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
 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 All four feet (two fronts at bottom of the frame, hinds above) of a river otter.

All four feet (two fronts at bottom of the frame, hinds above) of a river otter.

 The wings of a snow goose which had likely been consumed by a bald eagle on the banks of the Puget Sound.

The wings of a snow goose which had likely been consumed by a bald eagle on the banks of the Puget Sound.

 Identifying bird feathers found in the field at the end of the day.

Identifying bird feathers found in the field at the end of the day.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

Mount St. Helens Institute Track and Sign Certification

This past weekend the Mount St. Helens Institute, in collaboration with the Mount Adams Institute, hosted a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event close to the town of Trout Lake in the southern Washington Cascades, a landscape with a diversity of plant communities, striking geography, and bountiful wildlife.

 Matt Nelson, Track and Sign Specialist, assisted me in the delivery of the evaluation. Here Matt is leading a discussion around the remains of a mule deer which was killed and butchered by a human hunter and subsequently scavenged by coyotes. Questions around this carcass led to a lengthy and detailed discussion on how to differentiate the patterns of sign left behind around carcasses by other large carnivores such as mountain lions, black bears, and wolves.

Matt Nelson, Track and Sign Specialist, assisted me in the delivery of the evaluation. Here Matt is leading a discussion around the remains of a mule deer which was killed and butchered by a human hunter and subsequently scavenged by coyotes. Questions around this carcass led to a lengthy and detailed discussion on how to differentiate the patterns of sign left behind around carcasses by other large carnivores such as mountain lions, black bears, and wolves.

 Naturalist Dan Daly inspecting a beaver chewed stick along the banks of the Klickitat River. Dan performed impressively and with a score of 98.5, earned his second Level 3 Certification. Nice work Dan!

Naturalist Dan Daly inspecting a beaver chewed stick along the banks of the Klickitat River. Dan performed impressively and with a score of 98.5, earned his second Level 3 Certification. Nice work Dan!

 Matt Nelson photographed me leading a discussion on the identification of a collection of feathers from a Ruffed grouse found on the side of a forest road. David Scott (Track and Sign Specialist) and Casey McFarland (Specialist and Evaluator for Cybertracker Conservation) are the authors of the excellent resource pictured here,  Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species.

Matt Nelson photographed me leading a discussion on the identification of a collection of feathers from a Ruffed grouse found on the side of a forest road. David Scott (Track and Sign Specialist) and Casey McFarland (Specialist and Evaluator for Cybertracker Conservation) are the authors of the excellent resource pictured here, Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species.

 The camber of this primary wing feather is an important clue about the original owner of it. The heavy downward curve in wing weathers is typical for game birds such as Ruffed grouse. This curve helps give them explosive take off power, an important survival trait for ground birds trying to escape terrestrial predators.

The camber of this primary wing feather is an important clue about the original owner of it. The heavy downward curve in wing weathers is typical for game birds such as Ruffed grouse. This curve helps give them explosive take off power, an important survival trait for ground birds trying to escape terrestrial predators.

Congratulations to everyone who earned a Track and Sign Certification through the Event! For a complete list of certified Trackers in North America click here.

Level 1

Corwin Scott

Hanna D. Gomes

Fred Engelfried

Level 2

Heather Harding

Levi Old

Level 3

Maureen Corlas

Ashley Conley

Daniel P. Daly