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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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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.

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Wandering after a waxing moon

Snowshoe hare tracks and White-tailed Jackrabbit tracks can be easily confused, as I am finding out.  Size of their tracks, front and back overlap.  Their stride and group length overlap.  And even their habitat.

I’ve been doing a lot of research trying to discern the differences and what we have in my area.  And its important because Snowshoes are the primary food for Lynx, a threatened and rare cat around here.

Its always good to take a hike around my mountain after a snowstorm.  We’ve had a few inches of snow and some cold temps, making the snow almost perfect.  The waxing gibbous moon insures more predators are out hunting, and with the snow crusted over, the smaller animals are out and about.

For weeks all I’ve seen are the usual suspects–deer and squirrels.  But today was different.  My first encounter was with weasel tracks.  I’ve asked Jim Halfpenny if one can tell the difference between an ermine and a long-tailed weasel by the trail width. We have both here and Halfpenny notes that its very difficult.  Tracks over 2″ trail width can often indicate a long-tailed weasel, but not for sure.  The ‘dumbbell pattern’ of two dots [the feet], a dash [drag mark], and two dots can be typical for ermines, yet not always.

Weasel tracks next to my footprint

Weasel tracks next to my footprint.  Notice the 2×2 gait

up close

up close

I have a bird feeder near the house and this weasel was taking advantage of the rodents that visit the dropped seeds.

I have been spending quite a bit of time trying to discern vole from mouse tracks. Most mouse tracks are quite obvious as they use a bound, with the back feet in front of the front.  Voles tend to trot but I think they bound more in snow and have a much narrower trail width than a mouse.  I’m still trying to discern the difference.  I think these narrow tracks are typical vole tracks.

Vole

Vole heading into small hole

Typical vole gait on snow

Typical vole gait on snow

Higher up I ran into a Marten.  And later on another Marten.  Martens, like ermines, don’t use animal trails.  They are explorers of every hole, seeking out rodents.

Marten tracks

Marten tracks

Typical marten gait 2x2

Typical marten gait 2×2

And here’s where we come back to the two hares. I came across these tracks, which look like typical Snowshoe hare tracks.  Yet the country puzzled me.  This hare, which I followed up the hillside for some ways, stayed in the small meadows between the forested areas, moving through the trees out of cover, rather than staying in cover like a Snowshoe would.  And although this is Douglas Fir/Limber Pine territory, which Snowshoes like, most of the trees are older so the low browse is sparse.  Yet according to this study conducted in Yellowstone National Park, White-tailed Jackrabbits are much rarer at my elevation and annual snow accumulations–though certainly not impossible.  White-tailed jackrabbits are fairly rare in Yellowstone; even once erroneously thought extinct.  Most of the Park has too much snow and too much tree cover.  In fact, in the study, 3/4 of the few sightings were in the 5000-6000′ range in open sagebrush country [mostly all in the northwest corner of the park around Mammoth], while only 1/4 were in the 6-7000′ range in montane country–country akin to where I live.

I went over my measurements, yet all of them came up that it could be either a Snowshoe or a Jackrabbit.  I remembered that at one point, Halfpenny had said to me “are you sure its not a Jackrabbit” when I described to him some prints I’d found in a deeply wooded area north of here.

I followed these tracks amongst the small forest meadows and down through an open area into the brush.  I came to the uneasy conclusion that this must be a Jackrabbit.

Jackrabbit

DSC00212

DSC00211

 

And then I looked at a photo from last year, taken at around 6800′ deeper down my valley.  I had my trail cam along an old ditch.  On the upside of the ditch was dense woods, while the downside soon became treeless and led to a very large expanse of meadows.  According to the Yellowstone study above, this was the upper end of White-tailed jackrabbits in the Yellowstone area [although White-tailed Jackrabbits have been reported in places like Colorado as high as 14,000 feet].  Here was my definitive answer that, yes, we have plenty of White-tailed Jackrabbits here.

White tailed Jackrabbit

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

Wolf stares into camera

Wolf

Bull elk

Nice Bull Elk

Wolf

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.

skunk

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.

2x2

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.