In February, I discovered wolverine tracks in the snow. After mentioning the tracks to a resource management specialist at North Cascades National Park, we decided to set up one of the park’s motion sensor trail cams hoping to capture photos of wolverines or any other animals that might wander by. The cam didn’t capture images of any wolverines, but it did reveal the presence of other large critters. (In this post, all photos from the trail cam are courtesy of North Cascades National Park Service Complex).
On March 20, I mounted the cam on a tree with a clear view of an unplowed, snow covered bridge over Stehekin River, surmising that the relative ease of crossing the bridge would funnel wildlife across it.
After setting up the cam, the first photos capture me skiing away.
Nothing appears on the cam until March 30 when a mountain lion waltzes by!
I was surprised the mountain lion was in this habitat during late March. Many deer, the primary prey for Washington state’s cougars, inhabit the lower Stehekin River valley, but I had seen no tracks of those animals anywhere within five miles of the bridge. The four feet of snow in this location was still prohibitively deep for deer. Perhaps this was a male seeking females or simply one of the resident lions moving through its territory. I’m not sure, although I found a pair of lion tracks a couple of miles north along the Pacific Crest Trail three days afterward.
After swapping out the cam’s memory card on March 23…
…I left the cam alone until April 3. When I returned I noticed some large, semi-fresh tracks post-holed across the bridge. Backtracking the animal’s movement, I found it walked right under the cam before crossing the bridge. Interestingly, the cam took many photos of an empty bridge the evening before I arrived. Something had nudged the cam, triggering it for 13 seconds according to the photos’ time stamps. One photo in the sequence is completely black as if something briefly covered the lens.
The culprit was revealed a few seconds later.
Bears are extremely curious. This one found the cam and investigated it seconds before walking across the bridge. Since black bears in the northeastern corner of the North Cascades begin to emerge from hibernation in early April, it may have been fresh out of the den. On the other side of the bridge it’s tracks continued straight up the hillside disappearing into the forest.
I know these animals live here with me. I see their tracks and scat somewhat often, but I encounter the living individuals less frequently. For me, the cam provided an enjoyable, albeit brief, glimpse into their lives.
On a recent ski, I was daydreaming for a moment or two, just staring down at the snow. I glanced up for a moment to see a raptor flying away from a dead snag. It didn’t fly far and landed in another dead standing tree about a hundred meters away. Through my binoculars, I saw an adult peregrine falcon staring back at me.
Moving slightly farther on my skis, I spooked a second peregrine. This one though flushed from the ground and when I looked toward its place of origin, I saw a pile of feathers. The falcons had been eating breakfast.
The peregrines were feeding on a bird when I accidently spooked them.
Curiosity compelled me to investigate the kill. I skied over to the bird on the snow. It was a duck, a bufflehead to be specific. This duck hadn’t been dead long. Blood had yet to coagulate and the falcons had only eaten parts of the back and most of the neck.
Peregrine falcons had not been feeding long on this bufflehead when I found it.
Buffleheads are diving ducks that feed mostly on aquatic insects in freshwater environments. The Stehekin River was not far away from the scene, but the river at the location, just a mile or so downstream of High Bridge, is too small to meet the habitat requirements of this species. Buffleheads prefer deeper, more open water found on ponds, lakes, coastlines, and larger rivers.
What might the bufflehead be doing so far upriver? I suppose it could’ve been in the water, but peregrine falcons are adept aerial hunters. Buffleheads are strong flyers, yet peregrines, as the fastest animal in the world, could have overtaken the bufflehead in a spectacular stoop, a swift dive when they strike and kill the bird in the air. The bufflehead might’ve been flying up valley, migrating to a different area, when it met its demise. The cliffs above the river valley in this location would be ideal places for peregrines to perch and hunt birds from.
After a moment or two, I left the falcons to their meal after watching them perch in the trees. When I returned later in the afternoon on my way home, I revisited the scene and found only a smattering of downy feathers and blood stains on the snow.
By mid afternoon, only feathers and a few blood spots remained of the bufflehead.
This was a bad morning for the bufflehead, but a good one for the falcons.
After three months of aimless wandering, I’m back in Stehekin and, well, there’s a lot of snow.
Stehekin and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area lie just east of the Cascade Crest, but well within the Cascade Mountains. When moisture-laden winter storms move east from the Pacific Ocean over the Cascades, they dump prodigious amounts of snow. Stehekin averages 120 inches of snowfall each winter. In 1996, 298 inches of snow fell, almost 25 feet. Although I don’t know how much snow has fallen so far this winter, it’s not a trivial amount.
Earlier this week, I was eager to explore the snow-shrouded landscape, so I strapped some skis on to Large Marge and headed out.
No, not that Large Marge. This Large Marge, my fat tire bike.
Two tools of winter exploration: Large Marge and cross-country skis.
I cycled on an icy, freshly plowed road to the Stehekin landing strip to ski the Stehekin River Trail, which parallels the Stehekin River downstream to Lake Chelan. It’s a pleasant hike in summer when the trail is easy to follow. The snow changed this familiar trail greatly. Where thick snow obscured the exact route I had to watch gaps in the vegetation carefully to stay on the trail.
Where’s the trail?
I needn’t worry about getting lost though. The trail is bordered by Stehekin River one on side and 8,000 ft. tall mountains on the other. I only had to stay in between. The trail has no significant elevation gain, but traverses some tricky spots for someone like me who sucks at skiing.
Caption: Short, steep bluffs next to the river’s side channels were difficult to negotiate on narrow skis. I often side-stepped up and down these places instead of risking a fall into open water.
The scenery was worth the effort, however.
Animal tracking is always on my mind when there’s snow. The snow records much about an animal’s behavior as it moves through the landscape. The deep snow of the Cascade Mountains present a very difficult challenge for large and medium-sized animals, however. If you’re not a small mammal that can live under the snow or in the trees, then you either hibernate or abandon the high country and migrate to areas with less snow pack.
Partly because of lots of fresh snow and partly because most animals are either under the snow or in a different area altogether I didn’t see many animal tracks. A few Douglas squirrels were out and barked a warning when I skied under their tree, but there were few fresh signs of large animals on the upper half of the trail in the deep, soft snow.
Where the trail passed under a thick canopy of Douglas-fir and grand fir, I found the skiing easier. Tall conifers intercept a lot snow before it falls to the ground. When it does fall, it often does in large clumps that compact quickly on the ground. In these areas, deer and elk often “yard-up” to avoid getting mired in the deeper snow of open areas. Might I find deer and elk sign here?
I encountered little fresh powder where conifer trees grew thickly. These areas are often preferred places for deer and elk to travel and rest. In open areas, my feet plowed through at least 20 centimeters of newly fallen snow, making travel more difficult.
On the river’s floodplain, under a tall Douglas-fir, I found a depression where barely an inch of snow covered the ground. Elk tracks radiated away from it, and a few pellets of elk scat lay within it. Evidently, this was a frequently used resting place for at least one elk.
An elk had repeatedly used this bed to rest. For scale, the Douglas-fir trunk is larger than one meter in diameter.
Shortly afterward, my approach spooked an elk away from the fallen branch it was feeding on.
Twigs nibbled by members of the deer family have ragged edges. An elk recently nipped the end of this Douglas-fir twig.
I only caught a glimpse of the elk, but it was a bull with sizable antlers. Carrying antlers into late winter seems counterintuitive and a waste of calories. Those antlers weigh a lot, and it can’t be cheap, energetically speaking, to keep them on your head. Shouldn’t this animal have shed its antlers by now?
Unlike deer and moose, who shed their antlers in early winter, elk often keep their antlers until spring. Different selection pressures may have controlled the timing of antler shedding. Antlers can be used for defense, but they are most often used to maintain dominance. This is especially important during the fall rut. For elk, antlers may be needed to help maintain dominance in the winter as well when access to food is limited. Deer and moose tend to overwinter in small groups or solo where competition with fellow moose or deer for browse may not be an issue. Elk, in contrast, overwinter in larger herds where antlers may be needed to maintain dominance; not for access to females of course, but for access to food.
That elk appeared to be alone, but as I approached the end of the trail near the lake, I skied past two deer, at least one of which was a buck, sans antlers.
The Stehekin River Trail ends at Weaver Point where the National Park Service maintains a boat-in/hike-in campground. Snow reduced visibility in the dim afternoon light, but the scene was gorgeous.
Lake Chelan seen from Weaver Point.
Seeing the land blanketed in a meter of snow gives it a very different appearance. It was almost as if I was exploring the area for the first time. In a way, I was. Winter in the Stehekin Valley is wholly different than summer.