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Saturday, February 28, 2009

A moose on the loose?

Yesterday's sunset over the Divide showed the clouds receding and the mountains emerging for the first time in days.Today, the same mountain towered crystal clear against the blue sky.
This morning, K and I barreled out the door, excited to explore the crisp clear day - a glorious day. K bounded through the forest with strength and grace. I felt strong on my bike but K can outpace me on any hill. The cardiovascular capacity of an athletic dog is amazing - humans are wimps by comparison. When I'm at the red line on a steep climb, K can accelerate past me with no effort if a scent catches her interest. Today, she caught the scent of her favorite human friend, V, who runs on our trails and left me in the dust. I knew from her body language why she sprinted happily past me so I let her go. I found the two of them playing together while they waited for me.

The strong crust on top of the snow was ideal for tracking. The pine martens (left) and shrews (center) had scampered around the forest last night. K barely tolerated my stops to investigate their tracks. She believes that she needs to guard my back while I'm preoccupied with tracks. She sits right behind me, facing in the opposite direction from me. In the photo, I asked her to stay after I investigated the shrew tracks. She doesn't look pleased with me - she wanted to go, go, go, gracefully running like the wind, this morning.

It used to be legal to trap pine martens for their fur until Colorado voters banned it in 1996. State agencies have tried to reinstate live trapping but, as far as I can tell, lawsuits have stopped it. Based on how many tracks I'm seeing this winter, I wonder if the trapping ban has allowed the marten population to grow. I'm sure that I'm seeing the tracks of at least three individuals based on their separation. All three live in mature pine forests with huge trees, including ponderosa pines and lodgepole pines. I haven't seen any tracks in the homogeneous lodgepole pine forests. One of the pine martens marches along for more than a mile in my mountain bike tracks every few days or so. Since the literature says that their home range is usually less than 2 square miles and it takes them a week to patrol their whole territory, that's a long distance for a marten to travel.

Today, I decided to try riding some favorite summertime trails that are north-facing in a dense lodgepole pine forest. It was the perfect day to try because of the strong crust on the snow. I descended from a ridge on a narrow, rocky, and today, icy, trail, and a mixture of terror and elation electrified my muscles. I'm not sure that the Fatback was intended to navigate such technical terrain but it rumbled over obstacles like an unstoppable monster truck. At the bottom, I found that no one, and I mean absolutely no one, had been on my intended route since the first snow.

The virgin snow meant that no hikers had 'groomed' my route by packing down the snow. As long as I stuck to the shaded parts, I miraculously rolled over the top of the snow feeling like I was walking on water. But, in the few sun-warmed sections, I fell into the deep snow and hit the ground with a definitive thump.

Some forest dwellers had traveled parts of my route. The elk herd marched through on an 'elk superhighway' within the last day (left). I love that I'm covering so much ground most days that I often know generally where the herd is grazing. They move miles nearly every day, using well-worn routes. I wonder why they relocate so much, especially since it burns valuable calories. I've read that elk move more when wolves live near them - perhaps a strong mountain lion population like ours also keeps them moving.

A very large animal had tromped through the forest, criss-crossing my route. His tracks were distorted by the sun beyond any hope of recognition. Clever coyotes had used the mystery animals tracks to avoid breaking through the snow. Using precise movements, their paws landed only in the huge tracks. In the right photo, two fresh coyote paw tracks are inside the huge track.

I wonder if a moose might have left the monster track. Moose were reintroduced on the other side of the Divide years ago but now they've crossed the formidable mountain barrier, and a few live in our neighborhood. I've seen a moose near here only once. Last fall, K and I went for a special bike ride up high in the mountains to celebrate her birthday. As we approached a gate, I was astonished to see a moose, with unbelievably huge antlers, nibbling the grass. K, who has been afraid of the silliest things like the cracks between the boards of our deck, didn't hesitate to pursue the moose as he fled. Moose are dangerous so I was glad that K heeded my call.

Last winter, some neighbors saw a moose on the edge of the forest where I saw the tracks today. So, they might've been moose tracks. If so, I wish that I'd seen him.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Wolves roaming in Colorado

It feels like winter again. K and I joyfully explored our trails in the crackling cold air with intermittent flurries of snow. The sun soon weakly burned through the clouds to the east.Then, the clouds started to brighten.
And, the clouds parted to expose some blue sky.
Eventually, the east skies radiated blue but the Continental Divide, invisible behind my bike, remained shrouded in misty clouds. The cold air solidified the snowpack, where it still exists, and I floated over the remaining snow on my Fatback. It was a cleansing ride, leaving me feeling pleasantly tired.

After arriving home, I read about a Yellowstone wolf who has traveled more than 1000 miles and now roams the Central Mountains of Colorado. Based on her route, she must have crossed I-70, a huge barrier to wildlife migration. She's wearing a GPS collar but there's a 2 week delay in obtaining her location so it's not possible to know exactly where she is now. That delay will help the wandering wolf to stay hidden but it doesn't help numerous other wolves who live in set home ranges and gravitate to their dens on a daily basis.

I saw wild wolves for the first time last spring when I traveled to the Greater Yellowstone area. We camped for a few days in Wyoming in a secluded valley of National Forest about 50 miles from the park. We saw no other tourists but we did see moose, elk, deer, coyotes, and yes, wolves. I felt lucky to see two wolves as I rode my mountain bike in the valley. They were trotting up a hillside, stopped to look at me, and then disappeared over a ridge. My husband had a similar experience when he was running. Magically, the sound of wolves howling cascaded into our campsite one evening.We'd been warned that both wolves and grizzlies roamed this valley, and that both had wandered through our campsite in recent days, so we kept our dogs leashed. I was especially glad that I hadn't taken K biking with me when I saw leg-hold traps to capture and radio-collar wolves along the side of the trail. No doubt, K would've investigated the rotten meat used as bait and been snared, especially since the traps sat directly adjacent to the trail.

I've tried to follow the news of the wolf pack in that Wyoming valley because a game warden told us that they'd killed livestock in the days preceding our visit. That's a death sentence in Wyoming but I haven't seen any reports of 'predator control' in that valley over the past year. I hope that they haven't been murdered. Wyoming has killed entire packs if any members have taken livestock. You can follow the saga of the Greater Yellowstone wolves at a wildlife news page.

You can probably guess that I'd be ecstatic if a viable population of wolves established itself in Colorado. I think that, with education, Coloradans could peacefully co-exist with wolves. There've been credible reports of wolves in Colorado over last couple of years. However, unless these wolves find each other, the long distance migrants won't stay or flourish.

I love learning about the wildlife that inhabits the west. But, it's also fun to observe the wildlife inhabiting my own living room. Today, in the ongoing saga of the rising social status of our young dog, R, he solicited play from K. Initially, she growled at him in a serious tone. I grabbed my camera to catch a photo of K 'correcting' R. She's corrected R recently when he rambunctiously insists on playing with K despite her subtle signals that she's not interested. Today, however, R heeded her growl and lay down to snooze beside her. To my astonishment, once R had stopped bugging her, K started a play session by pawing him! I've never seen K solicit play from R. It might be a sign of R's slow march toward maturity and K's burgeoning confidence.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A hard winter for carnivores

I woke up feeling like I was mired down in deep mud. K kept watching me expectantly, waiting for me to put on my cycling clothes. An enthusiastic dog is amazing motivation. Before too long, K and I headed out for an easy ride with no intentions of getting a 'workout' but just trying to enjoy the day.

A fresh coat of snow fell last night, about as thick as a coat of paint. It's a testament to how rare snow has been this winter that this dusting seemed like a surprising event.

I expected that the thin layer of snow would hold many animal tracks - but I was wrong. It seems that all the forest dwellers, except the red squirrels and elk, stayed in their dens last night. But, that was it - no tracks from the usual cast of nocturnal characters.

At one point, at the spot shown in the photo above, K and I stopped and listened to the forest. It wasn't silent because the wind was blowing out of the west. I could hear a gust gushing through faraway trees well before it blew into the forest where we stood. Trees squeaked as the wind swayed them. Indeed, a surprising number of trees have fallen and are hung up in the limbs of other trees on this west-facing slope. The one sign of life that I heard was a Red-breasted nuthatch making his beep-beep-beep-beep call. That was it - I didn't hear any sounds from the civilized world - just forest sounds.

As I pedaled, I found an easy rhythm, and I started to feel better. At times, I fell into a meditative state as I listened to my breathing and felt my quads push the pedals. I let the natural world cascade over me and began to feel like K and I were part of the forest. I'm so lucky to live in such a magical place.
Although I was on high alert after yesterday's coyote encounter, we didn't see any coyotes or their tracks today. I've been reading a book, 'God's Dog', written by a coyote researcher. Apparently, 'easy' winters for deer and elk are hard winters for carnivores like coyotes and bobcats because they don't have an abundant supply of herbivore carcasses. Coyotes and bobcats rely on carrion during the winter because their primary summer prey, rodents and rabbits, are less abundant during the winter due to yearly population fluctuations and hibernation. In the Front Range, this winter has been very easy for herbivores due to the lack of snow. All of the deer and elk that I've seen close-up have looked muscular and well-fed. I'd guess that coyotes, as well as other carnivores, haven't fed on many herbivores who have died of starvation.

I wonder if this hard winter for coyotes will make them more aggressive toward dogs - it's something for me to keep in mind so I stay on high alert for coyotes.

A couple of years ago in late November, we found an apparently uninjured elk lying in the snow near our house, unable to get up. It was obvious that the elk was cold and suffering. A Division of Wildlife official killed the animal and told us that the meat was ours. For non-hunters, being faced with an elk carcass to 'field dress', pronto, was a novel situation. My husband and his friend spent the entire day removing all the meat from the body. They even preserved the hide so that another resourceful friend could treat it and use it to make things. At the end of the day, we were left with the parts that neither we nor our dogs were going to eat - and the ground was frozen so they couldn't be buried. We decided to leave the remainders about 75 yards from the house and let the wild animals have a meal.

A parade of animals completely finished off the carcass in a couple of days. It started with ravens, crows, and magpies. Coyotes and other carnivores followed the raven calls to find the carcass. When a pair of coyotes appeared, they first hung back by the edge of the woods watching the scene. They seemed deferential to the ravens and waited for the ravens to leave, however briefly, before moving in to eat. One coyote fled when a raven flew straight at him, apparently defending the carcass. When the coyotes had finally eaten and vanished, a bobcat emerged from the trees. He went to work, ravenously attacking the carcass. I was amazed when he hid inside the elk's ribcage after I accidentally made a noise by the house.

The carnivores reduced the carcass to almost nothing incredibly fast. The bones ended up strewn all over the forest floor as animals dragged them away to pull off every last scrap of meat. Below, a wary coyote worked on a leg bone that's on the ground in front of him.Testing on the elk showed that he had no obvious diseases. It appeared that he died from an impacted digestive track. He was a young elk, less than a year old, and had just arrived at his winter range for the first time in his life. It looked like he ate the wrong things which blocked his digestive tract. We were told by the experts that this is a common reason for the demise of young animals.

Today at sunset, the trio of dogs and I hiked easily through the meadows. Our oldest dog, S, begins reminding me about our sunset hike at about 2 PM but then has to wait for hours - while watching my every move. The wait is growing every day as sunset gets later. We joke that he wants to get the senior citizen's 'early bird' special on the sunset hike. I'm glad that he still loves to hike so much!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Coyote encounter and the alternative universe

Within a couple of minutes of rolling out the door with K, I noticed the stippled sky to the east and stopped to take a photo. I didn't scan the meadow between me and the horizon. Look closely at the foreground of the photo - a coyote is standing slightly left of center near the bottom. I didn't see him at the time, and I went on to take another photo of the sky.

At that moment, K zoomed into view in fast pursuit of the coyote. As I've written in the past, I've used an electronic collar to stop K's coyote chasing because positive methods alone weren't working to stop this dangerous behavior. I fumbled for the transmitter but K was too close to the coyote (within 20 yards or so) for me to find the right button in time. So, I simply called her. To my complete and utter amazement, K whipped around and sprinted back to me. We had a huge victory celebration - she ate at least half of the treats that I had with me, meant to last the whole ride. I wanted to make sure that she knew what an amazingly good thing she'd just done.

I kept glancing at the coyote who was standing like a statue about 75 yards from us. He watched us closely but didn't move. I asked K to 'sit' and 'stay'. I took a couple of photos of the coyote. Then, I asked K to 'heel' as we rode out of the meadow. She followed my cues perfectly. I have no idea what possessed her to be so obedient around a coyote - but it saved the day. Maybe K remembers the lessons that she learned last fall or she's suddenly become sufficiently mature to resist the temptation of a fleeing coyote.

For months, I've been alert for coyotes whenever I've traversed this meadow with my dogs. But, I've been lulled into a false sense of security because our last encounter was about 4-5 months ago. So, today, it didn't cross my mind to look for coyotes before starting to snap my photos. Today, I got my reminder that I need to go back to a high level of alert.

It's mating season for coyotes, and I've been seeing a pair hunting together in the meadows. However, this pair hasn't been doing their 'dog luring' behavior. Even today, the coyote didn't try to tempt K to chase him after she returned to me. In the past, coyotes have displayed playful and teasing canine behaviors like playbows and spins to try to get my dogs to chase them.

So, today, K and I headed away from the lower elevation meadows and up to the more exposed ridges and peaks. I took a photo of our star pupil on a peak. I felt lucky that my inattention hadn't caused K to get hurt or killed and gave her a big hug.

After I rode with K, I headed out on a ride that presented a smorgasbord of changing conditions. The first 3/4 of the ride was on dry rocky ground with lots of glimpses of the Continental Divide peeking over the bone-dry grasslands and forests (see below). Then, I planned to return home via a northwest-facing ledge trail that's usually impassable with snow drifts until late May. Because of the ledge trail, I rode my Fatback bike. I continue to be completely and utterly amazed by my Fatback - it handles incredibly nimbly on dry rocky ground and the huge tires act as a plush suspension. It's exceeded my expectations in every way.After a long and hot climb up a gulch paralleling a creek, I topped out at a viewpoint and took a brief rest before dropping down to the snowy ledge trail. It's a popular resting spot for hikers but I was alone today.

I descended to the ledge trail and it felt like I'd beamed to an alternative universe. I'd sweated in the 60 degree sun just minutes before and now I was on a shady, cold, and snowy trail. It was obvious that I was the first human to tread on it since fall. But, it teemed with pine marten tracks. A marten had packed down a groove into the middle of the trail as he vigilantly patrolled his territory. With such a fierce predator on the prowl, it wasn't surprising that there weren't many red squirrel tracks despite the prime pine forest habitat. Either they'd fled the marten or they'd been eaten.

Superimposed on the dominant marten tracks, I saw bobcat tracks, scat, and scratchings on some bare earth. Near the end of the trail, I saw a few deer and elk tracks, plus some bigger tracks that I couldn't identify.

I nearly jumped out of my skin once - when I was hit in the back by a springy branch that I'd unknowingly bent as I brushed past it. At that instant, I remembered that my friend calls this trail 'Wild cat alley'. The cliff section shown in the two photos below completely freaks her out - especially since I like to pick raspberries here in the summertime. With knee-deep snow drifts below the north-facing cliff, it was hard to imagine summertime coming anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Elk on the move

K and I encountered our favorite runner and dog (R) as we mountain biked out on the trail. R runs every day and his elbow continues to amaze us. Just the other day, his intensity almost hurt him. He saw a squirrel on the driveway and zoomed in pursuit. The smart squirrel went under our parked car, and R failed to notice the hunk of metal in his path until it was too late. He smashed into the bumper and limped away holding his surgically repaired forelimb limply in the air. Our hearts fell. But, his gimpiness didn't last long. He rapidly recovered and is again running without a hitch in his gait. His collision with the parked car reminded us of Murray the dog in 'Mad about you' running into the walls.

When I headed out on my own, I pedaled up high on a ridge. I found mostly dry trails, gorgeous skies, elk hoof prints, and elk scat. As I climbed up a steep hill with skeletons of burned trees and aspen saplings, some movement on the hillside caught my eye. Through the charred tree skeletons, I saw innumerable elk walking up the hill ahead of me. Once they spotted me, they dropped over the crest that's just behind the tree skeletons and were out of sight.

After I hauled myself to the top of the steep slope, I saw that the elk were moving nonchalantly parallel to my trail. They began to cross the trail ahead of me in single file. I raptly took photos the whole time - and the photo times tell me that it took 4 minutes for the whole herd to cross. The elk look strong and healthy. The calves, now probably about 8 months old, are approaching the size of the cows. Each calf still appears strongly attached to its mother and acts as if an invisible leash joins them. Some of the elk have begun to shed, which appears as darker splotches on their bodies.

I estimated that bulls constituted about a tenth of the herd. This low number makes sense, given that this herd is heavily hunted - and hunters strongly prefer to kill bulls. This herd's migration corridor is criss-crossed by 4wd roads, making it possible for a hunter to shoot an elk and haul it out without much physical exertion. Also, I know that there's a small band of bulls roaming the area, separated from the main herd. But, I'm not sure whether they rejoin this same herd or perhaps mingle with another herd for the summer and the mating season this coming fall.

I've written about the humungous dominant bull who announced his arrival as part of the herd in November with his loud bugling. In my recent distant views of the herd, that bull was missing. After seeing the whole herd close-up today, I'm certain that he's not present. I hope that he hasn't succumbed to starvation after an energy-consuming rut. The dominant males barely eat for a month or so as they posture and fight to keep control of their harems. That's why there's much higher winter mortality in bulls than in cows.

After seeing the elk herd, I headed for the trail where I recently glimpsed a mountain lion. It occurred to me that the situation was the same as on that day with the elk herd moving through the area and me heading down into the gulch. But, I didn't see any felines today.

Last summer, K and I hiked up to high lush meadows unsuccessfully searching for 'our' elk herd. We went to remote basins without trails that seemed like prime elk habitat but found no signs of an elk herd. In the meadows near our house, the scat remains recognizable for a year and the tracks dig so deeply into the mud that they're obvious for months. So, I expected that if the herd had been in the meadows we visited, I would've seen the signs. We did see a solitary young cow elk walking through the woods and a huge bull lying dead in the lake behind K in the photo (you can't see the bull).

The photo from our summer hike reminds me that it's going to be that green and lush before we know it!

We ended our day with the entire pack taking a relaxing hike at sunset and running into our best dog friend, JB, who frolicked with our dogs.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Weird deer behavior

The turbulent sky dominated the landscape this morning. To the east, lines of clouds dotted the horizon.To the west, a huge black cloud hovered and white clouds veiled the Continental Divide.We are in the midst of a 'global weirding' event, where the temperatures are forecasted to break 50 degrees every day this week. It barely touched freezing last night so the snow was still soft and mushy this morning - not ideal conditions for trail riding. After starting on my Stumpjumper with the misguided idea that its studded tires would be helpful, I headed home and traded it for my Fatback. The Fatback performed much better in the corn snow, allowing me to crawl up steep hills despite the slushy snow.

K thought that the snow conditions were ideal for scratching her back. Normally, as soon as I take out the camera, K stops rolling and acts dignified - as if she doesn't want her goofy antics caught in a photo. Today, the great back-scratching conditions outweighed her dignity, and she allowed me to take photos of her puppy-like conniptions.

While pedaling silently through the forest, K and I accidentally snuck up on a group of about six mule deer. The whole group acted oddly. K took a few steps starting to chase and the deer stayed rooted in place. I called K, and she decided to unleash a frenzy of barking before returning to me. The barking scared five of the six into fleeing. But, a doe stood stock still staring at us with hard eyes. Then, she took a couple of steps towards us. K was now glued to my side but she sharply barked a couple of times at the advancing deer. The barking startled the doe, and she finally pronked off after the others.

We've only run into a deer acting so boldly once before - last spring. In that case, the reason was obvious. I was riding with K just behind me on a heavily wooded trail cut into the side of a steep slope. From below us, a screeching sound erupted from some brush. A small spotted fawn exploded at full speed out of the brush and lept down the slope. I hopped off my bike and put K into a sit-stay to prevent her from chasing the fawn.

At that instant, I heard the heavy steps of an animal running toward us from higher on the slope. It was a mule deer doe, obviously the mother of the fawn, and she looked ready to charge. It was understandable because K and I stood between the doe and her fleeing distressed fawn.

Somehow, I maneuvered my bike between the mother deer and me, with K staying glued to my side. I lifted my bike over my head to look larger, and the protective mom stopped abruptly and stared. After what felt like an eternity but was probably 20 seconds, I judged that we'd reached an impasse - the doe had decided not to tangle with us. I put my bike down, and K and I meekly started to walk in the least threatening direction - away from the fawn. The doe followed us on a parallel path for a minute or so, staying about 20 yards above us on the slope. Then, she turned and purposefully trotted back toward her fawn.

I was amazed by K's good behavior - she could've made the situation a lot worse. First, she didn't chase the fawn. Then, she didn't react to the mother deer by chasing or barking. K seemed to know that we needed to be as non-threatening as possible and remained glued to my leg. Or, in a less flattering interpretation, she was terrified and decided to keep me as a barrier between her and the doe.

Unfortunately, K and I had no choice but to return home via the same trail. So, I decided that we'd ride an extra long loop before retracing our route - to give the doe and her fawn time to regroup and move on. It worked - they'd vanished when we made our return trip.

That mother deer encounter was my scariest wildlife confrontation. That's surprising given that I've met moose, lions, and bears during my rides. I've never yet come between a mother bear and her cubs - and I'm told that an angry mother bear encounter would likely eclipse my angry mother deer encounter.

When I saw the doe acting defensive today, I wondered if she'd had a very early fawn. She rippled with muscles - so I don't think that illness was underlying her strange behavior. I hope that 'global weirding' hasn't tricked wildlife into early reproduction because they'll have a harsh surprise if we have an ordinary March with huge snowstorms. That's a big 'if' since nothing about this winter has been ordinary.

At the end of our ride, the mountains appeared wintry belying the weird balmy 50 degree day. The swollen buds on the aspen trees seemed to fit the day much better than the stormy and snowy mountains.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Elusive marten

My legs felt snappy and energetic for mountain biking today, a marked contrast to yesterday. K and I rode upward toward the beautiful blue sky and reached our favorite high point. The sky was so clear that we could see Mt. Evans, a peak that towers higher than 14,000' many miles away.

I found some super-clear tracks from an animal that we've been tracking for weeks. There's no doubt - it's an American Marten. The left photo shows a hind paw. Note that there are long claw marks, 5 toe marks, and an 'extra' heel pad. Then, in the right photo, there's a typical gait pattern for a marten.

I find it amazing that I've just discovered a new animal in our forest that I thought that I knew so well. Now that I've noticed them, I'm seeing their tracks regularly in our pine forests. These small carnivores (weighing up to 3 lbs) have large home ranges of 5-15 square miles. So, it's not surprising that I followed a set of tracks for almost a mile today. The marten stuck to my packed down mountain bike track closely, only wandering from it to investigate bases of trees or shrubs. They eat red squirrels, rabbits, voles, and birds. I've seen them twice before, once about 1000' higher than my home and once in Crested Butte.

We ended the day with my nephews who made our dogs their very own pizzas, after a hike up to Hug Hill near sunset. Dog pizza recipe: make and roll out pizza dough, put a layer of homemade dog food over dough, sprinkle liberally with mozzarella, top with a dog biscuit, and bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Have very cute nephews serve them to the dogs. The pizzas aren't beautiful but the dogs loved them!