Tracking and looking out for signs of wildlife is one of those things that I always do. Every time I’m out and about I’ve always got an eye out looking for signs; unlike other aspects of natural history which I’ll decide to focus on with specific walks, for instance maybe on Saturday I’ll go out to work on moss identification, Sunday I’ll go out and do a bird count to submit to Birdtrack.
It’s a brilliant way to expand your knowledge of the fauna in your garden, your local patch or an area you’re visiting without having to stay out in the dark with military-grade nightvision goggles and a ghillie suit. It can also be an important skill for field surveying if that’s the sort of career you’d like to get into.
I’ll start by giving a brief overview of the kit I take with me for tracking.
A camera is very useful for reviewing and comparing tracks that you’ve found. A 15cm ruler for scale is very helpful, so people viewing your pictures will be able to gauge the size of the tracks. Lastly, a small pot/tub for collecting samples to identify once you’re back from your walk. This does not just mean droppings! Although these are good to learn to identify, they are not the only things you might come across. Pellets, feathers, bones, fur, shed skin, shells; there’s far more than just poo! However, picking up things animals have left behind can be unhygienic and I certainly suggest carrying around some hand wipes or gel and washing your hands once home.
Leave nothing but footprints…
I find most of my prints and tracks in mud or soft soil but one of the best times to see them is after snowfall. Snow can really demonstrate the shape of an animals foot very well. We recently had snow here just outside Aberdeen and it gave me a good opportunity to track the animals on campus.
Here’s a small selection of pictures that I took that day. The top two actually helped me see the relationship between the two animals that left the tracks. Left is Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus and right is Red Fox Vulpes vulpes. Although it’s pretty obvious behaviour, the Rabbit tracks showed that they clearly avoided the Fox as it trotted through the middle of the group of rabbits.
It’s always worth bearing in mind which species you know are present in an area so as to reaffirm your identification of tracks. The above picture is a good example. These footprints were left by a species of squirrel on my campus, which is actually quite a unique place in that it has both Red Sciurus vulgaris and Grey Squirrel S. carolinensis. So how did I know which species this was left by? Well, having walked around my campus a lot, I know that Greys are situated at one end, and Reds are situated at the other end. These tracks were found at the Red end of the campus which suggests these tracks are more likely to belong to a Red Squirrel.
These squirrel tracks also tells another story as the distance between the front and back legs can be used to tell how fast the animal was moving. This may seem a bit odd, but when a squirrel bounds over the ground the back feet are printed in front of the front feet. The further apart the front and back feet are, the faster the squirrel was travelling. Having compared these tracks to other images of squirrel tracks it’s obvious this squirrel was bounding pretty fast across this small patch of open ground between a big Rhododendron and a conifer plantation. Why? If you look carefully, you might notice there’s actually a bigger print between the two back feet (the ones at the front remember!). This print is too faint for me to identify, but there’s a chance this squirrel was being hunted by something, possibly a Pine Marten Martes martes or a Red Fox Vulpes vulpes.
Every ecologist loves poo!
If you don’t like the thought of picking up droppings/scat/spraint/bird guano, then don’t worry. Usually taking a picture will be just as effective a way of recording what you’ve found.
Droppings can be found all over the place, sometimes you have to look a little harder and sometimes it’ll be sitting right in front of you.
I only found this little pile of Wood Mouse droppings because I noticed the hole in the trunk of this tree and decided to take a look. Mouse and vole droppings are actually something that I don’t see very much, so I’m clearly not looking hard enough!
Droppings can also tell stories in the same ways as tracks do. The picture below shows the scat of a Red Fox Vulpes vulpes and the old spraint of an Otter Lutra lutra placed right next to each other. Both of these species mark their territory by this method of placing scat/spraint in prominent places along the borders of their territories. Have I found signs that these two see one another as competition? I’m not sure as I haven’t found any research on the internet into this subject, but it maybe worthy of further investigation. One little tip for if you think you’ve found Otter spraint, give it a sniff! Almost all the spraint I’ve found has had a somewhat pleasant smell, some people have described it as like jasmine. If it isn’t Otter spraint, it probably won’t smell quite so nice…
There are plenty of other signs to be looking out for. Feeding signs can be quite easy to overlook. Woodpeckers probably give the clearest signs of their presence with the holes drilled into trees and bark being picked off of dead wood.
Many different animals feed on cones, and looking closely at the discarded cones can be a fascinating source of information. Here are a couple of Norway Spruce Picea abies cones that I’ve picked up. One’s been “Crossbill-ed” by a Common Crossbill Loxia curvirostra and the other has been completely shredded by a Grey Squirrel S. vulgaris.
Something I’ve started doing more recently is picking up bones, this helps me learn about the anatomy of the animals that have died or been predated by something else.
Feathers can be fun to look at. I’m not terribly great at identifying what bird the feathers came from but there are plenty of places to look for the answer! Here’s a tuft of feathers that I came across on my local patch, the former owner a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos. Just before finding these, I’d seen a male Sparrowhawk Accipter nisus fleeing the scene, therefore I knew this was the result of predation by the hawk.
Home sweet home
Finding where animals live can be a very good indicator of what species are found in an area. Obviously there are Rabbit warrens, Badger setts, Fox dens, mouse holes, birds’ nests and many more. Make sure to avoid disturbance of these places when out and about, especially during the breeding season! Many resting sites often have distinct trails leading away from holes and these can be an excellent source of reference when first starting to identify tracks and signs.
One of my favourite things to find is the cavities that Treecreepers Certhia familiaris scrape out in the soft bark of Giant Sequoias Sequoiadendron giganteum. This is a relatively newly learnt behaviour as Giant Sequoias were only introduced to the UK in 1853.
As I mentioned at the start, I am always looking out for tracks and signs. Occasionally I will go out specifically to look for signs, such as for the Pine Marten Martes martes that we recorded on a camera trap on campus. More often than not, however, I just come across things that interest me.
Keep your eyes and mind open to tracks and signs
My biggest piece of advice for getting into tracking is just keep your eyes open and your mind inquisitive. Look on the ground, look in branches of trees, look on fence posts, look in amongst plants, once you start to see things you’ll start to see more and more signs of wildlife that you otherwise wouldn’t know was there. One thing I’d definitely recommend is to accept the fact that probably over 90% of the tracks you come across are going to be of domestic dog Canis familiaris, and what an apt scientific name that is. You should familiarise yourself with dog tracks as it helps pick out those Red Fox Vulpes vulpes tracks, with the large un-imprinted space between all the pads, as well as many other species of mammal.
To finish off, here’s the strangest track I’ve found. These tracks were found on Arniston Estate in Midlothian, Scotland, where Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus are present and so you’d think these were of that species because what else could they be from? Well, you’ll notice these tracks show four toes as opposed to the usual 2 of a deer. When I asked an expert what he thought they were he said that if he’d found them where he lives, in Hungary, then he’d have said Wild Boar Sus scrofa. But there have been no sightings or reports of Wild Boar in the whole of Lothian. Could I have found the first? This is the great thing about tracking, discovering new things!