The dumb human trick
I promised I was going to create a new category and do some posts on the tricks I use to get as close to wildlife as I do, and this will be my first new post on the subject. The category is “Getting close to critters” and I will update some of my earlier posts that contain tips on getting close to wildlife so that you can click on the category for all the posts on this subject.
I chose to start the series officially with a trick I call the dumb human trick. It really has nothing to do with being dumb, but most people are so unobservant that they often walk right past wildlife that is very close to them. This trick works best on species that tend to favor cover over flight. One species it really works well on is whitetail deer, but there are others as well, and every once in a while, it works on almost all species. It works best on animals that are somewhat conditioned to having humans around, but you never know until you try it if it will work in any situation.
It goes like this, I’ll be hiking and see an animal in the distance, but I can tell the animal has already spotted me. As I wrote in an earlier post, you never want to stare an animal in the eye, they seem to sense that you have spotted them. What I do is to try to assess the situation over as quickly as possible, and see if there is a way I can slip out of sight of the animal and make a closer approach by stalking it through cover. That isn’t always possible, due to where the animal is, the way the wind is blowing, or for other reasons.
If I can see no way to sneak up on an animal, then as a last resort, I use this trick, and that is to act like the typical human that trudges through the woods blissfully unaware of anything around them. If I am hiking a trail and the trail will take me closer to the animal, I start walking down the trail at a steady clip, only glancing in the direction of the animal from time to time. If I’m not on a trail, I chose a path that takes me closer to the animal, but not directly at it. Once I start walking, I don’t stop, that could tip-off the animal that the jig is up, and that it should head for thicker cover.
As I am walking, I continue to size up the situation. I’ll glance at the animal to see if it is becoming agitated, but no more than a glance now and then. I’ll look for openings in the brush near where my closest approach to the animal will be, and where my best chance of a good photo will be.
When I can tell that the animal is about ready to take flight, or when I have reached the best spot that there is for trying for a photo, I stop, turn towards the animal, and start shooting. If the animal was on the verge of flight to begin with, I’ll make my turn and shoot as quickly as I can. If the animal was still relaxed, I’ll take it slow and hope for the best.
I should mention that I turn my camera on and get it as ready as I can for the shot I expect to take while I am still walking.
Sometimes you have time to get a few shots before the subject bolts, sometimes you get nothing, and that’s what prompted me to start with this tip.
A couple of days ago I was doing my daily walk around the apartment complex where I live. As I approached one of the creeks here, I spotted a flash of grey moving through the brush on the banks of the creek, it was a great blue heron.
I think you can just make out the heron’s neck and eye in that photo, I wasn’t that close to it, that shot was taken at 300mm. I couldn’t tell if it had spotted me or not, I can seldom tell with birds. I did know that there was no way for me to approach the heron where it was and stay out of sight while I was doing it. I thought that I would give the dumb human trick a try, and see what I could get. I walked along as if I didn’t know the heron was there until I got to an opening in the brush, then turned and fired.
As you can see, what I got was only the heron’s tail and feet as it took flight. There must be more shutter lag in my Nikon than I knew, as I saw the entire bird in the viewfinder as the mirror locked up. This took place at close range, less than 15 feet, and very fast, so I suppose I was lucky to even get the heron’s feet. If I hadn’t turned to shoot, the heron probably would have let me walk right on by, thinking that I had never seen it.
It does work better than that most of the time, but you do have to be ready to shoot quickly.
I’ve had my best luck using the dumb human trick on whitetail deer, which are well-known for having nerves of steel when lying low, thinking that they haven’t been spotted. I’ve seen whitetail bucks stretch their necks out along the ground with their chin resting on the ground so that their antlers look like small branches that have fallen to the ground. When a whitetail deer decides to stay hidden, it takes a lot to get it to move, and you can get incredibly close to them as long as they don’t think you know they are there, sometimes to within 10 feet.
If the animal hasn’t spotted you, there is no reason to try this trick unless it is the only way to get close, you’re usually better off trying to stay hidden as you approach an animal. If the animal does have you dead to rights, then this is a trick to try. As I wrote about the heron, it probably would have let me walk right on by, and sometimes you can do that, walk out of sight of the animal, then stay hidden as you sneak up on it from the other direction. I have done that before as well, like in circumstances when the light was too bad for a photo in the direction I was going when I first saw the animal.