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OUTDOORS INSTITUTE

The beast within

Thinking like prey, not a pursuer, will get you closer.

September 16, 2003|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

Someday on an ordinary walk in the woods you may come across a man or woman in full camouflage, barefoot and down on all fours mooing like a cow. Do not be alarmed. It's probably just a hunter in the full throes of a stalk. Stealthy hunters take off their boots to muffle the explosion of crunching leaves and twigs. And unleashing a moo or two can't hurt when hunting deer in areas where cattle regularly graze.

Hunters, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts all face the same challenge: how to get close to creatures designed to give drop-ins the slip. The key is eluding an animal's built-in radar of scent, sound and sight to detect predators.

When you're stalking an animal, start downwind so it won't smell you and bolt. Bears can smell food inside a container miles away, and deer rely on their powerful olfactory sense to stay several steps away from intruders. To test wind direction, Steve Comus of Tucson, Ariz., and publications director of the national hunting group Safari Club International, sprinkles talcum powder in the air and watches to see which way the particles float. He then takes off in the opposite direction, walking into the wind.

Animal tracker Jim Lowery's approach is more cerebral. At his Earth Skills outdoors training school in Frazier Park, he instructs students to develop "mental quietness" to avoid frightening wildlife away from an area. His techniques focus on moving quietly and blending in. Lowery feels that animals sense a person's energy.

"If you find a way to calm down and slow your mind down, your body learns what to do to follow it," says Lowery.

He also tells students to rub dirt or ashes into clothing to better blend into the surroundings. And he smears charcoal to dull the shininess of his skin.

"Look at it as an artist [would]," Lowery adds. "Soften your eyes, look at the direction of dominant lines, light, shadows and hues. You want to be in a position that doesn't go counter to prevailing lines and patterns."

The best time to find and pursue animals is usually the afternoon and predawn hours, when shadows on the landscape can provide cover for a stalker. Animals frequently bed down at midday, making it hard for a stalker to disguise his presence in the bright sun.

"Be one with the animal" may sound touchy-feely, but it's what landscape and wildlife photographer Michael Ambrose of Clovis, Calif., says some of the top photographers do.

Ambrose, who recently spotted his first bighorn sheep in the wild at Yosemite National Park's Tuolumne Meadows, says he knows photographers who "develop a relationship with the animal," sometimes staying with one animal all day.

So what's the quickest way to blow your cover? Act like a predator.

Never stare directly at an animal being pursued and try to walk in a zigzag pattern rather than a straight line. Hunters slow their pace to a crawl -- if even that fast -- when they are within shooting range, which can be as close as 20 to 30 yards for an archer.

It also helps to know the habits of the species you are stalking. For example, when Comus hunted black-tailed deer along the California coast, he knew they didn't use game trails as often as white-tailed deer do in the East. That meant some serious bushwhacking off-trail.

There are certain animals that are off-limits. Some wildlife trackers won't stalk sensitive species, such as desert bighorn sheep, whose numbers have been declining. And the use of bait is discouraged out of fear it could interfere with the feeding habits of a species already under threat.

That sensitivity applies to shutter trackers as well. "It's the responsibility of wildlife photographers to respect wildlife," Ambrose says.

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Animals can sense a stranger in their habitat, so you better blend in or they'll bug out.

(see photo captions)

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