Posts Tagged ‘Tracking’

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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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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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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Snowy landscape in BedfordshireLast year I had the opportunity to visit Toronto, in Canada, on a fleeting business trip.  I must say, it’s a very nice city and the people were wonderful.  But one thing puzzled me.  The whole downtown area was connected by miles of subways.  It was possible to walk from one side of the city to other, to shop, to eat, to sit and drink coffee – all underground. It’s a strange subterranean world.  When I commented on this architectural oddity to a local resident she just gave me a knowing look. “When you have six feet of snow for six months of the year, why would you want to walk outside?”

This seems to me to be a very sensible way of dealing with a harsh climate. Unfortunately in Britain we have neither the common sense nor the fortitude of the people of Toronto.  The South East of England received 10-20cm of snow this week and, predictably, everything ground to a halt.  I don’t know whether all the stressed-out workers are looking for any excuse to take a day off or whether we’ve lost any sort of self-reliance,  but either way it’s a pretty poor show.

And me? I love snow.  I like nothing better than getting out and exploring after a decent fall of snow, and since I became interested in tracking I like it even more.  Tracks in the snow offer a real window into what’s been happening, what animals have been out and what they have been doing.  Naturalists have used all sorts of techniques to record the movements of wild animals, from radio transmitters to long pieces of string.  A couple of inches of snow will do the same job in a much more interesting way.

On Saturday I wrapped Scarlett in her warmest clothes and headed out.  I couldn’t take her too far, but we had a nice walk around the fields.  Long enough for me to show her the common tracks in the area.

Here’s the most common – rabbit tracks.  Every now and then I come across someone who says they’ve found strange and enormous paw prints, but what they’ve seen is not the marks of giant toes but the tracks of all four feet of a rabbit.

Rabbit tracks in snowRabbit tracks

Which way was the rabbit travelling?  That’s right – left to right.

There seemed to be a lot of fox tracks around.  We live in an area where there is a lot of rearing (and shooting) of game birds, so foxes are not exactly popular.  We used to see far more of them when we lived in London.

Fox tracks are small, neat and diamond-shaped, with four toes and a heel pad.  Notice how the small heel pad forms a straight line at the back of the track, almost like a straight bar.

Fox track in snow

Fox track

It can be easy to confuse fox tracks with those of dogs.  Most dog tracks are broader than fox’s, with the toes more widely-spread.  The heel pad is usually larger too.

Dog track in snow

Dog track - note the wider shape and the spread of the toes

However, dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some dogs are bigger than others.  The tracks of small, terrier-like dogs can look very similar in shape to fox tracks.   The way to tell them apart is the spacing between the front and rear toes.  Look at the fox track again.  The front toes are forward of a line drawn across the ends of the rear toes.  In a dog, the front toes overlap with this line.

Fox track - key features

Fox track - front toes forward of rear ones

Another quick way of telling fox and dog tracks apart is to look at the trail – the series of tracks.  Fox trails always seem to be very purposeful.  Foxes seem to walk in a straight line, one track in front of another.  The tracks have a direct register, in other words the fox puts its hind feet into the tracks of its front feet.  To the novice, it can look as if the fox is walking on its hind feet like a human.

Dog tracks, on the other hand, don’t quite register, so you’ll get front and rear tracks close to each other but not quite overlapping.  Dogs don’t seem to have the same sense of purpose as foxes – dog tracks will often meander around as the dog wanders this way and that.  With a bit of practice you can tell dog tracks from fox tracks without having to look closely at the individual prints.

The temperature hasn’t risen much above freezing all weekend, so hopefully the snow will last for a while yet.  That suits me fine.  Tracking in snow is absolutely fascinating.  Put it this way, if I lived in Toronto I’d happily venture above ground to spend months tracking the local wildlife.

Snowy woods

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Things have been a little quiet around here since we’ve got the new addition to the family.  Scarlett and I have been out for a few walks already, but I’ll wait until she’s settled into more of a routine before I get back to any serious badgerology.  In the meantime, here’s a post from the vaults.

This is a short essay on setting up a track trap in my garden.  This is a simple and fun thing that anyone can do to try tracking in any small space.  The originally appeared as a discussion on the Tracking Group of the Woodlife Network, but if you’re not a member of the network (and it’s highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject) hen you may be interested in seeing it here.

I’m quite fond of hedgehogs, but we rarely get them around here. When I found some hedgehog poo in the garden in June this year I was quite pleased. It would be good to get a resident hedgehog around the place.

Hedgehog poo

I bought myself some hedgehog food to try and entice the urchin to stay, but the problem is that it might get eaten by birds (or by my cat – she does things like that). How would I know that the hedgehogs had been eating it and not some other animal?

Hedgehog food

I decided to set up a track trap – in other words I would place the food so that whatever eats it will have to leave their tracks. I’m going to make them work for their supper by leaving me tracks in return.  This is an established technique for unobtrusively identifying and monitoring animals.

First I took an 18″ square plastic tray. We use these trays in the greenhouse to put plants in.

18 inch tray

I added a 2″ deep layer of moist sand. I used silver sand from the garden centre because I’m lazy, but I could have just dug some sand or soil out of the ground. If you want really high definition you could use damp clay, but I was happy with sand. It’s cleaner too.

Add the sand

I smoothed the sand off with a piece of wood.

Smooth the sand

This will make sure that any tracks show up.

Nice and smooth

And finally I placed bowls of food and water in the centre of the tray.

Track trap baited with food and water

And there it was – a completed track trap. Any animal or bird that eats the food would leave its prints in the soft sand. The only drawback of using the tray is that it may prevent very small animals from reaching the food, but that suits me since the aim was to feed the hedgehogs.

The next morning I rushed out to see if there were any hedgehog tracks.  It was actually quite exciting – there was a real sense of anticipation.

The track trap had worked perfectly, but sadly there was no sign of a hedgehog.  The only tracks were from my own cat.

Cat tracks 1

Cat tracks 2

The fact that the cat tracks showed up so clearly did at least demonstrate that the trap was an effective way to identify the animal that had eaten the food.  I consoled myself with the fact that at least the cat hadn’t used it as a litter tray!

There was no sign of the hedgehog the next day either.  Nor the day after that.  In fact, after three weeks, the only tracks I found in the trap were from the cat, blackbirds, slugs and a squirrel.  No hedgehogs.

It seems that the hedgehog had left my garden.  Apparently, hedgehogs can walk for up to two miles in a single night, so it is quite possible that it was covering a large area.

Not discouraged, I continued to put the hedgehog food down.  Eventually, after two months, my patience was rewarded.  I finally got hedgehog tracks in my hedgehog track trap!

Hedgehog Track

Hedgehog Track 2

OK, so it was a long wait to get tracks from what is, after all, quite a common animal.  But that’s not the point.  I set out to deliberately target a particular species based on its tracks, and in the end it worked.  The trap was fun to make, and it gave me the chance to collect and study animal tracks in the comfort of my own garden.  It’s a simple technique that anyone can use, and one that can be applied in the field too.

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I haven’t had the chance to get out badger watching this week.  I’ve been continuing work on my shelves (and very nice they look too) and we had a dinner party last night, so the badgers have taken a bit of a back seat.

It was a bit of an effort to get out of bed at 6.15am on a Sunday morning, but worth it.  We had rain of biblical deluge proportions here yesterday so the ground is nice and soft – ideal for checking out tracks and seeing what’s been happening around the area.

The soft ground meant that I was able to follow the trail of the local badger for longer than ever before.  This time I stopped being lazy and did what I should have done ages ago – I measured the tracks.

The idea behind measuring the tracks is to see if I can recognise individuals by their footprints.  If you had a badger with a noticeable injury to its foot, or a strange walking pattern, then you could recognise it easily.  With a normal badger it is more difficult to tell their tracks apart.  My approach is to measure print size and stride and use these measurements to try to recognise individuals.

Measuring the stride length of a badger

Measuring the stride length of a badger

Of course, print size and stride length are not constant – they vary with ground conditions and terrain, as well as the gait and speed of the animal.  It is a maxim that a footprint is not a record of the animal’s foot.  It is a record of the interaction between the animal’s foot and the ground.  On soft ground the foot will sink in deeper and the print will be larger, plus the animal’s toes may splay out and increase the size further.  On harder ground the print will be smaller.  For this reason a single measurement would be an inaccurate guide to the identity of the animal.  A better approach must be to take a number of measurements and take an average.

In the photo below, the badger tracks are almost registered (rear foot on top of front foot) which shows the badger was walking at normal speed.  This helps to keep the measurements consistent, since I can look for this track pattern in the future and know the speed of the badger.

Measuring the width of badger tracks

Measuring the width of badger tracks

I took my width measurements across the four largest toes.  These are the most easily distinguishable part of a badger track so it’ll be easy to measure this again in the future.

For the record, I measured the width and stride length of seven consecutive prints today.  The average width was 5.2cm (front and rear feet the same) and the average stride length was 39.25cm.

This isn’t a huge sample by any means, but it should be a reasonable accurate baseline measurement for this individual badger.  I’ll take more measurements each time I go out, and see how consistent it is.  Over time I should be able to recognise this individual and also spot any different badgers in the area.

This may sound like a lot of effort to go to.  It probably is.  But then again, it is a way of using tracking to build up detailed and accurate information about the badgers in my area.

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Badger tracking

Badger tracks

Badger tracks

You may recall that I dealt with a roadkill badger a couple of weeks ago.  I was concerned that the badger had been killed next to a field that forms part of my usual Sunday morning tracking/ birdwatching walk, and I hoped that the dead badger wasn’t the one that I had become accustomed to tracking.

Well, I went for my usual Sunday walk this morning, and I’m pleased to say that the badger is alive and well and still making tracks.

Tracking really is a fascinating activity.  I spent an hour totally absorbed by the animal tracks in a hundred yards of footpath up one single field.  Over the last 24 hours a badger, a fox, several Chinese Water Deer and a small herd of fallow deer had all walked up this path.  It was a tracker’s heaven!

We’ve had a combination of rain showers and sunshine recently, so the normally hard-packed clay in this field is soft in places, but still firm in others.  Many of the tracks showed up only as smudges in the fine silt on top of the clay.  In a strange way it is more satisfying to find and follow these faint images.

Here’s another set of badger tracks.  Note the claws on the front paw on the right.

Badger tracks 1

Here’s where the fox and badger walked side by side (actually, the fox was there first – on the next set of prints I found that the badger’s track overlay the fox’s)

Badger and fox tracks

The badger’s front paw print is on the top left, its rear paw on the bottom left and the fox on the right.

Who would have thought that a short stretch of path could prove so interesting – and so informative.  If you’ve never tried tracking then give it a go next time you’re out and about.  It really does add an extra dimension to your knowledge of the wildlife in your area.  And it’s great fun too!

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Once again, things are busy at work, and I’ve been all over the country in the last couple of weeks, bringing business psychology to the masses and having little time for wildlife at home.

Today being Sunday though, I had time to get up early and go on my regular ‘dawn patrol’ walk around the fields and woods just as it is getting light.  It’s a great time to be out watching wildlife, and as long as you don’t mind getting out of bed it gives you a whole extra part of the day.

7.00am found me sitting with my back to a tree, looking over a ploughed field.  The usual gaggle of rabbits were out and about, a muntjac peered at me from the hedge, and a large flock of rooks was circling over the woods.  As the light grew though, the main object of interest was a trio of Chinese Water Deer meandering around the field.  Their tawny coats were surprisingly well camouflaged against the sandy soil.

Chinese Water Deer seem to be figuring in my thoughts a lot at the moment.  They seem to be more numerous in the local area than I imagined.  I think some of this has to do with my familiarity with them – a few years ago I would have classed all small deer as ‘muntjac’ and thought no more about it.  Now I can recognise the CWD for what they are and distinguish them easily, and I smile at my past foolishness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tracking, I’m still quite naive.  I still tend to class all small deer tracks as ‘muntjac’ and think no more about it.  In fact, I’m doing exactly what I used to do with visual sightings.

The problem is, the tracks of muntjac and CWD do look very similar. I could be looking at a field full of what I think are muntjac tracks, and they may actually be CWD.  Or vice versa.  For someone like me, who likes to be accurate, even on meaningless things, this is an important point.

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

The classic reference book of tracks, Animal Tracks and Signs, by Bang and Dahlstrom, doesn’t even mention CWD – I suppose they aren’t really common outside the Southeast of England (and China, of course).

The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails and Signs, my other preferred guidebook, says that CWD prints are very wide and splayed.  The problem with this is, it’s wrong.  The prints are actually quite small and neat.  I know.  I’ve spent the morning watching the deer and then walking up and looking at their tracks.

So, I’ve got a problem.  It is difficult to tell the deer apart from their tracks alone.

The answer, I think, is to look at the trail as a whole, not at individual tracks.  The trail of an animal is as characteristic as the shape of its feet.  This is the approach recommended by Paul Rezendes in his book Tracking & The Art of Seeing.

This is where my tracking stick starts to come into its own.  A tracking stick is a walking stick used in tracking.  The main use of a tracking stick is to establish the stride length of a given animal, and knowing this, predict where the next track should be.  The tracking stick helps you to narrow down the search area so you can find every single track. I tend to use my tracking stick as more of a simple measuring tool.  I have marked it in 10cm intervals and it has a 10x1cm scale attached.  This allows me to make rough and ready (but reasonably accurate) measurements in the field.

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Here’s the clever part.  Having come across a new set of tracks, I can measure the stride length.  I did this for one trail, and found the strides to be 32cm to 38cm long, with most around the 36cm mark.

Looking at the guidebooks, they give a typical stride length for muntjac as 25-30cm, and for CWD as 30-40cm.   This means that my deer, with a stride length of about 36cm, falls outside the range for muntjac, but well within the range for CWD.  Based on stride length alone, we can say with some confidence that the trail has been made by a CWD rather than by a muntjac.

This is exciting stuff.  Although I would struggle to differentiate between the two deer based only on the shape of their footprints, measuring and comparing stride length makes it quite easy to do.

As with anything, there are complications to using stride lengths and gait patterns to identify a species.  Is the deer running or walking?  Is it full size or half-grown?  And so on.  But I like it as a technique.

An awful lot of the information available about tracking today seems very ‘spiritual’ and mystical.  I have no problem with this, and I respect anyone who can use it in this way, but it is not for me.  I earn my bread and butter as a scientist, and although I like to get away from work as often as I can, I can never quite turn off my scientific reasoning.

This is why I like this measurement approach – it is scientific and can easily be applied and tested (unlike many ideas connected to tracking) and it appeals to my use of data and facts.  I’ll see if I can make more use of it over the coming months.

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