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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A cougar is like a light breeze...

Yesterday, I pondered the life of a blooming Pasqueflower submerged in spring snow for weeks on end, wondering if it could survive to see the sun again. My answer awaited me in the meadow at sunset. Our five-strong pack went out for a ski and spotted a blooming Pasqueflower at the edge of a melting snowbank. What a tough and beautiful flower. I'm not sure how it survives beneath the snow but one book claims that its cells have a higher concentration of dissolved nutrients than most plants, acting like antifreeze that prevents the cells from bursting in a frost.This morning, blue birds seemed determined to remind me that it's spring despite the snow-dominated landscape, as they swooped and perched all around me. The few tenacious forerunners who arrived a month ago must feel crowded by the less adventurous followers now impinging on their meadow territories. After I passed the meadow and entered a forest, a large group of Crossbills greeted me. A yellowish female perched stationary for an eternity - while I found and activated my camera. But, my pocket camera's zoom wasn't up to the task of a detailed photo.

The high altitude world clangs with contrasts in the spring. Heavy snow reeks of winter but mountain-adapted plants and animals toe the starting line for the short breeding and growing season ahead. Deep in a gulch, frosty air enveloped me and a winter-white carpet covered a hillside. But, sunlight highlighted the red shoots of life.

As I rolled along at a good clip, I barely glimpsed a huge paw print in the dirt. Then another. A third. My sleep-addled brain required a few moments to register that I should go back and examine those tracks that screamed "mountain lion". My brakes screeched as I turned around. In the photo, my handwarmer is 3.5" long, and the paw slightly exceeds it in length and width. No claw marks registered on any of this guy's tracks. I'm guessing that a lion stepped in soft mud last night and then the track froze solid based on it's crystal clear edges and lack of freeze-melt distortions.
When a cat is relaxed, the claws automatically retract with no muscular effort. A taut tendon in the forearm holds the stiletto-sharp claws above the ground, preventing ordinary travel from dulling the claws. For slippery surfaces, attacks, or climbing trees, cats activate a muscle that bares the claws - and then their tracks register slit-like claw marks. Relaxing the same muscle causes the claws to spring back to their retracted position. Thus, it requires muscular effort to bare the claws but not to retract them. In light of this contrast, it makes sense that cat tracks rarely include claw marks. In contrast, canines, like our domestic dogs, always have exposed claws that usually register in their tracks.

The tracks that I saw today hovered at a forest-meadow interface and skirted a developed area. A small splinter group of elk had traipsed through the meadow recently and left a narrow band of tracks. Nearby, in the developed area, a solo miniature horse and dogs spend unsupervised time outdoors - a dangerous pastime in my opinion. Although I don't think of the place where I found these tracks as being particularly wild, I was reminded that this spot borders rough country by forested hillsides and a snowy mountain at my back.When I travel in a forest full of wild animals like lions, I usually notice the wind direction so I know whether I'm likely to surprise an animal. A headwind disperses my scent behind me, and animals ahead of me may be oblivious to my approach. However, I've recently learned that scent may play a smaller role for cats than other animals in our forests. Scientists believe that mountain lions and bobcats rely primarily on hearing and vision to monitor their surroundings and only secondarily on scent. The shorter snouts of felines compared to bears, coyotes, foxes, deer, and elk probably limit their smelling ability but their powerful eyes and ears make up for it.

I also notice wind direction to avoid having my dogs surprise and chase animals. In a stiff headwind, my dogs alert me to deer and elk browsing far ahead of us but the wildlife doesn't smell our approach. This wind set-up is most likely to yield surprise encounters between my dogs and other animals. The wind can also work to my advantage in preventing dog-wildlife encounters. I previously described how my dogs walked past an entire herd of more than 100 elk who were standing stationary 75 yards downwind of us. Similarly, my dogs once wandered obliviously past a bobcat who was lying in the grass 50 yards downwind. In both cases, it looked as if the wild animals knew that the wind would conceal them - they remained like statues until we passed.

Today, I was reminded of a quote that I particularly like: A cougar is like a light breeze in the country. At first, you're not aware it's there. But as you slowly become more attuned, you begin to feel it on the back of your neck. - John Seidensticker.

I didn't feel the mighty cat's presence on the back of my neck today. Instead, I felt glad that a mighty predator walks in our forests and lives as a wild cat eating deer and elk.

1 comment:

  1. The photo of the bluebird caught my eye. There was an article in the local paper about the resurgence of bluebirds in the area but the photo they showed looked like a barn swallow to me. I'm wondering if they could have made a mistake?

    I'd like to get a digital recorder and record the birds in the morning. They put up quite a mixture of noises. I'd like to see if I could figure out which one sounds like what.


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