Archive for the ‘Tracking’ Category

Beaver Scouts looking for BadgersI admit that most of have my wildlife adventures have been solitary ones.  This isn’t because I am by nature a  loner, although sitting on your own outdoors is quite soothing, and it is true that one person can be a lot stealthier than a group.

No, one of the main reasons for me being on my own is that I haven’t yet successfully persuaded anyone else to come out with me.  OK, the idea sounds attractive to people, but when it comes to it, the grim reality of sitting in the cold dark of the woods, waiting for an animal that may or may not make an appearance, or getting up at dawn to traipse through a muddy field looking for tracks, suddenly loses its appeal.

Not today though.  This evening I had a whole gang of helpers along with me.  Twenty-five of them, to be precise, and all very keen.  I had agreed to help the local Beaver Scouts with a session of tracking and looking for badgers.

With 25 loud and enthusiastic 6-8 year olds, dressed in hi-viz clothing, you can work out for yourself the chances of seeing any badgers.  But we had a great little walk.  I put together a short ‘I-Spy’ leaflet for everyone with pictures of the tracks of common animals (badger, fox, muntjac, fallow deer, rabbit etc) for them to tick off and we headed to the field behind my house.

We had great fun finding deer tracks and dog tracks and ticking them off the list.  It was good to see the Beavers getting stuck into the tracking game, and the adult helpers too.  Mind you, the highlight of the walk was the badger latrine site, with real badger poo!  It never fails to impress…

In fact, it was a thoroughly enjoyable little trip.  And it was good to take a group of children out and show them a little of the wildlife in our own village, and perhaps build on their enthusiasm and encourage them to take a look around for tracks and signs the next time they’re out.

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Yesterday I found tracks in Scarlett’s sandpit and tentatively identified them as coming from a mouse.  Well, I was wrong.  Not the first time, won’t be the last either.

The tail drag was the clue, but I didn’t think it through enough.  One animal consistently leaves a tail drag – a lizard.  I thought about this, but I ruled out a lizard as the source of the tracks because the tail drag was too small.  Lizards don’t just drag their tails, they walk with their legs sprawled so their whole body drags on the ground.  This means that their footprints are spread wider than the body and that they leave a fairly broad drag mark.  In other words, like my tracks, but smaller.

I should have paid more attention to the shape of the trail, and less to its size.  Let me pose the question: what leaves tracks like a lizard, only smaller?  The answer: a small lizard.

Obvious really, in hindsight.  The tracks were made by a small lizard.  How can I be so confident now?  Well, I found the poor little chap in the sandpit this morning, dead.

Common Lizard

It’s a Common Lizard, I think (slightly less common now…) and only a tiny one. He’d obviously climbed in and couldn’t climb out up the smooth sides.  It was a hot day, and he must have succumbed to the heat.  Despite Scarlett and I playing in the sand for half an hour yesterday, we didn’t see him.

Perfectly obvious, with hindsight.  The lesson for me is to think through possibilities when tracking, not make assumptions.

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I’m on parenting duty again this weekend, so no badger watching.  But there’s always something wildlifey to be seen out there.

Take these tracks for instance.  They appeared overnight in Scarlett’s sandpit (yes, I really have used my daughter’s plaything as an impromptu tracking box.

Possible Mouse Tracks

The scale is in centimetres, so the tracks are small.  I’m thinking they’re from a mouse from the size and the trail pattern.  These tracks have alternate footprints and an obvious tail-drag.  The guidebooks are a little unclear on mouse tracks: some say that a tail-drag is present, others not, and the gait of a mouse can be either walking (alternate tracks) or jumping (parallel tracks).  Since I can’t think of anything else that could have made them, I’m going for mouse anyway.

I’ve spent most of the day laying the paving on the new play area in the garden, but since it was a nice evening I took Scarlett out for a short stroll.  It occurred to me that it’s been a little while since we’ve been for a walk, so I took the opportunity.  It’s a longer business now, walking with her, but fun.  She alternates walking and being carried, and she insists on stopping to pick up interesting sticks and stones (where did she inherit that habit from, I wonder…?)

We were accompanied on the walk by a Green Woodpecker that kept flitting ahead of us, from treetops to the ground and back again.  I’ve seen these in the garden a few times, but oddly, I’ve never seen one in the wild, even though I hear their distinctive ‘yaffle’ call most times I visit the wood.  This one was obliging enough to pose for a long-range photograph.

Green Woodpecker

The highlight of our little walk came as we headed back home.  A sparrowhawk flew past us along the lane, swooping below the level of the hedgerows on either side.  Gripped in its talons was a sparrow-sized bird – it had obviously just caught it and was taking it to secure place to pluck and eat it.  A splendid sight, and one that made me glad I’d got outside, even if it was just a brief walk.

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CSI Bedfordshire

It rained on Sunday.  I can’t remember the last time I saw rain, it’s been that long.  Nevertheless, we went for a little walk in the field behind my house.  It was a bit soggy for the wildlife, only the odd rabbit and a muntjac barking in the copse.

The persistent rain had washed out any tracks, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing to be seen.  There was a little whodunnit mystery in the wheat.  CSI Bedfordshire, if you will.  Some animal had been eating the wheat stalks and stripping the green corn from the ears.

Wheat damage

The evidence was lying on the path, but there were no tracks to be seen.  Can we tell what animal did this?

Wheat damage 2The first rule in tracking is to think about what is possible and probable.  Think about the species that are known to be in the area first.  Whatever had eaten the wheat was a herbivore, but we can eliminate anything too exotic.  Our local herbivores are mice, voles, rabbits and hares, and deer of various species.  The field had no domestic species such as sheep or cows so we can rule them out too.

Voles and mice were a possibility – they are definitely to be found in this field, but the stalks were bitten off too high for such small animals.  That leaves rabbits, hares and deer.

Examining the stalks of wheat revealed that they had been chewed off rather than bitten cleanly.

Chewed wheat stalkIt’s a little detail, but important.  Rabbits and hares are (sort of) rodents and have incisor teeth in both upper and lower jaws that meet like scissors.  They snip off vegetation cleanly.  They wouldn’t leave a mangled stalk like this.

Deer, on the other hand, have incisor teeth in the lower jaw only, and a horny pad on the upper jaw.  They can’t bite as cleanly as rabbits and tend to tear what they eat.  This wheat stalk is characteristic of a deer.

So who is the most likely suspect?  Probably the muntjac deer I heard barking in the wood nearby.  It fits the feeding signs and the location.  Case closed.  It was only a short walk in the rain but it gave me a little chance to practise some tracking skills.  There’s always something to be found…

Chewed wheat stalk

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It’s a belated Happy New Year actually, as we’re three days into 2011 already.  I’ve had a great time with friends and family over Christmas and the New Year and things are settling back into a more normal routine.

The cold weather broke a couple of days after Christmas.  Christmas day was on Saturday; by Monday the temperature had risen above freezing for the first time in weeks, and by Wednesday the fields were clear of snow.  It was a relief (not least to my heating bills) but after a thaw everything is muddy, damp, foggy and just dirty.  Part of me misses the crisp cleanness of the ice.

I have been even quieter than usual in terms of getting out and about in the countryside.  This isn’t just laziness, it’s the way my life is organised at the moment.  Mrs BWM works a shift pattern that includes weekends, so as often as not I look after Scarlett at the weekend.  Scarlett gets up at 7.30am or so, has lunch at 12.30, an afternoon nap between 2.00 and 4.00pm, and then off to bed at 7.00 or 7.30pm.  This means I have two ‘windows’ to go out with her during the day, one in the morning and one after 4.00pm.  Unfortunately, at this time of year, it is too dark to go wandering around with a small child at 4.00pm, hence we haven’t been out much.  Besides, it really has been too cold for a toddler.  Much better to stay in and watch In the Night Garden on TV.

We had a little stroll today though, just around the local fields in expectation of the longer and warmer days to come.  The local birds seem to be waking up after the cold.  We saw thrushes, finches, blackbirds and tits.  I always think of blue tits in particular as garden birds, so much so that it seems odd to see them in the wild.  At one point I swear I heard a green woodpecker ‘yaffling’ in the trees, but this may have been just wishful thinking.

Badger tracks - front and hind feet

Badger tracks - front (with claws) and hind feet

The damp, muddy ground was ideal for tracks.  Not as good as snow, but I was able to get a good idea of the animals that had been about.  The fallow deer had passed through, plus the normal muntjac.  There were many rabbit tracks – these look quite different in sand to the way they do in snow.  Often all you will see is the clawmarks, quite unlike the broad pads that show up in snow.

Encouragingly, the badgers are still present in this field.  I followed the tracks of a fairly small badger for half a mile or so along the path.  It’s sort of comforting to know that they’re still out there, even when I’m too busy to get out and see them.

It was only a short stroll, but it’s given me the impetus to try to get out more.  My family takes priority, of course, but I need to find a way to make time to get outside.  My interest in the local wildlife was originally stimulated by the desire to get outside and experience the countryside on my doorstep.  I think I need to re-discover that.

This being New Year, what I think I will do is to put together a list of  wildlife ‘resolutions’ that I want to achieve over the coming year.  I’ll need to give these some thought, because I need to be realistic (let’s face it, I’m not going to see a Golden Eagle or a Scottish Wildcat here in Mid-Bedfordshire), but at the same time I think it would be good to have a goal.

Let me ponder this for a while, and then I’ll come back with my list.  Let’s see what I can come up with.

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Snowy woodsI’ve mentioned this before, but the village I live in has a connection to some of the most courageous polar expeditions in history.  The frozen ends of the earth are a long way from our green fields and woods and hedgerows, but I like to think I’m keeping the polar tradition alive by going outside every time it snows.

It snowed a couple of weeks ago and I was looking forward to going out tracking, but unfortunately it all melted by the weekend and I didn’t get the chance.  Today, however, we’ve had another good fall of snow – four inches or so in the space of the afternoon.  The whole of the UK has once again ground to a halt (it took Mrs BWM three and half hours to drive home from London today, on what is normally a one hour journey) but I’m happy.  It’s snowed, it’s Saturday, it’s time to go out tracking.

It’s been a while since I’ve been outdoors, so it felt good to take out my camouflage jacket, put on my walking boots and pick up my tracking stick from its place behind the back door.  It sounds odd, but I always enjoy walking in winter.  There is a satisfaction in getting dressed up and going out into the cold, meeting the challenge of the conditions.  As luck would have it, I bought myself a new piece of kit on Thursday – a windproof fleece balaclava.  I suspect it makes me look even more scary than usual, but it really does keep my ears and neck warm.

The temperature tonight was minus 3 or so, which meant that the snow was still fresh and powdery, the snow-covered fields eerily bright in the moonlight, almost as clear as day. I  headed up to the pasture field in the hope of tracking the badgers there.  I’ve had some fascinating times following the badger trails here – following the tracks of badgers for hundreds of yards and seeing how the trails interact with each other.  The snow provides a wonderful record of badger behaviour that would normally be invisible.

BWM in heroic 'Polar Explorer' pose.  Note the smart new balaclava.

BWM in heroic 'Polar Explorer' pose. Note the smart new balaclava.

Alas, tonight did not reveal anything about badger behaviour.  In fact, there were no badger tracks at all.

A few rabbit tracks, and the fresh trail of a fox trotting across the footpath, but no badgers.  I was out at 9.00 to 10.00pm, so perhaps the badgers had not come out yet.  It might be the case that they are staying underground at the moment – I know that badgers will venture out and forage in snow, but this snow comes after a few days of hard frost.  A hard frost makes it much harder for the badgers to dig for worms, so it may be that the frozen ground has had more of an effect on them than the snow.  I’ll go out again tomorrow and see if there have been any new tracks overnight.

Even without badger tracks it was still a fine night to be out.  Despite the chaos that it brings, I hope we get more snow.  If it carries on into next week I’d like to build an igloo in the garden and really make the most of it.

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“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”

Sherlock Holmes


Here’s another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my tracking the stoats in my neighbourhood.  I took a stroll through the field behind my house this evening.  I didn’t see any stoats, and my carefully smoothed patches of loose sand showed no clear tracks.  But I did find something very interesting indeed.  It goes to prove my maxim – ‘there’s always something to see, even when there’s nothing to see’.

What I found was a patch of black feathers, evidently from a crow.

Crow feathers - feeding signThe crow had obviously met a sudden end to have lost this many feathers, presumably from a predator of some sort.  Nothing too unusual there – we have a lot of crows around here.  But can we tell what predator was responsible?

A close look at the feathers gives us a clue.  The quills of many have been bitten off cleanly near the bottom.

Feathers with bitten-off quillsA look through the guidebooks when I got home confirmed my suspicions.  A bird of prey will remove the feathers from a bird that it has killed, but it does so by grasping them in its beak and pulling them out.  The feather gets mangled, but otherwise stays in one piece.  These feathers were bitten off so it was no bird of prey that did this.

Stoat feeding sign on feathersNo, the guidebooks were clear on this point.  Both the Hamlyn Guide and Bang and Dahlstrom agree that bitten-off feathers are the work of a mammal.  According to the Hamlyn Guide ‘Small carnivorous mammals, such as mustelids, bite the feather off so that most of the quill is missing. Larger carnivores pull out mouthfuls of feathers.’  Bang and Dahlstrom go one stage further and have an illustration of a feather that has been bitten off by a stoat (page 159), and it is identical to the ones that I found.  I’m pretty confident based on the guidebooks that a stoat was the culprit here.

Alongside the scats I found the other day, this is more evidence that a stoat  is in residence in this corner of the field.  Sooner or later I’ll catch sight of it.  In the meantime I’m having great fun finding these little signs of its presence.

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Summer sunsetIf you’re looking at this page in the hope of reading about badgers, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid I’ve been very busy lately.  We had Scarlett’s Christening on Sunday, and a very pleasant day it was too, but it did take a certain amount of time in preparation.  I haven’t had a chance to see how the badgers are doing lately.  All I had time for over the weekend was a gentle stroll in the field behind my house.

The field behind my house is in most respects an ordinary field, much as you would find anywhere in lowland Britain.  It is a big field, about a quarter of a mile on each side.  A road runs up the south side, a hedgerow and a footpath on the west, another footpath and a small copse on the north. The hedges are interspersed with grand old oak trees.  My house and garden is on the east.  The hill is on a low rise, the soil on the lower slopes being sand with clay; on the higher slopes it is almost pure sand.  At the moment the field is under oil seed rape, but it was under wheat last year.

It’s an ordinary field – you probably drive past hundreds just like it – but it’s special to me because it is next to where I live.  More than that, though, I’m always surprised by the wildlife that either lives in or passes through it.  I regularly track a badger that walks a beat up the northern path.  The edges of the field are home to numerous rabbits, and the runs and latrines of voles can be found in many places.  Chinese Water Deer are common inhabitants (invisible now that the rape has grown up) as are muntjac near the hedgerows.  A herd of fallow deer passes through every week or two, and we even have the odd roe deer, quite a rare species here in Bedfordshire.

This is what makes it special.  It’s an ordinary field but I’m starting to learn its secrets.  I’d recommend this to anyone.  Find a local patch, even if it’s in a park or a piece of scrub, and keep visiting it.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the wildlife it holds.

It’s been gloriously sunny for almost three weeks now.  The ground is parched (as is my vegetable garden) and baked hard.  A better tracker than me, or one with more patience, could maybe track animals in the dust, but I had neither the time nor the skill on Sunday evening.  I think I’ll have to get out one evening and just spend an hour or so lying down and looking at the ground.  I’ve found that when tracking it always takes me a little while to ‘get my eye in’.  It isn’t something you can rush.  The neighbours will think I’m even more mad than usual, but an evening of lying in a field sounds quite enjoyable at the moment.

One thing that I did come across on my stroll was quantities of dung.  I suppose I should use the correct tracker’s term and call it scat.  Usually I only see the scat of rabbits, voles and foxes in this field.  Fox scat is quite distinctive because they tend to leave it in conspicuous places as a territorial marker – on a rock, a molehill or a tuft of grass.  But on Sunday I came across some new scat that I hadn’t seen before.  The scale in the pictures is in cm.

Unknown scat 1

It was from a carnivore.  You tell that by the thin shape and the pointed ‘tail’ at the end.  It was similar in shape to a fox’s, but much smaller.  There were five or six individual droppings spread out over an area of a few square yards at the top of the field.

Unknown scat 2Taking a stick, I teased one apart (first dead polecats, now poo.  I get through so much anti-bacterial handwash you wouldn’t believe it!)  The scat was composed entirely of hair.  It looked like rabbit hair to me.  There were no bones, so whatever made it hadn’t been eating mice or voles.  I’d expect to find bone fragments if they had.

Unknown scat 3Why so much fascination with animal poo?  OK – follow my reasoning here.

The animal that left these was a carnivore.  It was significantly smaller than a fox, and it had been eating rabbit regularly.  I’m familiar with domestic cats, and it didn’t come from one of those.  This narrows it down to one of the small mustelids – weasel, stoat or polecat.  There are no other possible predators it could be from.

Weasels will eat rabbits, but they more commonly prey on mice and voles.  Since there were no mouse or vole bones in the scats I examined, I think we can rule out weasel.  Besides, they were a bit big for a weasel scat.

That leaves polecat or stoat as the only serious candidates.  Both of these will take rabbits regularly, particularly stoats.  The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails & Signs has this to say about stoat scat:

‘Dark, irregular and elongated.  They are 4-8cm long and there are characteristic twists of fur at each end of the faeces, which are coiled and twisted within themselves.  They have a strong, musty smell when fresh but weather to an odourless grey with time.  They contain a wide variety of mammal, bird and reptile remains’

And polecats:

‘Slightly coiled, often twisted and with tapering ends.  Up to 7cm long, about 0.5cm in diameter.  Contain bone and fur fragments.  Often in regular latrines’.

Very interesting. Either of these could fit the bill perfectly.  My money would be on the stoat, simply because they are much more common than polecats.  I’ve been fascinated by stoats for ages, and I’ve love to get a good look at one.  Based on the evidence, it seems that I’ve at least one stoat resident in the field behind my house.

And this is the point of this post really.  It shows what can be discovered if you’re patient and prepared to look.  I had a gentle stroll on a summer evening and by the end of it I had strong evidence of stoats in the neighbourhood.  OK – I had to sift through a certain amount of animal poo to find it, but it was there.  Now I have a spot I can focus on and hopefully get to see the stoat properly one day.  As I always say, the wildlife is out there.  It’s just a question of finding enough pieces of the jigsaw.

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After I described my roadkill polecat (I’ve had it confirmed as a ‘pure’ polecat by the County Mammal Recorder, by the way) Pablo took the time to comment, saying “I suppose you didn’t take its pawprints before you disposed of it?

Pablo – I like the way you think!

As a tracker you get used to seeing partial or distorted prints, and for many of the rarer ones you’re never quite sure what made them.  The chance to get perfect prints from a known species is too good to pass up.  Well, I didn’t take pawprints but I was on the same wavelength as Pablo.  I took pictures instead.

Here, for the record, is what a polecat’s paws look like.  Here’s the fore paw:

Polecat fore (front) paw

Polecat fore (front) paw

Here’s the hind paw:

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Note the five toes on each foot.  Polecats are members of the mustelid family, just like badgers, and they share the same basic foot structure.

Here’s a badger foot for comparison:

Badger fore paw

Badger fore paw

So, now we know what we’re looking for, it’s time for us all to go out and start looking out for polecat tracks.  That’s the beauty of tracking – it allows you to find out about the local wildlife without needing to see the animals yourself.  It’s a great tool for the naturalist to have.

I’ll keep you posted on my results.

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The weekend before last I went out into the snow, and amongst the tracks were a set that puzzled me.  The gait was very like a rabbit or a squirrel – a bounding gait with all four paws together in a group.  The size as very small though – bigger than a mouse (and a mouse wouldn’t bound) and yet much smaller than a rabbit or even a squirrel.

I have been consulting the guidebooks and I think I have a suspect.  Bang and Dahlstrom’s Animal Tracks and Signs has this to say about stoat tracks “Walking prints are very rare, as they move exclusively by jumping.  On reasonably hard ground, such as solid snow, the tracks in jump groups may be four and four, often similar to a small hare.”   The Hamlyn Guide to Animal Tracks, Trails and Signs, adds that the stride length for a bounding stoat is typically 30cm.  Weasel tracks are smaller with a stride of 25-30cm.

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

The stride length of my tracks is about 20cm, so a little short, but otherwise the size and gait fits a stoat or weasel.  I can’t find anything else that fits the tracks, so at the moment I’m settling for stoat or weasel as a tentative i.d.

This is exciting stuff.  I have a thing about stoats (and weasels).  I’ve only ever seen these secretive little mustelids a few times, and any evidence that they’re at large in the area is good news for me.

I must be the only person in Britain at the moment wishing for more snow so that I can go and look for more tracks…

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