|Mammal watching: some tips|
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Finding mammals in the wild is not always easy, but it is probably quite a bit easier than many people realise. I've suggested here a few ways in which you can increase your chances.
Local knowledge goes a long way. Mammals are generally less mobile than birds. While this means they might be harder to bump into, it does mean that if you can find the good spots to look, you can be reasonably sure that the animals are around. Unfortunately there is a lot less information on where to find mammals then where to find birds (the main reason I have started this web site). But there is information on the net, in books and - of course - in the heads of people. Scientists, national park staff, bird watchers, and hunters are all people who might be able to help if you can track them down.
Birding email groups are useful things to subscribe to (many birders mention the mammals they see) and birders will often answer requests for mammal information. The links on this site, and teh resources sections on each of the biogeographic zone trip report pages (linked at the bottom of this page) have some more ideas. I'd be grateful for any other sites I could link to, or books I should mention.
Swat up on the species you think you'll see beforehand. You might only get a second or two's glimpse of an animal before it turns tail and flees. You need to know which features distinguish it from similar species if you want to be sure about what you've seen.
I prefer to spotlight on foot when I'm in a forest: the spotlight's range won't penetrate far through the foliage and walking gives you more of a chance to check out carefully each tree and - importantly - listen for rustlings, falling fruit etc. I reckon I usually hear an animal before seeing one in the bush. In more open country, spotlighting from (or better on the roof of) a vehicle works well. You can cover a lot more ground in an evening and because you can see a lot further than you can hear, listening for stuff is less of an advantage.
There's a good deal of discussion around appropriate brightness for spotlights. I've read research from the Queensland Rainforest that spotlights with a 50w or so bulb were more successful at finding possums and tree kangaroos than those with a 100w bulb (because - so the theory goes - the animals were less likely to hide from the beam). I tend to use something like a 60w bulb when I'm in a forest, and as bright a bulb as I can get when I'm out in the rangelands or desert. There is also a fairly well held belief that dazzling many creatures with a spotlight can damage their eyes. I'm not sure if that's true; but a bright beam can certainly disorient animals leaving them vulnerable to predators. I tend to use the edge of the beam to illuminate an animal for anything longer than a second or two. They appear less stressed and also tend to hang around for longer.
There are lots of spotlights on the market. Try to find a tough one (you are going to drop it often), and one that you can use with a separate power pack, rather than one with a battery built in: such batteries don't hold charge for very long. I use motorcycle batteries that give about 2 hours spotlighting with a 60w bulb. Cigarette lighter adapters don't seem that reliable, so I prefer to connect the light with alligator clips straight onto the battery terminals. Many animals are oblivious to red light and so a red light filter is one way to watch mammals without disturbing them.
I've used an Australian lightforce spotlight for several years which I use when I am driving - it is light, reliable and connects straight onto the car battery. In 2008 I bought the new Clubman CB2 spotlight with separate power pack which is just fabulous (you can get them from Alana Ecology in the UK). It is lightweight and the battery pack is - I guess -a over a kilo. But kilo for kilo offers the longest life of any battery I have used - about 90 minutes on full beam. It has a 50w main bulb and a second 10w bulb for local work. Plus the connection between the battery and light is through a rugged socket. I also have a very small but high-powered Tiablo A9 flashlight - it is tiny but has an amazing beam and battery life (and is also rechargeable). And I have pretty much given up lugging a bigger thing around unless I have a lot of space in my bags.
Its often a good idea to check out a potential spotlighting destination in the daylight. Flowering and fruiting trees are often great places to find animals, but such trees are easier to find in the day. Spotlighting in the rain is miserable and usually crap. Rain (I reckon) keeps the animals out of the open and so harder to spot, be it the forest or grasslands. Rain will also reduce the penetration of the spotlight and wet leaves often reflect back light like an animal's eye shine. After getting excited the first dozen times I study a wet leaf through my binoculars, I usually head back for the car.
Spotlighting is also a fairly hit and miss affair. I've seen heaps of stuff along a forest trail one night, and nothing the next. I don't know why. But I do think the phase of the moon and cloud cover has something to do with it. Most of the smaller mammals at least are vulnerable to owl predation. So if they've any sense they will be less active on bright nights. The hour or so after dusk is often a good time to look because - so the theory goes - all those nocturnal critters will be hungry and busily feeding. So, perhaps an optimum night to spotlight is one when a full moon will rise a couple of hours after sunset. The mammals should (sticking with my theory) be super busy trying to get a whole night's feeding into the first couple of hours of darkness. I really don't know ... but if anyone has other theories I'd love to hear them.
I'm sure this is self-evident but ... if you go spotlighting then remember to take your binoculars, a spare bulb for the light plus a head torch in case something goes wrong and you are stranded a few km from the car. Yes, yes, it has happened to me (several times).
See also this discussion on the mammalwatching blog about spotlighting.
Live Mammal Trapping
There are two basic types of small mammal trap: box traps and pitfalls. Box traps come in various shapes and sizes but the basic design is the same: they are usually an aluminium box with a treadle inside that, when depressed, causes the spring loaded front door to snap shut. Traps are baited and each biologist has his or her own recipe for the best bait: a mixture of peanut butter, honey and rolled oats (with - my preference - some vanilla essence) will catch most things.
In Australia we also use pitfall traps. These are good for catching animals that tend not to enter box traps (because they are trap shy), or are too light to set off the treadle in a box trap. Pitfall traps are usually just plastic buckets buried up to their lips. The buckets are often set out in a line, with a low (say 30cm high) rigid mesh fence pegged along the trapline and over the top of each bucket. The theory is that animals will run into the fence, then run along it until they drop into the bucket, though opinions differ as to how effective the fences are.
Both types of traps capture animals alive. Traps should be checked at dawn each day when the captures can be weighed or tagged or whatever before being released. Animals do die in traps from time to time, often because they get too cold or too hot. If you are trapping somewhere cold then its a good idea to add some bedding material to the trap (leaves, moss, newspaper, cotton wool etc). Trapping somewhere hot means you need to make a special effort to get the traps emptied within the first hour or two after dawn. Heavy rain can fill pit traps with water, or box traps if they are set on a slope.
Mammalogists use cage traps for larger species. I've never helped anyone catch anything bigger than a Possum so don't know what the go is for catching Leopards etc. I daresay it involves a lot of meat and very careful handling of the captures!
Many species can be caught in mist nets or harp traps (large metal frames strung with fishing line - a bat's echolocation misses the fishing line, the bat collides with the trap and drops into the bag below). Many bats roost in caves and old mines. If you are cautious, you can often get close enough to get a good enough view (or photo) to ID them (but this can be a challenge - try identifying horseshoe bats in the tropics on the basis of their noseleaf shape by looking at them through binoculars, while holding a spotlight in the other hand). Bats roost just about anywhere (old buildings, cabins, car ports and under bridges are all likely spots), while culverts under the road are particular productive in areas with few trees or caves. Look out for piles of bat shit (small cylindrical black droppings) to alert you to the animals above you. They often feed around street lights (attracted to the insects that have been attracted to the light).
Bat researchers also use bat detectors to work out what bats are in an area. Bat detectors pick up a bat's echolocation calls and convert them into something audible to us. Echolcation calls can be diagnostic. In some countries (such as the UK) where there are relatively few species, basic analogue detectors can reliably distinguish between many species. In other - more bat-diverse - countries, far more sophisticated detectors are used, and used with less success I think its fair to say.
Its not a great idea to enter bat roosts without somone who knows what they are doing. The animals are sensitive to disturbance, and in during winter in colder climates they hibernate, so you should especially should avoid waking them (lights and even body heat can disturb their torpor and they waste energy). Some species also carry rabies in some countries so don't get bitten. They are not going to attack you but if you pick them up they will try to defend themselves.