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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tracking in Rocky Mountain National Park

I had the opportunity to visit Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) around a business meeting I attended in Denver. When I arrived, the weather was sunny and 65F. On my final day, it was 5F and
Balmy November day at RMNP
Estes Park, CO (11/14)
had snowed during the night. My goal - dream really - was to get into the park early and drive the roads slowly to find a set of mountain lion tracks that cut the road. This is a common technique for finding tracks (and the cats themselves) but the fresh snow was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, anything I found would be absolutely recent (the nearest I could tell the snow had stopped around midnight), but on the other hand it meant that I would ONLY be finding tracks made in the last eight hours. That was going to make my task a long shot. Spoiler alert: I found no cat tracks. But I did have some interesting tracking experiences. Let me share two:

Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO (11/14)
I wasn't the first to make it into the park today, I was the third. I followed two sets of tire tracks from the park entrance and slowly made my way through the snowy winterland. A pair of coyote trails followed the road for a while and I kept one eye on the distinctive side trot pattern and the other eye on the fresh snow looking for other tracks (that leaves no eyes for the road for those of you counting...). Despite my scrutiny of the road shoulders, it was a scene in a field that caught my eye. As you can see in the photo, everything was covered in a fine powder so when I saw something that WASN'T white, it stood out immediately.


These elk trails in the grass were so obvious to me but I wonder how many similar scenes I had missed over the years when I was less attuned to wildlife sign. I pulled the rental car over and snapped a few photos:

Elk trails in the snow
RMNP (11/14)

The tracks were easy to find as they crossed the road. I took a tracking class a few years ago and David Moskowitz was one of the instructors. He is the author of Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest and describes elk tracks as hamburger buns. As a long time burger-eater, I concur:
Fresh elk tracks
RMNP (11/14)
Here is a photo of the trail:

One even scatted for me:

So I had the trails coming towards me and I had the fresh tracks on the road in front of me. All that was left was for me to look at the direction the traveled. Sure enough, I only had to lift my head to see elk.
Elk
RMNP 11/14)
Elk
RMNP, (11/14)
There were far more elk above me than the tracks indicated. I looked ahead on the road and found more tracks and more trails. The story was complete.
Elk trails in fresh snow
RMNP, (11/14)
There was something very satisfying about this whole encounter. Reading sign that in this case, was verified by the individuals themselves. It was a simple story of a common animal, but I relished it nonetheless.:)

My second tracking story is more of a mystery. After driving the roads I layered up against the cold and started on a hike up Deer Mountain. The summit was a mere 3.1 miles away with a vertical gain of 1,080 feet. I was the only car parked at the trailhead. I brought the small lens instead of the telephoto as I was going to primarily take photos of wildlife tracks and sign. I spotted a nice variety of tracks including long-tailed weasel, elk, mule deer, snowshoe hare, mountain cottontail, chipmunk sp, red squirrel and perhaps one or two others that I have forgotten.

Here is a nice mule deer track to compare to the elk tracks above Not only are they smaller in size, but they are a different shape. Gone is the hamburger bun, replaced by a heart.
Mule deer track
RMNP, (11/14)
I enjoyed the solitude and the view. The trail switchbacked up into a sparse pine forest.
Deer Mountain Trail
RMNP (11/14)
Selfie
RMNP, (11/14)
As I neared the summit, I saw a snow-covered shape in the trail. My first thought was "That rock looks just like a rabbit." My second thought: "That is a rabbit."
Dead mountain or Nuttall's cottontail
RMNP, (11/14)
I cautiously brushed off some snow and saw that it had been killed by a wound to the throat. Weasels are known for that type of kill. Some of the flesh was eaten, but i will save you from the gruesome photos.
RMNP, (11/14)
Cause of death was a bite to the throat
RMNP, (11/14)
One member of the weasel family that could be a suspect here is the marten (Martes americanus). Here is a video I found of a marten killing a rabbit. But I had not seen any marten tracks. I HAD found long-tailed weasel tracks. Twice along this trail. The lack of blood would also be indicative of this weasel as they are known to lick up the blood from a kill. I am not certain the l-t weasel was the culprit, but since the snow had covered up the evidence, I was free to speculate and move on. So I did. And I only took a few steps when I noticed that the snow had not erased ALL the evidence. Look here:

This is a terrible photo looking back towards the dead rabbit. I wasn't paying attention to proper exposure, tricky when taking photos of snow. But if you look down the center of the photo, you can see that there is a trough under the snow. A furrow that had been snowed over, as if the rabbit had been dragged to its present location. Still can't see it? It runs the length of the photo, pretty much in the center. Let me try to darken the photo and see if that helps...














Well, on my monitor I can see the drag mark now. Here is another that I had to darken as well:


Here you can see rabbit tracks emerging from the left side of the photo and the start of the drag on the right side leading to the bottom right corner. I believe this is where the rabbit was killed. Could a long-tailed weasel drag a mountain cottontail 20 yards? Maybe. It was dragged downhill and there was a coating of snow present to help reduce friction. The fresh snow made it impossible to tell the whole story. But I enjoyed trying to puzzle it out. I left the rabbit where I found it. I wonder what the next hiker will find.