Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Short Guide to Watching People Watching Wildlife

In Yellowstone, there are a large number of people cruising the limited roads watching the animals from pullouts. If your goal is to see the beasts, sometimes the best strategy is to watch the people. Here is a very short guide to make sense of the clusters of people often seen beside the road.

Someone has stopped beside the road. Why?
They might have seen something! Yes, but they might just be enjoying the scenery, or stretching their legs.
Are they looking at something with binoculars, or spotting scopes? A good sign, but also an indication that the animal of interest is some distance away.

Someone has stopped right in the traffic lane.
They just saw something, probably close. Unless it's a fleeting event, this is the first step in an 'animal jam' where people are pulled off the road whether there's a pullout or not, and traffic slows to a crawl.

A cluster of vehicles has pulled off at the same pullout. While it could be a sighting, you need to look closer. Are people talking to each other and holding coffee cups, or are they all looking in the same direction with binoculars and spotting scopes? If there are a lot of scopes on tripods are they looking in the same direction, or are they fanned out. They will tell you whether they are waiting for an animal to move into the area (fanned) or whether they actually see it (same direction).

If you see that a cluster of vehicles, but the people have all climbed up on a hill beside the road, suspect that they're watching wolves. Sometimes it's necessary to get above the sage and rolling meadows to see them.

Lawnchairs are a giveaway. Seeing one or more vehicles with their occupants parked out in their lawnchairs in front of tripods is a strong hint that you've found someone sufficiently experienced that they expect their animal to show up at that location, and they are content to wait until they do. A chat with them might give you more ideas what to expect.

Learn to recognize the difference between a spotting scope, and a 'big lens' on a camera. It's the difference between animal observers, and animal photographers. A large number of big lenses, all lined up together means that a particularly rewarding animal is in the area. If the heads are down over the cameras then it's happening right now.

With these simple guidelines in mind, you can make the most of your viewing time, and avoid accidentally causing an animal jam just because someone stopped to have a sandwich. But if you have the time, it's well worth it to learn to identify the animals yourself, without joining a 'jam in progress. It's a nice feeling the first time you start your own bear-jam because you saw it first.


Ron Niebrugge said...

I just spent the last couple of weeks in Yellowstone as well and just stumbled across you blog - great description!

I have enjoyed your posts and can relate to many - including that darn stump in Hayden Valley!

Ron Niebrugge

Henry Melton said...

Thanks. That stump is (in)famous. I overheard a couple of bear-watchers the other day talking about it.