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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Elk, bobcat, mountain lion

Yesterday evening, we had human friends with their canine companion over for a visit. R loves having visitors, especially his romping chocolate lab friend JB, so he played raucously with his ring toy.
By the end of the evening, the antics of the three pups plus the company of good friends had made me smile more than I'd thought was possible earlier in the day. R was exhausted and fell asleep with his beloved ring toy as a pillow.
This morning, the Labraduo joined me for a ride on a thin layer of fresh snow. The snow and the impending storm muted the forest, making it feel like an eerie oasis. For one instant, I glimpsed a mountain glowing resplendently through the clouds.
The snow frosted the pine trees and rocky hills.The duo were the best riding partners I could have asked for. We mellowly rolled over the new snow, soaking up the muffled silence. R sprinted around me like a perpetual motion machine but always listened when I asked him to do something. That's a sweet compromise.
Near the end of our trail ride, I noticed that our neighborhood elk herd grazed in the private meadow below us. I immediately started worrying about hunters. The sight of the 100-strong herd almost always incites some trespassing which brings hunters close to me and my dogs.
I dropped the dogs off at home and investigated potential hunting spots. Indeed, one person lurked on private property but claimed that he had permission to hunt there (I had no way to check his story). I saw that the elk herd, like a large oozing mass, was drifting in his direction. I knew that the instant they left the meadow and crossed the road, life would end for one of them. So, I rode my mountain bike on the public road that they were oozing toward and stopped for a long period to take photos. Notice the big bull with massive antlers lying down near the back of the group. I actually would have taken this photo opportunity regardless of the hunting situation. It's not often that I see them so close to the road.
But, alas, the elk didn't like having a photographer nearby and retreated.
When I checked later, they'd disappeared into the trees behind the meadow. I felt relieved. I can't help myself but I always root for the animals versus the rifle-wielding humans.

I headed out on a solo ride, and the wonders of our wildlife made stewing about my spinal deterioration impossible.

First, I came upon bobcat tracks. The bobcat had walked purposefully along my trail, with no side loops or forays into the forest. Then, after a half mile or so, he suddenly followed rabbit tracks like he had fallen into a magnetic field. In the photo below, I think that the bobcat stopped for a moment, sniffing the tracks or the rabbit, I can't know which. The two bottom tracks are the bobcat tracks while the four upper tracks are from the rabbit. Both animals traveled in the same direction.
In contrast to human hunting, when it's a wild predator versus wild prey, I don't know who to root for. So, I have fun playing detective trying to figure out what happened.

For perspective, I've included the bobcat track next to my 3.5" long chemical handwarmer. In a moment, you'll see how much bigger a mountain lion track is than a bobcat track.After investigating the bobcat tracks, I rolled on, climbed a ridge, and pedaled along its spine. The storm clouds were enveloping me so I simply pedaled in a steady rhythm, hoping to get home before the serious snowfall began.

As I entered that meditative state of hard physical effort, I rolled across the tracks of a pair of humongous animals. I literally said "Whoa" aloud and screeched to a halt. The photo below was after I'd bisected the animals paths. My tire tracks move almost horizontally across the photo and the animal's path was from bottom to top.
I examined the tracks closely, ascertaining that they definitely were not made by a dog, but rather by a mountain lion. They had no claws and were as wide as they were long. Moreover, for the first time ever, I could see the tricuspid pattern, with three obvious lobes, at the base of the largest paw pad. In a dog, paw shape is very different.
Also, look at the size of this track. It's about 3.5" by 3.5". It's gargantuan compared to the bobcat track.

I looked around some more, completely engrossed in the mountain lion's wanderings. I started to follow in the same direction of the tracks. I found that they headed straight down into the gulch where I saw lion tracks last Sunday. Then, I backtracked the animals and became absolutely certain that a pair of cougars had traveled together. Below, two animals walked side-by-side, about a yard apart, from the bottom to the top of the photo.
This photo shows a closer view of one lion's tracks, as she climbed the steep rocky slope toward the point where I rode across her tracks.
Mountain lions are solitary creatures, except when a mother has kittens or when mating. My bet is that a mother and her almost-adult kitten walked over the ridge together. Indeed, last week, almost directly below this point in the gulch a half mile away, I saw two sets of tracks that I thought were made by a mother lion and almost grown-up kitten. How cool is that?

Mothers with kittens have small home ranges. In other words, they hunt and live in areas about half as large as a big male lion. They choose locales rich in prey, and this ridge and gulch definitely harbor a bevy of deer and elk.

The greatest threat to a kitten is from a dominant male mountain lion. A big Tom cat kills any kitten that he finds in his territory, even his own offspring. However, the dominant males patrol expansive home ranges, the exact size depending on the prey density and prevalence of cluttered habitat appropriate for ambushing prey. Consequently, a dominant male doesn't come through a female's smaller home range too frequently.

The dominant males also throw out subadult males who have left their mother's tutelage and are traveling to search for their own territories. Sometimes, posturing by the big male scares off a youngster. However, at other times, a real fight ensues. It's rumored that a dominant male mountain lion had a noisy and ferocious fight with a subadult male near a road in my neighborhood recently. The subadult was killed. It's sad but that's the way in the natural world.

The natural world soothed my soul today. I can't imagine my life without these sojourns through nature, observing the signs of our wildlife. My greatest fear is that someday I'll lose my ability to travel to these places. However, for now, I'll focus on enjoying each day in my forest.


  1. Wow...what awesome pictures of big and little kitty tracks! How cool to see a pair of lion tracks side by side, too!

    I love that you saved an elk life today, my friend...good job :)

    Squishes to the puppies!

  2. What Khyra said! Its great tagging along on your outings . . .we don't slow you down too much, do we?

    Cheers and Hugs,

    Stella and her Mom

  3. Great post, we so love learning along your route. You know how to make nature come alive for us.

  4. So many wonderful finds today, KB! The elk sighting and the tracks are reason enough celebrate the fact that right now you are able to be outdoors exploring...on your bike.

  5. Kia ora KB,
    Your connection to these places will never leave you, and the joy you bring to those of us who go with you on these journies echoes around the world. Kia kaha - Remain Strong.

  6. I'd be scared for the elk and would also find myself rooting for them against the hunters, too. That must be a sight to see - hundreds of them staring out at you.

  7. Loved the great comparisons of Bobcat versus Mountain Lion tracks, but the first picture of R cracked me up.

  8. love the photos, what i wouldn't give to track with you in the woods! so interesting, you are very blessed to live in such beauty...
    hope your doing well...

  9. You are so much braver about the wild beasts and the human ones in your forest. We stay off the trails anywhere near hunting zones.

  10. We love your tales of tracks! Thank you.

    Hugs and snaggle-tooth kisses,
    Sierra Rose

  11. Rare to find two sets of cougar prints together. Nice find!

  12. Came across your blog when I googled "mountain lion tracks" for images. Skimmed some of your posts. Great stuff! Wonderful adventures with your pups in the face of serious health challenges. I am hoping you will be willing to share with me your full size jpg file for the bobcat and hare tracks picture. I am a wildlife biologist working on a project about tracking and this is just the kind of picture I am looking for ASAP. I will be happy to credit you of course. Please contact me. mustelagrl"at"hotmail"dot"com
    Thanks for your time and best wishes to you in the future! Keep rolling!


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