January 12, 2012 at 12:07 PM

A Death in the Snow

"...we came to the clear scene of the action: a larger clump of feathers, a fresh rectangular divot in the snow, a few tiny blood droplets..."

By Karen Denison

At Home Outdoors

Karen Denison is owner of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing guide service, a former biologist, and a shameless admirer of the outdoors.

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A friend and I snowshoed yesterday on and off a less-used trail in the mountains. The snow was crusty and hard from the recent warm temperatures underneath a skiff of lighter, three-day-old softening powder ; not great for snowshoers, but perfect for tracking.  As we crunched along, we saw lots of tracks : old deer rambles from a week or more ago, the recent four-square bounces of squirrels making their way from tree to tree and the distinct furry-pawed, over-sized tracks of snowshoe hares.

We also knew that we were within the territory of a decently-sized bobcat.  Bobcats are very widespread across New Mexico and are able to make their homes from alpine to desert and even rural/sububan areas.  Many a graduate student has detailed bobcat territory through radio-collaring.  In New Mexico and elsewhere, studies show bobcats to be solitary (for most of the year) and to cover home territories between four to 15 square miles, depending on the terrain and richness of food supply within it.  That's a lot of walking for a 12-pound animal.  We saw multiple bobcat trails of varying age--probably a single bobcat walking its home territory several days apart.

We also saw coyote trails.  Once you've seen coyote tracks next to those of bobcat and domestic dogs, it seems pretty easy to distinguish them at a glance.  Coyotes cover their own large territories at a floating trot, investigating burrows and potential hidey-holes, moving with a purpose. The purpose, of course, is food.  As we shuffled along a 20-yard stretch of trail, we saw first one blue-gray feather then another laying in hollows of crusty snow where the breeze had abandoned them. In a few more feet, we came to the clear scene of the action: a larger clump of feathers, a fresh rectangular divot in the snow, a few tiny blood droplets, and the tracks where a coyote had bunched himself up before pouncing.  The coyote and the dusky grouse were both gone by a few hours, the coyote having easily carried his prize away to eat in a safer, more comfortable place.  His trail away from the kill site was as straight as an arrow--no more hunting required for a few hours at least.

For more on our local Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) you may see my "other" blog here.  

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