stomping ground in West Cork. All of the sights, sounds and smells were unfamiliar: I could hardly recognise anything.
When everything is so new and different it forces you to get right back to basics, to revisit the fundamental wildlife watching skills we so often take for granted at home… and that’s a good thing.
Back to wildlife-watching basics
While there are always notable exceptions that are easy to identify (galahs and laughing kookaburra are pretty easy to recognise), most unfamiliar birds and animals can be tricky. You simply don’t know which species occur where, what type of habitat they prefer and a host of other details that you automatically know at home. Then when you do see something, often fleetingly, you don’t know which key characteristics to focus on to help you work out what it is.
It’s a bit exasperating at times, but discovering and learning new things is also exciting. Here are a few tips to help you get to grips with wildlife on your next trip away from home.
Do your homework
You’re not going to find out everything you need to know before you leave home. In fact you’ll glean a lot of the info and pretty much all of the insight “on the ground” once you get there. However, the more homework you do before you leave, the better prepared you’ll be when you arrive.
- Research online — use a search engine to find wildlife related websites in the areas you’re visiting, visit local birding and wildlife group sites to find out what they’re seeing and where. Check out online reviews of wildlife trips and tours, or use social media to find out more. There’s a rich seam of information out there you can tap into.
- Use your library — from travel guides to wildlife field guides your local library can be a great place to find out more about your destination and its wildlife before you leave home.
Take your time
It’s always a good idea to take things slowly when you’re watching wildlife. The more time you spend looking, inevitably the more you’ll see.
That’s doubly important when you’re looking for and at wildlife that’s unfamiliar to you. Quite often a fleeting glimpse won’t be enough to identify what you’ve seen, but a bit of patience will often be rewarded with clearer views and behaviour that will help you work out what exactly you’re looking at.
Allowing enough time also means you can really enjoy the wildlife and immerse yourself in the experience, rather than constantly rushing from place to place.
There’s always a compromise here… especially if you’re on a tight schedule, or are travelling with family or friends who don’t share quite the same enthusiasm as you for hanging around in the wilderness… but do try and give yourself as much time as you can. It really will pay dividends.
Good optics are key
If you’re serious about great wildlife experiences when you travel, it pays to pack the best quality optics you can.
While you’ll probably want to keep size and weight to a minimum for travel, don’t be tempted to over-compromise in this department. The quality of your optics is critical when it comes to picking out fine detail and truly immersing yourself in the wildlife experience. For the sake of a few extra grams in your luggage, it always pays to err on the side of quality.
I tend to pack high quality mid-size or full-size binoculars when I’m travelling (on this trip I’m road-testing the excellent new Vanguard Endeavor EDII 8×42, but also packed the Kite Lynx HD 8×30 — a superb little binocular for travel).
While tiny, pocket-sized binoculars may do the job in a pinch, they are usually a compromise too far in terms of optical performance, particularly in low-light conditions, like dawn and dusk, when wildlife tends to be at its most active.
After good optics the humble notebook and pencil are one of the best tools to help you identify wildlife you see in the field. Jotting down key features, habitat and behaviour when you see something you don’t recognise makes it much easier to look up in a field-guide or online later. A travel notebook can also become a great souvenir of your trip, providing a record of what you saw where and when, and rekindling vivid memories for years to come.
Never underestimate the power of local knowledge.
Use local websites, information centres, hotel receptions… anywhere that can provide you with details of key wildlife locations and experiences in the immediate area. Don’t just stick to official information centres either — try talking to the locals you meet and asking them for their local wildlife tips.
Use your mobile devices
If you’re travelling with a smartphone or tablet use free WiFi at hotels and coffee shops to research wildlife hotspots in the area, find out about up-to-date local sightings and more. You can also download electronic field guides to your phone or tablet save carrying bulky paper copies in your luggage.
Be snap happy
Your digital camera can be a invaluable tool in your wildlife watching arsenal — not just for getting fantastic photographs of your wildlife encounters, but also for quick “record” shots of species you don’t recognise. Together with your notebook this can be a great identification aid to compare with entries in your field guide later.
Don’t worry too much about composition for record shots, just use as fast a shutter speed as you can, zoom all the way in and snap away. Remember that even distant subjects can show enough detail for successful identification when zoomed in either on the camera LCD or, even better, on your computer or tablet later.
Make an early start
This is good advice for wildlife watching wherever you find yourself… but can be particularly useful if you’re trying to combine wildlife watching with a family holiday or business trip. Wildlife tends to particularly active early in the morning, and you’ll be amazing how much you can squeeze in to those few precious hours before your travel companions get up.
These are just a few suggestions on ways you can get more out of wildlife watching while travelling. The most important thing of course is to just get out there and enjoy it!
Do you have any wildlife travel tips for Ireland’s Wildlife readers? Why not share them with us in the comments below?