More Cougar Madness with Videos

I put together a little video with some fun music of a male cougar looking for a mate.

Examining cougar scat in the Park

Examining cougar scat in the Park

The story goes like this:  I found a scrape several months ago.  Male cougars make scrapes to look for mates but also to mark territory. Scrapes are a good place to place your trail camera because it’s a signal to other cougars to come by and check out what’s going on. Scrapes also attract other wildlife, like canines and bears.  In fact, Dan Stahler, who is in charge of the Yellowstone Park Cougar Research Project, showed us a trail camera video taken at a scrape in the Park in which a grizzly bear took a nap all day on a scrape!

Big Cat Expert Toni Ruth leads a class in Yellowstone.  Here she is collecting cougar hair

Big Cat Expert Toni Ruth leads a class in Yellowstone. Here she is collecting cougar hair

So I put my trail cam out on the scrape and sure enough got some footage.  A few weeks later, the camera took a whole series of shots of this big male making a scrape, and then a female appeared.  When I saw all the activity, I brought a second camera and set it up for video.

What you are seeing in this movie I put together are the stills (taken by the camera so fast that they actually act like a movie), and then at the end the video footage.  Then music thrown in for fun.

Tips for Low Water Gardens

As a landscape designer, I had a large library of reference gardening books, yet there were a few that I used over and over again.  When I moved my home to Wyoming, I pared down my gardening library, taking with me what I considered the best and most essential books.

If you are looking for a low water garden, here are some of the best reference books out there.  For a good guide to help you start planning your low water garden, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future  I also give you step-by-step instructions for a native lawn or meadow, edible low water plants, as well as tips on how to irrigate and zone for reduced watering.

Rock with succulents

Below are my top recommendations:

1.  Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region by East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD).  I might consider this book a good primer for those who are beginning gardeners or homeowners.  The oversized format has wonderful glossy photos and it is of course put out by the water district.

2.  The New Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch.  This book has been around for some time and is still considered the best book on the subject.  Salvias are such a great addition to one’s low water garden. There are ones for sun and shade, small and gigantic.  Clebsch has grown them all and gives you growing tips galore.

3. ¨Designing California Native Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.  Keator is considered one of the leading botanists in California, an expert on oaks and California natives. Need I say more.

4. Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden.  Drought Resistant Planting through the Year by Beth Chatto.  Although Chatto is from England and her gravel gardens were an experiment there, she is right on the mark for California. This is probably the book I used the most in designing low water attractive gardens.  You’ll droll at the photos and her wonderful plant combinations.  And gravel is the quintessential mulch to retain water.

5.  Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish.  If you are planning a succulent garden, this is one of the best reference books out there for the larger plants and how to use them in a design.

6. California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Burt O’Brien.  These are the top people in the plant world.  Bornstein was the horticulturist for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden for 30 years.  Fross owns Native Sons nursery.  A must have to understand California natives and their culture.  Fross also wrote the comprehensive book Ceanothus, but that book is probably too horticulturally geeky for the average gardener.

7. Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach and Gardening the Mediterranean Way: How to Create a Waterwise Drought-Tolerant Garden both by Heidi Gildemeister.  Mediterranean is what we have in California climate.  You will get good tips and photos from these books.

8.  Native Treasure: Gardening with the Plants of California by M. Nevin Smith.  Smith is the Director of Horticulture at Suncrest Nursery in Northern California.  For years I coveted a hard-to-get in-house printing that described all of Suncrests plants and their culture, written by Smith.  Hard to find a person more experienced in plant material than this man.  Suncrest is one of the top nurseries in California, growing and introducing new plants all the time.

9. Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for every Garden by Joann Gardner and Karen Bussolini.  I include this book because all plants silver are low water plants.  Plus silver is a good foil and contrast against other plants in the garden.  Good photos and information.

Dry CA

Cougars and other cougars, And wolves

The other day I took a hike to a high place where the ancients once hunted bighorn sheep.  Although we still have bighorns around the valley, I’ve never seen one in this location.   The escarpment rises to a series of wooded shelves, a layered cake of pines and firs.  Three or four of these terraces and then the mountain rises vertically towards formidable buttresses of limestone.Bighorn sheep

Warning, some graphic photos below of the dead cougar

In my wanderings upwards I came to a narrow passage of rock and tree with deer hair strewn around the ground.  I recognized the way it had been plucked as typical of a mountain lion.  Next to all the fur I saw a winter killed carcass with the rib cage sticking out.  With all the fur, my mind instantly went to a deer kill, but I soon saw something unexpected–a long tail!  Here was the carcass of a cougar, a small one, no bigger than my 90 pound dog.  All the meat and innards were gone, but the hide remained, as well as the head and tail, intact.

How I found it

How I found it

Cougar carcass

cougar killed

After turning the carcass over and examining the skull remains and the teeth, I took the entire scene into account.  I was standing on top of a flat closet-sized piece of ground, hidden amongst the trees and with a nice view below.  About 10 feet to my right was the remains of a cat covered carcass–all fur and brush.  Cats are neat animals and even once all is eaten, the small remains of what’s left are covered.  I brushed the mound with my foot, but nothing was left.

Site of covered deer.

Site of covered deer.

So here were the clues:  1.  A cat had been here long enough to kill a deer, pluck its fur, and cover it  and 2. a young cat, either a disperser or one that had lost its mother and was on its own, had been killed right next to deer kill and 3. the cougar smelled bad enough and was fresh enough that this all happened this winter sometime.

I pondered the scene.  Few animals eat predators.  I once saw a dead coyote that had been kicked by an elk and died in winter.  I watched that carcass and nothing ate on it until it thawed enough for birds to get it.  I figured the cougar was scavenged by birds such as bald and golden eagles and magpies and ravens.

My hypothesis of the crime scene goes as such:  Since I know that not only was the kill done in winter so no bears were out, there also are no bears this high up with nothing to eat.  We have several wolf packs here, but they tend to follow the elk.  This cougar was either displaced off of his kill by a larger male cat, or wandered into the kill and then was taken out by the other cougar.  Dispersing males have a hard time.  Big male cougars will keep their territory under control and will kill young males.  I concluded this is what happened.

I wanted to know more.  A friend gave me the number for a woman who has worked with the Panthera project out of Jackson, WY and now works with Craighead Beringia.  We had a long discussion about many things ‘mountain lion’, but she told me one interesting new development from the 13 year long project.  Cougar

The project is very interested in the interplay between cougars and wolves.  In the Jackson area, their prey overlaps more than I’ve noticed in my area.  Probably because in winter the National Elk Refuge has around 6000-7500 elk.  Where I live east of the Park, my basin welcomes about 1500-2000 head of elk from the Lamar herd.  I’ve noticed here the cougars kill mostly deer, while the wolves take elk.  Over in the Jackson area, cougars were being displaced from their kills by wolves frequently.  That meant not only did they have to kill more, but that left kittens vulnerable to starvation.  But cougars are smart and they’ve lived with wolves for thousands of years and so are either developing or remembering an interesting strategy.  Mothers with kittens are teaming up with other mothers with kittens at a kill.  So if a wolf pack shows up, instead of one cougar there might be six.  Remember kittens can stay with their mother for 12-18 months so they can be formidable foes as well.  Left Hind cougar

One last cougar item.  Last week I was in a different area that deer use as a pass through in the winter.  It’s a narrow valley, mostly meadows with few rocks or cliffs.  In a large meadow, under some sparse pines, I found a very fresh cougar kill with tracks leading up to it.  Only the heart had been eaten and the kill sparsely covered. When I mentioned to the Beringia representative that I’d never actually seen a live cougar, she said that next time I find a fresh kill I should camp out there overnight.  Good idea!

The Heart of Wildness

….When Mabel McKay, a deceased Pomo basket weaver and doctor, heard somebody say that he had used native medicinal herbs but that they hadn’t worked for him, she responded, “You don’t know the songs. You have to know the right songs.” With no one to teach us, we don’t know the songs either.  The native practice of dreaming songs about the nonhuman world seems as valuable and elusive as a piece of pure bunchgrass prairie or the truth about the land. “Gardening with a Wild Heart”

Some say wilderness disappeared with Lewis and Clark.  We may still have wild lands, but true wilderness is gone.  Maybe once we finished mapping every inch, that was the final nail in the coffin.

Dad's Lake.  The Continental Divide looms in the background

Dad’s Lake. The Continental Divide looms in the background

Indigenous cultures once had their very identify, culture, and religion tied to the Land. The plants and animals were as familiar and knowable to them as our ATM’s and supermarkets are to us today.  They were Earth-based cultures. And although I consider our European cultures ‘Sky-based’–we identify with ideas i.e. ‘liberty and freedom’ or ‘God in Heaven’–there are still those of us who find sustenance and spiritual refreshment in Land.  And I would argue since all human beings are fitted to this earth, therefore the natural world and its wildness must resonate for everyone.  In essence, we are still Land-based peoples. Only our culturally-inherited earth knowledge has been diminished.




In todays world, it is expedient and pragmatic for conservation groups to cloth their case in economic terms, whether it be for wildlife or land preservation.   Protecting wolves or bears becomes important because people like to view them, which brings in tourist dollars.  Setting aside elk habitat is good for hunters as they pay for the game agencies. The argument to preserve every ‘cog and wheel’ for its own sake has no power.


Coyote pups

Yet conservation groups are amiss to ignore this argument, for truly that is what is at the heart of the issue–we need these lands for our spirit; preserving the entire biotic community is important for its inherent value, not its monetary one.  The mysteries of this Earth spark our sense of wonder.  If all becomes mapped and pedestrian, where shall we look for awe, for beauty, for the surprise of diversity and difference.  Without these basic human needs met, we lose our compass in this world.

It is time to add this other dimension to our call for protection.  In my book The Wild Excellence I call this added element ‘The Sacred Land Ethic’.  Aldo Leopold’s land ethic states

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  The land ethic simple enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.  A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

To this eloquent and beautiful description of the way we should live, I’ve just added the word ‘sacred’ to include Land as a source of vision, spiritual awareness and sustenance.  Sacred includes all the plant songs we have yet to remember, and all the dances the animals have yet to re-teach us.  Sacred includes that moment when you stand in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the moment alone in the woods when you encounter a new-born fawn.

Moose and calf

All of us have resorted on many occasions to the natural world for restoration. So let us not hide behind the arguments of ‘monetary value’ of wildlife.  Let us speak the truth of why it is we are fighting to preserve what’s left of the wilds.

Spirit of the Mountain

I’m not, in general, a ‘cat person’.  First, I’m allergic to cats.  And more than that, I’ve never understood cats, their aloofness, nor their behavior.  But it seems the tables have turned for me, because I’ve become fascinated with the wild cats around here–bobcats, cougars, and the illusive lynx.  Bobcat sign has become quite rare these days with the heavy trapping.  Bobcat pelts sell for up to $1000. And good luck seeing a lynx or their tracks.  One old timer tells me she saw one several years ago by my mailbox, but I haven’t heard of any reported sightings around here. But cougars seem to be abundant.

I put my trail cam on a ‘scrape’.  Males will mark their territory with scrapes, usually under a big old conifer.  Its also a scent post to attract females.  If you can find a scrape, that seems to be your best bet of seeing cougars, as well as other animals.  The study that’s going on in Yellowstone Park had footage of a grizzly bear lounging on a cougar scrape for a full day!

Actually, I placed two cameras on this scrape but the movie one malfunctioned, so I put together a ‘video’ from the stills of my Reconyx. You can see exactly how this big male makes a scrape by twisting his hind back and forth.

This male, it turns out, was accompanied by a female.

male and female cougar

male and female cougar

First the male marks, then the female came and scented it using her vomeronasal organ located on the roof of her mouth.  Those of you who have cats, have seen your pet smell something then raise their head to take the smell into that organ.

Cougar taking a scent up into its vomeronasal organ on the roof of its moutn

Cougar taking a scent up into its vomeronasal organ on the roof of its moutn


Female cougar checks out a scrape

Female cougar checks out a scrape

Without trying much, I seem to be running into cougar sign.  Maybe the class I took with Toni Ruth in January helped key me into how a cougar thinks, what it does, and where it goes.

I’ve seen many old cougar deer kills that have been neatly covered, but nothing is left except the legs which they don’t eat.  Cats are always very neat and tidy.  They drag their kills to cover, like under a tree or hidden behind rocks is typically where I’ve found them.  And they pile brush up in a circle to cover their kills.  This keeps them fresh and reduces scent.  Also, the hair of the deer is plucked.  Bears will cover their kills but they are messy and use a lot of dirt and sticks.

Old cougar kill.  There is nothing left here but the cat piled it up neatly

Old cougar kill. There is nothing left here but the cat piled it up neatly

On a short hike in a distance valley miles from where my trail cam sits,  I found a fresh deer kill with snow tracks leading to it.  I’d never found a fresh kill and I knew that this lion was somewhere in the neighborhood, probably watching me. But I wasn’t worried about the lion.  I was worried about bears, so instead of investigating I scouted the entire area first, then backtracked.  Bears will defend a found carcass while I knew that a cougar would not.  All that had been eaten was the heart, and the kill looked hastily covered.  Possibly Koda and I had disturbed the cat, although maybe not because it was the middle of the day. You can see the puncture wound at the neck in this photo.  I hoped to catch a glimpse of the cat, but no luck.  I asked Toni Ruth in her five years of studying cougars at Yellowstone National Park, how many times she saw one, apart from when she used dogs to track and collar them.  With thousands of hours of tracking in the field, she’d only seen them three times in five years!  I myself have never seen a cougar, only their sign.

Cougar killed deer.  You can see the puncture wound at the back of the neck

Cougar killed deer. You can see the puncture wound at the back of the neck

Although cougars have large territories, my trail camera sits in a valley far from houses.  A nice plus today in retrieving my trail cam.  As Koda and I were almost to the car, I heard a Great Gray Owl.

Fresh prints in the snow lead up to the kill

Fresh prints in the snow lead up to the kill

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



Lawns for a Drying California

I was speaking with a friend the other day in the Bay Area.  She told me all the landscapers are busy pulling out lawns.  No doubt!  But then she said they are recommending artificial turf AKA fake grass.  Google ‘artificial turf and cancer‘ and you’ll come up with a lot of buzz on the internet.  Fake grass is made from tire products and many of those chemicals are considered carcinogenic.  I’d be especially worried about installing fake turf in my home if my kids played on it or my pets laid on it.  Sure it’s easy to maintain because you don’t have to do anything–it’s fake!  But I personally wouldn’t take the risk.

So, if you want a lawn and live in a parched California, where water is the new oil, what can you do?

My answer was written up in a post back in 2009.  Carex pansa lawns.  Because of the extreme drought situation, I wanted to repost and speak again about this fabulous native grass.

Front yard application

Front yard C. pansa lawn

Here is some of what was written in that previous post years ago:

Once established, it requires watering only about every 3 weeks or more, depending on your site, and mowing no more than 4 times a year!  I do have clients that keep it very ‘lawn-like’ and mow it every two weeks, but since it only grows 6″ high, that isn’t necessary.

Carex pansa can tolerate traffic.  I have clients with kids who play ball on the lawn.  But it isn’t for intensive traffic.

The planting/preparation method is simple.  Prepare your bed as if you were going to plant a conventional lawn, in other words, good soil, lots of compost, rake out the clods, bed should be to finished height.  I always install a conventional irrigation system–better safe than sorry and its so much easier for the homeowner.  In the beginning you will need to water the plugs till established and the first summer while filling in, water a few times a week.  So a watering system on a timer is essential.  This means the irrigation system should be installed prior to planting.  The sprinkler heads can be installed and then adjusted to correct height once the Carex is in.

Carex pansa needs a good edging as it will spread beyond your beds without one.  Its not a weed nor really invasive, but, like grass, it will grow outside its borders if given water and good soil.  Depending on your design, you might even want to pour a concrete edging.

Back yard application

Carex pansa lawn with larger grasses as edgings

I’ve put in a few dozen of these lawns and never had any problems.  For Californians, now is the best time to prepare your area and plant your plugs. Carex pansa grows during the warm weather, so your lawn will fill in quickly.  Plant 3″-5″ apart for a fast fill, although if you need to save money you can plant 6″-9″ and wait longer and weed more. For information as to where to obtain the plugs (this ‘grass’ must be planted from plugs), as well as further information including how to plant a natural meadow, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.

Carex lawn with small plants as edging

Carex pansa lawn with small plants as edging


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