Top tips for getting started with Tracks, Trails and Signs.

James Symonds, Project Officer, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
July 2021

Being able to recognise animal footprints is essential in our American mink monitoring work. As the monitoring rafts we use record the prints of visiting animals on a clay pad being able to correctly distinguish a mink from an otter print can be the difference between a successful mink capture and wasting our time. But, for me, animal tracking is so much more than that – it’s a glimpse into the secret world of the animals around us.

Having a basic understanding of animal tracks and signs can transform time spent in the outdoors from catching a simple breath of fresh air into a fascinating adventure of intrigue and mystery.  But be warned – it’s addictive!  I have lost count of the number of hours spent investigating some a patch of sand on a riverbank or examining around a tree stump looking for clues.

An otter walked here before you!

Most wildlife is cautious of humans, often with good reason, so the likelihood of seeing animals out and about is often low. The time of day, the time of year and the type of weather can also affect what you are likely to see.  But, by looking out for animal tracks and signs, you can build a picture of what animals live in the area, and what they’ve been up to. You might not see a pine marten or a tawny owl by day but the print or pellet you find can confirm their presence and inform a suitable place for an evening spotting session or trail camera placement. At the end of the day though, I get a buzz just knowing that these animals are out there.

Tracks and trails

Animals move about constantly within their habitats – particularly in the daily search for food – and when they do, they leave behind tracks (footprints) or trails (paths). A good clear track can give an instant animal identification or provide a good idea of the size and type of the animal in the neighbourhood.

Trails can also give a good idea of an animal or its size but can be misleading – popular routes are often used by many different species. However, they are always worth following in search of tracks and other signs en route.

Top tips for identifying that track

  • Use a field guide
    It takes experience and practise to know what it is you are seeing – so take out (and use!) a field guide.  If you forget take a photo of the track and have a look at the guide when you get home.
  • Look for the features in the print
    How many toes? Do you see claws? What shape is the pad?  These type of track features in combination help to eliminate species from your enquiries and guide you to the likely suspect.
    Look at the top row of images below; Left – four toes with claws, Centre – five toes with claws, Right – four toes no claws
  • Note the size of the print
    Size is important.  If you don’t have a ruler with you, take a photo with something in for scale e.g. a key or coin and work out the size later.
    Bottom row; Left – less than a 1p piece, tiny! Centre – several £1 coins wide with distinctive claw marks.
  • Are you seeing front or rear feet?
    Often a mammal’s fore and hind feet are shaped differently and leave different prints. For example, a rodent may have a different number of toes on the fore and hind feet.  Perhaps you are seeing two types of prints but these can be from the same animal – so take a note of each print features and size.
    Bottom row: Right – one animal but hind feet larger and appear in front of the fore feet

Top row (L to R): Dog, Otter, Cat. Bottom row: Water vole, Badger, Squirrel

Remember – when looking at prints you should take ground conditions into account.  A soft substrate e.g. sand, silt, clay or snow is more likely to give a nice clear full print with all features visible – just like in the books!  However, a hard substrate e.g. firm mud may result in a partial print – perhaps only showing some of the toes or omitting claw marks and so lead you to a false identification.  So, take what you see with a pinch of salt – the print itself might be misleading!

Tracks tell a story

Usually where there is one print there’ll be more, so have a look at the arrangement of the prints.  Animals move with different gaits – walking, trotting, running, bounding – each method of travel leaves a specific ‘print pattern’.  This tells us how the animal was moving, but often the fore and hind prints overlap each other so recognising gaits comes with practice and experience!

There may be more than one species of animal or bird track present – this can be where the detective work really starts.  Which animal was there first? Is one set of prints on top of the other?  Are you seeing a predator and prey?  And it’s always worth following multiple tracks to see if they tell a story – they might end in a pile of feathers and make it easy to deduce what went on at the scene!  

Looks like there was a party here! How many different prints can you spot?

Feeding signs

I was once told that tree stumps are either a table or a toilet! This couldn’t be more true.

Tree stumps are great places to look for feeding signs. There are a myriad of common feeding signs but have a look for some of these –

  • Stripped pine cones
    Most likely a squirrel or mouse if on a ‘table’ – but don’t discount birds like woodpecker or crossbill.
  • Nibbled nuts
    Mice and voles make a fairly neat hole edged with teeth marks, whereas a ragged hole with rougher edges and peck marks around is more likely to be a bird like great tit or woodpecker. A nut split in half is the work of a squirrel – look for the little hole at the top which it gnaws first.
  • Damaged bark
    The biggest clue here is in the height of the barking.  If it’s a few feet up the tree it’s a fair bet it’s the result of deer (or sheep).  If nearer ground level then think smaller mammals and rodents – rabbits, voles or beaver.
  • Nibbled trees
    The nutritious and juicy shoots and tips of small trees are often preferentially nibbled by grazers.  This is usually the work of roe deer – but don’t discount other herbivores like hares.
  • Bird remains and feathers
    If you find the remains of a bird with practise you’ll soon learn the differences between the kill of a predatory mammal (head bitten off and eaten, feathers bitten off in clumps, crushed bones) and of a bird of prey (beak and skull lying around, feathers plucked and scattered, breast meat eaten).
  • Pellets
    Many birds cough up pellets after feeding containing the undigested and indigestible bits of their prey such as fur, feathers, bones and insect cases.  As well as owls, all birds of prey, gulls and crows all produce pellets.  Dissecting a pellet is easy and provides a great insight into what the bird has eaten eating to a whole other world of mini skull and jawbone identification.

Feeding signs of predatory mammals are rarely found as small prey is generally eaten whole at the kill location and larger prey is usually taken back to a den or sheltered feeding site for more leisurely and safer consumption.

Poo!

Cause and effect and all that.  Animals that leave feeding signs will inevitably also leave droppings, or more accurately – scat!  Droppings consist of the indigestible parts of food, such as fur, feathers, bone, chitin, plant matter, mucous and lots of bacteria.

All this excrement is different, identifying features include:

  • Size
    Note the size of the dropping but be aware that this is not always a reliable indicator.  Size is dependent to some extent on the animal’s age and can also be affected by the composition of food in the diet.
  • Shape
    Smooth or crinkly, straight or twisted, blunt or tapering?  All helpful to note.  At first glance a rabbit dropping looks quite similar to a roe deer’s but look again. The rabbit dropping is round and the deer’s is ‘tic-tac’ shaped with a little pinch at the end.
  • Colour 
    This is very influenced by what the animal has eaten.  For example, it will be very obvious if a bird or mammal has been eating berries!
  • Smell
    Fresh mammal droppings in particular have a strong scent – often “enhanced” by the addition of scent from anal glands.  Scent is a helpful identifying feature, but having a good sniff can be a bit of a sensory risk!  It might be sweet and vaguely pleasant e.g. otter (jasmine tea / fishy) or badger (musky) or it could be pretty foul e.g. mink (sharp and repellent)  If you’re feeling brave – have a sniff!
  • Content
    The contents of the dropping won’t always help you identify the animal – but will tell you what the animal has eaten.  Remember, an animal’s diet may change seasonally with the availability of food.  Do you see bones, fur, fish scales, grass?
  • Position
    Some animals will deposit droppings in specific places – a badger digs a small hole, known as a latrine, and repeatedly uses it. Both otter and mink will mark a territory by leaving spraint on a prominent riverside rock.

Other signs

Every animal needs somewhere to live or lie up – so another often easily spotted sign of animal presence are their homes and holes. 

It’s always worth a glance into the trees to see if there are signs of nests or dreys or excavated holes in trunks.  Underfoot look out for holes or burrows dug into the ground.  Some residents can be easily deduced – a badger sett for example is large and quite distinctive.  But remember, holes may have had multiple different occupants over the years or may be abandoned so the animal who originally made the residence may not be the inhabitant now.  Sometimes, of course, there is no hole and nothing more than a patch of flattened grass reveals an otter resting spot.

There are many other indicators of animal presence – sounds, smells, scrapes, feathers and fur and hair are other great indicators.  A walk along a fence will often uncover fur snagged on wire where an animal has passed under, over or through. There are signs everywhere you look, believe me.

Give it a go

So why don’t you get outdoors and give it a go?  Move slowly and open your eyes, ears and nose to the whole environment around you – you’ll be surprised what you can find.  Your walks may take a little longer but that’s a good thing right?

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of a good field guide. I always carry ‘Animal Tracks and Signs’ by Bang and Dahlstrom – an excellent resource. The Field Studies Council also produce a huge range of excellent (and compact) fold out guides which I highly recommend.

Finally, another mantra passed on to me when it came to tracks and signs and which I always keep in mind is that ‘Common things happen most commonly’.  Your imagination and enthusiasm can run away with you at times so before declaring you are on the trail of a mythical beast from ancient folk lore just have another look, consider the context and you may come to conclude it is perhaps just a very large fox that has gone before you!

Now enough reading, get outside, start collecting chewed cones, smell some animal droppings and have some fun!

For more information about mink monitoring rafts and the work of the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative visit our website www.invasivespecies.scot

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