Friday, November 6, 2015

Increase Your Chances At Seeing Wildlife

I've spent almost the entirety of the past few years observing animals, studying them, and teaching people about them. One of the main questions people ask me, is "How can I see what you see?". Well, here are some of my secrets. These are my personal tips on how to see more animals while you are hiking or just outside, even for an hour.

  • Look Up.     Birds are the most obvious animals that you might see while looking up, though just over a week ago, a person in my hiking party spooked a roughed grouse from right under her feet, so always keep your eyes all over the place.  Believe it or not, some species that people usually see on the ground can easily be found in trees.  Black snakes and green snakes are animals that can easily "pop out" in your eyesight from above, as they are very good at climbing in trees.  Bears and groundhogs also commonly go up into trees, despite many people's beliefs about them.

  • Look Down.    Looking down gives you the opportunity to see more salamanders, frogs, chipmunks, and even animal tracks.  If you can find animal tracks, identify them, and take a mental note of what is around.  Look for the specific animal while continuing to walk.

  • Walk Slowly.    Some of you might be reading the above bullet points and are thinking "How can you both look up and down at the same time?"  Well, you can't, so walk slowly so you can repeatedly do each.  Walking slowly also can be a quieter type of walk, lessening the chances of you scaring wildlife.

  • Pish!    Pishing is making the sound "pish" with your mouth, repeatedly for a few seconds. This is a little naturalist and biologist trick to scare birds from their hiding places, making them fly out from thick leaves or brush.  This can be tricky though, as some birds will get too scared and fly off very fast and very far.

  • Look for both color differences and movement.   Black bears against a green background and red cardinals against white snow are some really easy examples of color differences you should look for.  It's easy, as a lot of animals stick right out against various backgrounds, even the most camouflaged ones.   Animals move, sometimes extremely slowly, but they move! Even the most camouflaged wildlife will move, providing a better opportunity for you to see them, as they move against these different backgrounds.

  • Get outside.  This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it's one of the most important.  Just walking a mile in your local park a few times a week can provide very interesting wildlife sightings.  Increase your chances and get another excuse to get outside.

  • Use binoculars.   Binoculars really help you hone on the wildlife you have detected using your regular eyesight.  They can also be used to scan large fields and meadows from a distance, limiting the chances of you scaring the wildlife when you first enter a field.

  • Use your peripheral vision.    Most animals that I see are seen first by my peripheral vision. This happens because this type of vision can detect movement very effectively.  Color differences are also picked up easier if you use your peripheral vision more.

  • Protect your eyes while in the woods.   If going off trail or walking on a property with no trail, I highly recommend wearing sunglasses or safety glasses.  I commonly wear shooting glasses, as they are easily accessible to me, and are very effective.  I've both been told this (by other biologists, as well as multiple conservation officers) and learned the hard way to always protect your eyes.  Going into the woods might mean that branches and thorns will be in the way of you.  This very easily leads down to a road of pain and misery.  Also, gnats have a harder chance of getting into your eyes if you wear sunglasses.  Protect those eyes!  You'll be glad you did, besides, if you have injured eyes, it's very hard to see wildlife.

  • Invest in a field guide.   Some field guides provide useful information on whereabouts of certain animals, especially at different times of the year.  It's worth a few dollars if you are outside all the time.

  • Get High!     Ascend quietly onto ridges and small peaks in a forest.  Be extremely silent as you are going uphill.  Once you get to the top, look down and look for movement. This is how I often see deer, bear, and turkeys.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Squirrel Selfies

Gray Squirrels are one of the most photogenic and "up in your face" mammals I've encountered in Virginia.

They're so. . . squirrely.

Seriously, these squirrels get right up in both mine and my camera traps' face.  Just this past week, I was hunting with a friend when a squirrel came by.  At first, it made leaves rustle like a 200lb white-tail, only for me to turn my head and see a small, furry bodied rodent pouncing around in the leaf litter.  The squirrel came closer and closer.  My friend said "Here it comes. . . " and I bombarded him with whispers of "shut up, let's see how close it gets before it realizes. .  .keep quiet".

The squirrel ended up not even 2 feet away from me.  Literally it was right there, face to face with two camouflaged humans and it didn't even realize it.   Eventually, I blinked and the squirrel darted away.   They're curious little mammals and will love any kind of well intentioned attention.

They also get right up into the eyeballs of trail cameras.  They know something is "human" about it, but seem to have to go right up to it anyway.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Instagram Too!

I'm on Instagram (and have been for some time)!  I post a lot more photos on social media than I do on this blog, so check it out!

I cover all my trail camera's "best" photos of course, along with hikes, friends, animal sightings, fishing, kayaking, and general outdoor posts.

Follow me please by clicking here or by following wildlife_fever, and I'll follow you on Instagram as well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


It's be an interesting fall in the outdoors for me.  My friends and I have had some pumpkin ales, a lot of outdoor outings, and an incredible amount of foliage around us.  In fact, I think this year has provided the most orange, red, and yellow that I've ever seen.  This blog is predominately about Northern Virginia's wildlife, trail cameras, and that sort of thing, but there can't a blog about the outdoors without mentioning the Mid-Atlantic's fall foliage. 

Enough of words, enjoy a few photos.

Shenandoah Mountains.  October, 2015

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  October, 2015

Friends in Shenandoah on an October hike with me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Peace Like A River

Being a professional naturalist has given me the opportunities to either ride in or drive many kinds of vehicles.  I've been on ATV's, agency pick-up trucks equipped with infrared and night vision scopes, airplanes, motor boats, mountain bikes, John Deere gators, and even a helicopter.  These things make work in parks/wildlife easier, depending on where work needs to be done. Sometimes, not all wildlife is best enjoyed by a fast trail vehicle or the coolest aircraft.  Sometimes, it's all about something meaningful.

Potomac River sunrise
This past spring, I noticed a stretch of forest with bald eagle nests, a heron rookery, and a cormorant rookery. These rookeries are places where flocks of birds come to nest and congregate.   It just sounded like a little slice of wildlife watching heaven to me.  I had to get out there to see the birds and to try to photograph some of them.  The forest was only accessible by boat, and the boat I was dying to take out was in my backyard straddled upon a few sawhorses, on dry land.

The boat's name is Peace Like A River, and for the past 2 years, she had only touched a body of water a few times.  I wanted to change that. 

My desire to take her on the water increased when I was flipping through a small photo album of my grandfather's, from years ago.  This album was basically the story of how that canoe (and a few others) were built by him and of the adventures my mom and uncle had in those canoes, as children.  In between the pages of these photos are blueprints and plans that were used to construct Peace Like A River.  It doesn't seem easy to build one of these things, so it goes without saying that I'm thankful for having one so accessible to me.
Author's grandfather in Peace Like A River.
She's got an incredible amount of character in her wooden body.  She rides smooth, and although some maneuvers can be wobbly at times, she'll make every ride an enjoyable one.  It's even more enjoyable when you think about her history and character.

Author as a child (middle) with family on the Potomac River.
My siblings and I, as young kids, used to really enjoy going for rides in the boat.  My father would do most of the paddling work because as a kid, my main job used to be focused on not flipping the boat or leaning outside of it.  We'd fish from the canoe mostly, and often take breaks for lunch on the islands.  As I child, this was seen as an excuse to explore, an excuse that I still haven't let go of today as an adult.

As I was thinking of a plan to take the boat out and to see the bird rookeries, I figured I'd invite my friend Jeff.  He's a professional photographer with works and ties to National Geographic.  I found it fitting, as we try to find excuses to get out in our local parks anyway.  Plus, he takes amazing photos. He agreed and my excitement to go increased immensely. We paddled on the Potomac near where the birds were nesting.  We didn't disturb them at all, and Jeff got some really good photos of cormorants and herons. The "drop zone" of bird poop was quickly determined by us, so we knew to keep a bit of a distance from the animals.  The nests were probably between 40 and 70 feet in the air, and when a bird needed to poop, they didn't think twice about sending it straight down from that height.  It was an interesting experience, and I'll never forget the commotion of nesting cormorants and herons.

Cormorant rookery (nesting site).  Photo:  Jeff Mauritzen

Peace Like A River was originally a northerner, being built in New Jersey and taken out on bodies of water in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

She now resides in Virginia, and her most travelled body of water these days is the Potomac River, turning her into Southern Belle with northern roots.

Brian Balik (author) in Peace Like A River, searching for birds.  Photo:  Jeff Mauritzen
-Big thanks to Jeff Mauritzen for taking amazing photos and coming along on my local excursions.  Click to see more of his work here:  Travel and Wildlife Photography .

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bobcats in Northern VA

People hardly believe they are in our area, but there are many tales (bobbed tales!) of these extremely well hidden creatures roaming the suburbs.  So let's finally break this one down for all the Northern VA suburbanites out there.

Yes, we do have native bobcats roaming Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties.  They are not something to fear, but more of something to be aware of.  I've seen them on multiple outings while wildlifin' around the area.  Sterling, Leesburg, Bluemont, McLean, Great Falls, Haymarket, Manassas, and Falls Church are all places where I've either seen them in person or on trail cameras.

Bobcats are predators, but will most likely leave your pets alone.  They feast on rabbits, birds, snakes, moles, mice, shrews, and other small meals.  I've seen a family of bobcats raiding a trash dumpster outside of a business right next to a major highway in Fairfax County.  There have been some roadkilled ones as well.  Great Falls had two roadkilled (that I know of) just in the past 3 months.  There have been roadkills on Kirby Road near McLean, Virginia a few times in the past two years, and I've even heard about one killed on the road on Fairfax County Parkway.

So where's the pictures?

Well, here they are!!!

These are brought to you from the Centreville/Haymarket area with permissions from other camera owners and my own cameras.

Have you ever seen a bobcat in Northern Virginia?  Comment here and let me know!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Green With a Hint of Black Bear

We were both patient with each other (and ourselves).

Black bear climbing a tree in Virginia
He snorted a few times, probably saying "Human, let me do my thing!".  So I listened, and respected him, just as he did to me.

We didn't provoke each other.  Yelling, running, and bluffing was not necessary.

The only thing that was necessary was both of us seeing each other there and leaving each other alone.

The animal really only wanted some acorns in the tops of the trees, just as most bears in the area are doing right now in the year.  They're getting some extra calories, as it is still fairly hot during the day, and they know that winter will be here before long.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Venomous Snakes of Late Summer

It's been one good summer, and to make it even better, I've had TONS of great animal sightings in its last few weeks.

Among these are a few coyotes, some bobcats, lots of bears, and even venomous snakes.

I saw this Eastern Timber Rattlesnake in the Shenandoah mountains last weekend.  These ones will put a hurtin' on you if they bite you, but from the stories I've heard from this area, they will usually give you the rattle sound as a warning before they strike.  Who knows though?  I sure haven't bothered any enough to find out.

It was good to keep a safe distance and not touch it, even though it looked pretty dead to me.

This other one is a venomous copperhead from Fairfax County.  Copperheads are some of my favorite snakes, and though their bite can easily hospitalize a human adult, I still try to get a few pictures of both live and dead ones.

I tried to highlight and focus on both the interesting pattern on the copperhead, as well as the bright yellow-green tail.   That yellow tail is a good indicator that this one is a juvenile.

Juvenile copperheads almost always have this feature, and is used as a caudal lure, luring prey to them when they wiggle it back and forth.

They are fascinating.  Even if I try to get a few pictures of a live one, I always look directly at the animal and try not to disturb it.

I don't kill these snakes, as they are just part of the nature around here, plus they are almost always seen by me in protected natural areas.

Venomous snakes are not something that should be "fooled" with.  They can kill you.  Though it is rare in the area that this happens, it still is possible, and knowing what venomous snakes look like can be very helpful in places where they are commonly found (parks, river banks, rocky outcroppings, woodpiles).  These snakes should not be feared, but people should be aware of where they most likely are going to be, what to do if you get bit, and more importantly, to not pick them up.