Wherever you are, you’re surrounded by fascinating wildlife. You may not even realize it, since most animals are very good at avoiding humans, but once you put your mind to it, finding and watching animals in their natural habitat can be an incredibly satisfying and even inspiring hobby. Let’s take a look at the different types of animal watching you can do.
15 Types of Animal Watching
1. Bird Watching
Bird watching is possibly the most common type of animal watching. The birding community is huge, enthusiastic, and far more organized than any other animal watching community. It’s easy to understand why, birds are everywhere! So you can begin and practice the hobby wherever you are. But, some people like to specialize a bit further.
Owls are a challenge to observe. It’s not just that they’re nocturnal, they’re the ultimate stealth bird. Their flight is completely silent, and they can see in nearly pitch-black conditions. The challenge of owl watching is certainly part of the draw, but so too is the otherworldly experience of spotting an owl in flight in the night forest. They’re ghostly in appearance, winging silently through the trees, and it’s a unique thrill.
You may go the whole night without seeing one, but you’ll hear them calling to each other through the trees.
Hawks are somewhat easier to watch than owls. In fact, they’re common and found easily near major urban areas. The appeal of hawk watching is that you can observe a majestic bird of prey without have to hike into a remote wilderness or stay up all night long.
Eagle watching is often more difficult than hawk watching, simply by virtue of eagles being more rare and preferring to live in more remote areas. The golden eagle, one of the most common and widespread eagles in the world, prefers to build its nests on high cliff ledges, making it difficult to find. In the U.S., bald eagles can be found along larger bodies of water.
The hard work of finding the eagles is well worth it, though, as you’ll be rewarded with the sight of some of the largest and most beautiful birds in the world. Eagle watching is best accomplished by finding their nests. Because both parents take care of the young, you are guaranteed to see a lot of eagle activity, including hunting and feeding.
Migratory bird watching
Migratory birds can offer some of the most spectacular sights in the natural world. Huge flocks of brightly colored birds in flight together or roosting together in groves. Hundreds or even thousands of birds all together in one spot. It’s absolutely incredible. The best part is that birds follow the same migration routes each year, so you always know exactly where to find them. Be sure to show up with great binoculars and a high quality camera.
2. Whale Watching
Whale watching is a popular tourist attraction all over the globe. Unlike bird watching, which is largely a hobbyist activity (with some professionals joining in), whale watching requires professional guides and is almost exclusively a tourist activity.
That is largely because doing so requires a boat, which is a pretty big expense for a hobby. In some places, though, such as Hawaii, it is possible to occasionally view whales from the shore. This is rarely as good as viewing them from a boat, though. In the boat whales often swim right alongside, giving you an incredible view.
When visiting a coastal town it’s always a good idea to check and see if there are whale watching boats in the area. It’s a great trip for the whole family.
Snorkeling can be a great way to view fish, coral reefs, and other marine life. Like whale watching, it’s a popular tourist activity. Unlike whale watching, it’s also an excellent hobby for those who live near the coast.
Snorkeling is easy and doesn’t require a lot of expensive equipment. You just need a mask, a snorkel, and some fins for swimming. Then you just paddle along the water’s surface, with the top of the snorkel above the water, allowing you to keep your face down so you can see everything beneath you. It gives you many of the same wildlife-viewing opportunities as scuba diving, but with far less equipment needed, and no training required.
Of course, this works best in warm, shallow waters where you’ll be able to see a lot of life from the surface.
Herping is the practice of finding and observing amphibians and reptiles in the wild. Obviously there’s an element of risk here, since many snakes are venomous and dangerous. But, as long as you avoid approaching venomous snakes too closely you’ll be ok.
The hard part is actually finding them, since most of them are well camouflaged and can hear and smell you coming from a long way off. There are some things you can do to make it easier on yourself.
Head out when the sun is just warming up. At this time snakes and other reptiles will be sunning themselves out in the open, and are much easier to find. Just be sure to walk quietly and carefully to avoid spooking them.
If you wade along a creek after dark, you’re guaranteed to run into all kinds of lizards, turtles, frogs, and salamanders. It’s also a good way to bump into snakes, including venomous ones, so be careful.
Driving along rural roads after dark is also a great way to spot snakes, since most of them are nocturnal. Just drive carefully, you don’t want to run over one.
5. Dolphin Watching
Dolphin watching is much like whale watching, but it’s more hobby-friendly. Dolphins tend to come in closer to shore than big whales, and can often be found in the same areas people like to fish in. Anglers fishing inshore waters see dolphins all the time, and many of the most enthusiastic dolphin watchers started out as fishermen who just kept bumping into pods of dolphins.
Dolphin watching can also be much more interactive than whale watching. Dolphins like to approach boats of people, and will often play with them. Take a ball or some other buoyant toy out with you and toss it to them. Odds are they’ll toss it right back and you’ll end up in a game of catch with a pod of dolphins!
6. Butterfly Watching
Butterfly watching is inherently limited to the warmer months when flowers are in bloom, but during those months it’s just as satisfying of a hobby as bird watching. The two hobbies are very similar; both can be done anywhere, are very amateur-friendly, and don’t require a lot of travel or specialized equipment.
If you want to make it really easy on yourself, you can simply plant a butterfly garden around your house. This is a garden full of flowers that will attract the local butterfly species, and then you’ll be able to observe all your favorite butterflies from the comfort of your own home.
Before the flowers bloom, you can extend this hobby to caterpillar watching. Fortunately, most species of butterfly eat the same plants as caterpillars that they’re drawn to as adults, so your butterfly garden will work just as well as a caterpillar garden.
7. Moth Watching
Much like butterfly watching, but with the added difficulty of watching a nocturnal species. Moths are most active at night, so to observe them you’ll have to wait until after dark. You can plant a moth garden, which will look radically different from a butterfly garden, as moths have a much broader diet.
Perhaps the biggest draw of moth watching is the incredible diversity. While North America has about 700 species of birds and 750 species of butterfly, it has 11,000 species of moth!
Many people like to use lights to attract the moths so they can observe them more easily, but this can actually be very harmful to the local moth population. It’s better to invest in a good camera and a headlamp. Look into deep-throated flowers to find moths feeding on nectar.
A good, and safe, way to attract moths at night is to stretch a white cotton sheet out along a wall or a rope and illuminate it with a black light. You’ll get a lot of visitors that way.
8. Elk Watching
Elk are beautiful creatures. They’re some of the largest animals in North America, and bull elk with their huge, wide antlers, are an especially impressive sight. They once inhabited every part of the continental U.S., but they now mostly live in the Rocky mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and a few isolated populations spread over the northern states.
Colorado is one of the best places to view them, and there are large herds in places like Pike’s Peak and Estes Park where it’s easy to observe them. Take along a good camera with a powerful zoom function, since elk tend to keep their distance from people.
Check out our article on Elk Population in each U.S. state.
9. Alligator Watching
Alligator watching is less of a hobby to locals, and more of a tourist attraction to visitors. Alligators are masters of camouflage, and if they don’t want to be seen, they won’t be seen. They can simply submerge themselves in the water and hide.
A good guide knows where to find them, and can almost always locate alligators that are swimming along the surface or basking on the shore. They may even use food to entice them to the surface.
Most alligator guides operate during the day, because that’s when most tourists want to go. But, if you want to really see a lot of alligators, and specifically a lot of very active alligators, find a guide who will take you out at night.
Alligators are largely nocturnal, and once the sun goes down you’ll be amazed at how many of them there are in waters that look empty during the day. The easiest way to spot them at night is called “spotlighting,” which is simply the practice of shining a spotlight out over the water. They have eyes like a cat’s, which means they reflect the light from the spotlight. You’ll spot dozens of them in a short time this way.
10. Moose Watching
Moose are huge creatures. Mature bulls can weigh over 1000 pounds, and their antlers can spread six feet across. They live across most of the northern U.S. and Canada, and in fact they also live across all of northern Asia and parts of northern Europe.
One of the best places to view moose in Maine, which has the second largest moose population in the U.S. There are several companies that offer moose watching safaris and tours, and they’re very good at what they do. It’s not uncommon for visitors to see 20 moose on a single tour.
Of course, if you live in an area where there are moose, you can certainly take up moose watching as a hobby. Moose like to live in open areas near wetlands, and are most active at dawn and dusk. Fall is widely considered the best time for viewing, as this is when the bull’s antlers are largest.
Be careful, moose can be aggressive, and if they feel threatened they won’t hesitate to attack. As long as you keep your distance you should be fine.
11. Beaver Watching
Beavers are fascinating creatures. They’re the largest native rodents in North America, and their dams and ponds are vital parts of the ecosystem, benefitting dozens of other species. In fact for this reason they are known as a keystone species.
While they spend a lot of their time in the huts, hidden from view, you can spot them if you head to a beaver pond around dusk or dawn. Scan the water’s surface for a head and back cruising along the water, and you’ll find your beaver.
Once you’ve found one you’ll likely spot the others, and you can observe them as they go about their business. You might be surprised by how playful they can be with each other!
12. Bat Watching
In recent years bats have started to overcome their reputation as blind, disease-ridden pests. People are developing a newfound appreciation for the world’s only flying mammals, especially farmers who benefit greatly from bats eating the insects that would otherwise damage their crops.
If you live near a known bat colony, all you need to do is show up an hour or two before sunset and wait. You’ll be treated to the incredible sight of thousands of bats leaving their roost for the night. You may even see predators like hawks trying to catch a few. In some places, like the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, TX, there are enormous colonies of tens of thousands of bats living right in the middle of big cities.
Depending on where you live, there may not be any huge bat colonies nearby, and not all bat species live in such large groups. One great way for you to observe bats in that case would be to put up a bat box in your yard. This is just like a birdhouse, but for bats. There’s a good chance you’ll end up with a small family of bats living in your backyard, and then you can observe them every night.
13. Bear Watching
This is a dangerous animal watching experience, and one that should really only be done when guided by a professional. Bears are big, powerful animals that can be very aggressive in self-defense. They’re also fascinating and beautiful creatures that can be very rewarding to observe.
Black bears live throughout the U.S., and can be observed in most places. They are quite shy, though, and finding them in the wild can prove difficult. Grizzly bears are much less shy, but their range is much more limited. At one time they, too, lived in the whole of the continental US, but now they’re restricted to Alaska and the northern portions of the Rocky Mountains.
National Parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton are the best places to observe them, as there are large populations there. Keep your distance, and don’t approach them. To really observe them you’ll want good binoculars and a camera with very good zoom.
14. Wolf Watching
Wolf watching is a fairly new thing that’s begun to catch on in recent years. Yellowstone is really the only place in the U.S. where you can do it, as you do need a guide to find them. Wolves are elusive creatures that are very good at avoiding people.
The Yellowstone wolves are well-known and studied, so the workers there know their habits and their travel patterns. It’s the best place to see wolves in the wild. Go in winter, when the snow makes them easier to see.
Safari is a general term that can refer to many types of excursion, but it most commonly refers to a trip in Africa to observe the wildlife. Most Safari’s now are not hunting trips, but instead guided tours that get you up close and personal with lions, cheetahs, giraffes, wildebeest, and more. It’s truly the experience of a lifetime.