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Call of the Wilds

I live in a wild place.  In winter there are only a handful of residents.  The wolves howl.  The elk find their way through the snows.  The grizzlies sleep.  In spring the mountains wake and thaw.  On weekends this valley is a favorite spot for locals from Billings and Cody.  ATV’s and RV’s roll in and find their favorite campsites.  Yet the mountains here are vast, the wilderness seems endless.  Its rare to see another person on any given trail.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This has been my first winter here.  I’d been here almost every month of the year, but only for weeks or a few months at a time.  Living here, knowing that these mountains are what I now call home, I find my rhythms slowly changing.  Life seems to be moving fast when I return to an area I’d just been last week and the snows have melted.  Or how did I miss the day when the rivers suddenly turned muddy and swollen?  Just two weeks ago I drove up that draw, but now its flooded.  Changes seems to be happening at breakneck speed.  What looks static to a visitor is a constantly changing kaleidoscope, an ebb and flow of interactions too great and wonderful to take in all at once.

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Aspens starting to bud out.

Aspens starting to bud out.

Ribes blooming just the other day

Ribes blooming just the other day

Alpine columbine just blooming today

Alpine columbine just blooming today

I walk the woods and look for wildlife runs and markings, new smells or droppings, nests or homes, what was eaten today and what was killed.  At first I walked or hiked and noticed a few things here or there.  But now I find it difficult to be aware on all the levels I want to be.  There is the forest floor and its sign–scat, droppings, scratchings.  The treetops are where birds and small mammals also live so don’t forget to check up there as well.  The relics and evidence of the past such as buffalo bones or Native American sign.  If you only look for animal sign such as tracks or scat, you miss the wildlife presently around you.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Better watch for bears, and be careful with your dog as there are wolves around.  The forest and the meadows are alive.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Simple beauty

Simple beauty

A new awareness has also begun to creep in.  It is an understanding of the nature of life and death, of a circle of existence.  This is not an intellectual notion.  Everyday I find bones and skulls, or fresh kills large and small.  Everybody has to eat and you either eat plants or meat or both.  Death is not wrapped up in a nice package in the frozen section, or shoved off to the edges of society.  It is here and everywhere.

My neighbor H__ who has a horse farm, told me a story about the first horse he had to put down.  He was afraid to do it himself and asked our 85-year-old neighbor, a native to the valley, if he would do the deed for him.  JB replied “Its your horse.  You have to do it.”

“He was right”, H__ told me.  This winter he put two horses down in the upper pasture.  The wolves and coyotes were on it within days.

Just as in life, there is beauty and ugliness in death.  I’ve watched the coyote I found this winter in his process of decay.  First the animals ate their fill, but a lot remained and the ground was still frozen and cold.  Now the beetles are finishing him off.  He is food for others, and there is a certain rightness and sadness in that.  There is also a fascination and a repulsion in watching the process.  Yet I find a skull of a winter kill bull elk with both its antlers, the skull already cleaned off and perfectly white, and it looks beautiful to me.

Found winter wolf kill.  Beautiful in death

Found winter wolf kill. Beautiful in death

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Old trees that have died are regal in their appearance, and house insects and the birds that feed upon them.  The ground squirrels in the yard are amusing to watch, yet I admire the Swainson’s hawk that deftly swoops and catches them.

Burnt trees.  Beautiful in death

Burnt trees. Beautiful in death

A deeper ‘knowing’ that I too am part of this whole process seeps into my core.  It may seem ugly or cruel to some, but it is only economical and the way things must be.  More than stark, there is a dreamlike quality to it all.  The animals are not bothered.  They have been born into this acceptance.

I walk with Koda.  He is always alert, on the ready, yet happy and relaxed.  His tension comes from awareness, instinct to check for danger, or to check for the fun of a chase with a squirrel.  I am learning here, in this complete ecosystem, with top predators just like me here, that I must walk and be aware, relaxed, and alert.  That life and death walk side-by-side always, only here they are in evidence.  That there are more levels to this dreamtime than I am yet aware, and that the natural world supplies a plethora of synchronicity and sign, if only one can take the time to deepen, relax, and learn to notice.


Some Scat

I thought I’d post a scat entry with photos.  Some I’m sure of, many I’m not.  Not all have size references.  Sorry about that.  I’m now starting to carry around a penny which I’ll put with future photos.  A penny is exactly 3/4″ in diameter.

Breaking up scat helps in identification and is a window into what the animal was eating.  Smelling scat (do not smell raccoon scat as they can carry a parasite that is fatal to humans) also holds clues.

Animals communicate vast amounts of information through markings and scat.  Many times I’ve watched Koda intently smell an area, then urinate on it.

Koda with his nose in a squirrel hole

Koda with his nose in a squirrel hole

One time he was smelling a log that had no obvious scat on it.  Because he is still a pup, he started licking the log to ‘uptake’ the smell better.  I got down and smelled the log and was overpowered by a extremely pungent smell.  Other times he spends a lot of time smelling an area and when I put my nose to the ground, I can’t discern anything.

One time in California I was at the tracking club meeting.  We were circling a large field and found mountain lion scat.  The group leader advised everyone to get down and sniff it.  One whiff of that scat and you’ll never forget it.  It made the hairs inside my nose stand on end for a long time.  Imagine your kitty litter box, then multiply that smell 10-fold.

Last year in the spring I had both my dogs with me in Wyoming.  My old dog started making a beeline for the woods.  I followed her to a fairly fresh turkey kill, probably from a coyote.  The kill was in the nearby vicinity of the cabin and the magpies were already on it.  The 2 dogs spent lots of time chewing and further demolishing it. Early the next morning, on the walkway in front of my house, a coyote left his fresh scat.  My old dog smelled it, but before I could hardly look at it, the 6 month old dog gobbled it up.  Koda was still learning about smells and scats, and eating it is another way to really remember it.  (I, personally, will not go that far!)  I had the distinct impression this particular scat was left for my dogs as a calling card, as if to say, ‘this is my territory and that was my turkey you fooled with.’

I’m a crazy beginner at this.  I find it’s a fun way to explore what’s happening around me. Learning scat takes practice and lots of direct experience.  I take photos, then go home and look at Mammal Tracks & Signs by Mark Elbroch.  Elbroch’s book contains tons of color photos throughout.  He includes photos of tracks, scat, as well as sign.  The book is thick at over 750 pages. Too bad he doesn’t include ‘scratch and sniff’.

Unknown scat

This one's unknown, found in the woods nearby

Marmot in hole with scat above

See Marmot scat at top of photo. Marmot's in his hole.

pack rat scat

Years of pack rat scat.

Canid scat

Could be coyote or wolf. 25% of wolf scat is coyote size.

Bobcat I think.  Smells like it.

Smelled like a cat. Bobcat I think. Cat's digest 90% of the bones.

Owl droppings

Owl on tree. Notice the white droppings.

Bear sweet smelling scat in the spring

Big pile of bear scat. All forbs/grasses. They clean themselves in the spring with grass.

Mustelid I think.  Smelly and strong.

Some kind of mustelid I think. It was skunky smelling.

Another mustelid, I think.  On the same trail as the other scat.

Another mustelid, I think. On the same trail as the other scat.

The Bobcat

It was a beautiful morning.  I walked outside around 9:30 and threw the ball for Koda.  A large cat-like animal appeared out from the marshy meadows and stood next to the fence line.  Immediately I recognized it as a bobcat.  JB had told me several days ago that he saw a bobcat in his fields across the road.  I called the dog and sat down to watch the cat.  He was beautiful.  Much larger and more muscular than a big tomcat.Bobcat watching a ground squirrel

The bobcat sat in the sun for a few minutes when something caught his attention.  I looked across the meadows and saw a ground squirrel sitting on his mound.  The bobcat crouched low and made his way slowly in the squirrel’s direction.  He ran along the fenceposts, stopping behind one for several minutes.  He crossed a short span of meadow, then ran low along the side of the nearby house till he was directly in line with the ground squirrel.  At a distance of about 15 feet from the rodent, the bobcat sat perfectly still, watching and waiting.  Bobcat stalking amidst grass

By now the squirrel seemed to have caught wind that something was going on and was back in his hole.  The cat waited patiently though.  I’d been watching all this for at least 15 minutes.  I went inside to use my scope for a better view and try to shoot a few pictures.  Finally, the bobcat got bored and ran off to find an easier meal.

About 5 minutes after the cat left, I glanced out the window and saw the squirrel not just looking around from his hole, but on top of the nearby septic clean-out pipe.  I might be anthropomorphising here, but that squirrel seemed to be gloating to me.Gloating ground squirrel

When I was in California, I belonged to a tracking club.  We met once a month at Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes.  That beach had lots of activity–coyotes, mice, otters, deer, opossums, racoons–but the most reliable tracks were of a bobcat.  The bobcat had an obvious route.  He started out from somewhere in the thick brush and followed a track alongside the lagoon.  There were latrines along the way and always kill sites.  Seeing that that bobcat had a regular hunting route, I wondered if my Wyoming bobcat had one too, and if I had observed him on it.  I have been investigating how to use ‘track plates’ and maybe I’ll try and make some.

Half hour later as I was driving my dirt road, I started thinking about how that bobcat lost his meal.  I wondered what made him give up on the ground squirrel, just shy of it reappearing.

Without warning, a Unita ground squirrel ran across the road.  I tried to veer but he was too slow and I was too fast.  Getting out of my car, I pulled him off to the side of the road, maybe secretly hoping my bobcat would find him.  I was still pretty close to home still and the thought that it was so easy for me to kill this squirrel and so difficult for the bobcat, haunted me.  There was something awfully strange in this synchronicity.  Bobcat print