Field Preparation

There are a number of things that you should do before you begin monitoring. Get a map of the area and outline the types of habitats. Obtain information about the wildlife in the area. This can be accomplished through:

  • field guides
  • library search
  • searches of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Wildlife Information Online Service for species known or likely to occur within the study area (all requests must come through a teacher or group coordinator)
  • posters and other literature available through the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service
  • existing species lists (many groups create species lists for their areas, such as city and state parks, zoos, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Wildlife refuges and islands)
  • local Audubon chapters or
  • ask kids

If faced with a question on identification, select the species most abundant in your area and mark the observation as "questionable." However, if you see a species that "shouldn't be here," but you are sure of its identity, record it. Wildlife respond to habitat modifications and climatic changes and may occur where they are unexpected. One observation may not be significant, but 10 or 20 will be.

There are two important items that cannot be stressed enough:

  1. Identification of a species is more important than an accurate count of the number of animals.
    • Find pictures of wildlife. Assign library projects to learn more about the animals that students or participants may encounter in their study sites (i.e. Carolina wrens prefer brushy and tangled areas in or near woods). Obtain field guides and mark sections of the guides where you think you will need to reference the most. Students and beginning birders will not have enough time to thumb through the entire guide to identify a bird flying away from them.
    • Many animals use different types of habitats at different times of the year. They may also use different habitats depending on their age and sex. For example, tadpoles are confined to water, while adult frogs may spend most of their time on land. Female ducks may use shrubs to hide their young, while males may not use shrubs at all.
  2. Observers must be able to estimate the size of the animals!
    • Field guides list the body length of birds, which may be misleading, because the tail is included in this measurement.
    • Identifying marks may also be misleading when two species are similarly marked. For example, the "horns" of the great horned owl are also found on the eastern screech owl. The difference between the birds is size; a great horned owl is about the length of an adult's arm from the elbow to the fingertip, while the eastern screen owl is about the length of an adult's hand from wrist to fingertip. (Fledgling raptors, such as hawks, owls, and eagles, are just as large as their parents when they leave the nest.)

Migratory Animals

Many animals migrate within our state, as well as to, from and through our state. Over 50% of the bird species we see are migratory. One hundred and sixty species are considered neotropical migrants. These birds migrate to Mexico and South America. While swallows, warblers, and osprey are summer visitors, other species like snow geese and many birds of prey spend the winter here. April through May and September through October are the months that many birds pass through our state to their breeding or wintering grounds. These are also the months that many native species migrate from one elevation to another (i.e. up and down mountains).

Looking at the Right Time to View Animals

Wildlife use different parts of their habitat at different times of the year. Different species are also active at different times of the day. Knowing what to look for and when will increase your chances of observing wildlife.

Spring is the breeding season for most animals. Adult bird activity is usually the highest at sunrise and at sunset all year round, but in the spring, nestlings must be fed from sunrise to sunset. All nestlings are fed insects; even some owls eat insects.

Many insects need a certain amount of warmth before they become active. So, on rainy or chilly days, you might see the same amount of bird activity during late morning or early afternoon as you would see at sunrise on a warm day.

Don't forget that many animals are active from dusk to dawn. Make a list of animals active during this time. (Hint: rodents, frogs, bats, owls, common nighthawks and whip-poor-wills.) Even ducks will catch insects at night if there is enough moonlight.

Reptiles and Amphibians (Herps)

Most herps can be found readily from spring through fall. Field guides are very helpful to distinguish markings and colors. However a number of subspecies may be indistinguishable from one another in the field. Field identification marks and details of the geographic distribution may assist in the final identification.

Our goal is to have participants associate species to habitats. Therefore, specimens should be left where they are found. Recent studies have noted that one of the primary causes of the reduction of frogs in a popular wilderness area was due to families collecting tadpoles and taking them home. However, it is safe to say that children will find snakes. If a student has captured an animal, such as a snake, efforts should be made to identify the species before releasing it back to the wild.

The colors and markings of frogs and other amphibians should be described in detail in the field notes or on the WildlifeMapping data collection form, if there is a question on identification.

Students should mark locations where they know herps exist on the 7.5 minute quad map. Using student input, field trips can be conducted at the areas of the highest herp density.

Additional field trips might also be planned in an area unfamiliar to the students, but with habitats similar to the ones studied by the class. This procedure will help reinforce the importance of habitat association.

If herps are found in one wetland or stream and not in another similar habitat, then other data need to be gathered to assess the quality of the habitat. For example, is there a temperature difference, pollution, or water draw-down?


Recording a mammal sighting during a field trip should be considered a bonus more than an expected occurrence.

Mammals are the most difficult group of animals to study because there are many species that we commonly call by one name. For example, there are 10 species/subspecies of mice and 6 species/subspecies of squirrels. While mice are almost impossible to identify without handling them (and we don't expect you to), each species of squirrel has unique markings and is located in specific areas of the state. Field guides will provide the habitat requirements, locations and information to identify the different squirrels, as well as other mammals.

Many of the large mammals are difficult to find. However, there are 13 species of bats in Virginia. (There are more species of bats in Virginia than any other mammal group.) Bats are usually seen at dusk, flying over water, open fields, and high in the canopy of forests. Many people see bats, but mistake them for starlings or swallows.

General codes, such as 050131 (found in Appendix 1) for bats, should be used when a bat is observed, but the exact species cannot be identified. We know very little about bats, and knowing their general locations would be very helpful.

An innovative procedure to identify small mammals is used at the Golden Gate State Park in Washington State. Volunteers create soot trays by burning cloth diapers with kerosene to produce a fine layer of soot on aluminum trays. The trays are set out under brush with cans of cat food located at the edge to entice visitors. The footprints made in the trays are lifted from the soot using wide, clear packing tape, and pressed onto white sheets of paper. The volunteers take the paper to the museums for proper identification. The complete instructions are available to interested WildlifeMappers.