Sunday, January 27, 2008

Holiday Exploration

On Monday afternoon I went up the middle fork of the Snoqualmie to do a little exploration. It's been awhile since I've just done some good wandering so I thought that's what I would do.

As it turned out I ended up doing quite a bit of tracking as well, but that's okay. It had been cool and clear for a couple of days and there was still an inch or three of crunchy snow on the ground. As I drove along I kept an eye out for things of interest, finally stopping where I saw some largish round tracks going off into the bushes. A cougar? The tracks weren't particularly clear, but as I saw more of them I think it was more likely a dog. However there was a ton of bobcat tracks back there. It was hard to be sure, but it looked like maybe a couple of different individuals - perhaps a breeding pair, though I didn't notice anything conclusively indicating interaction between the sets of tracks. I did see some interaction between the tracks of a bobcat and a hare though. The bobcat had taken several powerful strides, right in line with a bounding hare, but it appeared that the hare got away without too much difficulty.

After exploring that area I continued on down the road and stopped off at a place I had gone before with the tracking intensive. Downhill from the side of the road is a little creek and some marshy and wooded areas. I saw some more bobcat tracks on the near side of the creek, but none on the other side. For quite awhile the only tracks I saw were some mostly buried deer tracks - until I heard some loud crunching up ahead. I looked up and saw an elk looking at me, then turn tail and head off. I didn't notice any antlers so I think it was a cow. I went over and investigated - it appeared to have been coming in my direction until it saw me and headed back more or less the way it came. The snow was quite loud so it must have heard me well before it saw me. I guess it wanted to see what I was before deciding what to do.

I didn't want to follow it very closely because I didn't want to cause undo stress for it in the winter season. I would have liked to just back trail it, but since the fore trail and back trail were the same direction, I just slowly followed it looking to see what it had been doing. I saw a couple of places where it had browsed some brush (though I don't remember what kind of shrub it was). Then I heard some more crunching across another branch of the creek. I looked over and saw another elk looking at me. This time I think it was a bull. It was a hard to be sure though with such a brief glance and looking through a lot of branches. I stood still and watched for awhile and heard a lot of walking one direction and the other. I had thought that it was the elk going back and forth, perhaps not too worried about me across the creek, but it may have been that there were several elk up there going in different directions.

Since I had been thinking it was a single elk I thought it might still be up there, so after a while I slowly crossed the stream (on a log) and carefully approached where I could get a better view, but the elk were gone by the time I was in a position to see much more. Since it was getting towards dusk I wandered back to the truck - once hearing another elk off to the side.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mole Tracks!

Tracking club was very wet yesterday. Out at the sandbar a lot of our tracks were being quickly worn away as we studied them. Still it was a good day there - we found many species with some nice clear tracks (at least before it started raining). Our group was small and with the rain we decided to go somewhat quickly through the tracks there and then stop under the bridge on our way back.

While we were looking for tracking stations before tracking club got started we noticed some mole hills and tunnels. The story in our tracking community seems to be that protruding tunnels = coast moles (Scapanus orarius) and large mounds = townsend moles (Scapanus townsendii). Sometimes we find areas where there are several mounds and tunnels. What then? This is a subject that probably needs some more investigation.

Anyway as we were driving down to the bridge Dave and I discussed this a bit as well as about finding mole tracks. Apparently the spring dispersal is a decent time to find mole tracks as they are kicked out of their homes by mom and have to go find someplace new. It is a bit early in the year for that though. However, as I was looking at tracks under the bridge I noticed a pattern that seemed similar to what I had heard described and had seen pictures of as mole tracks (I had never seen them in person). Excited, I called over a couple other station leaders to confirm and all were surprised and in agreement that they were indeed mole tracks.

I haven't found much in the literature about differentiating moles by their tracks, so I don't have any good idea which species it is. One possibility I've thought of (though I have no idea if it is at all reasonable) is that the mole was out for the breeding season. Peterson's Field Guide for mammals says that male coast moles are in breeding condition in late January and townsend moles in February. Based on those dates if my theory is true it would seem to be a coast mole. However those dates are not too far apart and I would expect there to be a lot of regional and year to year variation in breeding dates.

(You should be able to see the tracks a lot better in the first and last picture if you click to enlarge them.)