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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!

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