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The Block Survey – an under-used wildlife survey method

By Sean Mitchell

The fox pups leapt through the tall vegetation, their still-brownish coats contrasting with the yellowing grasses as the light declined at the end of day. They gamboled and wrestled with each other. Sitting motionless about three metres away, I watched as they rolled together in my direction until about half that distance. Little brown balls of fluff, all feet and legs; awkward and ungainly. Still figuring out their coordination. The mother paced patiently over and gathered her offspring before they had strayed too far from her oversight. She too approached very closely to me, collected the little guys and directed them back the way they had come. This had been an unexpected surprise, a family of vixen and two pups, possibly more young that I had not seen. A den was clearly nearby. That would be a search for another day.

This account is not unusual during a wildlife survey method called a block survey; a technique with a long history but rarely done any longer. The method is uncomplicated and requires no technology — it is simply sitting quietly for a period of time and paying attention to things around you. I have seen otters playing, birds nesting, deer bedding, owls hunting; students have been approached by deer and coyotes as they sit quietly and unmoving. The technique is intuitive and effective, and ancient as the human hunter. Sit quietly, don’t move, look, listen, smell.

Historically this was the route of studying animal behaviour, distribution, and abundance. The classic studies of wildlife ecology all used this; some more than others. Today it is lesser used as employers do not like the perception of staff sitting still, but this technique will allow you to see things unobservable in other ways. You will see animals in undisturbed behaviour. You will observe the species of interest in the context of the environment and other animals coexisting with it. And importantly, you will see more than you ever have before as you sit in one place and let the environment come alive around you.

We are a lumbering giant when we walk through the forest. Nearly every animal in North America is considerably smaller than us and so they are aware of our approach well ahead of our advance; we are Godzilla to most of them. The block survey is a method to circumvent the disturbance we make as we blunder through the bush. By sitting silently we allow the animals to come to accept our presence and, as long as we do not fidget and continually disturb them, resume their activities and allow our observations. The longer you can sit quietly, the more you will see. In my experience it requires 45 minutes for a forest to recover after I have walked into it.

Block surveys are meditative. This is valuable as it is time to think, a commodity rare in our world of velocity and activity. The sitting quietly begins to allow us insight into the pace of the natural world, which is far slower than that at which we live. But to observe and understand wildlife we need to witness it at its pace, not ours. Whatever your interest in wildlife – observing, studying, monitoring, hunting, trapping – the block survey should be in your repertoire. Rather than time “wasted’ by inactivity, it is time invested in a deeper understanding of the animals that you seek.

The block survey is one technique taught within NRTG’s Wildlife Survey Field Methods