Thursday, September 9, 2021

A guide for group wildlife walks and hikes to increase everyone's enjoyment

Adult Bald Eagle at the Conowingo DamWhile there are times that photographing wildlife is a solitary activity, personally I also love photographing wildlife on walks and hikes with friends, or on organized bird, butterfly, plant or wildflower walks or on a wildlife photowalk. They're all great ways of seeing wildlife in action in the natural world. They give me a chance to capture images and videos of living nature while in great company.

Much of the reason those “walks” appeal to me is they have a major social aspect. They give everyone on them a chance to be with old friends or maybe meet new friends. They give many of us a chance to help others improve their wildlife knowledge, viewing and identification skills, while learning from them too. For me, they are also opportunities to help others improve their photography both technically and artistically and perhaps have them help me grow in those ways too.

For the uninitiated, much of the lore about wildlife walks and hikes from years ago doesn't reflect what they're like and can be like today. They're no longer staid, silent hikes with everyone in safari khaki, or camouflage, outfitted with backpacks filled with birding and other ID books galore. While good walking or hiking shoes are still preferred, almost any kind of casual, personal clothing is more than acceptable.

While the walks and hikes may be primarily designed to be educational and informative, for me, if you can't have fun on them, why do it? I go on these walks to learn for sure, but just as much, I go to enjoy being with old and new friends, while walking, talking and making nature images and videos. And don't think you have to talk about wildlife every second. I've gotten into many “heated” conversations about local sports teams on many of my walks.

That said, I've heard a little too often, exaggerations about the freedom participants can have to enjoy the walks and hikes, without speaking to each person's responsibility, because some think even a little responsibility might be off-putting for people considering a wildlife walk or hike for the first time. Frankly, for everyone on a nature walk or hike, few if any will enjoy it, without some guidelines, however minimal. The guidelines are important for the protection of the wildlife viewed and unseen, as well as the walk/hike participants themselves and those who will take future walks and hikes.

Here are some guidelines I use for all of my photowalks that I believe will work for virtually any nature outing to view, observe and learn about wildlife and/or participate in wildlife photography.

To protect the wildlife:

  • Stay on the trail — Having walkers/hikers stay on trails isn't an arbitrary rule or guideline. In some locations it's because off-trail walking may be hazardous, such as near the the hot springs and geysers at Yellowstone. Staying on trail is also designed to protect habitat and often, especially at specific times of the year, to protect unseen wildlife such as reptiles, as well as eggs, etc.
  • Discard nothing along the walk/hike — If you bring it with you, unless you consume it, take it out with you or what's left of it. You don't want to hurt habitat or the wildlife in it because of your rubbish or discards.
  • Don't stress the wildlife — Don't get so close to the wildlife you're observing or photographing that you put it under stress or use tactics that could be harmful to the wildlife such as baiting or using lures. Moreover, don't use artificial means of emulating animal calls to lure them to you, such as recorded bird calls.

To help yourself enjoy the walk:

  • Dress for the conditions of the day — Check the forecast for your walk/hike and dress appropriately. If the weather is expected to be changeable, cold, or if it's expected to be strenuous, dress in layers. In spring through fall, be sure to protect yourself from the sun. Painful sunburns are unhealthy and more than unpleasant to endure during the final hours of a long walk/hike. If precipitation is in the forecast, be prepared for it.
  • Sore feet on a walk or hike will stop you in your tracks — Your shoes should be comfortable, sturdy and give adequate support. If you're walking in parks or wildlife areas they should be able to handle rocks, roots and uneven terrain beneath your feet. My walking shoes and hiking boots are both waterproofed, in case of rain or wet ground. Wet shoes and socks are blister making machines.
  • Dress to minimize animal awareness of your presence — Many animals, particularly birds have enhanced vision, particularly color vision, compared to humans. Bright and neon colors really stand out in their vision. Animals typically have a circle of fear that if penetrated by walkers and hikers will cause them move away from you. The easier they can see you, the larger the circle of fear. Skip wearing clothing with bright or neon colors, including shoes. I typically wear muted colors like tans, greys and light blues and greens. Wearing a hat helps too as it breaks up the human form, as well as protects you from excessive sun.
  • Talking is not a problem for wildlife walks and hikes but — Normal conversation during wildlife walks and hikes is not only not a problem, but is an important part of them. Silence would be beyond boring. On the other hand, there are times when whispers or talking softly makes the walks and hikes more productive. Many animals have terrific hearing. Not only does their vision affect the size of their circle of fear, sound does too. Everyone quickly realizes when it's fine to talk loudly enough that everyone on the walk or hike can hear you and when it's time to speak softly to not frighten the animals to retreat away from you.
  • Don't forget the water — Everyone remembers to bring drinking water for a long walk on hot summer day, but it's important for cold weather walks too, as the physical effort expended can dehydrate you.

Fulfill your responsibility to other walkers and hikers:

  • Leave the area in which you walk or hike the way you found it — It's only right that when you leave a wildlife area, that it's in the same condition you found it, so those visiting after you can have the same enjoyment you had.

Beyond everything else, be yourself, enjoy yourself and have a great time. Give those on a walk or hike with you, the benefit of who you are.

Note: If you're in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, check out the schedule of bird walks, butterfly walks, plant walks, tree walks and photowalks at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge where I volunteer. Our walks are all free and open to the general public. All are welcome including those who've never been on a wildlife walk or hike before. Children need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

If you're interested in wildlife photography, please join me on one of the wildlife photowalks I lead, about ten times per year there. Check the schedule of my Heinz photowalks on the NSL Photography Blog home page and on the Heinz Facebook events page.


Herb - Lancaster said...

Great commentary on wildlife walks, especially photowalks. Freedom always includes responsibility or all we get is unproductive chaos where there are always hard feelings and angry people. Sorry I can't make your photowalk Saturday.

Bob - Easton said...

I'm happy that you discussed both having fun which is essential for a photowalk and also that there need to be commonsense rules to follow on the walks.

Tim-Exton said...

Great article. Great advice

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