Cascadia Wildlife Blog
News from the Wolverine Tracking Project and more
In January, we introduced our first ever Tracking Challenge. Every few weeks this winter, we'll be sharing a new challenge and a series of posts to inspire you to explore your neighborhood, parks, or the mountain for signs of wildlife in the tracks and sign they leave behind.
For our first challenge, we asked you for photos of tracks from any animal, no matter who made them. We received some excellent submissions! Here are the winners of the most distinct and the most clear tracks:
Most Clear Tracks
Left to right/Top to bottom: @buttsuponatime captured these perfect cat tracks! Carlene Blaich (Camera Crew and Tracking Team) found these exceptional snowshoe hare tracks on Mt. Hood. Kurt Zias wins honorable mention for some of the most clear marten tracks we have seen!
Most Unusual Tracks
Left to right/Top to bottom: Kurt Zias captured these screech owl tracks - notice the mouse trail to the right! Heidi Perry and John Lehne (Tracking Leaders and Camera Crew) encountered a black bear on a mid-winter stroll on Mt. Hood. Honorable Mention: Ray Anderson and Kathleen Baker (Camera Crew) didn't need tracks to identify this backyard visitor!
Explore the Natural world
Spring classes start next month!
Wildlife Camera and Tracking surveys
And now the wildlife news you've been waiting for!
First off, we would like to share our target species sightings this month.
Top: A Sierra Nevada red fox sniffs around one spot on the ground.
Bottom: a Sierra Nevada red fox walks through the frame, stopping to sniff the ground.
These two detections of Sierra Nevada red fox happened at night, about a week apart. They may be the same individual, or they may not. The same individual can look very different in different light settings, at different distances from the camera, and when detected in different modes of motion. Whether are not they are the same individual, both detections show the fox in question was very interested in something on the ground.
Another camera also detected another Sierra Nevada red fox… Or did it?!
A fox runs through the background of a camera site.
This individual is certainly a fox, but these photos were taken outside the expected range of Sierra Nevada red fox, as this site is stationed at a bit lower elevation than they have been documented in Mt. Hood National Forest. This site is also a bit higher elevation than we would typically expect to find a lowland subspecies of red fox. So who could this be?
The story of red fox subspecies and populations gets complicated. There are three different subspecies of red foxes in Oregon, the Sierra Nevada subspecies in the Cascades, the Rocky Mountain subspecies in the mountains of Eastern Oregon, and a lowland subspecies that is thought to be non-native in the sagebrush and bunchgrass country. In biology, the usual definition of a species is a group of animals that can breed with each other and produce fertile offspring (meaning their offspring can also have offspring). A group of animals is deemed a subspecies when they form a distinct group that is genetically distinguishable from the rest of the species. They are usually separated from the rest of the animals in the species by some sort of geographic or behavioral barrier. For example, the American black bear is a well known species of bear, but did you know they have 16 subspecies? These subspecies include the Florida black bear, the Louisiana black bear, and the West Mexican black bear, among others.
With our red foxes, what first seemed like three distinct subspecies, clearly separated from each other geographically and by differences in preferred habitat, is starting to become more cloudy. Rocky Mountain red fox have been detected close to Bend, Sierra Nevada red fox have been detected near the Willamette National Forest at lower elevations than they were expected to be found, the population on Mt Hood has been found to carry at least a few non-native genes, and now there is a mystery fox found in the no-man's land between where we expected to see Sierra Nevada and lowland subspecies.
At this point, we are wondering: Is this individual in the picture above an outlier, either from the Mt. Hood population or from lower elevations? In California, Sierra Nevada red foxes have been documented traveling at lower elevations during dispersal, and dispersal would not be out of question for any fox this time of year. Or, does this detection hint that the range of either Mt. Hood's Sierra fox might be lower than expected, or lowland foxes higher than expected?
Further documentation and obtaining genetic samples would be important in our understanding of home ranges, dispersal practices, and connectivity of Mt. Hood's Sierra Nevada red fox and other foxes in our region. We are excited to see what future documentations may tell us. For now, we wish this fox well on their way, wherever they may be going and whoever they may be.
Our cameras also detected another canine - the coyote!
Left to right/Top to bottom: A coyote looks into the camera. A coyote smells one of our bait boxes. A coyote pops a squat near a fallen tree trunk. A coyote trots through a camera site.
These lovable canines remain active throughout winter, and we detect them all over the forest at all different elevations. However, with much of the plant matter being dead or dormant, coyotes have to rely on their skills as a predator and scavenger to find their next meal. With an impressive range, they can roam up to 40 square miles searching for food (though probably not in a single day!). Their thick winter coat helps them stay warm as they look for their next meal.
Our next detection is a big predator, much like a canine, but in a much smaller package. Can you tell what species they are? They have a long body, short legs, and a fuzzy face, but don’t let that fool you…
A blurry weasel darts away from our bait tree.
We detected a weasel! What these small mammals lack in fat stores, they make up for with ruthless survival tactics. Weasels do not have a permanent den, but instead will use their small, long body to sneak into rodent’s dens, prey upon the rodent, and then use the rodent’s den for a nap. They curl up into a ball ball to conserve heat, and once they're rested, they set out again to find new prey. Due to their fast metabolism, weasels need to eat at least five times a day.
Now onto our feline friends. First up, the mountain lion! This is our first mountain lion detection this season, or least the back half of one.
The torso, back legs, and tail of a mountain lion seem to be walking out of frame.
Mountain lions do not hibernate or migrate great distances in winter, meaning they stay in the same general area year-round. With that being said, mountain lions are altitudinal migrants and follow ungulates to lower elevations during winter to retain a dependable food source. Much like us, throughout the snowy months, mountain lions will visually track deer using their footprints in the snow.
Much like their feline cousin, bobcats also stay active all winter.
Left to right/Top to bottom: The eyes of a bobcat glow in the night. A bobcat dashes by. A bobcat calmly walks through a camera site.
For most of the year bobcats are crepuscular, but in winter they transition to being more active throughout the day to have a better chance of finding some diurnal prey.
Another important forest carnivore, black bear were detected! However, unlike the canines and felines of the forest, black bear are not typically active all winter.
Left/top: A black bear is barely discernible as an outline in the wintry weather. Right/bottom: Bear tracks in the snow.
Not only were black bears detected on camera in January, but a camera crew also found their tracks while checking a different camera. It is very exciting to see these bear tracks in such beautiful detail! In fact, these bear track photos WON the Tracking Challenge for Most Unusual Tracks found on Mt. Hood! (See More Tracking Challenge Winners)
Left/top: The front right paw print of a black bear. Right/bottom: The left hind print of a black bear.
The first photo above shows the right front paw. You can make out all five toes, and below the toes are the palm pad. Black bears also have a heel pad below the palm on each foot, which may not always register, as is the case in this photo. The second photo above shows the left hind paw print. Many a bear track may have been confused with sasquatch (and vice versa!), and you can begin to see why. However, unlike human feet, the inside toe is the smallest and lower than the others, and the "big toe" is on the outside. The hind foot has larger palm and heel pads than the front, and, in this case, the heel pad registered. You can make out the claws and the folds of skin on this bear's foot, too!
Now you may be wondering: why is a black bear awake in winter? Bears are not “true” hibernators like many animals that burrow and hole up for winter. In the winter, bears, raccoons, and skunks hibernate by going into torpor, an involuntary state of reduced activity and lowered metabolic rate for energy conservation, but not into a total and extended dormancy like chipmunks, bees, toads, and so on. The overall time a black bear can spend in its den in torpor hibernation varies geographically from 0-7 months, and in Oregon it has been reported as usually lasting between 5-6 months. However, whereas true hibernators like ground squirrels need to wake up every week or so for sustenance and to pass waste, bears can stay in their torpor state without needing to wake for up to 100 days - or they can remain in torpor for much shorter periods. During warmer spells, black bears in torpor are more likely to stir and may emerge to forage, as perhaps was the case with this individual.
All these important carnivores around, and no wonder! We have also been detecting a lot of ungulates, deer and elk, who make up important parts of the diets of coyotes, mountain lions, and black bears.
An male elk with a thick reddish mane eyes the trail camera.
The camera sites captured several large elk herds on the move, and it's a sight to see! But have you ever wondered how to tell if you're looking at an elk or a deer? This elk above exhibits the thick mane and hump on the shoulders that is common in elk and absent in deer. Compared to deer, adult elk are also significantly larger, the hair of their mane and legs is dark, they have a large white rump patch, and their tail is short and completely white.
Top: A large herd of elk gather in a clearing.
Bottom: An animated gif showing elk passing by in front of a camera.
In Oregon, we have two subspecies of elk: Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk. We also have two species of deer, white-tail deer and mule deer, plus a subspecies of mule deer called black-tailed deer. White-tail deer have brown hair on the dorsal (top) surface of their tail, and mule deer have a white tail with a brown tip. The deer shown below are black-tail deer. You can tell where they get their name: the topside of their tails are covered with dark hair. All these deer also have white hair on the ventral (underside) of their tails - all the better to signal to the herd with!
Left to right/Top to bottom: Two deer race through the snowy camera site clearing. Two deer stand nose to nose. Two deer walk through the snow. A young buck shows off his winter molt. Another buck approaches the camera.
Snowshoe hare continue to be regular and welcome visitors to several camera sites.
Left to right/Top to bottom: A snowshoe hare crouches in some underbrush. A snowshoe hare hops through a snowy camera site. A snowshoe hare bounds along a game trail.
There were also many squirrel sightings, like these western gray squirrels:
Left to right/Top to bottom: A western gray squirrel pauses on a log; bounds through the snow; pauses in a grassy clearing; sits upright amid snow patches; and streaks through a camera site.
Did we go a month without a Douglas squirrel sighting...? Rest assured we did not!
A Douglas squirrel pauses on a log, obscured by fog.
Trackers also encountered a lot of squirrel and snowshoe hare tracks on transects! These common winter wildlife species both can have bounding trail patterns, and learning to tell the two apart can be tricky at first.
Left/top: A snowshoe hare left all four paw prints in the snow. Right/bottom: A snowshoe hare trail in snow.
Now, this is one classic snowshoe hare print above! Notice the "T" shape made the two larger hind paw prints side by side, and the two smaller circular front paws prints one after the other. The mismatched size of the prints made by larger hind paws and smaller forepaws is a good characteristic to look for in hare tracks (but squirrels tracks have this characteristic too!).
See the series of "T"s as the hare hopped along? This rabbit's stride (the distance between two prints made by the same foot) was 23" in this picture. Now, compare this to squirrel tracks:
Left/top: a cluster of a set of squirrel tracks in the snow. Right/bottom: A squirrel trail in the snow intersects with a trail of humans.
In the close up of squirrel tracks above, we see larger hind paws positioned in front of smaller fore paws, as with the snowshoe hare, but it appeared as a cluster of four prints rather than a "T". Hare's front feet tend to leave a staggered "T" pattern, while the front feet of squirrels tend to land side by side. You can see this consistently play out in their trial pattern on the right/bottom above.
Below is the first raccoon that cameras have detected this season. Raccoons remain active year-round. Like bears, they do not fully hibernate, but are less active during the winter. Here's a cropped photo with the exposure increased - that striped tail is a giveaway!
A raccoon, barely visible, walks through some fallen logs.
Our final visitor this past month was the striped skunk!
A striped skunk strides off into the undergrowth.
Like black bears and raccoons, these mammals are less active throughout the winter as they undergo hibernation torpor. Looks like these snowless conditions were still good rambling for this skunk.
Until next time, smell ya later! And be well.
The days are getting warmer and longer, the birds are returning from winter migration, and animals everywhere are bringing a new generation of wildlife into our forests...needless to say, winter has ceased and made way for spring, marking the end of our winter survey season. While this season may have been unexpectedly cut short, the Cascadia Wild team of volunteers and members still managed to bring in countless wonderful photos and record many wildlife tracks while it lasted.
Please enjoy this season recap of the Wolverine Tracking Project's Camera and Tracking Survey highlights!
As we near the end of the winter season and head into spring, the snow begins to slowly melt away and our forests begin to wake up. With warmer weather comes breeding season, new growth of plants, and more abundant food sources for the wildlife. As insects take to the wing and feed our avian community returning from migration, we begin to notice a shift in the dynamics of the forest. We look forward to the spring ahead and enjoy looking back on February and the wildlife sightings it provided us.
As always, thank you to all of our wonderful volunteers who are braving the winter weather on snowshoe and digging through the snow to reach our cameras so that we can bring you these photos. We have had a great season so far, and winter's not over yet! We still have a month of wildlife tracking and two months of camera surveys in Mt Hood National Forest to complete the winter wildlife survey season.
For those of you excited to get outside, make the most of the snow while it lasts, welcome the transitioning seasons, or simply explore the natural world, we hope to see you at one of our upcoming classes or clubs!
Upcoming classes and Clubs
Late winter/early spring is the perfect time to get to know our local songbirds, and our Bird Language Series is a great opportunity to do so! Beyond bird identification, this 8-class series in field and classroom explores what the postures, song, chatter, and even silence of birds can tell us about what's happening on the landscape - the location of predators, presence of other humans, and even our own awareness and mindset. Starting March 22. Read more.
Check out our other upcoming classes, like
Advanced Sign Tracking (March 7)
Intro to Wildlife Tracking at Hoyt Arboretum (March 21)
See all upcoming Classes.
Looking for more to do in the community?
Tracking Club meets the last Sunday of every month.
Nature Book Club meets March 24 to discuss Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett.
More info on Community Clubs
There has been an abundance of wildlife sightings on Mt. Hood this past month, including our beautiful and elusive target species: the Sierra Nevada red fox!
A Sierra Nevada red fox observes the area and looks into a nearby camera
The Sierra Nevada red fox was first confirmed on Mt. Hood in 2012 by Cascadia Wild's trail cameras under the Wolverine Tracking Project. Despite their small numbers, attempts to list these animals as threatened or endangered have failed in recent years due to the lack of information on their populations and whether or not they are interbreeding with other red fox subspecies.
Cascadia Wild uses data collected on this subspecies to aid researchers and conservationists in their attempt to protect the Sierra Nevada red fox. Due to their elusive nature, there are many questions left to be answered, such as their population sizes, distribution, genetics, and ecology. Data is gathered by Cascadia Wild through our camera surveys, winter tracking surveys, and summer scat surveys.
A Sierra Nevada red fox examines the camera site and bait tree
These foxes are always an exciting find, and they have graced our higher-elevation cameras a handful of times this season. Their curiosity of the bait trees are hard to misinterpret, and the body language they exhibit is not unlike that of our canine companions.
Some fun facts...
Other canid visitors include the coyote.
A coyote strolls through a camera site in the fresh snow
Coyotes are generally monogamous and tend to maintain pair bonds for life. Their litters are raised by both parents and parenting duties are also frequently taken on by older siblings in the family group. They travel both alone and in packs usually consisting of an alpha male and female, their relatives, and some members of other families.
Coyote packs tend to live in territories that they will defend against neighboring packs. They mark these these territories with scent markings such as urine, feces, and rubbing against objects like trees.
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): a coyote marks its territory with feces; the territory is observed by scent; a coyote marks its territory with urine; two coyotes mark their presence by rubbing up against a tree trunk.
There is some evidence that suggests individual coyotes mark their territory more frequently when they are traveling with a pack! This group of 5 is seen claiming their stakes on the land.
A pack of coyotes roll on the ground and smell the surrounding area
A coyote examines the camera site
Some fun facts...
Other carnivorous mammals caught on our cameras this past month include the stealthy bobcat.
A bobcat sits underneath a tree
Bobcats have a wide range of diet, including small mammals such as hares, squirrels, birds, and even the occasional larger game like deer. Bobcats use their stealth to hunt, remaining hidden to their prey until they attack with a leaping pounce of up to 10 feet.
A bobcat sneaks through the camera site at night
These felines are the most common wildcat in the United States, yet they seldom cross paths with humans due to their solitary, nocturnal, and elusive nature.
A common meal of the above carnivores are the snowshoe hares.
Multiple snowshoe hares make their way through our camera sites
Snowshoe hares have evolved to molt to a white coat for the winter to match the snowy backdrop, and molt back to brown once the snow melts away; this way, they do not stand out like little lightbulbs in the dark forest, and they are able to camouflage with their environment year-round. However, as demonstrated above, sometimes these color changes do not happen as they should. As the global climate changes, the presence or absence of snow at different times of the year becomes less predictable, and hares are sometimes unable to quickly change their coat to match - a phenomenon biologists call "camouflage mismatch".
Abundant in our forests, the snowshoe hares are nimble and fast; a necessary advantage as a favorite snack of bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and even some birds of prey. These hares have large, fuzzy feet that help them to effectively navigate their snowy habitats, similar to the snowshoes of our volunteers.
Other herbivorous inhabitants of our forests include the black-tailed deer.
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): a deer jumps over some fallen logs; an up-close shot of a deer walking underneath the camera; a deer walking up close to a camera.
Black-tailed deer inhabit the forested mountains and foothills near the Pacific coast. They are resident animals, meaning they do not migrate south, but do tend to move to lower elevations during the winter months. Their home-range consists of about 3 square miles of land, yet they tend to travel in solitude - aside from the small family groups of mothers and their young, or the bachelor groups of bucks formed during the summer months.
You can find more information about deer in our last blog.
A female black-tailed deer exhibits a flehmen response
A flehmen response is a reaction to intriguing smells - commonly urine - where the upper lip of the animal is curled back to expose the vomeronasal organ to the scent in order to get a good whif. In fact, the word "flehmen" comes from the German verb for "to curl". However, this response is not just "sniffing" - it may be compared to sniffing in high resolution.
This black-tailed deer doe is seen exhibiting a flehmen response, likely in response to the urine of another deer. You may have observed a cat or another ungulate like a horse displaying this same behavior before. While not uncommon, a flehmen response is more frequent in black-tailed deer males than females. In fact, there seems to be an annual cycle for flehmen responses in black-tailed deer; observations are much more frequent in the winter during breeding season as deer are on the lookout for a mate.
Also seen is a less common winter visitor: a striped skunk.
A striped skunk runs through a clearing, leaving behind small tracks in the snow
Striped skunks tend to hole up for the winter; however, similar to bears, they do not undergo true hibernation. Instead, both skunks and bears exhibit something called torpor: a state of decreased metabolic and physiological activity, allowing an animal to survive through periods of food shortages. More information on torpor can be found in our last blog.
Though skunks tend to be known for their foul smelling spray, they are actually docile animals that will happily leave humans alone and go on with their day. Their spray defense is typically only used as a last resort; if they feel threatened, they will first try to run away from the threat. If that doesn't do the trick, they may arch their back and raise their tail as a warning. Only if they still feel threatened will they release their spray, which can reach a whopping 12 feet.
Before we review some of the findings from our tracking surveys, we want to extend our congratulations to our trackers, tracking trip leaders, and greater tracking community that came out for our CyberTracker Track and Sign Evaluation! For two days, participants were taken to various locations in Mt Hood National Forest and asked questions about the track and sign found on the landscape, such as: who made this track or sign? how was this animal moving? what was the gender of this animal?
At the end of the weekend, everyone who participated received internationally recognized wildlife tracking certification! Six out of ten participants even received Level 3 Certification! Thank you to David Moskowitz for leading the evaluation on behalf of CyberTracker, and everyone who came out to share their knowledge, perspectives, and tracking skills with us - we are truly impressed by our community!
We found a lot of great tracks and sign, and here are some of the highlights from the course:
Left to right/Top to bottom: the class discusses track morphologies; following one of many snowshoe hare trail; the tracks of a male bobcat show clearly on a light dusting of snow and dark substrate; tracks of two deer crossing a road; a set of clear weasel tracks found near a bobcat trail; David discussing a mound created by a mountain lion; a trail sign post that has been used more than once by black bear for rubbing; and a vine maple branch that has been browsed upon by deer.
It's been a great month for our tracking surveys, too! This February we hosted our annual overnight tracking trip in the Tilly Jane area.
Left to right/Top to bottom: sizing up a snow shelter footprint; looking out from a snow shelter entrance; and the long shadows of sunset on a burn area fall onto a snowy field with Mt Hood in the background.
The group followed animal trails by day before setting up snow shelters and camping under the clear skies of a full moon. The conditions for a great time could not have been better!
Tracking surveys have also been finding a lot of great track and sign. One of the most common signs on the winter landscape is snowshoe hare.
A snowshoe hare crossroads with ample scat
A print of a snowshoe hare sitting: the small front feet are in front (on the left), hugged by the large hind feet, and an imprint of the round tail sits behind (on the right) - under the tail print is a rabbit pellet, or scat!
A snow "cave" is made by snow on a sapling: the tracks here show the frequent comings and goings of snowshoe hare to this site. The amount of packed snow at the entrance of the "cave," the stipped branches, and the pile of needles indicate that a hare used this area for feeding if not also rest and hiding.
Hare tracks were found entering this snow tunnel! Trackers searched the area and found another set of tracks exiting the snow some distance away!
We have also been finding a lot of squirrel tracks, and the similar tracks of their carnivorous forest counterpart, weasel! Can you tell the difference between squirrel and weasel in the tracks below?
Left to right/Top to bottom: measuring the clear prints of a short-tailed weasel; the bounding gait of a weasel through snow; a tracker inspects the bounding gait of a squirrel through deep snow; and measuring the tracks of a squirrel.
In our last blog, we discussed how squirrel and hare tracks can be distinguished from one another, but weasel and squirrel can be even more difficult to tough to tell apart. Also commonly found with a bounding gait, weasel tracks can be of similar size, too. One way to tell these apart is by the toes. Squirrels have five toes on their hind feet and four in front; weasels have five toes all around. Squirrels will also have longer toes than claws (for grabbing onto food and tree limbs) and weasels will have longer claws than toes (for grabbing onto their forest prey). Compared to weasels, the first and fifth digit of a squirrel's hind toes are splayed more to the side, while the middle three are kept closer together and pointed more forward, in a 1-3-1 orientation. Weasel toes, on the other hand, will often be more evenly spaced.
Another common track has been the deer mouse. These tracks would be difficult to discern if not for their size! Some of the smallest tracks in the forest, you would be very lucky with excellent conditions if you were able to make out toes in their prints.
Left to right/Top to bottom: a deer mouse bounds through crusty snow; and a deer mouse bounds through a thinner layer of fluffier snow.
Each of these photos show the same animal performing the same hopping gait. However, the animal is making its way through two different qualities of snow. The first photo shows each foot clearly defined as the animal almost post-holes through snow that has been made more rigid through melting and refreezing, each foot clearly showing where it broke through the surface. In the second photo, we can see the tracks less clearly as the snow hasn't gone through the same weather and is more easily disturbed, yet still light and fluffy enough to pick up a foot drag.
We have also seen a lot of sign from our forest carnivores. One thing all our wildlife have in common is: what goes in, must come out!
Left to right/Top to bottom: canid scat (coyote or fox); felid scat (bobcat or small mountain lion); likely coyote scat containing ungulate fur.
Scat can tell us so much about an animal, from genetic information, to diet and individual health - all of which in turn helps us paint a picture not only of their population but of the ecosystem to which the animal belongs. The top two photos belong to two different families of animals, canid and felid. Comparing the two, you can see that canid scat is a bit more twisty than felid scat, which comes out more round and segmented, like Lincoln Logs. Both have bits of hair, which attest to their more carnivorous diet.
The bottom photo is likely coyote scat, and contains what is likely ungulate fur. Examination of the fur showed that it crimped when pinched between the nails, indicating a hollow hair follicle. Ungulates and polar bears are the only mammals with hollow fur, an adaptation which helps them stay insulated in the cold.
Until next time, we hope you can get out there and enjoy some of the bounty that winter has to offer before it's gone!