Category Archives: Water

Animal Indicators of Water

Photo by Gabriel Currie

Photo by Gabriel Currie

To Do Today:

  • PT – Cardio – 1hr Cross train // Strength – Arm group

Animal Indicators of Water

Tracking animals must be done responsibly. Getting too close to animals can cause serious disturbances including abandoning young, disturbing nesting grounds, damaging foraging areas, and may even cause the animal’s death. In winter, many animals are severely stressed to gather enough energy to stay alive. Escaping from a human presence could rob them of enough energy that they can no longer sustain themselves. When training, always remember that you are only a visitor into their habitat. In a SERE or survival situation, disturbing natural habitat will obviously be low on the list of priorities, but may be critical to your long term use of area resources…and preservation of resources is a high priority in a SERE/survival situation.

Herbivore Needs

Small herbivores are a food source for predators and attract carnivores. The presence of herbivores may not necessarily indicate a water source, but larger animals and carnivores will. Small herbivores are an indicator of the “value” of the habitat. Even a small and hidden water source will provide exponential value for local habitat and there will be more animal life as a result. Indicators of habitat value:

  • Cover. Most important need. thick tangles of vegetation, brush, rocks, to hide in and escape. However, deep forest areas are sometimes poor habitat as there is little undergrowth and poor cover. The vegetation is not very varied. Generally there may be raccoons, birds, rabbits, but very few others. Travel to lower areas to find water.
  • Transition Areas. These are excellent locations to find animals. A transition area is zone of intersection between two habitats. Ex. Forest and field, field and stream, forest and stream. These offer wide varieties of vegetation and cover. Transition areas are good indicators of surface water.
  • Wide variety of vegetation. If a single type of vegetation is cleaned out, it may be a transitional area for nomadic animals. A good supply of varied vegetation is necessary to demonstrate a good habitat/home for permanent residents. This is due to going outside of the habitat is dangerous; having various vegetation available at different times helps to maintain an ongoing food supply.
  • Surface Water Source. This is not essential since many small herbivores don’t need it. They get water from dew and from the plants they eat. However, smaller herbivores may attract carnivores that leave signs and trails that lead to water. Good habitat for small herbivores also means a good habitat for large herbivores that may also provide signs leading to water.

Animal Signs

Use animal signs, tracking, and observation in your search for water and understand that tracking starts with knowing where to look for animals. This is done by what is called “sign tracking”. Signs are anything besides a track proper that is an indication of an animal (e.g. trails, scat etc.). About 1/2 of tracking is sign tracking the other 1/2 is working with actual tracks.

Large Scale Signs

Landscape tracking is the reading of the general landscape to locate animals by observing travel routes, escape routes, sleeping areas, and feeding areas. In most landscapes there are “islands” where many species will be found. One way to look is to find the best “islands” for herbivores. Wherever there are herbivores, carnivores will follow and the water source will be bearby. The areas between the islands will tend to be scarce of animals except as an area for animals to pass through.

Travel Routes

Nearly all mammals need water at regular intervals to keep alive. Even flesh eaters must drink (but can travel long distances between water; are therefore an unreliable indicator). However, certain animals never travel far from water: wild pigs are a sure sign that water nearby. A general rule is to follow tracks and trails downhill and watch for animal movement at dawn or dusk.

Animals will tend to take the easiest route of travel across a landscape (just as humans do) unless they are being pursued. This results in the creation of a number of “roadway systems” within the habitat. However, sticking to a roadway system when being chased would be a poor choice. The prey is usually smaller than the predator and therefore tries to push through tiny openings in deep brush where the larger predator can’t follow, creating false directional signs for the tracker.

  • Trails. Animals need water the same as humans and they will travel great distances regularly each day, leaving trails to the water source Trails are species nonspecific. Any number, size, and shape of animal will use them. Visible trails are the superhighways of the woods. They are frequently used, rarely changed, and animals know them intimately. There may be troughs, no vegetation or battered vegetation. Look for multiple trails converging.  Where a large number of trails converge together, it would indicate that the water is not far distant. Trails often indicate water presence and a usually reliable indication being a marked increase and a progressively deepening and widening thereof.
  • Runs. – these are less frequently used and are very subject to change. There is some definite wearing into the landscape but varies. These are very specific to a particular animal and what it is used for (e.g. runs may connect watering areas, bedding areas, feeding areas back to a trail). Note: Runs are good areas to trap. You know what animal you are going for.

Escape Routes

Established escape routes may be a good indicator of nearby water as they often lead to hides and feeding areas. Indicators of escape routes:

  • Pushdown.  Generally only used once, crashing through the brush from a trail or run to escape. Brush is broken down or bent and fully recovers within 12-24 hours.
  • Established Escape Route. A pushdown used repetitively. It often leads to a hide. Brush shows noticeable signs of a trail run.

Sleeping Areas

Observe, but don’t disturb, animal sleeping areas even when hunting the animal. Sleeping areas can be observed for animal direction of travel leading to feeding or water sources. Differentiate between long term use and short term or transient use. Beds and dens are good indicators of local water sources.

  • Bed. Any consistent sleeping place. It is well chosen to be in the thickest area of brush to be able to hear a predator coming. The presence of beds and dens are good indicators of local water sources.
  • Den. Only used to bear and raise young. For example, the fox is normally an open ground sleeper, it curls up in the brush. For birthing it excavates a hole or uses an old groundhog hole for a den.
  • Transit Bed. An established bed used infrequently.
  • Lay. Usually used only once or twice. Used for rest, chewing cud, etc. Can be recognized by broken and crushed vegetation that recovers within 24-48 hours.

Feeding Areas

Follow feeding area trails back towards beds and dens, or locate trails to possible water sources nearby:

  • Varied Run Feeding area. Where animals go through and eat off of the trail or run further and further.
  • Single plant feeding area. Characterized by a run terminating at a single plant or group of plants of one kind.
  • Eat-through. Where an animal or animals has literally eaten through a patch of vegetation and come out the other side.
  • Patched. Marked by irregular nibbling along the edges of established trails or runs. Demonstrates recency.

Medium Scale Sign

This makes up the largest assortment and most definitive sign. It is found especially on trails and runs and may indicate size, activity, direction and recency of animal activity:

  • Rub. Polished areas on the landscape. Unintentional: animal rubbing up against an object that protrudes onto the trail (e.g. a branch). Intentional: specific area where an animal is rubbing itself. E.g. deer scraping velvet off antlers, wallowing in dirt to rid itself of mites etc.
  • Hair and Feathers. Especially at a rub or a projection where the hair or feather gets snagged. Clumps of hair may either be purposely pulled out by the animals or clumps of hair or feathers may indicate a kill site.
  • Gnawing. You can tell the animal by the size of the teeth marks.
  • Chews. Where a plant has been bitten off (twigs, stalks of grass, etc.). 45 degree Clean Cut: caused by an animal with incisors = rodent. Little serrated edge: deer (pulls grass up against upper palette and sickle it off by pulling neck up). Masticated: teeth marks all over possibly with saliva = a predator chew, used to get minerals.
  • Break. Caused by animal movement, not a chew.
  • Scratchings.  These can be all over, made by claws digging in on trees, scampering over sticks, boulders etc. Intentional: for example a skunk or raccoon scratching in the ground for grubs, cat or bear sharpening claws on a tree. Unintentional: from the animal’s passing.
  • Ground Debris. Any debris on the ground that is scratched, pinched, dented, abraded unnaturally, holes, stone rolls, broken twigs etc. (stone roll = a stone out of its bed, rolled over, skidded etc.).
  • Upper Vegetation.  Vegetation breaks (see above), plants abraded and broken by animal passage. The location of the break (how high up) indicates type and size of animal. You can age a break by clearly noting how the vegetation has aged at the break and doing a sample break to observe and time. This is not as accurate as track aging.

Scat. Scat can tell you an incredible amount by its size, shape, and consistency. It tells you what the animal is and what it has been eating and drinking. Animals leave scat in areas which they feel safe. This means that it is a good area to look for animals and by extension, water. Scat is often found near lays and its appearance is as different as the animal that produces it:

  • Tubular – Dog family, raccoon, skunks, opossum, wolverines, bears
  • Tear drop or tapered – Cat Family
  • Fattened threads – Weasel Family
  • M&M’s – Rabbits & Hares
  • Oblong – May have nipple at end – Deer
  • Pencil Lead – Rodents
  • Fox – Tubular & Tapered at both ends – between dog and cat
  • Pellets – Raptors (hawks, eagles, and owls) regurgitate pellets of what isn’t digested. These pellets consist of bones, hair and/or feathers.

Scat Analysis. First determine the family shape. Then lay the scat on a piece of paper, cut it down the center carefully, then quarter it. Take a pair if tweezers or a toothpick and pick away at the edge carefully. Separate the contents into piles of bone, feathers, hair, misc. in order to see what the animal’s been eating (this is for carnivores). Herbivores tend to show loose, mushy scat in the summer because they are browsing on soft succulent vegetation. As summer turns to fall you will find more evidence of nuts, seeds, and fruits. In winter the scat becomes quiet hard and compact consisting mainly of the more woody buds, twigs, and bark. Avoid using your fingers to work with scat (wear gloves). If the scat is dry and dusty, don’t inhale the dust (can lead to lung infections).

Aging Scat. Scat can be aged but accuracy depends on many variables including weather, temperature, etc. The only way to be certain is to see it come out of the animal. Scat dries from the inside out so find some fresh, pick it apart and examine the contents. Come back later, pick another apart and see how it has changed over time. Observation and experience is key here.

Small Scale Sign

Compressions – this is both a track and a sign. On any surface there are dust particles and grit which collect. When anything walks over this surface it either presses the grit into the surface or removes it. You can see this using the side-heading technique:

  • Keep the track between you and the light source.
  • Get you head down along the ground.
  • Scan the ground with your bottom eye (bottom eye reads to 1 ft. top eye reads to 3 ft.).
  • The compressions will appear as a shiny spot or a dull spot on the surface (depending on whether the grit is shiny or dull).
  • When more dust settles it will add a layer to everything but the pock still is visible.

Ghost Scale Sign

This is an interface between tracks proper and disturbances not on the ground which disappear (or seem to):

  • Dullings. In the morning with dew on the ground everything is shiny from the dew. If something crosses the grass it either presses or wipes away the moisture which appears as a dull area. This disappears as the dew evaporates.
  • Shinings. During the day everything begins to dull down. Anything walking on the grass presses it down and the shinny side of the grass may catch the sunlight giving it a shining. The shininess disappears in about 2 hours. Bent grass generally recovers completely in about 24 hours.
  • Leaf Depression. Leaves are compressed as an animal walks leaving a compression outline beneath the leaves in the soil (a true track). The leaves spring back up but not all the way leaving a depression. By side-heading you can see the depression.

A note on frogs and reptiles

Frogs, salamanders, and weevils will almost always be near damp soil or surface water. Dig in moist soil to find a possible water source.

Most land-living reptiles are independent, to a very large extent, of water. They get what they need from dew and the flesh of their prey. They are not an indicator of water.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.

Bird Indicators of Water

Photo by Simon Tullstedt

To Do Today:

  • PT – Cardio – 3 mile run for time // Strength – Chest group
  • Browse The Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify birds and their behaviors in your local area or expected AO.

Bird Indicators of Water

Observe the flight of birds particularly at dawn and dusk. Birds will routinely glide and hover around a surface water source. Parrots and pigeons are rarely very far from water. Also listen for sounds of birds and follow to locate where the birds get their drink. A flock of birds circling over one spot, unless vultures, usually indicate water.

Of course a water source being used by birds and other animals will not always be pure (and may have a heavy presence of bird shit and feathers in and around it). Digging a hole near the water source (7-9 feet away) and letting water seep through the soil/sand/clay will render the water safer.

  • Finches. All the finches are grain-eaters and water drinkers. In the dry belts you may see a colony of finches and you can be certain that you are near water, probably a hidden spring or permanent soak.
  • Pigeons. Wild pigeons are a reliable indicator of water. Being grain and seed eaters they spend the day out on the plains feeding and then with the approach of dusk, make for a water hole, drink their fill and fly slowly back to their nest. Their manner of flying will tell you the direction of their water supply. If they are flying low and swift they are flying to water but if their flight is from tree to tree and slow, they are returning from drinking. Being heavy with water they are vulnerable to birds of prey.
  • Grain Eaters. All the grain eaters and most of the ground feeders require water, so that if you see their tracks on the ground you can be fairly certain that there is water within a few miles of your location. An exception are parrots and cockatoos which are not seen as reliable indicators of water.
  • Carnivores Birds. Being flesh eaters they get most of the moisture they need from the flesh of their prey thus not reliable water drinkers. So don’t regard flesh eating birds as indicator for water. Nor should you regard the water living birds as indicators of fresh or drinkable water.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.

Insect Indicators of Water

Photo by Ralph Haering

Photo by Ralph Haering

To Do Today:

Insect Indicators of Water

In general, more life means water and insect numbers can be closely related to water and food sources. In many arid areas, you can tell how close you are to a water source by the number of flies present. Dragonflies, bees, and mosquitoes are also water-loving species that can signal the source is near.

  • Flies. Dense clouds of flies swarming in a generally focused area, particularly in the desert, may indicate damp soil or soil where standing water was present only a short time previously. It is almost always worth digging a shallow hole in a low spot near the flies to investigate the possibility of a water source.
  • Bees. Bees presence may be a sign of water. Rarely will a hive of wild bees be more than 3 or 4 miles from fresh surface water. A bee can generally fly 1 mile in 12 minutes. The water source may be small, hidden, or difficult to reach. Use other indications to confirm and locate the water source.
  • Ants. Most ants need water, so if you see a steady column of small black ants climbing a tree trunk and disappearing into a hole, it is highly probable that you fill find a hidden reservoir of drinkable water. This can be proved by dipping a long straw or thin stick down the hole into which the ants are going. If wet, then water is there. To get the water, do not chop into the tree. If the hole is very small enlarge it with your knife-point at the top. Make a mop by tying grass or a rag to a stick. Dip the mop into the water and squeeze into a container. Another method is to take a long hollow straw and suck the water you need from the reservoir. These natural tree reservoirs are very common in dry areas, and are often kept full by the dew which condensing on the upper branches of the tree, trickles down into the reservoir inside the tree. Water reservoirs are very common in the She-Oaks (casuarinas) and many species of Wattle.
  • Mason Flies. These large, hornet-like creatures are a certain indicator of water. If you see a mason fly’s building in an area you can be sure that you are within a few hundred yards of a soak of wet earth. Search around carefully and you will see the mason fly hover and then suddenly drop to the ground. If you examine the place where it landed, you will find the soil is moist and that she is busy rolling a pellet of mud for building. By digging in this area, a few inches or at most a couple of feet, you may find drinkable water.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.