Monday, 24 September 2012

Learning to read the Cybertracker way

As I've got a bit of a backlog on the blog I wasn't sure whether to write up my Cybertracker course and evaluation here at all,  but then I wondered if there are a few nature freaks who read the blog who might appreciate some of my photos so decided to put them out there. For those not in the know, Cybertracker is an evaluation system developed in South Africa, and popular in the US, designed to train and assess the nature awareness and tracking skills of conservationists and wildlife surveyors. When it was first introduced elsewhere, a lot of people discovered that they weren't very good after all, and so it was with some trepidation that I enrolled on the first course and Evaluation to be offered in the UK, based at the bushcraft school, Woodsmoke, in the Lake District. 

 Relaxing around the woodsmoke hearth after a heavy day of tracking- this usually involved walking no more that 1 km, but looking, at everything, really really hard.

Of course, as with all things Woodsmoke do,  it turned out to be a wonderful experience,  both painfully concentrated and joyfully enlightening.  Yes, it opened my eyes to how much  have to learn, but it also revealed a new way of looking at the natural world, with stories written in every puddle and on every leaf. Ghosts of animals not seen still walk around the forest long after their material beings have tucked themselves up to sleep in burrows. I felt as if I was learning to read all over again.

The Cybertracker huddle. We could spend an hour or more looking at 2sqm of mud.

 At the final evaluation, I scored a Track and Sign level two- which I was completely over the moon about, until I realised that with an 89% score I was 1% off a level 3. I'll be back! Massive congratulations are due to Woodsmoke's Steven Hanton, who scored a beautiful and completely deserved 100% and is now the first British Level 4 Specialist. Huge thanks are also due to Steven for bringing the Cybertracker system to the UK, and to Casey Mcfarlane, Dan Hansche and Mark Elbroch who came from the States to teach, inspire, and of course evaluate us. Their knowledge of animal behaviour and skill at interpreting tracks and sign are extraordinary, and their fun approach to coaching and discussion really helped with the intense learning process.

Unripe yew berries, cracked open and eaten by a mouse. Surprising to me considering how poisonous yew is to humans, but there was evidence that many animals and birds had enjoyed snacking on this particular tree.

The trunk of this conifer has been rubbed and chewed by red deer, as part of their territorial scent marking behaviour.  The fur has stuck to the sticky sap oozing from the bar.

A woodpecker has carefully worked a seam of rot running through this dead birch tree in a search for grubs and insects. 

Corvid tracks in soft mud, probably carrion crow.  Note the way that the inner toe and the leading toe are close together- this is typical of corvids. 

Sweeeet stoat tracks in soft mud.  Stoats are little mustelids with 5 toes that show well in good tracks.

Possibly the find of the week, newt tracks in really fine soft silt. Note the tail dragging between them.

Snail eggs- species unknown, but possibly a kind of water snail? Any views from those with experience of identifying these welcome!

These are great fox tracks- clearly showing the furry dead space between the toe callouses. If I learned one thing on the Cybertracker course it was sorting my foxes from my domestic dogs.  Easy peasy when you know how! (In my defence, we have no foxes here on Arran, so I wasn't getting much practice in).

The now infamous mole latrine.  If you are not sure what you are looking at, this is a tiny pile of sticky brown scat, in an open tunnel emerging from a massive rotten tree stump. Before my colleagues poked it, there was even had what looked like a dainty little mole print in it.

The prize for most morbid find of the week goes to these- yellow dung flies that have been zombified by a parasitic fungus and forced to head plant in some horse droppings.

Squirrel (probably grey) prints, front (4 toes) and hind (5 toes).

And, finally, a roe deer rutting ring.  You'll know it when you see it! 

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