Determining Observer Reliability in Counts of River Otter Tracks



ABSTRACT  In many research projects, reliability of collected data is dependent on reliability of field observers. However, it is uncommon for observer reliability to be either measured or reported in wildlife research. We tested whether observer skill affected outcomes of a northern river otter (Lontra canadensis) track survey conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Observers recorded presence of tracks at bridge sites (n = 250) throughout a 27-county region in east Texas, USA. Logistic regression indicated that observers were significantly associated with frequency of reported otter tracks. Because observers were not assigned to bridges at random, we tested and found associations between the bridges surveyed by each observer (SURVEY ROUTE) and habitat variables (WATERSHED, VEGETATION-TYPE, WATER-TYPE, BRIDGE-AREA) that may have influenced otter presence and probability of detection. A standardized tracker evaluation procedure indicated that experienced observers (n = 7) misidentified 37% of otter tracks. Additionally, 26% of tracks from species determined to be “otter-like” were misidentified as otter tracks. We recommend that observer skill in identification of animal tracks and other indirect signs be measured to detect and reduce observer errors in wildlife monitoring.