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OUTDOORS: Paying attention pays off

Proper camouflage, minimal movement, and keen alertness are integral parts of paying attention in the outdoors. Proper awareness makes any outdoor endeavor more successful. (National Wild Turkey Federation/Special to The Herald)

Proper camouflage, minimal movement, and keen alertness are integral parts of paying attention in the outdoors. Proper awareness makes any outdoor endeavor more successful. (National Wild Turkey Federation/Special to The Herald)

Being attentive is beneficial in all aspects of life. A student who pays attention will generally make better grades than the one who writes notes or daydreams through class. A cook who keeps his or her mind on what they are doing will be less likely to burn dinner.

A driver of an automobile must be mindful of what other drivers are doing and not just focus on their own actions in order to avoid a collision. A quarterback must be aware of not only what his players are doing at all times but must also be able to read what the defense is doing to be successful.

In much the same way, those who pay attention when they go to the woods are more likely to have a successful outing.

“There are several things a hunter or wildlife viewer must do to be successful,” wildlife biologist Bruce Todd said. “One is to be familiar with the preferred habitat and habits of the wildlife you seek. For example, you wouldn’t expect to find a wolverine in Georgia or an elk in Florida. You also wouldn’t look for a gopher tortoise in a pitcher plant bog or a groundhog in gopher tortoise territory.”

It pays to be self-aware and well prepared before going afield. If the animal you are seeking has a keen sense of smell, be sure to wash yourself and your clothing in odor-free soap. If the wildlife has a keen sense of sight, you need to camouflage yourself in harmony with the environment. In addition, noisy garments (“squeaky” footwear, “crunchy” fabric, etc.) should not be worn if they will spook your quarry.

“Other less obvious things also need attention,” Todd said. “One of these is to notice the signs left in the woods. If you are in search of ground-dwelling birds, most mammals, and reptiles you can look for tracks. Different animal tracks are relatively easy to distinguish with practice and many resources are available to help you become familiar with tracks. Field guides are available at bookstores and the internet has a wealth of information on individual species.”

Other signs besides tracks include feathers, droppings, and disturbances to the environment. Evidence of the presence of a male turkey, for example, are “J”-shaped droppings, breast feathers with black tips, and (in the spring) scratches in the soil where gobblers drag their wingtips along the ground while strutting. Feral hog signs include rooting, wallows, and dirty rub marks on trees.

Bears will turn over logs and rocks in search of grubs and insects and may leave scratch marks on the side of a tree. You may notice the presence of bedding areas or stems of plants that have been clipped off at an angle where deer are present. Rabbits cut with upper and lower incisors leaving a stem with a straight cut. Rabbits and deer also leave behind distinctive droppings. In the fall and winter months, buck deer will make rubs on trees and paw out scrapes to alert other deer of their presence.

“Paying attention to sounds can be very important as well when in search of wildlife,” Todd explained. “Birds have distinctive vocalizations. A squirrel may be identified by its chattering and barking, or the sound it makes while cutting the shell off a nut or removing pine seeds from a cone. A feral hog has a distinctive sound as it roots through the forest or gets into a scuffle with another hog. Doe deer and fawns may be heard bleating; bucks may be heard grunting, snorting and wheezing; and both may be heard blowing at those who get downwind of them.”

Other forest sounds also identify the presence of wildlife. The sound of animals walking through the leaves is easily heard. You may not always be able to tell what the animal is, but with a little practice you can distinguish squirrels and armadillos from deer.

Alarm calls are other forest sounds that can help you see wildlife. Squirrels high above the ground in a tree may bark and shake their tails when they hear or see something that causes alarm. Blue jays and crows may also alert you that something or someone is approaching. Another good alarm species is the pileated woodpecker. These large, very vocal birds seldom fail to alert you to the approach of a deer or turkey if you are paying attention.

“Increasing your success in the woods is not difficult,” Todd concluded. “Get to know the animals you wish to see. Prepare yourself for an outing to the fields and woodlands. Pay attention to the signs you can see and the sounds animals make. Go afield at the times and during weather conditions that are preferred by your quarry. Use terrain features to break up your silhouette while moving or sitting and be aware of wind direction. If you will pay attention to these things, it will certainly pay off. The best hunters and wildlife watchers have known this for centuries.”