the other week during a wander with my friend and mentor Jim Sullivan (see his website and tracking class offerings here) – an amazing tracker, naturalist, and all-around brilliant fella – and other great trackers like Ginger; we had a suburb opportunity to see some canine species’ track diversity laid out before us. it’s not often you get to see four canine species’ tracks together in decent substrate. identifying the differences between them can often be very challenging, so any chance to see any of their trails, also in varying substrates, is incredibly illuminating. to get to see all of them in one day avails an incredible study opportunity.
coyote vs red fox vs gray fox vs domestic dog – it is a study that is always ongoing for me, especially with partial tracks and trails. these species don’t always overlap geographically, and even if they do, often their seasonal movement patterns don’t overlap in such a way that you can see their tracks together, especially in one day. sometimes it is very obvious the difference, but sometimes it can be confusing given the right circumstances.
red fox (R) and western coyote track (L) / track plates copyright Mark Elbrock’s book
the red fox tracks we found were on the small end of the spectrum – there was some debate about id due to the size. it was at the small end of the red fox size spectrum (and at the large end of the spectrum for gray fox), especially upon initial (eye-ball) inspection. but further analysis (and healthy, civil debate among accomplished trackers) left us concluding red fox. context, the full trail, and multiple tracks often help in track id. actually it’s often about context. having the chance to see full trails, and the way the tracks vary within each substrate, really help in honing the ability to discern one species from the other in the future when there is only a partial track or trail.
drawing and journaling is a great way to solidify the memory of ideas and patterns in the ol’ brain.
What an absolutely amazing place – the Oregon / Cali border, specifically the Klamath Basin area. I did my own version of a takeover of a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon the past two days, but it was all peaceful, and I think much more exciting.
One of the especially amazing sites from my trip … just your typical scenario of a coyote and a golden eagle randomly next to each other (story to follow soon):
The quantity and diversity of raptors found in this one area during the winter is astounding!
Happy New Year – more pictures and details on this trip coming soon …
Beautiful day out by Salmon Creek in Sonoma County – a bit of sun before the marine layer rolled in thick like a fluffy down comforter over the beaches and dunes. Lots of red and gray fox track and sign, even more striped skunk track and sign. Almost no new rabbit sign. I’m beginning to think that perhaps the area is like an animal beach-condo timeshare – evidently the skunks have it this time of year and the rabbits are vacationing elsewhere.
This red-tailed hawk has some really interesting plumage, it reminds me of a bird I saw once in the high desert in Washington. You can see there is tan mixed in with the brown and white on the back, and its head and especially neck feathers are really light. Beautiful bird, very striking.
This osprey and I were able to see eye-to-eye today on composing this photo. Much appreciated! Their eyes are HUGE compared to the rest of their head.
We watched a coyote hunting from across the creek for quite some time, it seemed to be stalking through the high grass, occasionally stopping to dig or pounce. Sometimes it would get really excited and stand with its ears facing the ground, while its tail whirled around like a helicopter blade behind it! It made a short trip to the waters edge, but all the water fowl were already tuned-in to its presence. A doe and two fawns watched it with interest from within 50 feet – the coyote didn’t even give them a look. Rodents and insects seemed to be on the menu today. So fun to watch this guy hunt!
We had quite a few nice red fox trails to study today, this is a good example of a classic red fox track (front foot on the bottom). The diagnostic “bar” in the metacarpal pad of the front foot is very evident in this track – it’s not always clear, but if it is it can be one helpful sign (of many) to differentiate red fox tracks from coyote tracks.
I didn’t get a picture, but we observed what we believed to be two or three pomarine jaegers (a type of flying sea bird) offshore attacking some elegant terns out at an area where many birds were feeding. It was my first sighting of this species, and evidently it’s uncommon to see them from shore (usually they are seen from boats further out to sea). There were quite a few dead murres along the beach, these are also ocean-going birds, but curiously they come onshore almost exclusively to die. Often people see these birds on the beach and try to save them, not realizing that they are already doomed. Many a kind-hearted person has been confused and heart-broken trying to help these birds. I photographed one last year down towards Moss Landing near Monterey. They look a bit like penguins when they are sitting or moving out of the water.
Down on the beach there was a large flock of marbled godwits feeding in the surf line, using their long beaks to probe in the sand for crustaceans – occasionally they would flush and fly down the beach all together.
Great day out on the coast, very thankful to live close by to such natural beauty.
One of my favorite times of year – things are shifting! The patterns are changing all over, some more subtle than others. I’m hearing and seeing new birds as they pass through on their way south, and the resident birds and animals are starting to shift their patterns as well. Fox squirrels seem to be everywhere I turn, busy running and gathering. The mornings are sunny and there’s a slight crispness in the air starting to build, almost a bit electric. The light has a softness to it, despite the heat that today was above 90 deg F in the immediate Bay Area. Not easy weather, to, um, weather, for a landscape already parched with drought. Even the winds have gone elsewhere, allowing a degree of peace to settle over the stressed landscape. Sitting still I can hear bugs crawling through the leaves, and the occasional falling leaf even makes a sound as it falls through the dry undergrowth to join its crunchy fallen partners on the ground, who are now having the chance to use their voice – while not drowned out by Wind – to announce Coyote or Deer moving nearby. So fun!
Things are incredibly dry here – you can read about it all over in the news, worst drought in over a century and possibly since settlers have been keeping records here. But, to really understand it all one needs to do is to go out to FEEL it and see it yourself. Springs and creeks are dry. The evergreen trees, such as the live oaks, are even losing some of their leaves (which I understand is a drought response tactic to minimize moisture loss). Many of the under story leaves and any leaves not at the top of the tree or on the exteriors have fallen away, to varying degrees, depending on the location of the trees. I’m able to see wood rat nests high up in canopies that were very difficult to see before. Even the California buckeyes, who are some of the first obvious beacons of autumn since they lose their leaves before most other deciduous trees, have been bare for weeks in some locations. Redwoods and cedars are looking wilted and brown. Even the non-native eucalytpus trees look scraggly. A fine dust encapsulates many of the leaves, and the hillsides are painted brown with wilted grasses.
I’m happy to report that I’m doing my best to help conserve water – infrequent showers, I don’t clean my bathroom, and I occasionally drink distilled beverages instead of water (the distillation process releases water back into the atmosphere – that’s science). Little gestures, they add up.
One benefit of the trees being thinned out (if one wants to be a “glass half-full type of person” – though a water analogy is probably not appropriate here), is that there aren’t many places for a large bird to hide. Until about two weeks ago, I was seeing with some regularity a family of Cooper’s hawks hanging in one particular area. I thought it was interesting that they were all still together this late in the season – the migration has begun for many birds already. The first day that I saw them, about three weeks ago, two juveniles suddenly appeared indiscreetly in the branches 20 feet above my head, crashing around either chasing each other or chasing potential prey (a bird). They finally settled into the interior live oaks next to me, and soon were joined by an adult. A few days later, I saw the same trio in a nearby tree near sunset. I don’t know much about these hawks’ chick-rearing patterns, but I couldn’t help but wonder if these hawks stay around parents longer than some other raptor species to learn from them. It could be a late nest, but it seems extremely late if so. Cooper’s hawks (and sharp-shinned hawks, their mini look-alikes) often tandem hunt in pairs, one flushing birds as the other wake hunts and catches them. Could it be that this is a learned behavior?
Of course I must mention the owls.
This gal has been very visible the last few nights in her “typical” spot, though it’s been a number of months since I’ve seen her with regularity. The male and the female do not seem to be together much this time of year, and I am convinced the male is roosting in a grove of trees about 1/2 mile away from the spot the females frequents, an area that seems to be their core area during mating season. She let me watch her as she was waking up two nights ago, doing some preening and stretching, then she hit “snooze” for a bit after she placed a hex on someone or something evidently right behind me …
This photo was interesting, I wish I could have gotten both birds in focus – do you see it?
Hummingbird came in to scold the owl! It hung around for a minute or so, just behind the owl.
The next night, I wandered without my camera but was excited to get to spend some time with the female owl again. After she flew off to look for breakfast, I followed her out a path under the fading light of the sun that had already disappeared behind the mountains to the west. As I was about to crest a hill and descend into a small valley, another raptor caught my eye – juvenile cooper’s hawk! Likely one of the juveniles from the trio described earlier, though I didn’t see any of the others. This young one did some flights through some small oaks attempting to scare up some birds from their night perch, then having failed to get any takers, it landed on an old wood fence post and began to vocalize repeatedly – in what felt to me like frustration and irritation. It’s not easy being a young raptor (many species up to 70% don’t survive their first year). The young one made another attempt, alighted on a high tree nearby, then took off after three flying birds (who were not keen on the company).
As it finally flew off, I heard some coyotes howling just beneath me! I silently walked in that direction – then … crunching! Coming my way! I froze, and sure enough one, then another, then another appeared in the fading light. They didn’t seem to see me (or maybe they just didn’t care), once they all were in line together they trotted with purpose to the south to start their nightly excursions.
Last sounds I heard were the crickets calling as I walked through the “portal,” and the sound of cars from the highway took over the soothing sounds of nature. I’m so grateful for the parks that we have here in the Bay Area, like many of the creatures around, I wouldn’t survive here without them.
this coyote was either jumped out of a resting spot by the lakes or it was hunting along the banks. we saw several flushes of water fowl on the lake while we were there, one of which put 1000’s of white-fronted geese off the water and into the skies in numbers that were impressive to behold. that flush was likely not the coyote, but an aerial predator like a bald eagle or a peregrine falcon. the coyote flushed a smaller number of birds close to shore, then, once the coyote came close to us, it started to lope at a fast pace – occasionally looking back at us as if to say “I’m not scared of you, this is my place.” they can move with such grace and speed, effortlessly its seems.
after it crossed the pond in front of us onto our side of the shoreline, it stopped to mark (urinate) while staring at us – then bounded into some high grass. quite a treat to see, and this one had some real attitude.
I’m getting to know the pack a little better, there are quite a few in this regional park just five minutes from my house. Not only that, there is apparently a ferruginous hawk overwintering in one of the more remote valleys, along with many red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls. And I finally saw some fresh bobcat sign – I was starting to wonder if this park needed to be renamed Coyote Canyon.
This drought is brutal – but, looking at the positive side, I was able to wander until well after sunset comfortably with just a t-shirt on. Well, and pants too. The views from on high in that park are spectacular, with single views spanning San Fran, GG Bridge, Mt Tam, San Fran Bay, San Pablo Bay and lots of the East Bay.
I came upon a new pair of coyotes today, and before we all saw each other, one of them started howling about 20 yards from me – at which point the valley I was in erupted with at least half a dozen answering howls, as well as some in adjacent valleys nearby. The pair was very surprised by my presence when we finally bumped into each other – it’s a relatively remote spot in the park.
Hopefully I’ll have some more pictures soon.
A few days ago I spent a late afternoon in Briones East Bay Regional Park, a large expanse of mixed-use wooded/grazing land just over the hills from the East Bay. I knew it was going to be a good couple of hours when I spotted a hatch year (juvenile) bald eagle right after getting out of my jeep.
The eagle lazily circled and started to track south, and a few of the local resident red-tailed hawks went up to “usher it” onward and away from their territory.
My wandering quickly took me off the trail, onto a trail only known to my feet beneath me and the heart in my chest. My feet walked, climbed and scrambled up higher and higher onto a ridge line. I suppose I’m always looking for pumas and puma sign, and it seemed to be a likely starting point to find it. Once I was up on one of the highest peaks in the immediate area, there was a bit of a flat wooded area that I started to explore.
As I was quietly coming up a saddle from the main flat area down towards another little flat area, I saw a few young steer that started to move away from me – unused to seeing a person up there, I imagine. Also unused to seeing a person up there was the coyote that I just caught a glimpse of as it left its resting spot at the top of the saddle and slipped over the hill top out of sight, just 25 feet from me. I decided to have a little bit of fun with it, so I dropped down off the saddle towards a ravine that was thick with bay laurel trees and some oaks. I could hear the coyote moving there just out of sight below me as it trotted and paused in the crunchy dead leaf hubris of the forest floor, and for some reason I decided to give a short little bark. It was an earnest attempt to connect with this other being, not much thought went into it other than a deep desire to say hello.
What happened next was a 15 minute exchange of the two of us “talking” back and forth and checking each other out from a distance. At first I think the coyote wasn’t quite sure what I was (manimal?!!!). Below is a short recording of one of our exchanges. The coyote was probably within 25 yards of me the entire time, until some other hikers started to come up into the area after hearing the noise and the coyote departed. My voice is the short yip initiating the “conversation,” followed by the coyote and then us alternating.
It seemed as if it was alone, and I was very grateful to get to spend some time with it that evening. After scouting around I found an old deer kill, but otherwise I found no reason for the coyote to be so curious or possibly defensive. It’s probably too early for a den to be active with pups in January.
After watching the sunset perched underneath an oak that was sitting on high hill by itself, I followed a ridge line down into the valleys towards my vehicle. After hearing a pair of great-horned owls hooting right as the sun set, I was on the lookout – and they didn’t disappoint. As I approached the parking lot, one of them flew nearby and landed on an old fence post, surveying the encroaching dark for its breakfast.