CRP Mountain Lion Study
As we headed out to the Preserve before sunrise, we watched the supermoon as it set over the Coast Ranges just around 7:00AM at the beginning of our camera checks.
Where are the mountain lions and the other wild creatures and what are they thinking about this larger-than-usual, bright orb as it glides across the sky, sinking below the horizon just before the dawn of another day of looking for food and mates and defending territory?
In the Field
No two ways about it – the roads were wet. We started out in the chill of the morning and the fog had just lifted as we drove out, wondering how far we might get before we were walking! We got out to the first camera deployment area and the car tires were caked in mud. We knew we’d drive no further for the more remote camera that lies a 30 minute walk beyond the equipment pad area. We parked, loaded up and headed out. The walk is a beautiful one, along a slough that’s rising as the rainfall increases. Fall colors are everywhere and fresh green is sprouting from all the recent rain and moisture. The roadway is hard-packed, meaning it’s difficult to pick out tracks and animal marks.
We saw deer tracks, lightly imprinted on the hard, muddy surface. We saw what were likely skunk digs in the mud. Skunks will dig into the substrate for grubs and other food that they detect below the surface. Last week as we were deploying some additional cameras we found a skunk hole about eight inches deep! It’s likely there was something particularly appealing that caused the skunk to expend that much energy and we can only hope that he or she was rewarded with something to eat! You can see a skunk track on the side of the dig, in the red box in the photo below.
The next thing we knew, the family was swimming across the slough! The mom made it over and hung by the bank as she watched for her babies to get across. She was watching for the second youngster who remained on our side of the bank – perhaps a kiddo who’d rather not have gotten wet on that chilly morning! – so we waited and it wasn’t long before we saw the last kit swimming across and finding footing on the low-hanging branches and vegetation that overhung the opposite side of the slough. The family silently disappeared into the oak forest and away to continue on with their day.
The water was higher at this camera, indicating that plans we have to expand our camera deployment east into the dense tall oak forest there will have to wait until spring.
Walking back along the slough, we spotted a tree that has both old and fresh buck antler rub. Trees that are used by bucks will try to heal themselves by working to grow bark back over the scar area that’s been made bare by the buck’s steady rubbing.
Bucks rub their antlers to leave scent in their territory and it’s also thought that rubbing may bring relief as they shed antler velvet, in preparation for dropping their entire antler rack over the winter. Bucks will sprout new antlers in the spring and the whole process will begin again.
In the photo below, the rub at the top left has begun to heal over. As the tree grows, the old rub goes out of reach and bucks begin new rubs at the base of the tree.
As we moved to the next camera we walked across a slough where the pump is pushing water into the north pond area and beginning to flood more agricultural fields. The Bureau of Land Management carefully times the flooding of the fields on the Preserve so that there are always some good, flooded up pond areas with rich food resources for migratory waterfowl, cranes and migratory shorebirds throughout the winter. It’s a fine timing balance between what species arrive when and having food resources available for them when they get here.
As we walked, we disturbed a flock of sandhill cranes. Our goal is to always be off the remote pond areas of the Preserve by 10:00AM so cranes and other migratory birds are free to loaf and forage without disturbance. We came across this flock around 8:30AM and were sorry to disturb them. We think we ran across them later on our route, farther out afield where we drove by and, while they kept their eyes on us, they didn’t seem too disturbed as we passed.
We found some interesting tracks in the mud as we walked out to the next camera, possibly bobcat. The track was a bit distorted and splayed in the soft mud along the road. Soft mud can even make tracks look bigger than they actually are. It can depend on how fast the animal is moving and it’s age – how much it weighs. There is no telltale ‘X’ in the track between the toes and the rear pad so that would indicate this one could be feline. The track also looks pretty round, so again, more feline. Coyote tracks would be more tight and oval in shape. But in soft mud like this tracks can become so splayed and distorted that it may not be easy to tell who made them.
As we were walking back to the car, we saw otters swimming in the south slough! We might have interrupted their travels as they were attempting to use the well-used otter slide across the levee to get to the north pond area there. We watched them and they watched us for several minutes and then we moved on, thinking they’d probably made their crossing to the north pond as soon as they were sure we were gone!
We didn’t see lions on the cameras today. The low-flow dam over the Cosumnes River is exposed once again but who can say for how long. The next rain will bring more water flow down from the foothills and wildlife will have to adjust their travel accordingly. We’ll be out in the field, watching for wildlife movement and for the mountain lions we know are moving across the landscape.
Mountain Lion 411
The Secret Life of Mountain Lions – If you haven’t seen this short 6-minute video yet, don’t miss it! Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project gives us a beautiful and inspiring look at how mountain lions live. We can’t imagine the challenges they face and what they go through to survive in the wild. Thanks to the research of Panthera and others, we are beginning to learn about the strength of mountain lion family bonds and how social interdependence plays a key role in mountain lion survival. These discoveries belie the myth that mountain lions are solitary creatures. There’s still a lot to learn and understand about these intelligent and secretive animals – North America’s largest native cat, the mountain lion. View the video here: https://vimeo.com/157288534
Meet the Crew
Our amazing crew is out in the field looking for mountain lions and other wildlife rain or shine!
Meet Richard Larson, CRP Volunteer Naturalist, Citizen Scientist and Amateur Photographer
We asked Richard What do you like best about being on the mountain lion camera crew?
“I really think this is a fantastic privilege to be a part of the study team. I enjoy learning what the other team members have to offer and being able to share my knowledge of wildlife with the team.”
Critter Camera Captures