Archive for the ‘Nature Awareness’ Category

Another capture season has come to an end on Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project.  It was a challenging year but we were able to put out a few new collars and recollar some cats whose collars fell off over the past year.  Our method for finding mountain lions is the same as mountain lion hunters – we split up and hike, drive or snowmobile looking for tracks.  Snow makes this much easier but anyone who tells you snow tracking is easy may only be looking at clear tracks.  The right snow conditions can make picking a cougar trail out of the tracks of wolves, deer and elk very challenging.


Generally cougar tracks are big and round and their strides are short. This makes them stand out compared to snow trails of ungulates BUT when there is a light crust on top of the snow, cougars will keep their toes tightly together and take longer strides, making the trail look more like deer or small elk.


From above this looks like a hoof…


But if snow conditions allow you to peek inside you will see the toes and fine claws of a mountain lion.


Sometimes you are forced to rely on how the animal is moving to identify a trail – cougars love sneaking under low-lying branches and they “lurk” through the landscape. They travel from tree to tree, wrapping around the trunk, under branches and through thick bushes. Wolves, elk and deer cruise in more of a straight line.


Can you pick out the cougar trail among the tracks of dozens of elk? It is the one on the left sneaking under 1-2 foot high branches.


M85. It is amazing how relaxed all cougars are – but especially M85 is when he is in a tree. He is only 10 or 15 feet away from me when I took this picture.


He took the drugs very well. Safety of the cat as well as the team is priority in these situations. His eyes are covered to help cool his adrenaline and he is covered in snow to cool his body since his temperature was slightly high.


Very interesting callouses on his feet. I haven’t seen this before and I’m curious about what would cause this. He didn’t have these on his toes last year when we caught him.


His front feet were similar but not as dramatic as his hind foot.


Dew claw on the front foot.


He is an extremely healthy looking cat. One of his canines showed some damage which is expected being around 7 years of age.


His new collar will last 2 years before it automatically falls off which means we will likely never catch him again.


Heading home, best of luck to M85. There are still several months left in the cougar hunting season and a big male like him is highly sought after but he is a smart old cat – lasting 7 years is very unusual for a male in our study area.


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Morning light on the Tetons…


I believe this is a cormorant pellet. I found it in an area heavily used by cormorants and it is full of small fish bones.


Beautiful young black bear. Got to watch him rip this log open.


Raven pellet. Look for the shiny bits of aluminum foil.


Wolf tracks and scat full of large bones.


This is a cottonwood root. I thought it was cool to see how it grows around river rocks.


My cozy town of Kelly Wyoming.


The foot of a 1 year old female mountain lion.


Skunk scat full of bald-faced hornets.


A goldfinch was feeding on this thistle and left us a small yellow scat.


Here’s what thistle looks like when fed on by a chipmunk. They clip off the thistle heads and feed on them in a pile on the ground. In the background you can see piles of thistle down.


Sometimes its hard to tell if the thistle was opened by the wind or a bird actually plucked out the seeds to eat them. If you look closely you can see the seed that they are trying to eat. When the wind opens the thistle, the seeds will still be attached to the downy part.


Nice bald eagle tracks.


Here is where the eagle above ate or at least handled a fish. Look closely for the fish scales.


Gull pellet containing crab parts.


Crayfish gastrolith. These are commonly found in otter scats. They live in the stomach of crayfish and store calcium carbonate which they use when they molt and grow a new shell. I’ve been wondering about these things for a while and very thankful to some fellow trackers that helped me figure this one out!


One footed gull. The left foot is normal and you can see the tracks if you look closely. The right foot is injured and just makes those paired impressions.


Nice pelican tracks. Pelicans are one of very few birds that have webbing between all four toes.


Fresh scat of a sage grouse. The green color is very distinctive of sage grouse scat.


I interrupted some type of raptor that was eating this spotted sandpiper. There are a lot of kestrels in this area.


Tiny shrew tracks.


Ravens broke off these cottonwood branches and dropped them to the ground. Maybe they were making tools? I couldn’t find any sign of feeding on the branches.


That’s all for now thanks for reading!

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We lost another kitten. This one to starvation. Her mother was killed and this kitten survived for over 3 months on her own, scavenging, possibly killing birds or squirrels, but she didn’t make it (her sister is still out there). Learn more about these cats at facebook.com/tetoncougarproject. I took this opportunity to look at her teeth. At 9 months old her adult canines have still not fully erupted – making it very difficult to kill any prey of significant size.


An awesome view of a cougar tongue. This is the tool they use to scrape all the meat off bones, as well as clean themselves and their kittens.


Yellow-bellied marmot tracks.


Got to ride in a small 4-seater plane over the Tetons and Gros Ventre. The purpose was to relocate two mountain lions via telemetry. We found them deep in the Gros Ventre. Here is a backside view of Sleeping Indian (or sheep mountain) with the Tetons in the background.


Yellow-warbler nest with eggs.


Mysterious probing… lots of raven tracks around and curlews in the vicinity.


“High-stepping” curlew tracks. This is a breeding dance of the curlew.


I believe this is sage grouse scat. They are abundant in this area and in the next picture you can see leaves of sagebrush in the broken open scat. Sagebrush creates oils that are toxic to the good flora in animals stomachs. Somehow sage grouse, jackrabbits, and pronghorn are able to eat it.


Little bits of sagebrush leaves in the scat.


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December 15th marks the beginning of the Gros Ventre closure and the end of our capture season.  We recollared three cats, uncollared one cat and put a new collar on a big male that we found cruising through the study area.  Catching mountain lions consists of scouring the landscape, finding a fresh track, following the trail until you know the cougar is close, releasing barking dogs that send the cat up a tree, tranquilizing the cat while its in the tree, safely lowering it down, taking measurements, blood samples, putting on a collar, reversing the drugs and watching the cat walk away.  It is an intensive effort!  We spent 6 days trying to catch up to another male that we never did reach.  We hiked 12 hours each day over mountains, deep snow, into the dark but never could catch up to him.  It is hard work but also really fun to get to be part of the capture team and to spend all day following tracks of mountain lions.  It is also awesome to spend time with the houndsmen and watch the dogs do their thing.  Check out Boone Smith on NatGeo Wild.  He has a variety of TV projects and is a member of the Smith family – a fourth generation houndsman.  We are really lucky to get to work with him and his family.

Here are some pictures from the past month of adventures.


This is a fun random thing that you might find in elk country. It is a chunk of ice that gets compacted in the hoof then falls off. These weird ice chunks may stick around long after the tracks have blown away.


Nice badger track in the snow.


Curious cats. Here are the tracks of F109 checking out an old back country cabin.


People wonder if the cats get beat up during the capture process. F47 went and killed this adult moose just a few days after we recollared her. Its the first time we’ve documented a female cougar killing an adult moose on this project. I guess she is feeling ok!


Water shrew tracks. Like a normal shrew but much bigger.


Cool imprint of a raven landing.


Big scrape from our new big male, M85.


M85. This was a wild capture. Out until 3am in -20 degree weather.


Tracks of F51 on the left with one of her kittens on the right.


Beautiful day in the Gros Ventre.


Otter sliding on the snow.


Tracking trick shots. From left to right: coyote, wolf and red fox.


Sunrise in the Gros Ventre.


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Hiked into a kill site yesterday of a cat with two eleven month old kittens.  Saw about a thousand perfect cougar tracks and found a “play” area where the kittens leaped, rolled around and tackled each other.  Something I’ve learned about animals is that they play WAY more than people expect.  Play is one of the most common behaviors, especially of course in the young animals.  There is a great book called Walking with Bears by Terry DeBruyn where the author followed around a family of black bears and recorded everything they did.  It was amazing how much they played.


These were the first tracks we came across. Aging tracks in snow can be tricky but these look very fresh.


We found a cougar bed with this great scratch post. They seem to like scratching rotten old logs. This one had big pieces ripped off. It is believed that they do this for scent marking purposes as well as to sharpen their claws. It makes much more sense to me that they scratch to sharpen their claws and stretch because I’ve only found these scratch posts next to a bed rather than along main travel routes or on the edges of their territory.


Entering the play zone. This cougar jumped off the log and then made a big leap towards the top of the picture.


Great cougar hind track. Their hind tracks are much more symmetrical than their fronts.


Here is the cougar “playground”. There are tracks everywhere, body impressions, tail swipes, etc. Looks like they had a good time!


Great set of tracks from a bounding cougar kitten. The front tracks are the lower ones. You can probably picture a house cat bounding in the exact same way.


Zoomed out view of the bounding tracks above. If only we could have caught all of this action on film.


Body impressions and tail swipes.


We also came across this giant bear scat with a smaller scat right on top. Must be from a big grizzly bear.


Here’s a zoomed out view of the cougar playground. It might be worth noting that we found this next to where the mother killed a mule deer. I imagine that the amount of play time goes up significantly when the cats are happy and well fed. Another great day of tracking with the Teton Cougar Project.

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Well I’ve been busy lately.  We took a trip to Oregon for another tracking evaluation.  We had some great questions and intense rain.  Now I’m back in Wyoming looking for work and a place to live so I can stay here through the winter.  I’m getting very excited for the snow tracking season.  Wolves, cougars, foxes, elk, moose, and easy trailing… its going to be fun!


River otter tracks in some sweet mud.


Faint tracks with the culprit in view.


Cool beetle trail.


Awesome shrew tracks. These are actually easy to identify when they are clear. All mammals evolved from a creature with five toes on their front feet and five on their hind feet and shrews are one of the oldest mammals. So if you find a super tiny set of tracks and all feet show five toes, you’ve got a shrew.


Rough skinned newt.


Wasps eating a pear. They were a little slow-moving, I think from all the sugar.


I believe these are pheasant scats. We found them in an open hay barn and they were totally full of ants.


Some great nutria tracks. One cool thing I learned about nutrias is that they don’t have any webbing on their pinky toes of their hind feet.


Snail tracks on the beach.


This was a fun eval question. This is an injured coyote. One of his tracks just shows up as a couple dots. Somehow he is able to make a living in this harsh world.


Nice mink trail walking towards the water.


Mystery bone. Found this on the shore of a lake in Idaho. Haven’t been able to figure out what it is… some kind of fish I think. If you have ideas let me know! *Update: with the help of some folks I’ve learned that this is the spiney fin bone from a catfish!  Pretty cool.


A recent visitor to the office…


Here’s Michelle pointing to a grizzly bear bite. This was a big bear – the bite was about 6 and a half feet high!


Grizzly bear hairs.


We had an amazing day of trailing yesterday. There is a brief window where there is snow on the ground and the bears haven’t started hibernating yet. We followed this female black bear for miles.


The fall colors and the mountains are spectacular here. I think this is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever been in.

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An exciting moment with the Teton Cougar Project – I was out for a routine hike checking a kill site of F51 but I couldn’t find anything… it was thick downfall and I started snooping around peaking into tunnels through the logs when I noticed 4 tiny breathing fur balls: cougar kittens!  F51 had unexpectedly dropped four kittens and I found them when they were less than 3 days old.  I took this short video on my phone – check it out!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OdJ-Vj92KY&feature=youtu.be

Make sure the volume is up so you can hear them purring and doing this crazy coughing thing.  Sorry about the text and low-quality but we had to do that for copyright reasons.

We were especially surprised by this discovery because F51 currently had a 10 month old kitten, Lucky.  Normally the kittens don’t disperse and live on their own until they are 18 months old but apparently she kicked Lucky out early.  We think she is too young to be killing deer so she must be living off grouse and snowshoe hare.  Pretty crazy!  We got a glimpse of Lucky yesterday and she looked a little skinny but quite healthy overall.


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Fresh wolf tracks


Elk foot from a cougar kill.


Wolf scat on top of a pile of coyote scat. A whole world of communication happens through scat.


Moose skull, probably killed by wolves in the winter time.


I spooked a family of black bears yesterday. The mom made some low grunts that sent the cubs up this tree. She continued making these vocalizations from the bushes while I tried to get a picture of the cubs. You might have to zoom in to find the two cubs.


Beautiful brook trout for dinner.


View from the alpine where one of our cougars had a den. She abandoned her den and kittens. We will find out why tomorrow when Mark goes and investigates.


Another view from the alpine.


A small black bear track stepping on top of my track from the day before.

That’s it for now!

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I’ve been volunteering with the Teton Cougar Project for a week now and have already seen 12 kill sites, many beds, and hiked over 40 miles.  Its been intense!  But I’ve learned a lot and seen a ton of cool stuff.  Here are some pictures…


Big mule deer cached by F109, one of my favorite cats.


Road-killed grouse foot.


Dr. Elbroch has an amazing track cast collection.


Cliff swallow egg.


Badger hole.


Pronghorn foot.


Pronghorn killed by M68.


Track of M68. We just returned from a 4 day road trip finding all of the recent kills from dispersing young male, M68.


Here is where M68 sat and looked out for miles into the desert sagebrush, from the top of a ridge.


Michelle, standing near one of M68’s bedding areas.


Little rock overhand where M68 bedded. From here he had an endless view into the sagebrush desert.


Full moon in the desert.


I’ve always wanted to find where a cougar scratched a log… here it is! They do this to stretch, sharpen their claws and maybe scent mark too. They are just big house cats.


Close-up of the scratch. You can see some hairs stuck in there too.


View from one of M68’s beds.


A recent burn where M68 hunted for a couple days (unsuccessfully). There was a ton of deer and elk sign in here though.


Uinta ground squirrel tracks.


Badger tracks.


We use the teeth to record what age the deer was that was killed. This is the jaw bone of a yearling mule deer.


Bears foraging, flipping over rocks.


Hiking back from one of M68’s kills.


Magpie cough pellet.


Snowshoe hare killed by a cougar. Amazing how the skull is perfectly skinned.


Here a woodpecker pecked into the bark to reach a grub.


The remains of a fawn killed by a cougar.


Fresh wolf tracks.


Back to the Tetons and back to studying our local cats. This was a nice moment from my drive home from the office the other day. Beautiful landscapes full of wildlife seem to be everywhere here.

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I’ve had a couple people tell me lately that they want to focus on tracking but they don’t know where to start.  Here are some of my suggestions.

Tracking is not an easy skill to acquire, mainly because there aren’t very many people that know about it.  I have spent thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, many years and moved all over the country  trying to learn tracking.  I’ve made a real effort to find the best trackers in the country and spend time with them.  I know this is not practical for most people but it is by far the fastest way to learn tracking – find someone who is a tracker, follow them around and pick their brain.  This is what’s so great about the tracking evaluations (http://trackercertification.com/).  When you take an eval, you get to spend two days with one of the best trackers in the world and be quizzed on everything they see.  There are tracking classes and clubs all over the country – google them and seek them out.


Here is one from an eval – the scene where a bobcat killed a ringtail. One of my all time favorite eval questions.

Here are some tips for folks that want to learn tracking:

1. Find good local tracking spots and go there every day.  Under bridges, river banks, muddy atv roads, and sand pits are some of the best places.  When I lived in San Diego I had a loop I could walk from my house with great track traps.  Every morning I would grab my coffee, walk the loop and check the tracks.  I learned a lot by spending half an hour every day looking at tracks.  I think the regularity is very important to building an intuitive recognition of the patterns.

When you go tracking, always make an effort to look for things that you don’t know.  As you grow in your skills it is easy to look for what you know – it is fun and comfortable.  But you learn by pushing yourself to look for what you don’t know, then sticking with it until you figure it out.  There are always more questions you can ask.  If you figure out what animal made the track, next ask which foot it is, how old the track is, how was the animal moving, how the animal fits ecologically into this region, etc.

2. Get the field guides.  We have amazing field guides today that didn’t exist ten years ago.  This is helping people fly forward in their tracking/naturalist skills.  Here are the must-haves (even if you don’t live in the PNW or California):

Mammal Tracks and Sign (Elbroch), Bird Tracks and Sign (Elbroch), Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest (Moskowitz), Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scat of California (Elbroch, Evans and Kresky), Animal Skulls (Elbroch), Bird Feathers (McFarland and Scott), Practical Tracking (Leibenburg, Elbroch), Tracks and Sign of Insects and other Invertebrates (Eisman and Charney).

3. Strive to be a naturalist, not a tracker.  In order to be a great tracker, you have to be a great naturalist.  The point is to learn about nature, not tracks.  Tracks are just an incredible resource for a naturalist to find animals and to see what they have been up to.  Make a list of all the mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds of your region.  This will require getting more field guides.  Learn all the bird songs, the plants, trees, learn what everything eats (and what eats everything).  I did the Kamana Naturalist Training Program.  It was an incredible amount of work but gave me the confidence and tools to look things up and learn on my own.  I highly recommend it.

4. Take as many evaluations as you can.  http://trackercertification.com/calendar/  These are the best tracking workshops you will find.  You will leave inspired and focused on where you can improve in your tracking abilities.  What may take you years to figure out on your own you will learn in two days.

5.  Take a lot of pictures.  When you take pictures of tracks or sign, point the camera straight at it so the angle doesn’t obscure things.  And put a ruler down for scale.  It is great to cycle through your pictures later and re-learn what you saw that day.  If you are stumped on some tracks or sign, take a picture and post it in one of the facebook tracking groups or send it to me – I’ll try to help.

It is a lot of work to be a naturalist and a tracker but there are few things in life that I have found to be more rewarding.  The initial hump may seem insurmountable but with learning any new skill, you just have to tough it out.  Go tracking regularly, make an effort to look things up and before you know it, you’ll gain some confidence and enter a new world full of incredible drama and magic.  Suddenly the mysteries will begin to feel solve-able and less overwhelming.  And you’ll begin to cherish the mysteries that you can’t figure out because those are the most fun anyway.


Sorry about the blur but here are tracks I found yesterday. What may seem like a crazy jumble of dots is actually a breeding pair of frogs. The female is dragging the male frog which is latched on to her back (this is called amplexus). I never would have learned to recognize this without my co-worker Fil who is writing a book on tracks and sign of reptiles and amphibians. Now that I know it I see it all over the place. It looks like regular frog tracks with an extra pair of legs dragging behind. Also in this picture are tracks of a spider, a beetle and a millipede.

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