I didn’t see any animals today on my hike through the ponderosa pine forest. For a wildlife writer, this can be frustrating, but instead I came home feeling satisfied with the day’s walk. I didn’t see animals, but I saw plenty of evidence of their presence.
Elk, mule deer, coyotes, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks and, of course, birds … these woods are their home. Even when I don’t see the animals, I know they’re around by the signs they leave behind. Today I saw freshly dug rodent burrows, a deer’s leg bones, an aromatic pile of fur that used to belong to a skunk, and elk tracks.
One of the neatest animals signs in my forest is “pine on the cob” cores. Squirrels make these cores by chewing the fresh green tips off ponderosa branches, then nibbling away the needles to get at the seeds. What’s left behind is a cream-colored core, or usually, a dozen of them, piled up around a favorite tree. I don’t know whether it’s good for the tree—I should check that out—but it’s a useful sign of squirrel activity nevertheless.
Finding those signs can be as satisfying as seeing the animals themselves. When I first started writing about wildlife, I counted a trip a failure if I didn’t see the animals I set out to see. I would apologize to readers and explain what had happened. The theme was, “Learn from my mistakes so you have better luck seeing wildlife.”
Now, when I go out looking for wildlife as the basis for a story, I look just as diligently for signs as for the animals themselves. I use the clues animals leave behind to discern what’s around, in this particular area, at this season of the year. The clues become details in my story.
It’s not filler, either: Good writing comes from paying attention to the particulars. These days, I don’t consider a wildlife-watching story complete without details about the animal signs to be found in a particular habitat, as well as about the animals themselves.
Next time you see an animal’s track in the mud, a skein of fur caught in rough bark, even a scattering of bones, count yourself successful at the wildlife-viewing game … and write it down. Not all wildlife writing is about direct encounters with animals; a successful story can come from spending time where animals are, and simply noting whatever we see.