Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking

See also: Animal Tracking Quiz, Tracking Animals – How To Read Animal Tracks

This page shows how to set up a very quick, cheap, and easy tracking box, which you can use to learn a huge amount about animal tracking. This "clamshell" method is the easiest way I could think of to make a very cheap, quick, and easy tracking box.

Most of Australia's mammals are nocturnal. This method is an excellent way you can see the tracks and traces left by the animals that we don't normally see — including animals that you may not even know you have living close to you, who visit your backyard regularly at night.

The Easiest-to-Make Tracking Box I Could Think Of

This is the easiest way I could think of to make a tracking box. Before I thought of this clamshell children's sandpit/wading pool, I thought of a large-ish rectangular flat storage tray. Like the ones you can buy from "$2 shops" for about $10. However they are much smaller in terms of surface area of sand (after you fill the tracking box with sand, to record animal tracks) than the clamshell tracking box as shown here.

Sandpit tracking box with cheap pet-grade meat as bait - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Sandpit tracking box with cheap pet-grade meat as bait. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

Above you can see the tracking box ready to go, complete with bait — which is pet grade meat that I bought fresh for $2.99 a kilo, and then froze. It will thaw out overnight. My son added the mulberry leaves in case silkworms also came to eat them, so then we could see the silkworm tracks left in the sand too.

Ingredients required

  • Box, (or something to make it from such as wood and nails, etc.)
  • Sand (you can buy it in bags from garden supplies sellers, hardware stores, and other places, or get it delivered by the tonne to your house, etc.
  • Some sort of lid is a really good idea (e.g. so it doesn't get too full of cat droppings).
  • Something to use for bait. This will depend on what animals you're interested in. I figured meat would work best as there are leaves all over the place, and leaf-eating animals can find them on many trees (unlike money, which doesn't grow on trees, and calls into question people's common assumption that people's lives are better than wild animals' lives). You might also like to try "vegetables" that are choice delicacies, such as fruit (e.g. apple) which will attract many herbivorous animals more than the leaves on your local trees.
  • If you have a trail camera (or can afford to buy one, or can borrow one), it makes an excellent optional addition — which will give you actual photos or video of the animals as they make the tracks. The tracking box will still work and you can still learn a lot without needing a trail camera.
  • Something flat to smooth out the top of the sand is very helpful. I used a dustpan which had a flat front edge. Anything flat and of about the right size would also work for this.
  • That's pretty much it.

Of course this could be a larger and more elaborate sandpit, which would be better (because it would be bigger). The book "The Science and Art of Tracking" by Tom Brown, Jr. shows how to build one just for using as a tracking box (though it could also be used as a children's sandpit too). Or you can just buy one of these very cheap "clam shell" ones. These are extremely cheap (I forget, but I think it cost about $25 in total for both the upper and lower halves of this one, which may have been a discounted price after the Christmas retail frenzy was over).

This is the sand that I used, I got four bags of it from a local hardware store - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

This is the sand that I used, I got four bags of it from a local hardware store. High Resolution 2799 x 2000.

What Can You Learn About Animal Tracking from a Tracking Box?

Some of the things you can learn from a tracking box include seeing the footprints and what they look like, seeing them in different levels of dryness of sand, seeing how the footprints age over time, seeing what animal tracks you get (there may be surprises), seeing what animals eat what baits (I didn't know possums were interested in meat until I put out some and secretly caught them eating it on trail camera), seeing how the tracks look from different angles in real life (as opposed to idealised ones in a book), and more...

This is the tracking box after the first time I left it out - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

This is the tracking box after the first time I left it out. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

Above you can see the tracking box after the first time I left it out? What kind of animal left these tracks? (Photos below will show the answers).

Most of the human societies renowned for their tracking skills lived in sandy areas (e.g. the Aborigines of the Australian deserts, the San of the Kalahari, and others). Having access to areas of sand, or some other ground material that leaves good imprints of animal tracks is a vast advantage in learning animal tracking.

Most of Australia's modern residents do not live in (or very close to) large expanses of sandy ground. Yet, even having regular access to small areas of sandy ground is a massive advantage to learn animal tracking. For most households probably the easiest way to do this is to use a children's sandpit.

Animal tracks from the tracking box. These animal tracks were found long after the animal was gone, leaving a record of its presence there - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Animal tracks from the tracking box. These animal tracks were found long after the animal was gone, leaving a record of its presence there. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

Close up of an animal track from the tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Close up of an animal track from the tracking box. High Resolution 2606 x 1737.

Second Time Setting Up the Tracking Box

This is the second setup of the clam-shell sandpit tracking box. Some fruit was added along with the same type of cheap pet-grade meat as used before.

Second setup of the clam-shell sandpit tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Second setup of the clam-shell sandpit tracking box. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

This is a photo from the second setup of the tracking box (as is shown above) after leaving it overnight. Can you see any tracks?

Results from the second setup of the clam-shell sandpit tracking box. These animal tracks are much smaller and less obvious than from the first setup of the tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Results from the second setup of the clam-shell sandpit tracking box. These animal tracks are much smaller and less obvious than from the first setup of the tracking box. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

This is a close-up crop from the same photograph as shown above. The tracks are a bit easier to see here, but still not super-obvious.

Close-up crop from the same photograph as shown above. You can see the approximate scale/size of the animal track by comparing with the size of the common small black ants - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Close-up crop from the same photograph as shown above. You can see the approximate scale/size of the animal track by comparing with the size of the common small black ants.

In case you're having difficulty seeing any tracks in these photos, here is one highlighted in orange. What animal do you think could have made these tracks?

Highlighted close-up crop from the same photograph as shown above. You can see the approximate scale/size of the animal track by comparing with the size of the common small black ants - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Highlighted close-up crop from the same photograph as shown above. You can see the approximate scale/size of the animal track by comparing with the size of the common small black ants.

Measuring the Animal Track Sizes from Your Photographs

You can use some basic data analysis techniques to more accurately determine the sizes of the animal tracks you find. This could also be done in real life of course, by measuring the track on the sand itself. Which would be much easier — assuming I'd thought to do that at the time. Now, I only have the photographs.

I looked up the size of the common black house ant online and it says 2.5 to 3 mm in body length. Then I adjusted the zoom of the track photo so that the ants as seen on my computer screen were exactly that size, using a ruler to measure them:

Photo of my computer screen after adjusting the zoom to make the black ants 2.5-5 mm long - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Photo of my computer screen after adjusting the zoom to make the black ants 2.5-5 mm long. High Resolution 2788 x 2164.

Next, with the same image on the screen (at the same zoom setting, I measured the size of the unknown animal track in the photo, that left the claw marks in the sand:

With the same zoom setting, the claw marks spread across 1 centimetre - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

With the same zoom setting, the claw marks spread across 1 centimetre. High Resolution 2588 x 1824.

Which indicates that the foot size of the unknown animal is quite close to one centimetre, since that is the size across the spread of the claw marks that it left in the sand.

What animal would frequent my garden that has claw marks that look like that?

Using a Trail Camera With the Tracking Box

If you have (or can borrow) a trail camera you can use that with the tracking box to see exactly what animals have made the tracks.

This is the setup we used for our first try at using the tracking box, as pictured at the top of this web page:

Using a trail camera with the clam-shell sandpit tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Using a trail camera with the clam-shell sandpit tracking box. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

The trail camera uses a motion detecting sensor and takes photos whenever something moves in front of it. You can read more here about the trail camera on the trail camera web page. It has an invisible infrared flash, so it can invisibly take pictures in complete darkness. These are black and white (since the infrared illumination does not show the colours of anything). When there's enough daylight to not need the flash, the trail camera takes colour photos.

It was set to take one picture every five seconds, whenever something was moving in front of it. By the time I went back to look at the camera, it had taken 660 photos. Some of the photos were just of blades of grass waving in the wind, in front of the motion detecting sensor. This seemed to happen much more in the daytime than during the night. The second time I set it up, I was very careful to pull out all long blades of grass or other weeds which may have blown around in the wind in front of the trail camera.

Also, the alignment of the tracking box in front of the camera was not perfect. This trail camera does not have an LCD screen that allows you to see the photos on the camera. If you have a camera with that feature, you could do a test photo to point the camera properly in front of the tracking box.

This is the first photo at night that set off the motion detector. And fortunately, it wasn't just the wind and the grass:

First photo of a moving animal in front of the trail camera - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

First photo of a moving animal in front of the trail camera. High Resolution 4320 x 2430.

There were 152 photos taken in this series, all of rats, between the hours of 8:50 pm and 5:52 am. This is very interesting information if you're learning about what animals are prowling around your local vicinity at night, and at what times they are out and about. Here's a couple more from this series. The most rats photographed at any one time was three.

Three rats prowling around the tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Three rats prowling around the tracking box. High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

The rats are eating the meat. In the whole series of 152 photos this was from, the rats barely went down into the actual sand at all. (So there was not much in the way of noticeable rat tracks.) Look under the wheelbarrow - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

The rats are eating the meat. In the whole series of 152 photos this was from, the rats barely went down into the actual sand at all. (So there was not much in the way of noticeable rat tracks.) Look under the wheelbarrow!. High Resolution 4320 x 2430.

In the daytime this cat was captured by the trail camera. So it's now completely clear what made the larger tracks in the track photos near the top of this web page.

In the afternoon a cat visits the tracking box. There were 13 photos showing the cat at this time of its visit - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

In the afternoon a cat visits the tracking box. There were 13 photos showing the cat at this time of its visit. High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

I left it set up like that for a few nights before checking the camera. Out of the 660 photos there were many of the rats, a few of the cat, and quite a few of just the blades of grass blowing in the wind in front of the motion sensor.

Second Setup of the Tracking Box and Trail Camera

This is the setup I used the second time. The tracking box was moved closer to the rear boundary of my property, in hope that a fox would come (it was the exact same place I photographed a fox before).

Second setup of the tracking box  as shown above on this page (including fruit and meat this time), showing the trail camera - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Second setup of the tracking box as shown above on this page (including fruit and meat this time), showing the trail camera. High Resolution 3008 x 2000.

This time there were 348 photos taken over two nights. The camera can also take video but you have to choose one or the other, and I had it set for still photos so I could use them on this web page. All of these photos were at night, and showed four different types of animal:

For this second setup, I took extra care to try to point the trail camera so the tracking box would be right in the middle of its field of view. Unlike the first setup, I got it perfectly correct this time.

Brushtail possums visited the tracking box. I did not know they were interested in meat. Look for the extra pair of eyes - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Brushtail possums visited the tracking box. I did not know they were interested in meat. Look for the extra pair of eyes! High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

There were four photos of this orb-weaving spider, weaving a web in front of the motion sensor, right in the corner of its range of detection.

The trail camera captured this orb-weaving spider near the tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

The trail camera captured this orb-weaving spider near the tracking box. High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

The rats were there again. This time there were only two of them, but they went into the box much more than the first times. Based on the foot size, it would have definitely been a rat that made the track I analysed with a ruler earlier on this web page.

The rats dragged around the meat quite a bit. After the first time I set up the box, and saw the meat had been moved, I thought a larger animal must have moved it than rats.

A rat drags the meat across the sand in the tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

A rat drags the meat across the sand in the tracking box. High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

A rat finishes dragging the meat across the sand in the tracking box - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

A rat finishes dragging the meat across the sand in the tracking box. High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

And a cat also visited, this time in the night:

A cat visits the tracking box at night this time - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

A cat visits the tracking box at night this time. High Resolution 4320 x 2432.

When Not Using Your Tracking Box

The clamshell sandpit/wading pool came in two halves. You could use them for two separate tracking boxes — or you could do what I do and use one as a lid, to keep the sand nice and clean when you're not using the tracking box. If left open, among other things, you'll probably find that local cats like to use it to leave things behind under the sand. It also keeps the rain out, so your tracking box does not fill up with water.

Clam-shell sandpit tracking box with the lid closed (like a real clam - Make an Instant Tracking Box to Learn Animal Tracking - Survival.org.au

Clam-shell sandpit tracking box with the lid closed (like a real clam). High Resolution 2000 x 1331.

Recommended Reading


Tracks, Scats and Other Traces: A Field Guide to Australian Mammals, Barbara Triggs Tracks, Scats and Other Traces: A Field Guide to Australian Mammals, Barbara Triggs. Oxford University Press, 1996. (Third Edition, 2005). Not your usual mammals field guide with pictures of each animal and a description of them. Instead it has pictures of the tracks, the scats (droppings), the skulls and other bones, and other kinds of traces such as scratchings on trees. In other words, the things that you see that the animals have left behind. Which in the case of most of Australian mammals, being nocturnal, that is all you actually see of the animal. Very highly recommended!

Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

Purchase from Australia (Angus & Robertson)

Click here to purchase from Australia (The Nile) $44.49 AUD


Practical Tracking: A Guide to Following Footprints and Finding Animals, By Louis Liebenberg, Adrian Louw, and Mark Elbroch. NEW: Practical Tracking: A Guide to Following Footprints and Finding Animals, By Louis Liebenberg, Adrian Louw, and Mark Elbroch.

Techniques from international tracking experts applicable to any quarry and terrain. How to follow and find elk, deer, bears, cougars, lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, cape buffalo, and more. Finding and identifying tracks and sign of an animal's passing is only part of the ultimate goal for serious trackers, hunters, and outdoorspeople. They want to follow the trail to reach the animal in question. This detailed guide teaches them how. Written by a trio of master trackers, it covers what to look for to discern an animal's pathway, what information tracks and sign convey, how to move through the wilderness to get in sight of the quarry, how to avoid dangerous encounters, and more.

Click here to purchase from Australia (Booktopia)

Click here to purchase from Australia (Fishpond)

Click here to purchase from Australia (The Nile)

Click here to purchase from Amazon

Recommended Listening


Tracking Pack One Tracking Pack One, Jon Young (3 CDs)

CD1: What Tracking Can Do For You & What All Great Trackers Have In Common

Tracking is truly a way of thinking and a powerful tool for observation. It makes one a master of the art of questioning.

Increase your tracking ability by learning from the great trackers of the world? There is much to be learned by studying the ways in which our role models pattern their lives for success in a field.

CD2: Spirit Tracking & Other Feats of Native Awareness

There are many hair-raising, adventurous and inspirational stories from the world of trackers. These happenings make us question the human potential of awareness and even intelligence. Listen to stories from Jon Young as he relates tales of finding animals without seeing tracks. The stories are Inspiring, true, and grounded in experience from many sources. Learn how to increase your own spiritual tracking and instinctive abilities."

CD3: Recipes for Intuitive Tracking

Learn how to increase your own 'spirit tracking' and instinctive abilities through stories of cultures and situations that produce the world's finest trackers.

Purchase from Wilderness Awareness School (USA) $36.95 US (Possibly North American Sales Only)

Purchase from Amazon (Possibly North American Sales Only)

See Also

Tracking Animals – How To Read Animal Tracks
Tracking Quiz
Using a Trail Camera to Practice Trapping and/or Study Animals
Survival and Wilderness Skills Books
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