More often than not, wildlife encounters while on the trail are stimulating, enjoyable experiences that have the potential to make your typical after work or weekend ride a truly memorable experience. In my neck of the woods, it is not uncommon to observe entire groups of Southern California riders, sometimes stopped mid-descent, (having apparently forgotten that Strava was still on) just to gawk at a small herd of browsing mule deer, or a female coyote warily trotting away, pups in tow.
Through these observations, it has become fairly obvious to me that your average trail user appreciates such encounters; perhaps because they stand in such stark contrast to our anthropogenic world of concrete, computers and cars, or maybe because they offer a glimpse into a natural world that we often feel so far removed from.
Should you desire to seek out more of your local wildlife, I have shared with you below some general scientific knowledge regarding wildlife observation, as well as personal lessons I have gleaned over the last few years while searching for wildlife (sometimes by bicycle).
- Time of day: Many bird, mammal, and even fish species exhibit crepuscular behavior, meaning that they are primarily active at dawn and dusk. Getting up at the crack of dawn, or more realistically, cramming a ride in at dusk, will only increase your chances of observing wildlife on the move.
- Time of year: While it is possible to observe many species of animals year-round in much of California, wildlife is typically more detectable during certain times of the year. During spring and early summer, many species breed, and shortly thereafter will spend significant amounts of time out and about, on the hunt for food for their young. When the young eventually leave the nest, burrow, or den, large family groups also become much easier to detect than solitary individuals.
- Weather: Many animals rely on vocal forms of communication, or the ability to hear their prey, or their predators, for survival. As a result, excessive wind or inclement weather, which may impair the hearing ability of many species, can severely limit wildlife activity and reduce your chances of observing them.
- Habitat: Different types of habitat often support differing amounts of species. Generally speaking, more complex habitats have the ability to provide a broader range of ecological niches, and therefore are likely to support a higher number of species. While it is not always the case, your average woodland, or creek-side riparian forest, will support a higher number of species than a typical grassland habitat. Additionally, the interface between complex and simpler habitats, such as where forest meets grassland, can be a hotspot for wildlife activity.
- Stop: While being on a bike allows one to cover significantly more ground, it also establishes a much more conspicuous human presence than walking, or ideally sitting. As a result, most wildlife has taken cover or fled by the time a cyclist has gotten close enough to observe them. Having conducted a fair amount of fieldwork by bicycle, I have found that stopping and sitting quiet for as few as two or three minutes allows wildlife sufficient time to emerge from cover and resume their normal activity.
- Scan: As a result of somewhat debatable environmental pressures (predator detection?), the human eye has developed an enhanced ability to detect movement in the periphery. While on the lookout for wildlife, this can be used to one’s advantage by scanning the environment rather than staring. Critters moving in your periphery are much easier to detect than those staring right back at your from within the brush.
- Magnify: Binoculars are quite effective for achieving close-up views of wildlife, many of which would otherwise be unattainable without the use of tranquilizer darts, trapping, or netting. However, binos can be quite bulky, and don’t ride well in a Camelbak. Several companies now manufacture lightweight, compact, affordable monoculars that take up less space and weight in your pack than a half stack of margarita-flavored Clif Shot Bloks.
Jason Fitzgibbon (Fitzy) is a Wildlife Biologist and Environmental Consultant based out of Orange County, California. He has ridden and raced bicycles in several disciplines for nearly twenty years, but now pedals primarily “just for fun”. When not on the bike, he can be found surfing, climbing, fly fishing, or backpacking, typically always with a camera in-hand.