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Unusual Wildlife Captures this spring

Yesterday I hiked to one of my trail camera sites planning on retiring the camera for the summer. Because our deer and elk migrate into the high country around Yellowstone starting in May, there is little action with large predators. Grizzly bears start to disappear around early July. On the east side of Yellowstone in the high elevation cirques of the Absarokas, moth sites feed the bears. Cougars are following our deer which make one of the longest migrations in the ecosystem. Wolves probably completed denning and will be taking their pups to rendezvous sites with a babysitter or two, while the other adults forage for food.

Cougar print
Cougar print at 10,000 feet early June in the Beartooths. Lions are following the migrating elk

So you can imagine my surprise when I looked at my camera videos. My newest male cougar is still hanging around, marking his territory with scrapes. He appears to have beat off another large male that has one eye, the other probably lost in a fight. One-eye was last seen at the end of March.

New male in the area. Notice he has eyeshine in both eyes, distinguishing him from One-Eye

Even more exciting, I caught a mating pair of grizzlies. By the time of the year, and the fact that these are two adults, you can be sure this video is a male following a female in estrus.

Large male grizzly. See video link for full story

In summer, when grizzlies disperse for high elevations, the black bears take over. Male black bears will make sure to display who is boss by tree rubbing, destroying cameras, and stomping which also puts down their scent. Interestingly, grizzlies know they are the real top of the food chain and could care less about cameras, although they do rub trees, both males and females. Here is a video of a grizzly female with two cubs spending time tree marking with her cubs following suit.

Mama Grizzly. See video link for story

On a very interesting note, I camera-captured two blonde animals this spring—a fox and a black bear—both fairly rare. To understand this in greater depth, I contacted Jim Halfpenny, well-known mammalogist and tracker. Jim told me he had never seen a fox this blonde, whether at fur sales or in the field. He thought maybe this fox could be a fur farm escapee, but in my inquiries we haven’t had a fox farm in the Big Horn Basin since 1996, plus I live in the high mountains next to Yellowstone so the mystery continues. In addition I’ve never had a fox show up at this location before. This little blonde red fox continued to visit this site over the course of several months, which adds to the mystery.

Blonde phase Red Fox. See the entire video via link above

The blonde phase black bear is also unusual around these parts. Halfpenny told me he had only seen one briefly around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and never as blonde as this one. Color phases of black bears are not unusual, but the blonde phase is the rarest. Here is a link to an interesting breakdown of color phases of black bears in North America. Although it is presented by a hunter, it is informative. I do NOT support any trophy hunting, but I encourage you to watch this for information. No actual hunting is in the video.

A large carnivore biologist who I showed the videos to had an interesting thought. “Wonder if this is a genetic expression due to the initiation of climate change,” he wrote me. Thinking outside the box leads to interesting possibilities.

Blonde phase Black Bear. See video via link above

Finally, my new book Shadow Landscape is now available on Amazon. These are stories of wildlife encounters I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. I appreciate all my readers and followers. Thanks for your interest in our iconic wildlife.

Fishers, Neo-Cortex, The Killer Claw. What wasn’t in Ghostwalker.

What didn’t get into my new book Ghostwalker: Tracking a Mountain Lion’s Soul through Science and Story? A lot of fascinating information trackers, researchers, and others told me just couldn’t squeeze into the narrative. Here are some excerpts from interviews with trackers and a researcher I interviewed.

From Jim Sullivan, Sonoma County Tracker:

badger tracks dune slack

Our language causes us to think that when you say something you really ‘have’ it. It’s always in flux. I’ve studied lots of science, and one thing that’s really important to understand is that things don’t follow laws. Laws are like a grid we put on it in order to understand what’s happening. Not necessarily the way it is, it’s how it moves.

I’ll tell you a little about my teaching in my class. I teach a traditional native  style tracking. The native trackers tracked in sacred time and I started asking myself what that meant and what their spiritual life was like. What I understand about it is to make it into a spiritual practice and a meaningful part of your life, you got to look at tracking as a metaphor. So all the different things you do in tracking actually took place at a time when our neo-cortex was forming 2 million years ago. Our brain is designed to work that way because it came into being in order to solve tracking problems. You know how in tracking you have the four views? You have the eagle’s view, then you have the standing view, the kneeling view, and you are also instructed to go around the object so you can see it from different lights. That’s a metaphor to learning anything. A way of expressing it is that you have to look at everything from all the different sides. Most people tend to have kind of a laser focus. They know one version of it real well and then they speak with authority about it. But you’re not really an authority until you know all the main opinions. So that’s how I look at tracking. Even applying that to mountain lions. Things change depending upon your point of view, and also your presence and also other presences. When you make statements about wolves are a certain way, bobcats are a certain way, you have to do that, but it’s just a grid you’re putting on what the animals are actually doing. Takes the edge off it.

Matt Nelson told me how they set traps and tracked on Mark Elbroch’s Colorado study:


It was pretty neat. We would set these traps where the cat had to set its foot exactly where you wanted it. It would jerk a little cable snare tight around its wrist and the cat was stuck there. One of the neat things about these methods nowadays is they have transmitters on them, both cage traps and snares. So as soon as that animal was captured, we’d get a signal on our radio and we would hustle in there and minimize the time that animal was trapped. Those were the three methods: Hounds, cage traps and snares.

The sooner we could get cameras into a kill, the more information we could get. We’d try and recognize the GPS data. We got pretty good; we knew the cat was on a kill the very next morning. We’d hike in there real quick. Typically you never saw the cat. But what we started doing was we started sneaking in. Real quietly and just trying to see them. And sure enough, we started seeing them. We’d watch a mama creep out with kittens and sneak away from us. Then we’d go back to the GPS data, and you’d see she had walked out a little ways, wait for us to leave, then walk right back down to their kill, the next hour. GPS collars are very accurate within a meter, but hand-held ones are not that good. Every time we walked into a kill was a tracking adventure. We’d find where the animal came in, and try to read the story of the kill as best we could depending upon what kind of sign there was. Then we’d piece it all together amongst ourselves. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot in those months. Science is invasive. Darting an animal and collaring it is extremely invasive. Mark’s idea was if we’re going to be invading an animal’s life this much, let’s get all we can. Let’s make it pay as best we can to honor the cat.

I worked one winter and part of one summer. Obviously the snow holds tracks, but sometimes we were in waist deep snow and its not easy. In the summertime, if the substrate was good, we’d go out, take numerous GPS points from where the cat had been the previous day. We’d start at one point and trail the animal, and if we ever lost it we’d know know where to pick it up at the next GPS point. Sometimes you could follow an animal a great distance if the substrate was good and the conditions right. GPS was back up in case we lost the trail.

Jim Halfpenny, mammalogist and tracker from Gardiner Montana told me lots of great tracking stories:

My real interest in cougars started in 1982; I got called into Nederland, CO. A bear had mauled a horse inside the town of Nederland. Forest Service called me and I went in and looked at it. I looked around a little bit and I said This is not a bear that mauled a horse. It’s a cougar. Which really shocked people; a cougar in the middle of town. On the edge of the horse there were five claw marks, and Forest Service said it has to be a bear it has five claws. On a cougar, the dew claw doesn’t show on a print and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. It’s called the killer claw because it will wrap around something. If you ever have a house cat wrap around, you’ll get five marks. And the claw marks were thin not fat. Hey guys, I’m sorry. Cats leave five claw marks, you don’t realize this. I went home that night and started thinking about it. What is a cougar doing in a town? That’s what started a project.

Research ecologist Peter Stine based out of Northern California worked with Carl Koford who did some of the original estimates on mountain lion populations in the 1980s using track lines. Koford drove hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt roads around the state to determine tracks per linear mile. Here Peter talks with me about fisher populations in the Southern Sierras and mountain lions:


We started the study because the fisher is a forest carnivore, and the assumption is that fisher population are affected by forest management. We wanted to better understand how many fisher are there and how they are relating to their habitat. There’s a detailed study that was started just south of Yosemite. To cut to the chase, turns out the number one cause of mortality is predation and mostly mountain lions. Typically it appears they’re killing them but not eating them. Why and what’s the impact of predation on the fisher population? Fishers in the southern Sierra are very rare. They were petitioned for listing as an endangered species but that petition was ultimately denied. But the point is they’re rare and apparently declining, and predation by mountain lions appears to be a pretty significant factor. This prompted some more detailed work that’s going on right now in the Sierras to look at the whole predator complex in the Sierra Nevada and predator relationship to one another. Mountain lions much prefer deer over other prey species. The big question is: Is there enough deer in the Sierras for lions or are deer populations declining or at a low level because of forest management and densification of forests.? Does that have an influence on mountain lions and their behavior towards other predators?These are all questions that are important for us to understand, especially if we are going to address fisher population in its apparent imperiled status. Data we have on fisher is that they like closed forest, they like multi-layered canopy, they need den sites and rest sites distributed across their home range which is quite large. We don’t still understand what a healthy viable landscape should look like when you consider both fisher habitat requirements and other species like spotted owls, how that juxtaposes with resilient forests that have experienced frequent fire and that you’d normally consider to be a heterogeneous landscape that has dense forest and patches of opening which presumably based on everything we know was what forests looked like prior to heavy influence from European people.

There’s so much more great info I can share in future posts from interviews for Ghostwalker that I could not include in the book. Stay tuned.


How to Make a Plaster Track Cast

As the creeks and streams subside, now is a good time to walk the river to look for tracks. Plus when it’s hot, Koda loves it too.  I put on my water sandals and shorts, stash my backpack with all the items I need to cast prints, and head for Sunlight Creek.

Where I found the tracks.

Where I found the tracks.

This time of year one might find resident animal tracks, like badger or mink.  Moose and deer are always around the creek.  In the fall grizzlies come down to investigate hay fields, berries, and gut piles from  hunter kills.  They’ll walk the river as a corridor.

Some of the best areas for small animals are the creek sides.  Larger wildlife course the entire stream. I cross the river over and over, checking in the wet sand and mud for tracks and finally find a set I want to cast.

I found some tracks that are interesting enough to cast

I found some tracks that are interesting enough to cast

The first order of business is to set up my casting materials.  You need to bring Plaster of Paris, a larger cup for mixing (I suggest 2), something to hold water to pour into your mixing cup, and a sturdy spatula.  I bring a garbage bag as a table to prevent the plaster from getting everywhere.  Keeping the stream area clean and free of plaster is important.

Simple tools you need for your cast

Simple tools you need for your cast

On the left you see my large tub of plaster.  I bring a lot in case I want to make several casts.  On the right is my 16oz. plastic cup with the plaster.

Around the tracks you want to cast, make a circular dam with the surrounding sand.  This will be the edges of your cast and prevents the plaster from just flowing everywhere.

Now fill your cup with plaster and add water a little at a time.  You want the consistency to be like cake batter.  Mix well with the spatula.  If it’s too runny then it won’t set correctly or will just take way to long to set. Too hard and you won’t be able to pour it.  Make sure all the lumps and dry plaster are gone and mixed well.

The plaster is setting.  Takes about 15-20 minutes depending upon weather and sun exposure

The plaster is setting. Takes about 15-20 minutes depending upon weather and sun exposure

Today I was having a hard time because it was so hot the plaster was setting up quickly in the cup before I had a chance to pour it.

Pour gently into your tracks and the mold area.  You want to be certain that the plaster gets into the tracks and there are no bubbles.  Once the mixture fills the casting area, you can lightly tap and smooth with your spatula to get rid of any air pockets.  Don’t make the cast too thin or it will be fragile when dry.

The best thing to do while waiting is to look for more tracks.  Work one direction as you cast prints, then backtrack to retrieve your casts.  It takes, depending upon the weather and wetness of your site, about 15 to 20 minutes to set fully.

Once hard, pull up gently.  You can wash the sand and dirt off in the river, but don’t scrub it at this point.  The plaster will not set up full until thoroughly dry, probably the next day.  Be gentle with these new casts as they can break easily.

Cast removed from track.  Still fragile

Cast removed from track. Still fragile.  You are seeing dirt and sand

Once dry, you can wash the cast outside and rub more dirt off.  Don’t rub it too clean as the dirt provides contrast enough so you can see the track more clearly.

Cast on right is dry and finished. Left is today's cast.  It's dry enough to wash but not to completely clean.

Cast on right is dry and finished. Left is today’s cast. It’s dry enough to wash but not to completely clean. Same animal, different days.

Use a permanent marker on the back of the cast to date it and put the location where you found the track.

Now all that’s left is to identify your track.  Anyone have ideas what this animal was?

Some Lessons from the Greatest Hunter/Tracker turned Conservationist of the 20th Century

I first read Jungle Lore  by Jim Corbett when I was studying tracking years ago. Jungle Lore is considered to be Corbett’s autobiography.  Most people know Jim Corbett as the killer of man-eating tigers and leopards.

Jim Corbett

Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett tracked and killed 33 man-eaters that were preying on people in the villages of the northern Indian region of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. They were said to have killed over 1200 individuals.  Corbett tells these stories in his book Man-Eaters of Kumaon.  Corbett found that the majority of these tigers and leopards had severe wounds that prevented them from hunting their customary prey–gunshot wounds or embedded porcupine quills.  A few of these animals simply got a taste for humans after human plagues and diseases caused massive regional deaths where bodies were piled up outside villages.

Tigress in Jim Corbett National Park, India

Corbett grew up in the Kumaon region, learning from an early age about the ways of the jungle.  He loved India, was a champion of the poor, would not kill a tiger or leopard without first confirming it was a man-eater, and worked tirelessly to protect tigers.  The first national park in India bears his name.

Because Corbett was able to do what no other human or even army could, many in India consider him a sadhu or holy man.  His books are worth reading.

Corbett explaining to villagers about man-eating tigers

What I want to concentrate on in this blog entry are a few gems in his book Jungle Lore.  Corbett as a youth, learned to identity every sound in the jungle–every bird and animal.  He was a consummate tracker.

A dog barks, and all who hear it know it is barking to welcome its master; or barking with excitement at being taken for a run; or barking with frustration at a treed cat; or barking with anger at a stranger; or just barking because it is chained up.  In all these cases it is the intonation of the bark that enables the hearer to determine why the dog is barking.

When I had absorbed sufficient knowledge to enable me to identify all the jungle folk by their calls, ascribe a reason for the call, and imitate many of them sufficiently well to get some birds and a few animals to come to me or to follow me, the jungle took on an added interest, for not only was I able to take an interest in the surroundings within sight but also in the surroundings to the limit of my hearing….

Having acquired the ability of being able to pinpoint sound, that is, to assess the exact direction and distance of all sounds heard, I was able to follow the movement of unseen leopards and tigers.

Most of us don’t think of ‘listening’ as well as looking during our walk in the woods. Many of us can identify birds by their song, but being able to identify the nuances of animal calls is a highly trained tracking ability that probably few people have thought to try to acquire.

In the book Corbett talks about his love of nature, how the jungle cannot be learned from textbooks, but must be absorbed little by little–a process that builds upon itself over time; an open book of great interest that has no ending.

…for the time I spent in the jungle held unalloyed happiness for me.  My happiness, I believe, resulted from the fact that all wild life is happy in its natural surroundings.

The reason I reread Jungle Lore revolves around a personal story for me.  In the summer of 1972 I was backpacking in Waterton-Glacier National Park with two friends. We made camp by a beautiful lake, hung our food, and built a fire. As dusk settled in, we noticed a large bear coming through the woods towards our hanging food sacks. Seeing these sacks were out of reach, the bear continued towards our camp. In those days, bear advice consisted of banging on pots and pans, climbing trees or jumping into lakes. With the surrounding trees limbless stilts, and the lake glacier-fed, we banged on pots till they were mangled. Unfazed by our noise, the bear rummaged through our nearby backpacks.

We built our fire to a roaring blaze, watching speechless and dumbfounded. This bear’s behavior appeared odd. Nothing perturbed or frightened him. Instead, he approached us, smelled our down jackets, stretched his head between us to investigate the fire–only to burn his nose–and tried tasting my friend’s leg. When she yelped, he leaped back in surprise, leaving her only bruised. He proceeded to explore our tents. Using an old trick, I threw rocks into the woods and the bear left to inspect them.

The next morning we hiked to a backcountry ranger cabin.  The ranger told us the story of  ‘The Night of the Grizzlies’, an incident where in one night 2 women were pulled out of their sleeping bags by two different grizzlies and eaten.  At that time the Park officials felt the connection had been both of these women were menstruating, but that has since been proven false.  Both of these bears, as well as the large black bear that entered our camp, were human-fed bears, habituated to people because of open dumpsters and dirty campgrounds. The Craighead brothers had just finished their 10-year study in Yellowstone and were advising closing of the dumps.  Park policies were beginning to change, but the bears didn’t know that yet.

Our bear was simply curious and meant us no harm.  He was looking for a food hand-out, probably something he’d been rewarded with before and for sure something his mother had taught him.  Bears, both black and grizzly, had been dumpster- fed for many decades in both Yellowstone and Glacier.

For many years after that I wondered about my emotional response.  Even though that bear had nosed his way, literally, right between me and my friends, I had remained calm and unafraid.  I was more curious than afraid.  I wondered if my cool response was because I was unadapted to the dangers in that environment. Sure, I thought to myself, if this had been a bad neighborhood in a city, and that bear had been a strange man approaching us, I would have registered fear.  So why wasn’t I afraid?

Years later I read a passage from Jungle Lore which explained everything.  In this passage, Corbett, as a youth, was walking down a back road with his dog Magog. Corbett heard voices of men shouting, and then suddenly a leopard ran from the brush and stopped on the road only 10 yards uphill.

This was the first leopard that Magog and I had ever see, and as the wind was blowing up the hill I believe our reactions to it were much the same–intense excitement, but no feeling of fear.  This absence of fear I can now, after a lifetime’s experience, attribute to the fact that the leopard had no evil intentions towards us. Driven off the road by the men, he was quite possibly making for the mass of rocks over which Magog and I had recently come, and on clearing the bushes and finding a boy and a dog directly in his line of retreat he had frozen, to take stock of the situation.  A glance at us was sufficient to satisfy him that we had no hostile intentions towards him.  And now, satisfied from our whole attitude that he had nothing to fear from us, he leapt from his crouching position and in a few graceful bounds disappeared into the jungle behind us.

With that one simple statement, Corbett unveiled my instinctual response.  And that I believe is the key to how to approach living with large predators in our midst.  We must stay alert, awake, and aware, yet most of all trust our own instincts, for they will guide us.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear



Tracking notes

The other morning, after a nice light new snow, I drove the dirt road.  The elk were out, as always in the early morning, feeding, in a large group of over 700.  As I continued my drive, I came to a fresh track of two wolves that had run down the road.  They weren’t wandering, but directed towards somewhere.  In short order, another wolf came trotting in from the nearby meadows. Then another, and another.  Soon the tracks clearly showed 6 wolves running alongside each other.

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Over time six wolves came trotting down the road

Every so often I’d stop the car, get out, and examine the track.  These were the Hoodoos, a pack of stout, large wolves with the alpha tracks measuring around 5″ long x 4″ wide.

Wolf print

They didn’t appear in a hurry or threatened, for they were all side trotting with a stride about 30″. Their tracks sometimes overlapped or meandered.  Occasionally a few of them run off the road, then return at a different location.  These might have been the pups, exploring and meandering more than adults would.

Then a strange thing happened.  It appeared that more and more wolves were ‘returning’ to the road, all traveling in the same direction.  At one point I struggled to tease apart all the tracks and I counted eleven or twelve wolves!  I knew there was no way we had this big a pack in our area this year.  There are two packs around, but they don’t travel together.  I couldn’t figure it out.

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves

I counted around 11 or 12 wolves with all the tracks in the same direction and the same freshness

Then tracks ended by running off the roadside into a field of brush and willows, a haven for a young bull moose newly kicked out on his own this year.  I saw magpies hanging on the fence by the willow’s edge. So this was what all the ruckus of tracks was about!  I realized that these wolves had made a kill in the willows, fed for a while there, then headed off, only to circle back via the road and feed once more.

A few mornings later I walked out into the willows.  I was curious if that young moose had been their victim.  Moose are scarce here, having a hard time making a comeback between diseases, the ’88 fires destroying habitat, the warm summer and winter temperatures, as well as added predators.  Moose suffer heat stress in winter when temperatures are above 23 degrees.  Since early January most of our daytime temps have been above freezing, and many days in the 40’s and 50’s.  Thinking that it’s rare to find elk hanging in dense willow cover these days, I was afraid it was this moose that had been killed.

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Hoodoo wolf prowling around

Yet the elk had been acting strangely early in the year–I’d seen them alone, in small groups, in tight areas, feeding mid-day, and not in the larger herds I’m used to.  But in the last several weeks, their ‘normal’ patterns have returned–normal for winters here means elk moving in large bunches from 100-700 elk and feeding early morning and late afternoons.  Although elk patterns are mysterious, I’m suspecting that when the elk came down from the Park in late December this year, the wolves were late in following them and were still higher up.  But as soon as the Hoodoos got to work, the elk became the herd animals nature intended.  Unlike many wolf packs in years past that resorted to killing deer, the Hoodoos are experienced hunters and know how to kill elk.

Here's my moose

Here’s my moose

With the help of a Koda sniff, we found the leg of the animal.  Not our moose but an elk, and it looked like a two or three year old from the look of the skin.  On the way back home, I saw that moose that had been hanging out in those willows for weeks on end.  He had moved up the road to a different area.

Sometimes it pays not to jump to conclusions, but instead be patient, and attempt to tease apart the puzzle of wildlife.

Some winter musings

So far this winter has been a roller coaster of temperatures.  December brought weeks of sub- zero temps, while almost every day in January was in the high 30’s and 40’s.  All our snow in the valley melted and the ground was bare.  Then one day two feet of snow fell, and didn’t stop. One constant has been wind–a lot of it and up to 50 mph.

Before all the deep snows came, I spent a lot of time watching for wildlife and sometimes seeing them.  I had several glimpses of a lame coyote, with a hurt or broken back left leg.  One day I saw him scurry across a wide field.  I wondered if he’d make it through the winter, with his lameness as well as wolves to watch out for.  Then a few weeks later I saw him stealing a large bone from a recent deer kill.  It was early morning when I noticed the coyote.  He saw my car and started running for cover.  It was then I saw it was my limpy friend.  I took a few photos and was on my way.

Here's the fellow.  Who knows what happened to his leg.

Here’s the fellow. Who knows what happened to his leg.  In his attempt to flee, he dropped his prize bone.  That’s when I left, allowing him to return to it.

Poor guy had it tough enough without me making it harder.  But on the way home I checked for his tracks.  I was curious what a useless left back leg would look like in the tracks.

The arrow points the direction he was headed

The arrow points the direction he was headed

coyote limp

You can tell what a difficult time he is having because his gait is so uneven.  Look for that tiny imprint of his lame foot.

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg.  The back legs are in front because he is running

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg. The back legs are in front because he is running

One ski tour I took a few more photos of tracks.  This time a Snowshoe Hare and a Marten track

Distinct weasel-type prints 2x2

Distinct weasel-type prints 2×2

Front feet are in the rear and the back feet on top.  Look how big and wide the back feet are, like a snowshoe.  Hence, the name

Front feet are in the rear and the back feet on top. Look how big and wide the back feet are, like a snowshoe. Hence, the name

Here’s a photo from January on the flats behind my house.  Where’s all the snow?

This is a large herd of about 350 elk.  No snow in January

This is a large herd of about 350 elk. No snow in January

Here’s a puzzle.  We had a few days of intense snow without a let-up.  During a short let-up of the storm, I took a walk around our woods and discovered this interesting ‘hole’.  It doesn’t go anywhere, but was obviously a temporary snow shelter dug out during the storm just above the base of a tree on a hillside.  The hole measured about 6 or 7 inches across, big enough for a fox or a skunk.  I have seen skunks once here, but they are rare.  So are raccoons at this altitude.  I wondered what could have done this.  All tracks were obliterated by the recent snows.

Hole that doesn't go anywhere dug out for a temporary shelter.

Hole that doesn’t go anywhere dug out for a temporary shelter.

I found bobcat tracks around my house.  Bobcats have become quite rare around here because of intense trapping.  Bobcat pelts can go for up to $1000! and so a lot of newbies want to cash in.  Wyoming has no limit on how many bobcats a person can trap and the season is long, pretty much all winter.  So I set up a camera trap to get some photos.  I’ve never been successful catching photos of bobcats, except the few times I’ve seen them myself.  But instead of catching a bobcat, I caught a shot of this fox.Fox

I understand from some old timers around here that foxes used to be quite rare.  Canines are territorial and will kill other canines in their area.  Wolves kill coyotes, coyotes kill foxes.  I’ve seen foxes quite a lot since I’ve lived here and I think the wolves are keeping the coyotes either ‘in check’ or enough on their toes so that there is room for foxes again.

I discovered a secret game trail that is quite a hike from my house.  An old water diversion ditch, it appeared the wildlife were using it frequently.  I also found a deer kill nearby.  To confirm my suspicions, I set my trail camera up and left it there for 6 weeks.  I got a lot of photos of rabbits, deer, elk, coyotes, and wolves.  Here are a few.  Look at the temperature on the two nighttime wolf photos.  Its -33 degrees!


Wolf stares into camera


Bull elk

Nice Bull Elk


see the second set of eyes in the background

I really do live in a special place, right next to Yellowstone National Park!

Everyone needs a Study Area

Everyone who is interested in nature needs a study area.  Jon Young recommends a ‘secret spot’ that you go to everyday and sit for 45 minutes to an hour.  While you sit you listen, possibly take notes, then journal upon your return. You will get to know one area intimately–the birds and their alarms, the movements of wildlife through the area, the seasonal changes.

This winter I was with a friend who is an excellent tracker; so much so that he has started doing tracking studies for a living.  A property owner might be curious who is visiting his land.  Richard goes to the site several times over the course of a month or more and studies the sign left by the wildlife.  He showed me a map of one site he’d done.  That excited me and I thought I could do that in my little woods during the winter months.  Then I realized that I’d been doing something like that, informally, all along.  Every time I walked through the woods, I mentally noted who’d been visiting, either through tracks, other sign, or even my trail camera.  So I decided that I’d do a more concentrated and documented study.

In some of my past entries this winter, I’ve noted what I found: lots of martens and weasels, cougar sign, meagre rabbit sign, wolves, coyotes, etc.  I tried putting some of this into a map.  I thought maybe if I could map it, then I might be able to determine how many martens inhabit my study area or how many weasels.  By knowing where I saw the sign, then I could use others science on the approximate square area a weasel occupies.

Study area 2013

This is my hand drawn map of my study area. Different colors relate to different animal tracks. Dashed lines are trails Hatched lines are fences.

My study area covers approximately two square miles, some meadow with sparse limber pines, lots of hillside with mostly douglas fir, and wetlands that have logged spruce.  The mountain I traipsed through regularly is structured like a wedding cake, tilting and falling over on its side.  Layer upon layer rises up as a series of platforms, reaching into a scree area.  The top layers are decorated with large boulders.  The icing is snow that leaves a record of all the guests.

What did I learn?  Plenty!  By walking regularly through a defined area, I feel I came close to entering the secret world of animals.  I became privy to their goings on–where the bobcat hunts and where he rests; the high energy rhythms of the weasel moving from tree to tree, hole to hole, looking for voles; the mysterious interactions of cougars and wolves; and the exuberance of resident coyotes who’ve been hiding and silent when the wolves were here, but when the pack returned to the park, they began their singing once more.

The YNP wolves visited Sunlight this winter for a few months.

The YNP wolves visited Sunlight this winter for a few months.

There is an entire world, separate from the narcissistic preoccupations of human society, occurring simultaneously.  It has its own language.  The animals understand that language, yet I have to relearn it.   I found that it wasn’t about watching one animal alone, but the relationship between all the wildlife that was fascinating.  Wildlife are well aware of each other.  Only us modern humans are deaf to this living web.  By combining oneself with the ‘natural’ world,  possibly a door might unlock to another way of seeing the world and its Mysteries altogether.

Mysteries of the Universe captured in sound

Mysteries of the Universe captured in sound

Cat Tracking and a wildlife bonanza

The Plateau

I’ve been hiking the plateau for several days now and, wow, what a lot of wildlife activity is going on there.  A few days ago on my first jaunt I ran into a fairly fresh elk carcass.  She was a very large and old elk.  I’d been seeing lots of wolf tracks on the plateau and of course there were fresh tracks leading to the carcass

Rabbit prints with my own footprints too

That same day I realized where all the cottontails are–on Dead Indian plateau!  The cottontails here seemed active and numerous and here I found and tracked a bobcat hunting them.

Several days later I explored a cliff edge on the plateau that looks out over Sunlight creek gorge.  There, on a prominence, were over a dozen Mountain Goats, safely grazing on the edges where no sane predator including humans would go.

But today was a bonanza.  There are plenty of deer on the plateau, and although there are elk tracks and other evidence of elk, I haven’t seen any with my own eyes.  But I do run into deer occasionally.  And with all the granite cliffs and rocks, that makes for perfect cat country.  After scrambling up a huge granite boulder, I saw from afar some interesting large tracks that at first glance could be mistaken for wolf.  But as soon as I got close enough to make them out, there was no question what they were–cougar tracks.  I followed them for a while into a heavy deer area when they disappeared under the blown snow from yesterday.  Some of the tracks were perfect ice.  Seeing those tracks takes one’s breath away.

This track measures 3"x3" approx.

It seemed like this cougar was following me, figuratively not literally.  As I lost the cougar farther back, I began concentrating on my bobcat that I found in virtually the same location as the other day.  He or she was weaving around, obviously hunting again.  Here is a photo of where the cat stopped to scratch in the snow.  

Here is a photo of the bobcat in a sit-down in front of a large sage brush.  Obviously something caught his attention there.

Bobcat sitdown

And there again was my cougar, making the rounds in this area too.  Here are two prints comparing a cougar print with a bobcat, for size.

Cougar hind track measuring 2.75 x 3.25

bobcat track measuring 1.75 x 2"

This rocky area is incredibly active–so much going on.  Partly because it is usually always windswept of snow, it is good ungulate habitat in the winter, which means food for predators.  In the fall bears frequent the area to look for limber pine middens.

It was great fun tracking big and small cats today; and knowing that you’re in the presence of a cougar your heart skips a beat.  Luckily, I have my personal wolf to protect me.

My great protector concentrating on his ball while a buck glides in the background

Cracking the Egg

This is an blog entry from a new guest writer, Richard Vacha, head of Marin County Tracking Club.  I am happy to have Richard as an occasional contributor.

To the early Apaches, Tracking and Awareness were the same word. This has taken me quite a while to really understand. Though certainly there are times in the life of a hunter-gather when tracks will be followed, the term “tracking” is also about noticing the details around us and putting the pieces together in an ongoing, dynamic realization. This is where modern nature appreciation meets up with ancient survival hunting, where immersion begins.

We have called this kind of tracking various things, from “holistic awareness” to “bringing the world back to life” or, simply, Awareness Tracking. It is a way of walking through the world, seeing the earth coming to life as we go forth, the whole panoply falling into patterns that make sense and reveal their interconnectedness.

Awareness tracking is concerned with weather history, seasonal cycles, landscape and topography, plant and insect communities, feeding sign, bird movements, and more. With a working knowledge of local animal populations, very small details quickly yield broad insights. A tracker develops a living sense of how animals are shifting in response to the progression of the seasons, where individuals live, what their territories are, and when they are active. When we approach nature this way, it is like cracking open a magical egg and watching an endless parade of surprises issue forth.

The smallest observations begin the process. On a walk near Limantour, I find a feather on the ground. A closer look reveals a cluster of feathers under a lupine bush: a bird kill. The pattern of the cluster and the location are not typical of a raptor, so I suspect that the predator was a mammal.  With a basic knowledge of feathers, I can see that this bird was a quail, and with that in mind, I begin to notice quail tracks covering the dusty gopher mounds surrounding this spot. Hmm. Lots of active gophers here implies both a healthy and growing grass base and the probability of other small mammals, such as voles and brush rabbits—and sure enough, the half-tunnel vole runs threading the grasses look recently used. Now that I’m looking, I notice little 4” circular holes in the grasses around the bases of the shrubs, like little doorways, with cleanly mown front porches, the way the cottontails love to keep house.

Rabbit tracks

In fact, I’m beginning to realize that this particular area is much richer and greener than much of the surrounding countryside. With its southern aspect and its slope and shape, the plant community has not gone into such a deep winter pause. It is actually a warm wrinkle. Insects are more active in the air, and so are the birds.

White-crowned Sparrows are busy in the surrounding brush and I realize that the scattered pattern on the ground, overlaid by the quail tracks, is the result of their foraging here earlier than the quail, and imply that a lot of seed has dropped to the ground to mix with the newly sprouted grasses after recent rains.

Now, looking carefully at the wing remains of the bird carcass, I can see that the primary feathers have been chewed off rather roughly, not as cleanly as a coyote would. A wider search soon turns up a moderately fresh bobcat scat, surface sheen beginning to dull, full of brown feather content…things are adding up. The scat also contains brown-tipped gopher fur, and, sure enough, jawbone fragments confirm this. This is clearly a productive hunting area right now.

Bobcat scat with feather content

As I scan the rough ground, my eyes see with this new intelligence and pick up otherwise nearly invisible details. One shaded edge of a Lupine is damp and Bingo!, there is a track, a couple of small circular impressions that prove to be the toes and part of the heel pad of a bobcat. It has weathered slightly, puffed up a little, and there are a few loose soil grains in the floor giving it a time scale, but given the still, cool days and nights lately, it would have aged slowly, so the track is probably a day or two old, which matches with the apparent age of the quail wing-recent but not from today. The placement of the bobcat scat, near a hiking trail, shows that this cat uses the trail and turns in here, hinting at its hunting routines. The cat is probably working a larger territory and only comes through here every few nights.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that the Sparrows have gone silent and I turn to see a “Marsh Hawk” cruising close to the ground in more open habitat nearby, with that wonderful tilting, slow speed flight style, giving me another indication of the fecundity of this particular hunting area. An inspection at the base of an old coyote bush snag, with signs that it is regularly used as a perch, reveals raptor cough pellets full of little caches of tiny bones and teeth in their fur-cushioned casings, the tooth patterns characteristic of the vole.

All of this has taken but a few minutes. The egg is cracking. The further I go, the richer the story gets and the more deeply enmeshed in this land I become, familiar, like walking with an old friend.

Richard Vacha leads the Marin County Tracking Club .  His Point Reyes Tracking School (PRTS) offers courses in Tracking; Professional wildlife surveys; and a variety of seminars, tracking walks and workshops.  His collected works of Tracking Notes is available through his website.

Marin Tracking Club 2

I’m in California for the holidays and went to the Marin Tracking club this morning. I used to go regularly when I lived here.  Then it was small and just beginning.  Now the word is out and there were four times the amount of people.  The tracking club meets on the last Sunday of every month, except this month’s last Sunday is Christmas.  We always meet in Point Reyes at Abbott’s Lagoon.  Since no dogs are allowed, the beach, which begins about a mile from the parking area, is pristine with wildlife tracks.

Abbott's Lagoon


I’m staying at a house on at Muir Beach which is about an hour south of Point Reyes via the coast highway.  The drive is exquisite.  I left at around 7:30 and saw a coyote on the way there.  Driving along Highway 1, near Dogtown, you’ll pass a line of Eucalyptus trees. The 1903 Earthquake was centered right along here.  You can see the line of trees on one side, then the line of trees jumps several feet away; this is where the fault is.

Forest around Point Reyes driving Highway 1

Once you turn off towards the beaches, the landscape changes.  Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is a conglomerate of the ranches in West Marin that have joined in the trust.  Point Reyes National Seashore and MALT preserves this entire peninsula forever.  MALT is the reason why you pass lands that have cattle on them, as well as drive through National Seashore.

Pt. Reyes & MALT private lands with the Ocean beyond

I had an exquisite morning of tracking with the group.  Most of the group leaders have trained with Jon Young and are very dedicated trackers and students.  The sands are always shifting, the wildlife patterns regularly changing.  Today we saw a lot of bobcat activity.

Bobcat track

Lots of bobcat tracks

Bobcat scat

A faded skunk track loped up the dunes as well.


We spent some time analyzing a nice 2×2 raccoon track.

Raccoon tracks 2x2

Notice in each pair there is a large foot and a smaller foot–a hind paired with a front.


My favorite track was the good ole’ coyote.  We observed the tracks of mating play, but what was most instructive for me was breaking down a coyote lope track, and analyzing a transverse patten as the coyote was speeding up.  While considering the track, four otters were playing in the lagoon.  Scott, our leader, told us about a time he was observing some otters when they submerged, then reappeared right under a coot.  The otter grabbed the coot, and on its second try, had it for a meal.  The lagoon was filled with coots lazily feeding, and not too far from these otters.

Gulls galore Abbott's Lagoon

Tracking Club Marin

Though the sign at the Parking lot entrance talks about ‘Vanishing Dunes’, the lagoon is alive with wildlife.