When the temperature drops to subzero, trails and roads become less often traversed by people, and as a result, other mammals become even more likely to utilize these cleared paths. So although the cold isn’t my strong suit, frigid times can offer some of the best viewing opportunities for more reclusive fauna. Despite frequently hearing coyotes (Canis latrans) howling while out at night and glimpsing them eyeing me while disappearing into the shadows, this encounter was my first that lasted more than a few seconds in Columbia, MO. All fluffed up, the coyote appeared almost wolf-like from a distance, a stark contrast from the thinner figures I am used to in Texas. By the time I had spotted the coyote, it was already making eye contact with me, weighing its options whether or not to continue progressing towards me along the path. These moments are the most exciting for me, because the animal is coming closer on its own volition, providing me with an opportunity to see how the animal responds to my presence at close range. But simultaneously, I am always thinking of the best way to seem as innocuous as possible, to prevent the animal from being scared off.
In the end, it’s up to me to modify my behavior to get the best out of the interaction, and this is what makes wildlife observation incredibly challenging. Luckily I am a small person, so I like to think my size helps me appear less intimidating to begin with, but there are also many strategies I use to reduce the chances an animal perceives me as a threat. For example, with owls, upon spotting them I refrain from gazing head on and continue along the path I am walking, slowing down to a stop where part of the owl is obstructed by a tree or branch. From my experience, this makes the owl feel less exposed and vulnerable, and after a few minutes of silence, the owl is more likely to disregard me and go about its business. In the scenario with the coyote, I made the decision to slowly hunch down to the ground to look as tiny as possible… but unfortunately my backpack swung to the side, and in an instant the coyote bounded off the trail and disappeared into the snowy background. A cool sighting, but an opportunity missed!