Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 10, 2016

The watcher among us

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

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May 15, 2011

Ungulate down

What a way to dieWhat an agonizing death. Its left antler pinned between two aspen trees, the mule deer pulled and pushed and rubbed and yanked… until it died of thirst or was ravaged by a mountain lion. The skull of this ten-point buck told the horrifying story in minute detail.

Perhaps it had been trying to rub the velvet off its antlers; somehow it wedged that multi-spiked antler between the large aspen and the medium one and, no matter its strength or wits, could not extricate itself. Large rub marks on the big tree suggest a monumental effort. The vertebrae and ribs scattered downslope tell the outcome.

For the full photo documentary, go to this Facebook album.

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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