Mountain Caribou Initiative: Camera Trapping for Carnivores

Text and photos by David Moskowitz Caribou are not the only animal tough to track down in the Caribou Rainforest ecosystem. As part of our efforts to tell the story of all of the creatures that call these mountains home, I have been setting camera traps this winter in collaboration with Swan Valley Connections in northwestern Montana and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in the panhandle of Idaho this winter to capture images of some of the rare and elusive carnivores that depend on this wild landscape. Here are a few images from this winter field work and some out-takes of images from the camera traps.

 Anything unusual about this snowmobile packing job? Researchers in Idaho and Montana are using beaver carcasses or deer legs as attractants to lure rare carnivores like Canada lynx and wolverines to bait stations set up with hair snagging devises to collect genetic samples from animals without ever having to see or handle the animals. I’ve been hitching a ride out into the field with researchers and setting up my camera traps adjacent to their bait stations.

Anything unusual about this snowmobile packing job? Researchers in Idaho and Montana are using beaver carcasses or deer legs as attractants to lure rare carnivores like Canada lynx and wolverines to bait stations set up with hair snagging devises to collect genetic samples from animals without ever having to see or handle the animals. I’ve been hitching a ride out into the field with researchers and setting up my camera traps adjacent to their bait stations.

 Cody Dems (left) and Adam Lieberg set a bait station in the Mission Mountains of Montana.

Cody Dems (left) and Adam Lieberg set a bait station in the Mission Mountains of Montana.

 Cody inspecting the fresh trail of a wolverine in Montana.

Cody inspecting the fresh trail of a wolverine in Montana.

Skies and pack ready to go after setting up a camera trap for wolverines and lynx in northwestern Montana.
Skies and pack ready to go after setting up a camera trap for wolverines and lynx in northwestern Montana.
 A Canada lynx enjoys some sunshine in a photo from one of my camera traps in Montana. Got many photos of this fellow in this beautiful subalpine forest. Its been many decades since caribou roamed these forests but lynx continue to call these mountains home.

A Canada lynx enjoys some sunshine in a photo from one of my camera traps in Montana. Got many photos of this fellow in this beautiful subalpine forest. Its been many decades since caribou roamed these forests but lynx continue to call these mountains home.

 A photo bombing snowshoe hare set up in front of another camera in the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho.

A photo bombing snowshoe hare set up in front of another camera in the Selkirk Mountains in Idaho.

 An American marten takes in a snowy night at the same camera trap as the snowshoe hare above.

An American marten takes in a snowy night at the same camera trap as the snowshoe hare above.

Learn more about the Mountain Caribou Initiative here. Stay tuned for the trailer for our forthcoming film which should be out this spring. For updates on the film and other material forthcoming from the project, sign up for quarterly emails on the About page of my website.

Close to Caribou

Text by Kim Shelton. Photos by David MoskowitzDay two in the 2016 summer expedition of the Mountain Caribou Initiative: our mission is to set up camera traps in core home range of the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou herd a few miles from Kootenay pass, just north of the U.S. border.  My secondary mission is to keep up with David Moskowitz, scrambling up and down mountains while carrying a pack loaded down with camera trap gear. I'm constantly amazed at the terrain that these caribou seem unfazed by, and that we must traverse if we want to find sign of them.  It is absolutely rugged country and stunningly beautiful.

 Dave also seems to be unfazed by the terrain, scaling peaks and traversing talus fields at a doggedly consistent and efficient pace – a result of having made a living in the outdoors for two decades. His goals at first seem completely unreasonable to me. The day is long: 11 hours of bushwhacking, with intermittent pauses to investigate tracks and set up camera traps – and I keep up mostly because I’m too stubborn not to.  

Dave also seems to be unfazed by the terrain, scaling peaks and traversing talus fields at a doggedly consistent and efficient pace – a result of having made a living in the outdoors for two decades. His goals at first seem completely unreasonable to me. The day is long: 11 hours of bushwhacking, with intermittent pauses to investigate tracks and set up camera traps – and I keep up mostly because I’m too stubborn not to.  

Dave also seems to be unfazed by the terrain, scaling peaks and traversing talus fields at a doggedly consistent and efficient pace - a result of having made a living in the outdoors for two decades. His goals at first seem completely unreasonable to me. The day is long: 11 hours of bushwhacking, with intermittent pauses to investigate tracks and set up camera traps - and I keep up mostly because I'm too stubborn not to.  

 The tracks of a wolf in a high mountain meadow in the Selkirk mountains.

The tracks of a wolf in a high mountain meadow in the Selkirk mountains.

At our first summit of the day, on a ridgeline south of Canadian Highway 3, we gaze down at a wetland meadow system far below. Somewhere down there we hope to find sign of one of the twelve animals in the South Selkirk herd. I'm scanning the landscape with my binoculars every chance I get as we descend the steep hillside, at times lowering ourselves down hand over hand using spruce branches or handfuls of pacific rhododendron, trusting the hardy mountain plants will hold our weight.

I "glass" the hills again near the bottom of our descent, having learned last year to always look twice after I scanned right over a camouflaged bedded down moose. I slowly check every suspicious looking rock, stump, and waving branch.

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A single white tailed deer feeds across the valley from us. According to the Wildlife Management Institute, white tailed deer were historically rare in this area but now comprise almost three quarters of the deer population in the Selkirk Mountains.  These deer, along with moose and elk, are considered “primary prey” for wolves and mountain lions, predators that weren’t so much of a threat to mountain caribou years ago, but with the fracturing of the inland temperate rainforest by clearcuts, roads and powerlines, “primary prey” moved in, followed by their predators.   

One of the main defense systems of mountain caribou is evasion of predators; carried by their massive hooves they retreat to snow covered peaks in winter and spongy marshlands in the summer, away from where other hoofed animals and their predators typically roam.  Naturally they become prey at times, but a large herd can replenish a loss. At twelve animals and with cows taking three years to birth their first calf, and then only one per year after that, replenishment is slow. Compared to a white tailed deer who can birth up to three fawns her first year, the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou herd is fragile to say the least.

In the marshy valley bottom mosquitoes descend upon us as we split up to scan the area for sign. I’ve given up trying to keep my feet dry as I squish across the meadow, searching for game trails, scat, tracks, rubs, browse sign. I did not expect to see bones. White and clean, I can immediately tell they are leg bones of an ungulate - a long legged, gracefully hoofed animal.  As a tracker, finding the remains of an animal always gets me excited. I crouch by the few bones and play out all the possibilities of what may have happened here.  Knowing that the rest of the carcass must be near by, I stand and move intuitively, loving the sense of calmness that takes over my mind and body when following animal sign. I walk right to the carcass; a large spread of fur and bones lies peacefully amidst a thicket of downed trees and branches on the edge of the marsh.

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Now my mind turns on, investigating. Lots of hollow fur, very light colored, the leg bones seem huge, too big for a deer...elk? Moose? The color of the fur is not right, elk are more red but I can’t remember how much white moose have on them. The leg bones are cracked, wolves and wolverines often crack long bones like this, bears do as well occasionally. Did they kill it or did they scavenge?

I take a stick and push the fur around, trying to find more evidence. Somewhere in my mind the debate of whether I want this to be a caribou or not is taking place.  The head is nowhere to be found, but I find a single dewclaw. It is very curved. My heart beats faster and sinks at the same time. But I can’t tell yet - the kill site is old and the only way to tell for sure is to take the time and research all the possibilities. So Dave takes pictures, and we bring this mystery out of the mountains with us.

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Norm Merz, a Wildlife Biologist for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, met with us the next day and confirmed that yes the carcass was that of a mountain caribou. He had been in there just days before and was awed that we happened upon the exact same place. He also confirmed our suspicions that  it was fed on by wolves and also by bears, but the exact cause of death is unknown. Biologists from the province of British Colombia had taken the head to investigate the sex of the animal. As both males and females grow antlers, the presence of single tine “spike” antlers on this carcass indicated that the animal was either an adult cow or young bull.  Norm expressed his relief in seeing that the teeth were sharp - this animal hadn’t spent years grinding lichens - it was a young bull. Norm noted wryly that any loss from this herd is problematic for their ultimate survival, but females, on whom the future growth of this herd depends, are especially important for herd survival.

Opposing feelings of celebration and tragedy once again battle inside of us.  This project has become such a contradictory experience. Constantly we search for success - but success is finding a dead bull caribou instead of a dead cow, or finding their tracks coming out of a clear cut. Failure is having spent all day in beautiful country - prime caribou habitat in the largest remaining inland temperate rainforest in the world - and finding absolutely no sign that caribou even exist.

I have never seen a mountain caribou. I have bushwhacked for miles, seen their tracks and their scat. I have stared at maps, seen photos, heard stories and even dreamt of them. But the closest I’ve ever been to a mountain caribou was touching the bones of a young bull from the elusive twelve animal strong Southern Selkirk herd.

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NOTE: Stay tuned for images from our camera traps in the months to come as we return to check them. Follow Kim on instagram at @barefootturtle, David at @moskowitz_david, and the project at #mountaincaribouinitiative for more images from mountain caribou country! Interested in supporting the project? We are still fundraising to cover our research expenses. Tax deductible donations can be made online through project sponsor, Blue Earth Alliance.

MCP Field Notes: Cariboo Mountains

 Looking across the Rocky Mountain Trench at the Hart Mountains from the Cariboo Mountains. The Fraser River oxbows through the trench which divides these two mountain ranges.

Looking across the Rocky Mountain Trench at the Hart Mountains from the Cariboo Mountains. The Fraser River oxbows through the trench which divides these two mountain ranges.

I made my furthest trip north for the project to explore a small corner of the Cariboo Mountains, just south of the town of Prince George, British Columbia. In these mountains and across the Rocky Mountain Trench, in the Hart Ranges, caribou numbers are fairing a bit better than further south. However, with lots of room to spread out in the summer across multiple vast mountain ranges, finding them this time of year proved to be a challenge. During the summer mountain caribou disperse across the subalpine forests of these mountains in order to reduce the chance of being detected by predators. This strategy apparently also works effective for avoiding curious humans as well!

 Treeline meadows and ponds where I searched for caribou in the area.

Treeline meadows and ponds where I searched for caribou in the area.

 The wet meadow system was miles from the closes road or trail. With huge amounts of inaccessible forested landscapes to spread out in, mountain caribou can seemingly disappear into these mountains.

The wet meadow system was miles from the closes road or trail. With huge amounts of inaccessible forested landscapes to spread out in, mountain caribou can seemingly disappear into these mountains.

 A double rainbow at sunrise precedes a violent thunderstorm that rolled across the landscape shortly afterwards.

A double rainbow at sunrise precedes a violent thunderstorm that rolled across the landscape shortly afterwards.

 The closest I came to caribou on my excursion–some old scats found while out exploring.

The closest I came to caribou on my excursion–some old scats found while out exploring.

 I stumbled upon this little black bear while walking back to my truck at the end of a long day in the field.

I stumbled upon this little black bear while walking back to my truck at the end of a long day in the field.

 Mount Sir Alexander, 10,745 ft (3275m) towers above the peaks around it in the Canadian Rockies, across the Rocky Mountain trench from the Cariboo Mountains.

Mount Sir Alexander, 10,745 ft (3275m) towers above the peaks around it in the Canadian Rockies, across the Rocky Mountain trench from the Cariboo Mountains.

MCP Field Notes: North Columbia Herd.

 Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou herd.

Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou herd.

The town of Revelstoke, British Columbia sits on the banks of the Columbia River. North of town, on both banks of the reservoir created by the impounded Columbia lives the North Columbia caribou herd. This herd has been fairing better in the past several years than many of the herds further south. The reasons for this appear to include a collection of issues including habitat protections, limits on recreational impacts from snowmobiling and helicopter ski opporations and a drastic reduction in moose populations (through human hunting) which has lead to a natural decline in wolf populations and in turn less pressure on caribou. This herd has also been the focus of a program to pen some of the herd's pregnant females during the spring and early summer. The females and their calves which were born in the protection of the pen are released in the midsummer where they rejoin the rest of the caribou in the wild. This project is in its second year (Learn more about it at Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild). I spent three days in the heart of their range for this herd in the mountains northwest of Revelstoke.

 Numerous sets of fresh caribou tracks in the area told me I was in the right spot. Pictured is the hind foot of a bull caribou. Caribou are the only native North American hoofed mammal to regularly show dewclaws (the marks behind the main cleaves, feral pigs found in many places, though none in caribou habitat, also often register their dewclaws), though they show up more regularly in the fronts than hinds.

Numerous sets of fresh caribou tracks in the area told me I was in the right spot. Pictured is the hind foot of a bull caribou. Caribou are the only native North American hoofed mammal to regularly show dewclaws (the marks behind the main cleaves, feral pigs found in many places, though none in caribou habitat, also often register their dewclaws), though they show up more regularly in the fronts than hinds.

 Early one morning, close to first light, I caught my first glimpse of a mountain caribou, a bull with antlers in velvet. Female caribou also have antlers, though smaller than the males, another unique feature of this species.

Early one morning, close to first light, I caught my first glimpse of a mountain caribou, a bull with antlers in velvet. Female caribou also have antlers, though smaller than the males, another unique feature of this species.

 The subalpine landscape that caribou appear to prefer is one made of dense forests and wet meadows. This is a species that is definitely NOT afraid to get its feet wet.

The subalpine landscape that caribou appear to prefer is one made of dense forests and wet meadows. This is a species that is definitely NOT afraid to get its feet wet.

 The older tracks of a grizzly bear warned me that these creatures might be in the area. I spotted a mom and cub in the morning twilight on the day after I spotted the caribou. They didn’t spot me as they crossed an opening in the forest but also didn’t linger long enough for me to capture a photo of them. Though intrigued, I choose not to follow them to see if I might get another chance to see them. A little ways on I discovered the fresh tracks of a bull moose and calf heading into the same section of forest. An interesting story might have unfolded between these mothers and children of two of North America’s most ornery large mammals. I left this one as another one of the many mysteries that these dark forests hold.

The older tracks of a grizzly bear warned me that these creatures might be in the area. I spotted a mom and cub in the morning twilight on the day after I spotted the caribou. They didn’t spot me as they crossed an opening in the forest but also didn’t linger long enough for me to capture a photo of them. Though intrigued, I choose not to follow them to see if I might get another chance to see them. A little ways on I discovered the fresh tracks of a bull moose and calf heading into the same section of forest. An interesting story might have unfolded between these mothers and children of two of North America’s most ornery large mammals. I left this one as another one of the many mysteries that these dark forests hold.

The mosquitos and black flies were atrocious.

Mountain Caribou Project: Darkwoods Conservation Area

 Caribou crossing sign close to Kootenay Pass on Canada’s Highway 3.

Caribou crossing sign close to Kootenay Pass on Canada’s Highway 3.

The South Selkirks herd is the last group of mountain caribou that still range back and forth across the international border between British Columbia and Washington and Idaho. Just north of the border Canadian Highway 3 crosses the Selkirk mountains over Kootenay Pass, where occasionally caribou are spotted by passing motorists, in Stagleap Provincial Park.

North of Stagleap, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has acquired a large parcel of land with the intention of preserving and restoring vital habitat for this herd of mountain caribou--the Darkwoods Conservation Area. However, these mountains are far from pristine--both the provincial lands and the Darkwoods Conservation Area are crisscrossed with forestry roads, and clearcuts of all sizes and ages. In many drainages, it is only the upper ends of the basin that have been spared cutting at one point or another. The Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased a large tract of land that had been previously managed for timber production. Since its purchase, along with stopping all timber harvest in caribou habitat within the preserve and protecting the existing uncut forest stands, the Nature Conservancy has been deactivating roads in caribou habitat.

 Thunderstorm over the Darkwoods Conservation Area in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia

Thunderstorm over the Darkwoods Conservation Area in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia

 Stand of mature western red cedar and western hemlock preserved within the Darkwoods Conservation Area. Late successional stands such as this one are very rare in the southern Selkirks after decades of logging and fires at low and middle elevations in the region.

Stand of mature western red cedar and western hemlock preserved within the Darkwoods Conservation Area. Late successional stands such as this one are very rare in the southern Selkirks after decades of logging and fires at low and middle elevations in the region.

This landscape creates a maze of fragmented forest types for caribou to navigate while also leading to increased moose and deer populations at higher elevations. Kim Shelton joined me for a week to help search for caribou sign and carry photo equipment on ridiculous buggy bushwacks to several promising remote corners of these mountains. In a week of searching, location after location, where caribou where once abundant, we discovered the tracks and sign of moose, deer, and elk but the only tracks we found of caribou in a week of searching were a set of old tracks close to Kootenay Pass on Highway 3.

 Linear features such as this road and power line corridor in the range of the Southern Selkirk herd, often act as routes for wolves, who hunt caribou, and humans, who’s presence can displace caribou, to access mountain caribou habitat.

Linear features such as this road and power line corridor in the range of the Southern Selkirk herd, often act as routes for wolves, who hunt caribou, and humans, who’s presence can displace caribou, to access mountain caribou habitat.

 Wolf tracks along the road running alongside the power line corridor. The province of British Columbia has carried out extensive predator control in this area, killing wolves from three different packs in an attempt to protect the remaining 13 caribou in the South Selkirks herd. These predator control efforts have been extremely contentious amongst various groups involved in caribou conservation.

Wolf tracks along the road running alongside the power line corridor. The province of British Columbia has carried out extensive predator control in this area, killing wolves from three different packs in an attempt to protect the remaining 13 caribou in the South Selkirks herd. These predator control efforts have been extremely contentious amongst various groups involved in caribou conservation.

 Porcupine Lake in the Darkwoods Conservation Area. The Nature Conservancy of Canada completely removed a road that had been built into this lake to reduce human access and increase the quality of habitat for caribou in this subalpine basin.

Porcupine Lake in the Darkwoods Conservation Area. The Nature Conservancy of Canada completely removed a road that had been built into this lake to reduce human access and increase the quality of habitat for caribou in this subalpine basin.

 A large clearcut south of the Darkwoods Conservation Area, outside of the preserve on private timber land. The  Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased Darkwoods to protect quality caribou habitat from ending up looking like this.

A large clearcut south of the Darkwoods Conservation Area, outside of the preserve on private timber land. The  Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased Darkwoods to protect quality caribou habitat from ending up looking like this.

 The large round front print of a mountain caribou.

The large round front print of a mountain caribou.

 Kim Shelton plowing through the subalpine brush in the heavily forested Selkirk mountains searching for signs of one the remaining members of the Southern Selkirks caribou herd.

Kim Shelton plowing through the subalpine brush in the heavily forested Selkirk mountains searching for signs of one the remaining members of the Southern Selkirks caribou herd.

 Sunset on the dark woods of the Darkwoods Conservation Area.

Sunset on the dark woods of the Darkwoods Conservation Area.

Trailing Black Bears in the North Cascades

This spring I spent a week out in the field with several colleagues from Cybertracker Conservation honing our tracking and trailing skills following the trails of black bears on the western slope of the North Cascades. I put together a brief video describing the art of trailing and documenting some of what we discovered on our adventures in the temperate rainforest. 

Interested in learning to trail bears and other wildlife? I offer custom classes in a wide variety of tracking subjects, including wildlife trailing.

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.

Wildlife Tracking Certifications In Europe

This fall Casey McFarland, Mark Elbroch and myself delivered wildlife tracking workshops and certifications in the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Germany and the Netherlands.

 Casey McFarland discusses the sign left by a wild boar rubbing on the base of a tree in the Saxony region of Germany during a Track and Sign Certification event.

Casey McFarland discusses the sign left by a wild boar rubbing on the base of a tree in the Saxony region of Germany during a Track and Sign Certification event.

 Footprint of a wild boar (Sus scrofa). Eastern Germany.

Footprint of a wild boar (Sus scrofa). Eastern Germany.

 Participants in a Track and Sign Certification Event in the Liptovsky region of Slovakia inspect sign left by a brown bear (Ursus arctos) climbing a large tree.

Participants in a Track and Sign Certification Event in the Liptovsky region of Slovakia inspect sign left by a brown bear (Ursus arctos) climbing a large tree.

 Tracks of a Great cormorant from the shore of a reservoir in the Liptovsky region of Slovakia.

Tracks of a Great cormorant from the shore of a reservoir in the Liptovsky region of Slovakia.

 Tracks of two young wolves (Canis lupus, left and middle) and a large European badger (Meles meles) in sand. Saxony, Germany.

Tracks of two young wolves (Canis lupus, left and middle) and a large European badger (Meles meles) in sand. Saxony, Germany.

 Footprints from a stone marten (Martes foina) found under a bridge in eastern Germany. Note that a Euro 2 cent peice is the same size as a US penny.

Footprints from a stone marten (Martes foina) found under a bridge in eastern Germany. Note that a Euro 2 cent peice is the same size as a US penny.

 While Europe and North America share many similar species, there are a number of behaviors typical in Animals in each location which are not common in similar species in the other. The Great Spotted woodpecker, similar to the North American Hairy woodpecker, collects and breaks open pine and other conifer cones for the seeds within, in a mannor not typically observed in North America.

While Europe and North America share many similar species, there are a number of behaviors typical in Animals in each location which are not common in similar species in the other. The Great Spotted woodpecker, similar to the North American Hairy woodpecker, collects and breaks open pine and other conifer cones for the seeds within, in a mannor not typically observed in North America.

 Front (below) and hind (above) tracks of a wood mouse (Apodemus species). Saxony, Germany.

Front (below) and hind (above) tracks of a wood mouse (Apodemus species). Saxony, Germany.

 Numerous certificates where awarded in all 4 countries we visited including everyone who participated in the evaluation in Germany, pictured here. Congratulations to everyone. We will be finding an online home for the names and certification levels of folks certified in Europe through Cybertracker Conservation shortly. Stay tuned!   

Numerous certificates where awarded in all 4 countries we visited including everyone who participated in the evaluation in Germany, pictured here. Congratulations to everyone. We will be finding an online home for the names and certification levels of folks certified in Europe through Cybertracker Conservation shortly. Stay tuned!

 

Wildlife Track and Sign Certification: Southern Washington Cascades

Wildlife Around Mount St. Helens

This month, Mount St. Helens Institute hosted a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certficiation in the southern Washington Cascades. The Institute’s mission is to promote stewardship, science and appreciation of volcanic landscapes of Mount St. Helens and the Pacific Northwest. We spent two days examining the wide variety of wildlife tracks and signs found in the forests south of Mount St. Helens.

 While the mountain itself is a protected National Monument, outside of its boundaries the timber industry is very active in the southern Washington Cascades. Here huge clearcuts cover entire hillsides above the Swift Reservoir on the Lewis River. The swath of trees along the water’s edge is a mandated setback from fish bearing waters required by Washington State environmental regulations.

While the mountain itself is a protected National Monument, outside of its boundaries the timber industry is very active in the southern Washington Cascades. Here huge clearcuts cover entire hillsides above the Swift Reservoir on the Lewis River. The swath of trees along the water’s edge is a mandated setback from fish bearing waters required by Washington State environmental regulations.

 Tracks of a cow elk (above) and her young calf (below) found on a forest road during the evaluation.

Tracks of a cow elk (above) and her young calf (below) found on a forest road during the evaluation.

 The lush forests along the upper Lewis River are home to a large herd of elk and numerous other species of wildlife.

The lush forests along the upper Lewis River are home to a large herd of elk and numerous other species of wildlife.

 Left hind track of a bush-tailed woodrat (Neatomoa cinerea) in fine dust under a bridge along Pine Creek.

Left hind track of a bush-tailed woodrat (Neatomoa cinerea) in fine dust under a bridge along Pine Creek.

 Laura Belson inspects an elk antler rub on a red alder on the edge of a wetland.

Laura Belson inspects an elk antler rub on a red alder on the edge of a wetland.

 Justin Miller inspects the sign left behind by a woodpecker foraging on mountain pine bark beetles on a lodgepole pine.

Justin Miller inspects the sign left behind by a woodpecker foraging on mountain pine bark beetles on a lodgepole pine.

 Participant Lloyd Murray inspects wildlife sign on the edge of the Muddy River.

Participant Lloyd Murray inspects wildlife sign on the edge of the Muddy River.

Certificates Earned

Congratuations to Maggie Starr, Tonja Spanish-Fish and Lloyd Murray who earned a Level 1 Certification and to Teri Lysak who earned a Level 3 Certification. For a complete list of certified trackers in North America click here. To learn more about Cybertracker Conservation and Track and Sign Certification click here or visit cybertracker.org.

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!

Wildlife Tracking at the Slickrock Gathering hosted by B.O.S.S.

Every spring Boulder Outdoor Survival School hosts the Slickrock Gathering, an opportunity for their staff and students to come together and learn primitive skills such as flint knapping, pottery making, and hide tanning. This spring, I was invited to join the gathering to teach wildlife tracking. During three days in the field with a group of instructors for the school, we visited several locations close to Boulder, Utah. We spent the first day focused on learning to identify tracks and interpret the stories left behind in the trails of wildlife.

 A myriad of prints of small animals including mice, voles, woodrats, lizards, a snake, and numerous insects were found zig-zaggging across the sand protected under this rock overhang along Deer Creek.

A myriad of prints of small animals including mice, voles, woodrats, lizards, a snake, and numerous insects were found zig-zaggging across the sand protected under this rock overhang along Deer Creek.

 BOSS instructor Lori Jonestrask and Apprenticeship Director and instructor Bryan Puskar inspect the tiny nest of a humingbird found under another overhang along the creek.

BOSS instructor Lori Jonestrask and Apprenticeship Director and instructor Bryan Puskar inspect the tiny nest of a humingbird found under another overhang along the creek.

Trailing Elk and Mountain Lion

On the following two days we focused our attention on following the trails of wildlife. One day we spent half the day following the fresh trail of a mountain lion, piecing together the story of her hunt through clearings, aspen stands, open pine forest, and oak scrub over a couple of miles. On the third day we picked up the very fresh trail of a group of elk and followed them, determining they had been foraging above the creek we had been following, eventually abandoning their trail as the heat of the day set in, anticipating their trail heading away from the canyon bottom, was likely leading to where they were currently bedded down.

 We first cut the trail of the mountain lion on an old road southeast of Boulder Mountain.

We first cut the trail of the mountain lion on an old road southeast of Boulder Mountain.

 The left hind track of the mountain lion discovered on the road.

The left hind track of the mountain lion discovered on the road.

 When the large cat left the road and began meandering through aspen stands, grassy clearings, and through open pine forests, the trail became much more difficult, forcing us to anticipate where we believed the cat likely traveled and search for clues of its passage along this route. This process of prediction and follow up allows the tracker to move much more efficiently across challenging substrates.

When the large cat left the road and began meandering through aspen stands, grassy clearings, and through open pine forests, the trail became much more difficult, forcing us to anticipate where we believed the cat likely traveled and search for clues of its passage along this route. This process of prediction and follow up allows the tracker to move much more efficiently across challenging substrates.

Trailing Workshop and Track and Sign Certification: Northern Arizona

In early May I had the opportunity to travel to northern Arizona to deliver a Trailing workshop and a Track and Sign Certification around Flagstaff and Sedona for a group of local naturalists, hosted by Earth Encounters LLC. While I was in Arizona, I also gave a slideshow on Wolves in the Pacific Northwest hosted by the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project.

Trailing Workshop

During the two day trailing workshop, participants practiced various component skills which are required to effectively and efficiently follow the trail of an animal over challenging terrain. These include detecting tracks in grass, leaf litter and other challenging substrates, anticipating how an animal will likely move across the landscape, and stealth in movement so as not to alert the animal being trailed to your presence. After a morning of exercises we spent the afternoon trailing a group of mule deer for several hours, finally getting to observe them foraging as an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. On the second day we spent the day trailing a small herd of elk through a forested landscape.

 Rayne Zhaughsome on the trail of a herd of elk during a trailing workshop held north of Flagstaff Arizona.

Rayne Zhaughsome on the trail of a herd of elk during a trailing workshop held north of Flagstaff Arizona.

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Track and Sign Certification

Day 1 of the Track and Sign certification took place outside of Sedona, in a desert landcape and along the riparian corridor of a stream. Species whose tracks we encountered included kit fox, bobcat, kangaroo rat, striped skunk, black bear, river otter, beaver, coyote, cottontail rabbit, and lizard among many others.

 Jill Cooper and Rebecca Fitzpatrick inspect the trail of a turtle under a rock overhang.

Jill Cooper and Rebecca Fitzpatrick inspect the trail of a turtle under a rock overhang.

 These tracks of a kit fox in dust where one of the first questions during the evaluation. Their small size, very slender shape of the hind foot and diminutive size of the metatarsal pads differentiate these tracks from those of a grey fox.

These tracks of a kit fox in dust where one of the first questions during the evaluation. Their small size, very slender shape of the hind foot and diminutive size of the metatarsal pads differentiate these tracks from those of a grey fox.

 Local expert Matt Monjello, seen here discussing sapsucker feeding sign left on a juniper tree, organized and assisted with the evaluation.

Local expert Matt Monjello, seen here discussing sapsucker feeding sign left on a juniper tree, organized and assisted with the evaluation.

On the second day of the evaluation we spent the day in a forested area outside of Flagstaff where we encountered a wide variety of signs of wildlife including acorn woodpeckers, elk, deer, bobcat, coyote, deer mice, and jackrabbits.

 Rayne inspects the remains of a mule deer during the evaluation. It can be hard or impossible to definitively say how an animal such as this one died but several clues indicated that this deer may have been consumed by a mountain lion and scavenged by coyotes.

Rayne inspects the remains of a mule deer during the evaluation. It can be hard or impossible to definitively say how an animal such as this one died but several clues indicated that this deer may have been consumed by a mountain lion and scavenged by coyotes.

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9 people received certificates from the evaluation:

Level 1: John Behrman, Adam Bailey, Rayne Zhaughsome

Level 2: Chris Dawkins, Emily Nelson

Level 3: Jill Cooper, Micaela Pomatto, Rebecca Fitzpatrick, Liz Snair

For a complete list of certified trackers in North America visit trackercertification.com.

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!

 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.

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.

 The evaluation included a number of questions about the remains of a white-tailed deer which had been consumed by wolves.

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.

 Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.

Mike Mayernik taking an answer from participant Andrea Stephens about the elk antler rub on the tree between them.

 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.

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.

 The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.

The scratch marks left by a mountain lion on a leaning tree along a well used game trail above the Swan River.

 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.

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.

 We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.

We took refuge under a bridge for a few questions on the snowy Sunday.

 A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.

A blade of grass points to the tip of a mink track found under the bridge.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 Congratulations to everyone who participated in the evaluation. In this particularly talented group of wildlife trackers, everyone earned a Level 2 certificate or higher!

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 trackercertification.com

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.

Track and Sign Certification in southern Texas

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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.

 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.

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.

 Tracks of a bounding Hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus) in mud.

Tracks of a bounding Hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus) in mud.

 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.

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.

 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.   

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.

 

Grand Canyon Wildlife, Birds, and Tracks

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.

Animal Tracks in the Grand Canyon

Footprints of a wild animals were abundant along the banks of the Colorado river. Here are a bunch of wildlife tracks I took while on the river along with a few clues on how to tell what they are!

 Grand Canyon Birds

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.

 A great blue heron takes flight along the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

A great blue heron takes flight along the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

 Ross’s x Snow goose hybrid. We saw a single pair on the river. They had probably stopped during their southern fall migration.

Ross’s x Snow goose hybrid. We saw a single pair on the river. They had probably stopped during their southern fall migration.

 Canyon Wrens were one of the most common birds to see or hear along much of the river. Their beatiful lyrical song echoeing off the canyon walls was one of the most amazing sounds on the river. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Canyon Wrens were one of the most common birds to see or hear along much of the river. Their beatiful lyrical song echoeing off the canyon walls was one of the most amazing sounds on the river. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

 A common raven looks out from a perch on a sandstone ledge. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

A common raven looks out from a perch on a sandstone ledge. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

 A first winter white-crowned sparrow. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

A first winter white-crowned sparrow. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

 Rock wren. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Rock wren. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

 Patience and careful observation revealed this ruby-crowned kinglet in the brush up a side canyon. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Patience and careful observation revealed this ruby-crowned kinglet in the brush up a side canyon. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

See more of my Bird Photography here!

Grand Canyon Mammals

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!

 A bighorn sheep ram foraging along the shore of the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

A bighorn sheep ram foraging along the shore of the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

 A group of bighorn sheep ewes in Tuckup Canyon, a tributary to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

A group of bighorn sheep ewes in Tuckup Canyon, a tributary to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Check out more of my mammal photography here!

Another Look at Northern Flying Squirrel Tracks

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.
  • Sketches, notes and photographs I took from study skins of northern flying squirrels from the Mammalogy Collection at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington.
  • 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.

 The left hind foot of a frozen northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) from the Burke Museum’s Mammalogy Collection. Note that toe 5 is nearly as long as toes 2-4, while toe 1 is distinctly shorter.

The left hind foot of a frozen northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) from the Burke Museum’s Mammalogy Collection. Note that toe 5 is nearly as long as toes 2-4, while toe 1 is distinctly shorter.

 Rubbings made from a plaster cast of the tracks of a captive northern flying squirrel in sand. Collected by Kevin Mack at PAWS in Lynwood Washington. Various feet are labeled.

Rubbings made from a plaster cast of the tracks of a captive northern flying squirrel in sand. Collected by Kevin Mack at PAWS in Lynwood Washington. Various feet are labeled.

 A digital drawing over the rubbings to help enhance the appearance of the structure of the tracks.

A digital drawing over the rubbings to help enhance the appearance of the structure of the tracks.

 Original notes and sketches from my book research on the species from 2009.

Original notes and sketches from my book research on the species from 2009.

 Notes and sketches from my research at the Burke Museum from 2012.

Notes and sketches from my research at the Burke Museum from 2012.

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

Wildlife Tracking in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia

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.

 My initial impressions of northern Slovakia during my train ride through the country was that it reminded me much of the state of Montana, with the notable addition of castles.

My initial impressions of northern Slovakia during my train ride through the country was that it reminded me much of the state of Montana, with the notable addition of castles.

 Tracks of a European Red deer (Cervus elaphus).

Tracks of a European Red deer (Cervus elaphus).

 The right hind track of a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).

The right hind track of a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).

 European river otter (Lutra lutra) tracks.

European river otter (Lutra lutra) tracks.

 European lynx (Lynx lynx) track. Tatra Mountans, Slovakia.

European lynx (Lynx lynx) track. Tatra Mountans, Slovakia.

 A spring in the forest used extentively by Wild Boar as a wallow. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

A spring in the forest used extentively by Wild Boar as a wallow. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

 A tree close to a spring wild boar’s use as a wallow. Robin Rigg, Slovak Wildlife Society Founder and Director, inspects the scar and mud on the base of the tree is from repetitive rubbing from boars on the tree. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

A tree close to a spring wild boar’s use as a wallow. Robin Rigg, Slovak Wildlife Society Founder and Director, inspects the scar and mud on the base of the tree is from repetitive rubbing from boars on the tree. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

 A red fox moves through the brush in morning light. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

A red fox moves through the brush in morning light. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

 Participants in the wildlife tracking workshop Slovak Wildlife Society hosted.

Participants in the wildlife tracking workshop Slovak Wildlife Society hosted.

 Evening light in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.   

Evening light in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.