Big Cats, Big Roads, and Beachfront: Out and About with the Santa Cruz Puma Project

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In February I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in the field with the Santa Cruz Puma Project, an ongoing research program based out of University of California Santa Cruz. Along with learning about the general biology and ecology of mountain lions, researchers and graduate students are looking specifically at how these large cats interact with human populations, neighborhoods, and roads.

 The San Francisco Bay area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States but still includes a matrix of open spaces and wild lands that mountain lions have managed to carve out an existence in.

The San Francisco Bay area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States but still includes a matrix of open spaces and wild lands that mountain lions have managed to carve out an existence in.

 The primary study area for the project is the Santa Cruz mountains which run south from San Francisco. Plant communities range from redwood forests to arid chaparral and oak woodlands.

The primary study area for the project is the Santa Cruz mountains which run south from San Francisco. Plant communities range from redwood forests to arid chaparral and oak woodlands.

 On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz mountains, residential areas intermix with parklands and forested mountains creating a fragmented landscape that mountain lions travel through carefully.

On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz mountains, residential areas intermix with parklands and forested mountains creating a fragmented landscape that mountain lions travel through carefully.

 In order to get detailed information on the movements of mountain lions, the project live captures mountain lions and attaches a GPS collar to them.

In order to get detailed information on the movements of mountain lions, the project live captures mountain lions and attaches a GPS collar to them.

 Hounds are used to track the cat which typically climb a tree to evade the dogs. Researchers can anesthetize the mountain lion, give it a physical exam and secure a radio collar to the cat. Here roundsman Dan Tichenor  has just released one of his hounds on the fresh trail of a mountain lion.

Hounds are used to track the cat which typically climb a tree to evade the dogs. Researchers can anesthetize the mountain lion, give it a physical exam and secure a radio collar to the cat. Here roundsman Dan Tichenor  has just released one of his hounds on the fresh trail of a mountain lion.

 Treed mountain lion in a Pacific madrone tree.

Treed mountain lion in a Pacific madrone tree.

 Besides a GPS unit, the collars also include a radio signal transmitter which researchers can use to get close enough to the cat to wirelessly download data from the collar. Other collars have a transmitter which allows GPS data to be transmitted via cell service. All of the lions in the project with these collars are currently on a family plan I was told (seriously!). Here wildlife biologist Paul Houghtaling is attempting to locate a collared cat in a large stand of redwood trees.

Besides a GPS unit, the collars also include a radio signal transmitter which researchers can use to get close enough to the cat to wirelessly download data from the collar. Other collars have a transmitter which allows GPS data to be transmitted via cell service. All of the lions in the project with these collars are currently on a family plan I was told (seriously!). Here wildlife biologist Paul Houghtaling is attempting to locate a collared cat in a large stand of redwood trees.

 Once the data has been collected from the collar’s the detailed geographic information collected can be used to address a wide variety of research questions.

Once the data has been collected from the collar’s the detailed geographic information collected can be used to address a wide variety of research questions.

 One big question that the project is studying is about the diet of mountain lions and specifically where on the landscape they are hunting in relationship to various habitat types and levels of human presence on the landscape. Here field technician Chris Fust has used information from a collared cat to discover the remains of a deer killed by the mountain lion.

One big question that the project is studying is about the diet of mountain lions and specifically where on the landscape they are hunting in relationship to various habitat types and levels of human presence on the landscape. Here field technician Chris Fust has used information from a collared cat to discover the remains of a deer killed by the mountain lion.

 Another topic of great interest to the project and numerous other conservationists in the area are the effects of roads and highways on mountain lions ability to move around the region. I spent a day out in the field with Tanya Diamond (pictured here) and Ahiga Snyder from  Pathways For Wildlife  whom are studying wildlife crossings of numerous roads in the region.

Another topic of great interest to the project and numerous other conservationists in the area are the effects of roads and highways on mountain lions ability to move around the region. I spent a day out in the field with Tanya Diamond (pictured here) and Ahiga Snyder from Pathways For Wildlife whom are studying wildlife crossings of numerous roads in the region.

 Researcher Ahiga Snyder servicing a remote camera at a break in a fence adjacent to Highway 1 which wildlife have been using to access the roadway.

Researcher Ahiga Snyder servicing a remote camera at a break in a fence adjacent to Highway 1 which wildlife have been using to access the roadway.

 Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from Wilder State Park just north of Santa Cruz California. Stunning natural beauty has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the San Francisco Bay area for decades creating the current challenges the region is facing to conserve local wild lands and wildlife but also a human population deeply invested in the outcome.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from Wilder State Park just north of Santa Cruz California. Stunning natural beauty has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the San Francisco Bay area for decades creating the current challenges the region is facing to conserve local wild lands and wildlife but also a human population deeply invested in the outcome.

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Wildlife In the Methow Valley, Viewed Remotely

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This winter I have been running remote cameras of mine, and assisting the Ray Robertson and the United States Forest Service with the deployment of several others in various locations around the Methow Valley here in north central Washington. Remote cameras are considered a non-invasive research method, as they provide a means to monitor wildlife without having to handle or even directly observe them. Remote cameras greatly increases the amount of time we can monitor a location and also reduces our impact on the species we are studying by limiting the amount of time we are actually in the field in their habitat. Remote cameras, if set thoughtfully can also provide beautiful images that both document various species of wildlife while also illustrating their relationship to their environment and each other. Here is some of what we have been finding this winter here on the eastern slope of the North Cascades.

 

 Mule deer, such as these two are one of the most conspicuous species of wildlife in the Methow Valley and show up in camera sets in many low elevation camera traps around the valley.

Mule deer, such as these two are one of the most conspicuous species of wildlife in the Methow Valley and show up in camera sets in many low elevation camera traps around the valley.

 A young mountain lion explores the same location where the deer from the previous image had visited earlier. Other images from this camera captured both this lion and its mother in the same location.

A young mountain lion explores the same location where the deer from the previous image had visited earlier. Other images from this camera captured both this lion and its mother in the same location.

 An adult mountain lion sniffs at the buried remains of a deer which had been cached about a week before by either himself or possibly another lion that uses this area. After inspecting the area briefly, this lion moved on without retrieving anything of the buried carcass.

An adult mountain lion sniffs at the buried remains of a deer which had been cached about a week before by either himself or possibly another lion that uses this area. After inspecting the area briefly, this lion moved on without retrieving anything of the buried carcass.

 Golden eagle and black-billed magpie feeding on the remains of this same carcass which had been excavated by a bobcat several days earlier. In this image I had the camera looking down on the sight from an overhanging tree branch.

Golden eagle and black-billed magpie feeding on the remains of this same carcass which had been excavated by a bobcat several days earlier. In this image I had the camera looking down on the sight from an overhanging tree branch.

 A group of river otters bounds along the banks of the Methow River. I set this camera at a location where I had found sign of a number of species of wildlife and the set also captured images of mountain lion, deer and beaver.

A group of river otters bounds along the banks of the Methow River. I set this camera at a location where I had found sign of a number of species of wildlife and the set also captured images of mountain lion, deer and beaver.

 A photo of myself. As part of setting a camera trap I will trigger the camera and then inspect the images it is capturing to make sure the focal area of the camera is capturing the area I am interested in. Behind me is the remains of a mule deer that had been killed and consumed by wolves several weeks earlier. Here I am using the carcass as an attractant to draw carnivores into the range of the camera.

A photo of myself. As part of setting a camera trap I will trigger the camera and then inspect the images it is capturing to make sure the focal area of the camera is capturing the area I am interested in. Behind me is the remains of a mule deer that had been killed and consumed by wolves several weeks earlier. Here I am using the carcass as an attractant to draw carnivores into the range of the camera.

 A pair of coyotes inspecting the carcass. They scent marked the area and then left without scavenging on the carcass.

A pair of coyotes inspecting the carcass. They scent marked the area and then left without scavenging on the carcass.

 This bobcat was more interested in getting a meal out of the deer carcass!

This bobcat was more interested in getting a meal out of the deer carcass!

 Even after many other visitors, a hungry wolf returned to the carcass to feed on the bones and hide that remained.   

Even after many other visitors, a hungry wolf returned to the carcass to feed on the bones and hide that remained.

 

 A mule deer buck captured on a Forest Service camera set by Ray Robertson and I in a location we had found tracks of wolves.   

A mule deer buck captured on a Forest Service camera set by Ray Robertson and I in a location we had found tracks of wolves.

 

 A daytime image from the same camera. The short ears and stocky muzzle of this animal identify it as a wolf.

A daytime image from the same camera. The short ears and stocky muzzle of this animal identify it as a wolf.

 Several weeks later, this coyote was captured at the same location, identified by its more slender build and narrow snout.

Several weeks later, this coyote was captured at the same location, identified by its more slender build and narrow snout.

 Remote camera set targeting wolves and mountain lions along a game trail. For this camera set I am anticipating the travel route of these species through my interpretation of their tracks and knowledge of how they typically travel through this particular location. I expect that I will also get photos of mule deer, and coyotes as well as possibly bobcats and red squirrels. Will keep you posted on how this one turns out…its out there right now!

Remote camera set targeting wolves and mountain lions along a game trail. For this camera set I am anticipating the travel route of these species through my interpretation of their tracks and knowledge of how they typically travel through this particular location. I expect that I will also get photos of mule deer, and coyotes as well as possibly bobcats and red squirrels. Will keep you posted on how this one turns out…its out there right now!

Productive remote camera traps aren't just created by sticking a camera up just anywhere in the woods. It requires careful observation of tracks and signs, knowledge of the target species biology and ecology, how to use natural and imported attractants, as well as specific tricks on how to get the most out of the equipment you are using in the field. Click here to learn more about remote cameras and other non-invasive wildlife research methods. David Moskowitz provides custom trainings on many of these methods and consulting services for projects looking to employ them effectively and efficiently in the field.

Wrapping up the Wildlife Tracking Intensive for 2013

Black bears, mountain lions, and much much more...

May marked the end of this years Wildlife Tracking Intensive at Wilderness Awareness School. We spent one more weekend exploring wild lands in the region looking for tracks and signs of wildlife and testing our skills in the field.

 Mark Kang-O’Higgins inspects the marks left on a leaning alder by a scent marking black bear.

Mark Kang-O’Higgins inspects the marks left on a leaning alder by a scent marking black bear.

 Douglas Cowan inspects a scent marking scrape next to a rotting log from a mountain lion found on a trail along the edge of a wetland on the western edge of the Cascade Mountains.

Douglas Cowan inspects a scent marking scrape next to a rotting log from a mountain lion found on a trail along the edge of a wetland on the western edge of the Cascade Mountains.

Advanced Path Student Projects

Saturday afternoon our two Advanced Path students presented on their research projects.

From Field to Font
As Time Passes

Thanks to all of our students this year for their passion for developing their skills as wildlife trackers and naturalists! It was another great year!

Interested in learning more about the Wildlife Tracking Intensive? Check it out here! Applications now being accepted for next years class which starts in September!

Methow Conservancy Track and Sign Certification, Northcentral Washington

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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.

 Solid snowpack still lingered in the valley bottom and on north facing slopes in the Methow for the evaluation.

Solid snowpack still lingered in the valley bottom and on north facing slopes in the Methow for the evaluation.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 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!

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 trackercertification.com)

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

Level 2: Sarah Wilkinson, Mary E. Kiesau

Level 3: Nate Bacon, Kim Romain-Bondi

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.

Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event in the Swan Valley, Montana

 Senior Tracker and Evaluator Mark Elbroch points out some of the finer details of a track during a discussion of one of the questions on the Evaluation.

Senior Tracker and Evaluator Mark Elbroch points out some of the finer details of a track during a discussion of one of the questions on the Evaluation.

Congratulations to all 11 folks who participated in the Track and Sign Certification Event in wild Swan Valley of northwestern Montana this past weekend, all of whom earned a certificate through Cybertracker Conservation!The event was hosted by Northwest Connections in the very quiet town of Condon. It was great getting to know more about this creative and inspiring organizaiton whose mission to "Integrate Science, Education and Community in the Conservation of Rural Working Landscapes". I highly recommend any and all of the various educational opportunities they have to offer and hope to be back there soon! A special thanks also to Nick Sharp, Wildlife Conservation Society Biologist, and Doctoral student at the University of Montana, who organized the event (and put in a stellar performance on the Evaluation!)Over the course of the two days of the Evaluation, participants were given 70 different questions about tracks and signs discovered in the field. Species varied from voles to grizzly bears and the handiwork of everything from a bushytailed woodrat to a backhoe. Along with covering as diverse a set of tracks and signs as is possible over two days, the evaluation includes questions ranging from very simple (such as a clear deer track) to very challenging (such as interpreting the behavior of an elk which had scraped bark off of the trunk of an aspen with its incisors). For more information on Cybertracker Conservation Wildlife Tracking Evaluation methods click here.

 Senior Tracker Brian McConnell, who assisted in delivering the evaluation, points out one of the questions, marks on an aspen tree to Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Program Coordinator at Northwest Connections. Adam correctly interpreted them to be made by a black bear which had climbed the tree.

Senior Tracker Brian McConnell, who assisted in delivering the evaluation, points out one of the questions, marks on an aspen tree to Adam Lieberg, Conservation Program Program Coordinator at Northwest Connections. Adam correctly interpreted them to be made by a black bear which had climbed the tree.

Here are photos of some of the things that were on the Evaluation and the questions about them. All questions are based on actual tracks and signs discovered in the field by evaluators during the Evaluation. After all of the participants have the opportunity to answer each question, the track or sign is discussed as a group and the evaluators carefully explain the correct answer and discuss why it could or could not be various other species, often using illustrations and other resources to help illustrate key features.

 What species and which foot? Front and hind tracks of a red fox.

What species and which foot? Front and hind tracks of a red fox.

 What species, which foot, and what was the sex of this animal? The left hind foot of a female mountain lion

What species, which foot, and what was the sex of this animal? The left hind foot of a female mountain lion

 What species (in regards to the lower tracks)? The front and hind foot of a wolf (above are the track of a whitetailed deer).

What species (in regards to the lower tracks)? The front and hind foot of a wolf (above are the track of a whitetailed deer).

 What happened to these shrubs? Tim Nelson inspects the work of a buck deer which left these marks on a serviceberry shrub with its antlers the previous fall, a marking behavior associated with courtship and breeding activities.

What happened to these shrubs? Tim Nelson inspects the work of a buck deer which left these marks on a serviceberry shrub with its antlers the previous fall, a marking behavior associated with courtship and breeding activities.

 Who removed the bark from this burl on a lodgepole pine? From left to right, Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson, Mark Elbroch, Preston Taylor and Adam Lieberg discuss a contentious question, a burl on a lodgepole pine which had been debarked by a red squirrel

Who removed the bark from this burl on a lodgepole pine? From left to right, Track and Sign Specialist Matt Nelson, Mark Elbroch, Preston Taylor and Adam Lieberg discuss a contentious question, a burl on a lodgepole pine which had been debarked by a red squirrel

 Who left this track? The weathered footprint of a grizzly bear.

Who left this track? The weathered footprint of a grizzly bear.

 Mark and Jenn Wolfe discuss one of the harder questions on the evaluation, the identity of a jawbone found in the field–in this case a wolf! Mandibles were not in short supply, and the striped skunk and black bear jawbone were also questions on the Evaluation.

Mark and Jenn Wolfe discuss one of the harder questions on the evaluation, the identity of a jawbone found in the field–in this case a wolf! Mandibles were not in short supply, and the striped skunk and black bear jawbone were also questions on the Evaluation.

 Who made this hole? A foraging badger.

Who made this hole? A foraging badger.

 Congratulations to everyone who participated and earned a certificate at the event!

Congratulations to everyone who participated and earned a certificate at the event!

Interested in participating in a Certification Event or hosting one? Find a list of future events I am running at davidmoskowitz.net. Our North American website for all Tracking Certification events is currently underconstruction. Send me an email if you want to discuss details on hosting an event or links to Certification Events in other parts of the country!