A snow storm invaded our air space last night. After the normal sunrise time, shadows still yawned from the edges of our forest. I felt like K and I were out for a night hike!
The quiet soothed my brain during my snowbike ride. The only sound was the squeaky cold snow under my tires. Not another soul had ventured out into the storm. Indeed even the animals were holed up. I saw only ermine and squirrel tracks on the otherwise blank slate of snow.
I didn't see any mountain lion tracks today, probably because the snow was flying out of the sky so fast that tracks disappeared in minutes. However, an insightful reader (Jed and Abby in Merryland) asked some questions about mountain lions - their territoriality and reproductive schedule.
I keep seeing the tracks of what I believe to be the same mountain lion continuously doing hunting loops in a much smaller area than I've seen before in my tracking experience. It's probably a female or a subadult male based on the size of the tracks. Females have much smaller territories than males, as shown in the example diagram below.
There's a study of mountain lions going on in our area, as you all saw when a lion wearing a tracking collar passed one of my cameras.
one huge male lion, at least one mother and almost adult kitten pair, and several different smallish individuals who could be either females or young males. You can find all those photos on my wildlife photo list page.
A female's territory contracts when she has kittens, especially young ones who are not traveling with her yet. My suspicion is that the cat whose tracks I keep seeing in a very small area is a female with kittens. She can't go far because she needs to return to her kittens regularly for nursing. So, she keeps makes small hunting loops through our forest that never take her too far from her young. In more than a decade of exploring our woods, I've never seen similar-looking lion tracks as regularly as this winter. That's why I think that we have an out-of-the-ordinary situation, like a mother lion with kittens stashed around here.
Mountain lions breed all year around. The kittens stay with mom for about 18 months, and after the young disperse, mom breeds again, regardless of the time of year. Mountain lions have mating-induced ovulation, a system that makes sense for solitary animals who encounter others of their species only sporadically. Survival of the kittens is highest when they're born in the spring but a fair number are born in the cold of winter and survive. In fact, in our area, prey may be more plentiful for a mother lion in winter because the more than hundred-strong elk herd spends the winter here. Mountain lions prey on both deer and elk.
A great web page for information about the life cycle of mountain lions can be found here.
I've put all my wildlife cameras on the most regularly used mountain lion route through our forest because I'm hoping to hit the jackpot soon when our lion follows her familiar path through our pine forest. It is, after all, the Year of the Mountain Lion!