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.
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.
During my recent trip to the Big Island of Hawaii I had the amazing opportunity to hike with Darcy Ottey out to where the active volcano on the island, Kilauea, is currently releasing lava which is flowing into the Pacific Ocean. A 2 mile hike by starlight over basalt from earlier lava flows brought us to a primordial setting. Following an eerie orange glow we arrived at what truly could be described as the edge of the earth–a landscape made up of stars and sky, the pounding waves of the ocean and glowing lava pouring over 60 foot basalt cliffs into the sea, releasing plums of steam as it met the water. Before our eyes we watched flowing lava harden into rock and the coastline expand ever so slightly. As daylight came intermittent rain squalls, driven by a warm off shore wind brought a spectacular rainbow seemingly rising out of the glowing cliffs. It was definitely an experience I will never forget.
Kilauea’s Main Crater
Miles to the west of Kilauea’s eastern rift which is releasing the lava flowing into the ocean, the volcano’s main crater is also a spectacular sight, perhaps most magnificent at night when the glow of the pool of lava within it illuminates the steam and smoke rising from the crater.
While thousands of boaters float down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon every year, dozens of side canyons branching off the river receive much less attention. During my recent float trip, we explored several technical canyons. Because of the small amount of daylight in late November and December in the Canyon, side trips required an early start and several ended by headlamp in the dark. My favorite side trip was in Cove Canyon which comes into the Colorado around river mile 175. From our camp at the mouth of Cove Canyon six of us departed before first light. A bit over 12 hours later we made our way back into camp after navigating the final plunge pool and rappell via headlamp.
Wildlife and signs of wild animals abound along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The silty banks of the river hold the tracks of many species large and small while birds, from tiny canyon wrens to California Condors can be spotted on the water, in the brush or soaring above the canyon walls. Here is a little bit of what I found on my recent float trip down the river.
Though I am not much of a birder I amassed a species list of about 35 birds during my November-December trip down the Canyon. The abundance and diversity of birds definately increased towards the end of the trip. Here are a few I managed to snap a photo of.
While footprints revealed the presence of a great many more species of mammals than we actually had live sightings of our party saw bighorn sheep on several occasions and had some notable interactions with ringtails. Perhaps most unusual was the discovery of a ringtail in one of our party’s tent when he retired for the evening!
Perhaps because of the forest habitat they occupy and tendency not to travel for long distances on the the ground, clear footprints of the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) have rarely been detected in the wild, or at least rarely documented. I personally have never definitively identified this species’s tracks in any substrate other than loose snow. As such producing reliable illustrations for the tracks of flying squirrels is challenging. In writing my field guide I had less direct field data on this species than any other mammal species whose tracks are illustrated in the book. The illustrations, measurements and description of northern flying squirrel tracks in Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest are based on the following data sources:
Snow tracks found in conjunction with definitive flying squirrel sign, typically the landing mark at the end of a glide.
A plaster cast of a number of tracks of a single flying squirrel which was collected for me by Kevin Mack, at PAWS in Lynwood, WA from a captive female northern flying squirrel which was being rehabilitated for release there.
Photographs and illustrations of the tracks and signs of this species from other wildlife tracking literature, (all included in the bibliography of my field guide).
In the spring of 2012, while delivering a Tracking Certification with Dr. Mark Elbroch, author of a number of books on wildlife tracks in North America, Mark offered me the feedback that his most recent research on this topic suggests that his original depiction of northern flying squirrel feet in Mammal Tracks: A Guide to North American Species, along with my own are inaccurate. In Mark Elbroch’s most recent book, co-authored with Jonah Evans and Michael Kresky, Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scats of California, the authors present a revised illustration of the tracks of this species based on their inspection of study skins and footprints collected from sooted track plates. Following this conversation, I revisiting my own original research materials, as well as the literature and made a follow up trip back to the Burke Museum, where I reexamined study skins as well as a fresh specimen which was waiting to be processed.
As Elbroch, Evans, and Kresky depict, northern flying squirrels do have a distinctive, though subtle, anatomical feature in their hind feet which is unique among squirrels in the Pacific Northwest and California. Toe number 5, the outside toe, is longer than is typical for squirrels or other rodents. Inspecting the actual feet of a frozen flying squirrel as well as numerous study skins, this toe, while not quite as long as the central three toes is nearly so, and visually apears in a similar plane to them, while toe 1 is distinctly shorter and falls on a seperate plane. This feature is present in the tracks collected from the sooted track plate which is published in Elbroch, Evans and Kresky. While the only clear tracks in a natural substrate I have been able to examine, those of the captive animal’s which were collected in sand, do not show this characteristic as distinctively as it appears in sooted track plates and on the actual feet themselves, I suspect that it would likely often be apparent in tracks in natural substrates. This characteristic, not currently illustrated or described in Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, could be used to distinguish the tracks of this species from the related Douglas (Tamiasciurus douglasii) and red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which share the Pacific Northwest and much of the rest of North America with northern flying squirrels.
Because there is such limited data on this topic, I have included photographs and sketches from my research for review by others. Similarly, if others have photographs, sketches or access to northern flying squirrel’s I would love to see their material and explore this subject further. Thanks much to Jeff Bradley at the Burke Museum, and the Burke Museum in general, as well as Mark Elbroch for their assistance with this topic.
In late September, the Slovak Wildlife Society hosted a weekend Wildlife Tracking Workshop in Liptovský Mikuláš, a village in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. The Slovak Wildlife Society is involved with a range of conservation projects focusing primarily on the region’s large carnivores including working to prevent negative interactions between wolves and bears with humans.
Here are a few of the highlights from my trip to the region and the class with a collection of very fine European naturalists and wildlife trackers.
September is harvest season for folks who live in the Sveneti Region of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus Mountains are a land steeped in history and located at a geographic and cultural crossroads of Asia and Europe. Traveling through the remote villages situated among the soaring ridges and peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, felt at points like a trip back in time. This feeling was perhaps most distinct in watching the process of cutting and storing hay which was in full swing during my time in the region.
This past weekend the Jefferson Land Trust hosted a Track and Sign Evaluation in the northeastern section of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Jason Lake, instructor for Ceder Root Folk School, volunteered four days of his time to assist in setting up and delivering the Evaluation. The evaluation was held on a combination of Lands owned or under conservation easements managed by the Land Trust and public lands in the area.
Jonathan Goff takes answers from Evaluation participant Heather Harding. Heather earned a Level 2 Track and Sign Certificate.
Naturalist Justin Lake, who assisted me in delivering the evaluation, inspects tracks along the beach on the edge of the Strait of Juan De Fuca, Washington.
An aplodontia cut these stinging nettle stalks and dragged them back to the mouth of its burrow. Olympic Peninsula, Washington.
Naturalist Nicole Larson records her answers to track and sign questions along the Dosewallips River. Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Nicole earned a Level 2 Track and Sign Certificate.
Erik Kingfisher, seen here inspecting the tracks of a Great Blue Heron, earned a Level 3 Track and Sign Certification.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the Evaluation and…
Congratulations to the folks who earned certificates:
Level 1: Peter Craig, Sarah Spaeth, Isabelle Luna, Rachel Webber
Level 2: Lee Corum, Heather Harding, Dustin Ryerson, Nicole Larson
Level 3: Erik Kingfisher
For a list of all of the certified trackers in North America click here.
The massive relief of the Caucuses Range in the the Republic of Georgia’s Sveneti Region are staggering in their own right for their sheer natural beauty. Though much less well known then the Alps in western Europe, the Causcuses, straddling the southern border between Europe and Asia are the highest mountain range in Europe.
During the first part of my recent trip to the region, I spent several days trekking around Mount Ushba, one of the most striking mountains I have ever encountered. Like most of the highest peaks in Georgia, it sits along the international border with Russia.
The Shkhara massif sits south and east of Mount Ushba and includes Mount Shkhara and several other 5000+ meter peaks, the highest part of the Caucuses in Georgia. Fall temperatures had turned the mountain ash red on the alpine mountain slopes and dusted the ridgetops, peaks, and glaciers with fresh snow.