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Fall is a’coming

The Clark’s Nutcrackers are congregating, waiting for the Limber Pine cones to ripen.  You can tell they’ve arrived as they are a noisy bunch.  As Jays, they are super-intelligent birds.  Every year they cache tens of thousands of seeds and are able to memorize the location of their stashes.  Clark Nutcrackers have a distinctive ‘wing-whirl’, which is a loud noise they make when flying.  Although the pine cones aren’t ready yet, they seem anxious, waiting for just the right moment to steal the seeds away from the waiting red squirrels who also cache the cones for winter food.  I’ve been watching the birds  eating insects while they while away their time.

This year is not only a bad cone year for White Bark pines, but the Limber Pine cone production is  down as well.  This bodes poorly for bears.  But the good news is that with all the rain we’ve had, the berry crop is up.  The chokecherry crop is one of the best in years and I’m waiting with my trail cam for some bears to spend time stripping the berries off the branches before the birds get to them.  The bears seem to know the exact time when they’re ripe, and come around for that week only. And with all the beetle kill, the forests are opening up and changing.  I’ve seen new understories packed with chokecherry bushes–all full of cherries.  

Grizzly bears evolved in the plains.  They can’t climb trees like their forest adapted cousins, the black bears, and their massive claws were meant to dig out roots.  Pushed from their native habitat into the mountains, they prefer burn areas and meadows, places that emulate their native past.  Our mountain forests are rapidly changing with all the downed timber, creating good habitat for the Great Bear.

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

Young bear yesterday coming to look for berries

The little forest next to my house is a perfect example and a fine study area of a rapidly evolving landscape.  With seven springs emerging from the limestone base, there is sufficient water ground water.  The  old growth Englemann Spruce are dead and dying, falling to the ground and leaving large openings where new chokecherry bushes, dogwoods, raspberries, gooseberries, and aspens are rapidly emerging.  This is an area we specifically asked the Forest Service NOT to put in their logging plans.

In contrast, the lands adjacent to the springs are private and were logged by the homeowners through the State Forestry Office (who were concerned about fire protective barriers) 5 years ago.  Approximately 90% of the trees were cut or were blow downs.  This land too has aspens, gooseberries, and grasses–but much of it has a very high ratio, maybe 10:1, of invasives, particularly Canada Thistle.  The combination of moisture, sun, and rapid disturbance provided a perfect storm for the invasives.  The invasives rob moisture and space for other natives that might get a stronghold.  In the non-logged side, the lesson is clear:   slower is better and the forest can naturally restore itself with little interference by man.


Tracking small mammals

With warm temperatures and little snow in my mountain lion tracking areas, I’ve turned to tracking small mammals above my house.  I’m not sure if I am just becoming aware of what these tracks look like, or if I am actually noticing an explosion of long-tailed weasels this year.

During last summer, we had a lot of reports in the neighborhood of weasels.  One neighbor told me her indoor cat killed a baby weasel and left it in the living room.  Obviously, some weasel had gotten into her house and had a litter.  Because weasels kill a tremendous amount of mice, she wasn’t too happy with her cat.  I personally watched a weasel take three baby bluebirds from their nest that were about to fledge.   I attribute all these sighting to an explosion of Unita ground squirrels this summer.

The weasel family has a distinct gait, especially in snow, called a 2×2.

you can see the 2x2 gait where the back feet land in the front feet tracks.

you can see the 2×2 gait where the back feet land in the front feet tracks.

These are really clear weasel tracks on the porch

These are really clear weasel tracks on the porch.  My shoe for size.

The only way I could figure out what kind of weasel I was seeing was to take measurements of the track width.  After taking lots of measurements, I found I’m seeing long-tailed weasels, not ermines.  From my observations, it appears that weasels hardly ever backtrack, unlike squirrels who make a deep trails back and forth between their caches and trees.  They wander from one rock or juniper to the next looking for mice and voles.  The reason you rarely see backtracking is because, unlike squirrels, they don’t have permanent dens.  Instead they go out looking for prey, make a kill, then take over their prey’s nests.  They might use these nests for a few days only.

Vole tracks on snow

Vole tracks on snow close up

Vole bound.  You can see it's tail drag

Vole bound. You can see it’s tail drag.  My shoe is for size.


Mouse tracks in snow

Mouse tracks in snow

I’ve found these weasel tracks in fairly predictable areas–forested areas encircling small to medium sized meadows.  This would make sense considering their prey consists mainly of voles and mice.

I followed a weasel track into the trees and came across Marten tracks.  Martens, like weasels, are mustelids and have that characteristic 2×2 in snow except much bigger.  Where weasels have a trail width of 1″-3″ depending upon which weasel, martens have a trail width of 2 3/4″ to 4 1/2″ and a much bigger foot.  Once you start to recognize these tracks, they will be easy to distinguish from rodents and from each other.

Scale shows width of track

Scale shows width of track

Ruler shows trail width

Ruler shows trail width

The Martens, unlike the weasels, like to travel in heavy timber for protection.  They also eat voles, but take squirrels, carrion, berries,fruit, chipmunks and birds.  Martens climb trees whereas weasels rarely do.  They prefer old growth forests.  James Lowery says that ‘logging that removes old growth trees and forest management practices that result in islands of forest separated by open space do not provide good habitat for marten and, some would say, destroy the health of the forest as well.”    Lowery’s comments makes me wonder about the logging that is going on this winter in the Sunlight area.

I walked up Little Sunlight Campground the other day which has been extensively logged.  Loggers have created huge slash piles.  They took all the largest trees and left islands of narrow girthed conifers in groups with large meadows in between.  When I walked the logging road, I saw almost no tracks except deer and a few elk, but no squirrels or smaller critters.  Are these the best forest practices in a wild place like the GYE?  Many people I talk to say we need this for fire protection, or we need the lumber.  But control burns are better for the habitat as they suppress invasives that come up after logging, and encourage fire adapted plant materials that fix nitrogen to sprout.  This kind of logging will be good for large browsers, but not for martens and other animals that depend on old growth forests and dense cover.

You can see the slash pile beyond Koda.  This was a heavily forested area before logging

You can see the slash pile beyond Koda. This was a heavily forested area before logging