Finding mammals in the wild is not always easy, but it is quite a bit easier than many people realise (and can be fun with kids too). I’ve suggested here a few ways to increase your success rate.
Before you go
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 when you find the right spots to look, you can be reasonably sure the animals are around. Unfortunately there is still a lot less information on where to find mammals then where to find birds (the main reason I started this web site). But way more is available now than it used to be. Other mammal watchers aside, scientists, national park staff, bird watchers and hunters might all be able to offer advice on where, when and how to look.
Birding forums are useful things to subscribe to (many birders mention the mammals they see) and birders will often help with requests for mammal information. The links on this site, and the resources sections on each of the ecozone and country pages have some more ideas. If you have other suggestions then let me know.
Swat up on the species you think you’ll see beforehand. Learn which features distinguish one species from another.You might only get a second or two’s glimpse of an animal before it turns tail and flees (and when it does take a look at that tail because it is often vital to identification!).
Spotlighting is by far the best way to find many nocturnal species. Though spotlighting is forbidden in some place (e.g. some parks in the USA) it is generally allowed in most places outside of the big national parks in Africa and India. Spotlighting works best when you keep your eyes – and your line of vision – directly behind and parallel to the spotlight’s beam (so head torches can be particularly effective). That way you have a better chance of picking up an animal’s “eye shine”, which is the reflection of a spotlight’s beam back from the surface at the back of an animal’s eye. Although not all animals have eye shine, in some species – many carnivores for example – it is very bright and you have a much better chance of seeing eye shine through thick undergrowth than you have of spotting the animal itself.
I prefer to spotlight on foot and alone 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 in the branches or the leaf litter, falling fruit etc (harder to hear the more people you are with). More often than not I hear animals before I see them. In more open country, spotlighting from (or better on the roof of) a vehicle works well. You can of course cover a lot more ground in an evening and because you can see a lot further than you can hear there is less advantage in listening for stuff.
There’s a good deal of discussion around appropriate brightness for spotlights. I’ve read research from the Queensland rainforest that spotlights with a 50 w bulb were more successful at finding possums and tree kangaroos than those with a 100 w bulb (because – so the theory goes – the animals are more likely to hide from a brighter beam). So I tend to use a less powerful beam when I’m in a forest, and turn up the power when I’m out in the range lands 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. And so I tend to use the edge of the beam, or a red filter, 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 one that is tough (you are going to drop it often) and that isn’t too heavy, no matter whether you use it from a car or on foot. Most of us use LED flash lights nowadays: these can weigh as little as 200 grams but pack as much power as the heavy lamp plus heavier motorcycle batteries that I used to lug through the forest back in 2000 (and don’t even ask about how hard it was to take these things on a plane!). There are many different brands to choose from and I have several. Check out the gear reviews on this site for more information on different brands.
My favourite spotlight to use from a vehicle is my Lightforce – it is light, reliable and connects straight onto the car battery (cigarette lighter adapters break easily so I prefer to connect with alligator clips straight onto the battery terminals).
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 seems to keep the animals out of the open and so makes them harder to spot, be it in forest or grasslands. Rain will also reduce the penetration of the spotlight and reflections from wet leaves look like an animal’s eye shine. After getting excited the first ten times I spot a wet leaf, I usually head back for the car.
Spotlighting is also a fairly hit and miss affair. So if at first you don’t succeed….. I’ve seen heaps of stuff along a forest trail one night, and nothing the next. I don’t know why. But I suspect 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 evening to spotlight is one where a full moon rises a couple of hours after sunset. The mammals should (if they follow my theory) be busy feeding during the first couple of hours of darkness.But animals do not always follow my logic so who knows. I wish there was more data.
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 kilometres from the car. I speak from experience.
This discussion on the community forum about spotlighting is also interesting.
Squeaking is an effective way to attract some species of mammals (mainly carnivores and sciurids) to show themselves. See an explanation here of how its done.
Live Mammal Trapping
Although I’ve seen many species of small mammals (rats, mice, antechinus, shrews etc) while spotlighting, putting some traps out can be a much more successful way to see some species (though some species are trap shy and more easily seen with a spotlight). Live mammal trapping in some countries (including Australia) requires a permit, so the best way to do it is to join a local naturalists’ club, or volunteering to help out on an academic or national park survey (occasionally they ask for volunteers, otherwise just volunteer yourself).
There are two basic types of small mammal trap: box traps and pitfalls. Box traps come in various shapes and sizes but the 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. In the USA I’ve found bird seed is quite effective (and much less sticky!).
Pitfall traps are good for catching animals that tend not to enter box traps (because they are trap shy), or are too light to set off a box trap’s treadle. Pitfall traps are usually just plastic buckets buried up to the top. The buckets are often set out in a line, with a low (say 30 cm high) rigid mesh fence pegged along the trap line and over the top and middle of each bucket. In theory animals will run into the fence, then run along it until they drop into the bucket. But opinions differ as to how effective the fences are. Pitfall traps can be very effective but they are also require considerable effort to set anywhere other than in the desert or a swamp.
Both types of traps capture animals alive. Traps should be checked at dawn each day when the captures can be weighed, 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) and also check the traps halfway through the night. 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 or box traps with water and animals will drown.
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 or Bears. I daresay it involves a lot of meat and very thick gloves!
Animals that live in tree hollows or abandoned birds nests and the like will often move into nest boxes. Indeed, people often erect nest boxes particularly designed for mammals like Phascogales (in Australia) or Dormice (in the UK). Nest boxes are usually checked several times each year and those doing the checking will usually be glad of an extra pair of hands to lug ladders around. Bat boxes are also used in many countries.
Bats are perhaps the most challenging order of mammals to ID in the field given all you often see is a shadow flitting through the spotlight beam. But there are, of course, ways to get a better look or a definite ID, including using a bat detector which converts a bat’s echolocation calls into something audible to us or displays it on a computer screen. Echolocation 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. Take a look at Brian Keenan’s useful notes on bat detecting for more information.
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). And so helping out with bat research project is the best way to see a lot of species. Its also the best way to meet bat researchers who are among the most friendly and committed biologists on the planet. Perhaps because bats get such a bad press, ‘bat people’ are often especially keen to spread the word and take people out for field work.
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 shape of their noseleaf 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 droppings (small cylindrical black pellets) 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).
It is not a good idea to enter bat roosts without a bat specialist for several reasons. Bats can be sensitive to disturbance, and you should especially avoid disturbing colonies that are hibernating (lights and even body heat can disturb their torpor and they waste energy). In the USA a fungus – spread in part by people entering caves – is infecting hibernating bats with White-Nose Syndrome and decimating bat colonies. And of course caves and mines are inherently dangerous places. If that isn’t enough doom and gloom then remember that in some countries some bat species can carry rabies (or even Ebola) so don’t get bitten! Bats are not going to attack you but if you pick one up it will try to defend itself.