How to spot the hard to spot

I recently watched the “Little Giants” tv show about flying lizards, on which the host advised his colleague to look for something that looks like a “small, thin broken twig” on the trunks of likely trees.

The next time I went out, I remembered this advice and within seconds of looking up the first tree, spotted this:

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/35228650

It was such an instant “spot” that it took me a few seconds to accept that I wasn’t imagining it. (I’m still not 100% certain about the species identification).

Does anyone else have any favourite tips for spotting hard-to-spot creatures?

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Sitting still for as long as possible… and then unseen things start moving!

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A lot of the time when I’m looking for insects/small stuff I find that trying to spot motion is your best bet. Picking out insects outright, especially well-camouflaged ones, can be tough, but your peripheral vision is pretty good at picking up the tiniest of movements.

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Take a close up photo of the ground or a plant. When you get around to looking at it on a full sized screen, you have a good chance of finding a few critters that you didn’t realize were there when you took the photo.

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The best way to locate many microhabitat-specialist arthropods is to go looking for their host plants or other preferred areas; they are
often extremely abundant near these and extremely rare even a short distance away from them.

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Belly plants are a real thing. I’ll notice something tiny on the ground from 1.9 meters overhead, prostrate myself to photograph it, and only then see that it has a bunch of previously unnoticed company. Gotta get down and dirty!

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That’s probably the most common question I get when I occasionally do lectures on nudibranchs. Of course, the immediate reply is to look for each species’ food. But it’s also a matter of “tuning in” to a certain size and/or pattern and/or colour. Many times I try to show my buddies 10mm long subjects, sometimes even smaller, and they keep staring at the tip of my finger without ever seeing the what I’m aiming at. And vice versa: often I completely miss large conger eel, octopus or grouper simply because I’m “tuned” to another subject size.

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For me it is all about 2 things, motion and something that breaks up the pattern around it. Being colour blind means I need to rely on these more than just being able to pick it out. Even something bird sized can be tough for me to differentiate among leaves if it does not move.

For the smaller stuff another important thing is to try very hard not to put your shadow over it . Insects or other small items who live as potential prey will typically quickly react as soon as a shadow comes over them as it triggers a flight response. Try as much as possible not to put your shadow over something after you do spot it to be able to study/photograph.

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What I say is: the slower you go, the more you see. Taking that to its logical extreme, stopping altogether often means that you get to see more than you could possibly imagine is there.

And, if you are going to stop, you might as well get comfortable, so gently sit down, lie down, whatever works.

Moving very slowly and smoothly is of course less likely to frighten all kinds of creatures, including very tiny insects. Be aware of where your shadow is, and how that is moving. If you need to talk, talk quietly. Dressing so you are camouflaged can also be helpful.

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I’ve had that exact experience . A few weeks ago I learned that there was an identifiable powdery mildew on Plantago, but I couldn’t find it in my old observations. I started looking outside and lo and behold it was abundant on campus.

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Totally agree with everyone saying just to take things slowly especially for insects and other small things. And as @jdmore said just get down into it. I was at a guest house in Dhaka (huge city with almost 20 million people in case you didn’t know) with a small patch of grass and I just got down into it and found some cool stuff. A few crickets, small spiders, damselfly, and this cool grasshopper https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/30979080

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Sometimes I force myself to kneel or sit down—I’d then start noticing things I would otherwise miss if I just walked.

That being said, I live in Java and have been looking for a live Draco for a year. I only saw one and it was up a tree, 3m above ground, way too far for a photograph. My overseas friend visited the same spot and immediately found one within one hour.

Later on I realized the reason I can’t see Dracos: I normally look down for bugs, she looks up for bats.

I guess you also need to bring the right friend to help you spot things, sometimes :p

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Which one is it? ;)

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Look for symmetry and dark spots that are out of place.

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For insects a flashlight helps a lot, with shadows small animals are much easier to spot, even if it’s sunny.
That way we spot tons of species that’s called in English an Invisible Spider and laugh at this name, so it really helps finding something that is truly hard to spot with bare eyes.

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Ha! That’s me with plants. I go around with my eyes on the ground, spotting seedliings and interesting bits of ground cover, and am often embarrassed when in an area very familiar to me in such detail, on the odd occasion I have a companion , and they say "Look there’s a…(huge tree overhead ) and its the only one of its kind on the site and I had no idea it was there. Howwever, having recently had to "look up’ to identify the only foliage of vines or unusual tree trunks, I am finally starting to recognise trees in the canopy by light patterns they create, even if the leaves can’t be seen individually

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With practice, we all develop search images for whatever organisms we are interested in, particularly the ones that can be easily overlooked. I’ve sometimes missed – practically tripped over – a snake on the ground when I was focused on seeing birds. Before I got into birds, I would’ve seen that snake. Since I got into odonates, I find I miss some birds and herps because I’m focused on different organism sizes, colors, and/or elevations above ground. It makes field work somewhat confusing (but also more stimulating) when you are trying to run multiple search image programs in your head at the same time.

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leave no leaf unturned…(then return it turned properly around in its original spot of course)

also: bark, signs like leafmines yield larva sometimes, under shingles and all the other hidden tiny places where the fun stuff lives.

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Erysiphe sordida. At this time of year it is very common in many places, at least in my part of the world.

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I love this post and these comments!

@susanhewitt hit the big one about slowing down. Having a “sit spot” is a classic naturalist practice, returning to the same place regularly and holding still. You’ll notice seasonal changes and probably observe critters that you would have flushed if you were moving.

Shifting perspective from micro to macro, unfocusing your eyes, refocusing, scanning, closing your eyes… there are tons of thing you can do to play with your physical observation to help you notice different kinds of things. Think about the kind of way you look when you are watching wind playing across a field versus when you are trying to identify a distant bird in a tree. One of those ways of looking is going to have a better chance to spot an ant colony than the other. Our brain is built to recognize patterns!

The best way to see more, though , it counter intuitive, but you already recognized it @anukma! Read. Learn. Thoreau observed that he would read about a plant and know that he had never seen it on his prolific walks, but the moment he had read about it, there it was! Right where he had walked just yesterday, as it it had now sprung from his mind. In C. S. Lewis’s Out Of the Silent Planet, the protagonist goes to a new planet, and Lewis describes how he couldn’t truly see things in it because he had not understanding of it, and one can hardly see what one does not understand. It’s the “new car” phenomenon, where you have never noticed a certain model on the road, but as soon as you buy one it is suddenly everywhere.

This was the story of my last season. I periodically reviewed my botanical literature, kept an eye on what people were posting in my area on iNat, and learned the diagnostics required to distinguish certain species in my range. What happened? I saw more than I ever have. More importantly, I was thrilled on my walks and rides more than I ever had been. My iNat observations are a record of my moments of delight. More than once I nearly flipped over my handlebars when I saw a flash of color out of the corner of my eye.

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