Posts Tagged ‘tracks’

I’ve just spent a very pleasant weekend with my parents up in Cheshire, so the badgers have been undisturbed this week.  But this evening I have opened another chapter in the sandpit story.

Remember the saga of the tracks in the sandpit a few weeks ago?  Remember how what I thought was a mouse turned out to be a lizard?  And how the dried-up lizard (after a very sensible suggestion from Steve) turned out to be a newt?

I planned to examine the dessicated little corpse to see if I could make a clear identification, but to be honest I left it outside, it rained and the once dried body went a bit mushy and unpleasant.  Not conducive for a close investigation.

Today, however, the sandpit claimed another victim.  It wasn’t good news for the newt but it gave me a chance to examine the body in more detail.  Firstly, here is the fatal sandpit:

The Fatal Sandpit

Just an excuse to show off our new play area, really.  The sandpit has a fairly close-fitting lid that keeps the cat out but obviously allows newts to creep inside.  The sides are smooth plastic, 6″ tall.  It seems that the newts can climb in but not climb out.  I’m going to have to build some sort of ‘newt ladder’ so that any future visitors can escape.

Anyhow – the more I look at this one, the more it looks like a smooth newt:

Newt - top view

Look at the spots on the underside:

Newt - underside

And here’s a close-up – note the absence of claws on the toes:

Newt - close up

It all fits.  The newts in the neighbour’s pond must have be breeding.  According to Wild About Britain, “when [young smooth newts] leave the pond they are about 3 cm long. They then spend two or three years on land as terrestrial juveniles, and don’t return to the pond until they are ready to breed“.

But as I said, I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again.  If anyone has any alternate identifications, please do let me know…

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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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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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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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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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As an antidote to my increasingly desparate attempts to watch badgers, I’ve spent the afternoon having a gentle stroll around the area, tracking wildlife and picking blackberries.

Roe Deer track

Roe Deer track

I’m really getting into tracking at the moment. As well as being a fascinating activity in it’s own right, it offers a window into the movements of all sorts of wildlife. I’m still very much a beginner at tracking, but I’m finding it very rewarding. Tracking, I suppose, is a bit like reading. I’m at the stage where I can recognise individual tracks, or words, and I’m just starting to put them together into full sentences. A lot of the skill in tracking comes from looking, really looking, at the little details, and when you start to notice these, the picture starts to come into focus. A walk in the country becomes almost like reading a book of what the animals have been up to.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been able to recognise badger tracks for years, but it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I realised that a badger regularly uses the path down the field behind my house. It walks down the path at the start of the night, and walks back up the path some time later on. It’s an adult badger, and it doesn’t run, it walks at a normal badger pace. I’ve never seen this badger, but I’ve tracked it enough times to know its routine.

Assorted tracks in the mud

Assorted tracks in the mud

The soil in the fields behind my house varies from clay at the bottom of the hill to pure sand at the top, so it’s an excellent place to learn about tracking. The clay soil dries hard, so the animals leave very little trace, but where it is damp it gives very clear prints. Today was dry, but there were pools of mud in the ruts left by a tractor. I spent a happy twenty minutes sitting looking at these.

It may seem like just a patch of mud, but if you spend time really looking, there is a story there waiting to be told – a time capsule of the comings and goings of the wildlife over the last 24 hours. In this one little patch there were the tracks of two Roe deer, several muntjac, a fox, and what I think is a stoat.

Readers of the blog may be aware of my long-standing desire to watch stoats in this area, and my utter lack of success in doing so. One of the reasons that I am so interested in tracking is because it may help me to get closer to these elusive animals, help me to understand the habits better and ultimately to allow me to watch them going about their business.

Like I say, I’m still a beginner. There are lots of unawswered questions still. Where did the stoat go after hopping through the mud? Where does the badger come from before walking down the field? The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to answer these. In the meantime though, tracking makes a walk in the country much more enjoyable, and as the evenings start to close in and it gets too dark for badger watching, I’ll have a new excuse to wander about the field and hedgerows at the weekends.

Possible stoat track

Possible stoat track

For anyone interested in tracking (and I’d recommend it as a pastime to everyone who is interested in wildlife) have a look at Pablo’s tracking pages here. This is what got me started on the whole thing.

I spent a happy couple of hours strolling about, looking at tracks, watching the buzzards soaring overhead and picking blackberries. The blackberries seem very prolific this year, and in a couple of hours yesterday and today I’ve picked about three kilos – enough for another serious jam-making session.

A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon stroll. I just goes to show what there is to be discovered outdoors if you’re willing to go and look for it.

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