Two walks this week. On Wednesday the sky was blue and the snow sparkling, tracks everywhere. At the bottom of a gully I spotted dark patches in the snow which turned out to be clumps of long, dark, coarse hair, 6-9″ long. I dug in the snow and found more long hair at different depths and also a few bunches of shorter, softer, 1.5″ long. The canyon was narrow and rocky and there were no deer tracks nearby but plenty of coyote tracks, so my guess is that a coyote dragged a piece of deer here for a meal, eating it while it was snowing and enough days ago that the snow had time to transform a bit.
The sumac bushes were also just beginning to bud, terminal growth on the ends of branches that otherwise are bare. An encouraging sign of growth in the middle of winter.
Continuing on the coyote theme, I decided to follow a set of tracks just to see where this particular canine had gone. It struck me how similar the trail was to a meandering stream, complete with oxbows and waterfalls and eddies. Perhaps there was a destination in mind, but clearly this animal was more concerned with what was happening at the moment than about getting somewhere else. I tried to keep track of where the animal stopped, sped up, or turned around, following the action and for a while sharing the trail, in a way, with another.
I turned off of the coyote trail to check out a favorite canyon, one where a pond has collected to sustain cattails and water skippers even in the dry seasons. Lots of small mammal tracks here, so I decided to put my reference book to use and test myself on identification. I spent about ten minutes taking measurements, making sketches, looking for scat and nests, and generally absorbing myself in the research. I’m pretty sure this was a deer mouse–the measurements were correct and there was significant tail drag–or at least that was the closest thing it resembled in the book. Pleased with my observational skills, I stood up and stretched and was immediately startled by a an owl taking off from a tree about 20 feet away. Had it been there the whole time, tracking me? I had just walked under that tree ten minutes before. So much for observational skills. I’m almost certain this was a short-eared owl. Certainly not a great horned but I didn’t see any ear tufts, so probably not a long-eared owl, either. And last year in this same spot there were two short-eared owls, I hope with a nest. So I’ll keep an eye on the area (though not too often, don’t want to chase them away). Exciting developments!
The last adventure of the day was complements of a herd of pronghorn. I crested a hill and spotted about twenty of them grazing. They either didn’t see me or were not concerned and let me get as close as I ever have to a pronghorn. When they finally spooked, they flew over the snow just like a flock of birds–more starlings or blackbirds than geese–moving as a group and floating back and forth, sometimes turning a complete 180, and often changing their speed. Only stopped at a fence, they took turns ducking under the barbed wire and then continued running. What a beautiful sight, especially with the sparkly snow as a background.
Later in the week there was a full-moon hike, during which we talked about the subnivean world of rodents and determined the age of the tracks we came across. There were two packs of coyotes that yipped and howled just after the moon rose. Even a few owls were heard. And of course the moon was beautiful (photo below by Carolyn Jones).
An active week, the prairie enjoying the almost constant snowcover of this winter. Note: more photos at our facebook fan page, just search for “Rim Country.”