Animal Indicators of Water

Photo by Gabriel Currie

Photo by Gabriel Currie

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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.

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