Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship:
Highlights from Central Washington 2013

by Jeremy Williams

Our Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship runs for ten weekends September through June and is exclusively focused on studying wildlife track & sign and trailing.  Here’s a few highlights from our latest outing to central Washington's shrub-steppe habitats in the Columbia Plateau.

We spent a whole day at the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, a breathtakingly beautiful sanctuary for native and migratory animals.  Here John, Sam and Pete can be seen searching the shores of Soda Lake for interesting tracks.

The tracking apprenticeship goes in depth on track identification and behavior interpretation.  Here Rachel and Kristian try to puzzle out a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) trail along the water’s edge.

The trail intersected that of a frog, who apparently suffered a premature demise at the beak of our heron friend!

We also found a beautiful clear American Mink (Neovison vison) trail paralleling the shore.  Mink are a common inhabitant of riparian and fresh water aquatic habitats in Washington State.  The Mink was using both a 2x2 and 3x4 lope, both gaits typically used my members of the Weasel Family (Mustelidae).

The tracking apprentices ended up picking up a fresh Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) trail leading away from the water.  We took turns following the tracks as they led us up into the dry grasslands above.

Among the rocks near our deer trail we discovered a North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) den!  Here the group poses with our discovery.  Finding animal dens is a special experience, it gave us a glimpse into the day to day life of this amazing American mammal.

Here are a few signs the porcupine left for us in its den.  A few quills and some scat.  Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot fire their quills as projectile weapons at attackers.  Porcupine scat is generally pellet shaped, but can also often be found in long connected strands of woody fibers and plant material.

Towards the end of our time at the refuge, we came across a Bobcat (Lynx rufus) in a cage hidden in a secluded sagebrush!  We debated on what to do for this poor creature.  We were not sure whether it was trapped legally as part of a conservation study or if it was trapped by poachers.  We decided to go straight to the road and flagged down the first ranger truck we saw.  The refuge biologist was called out and he informed us that no live trapping studies were going on in the park.  He and a park employee opened up the cage while we were sent a safe distance away.  We ended our outing grateful to be in the right place at the right time to help a denizen of the wild!  It was a great example of wildlife tracking directly benefiting animals and ecosystems.

Learn about the The Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship - discover the stories in animal tracks and sign! Become a wildlife tracker. Ten adventure-filled weekends.

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