Species Account: Mountain Lion Kill
This past week I’ve worked to pull together more bits and pieces to get my field journal in better shape before all the spring information starts coming in. What I’m finding is that I have much to add. I’ll be sharing more of the actual set-up soon, but one thing added recently are more species accounts. These are sections in my field journal for stories about specific species of plants and animals. One story comes from early in February of a Mountain Lion kill that happened about 400 yards from our house. It’s the first in a section created for Mountain Lion observations.
The journaling was written up on that day – writing things up right away is important as details get fuzzy rather quickly. I imagine there might be a few grammatical mistakes in there, but for now I’m not terribly concerned. I keep the writing in an InDesign file – and may also add in photos, but I thoroughly enjoy having a physical field journal. If there are mistakes that bug me, I’ll rework it at some point, but for now just make notes on it.
Wednesday 4 Feb 2015 – at home in Wapiti – My normal routine is to get up and take Rhad out while Mike sleeps in a bit longer. We are in predator country – with lots of prey – so I take along a firearm I’m familiar with and a flashlight. This morning, the wind was calm and I heard the Great Horned Owls hooting almost non-stop from a ridge up above us. An inch or two of snow that had fallen overnight helped to send that sound along. On our way in, I take a closer look at the track left by a mouse – who had just enough snow to stay covered, and popped out a couple of times.
As the day slowly lightened, I started to see the outline of the hills above us, then finally enough light to scan the wind-gnarled trees on the ridge where the owls sounded like they might be. Before I could scan all the trees, my attention was shifted to the coyote that had just come into view on that ridge, trotting along and occasionally stopping to try a jump on a mouse or vole. Soon a second one appeared. As this one approached, they moved along at a fast pace, their structure allowing them to nearly float along with an easy gait.
The deer near the house were attentive, and if Mike and I lost the coyotes’ location, the deer would point the way. Scanning the hillsides, we noticed a third one sitting near the top of a ridge, simply watching from above. Across the gully from this one sat another large dark dot – a Golden Eagle – that seemed about the same size as the sitting coyote. Again, we say, “those are huge birds.”
We kept watching the scene, and then notice quite a few birds near the bottom of the gully between the sitting coyote and eagle – mostly magpies, but also a raven or two…and then surprisingly, a second golden eagle rises and flies off. While we can’t see it directly from the living room, there’s a carcass there.
After getting ourselves ready for the day – the outing to see what we can see pushes us along. Soon we’re in the Jeep, to get the plowing done to a neighbor’s house who wants us to work to keep the road open to his place and conveniently takes us by the carcass. We stop in one spot and see the sagebrush is still hiding this cache. We wind our way up the hill and from above, we can see it’s a deer.
A short way farther, we see the unmistakable round holes of a mountain lion – each hole with a clearly defined paw print. It has followed – for the most part – the road we need to plow. I used my hand to generally measure the stride of the prints (as defined in James Halfpenny’s book, Scat and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains) were about 40” apart. Just over the ridge from the kill, where the pine trees grow in a more wind protected area, the tracks wander a bit. Perhaps this is where it paused for a bit to eat more of a portion taken. In one spot, where it took a shortcut to cut off a couple of curves in the road, it came down a steeper bank, sinking fairly deep into the mud as a heavy animal would.
At one point, we notice a second set of tracks heading the opposite direction, but following the cat tracks. We guess the coyote, but it also could have been a fox (still need to look up info on the difference in tracks) – finding an opportunity to scavenge what the mountain lion left.
As we plow farther along, the tracks continued east along the road in a steady pace. We finally reach the house where we turn around and head back again and decide to invite our friend Kevin along to check out the carcass. By late morning, we figure there shouldn’t be anything on the carcass – and as we pass through again where we can barely see it, we’re right.
We head in to do a couple of chores, and then meet up with our neighbor, Kevin, and head over. Walking along the hillside with enough snow to hide all the rocks I found myself carefully following Mike and Kevin’s tracks as I worked through this opportunity to practice my balance skills.
Arriving at the carcass, we see it was a doe and we start to figure out the crime scene. About 15 feet from the carcass is a spot clear of snow – we guess where she had bedded down. Her neck is torn open, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that was how she was taken down, but definitely a possibility. The internal organs are all gone except the stomach and intestines. The ‘top’ front shoulder and leg is missing (a closer look at the photos later on shows it there under the rib cage). The meat from the top (her left) side is pretty much gone. We had noticed the Golden eagles jumping up – likely trying to flip her over. (Gory photo #1 and Gory photo #2 – click on them if you want to see)
Around her are a myriad of bird tracks and wing prints in the snow. And a single line of cat tracks, well covered with snow heading up the gully. So that would mean the cat full from feeding headed to a spot to rest…we guessed probably just over the ridge where the pine trees are more numerous.
We spent about 10-15 minutes there, and then headed out. Throughout the day, we watched birds come and go – tons of Magpies, some ravens and 4 Golden eagles – likely the breeding pair and perhaps another breeding pair. We only saw one on the carcass at a time. A second often watched from the hillside above. Usually when one moved in on the carcass, the other moved out. Rarely did we every see two on it at any one time.
Mike measured the distance on the map to find the carcass was 382 yards away – we had guessed about 400 yards. Nice to know we’re fairly accurate on guessing distances. It’s a skill that can’t be practiced enough.
As the day wore on, we watched the deer and the birds, but no sign of the coyotes again or any other mammals on it. At last light, a group of three deer walked up far enough to see the carcass, perhaps paying their last respects to a family member, and then moved off to the east.
Note: A couple of days later when out with Rhad just before bedtime, Rhad stuck close to me and the hair stood up on my neck a few times. The cat was near and watching. Luckily no encounter with it, though.
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