Track and Sign Certification in the Swan Valley, Montana with Northwest Connections

Northwest Connections is an innovative organization which runs a variety of biological monitoring, conservation, and educational programs all revolving around the unique and wild landscape of the Swan Valley in northwestern Montana where they are based. In April, I delivered a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event for them.

A very talented group endured challenging field conditions (including about 5 inches of fresh snow Saturday night and Sunday!) and everyone in the group earned a Certificate. My friend and colleague Emily Gibson came along to take some photographs and I am grateful to her for sharing a number of the images for this post!

David Moskowitz explaining how the evaluation process works. We started the evaluation on the Northwest Connections campus on the Swan River. Here I am explaining how the evaluation process works at the start of the first day.
Remains of a deer likely killed and definately consumed by wolves. Swan Valley, Montana The evaluation included a number of questions about the remains of a white-tailed deer which had been consumed by wolves.
Inspecting a leg bone from the deer which had been partially consumed by the wolves revealed the bone marrow which offers clues to the health of the deer at the time it died. Inspecting a leg bone from the deer which had been partially consumed by the wolves revealed the bone marrow which offers clues to the health of the deer at the time it died.
Taking an answer from a participant. Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.
i know that cougar scat is here somewhere Heavy snow Saturday night and Sunday morning called for desperate measures. Here Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Coordinator for Northwest Connections, uses a broom to brush snow off of sign we had found during our scouting for the evaluation.
Mountain lion claw marks of a tree. The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.
Pointing out a mountain lion scat and scrape. Mike points out one of the questions on the evaluation about a mountain lion scat and scrape, created by a scent marking behavior of the large cat, found along the same game trail as the claw marks from the previous photo.
Tracking under a bridge We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.
Who? A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.
Discussing a question after everyone has submitted their answers Every question on the evaluation is discussed thoroughly after all the participants have submitted their answers. Here we are discussing the sign left behind by an elk which used its incisors to peel bark on a small tree and then rub its head against the tree, a common scent marking behavior of elk.
Close up of elk incisor marking sign. The shredded bark has all been peeled upwards due to the fact that elk only have lower incisors. Numerous hairs from the elk got stuck in the ragged bark and sticky pitch of the tree.
_MG_7152 Congratulations to everyone who participated in the evaluation. In this particularly talented group of wildlife trackers, everyone earned a Level 2 certificate or higher!

Level 2 Certificates Awarded: Jim Quinn, Trenton Harper, Scott Tomson, Andrea Stephens

Level 3 Certificates Awarded: Cassie March, Luke Lamar, Lara Arvidson, Mike Stevenson, Alissa Anderson, Rebekah Rafferty

For a complete list of certified trackers in North America visit


Pacific Wren Nests (formerly Winter Wren)

Like their unreasonably large and beautiful song, the Pacific wren (Troglodytes pacificus)  has a surprisingly elaborate nest. Abundant in forested landscapes around much of the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific wren typically constructs its nest out of mosses and builds it into an existing structure such as a rootwad of a fallen tree or the hanging moss on the underside of a tree branch or leaning trunk. Nests are spherical with a small entrance on the side giving access to an enclosed chamber where eggs are laid. Occasionally nest are constructed in tree branches and appear as a spherical glob of moss. My bird nest mentor, Emily Gibson, who first introduced me to Pacific wren nests, noted that the entrance to their nests, in western Washington at least, typically are lined with tiny conifer twigs.

Singing Pacific wren next to its nest A Pacific wren singing from a branch above its large spherical nest in a Sitka Spruce. Hoh river valley, Olympic National Park
A Pacific wren peers out from the entrance to its nest. A Pacific wren peers out from the entrance at the side of its nest. Olympic National Park.
Pacifi wren nest Note the slender conifer twigs around the entrance to the nest.
Pacific wren with insects in its bill. A Pacific wren with insects in its bill bound for young ones in a nearby nest. West slope Cascades, King County, Washington.

Similar Nests: Bushtits

Bushtits at their nest. Two bushtits at the entrance to their nest in the Snoqualmie Valley in western Washington. Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus), a similar sized bird found in much of the Pacific Northwest as well, also build enclosed nests out of mosses and lichens. Bushtit nests are more pendulous with an entrance towards the top of the nest.

Check out more photos of interesting tracks and signs of wildlife!


Hiking the Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Napali Coast

This March I met Darcy Ottey on the island of Kauai to hike the famous Kalalau trail on the island’s rugged Napali coast. A pleasant hike, amazing scenery, cool wildlife, warm water, and excellent company made for an amazing trip.

Waves role in on Kalalau Beach, reached by an 11 mile trail.
Stunning views highlight much of the Kalalau trail on Kauai’s Napali Coast.
_MG_4846 Another ocean view from the trail.
The trail crosses several lovely streams cloaked in tropical forests including this one were we made our dinner and breakfast at our first camp during the hike in.
_MG_5289 A craggy peak juts out of the forest above the warm waters of another one of the streams along the Kalalau trail.
The Kalalau trail is known for being a bit treacherous in parts. We found it far milder than expected given all the hype. However attention to where you step is definitely required in places such as here where the trail winds through a particularly precipitous cliffy area.
IMG_3725 Hikers on the Kalalau trail, dwarfed by the cliffs and ocean beyond.
_MG_5139 Sign along the trail into Kalalau beach.
On the final decent to Kalalau beach.
Sunset on Kalalau beach.
An endangered Hawaiian monk seal hauled out of the ocean for an afternoon. Kalalau Beach, Kauai.
Hawaiian monk seal returning to the ocean as the sun begins to set.
IMG_3442 Evening light on the peaks and coastline. Napali Coast, Kauai
Darcy Ottey taking in the evening light from an ocean side perch.

Like what you saw here? Check out more of David’s Adventure and Expeditionary Photography here!







Methow Conservancy Track and Sign Certification, Northcentral Washington

In mid March, the Methow Conservancy, a land trust serving Okanogan County, hosted a Track and Sign Certification event in the Methow Valley. With the battle between winter and spring conditions in full swing, we picked our way through the melting snowpack on the eastern edge of the North Cascades, spending most of the weekend in a lovely part of the Methow called Big Valley. Signs of mountain lion were abundant along with their primary prey species in much of the Cascades, deer and beaver. Participants also had to sort out tracks and signs of squirrels, deer mice, woodrats, mink, bobcat, and other mammals as well as the tracks of flickers, geese and other bird species. Though no fresh sign of black bears having awoken from their winter torpor were apparent, historic climbing and marking signs on trees along the river were also covered during the evaluation.

_MG_4733 Solid snowpack still lingered in the valley bottom and on north facing slopes in the Methow for the evaluation.
_MG_4744 All four feet of a mountain lion where it landed in soft mud after leaping off of a rock and over a lead of water on the edge of the river.
_MG_4785 A family of beavers had been busy through the winter on a side channel of the Methow River, leaving a wide variety of interesting signs behind including this small dam.
_MG_4803 Inspecting a scent mound created by beavers along the shore of a pond they had created on the edge of the river. Beavers drag mud up onto the bank and deposit a secretion called castorum on these mounds which are an important way that resident animals communicate that an area is occupied to other beavers in the area.
_MG_4777 Scientist and educator Kim Romain-Bondi and Heidi Anderson inspect the remains of a deer found in the woods by a small excavation as they attempt to determine who made the excavation. The size and distance between the clawmarks in the bottom of the dig, along with the size and shape of the hole were indicative of a coyote’s caching behavior. Kim is the owner and proprietor of the North Cascades Basecamp which provides lodging as well as educational and recreational opportunities in Mazama Washington. Heidi is the Stewardship Director for the Methow Conservancy and came out to help record peoples answers during the certification event!

Congratulations to the folks that earned Track and Sign Certificates. (For a complete list of certified trackers visit

Level 1: Susan Ballinger, Danny Nora Moloney, Gayle Grything

Level 2: Sarah Wilkinson, Mary E. Kiesau

Level 3: Nate Bacon, Kim Romain-Bondi

Humboldt County California Track and Sign Certification

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to run a Track and Sign certification event in beautiful Humboldt County, California. We visited a variety of field locations including coastal dunes, redwood forest, and riparian habitats. Participants included students from Humboldt State University‘s Wildlife program as well as professional biologists and naturalists from elsewhere in northern California. Here are a few highlights from the evaluation.

_MG_4661 Inspecting the tracks of a bounding long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) in the coastal dunes close to Arcata California.
long-tailed weasel tracks Long-tailed weasel tracks. Photo by Kim Cabrera. Kim has an amazing collection of track and sign photos posted online at her website: Click on the image to check it out!
_MG_4697 Alison Osgood inspects a redwood tree. Participants in the evaluation had to determine what removed the bark from this young redwood tree and why. The answer: A black bear removed the outer bark so it could feed on the cambium layer.
_MG_4673 Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson leads a conversation about the trail of a black-tailed jackrabbit. Click on the image to find out more about Matt Nelson and his work at
IMG_3596 Andrew Underwood carefully inspects the mandible of a Virginia opposum (Didelphis virginianus). Identifying this bone was the last question on the evaluation. All questions on evaluations are about things which the Evaluator has found in the field. photo by Matt Nelson
IMG_3610 Front (below) and hind track of a bobcat. There were a number of questions about bobcat tracks on the evalation. photo by Matt Nelson.
IMG_3633 Congratulations to everyone who participated in the Evaluation, all of whom earned a Certification!

Track and Sign Certificates Awarded:

LEVEL 1:  Jim Ladio

LEVEL 2: Emily Culhane, Mathew Luedtke, Andria Bietz, Jessica Nikolai, Andrew Underwood, Alison Osgood, Wes Gibbs, Anthony Fisher

LEVEL 3: Natasha Dvorak, Kim Cabrera, Shane Brown, Preston Taylor.

For a complete list of certified trackers in North America visit



The Remains of an Owl and Other Finds from the Field

This weekend was the 6th weekend of 9 for the year-long Wildlife Tracking Intensive I teach for Wilderness Awareness School. This month we spent Saturday searching for signs of large carnivores and other creatures in the dense rainforests of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River on the western slope of the Cascades. Among other things we discovered the following tracks and signs:

  • Feeeding and scent marking signs of black bears
  • Scent marking signs of a mountain lion
  • Beaver feeding and dam building activity
  • Black-tailed deer and elk sign including antler rubs, trails, tracks, scats and feeding sign
IMG_3284 Teaching assistant Dan Gusset and student Erin Campbell inspect the bite mark of a black bear found on a small tree along a game trail. Such marks are commonly produced by scent marking bears whom also claw and rub such trees in efforts to attach their scent to tree for other bears to find.
IMG_3310 Douglas Cowan inspects a pika hay mound found under a bridge along the Snoqualmie River. Pika typically live at higher elevations in the Cascades but here were making use of the large boulders laid down at the base of the bridge which mimic higher elevation talus fields. Pika’s collect vegetation in mounds for later consumption in the rocks where they live.
IMG_3296 Trever Ose examines some elk hair on an antler rub. Antler rubs are an important scent marking behavior of bull elk associated with the breeding season. After abraiding the bark of the tree with his antlers, the elk will then rub the tree with his face, shoulders and the base of his antlers to attach his scent to the tree. The scent acts as an advertisement to female elk in the area and a challenge to other males.

On Sunday we ventured out to the banks of the Puget Sound where students were quizzed on a wide variety of tracks and signs, including identifying and interpreting the story behind the remains of numerous species of birds we discovered. Tracks and signs we found included:

  • Tracks of: racoon, river otter, feral house cat, mink, muskrat, opossum, black rat, deer mouse, shrew, American robin, sparrow, black-crowned night heron, teal.
  • River otter scent marking sign
  • Pellets from several species of owls containing vole remains
  • Northern harrier pellets
  • The remains of a barn owl, a short-eared owl, several snow geese, a female pheasant, and several species of ducks most of which appeared to have been predated by areal predators.

On Sunday, besides tracks and signs, the birding was quite good. We observed four snowy owls, a short-eared owl, numerous Northern harriers and other hawks, dunlin, yellow-legs, pintails, widgeons, western meadowlarks, snow geese, trumpeter swans, and many other species.

Front (below) and hind tracks of a muskrat in fine river mud. Front (below) and hind tracks of a muskrat in fine river mud.
IMG_0594 All four feet (two fronts at bottom of the frame, hinds above) of a river otter.
_MG_4620 The wings of a snow goose which had likely been consumed by a bald eagle on the banks of the Puget Sound.
_MG_4648 Identifying bird feathers found in the field at the end of the day.
_MG_4640 Feathers from a barn owl (left) and short-eared owl, both found on the edge of a large field filled with vole sign where each owl had likely been hunting when they were killed. The short-eared owl remains where found scattered in the brush bellow some trees in a location where a larger bird, such as a great-horned owl or bald eagle might perch to consume a meal. The barn owl feathers where found below another tree on the ground and was also likely consumed by a raptor.
IMG_3281 The class under a particularly large Sitka spruce on the bank of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. The large amount of reddish debris at the base of the tree is the result of a feeding Douglas squirrel. Such a midden is created when the squirrel consumes conifer cones from a favored perch and discards the remains onto the forest floor below the perch.

Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers

During several trips this winter to the shores of the Puget Sound where the Stillaguamish and Skagit rivers drain into the sea, I encountered two species of predatory birds sharing some remarkably similar hunting habits. The Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)) and Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) are both medium sized raptors. Of the two, the short-eared owl stands out as a bit of an oddity–being diurnal in its habits, unusual for owls, the rest of which are night hunters. The graceful and quavering flight patterns of both species are mesmerizing to watch.

Female Northern Harrier in flight. Puget Sound, Washington.
Female Northern harrier, perched. Puget Sound, Washington
Northern harriers fly low over grasslands and wetlands attempting to locate and surprise voles and other small mammals at close range.
Sharing the same fields and tidal marshes, Short-eared owls can also be found out during the day hunting small mammals and occasionally song birds.


Short-eared owl in flight. Puget Sound, Washington.
Short-eared owl, perched. Puget Sound, Washington

See more photos of these two species in my photography galleries.

Snow Geese

During the winter thousands of snow geese flock to the Puget Sound where they feed in farm fields and tidal wetlands. Wintering bald eagles flying overhead bring massive groups of geese into the air. Click here to see a gallery of images from a recent trip of mine.

Click on the image for more photos of wintering snow geese from the Puget Sound

Track and Sign Certification in southern Texas

In mid January, I made my first trip ever to Texas where I joined Texas State Wildlife Biologist and Cybertracker Evaluator Jonah Evans to deliver a Track and Sign Certification event for Urban Biologists from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in southern Texas. Jonah is also the author of an excellent Iphone App Tracking Guide and manages a website with a large collection of well organized track and sign photographs.

_MG_3998 Track and Sign Evaluator and Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist Jonah Evans leads a discussion about the tracks left by several coyotes traveling on the shore of Laguna Atascosa in southern Texas.

The wetlands and thickets of this part of Texas are a birding mecca, with over half of all the species of birds which can be found in the continental United States making their way through the region over the course of the year. Besides bird life, the area is home to a wide variety of mammal species including oceolots, a very rare species in the United States as well as feral pigs and a variety of other introduced exotic species.

_MG_3943 Tracks of a bounding Hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus) in mud.
_MG_3962 Front and hind tracks of an oceolot (Leopardus pardalis). The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge contains one of the only breeding populations of this wild feline in the United States.


photo(2) Congratulations to everyone who earned a Certification during this event. Click on the image for a complete list of certified wildlife trackers in North America.

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