Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 10, 2016

The watcher among us

Filed under: wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:23 am
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IMG_1699

It was yet another in a string of sunny, breezy, summer mornings. I followed the hundreds of rock cairns down the steep descent to canyon bottom, along the wash, past tadpole pools and oriole haunts. A peregrine falcon’s cry jerked my eyes up toward its eyrie just in time to see a parent bringing food to its young eyasses (EYE-ess-ez). It was then that I spied something out of place in my familiar canyon.

IMG_1711A mule deer carcass lay alongside the edge of the wash. It was not the slightest bit bloated in the 90-degree heat, nor was there obvious blood or odor. The doe’s abdomen had very recently been opened up. Her viscera protruded, but no other harm was apparent besides a broken neck. A tiny fawn was crumpled between her legs, also lifeless. Large powerful claw-scrapes surrounded the pair like the rays of a fingerpainted sun, with dirt and plant debris scantly dusting the bodies. A heavy drag mark extended 30 feet to the east, culminating in a sandy imprint of two bodies colliding.

I looked around, suddenly aware that this formerly benign canyon held secrets too dear for me. The mountain lion’s tracks were everywhere. He or she held territory here — where humans daily intruded. Questions barreled through my mind: Where was it? When did it ambush? Why didn’t it eat more of this pair? When would it return? How have I walked this route scores and scores of times without seeing more evidence of large predators? Should I be singing right now?

I thought about all these things, and much more. And I sang. In a minor key.

Next day, Ranger Chris posted a sign at the trailhead: “MOUNTAIN LION ACTIVITY. Do not approach deer kill. Do not hike alone.” Hiking down a couple miles, he warily dragged the still-not-eaten bodies out of the main trail area onto a reedy bank under some cottonwoods — not to spare visitors the agony of seeing Real Life, but to minimize the chance of any potential conflicts between them and Felis concolor.

Maybe the cat won’t come back; coyotes and ravens will feast. Maybe human intrusion was too much for the hunter. Sad as it is, the deaths were not in vain; we have plenty of deer, and the circle of life continues. One thing is certain: I won’t hike with the same airy abandon to which I’m accustomed. I am not at the top of the food chain.

January 29, 2012

A trek down Salt Wash

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:42 am
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Looking north up the lonely Salt Wash

I stepped onto the frozen surface tentatively, aware that the last creek crossing had four solid inches of ice to support me. Even though the water flowing underneath wasn’t deep, I sure didn’t want to break through and have miles to walk with cold wet feet. On my second step, the rather terrifying sound of loud cracks under my feet sent me lunging back to terra firma as fast as I could, to peals of laughter from my hiking buddy who had refused to go onto the ice until I did. Sometimes there’s a fine line between courageous and foolish.

Salt Wash lured me on my day off. It is part of Arches National Park’s backcountry, lacking a defined trail of any type, but able to be hiked by those undeterred by the need to bushwhack through plants and around obstacles. I was hoping to spy some mountain lion tracks, as it’s a location with running water and mule deer (the lions’ preferred meal). Alas, the only tracks we found were coyote and rodent. One common raven, one golden eagle soaring — and lots of tafoni, the honeycombed sandstone created by chemical weathering.

Still, a day in the wilderness is better than most days elsewhere.

tafoni: broken bits are fun to play with

April 1, 2010

Tricky teeth

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:34 am
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Deer jawbone, used in "Table of Wonder" demonstration

A table of hands-on “cool stuff” ALWAYS draws people to it, whether in a visitor center or on the trail. The one I am developing beckons people to put their hand into two curtained boxes and see if they can tell the difference between a carnivore jawbone and an herbivore jawbone. I originally thought that only kids would be enticed by the boxes, but NO; everybody wants to touch the bones.

It’s very effective to use a mountain lion skull and a deer skull. Both live in our park, and they illustrate the complex predator-prey food web wonderfully. I ask the kids, “If a cougar can eat one deer a week, and something happens to the cougar, what happens to the deer population?” It’s even MORE fun to ask ranchers that hypothetical question.

A visitor hiking in the backcountry last week reported fresh mountain lion tracks way out by the Colorado River on our eastern boundary. She told me where to find them; I’d like to take my camera out there and look.

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