Winter is in full-swing, January brought us deep snows and lots of photos from the Wolverine Tracking Project, and looking ahead, February is shaping up to be a busy month with March not far behind!
See below for news on our camera and tracking surveys. But first, check out some of the classes and events on the calendar.
Upcoming classes & events
As always, Tracking Club meets the last Sunday of every month.
Nature Book Club meets Feb 25 to discuss Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels.
More info on Clubs
A big thank you to our volunteers who have been braving the elements to maintain our camera sites! All the fresh snows on Mt Hood have given our camera crews a lot of opportunity for snowshoeing, digging cameras out of the snow, and bringing back some great photos! We've captured a few winter photos like this (below):
A snow-covered camera takes a programmed, daily photo
However, thanks to our volunteers braving the elements, we have also detected a lot of wildlife. When the heavy snows weren't burying our cameras, which were originally installed about five and a half feet up a tree, they were making some cameras appear to be at ground level. The result? These wonderful close-ups:
A Pacific marten inspects a camera, leaving behind footprints in the freshly fallen snow
It is always exciting to see a Pacific marten, especially so intimately. We love that we can also see such clear tracks as it departs, too. Note the elongated foot pad of its back feet, circled by five toes. This print is characteristic of mustelids, the family which Pacific marten, wolverine, fisher, mink, weasel, and so on belong.
A little about marten...
Snow-level cameras also detected some other animals, which make up our marten's carnivorous diet:
A deer mouse leaves a trail (left/top) and a snowshoe hare comes for a visit (right/bottom).
The fresh tracks of the deer mouse show it's hopping gait - though much smaller, it is very similar to the trail a snowshoe hare would leave: small front feet landing first and the larger, more powerful hind feet landing second just ahead of the front feet.
We also detected an up-close and candid portrait of another target species: the Sierra Nevada red fox!
A Sierra Nevada red fox makes its way through deep snow
Again, you can see the tracks of this montane fox in the snow. With a meandering trail like this and nose to the ground, it's not hard to assume this fox is hunting. Rodents often burrow into the snow, using the insulating layer as protection from predators and the cold.
Foxes at three different sites inspect the bait trees (top row and bottom left). A video shows multiple visits of what appears to the be the same fox to one site over a period of three weeks (bottom right).
These many visits from these rare, native foxes help us understand their habitat use. We have also collected a few viable hair samples from some of these sites. Like scat samples, hair samples may help give us important genetic information to help us understand their population history, genetic diversity, and habitat connectivity. Hair samples are collected on wire brushes, which are attached to the black belt on the tree just under the bait.
Our region is home to three kinds of montane fox, the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) in the Oregon Cascades and Sierras, the Cascade red fox (V.v. cascadensis) found in the Cascades north of the Columbia River, and the Rocky Mountain red fox (V.v. macroura) who are native to northeast Oregon. And, just this week, it was announced that there is a population of Rocky Mountain red fox living near Bend, and likely has been in this area for some time! Just like the Sierra Nevada red fox in our backyard, the montane fox can be elusive and difficult to study, even when they are right under our nose.
Other recent visitors include the ever-present coyote.
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): a coyote fixates on a tree; two coyotes look on while a third rolls in fresh snow; a coyote with a white-tipped tail pauses, then leaps over a log to smell a stump; and finally, a coyote stands chest-deep in the snow, likely listening for rodents. Though the final coyote's retreat was not captured, its tracks show it departed the way it came, taking the time to circle (and likely mark) the stump behind it (final photo).
We've also detected a few bobcat:
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): a bobcat walks past a bait tree; bobcat walks down a game trail; bobcat inspects a bait tree; bobcat leaves tracks in fresh snow; bobcat smells the base of a bait tree; and a bobcat passes through a site with what looks like a freshly caught hare
The bobcat on the right (or bottom), is difficult to make out. However, this lucky visitor is sporting a freshly caught hare! Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are well-adapted for snowy mountains, and, like foxes, marten, and coyotes, snowshoe hare are a favorite snack. Bobcats often hunt at night, and like the marten, don't let their small size fool you! They can cover 10 feet of ground in one pounce.
We are more likely to see bobcats on the mountain in the winter than their felid cousin, mountain lion. Mountain lions (Puma concolor) are less adapted to snowy environments than bobcat and are more often detected at lower elevations than where most of our cameras are located.
Another visitor we don't expect to see in the winter? Black bear. However, our cameras did pick up a bear between snows, a bit later than we would expect to see one.
A black bear walks down a game trail between winter snows
Bears do not hibernate in the same way as most other animals, like some rodents and reptiles, who lower their body temperature along with their metabolism and sleep throughout the whole winter. Instead, they enter a state called torpor where their metabolism slows down, but their body temperature remains elevated and they are able to wake more easily. They can wake from this sleep-state during winter if the weather warms or they are disturbed, and they may even leave their dens, eating opportunistically if they come across food, but do not tend to venture out for long. Other animals that enter a similar torpor state are raccoons and skunks - plenty of reasons why it is always good to be aware of your surroundings in the forest! Whether this particular bear is taking a mid-torpor stroll or has yet to enter this state for the winter is hard to say.
One animal, we are not surprised (but always happy) to see is the black-tailed deer.
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): A doe in the snow; a buck in the snow; three deer in the snow; a buck on a game trail
Did you know Oregon is home to four native subspecies of deer? Mt Hood National Forest is home to the Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus), a subspecies of mule deer. These deer are found from the coastal ranges to the Cascades, and their range runs from California to northern British Columbia (a sister subspecies, Sitka black-tailed deer, is found in Alaska). Rocky Mountain mule deer (O.h. hemionus), another mule deer subspecies, are also native to Oregon, and they are found on the east side of the Cascades summits, most commonly on the east side of our state - fittingly, their range also includes both the American and Canadian Rockies. Black-tailed deer are a little smaller and darker than mule deer, but both have large, mule-like ears. While mule deer seem to prefer open steppe, black-tailed deer tend to prefer brushy areas of coniferous and mixed-coniferous forests, sticking close to clear cuts and burns for browsing opportunities.
Oregon is also home to two subspecies of white-tailed deer: the Columbian white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus leucurus) and the Northwest (Idaho) white-tailed deer (O.v. ochrourus). The Columbian white-tailed deer is the most rare deer in Oregon. They only live along the lower Columbia River and Umpqua Basin, and the Columbia River population is a federally protected endangered species. The Northwest white-tailed deer is found in the northeastern corner of our state and has a healthy population. As a species, white-tailed deer grow increasingly more abundant as you move toward the east coast. They can be found from Canada to South America and prefer mixed-deciduous forest types.
In our area, you are most likely to see Columbian black-tailed deer - or if you are lucky, the rare Columbian white-tailed deer. Columbian white-tails have long tails they keep held closely to their bodies, and black-tails have shorter tails held loosely to their bodies. If you head a bit further east, you may see the Northwest white-tails; these are the smallest deer of all and have very wide tails. The antlers of each species are different, too. If the antlers are fully developed, white-tailed deer have one main beam on each antler, with points coming of the main beam; black-tailed deer (and mule deer) will typically have a fork coming off the main beam, with points coming off each branch. Check out ODFW's site to read more about our native deer or watch a video on Columbian black- and white-tailed deer identification.
Almost as copious as deer and as perennial as coyote, are our forest corvids.
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): Clark's nutcracker; Canada jay; and a video compilation of the two species visiting the same tree over two weeks - almost every 1-2 frames is a new visit.
Plentiful snows, hearty trackers, and some luck have resulted in some great tracking surveys!
One tracking team encountered three separate bobcat trails:
Detail of bobcat tracks; another bobcat's trail
The track quality on these tracks is great, even with a dusting of snow falling after they were laid. These photos show nice clarity of both the individual tracks and the trail pattern, and you can easily see the characteristic felid shape in these tracks. Compared to canid tracks, the whole of the print is quite circular and the thick, oblong pad is surrounded by four evenly spaced "toe beans." When distinguishing between dog and cat tracks, it's better to pay attention to these characteristics, rather than the presence or lack of claws: while felid claws are retractable (and canids are not), a bobcat or mountain lion can extend its claws for traction - something you may see on, say, a snowy/muddy/icy mountainside.
Distinguishing bobcat from mountain lion is easy, at least for the adults of the two species: go by size! Under 2.25" diameter is likely bobcat; greater than 2.75" is likely mountain lion.
The two tracks we are seeing the most of are snowshoe hare...
Left to right (mobile: top to bottom): the meandering path of a snowshoe hare; older tracks show the commonly seen track pattern of undefined, large hind feet ahead of the small front feet; a tracking team examines a snowshoe hare trail along a log; detail of exceptionally clear hare tracks.
Similar to the snowshoe hare, the older squirrel tracks show the commonly seen track pattern of undefined, large hind feet ahead of the small front feet; detail of clear squirrel tracks.
The abundance of hare and squirrel is great news for the bobcat, whose tracks were found above, and the rest of our forest carnivores. The photos above show how similar these two animal's tracks are, both animals having bodies well-suited for bounding along, close to the ground. They can be difficult to discern from one another, but hare will be larger than a squirrel, and hare's tracks often have less definition due to the impressive amount of fur covering their pads and toes. Squirrel tracks are also more uniform and boxy - note how well the feet line up on the bottom set of squirrel photos, compared to the more staggered landing of the hare's front feet.
In our forest, we have two kinds of non-hibernating squirrels: the Northern flying squirrel and the Douglas squirrel. However, it is difficult to tell their tracks apart. One way to tell? If you can follow the trail to the start, there will be a "landing strip" where the flying squirrel hit the ground. If you have clear enough tracks, you may be able to tell that the 5th toe on the hind foot (the "pinky toe") is almost as long as any other toe - that's a flying squirrel, too. Read more squirrel track analysis by David Moskowitz.
Whether in town or on the mountain, we hope to see you soon!
Our summer season is winding down, but this time of year is when things really start to heat up for us at Cascadia Wild! Like our friends in the forest, we are busy gathering all our resources together to ensure a great winter survey season.
We have several upcoming classes, including classes in wildlife tracking for every skill level - don't miss out on our Pressure Releases class December 7 and 8th! - and classes in ornithology and our Naturalist Training Program - see our full list of offerings here: About Our Classes.
This hope of their return is what started the Wolverine Tracking Project, and though the project has grown to incorporate other wildlife, the hope is still alive today. Join us this winter as we continue our search for wolverine and document other rare carnivores like gray wolf, Sierra Nevada red fox, and Pacific marten. Our Winter Tracking Surveys, done by snowshoe in small groups and led by 1-2 experienced Tracking Leaders, start in December, and training has already begun. Training dates are filling up quickly, so register here soon: Join a Tracking Team. A big thank you to those who have already signed up!
Our Camera Surveys also collect abundant wildlife data and operate year-round. We have just completed our Winter Camera Survey orientations, and we are excited about all the new volunteers that have joined us and to see so many returning faces!
We have set up our first winter cameras, and as of this past weekend, all our summer cameras have either been taken down or reset for winter, when we use different bait and have different installation procedures. It will be a few weeks before we have footage back from the winter sites, but in the meantime, summer footage is still rolling in. We have a lot of summer footage to catch up on, so here it goes!
Perhaps the most exciting news from the past several weeks is the detection of Sierra Nevada red fox!
A Sierra Nevada red fox inspects the camera and smells then rolls in the commercial scent bait at one of our high elevation sites. See the full video here.
Though this site was only up for 5 weeks, we had two separate visits from our target species Vulpes vulpes necator - one of the most rare mammals in North America, and an uncommon sight at our summer cameras! We have been operating under the hypothesis that we see this high-mountain fox at our cameras more frequently in the winter because they are drawn in more by the type of bait we use: in summer months we use commercial, scent bait; in the winter we use an eco-friendly meat bait. However, given this detection, we are now considering that perhaps elevation is key. It's possible that these foxes are only at higher elevations in the summertime, living off the ample mice and golden mantled ground squirrels (see below) on these more barren slopes, following food sources down the mountain as winter sets in. This is something to explore in coming seasons, and testifies to how little we know about this elusive animal.
A golden mantled ground squirrel forages and inspects the camera - hello!
We also saw quite a few rolling coyote as well. Like the fox above, not many canids can resist the urge to roll in some nice, stinky bait. Here are a couple sampling the potpourri of Hiawatha Valley Predator (one of our commercial scent baits):
Coyotes roll in commercial scent bait.
Coyotes can also be stoic. The lean and lanky look of this coyote indicates it could be a juvenile, but with its transitional coat it's hard to tell:
Compare to this coyote, who is a bit ahead of the game with its bushy winter coat:
The red coloration of this coyote is remarkable, and it's suitable camouflage for the pine needles on the ground. Coyotes can be difficult to discern from other canids, like foxes and wolves, especially when they have coloring like this. One giveaway is the tail: coyotes most often have a dark tip on their tail, while red foxes often have a white-tip on their slightly more bushy tail. Though it should be noted that gray foxes, who are rare on our mountain but more common to the south, also have dark-tipped tails, and coyotes can even sometimes have white-tipped tails, so it's best to take in other visual clues to their identification. Another clue: the ears are long and pointed on a coyote, but a fox has more rounded ears (see the photo of Sierra Nevada red fox above for a great ear-comparison). Compared to a wolf, coyotes are smaller, have slender faces with narrower snouts, their legs are more long and thin, and they walk more closely to the ground.
This site detected several instances of coyote, including a couple instances where the coyote was carrying prey!
We also had another instance detecting a lucky animal with its dinner:
This bobcat is carrying what is could be a gray squirrel, not unlike a squirrel seen at the same site just a couple weeks prior. However, with striped skunk also in the area, anything is fair game!
We also detected a bobcat doing something we don't often see: rolling in the bait!
This is a trait much more commonly seen with canids, like the ones above, and is the first time our cameras have caught this from a felid. The reasons behind a cat doing this are likely the same as a dog: to relieve itchy backs, disguise their scent, an/or cover themselves in something that smells so good.
We also caught a few instances of bobcats scent marking trees, like this one:
And we got to see some photos taken in the daytime, really showing off their distinct markings:
Most of our footage of mountain lions is also at night, but we detect them during the day from time to time, and caught some beautiful shots at one of our eastern sites:
We also detected several instances of another of our common forest predators, the black bear:
This bear, not a strict carnivore by any means, is likely foraging in the vegetation. Like most other animals right now, bears are busy gathering their winter stores. Whereas squirrels stash their stores, bears carry their stores with them.
Bears are thoroughly inquisitive, curious animals, and often spend a good deal of time inspecting sites, like this one seen here smelling both our bait area and the camera.
A bear inspects the bait log and the wildlife camera. See the full video here.
One of our summer sites used meat bait, and this was a very popular attractant for the neighborhood bears.
One instance the bear went after the bait, another instance the bear gave up and instead had a good scratch, and a third instance the bear forewent the bait entirely and climbed the tree. Whether the bear climbed the tree to get a better vantage point or was spooked by something in the area, is hard to say. It's possible it could have been spooked by one of the several cattle wandering through these woods:
These cows were also interested in the bait. In the second photo, the lighter cow is holding its mouth open in what is called a Flehmen response - something we haven't seen yet this summer but is common in ungulates like cows, deer, and elk, as well as in felids and bears. This is when an animal curls back its lips and breathes into its mouth, holding the air behind its teeth to better smell an area (read more about Flehmen response here).
The bait was also a strong attractant for a family of deer, the youngest still with their summer spots.
We saw deer at several of our other sites as well, like these two young bucks enjoying some early snow:
Given the antler and overall compact size of these two, and given that their muscle development does not seem mature (compare overall size and especially neck thickness with the buck below), it is likely that these gents are yearlings. Yearlings will also often travel in bachelor groups of two. While there may be additional deer we do not detect outside of the camera's field of view, a group of two would also support this age guess.
For family Cervidae, this is a busy time of year: rut, or mating, season. The soft velvet of buck antlers has been shed, and the hardened antlers are now being put to use.
Generally, the rut for black tailed deer begins in the first week or two of November, though that timing can vary due to a number of factors, including a cooler season, early snow, changes in food resources, or the individual. You can see that the buck above has one antler smaller than the other, which could be due to a growth abnormality or a sign of an early season sparring match with another buck.
For elk, we have passed the peak of rut in Oregon, but it's not uncommon for a second or third rut "wave" to happen around this time of year. Not long after seeing this cow - or female elk - and her calf, we saw the mature bull elk pictured below:
It's not hard to imagine that this bull is covering a lot of territory right now, searching for a mate. If you hear something like this while you're out in the woods, there are elk around! While male elk will bugle year-round, it is especially common during rut.
We hope you all are staying warm and having good luck readying your own winter stores while enjoying the changing of the seasons. Until next time!
Mt Hood from one of our high elevation summer cameras, in early October.
Our previous blog post has been corrected to account for an error: a turkey vulture was identified as a turkey! We thought it might be interesting to see a comparison of a turkey (left) with a turkey vulture (right):
Often, factors conspire to make identification difficult. We may only get one, blurry shot of an animal as it zips through a site, or high contrast lighting conditions can make things tricky. And, like comparing the Douglas and Western gray squirrels or rabbits and hares in low photo conditions, similarities can make an ID tricky. Both birds are equivalent size with bald, featherless heads. However, female or juvenile turkeys like the one above are easier to differentiate since they are more slender and upright than a turkey vulture - the long legs and neck and larger size also set turkeys apart from other ground birds like pheasant and grouse. Also note the characteristic speckled coloring of the turkey vulture. Another way to tell? The beak of each animal reflects its diet. Turkeys are foragers that feed off vegetation, insects, and sometimes even lizards and so have more slender beaks, while turkey vultures have sturdier beaks to suit their scavenger diet, one that includes insects, berries, and so on, too, but is primarily focused on carrion. While both birds are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, they each play different roles. Read more about turkey vultures and turkeys.