Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tracking on the Moon

The moon holds some useful tracking lessons. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footprints are still up there in pristine condition, forty years after they were made; and with no wind or rain to disturb them they could be there for another million or more years. At the other end of the spectrum, tracking in earthly sand dunes on a warm, windy day poses a different kind of challenge as newly formed tracks vanish before your eyes. The same can be said for tracking in a blizzard.

The art of ageing tracks is a tricky one, and a lot of it is about reading the effects of wind, temperature and precipitation on different substrates. But while these forces can obliterate the signs we are trying to read and follow, they also provide a gauge for ageing a print. Are there raindrops in those fox prints? What time did it last rain? In what direction are those plucked pigeon feathers strewn? When was the wind blowing from that direction? The elements can be both hindrance and help to a tracker.

In this recent picture of October's waxing gibbous moon some of the craters stand out clearly. I commented to my wife how I like seeing the moon lit from the side as it were, because it gives good contrast on the craters, and she pointed out how it's just like having good light for tracking. That's right on the mark. Whether you're side lighting mouse tracks with the beam of a torch, following badger prints by winter afternoon sunlight, or picking out ancient asteroid track and sign on the moon's surface, the principle is just the same!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Respect your Elders!

In Britain we should be proud to host some of the oldest living things on the planet. Trees. Old, gnarly, veteran trees. Trees that may have been around when wolves and lynx still roamed our island and have survived while everything else around them changed.

Veteran trees (aka ancient trees) are ones that make you say "Wow! Look at the size of that tree!" Trees that aren't necessarily tall, but are fat and often ooze a sense of antiquity. These venerable plants are rich havens for life. Not only are they astonishing organisms in their own right, but their decay and their gnarled, craggy features provide habitats for a host of living things, from fungi and lichens, to rare flies and beetles, to woodpeckers and bats.

They are also steeped in fascinating history and folklore. The names say it all: Herne's Oak, The Martyrs' Tree,  Robin Hood's Oak, The Anckerwycke Yew . . .

Veteran oak on the River Findhorn. Note the badger hole to left and the heap of sandy spoil  towards the top right of the picture.

In Britain we have more veteran trees than the rest of Europe combined. and many of them are truly ancient. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000 years old. How many countless generations of insects, spiders and birds have taken refuge in this tree's branches? How many generations of humans have gone about their business and wondered at the age of this tree? Whole civilizations have come and gone since it was a seedling!

On the banks of the River Findhorn, not far from where I live, is a grove of ancient trees, next to what was once a medieval jousting ground. One of them is an oak at least 11 metres in circumference and has a badger sett among its roots. How many generations of badgers? . . .

Sadly ancient trees are not always given the protection they need and deserve, and many have been felled felled needlessly. If you know of any ancient trees near you, be sure to report them. Find out more about this wonderful part of our natural heritage and be part of the Woodland Trust's  Ancient Tree Hunt .

The man of science and of taste will…. discover the beauties in a tree, which the others would condemn for its decay…’Humphry Repton, landscape gardener, 1803.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Coastal Biophilia

I woke up in the Wee Bunkhouse, my legs feeling the workout from the previous day's eleven hour hillwalk (See 'Mountain Wildlife'). It was birthday, and I was looking forward to continuing our April wildlife adventure. Kristy and I ambled along the shore of Loch Duich in light rain, checking out seaweeds, enjoying the common sandpipers and other birds and keeping a watchful eye out for otters.

We found a stunning patch of scurvygrass. As it's name suggests it was once used by mariners in need of a vitamin C boost. I love its succulent salt and pepper flavour. Further round a gaggle of wary greylags eyed us - elegant and under-rated birds I reckon.

Scurvy grass - once used by mariners to supplement weevily biscuits. 

Later we made our way east to Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth. As part of my birthday wildlife-fest, I wanted to watch a local wildlife gem: the world's most northerly population of bottlenose dolphins.

A line of people stood on the beach expectantly. Strangers conversed and adults were just as excited as the kids. Seeing the dolphins surface right near to the shore is a real treat. And more than that, as we braced ourselves against a chilly north-easterly breeze, it struck me that most of us were here for the same reason: celebrating life. We were revelling in the spectacle of seeing non-human life in action. Watching for the sheer joy of it. Erich Fromm and later E.O. Wilson wrote about 'biophilia' - an innate urge to affiliate with other forms of life.

If that wasn't biophilia, I don't know what is!

Biophiles watching dolphins

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Mammal tracking with a difference!

You might be interested in seeing a revolutionary new approach to learning mammal track and sign:
Click here and enjoy!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Mountain wildlife

We camped on the shores of Loch Cluanie, and before I had even left the tent in the morning I heard the 'swoosh swoosh swoosh' of a raven's wings flying low overhead. My wife and I recently went away for my birthday weekend. The weather was clear and stable, so we seized the opportunity to walk the Five Sisters of Kintail. I was keen to get back into the hills, and in particular I was hoping to see wildlife - and lots of it.

As we gazed at the still loch over breakfast we counted one. . . no, two. . . no, hold on, five black-throated divers, their exquisite black and white markings visible through the bins.

Black-throated divers are bigger than this in real life

The walk was superb (and full-on!), with cracking views of Ben Nevis, the Torridons, the Cuillins on Skye, Eigg . . .
Kristy and me with Ben Nevis in the background (the snowy bit to the left in the far distance)

This ptarmigan must've dropped its compass

There were goats, there were buzzards, there were signs of ptarmigan and tracks of mountain hare, there was a tantalising glimpse of a blackbird-like shape in some crags high above. I want to say it was a ring ouzel (it's pretty likely it was) but I didn't get a clear enough view. So what? It was wildlife. We were in the mountains and the sun was shining. With ancient rocks and alpine lady's mantle at our feet we could see as far as we wanted in any direction.
Feral goat - too cool for school

Mountain hare tracks - which direction do you think it was going?
I love the air in the mountains, and the feeling of leg muscles working hard. I love the feeling of clean aliveness, the clarity and the perspective. I also relish the part of the descent when you start to re-enter the trees - native woodland remnants and new planting. After hours on the austere tops, the leaves take on an extra glow, the scents are rich, the birdsong lush. And the meal in the hotel bar tastes superb!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Tracking in Slovakia

There's something thrilling (and difficult to describe) about simply being in a landscape where wolf and lynx roam. The chances of an encounter are slim, yet even finding their tracks had us buzzing with excitement.

Eurasian lynx by Robin Rigg, SWS. Copyright.
I was helping to lead Slovak Wildlife Society's White Wilderness trip - a tracking survey aimed at getting a clearer picture of the much-contested wolf and lynx numbers. Hunters say there are far too many wolves  - 1500 they claim, which is certainly an overestimate. Some environmental groups fear there is one tenth of that, which is probably on the low side. The real figure is somewhere between these, and to establish it would help to inform decisions to safeguard the future of these magnificent animals.

Early starts and long walks though deep snow in sub zero temperatures were part of the daily routine, as was the great hospitality in the warm lodge owned by our Slovak hosts. An extra treat was the local thermal spa where we luxuriated like Japanese macaques while the crisp night air (-18 degrees C) froze our hair and eyebrows!

Collecting hair samples from a lynx's resting spot
 by Sam Puls
Our aim was to gather as many samples and data as possible and we made deliberate effort to reduce the chances of disturbing the large carnivores themselves. Trailing lynx and wolves was really exciting, and offered a privileged glimpse into the movements of these charismatic predators (quite literally sometimes, as we collected scat samples to help with DNA and prey analysis). At times we followed a wolf trail for several kilometres before having any idea how many were in the pack; they like to step in one another's footprints to save energy, and after walking through deep snow for any length of time, it's easy to see what an efficient strategy this is!

During the survey days we saw tracks and signs of a whole host of wildlife including martens, wild boar, stoats, foxes and incredibly even brown bear. Bears would normally be in hibernation in early February, but the extreme cold had taken its toll on their reserves, and forced them to get out and forage. We were also treated to views of red and roe deer, red squirrels, foxes, hares and one participant even saw the local beech marten. Among the birds we saw crossbills and crested tits, through to ravens and a golden eagle - it was a wildlife paradise situated in a spectacular Narnia-esque landscape.

One wolf pack we trailed went across two pistes in a ski resort, a couple of hundred metres from a hotel! this reminded me how closely these maligned but shy predators can be to human activity with virtually no-one being aware they're around.

Slovak Wildlife Society is doing excellent work, not only with this survey but also in a range of other projects aimed at reducing conflicts between predators and humans. For more about their work or to find out about the next White Wilderness trip, visit
Wolf trail through forest in a ski resort

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Bird Language

As the train pulled into a station, somewhere in western Slovakia, the movement of pigeons caught my eye.  It wasn't the normal take-off of a flock of pigeons; there was a quickness, a deadly urgency in the way they flew. They were clearly keen to make a quick exit.

                                                        Peregrine Falcon by Tom Curtis

"Peregrine!" -  I felt a buzz of excitement as the thought crossed my mind. Somehow I had a sense it was there. My eyes scoured the industrial landscape, and there he was, quick-flapping, broad chested and pointy-winged, probably a male judging by the size. He casually flew up to the top of a metal tower and landed, alone, to survey the scene.

Such an observation is not unusual and is not a display of extraordinary psychic power! Practically anyone can develop this ability. 'Bird language' goes way beyond identifying species by their calls. It is the art of reading the 'concentric rings' of nature, as American naturalist and tracker Jon Young puts it. This includes both vocal language (eg contact calls, alarms etc) as well as reading the language of behaviour as in the example above. Everything is connected to everything else, and every creature that moves through the landscape will send out 'ripples' around it. Some of these are obvious, such as a cat causing a blackbird to respond with an agitated 'chink-chink';  others less so, but with a bit of practise, one can begin to make surprising deductions about who is around in nature and what they're up to.

I remember first being fired up by bird language, standing near the Aga in my friend John's kitchen in rural Worcestershire. John was one of my nature  - and particularly birding - mentors. We were in mid-conversation when suddenly he stopped and dashed outside excitedly. He came back in shortly afterwards, explaining that he had heard the birds giving a raptor alarm, and he wanted to see who was passing by. I was impressed. I had barely heard anything and yet he had made what to my mind was an astonishing deduction.

Reading bird language is not a new skill and I have no doubt that it is much older than humanity itself. After all many other species of birds and mammals are very adept at reading the messages of birds, especially as an early warning system to alert them to predators. Just the other day I was watching four roe deer 250m upwind from me. No chance of me being detected - I thought. But I unwittingly startled a huge flock of skittish wood pigeons on the intervening turnip field - and the roe deer were off, white bums flashing as they vanished into the plantation.

Could it be that the earliest birds gave alarm calls that were heeded by our ancient mammalian ancestors, way back in the Jurassic? If that is the case then maybe we have been tuned into bird language for the last 150 million years of our evolutionary history. I don't have direct proof, but it's not an unreasonable theory!

Many indigenous people and those living close to the land still rely on bird language - in Africa and elsewhere, this can be a matter of life and death, so I'm told. Knowing the whereabouts of a leopard, or water buffalo is useful knowledge. Who knows -  we may all share a common ancestor in our distant past who managed to escape death because he or she was alerted by the birds that a predator was on the prowl!

Why bother learning bird language? What relevance does it have in the modern world?
Alertness, stillness, fascination and empathy all spring to mind - and much more. Just like tracking, it can sharpen our senses (as well as highlighting how much we miss!), it can help us read the landscape. It can help us get a clearer understanding of the wildlife and habitats we are working to protect. And somehow it can make us feel that much more alive.

Jon Young's CD set Advanced Bird Language is an excellent introduction to this art, and while focussing mainly on American species, the principles apply to birds pretty much anywhere, and there's plenty to work on for many years! Also check out the Bird Language DVD by the 8 Shields Institute.

There is a strong tradition of bird language recognition in Britain, even if it hasn't been named as such. Good places to start are J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, which many would agree is one of the finest pieces of British nature writing, and describes in many places how he reads the 'concentric rings' sent out by the peregrine in the birds all around.

A real gem is Simon King's Wildguide, which you can still get on Amazon. More recent is Simon Barnes' superb and highly entertaining Birdwatching with your Eyes Closed - an excellent and entertaining read, like many of his books. There are many more - watch this space for further recommendations, and if you are interested in Bird Language courses - get in touch.

In the meantime, go outside and listen!