Melissa and I just got to trail a Cougar — in our own backyard!
Words can not describe how grateful and jazzed up I am right now… Heart beating out of my chest, adrenaline flowing, senses on alert, fully alive, forgot to eat or drink water for a number of hours.
This was the furthest I have trailed any animal in a while and the fact that it was that charismatic megafauna Puma concolor makes it all the more exciting! The fact that a Cougar was sitting a just a 30 second walk from the front door gnawing on an entire Mule deer is enough to raise anyone’s awareness.
More on that in a minute. But the purpose of this week’s blog is to talk about the aspect of Wildlife Tracking that gets me super excited: TRAILING! There is definitely much to learn and a lot to be said for spending a copious of time with a single track. I have Tracker friends who can spend hours, observing, measuring, drawing and examining that fresh fossil. But personally I don’t always get excited about staying in one place — I have a lot of energy and I love to move! So given the opportunity to follow an animals tracks for a stretch, I can get very motivated about tracking. Besides mud and sand, there is nothing I know that beats a fresh coating of snow to capture many tracks of an elusive creature in the wild.
When I was a student at Wilderness Awareness School’s Anake Outdoor School (then called the Residential Program) I had my first real experience trailing an animal for an extended time. We were on an expedition to the Oregon Dunes out along OR’s quiet coast specifically to immerse ourselves in tracking. This is an amazing environment where miles and miles of uninterrupted sand dunes stretch out through beautiful riparian zones out to the Pacific Ocean. Many fires were sparked for me that week and I have plenty of stories to share, but the one that comes to mind was when my small clan trailed a mystery animal for literally MILES across sandy terrain.
This creature had elongated feet about 2” or 3” long, with little pockmarks in the tracks and long claw-marks showing out beyond the toes. Our friend seemed to walk in a zig-zag pattern whilst occasionally dragging their tail a little bit behind with a jaunty sway. It seemed to walk directly across the desert-like landscape not paying any mind to large predators that might want something tasty for breakfast. The only times they stopped were to deposit a bright, smelly bit of urine to let all the wild things know they were there. The unabashed nature of this creature really got us thinking about what it could be. We needed to get into the mind of the animal. We started attempting to move in that zig-zag walking gait and tried to imitate as best as our monkey bodies could. I started thinking that if I were a small fleshy creature, I would probably be a little more nervous about Hawks flying by and snatching me out of the air for lunch or a Cougar leaping out of hiding to take me down.
Who could be so unafraid? Do we have Armadillos in Cascadia? Tortoises? Wild Boars? R.O.U.S? We all had many speculations and guesses about the trailblazer as we followed our mysterious line of tracks. At the end of the rainbow, the tracks descended to a thicket surrounding a MASSIVE Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis). Some of us endured the thorns and belly crawled through blackberry until the tracks ended at the tree. In many of the branches of the tree were cambium feeding signs where it looked like a Beaver had sat in the branches nibbling the nutritious layer of inner bark. At this point after journaling and discussion and consultation of the field guides, we determined that our friend was none other then Erethizon dorsatum, or the Common Porcupine. Since that day, I have always felt akin to the Porcupine.
Back to Bellingham and the present tense. After the snow fell the night before until about 1am, Melissa and I woke up super early like kids on Christmas morning, bundled up and went out tracking in the forest. We had a beautiful wander but didn’t see many tracks besides Chickarees, Junco, and Thrushes. Later that day as the afternoon was winding down, I decided to head out to my Sit Spot. I took a different route then usually and got distracted by a deer trail in the snow… I followed that down for a while through the woods until it kept going towards the neighbors farther and farther away from the house. So I turned and wandered towards the general direction of my Sit Spot and noticed a beautiful track down by the creek. It had 5 long bulbous fingers with sharp claws. I had seen these tracks many times before by the looked different in the snow. (I actually just read today in Mark Elbroch’s excellent Mammal Tracks & Sign book that certain Animals change their typical gate in the snow - for example the Raccoon usually walks in 2x2 pattern but in snow tends to do more of a direct register walk). So I got sidetracked again as I followed the Raccoon’s trail for a while until it disappeared in into a massive tangle of Salal that I could not squees myself into. So an hour later I finally made it to my spot that is only 20 or 30 yards from the house.
The next day Melissa and I need a computer break and it was gorgeous out so we took a lunch walk down to the water. On the way home, we took the back way which cuts off the major trail through a little spur trail in the woods. Not even two steps onto the trail I noticed a large fresh track in the snow with 4 toes and a thick M-shaped heel pad. The track was kind of asymmetrical and there were 3 lobes at the heel side the large pad. I noticed the toes were either pointed like teardrops or had claws showing. I excitedly pointed them out to Melissa as potential Puma tracks - she cautioned that it could be a Domestic Dog. Many people do walk their dogs along that trail and the tracks of a large D.D. can be mistaken for Cougar tracks. Sometimes if we really want to see a track or an animal we can trick ourselves by magically turning a track into what we want to see. I wanted to see a Cougar. Right next to the mystery tracks were the tracks of a human in boots. So I conceded that maybe it was just a big dog out for a walk with its owner…
About 20 paces in the human tracks kept going and the other tracks veered off to the left to check out a log… The tracks pressed into the log were pretty clear — it WAS a Cougar! Besides the fact that it had hopped up to a log, (how many large dogs have you seen do this?) I could clearly see the two lobes on the leading edge of the heel pad and 3 lobes on the back. The beautiful teardrop shaped toes with one leading toe on each footprint. As the man walked up the trail, the cougar climbed up the ridge and walked along a log to get a better look of the area. We followed along as best we could. Steep sections where the big cat move effortlessly and with grace found us awkwardly clambering up rock walks hoping a handful of sword fern bases were enough to support my weight. Luckily the trail followed an easier grade from there. We followed this trail breathlessly for hours (taking turns scanning the trees as Cougars love to climb and occasionally hunt from Trees) following hundreds if not thousands of steps where a cougar had walked just hours before. Adding to our excitement was that the trail followed our property line on a trail I had cut and came within sight of the house.
There where many sections where the cougar methodically walked with its slight overstep, the hind foot landing just beyond the larger front paw. In other places, we watched in our mind’s eyes while the cougar hopped up on logs and down off again, crawled under logs, sat and had a nap or watched for approaching prey. There were spots where the cougar had scraped debris into a mound and urinated and/or scatted on it. This sends a message to any other cougars in the area. Was this fellow possibly sending a territorial message or advertising for a mate?
By far the coolest (and most hair-raising thing) we found was a kill or cache site along the route. There was a large scape (approx. 40in across!) under a young cedar tree. On the edge of the scrape were some mangled and bloody (but generally stripped clean) deer bones and fur and some large piles of sticks. At the edge of all of this was what appeared to be a very large yellowish urine stain about 2 feet by 1 foot. (I later though this was poop and now think it might be the contents of the deer’s stomach. Apparently Cougars don't like a side salad.) We both got very on edge at this place and felt the need not to linger even though we didn’t think the animal was close at the moment. I have since set up a remote camera on the area, really hoping the cougar rolls back through and we get to see it feeding on the video! I am honestly not sure if there is more of the deer buried under those piles and our friend will be returning for leftovers. I do know that I will be just a little bit more aware and on edge as I walk the land, especially around those dawn and dusk hours. On this particular evening we followed the trail as far as we could until it was almost dark, we found an hours old scat and heard a mass of bird alarms calling. Not wanting the be the ones being trailed, we called it a day and went back inside happy and giddy and hungry and fully alive!
I am immensely grateful for the snow that showed us the tracks and the land that supports such wildness. Top predators like the Cougar and Grey Wolf and Grizzly Bear are remarkably important to the Ecosystem and I am have joy in my heart that all three roam the wilds of our State of WA. Being as important as they are we must find ways as humans to protect their habitat and keep them safe and live in harmony with those beautiful beasts. Male Mountain Lions have a huge range close to 200 square miles so who knows when he will grace us with his presence again. Pumas do like to reuse the same trails, though, we will keep aware of his signs.
In other exciting news, Feather and Frond Forest School has a lot coming up here soon!
We are currently enrolling the Spring Session of both our Forest Kindergarten Program for 4-7 year olds and Homeschool Enrichment Program for 7-12 year olds. Forest Kindergarten is on Thursdays and starts March 2nd, Homeschool Enrichment Program is on Tuesdays and starts Feb 28th. Both programs are at Fairhaven Park. We have a few upcoming “No School Day” programs for the 7-12 year olds, “Scouting/Jedi Skills” on 2/20 at Whatcom Falls Park and “Survival Skills Day” 3/10 at Fairhaven. And we are also have spots left in our Spring Break Nature Camp, 4/3-7 at Cornwall Park.
To see more details and enroll your child in any program please visit featherandfrond.org.
In the meantime, Happy Trails To You!
Do you have any trailing stories to share? We would love to hear them!