Wow. I finally saw a badger at Pawnee National Grasslands! I had spent most of the day looking for sign around various prairie dog towns. I had even found some fresh tracks that were probably less than a day old. My plan was to return to that area at dusk and see if anything might come back around but by the time evening arrived thunderstorms and rain had moved into the area. I’d have to change plans and try a different area. Well, that turned out to be great luck because as I was driving to the other location I spotted a squatty gray animal scurrying across the prairie – the elusive badger!
Just back from the Western Slope and crittering at Colorado National Monument. The warming weather is bringing out the small mammals including white-tailed prairie dogs, rock squirrels, hopi chipmunks, desert cottontails, and white-tailed antelope squirrels, all of which we saw during our trip. I was after a better photo of a hopi chipmunk, in which I succeeded, as well as a photograph of a white-tailed antelope squirrel, in which I did not. We briefly saw some antelope squirrels during our last day there but it was already late and they did not return from their burrows. That’s a bit frustrating but I’ll know where to look when I am able to return.
One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was coming across a band of desert bighorn ewes with two young lambs. I found out at the visitor’s center that they were born in late February, which makes them almost a month old. You could tell they were still trying to figure everything out, nursing from mother but also eating grass and sagebrush. I think the most impressive bit was watching them pick their way up a steep rock face just like the grown ups. These are things bighorns need to learn fast in order to survive.
The desert bighorns at Colorado National Monument are descendents of sheep transplanted from Arizona, Utah, and Nevada in 1979. These animals are generally smaller and paler in color than Rocky Mountain bighorns. Keep your eyes open as you drive through the park, especially around Balanced Rock, and you just might spot these desert dwelling sheep.
Lastly, my apologies for being so slow to approve comments on my recent posts. I’ve been getting tons of spam and seperating the wheat from the chaff can be a real chore. I always enjoy hearing from you and will try to do better!
Fact: porcupines exist. I was seriously beginning to wonder. I’ve been on a quest to spot one of these elusive “quill pigs” for nearly six months. Now, I’m sure someone in Jackson Hole is rolling their eyes at this point. I can even hear their voice in my head: “Son, I had to chase off a hundred of them last night. Big as grizzly bears, every one of ‘em. Chewed right through the leather trim on my Range Rover and ate my best fly rod.” Well, fact is, porcupines are scarce around Boulder and this quest has required me to roam far and wide.
After striking out in Castlewood Canyon, The Indian Peaks, Rocky Mountain National Park, Telluride, and a slew of other porcupine-less locales, it was time to get serious. I had heard solid reports of porcupine activity in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado. On a previous quick trip I had identified lots of fresh porcupine sign, but with only a day to work in the area I came up short in locating an actual animal. I knew they were there and I that if I just spent enough time in their habitat I would have my chance to photograph one. My wife and I made a plan to backpack into the Crater Lake area and spend a few nights. Operation Porcupine was born.
Roughing it in Porcupine Country
Our original plan was to hike in on Monday, but a day of torrential rain made this plan much less appealing, so we got a hotel in Glenwood Springs and after a decent cup of coffee the next morning we hiked in and made camp at approximately 10,000’ just above Crater Lake. For the next three days this would be our basecamp for exploring the area and searching for porcupines. My wife immediately went to work on testing out our new hammock. On the other hand, I made a four mile detour to lug in the remainder of my 35lbs of camera gear. This was, after all, a photography trip, not a backpacking trip.
Introducting Our Star
The North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is the second largest rodent in North America (the largest being the beaver), weighing up to 30 lbs. They are largely nocturnal and often spend the day sleeping a tree or in a rock den. The porcupine is covered in sharp quills, which are specially adapted hairs that it uses to defend itself against predators. Porcupines do not throw their quills, but rather when the quill is pressed downward into the skin it is released. Once a quill is embedded it may travel all the way through the body and come out the other side, which may be lethal if it intersects a vital organ. Interestingly, porcupine quills are coated in a natural antibiotic which may be an adaptation to protect the porcupine against its own quills. Porcupines are excellent tree climbers but they are also accident prone because their hunger for the most tender and nutritious parts of the tree lead them out onto the tips of branches which are prone to break. Falling from trees results in a large number of self-inflicted quill injuries, broken bones, and even deaths.
Porcupines are herbivores and the inner bark of conifers is the staple of their diet in most areas. When other grasses and food sources are available they can be found feeding on the ground. Porcupines are notorious for their salt drive, which typically peaks in early spring and again in late summer, which forces them to seek out salt anywhere they can find it – on road surfaces, in treated plywood, on automobile tires, or on sweat soaked camping gear. During the the spring and summer when porcupine diets contain higher levels of potassium and organic acids the porcupines need the extra sodium to maintain a proper balance of electrolytes. For this reason, porcupines are often viewed as pests.
For more information on porcupines, I highly recommend The North American Porcupine by Uldis Roze.
It was our last night at Crater Lake and I was feeling frustrated and discouraged. It seemed that the next morning we would be hiking out with nothing to show for our efforts. Earlier in the day I had chatted with some backpackers who had passed a porcupine on the trail near a campsite on the west end of the lake, so this is where we decided to focus our efforts for our last night. There was certainly an abundance of sign in the area and Lana picked up several dozen quills as I worked to locate where the local resident may be denning. My best guess was beneath a large boulder not far from a tree with a very large amount of scat at its base. We decided to sit until dark and see if there was any activity around the den. We sat quietly but by 8pm the light was fading and there was nothing left to do but pack up and hike back to camp. In the middle of loading my gear back into my pack I turned to my wife to say something and that’s when I saw a big blonde ball of quills about 30 feet behind us. “Porcupine!” I exclaim in a whisper. We both become as giddy as if we’d witnessed a double rainbow. “We’re your biggest fans” my wife chimed in.
Who knows how long the porcupine had been watching us. He was probably wondering what we were doing staring at his front door, and why in the world we were collecting his hair. He munched some grass, lifted his leg and marked a couple of bushes much like a dog would, and moseyed in and out of the brush. All in all he really wasn’t that concerned about us but I guess that is a pretty natural reaction for an animal covered in spines with next to zero natural predators. Porcupines have an attitude about them that says “if you feel the need to come over here and mess with me, you do what you’ve gotta do, but I can tell you right now how that is going to work out…”
Photography was incredibly challenging in the low light. By now it was what most people would classify as “dark” out. Even with my ISO pushed to the max I could barely get a shutter speed of 1/100th – not enough to stop motion. My best shot was taken at the ridiculously slow shutter speed of 1/10th of a second when the animal paused to smell the air. I’d checked out a Nikon 200-400 f4 VR for this trip from Pro Photo Rental in Boulder and I was really amazed by the performance of the vibration reduction system. It is certainly not a light lens for backpacking, but I was really glad I made the effort to lug it out there.
After sleeping on the lumpy ground and eating bland dehydrated food on top of months of wandering around the woods examining every scraped up pine tree and wood chip filled turd it has finally paid off. Hooray for porcupines!
The First Species of the Critter Challenge
Last week I introduced my project and the 70 species of mammals that I’ve set out to photograph here in Colorado. I had planned on easing into things this week and launching with something unassuming, like a cottontail or a ground squirrel.
Eating lunch at my desk today I received an alert – a mountain lion had been spotted in a tree. I hear about these types of sightings every couple of weeks but by the time I get the news it is usually well after the fact. This report had promise. The cat had been up the tree for a few hours and being near residences and busy roads there was a good chance it would stay put until it could move out of the area under the cover of darkness.
I track down my boss in the hallway.
“Steve, would it be alright if I bugged out early this afternoon?” I ask, trying to be nonchalant.
He’s concerned. We are already running on a skeleton crew with two of my coworkers out and he’s on his way to board a plane. He inquires just what it is that I’m up to.
“If I tell you, you’re going to want to go, too!” A devious smile betrays me. “There is a mountain lion in a tree near Golden.”
Steve has done his share of searching for mountain lions, but he is also one up on me, having seen one on Mount Sanitas near a few years ago. He gives his approval. “Go get some good photos!”
My heart is beating out of my chest. I draw upon my experiences responding to emergencies as a mountain rescue volunteer. Get there safely. Don’t speed. I’m paranoid that everyone else on the road knows about the mountain lion and they are all heading there now. With Friday afternoon traffic, it takes me an hour to make the drive. Adrenaline still surging, I find the cross street, not too far from the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison. From here it is just a matter of spotting the blue Division of Wildlife pickup that I know will be posted nearby.
Photographing a wild mountain lion has been a dream for me since I first picked up a camera. I’ve spent untold days following tracks, scanning hillsides with binoculars, and hiking along ridges hoping just to get a glimpse. And now, at long last, a beautiful, healthy adult mountain lion is poised in a cottonwood tree just a hundred yards away. It moves about on it’s perch about 30′ up and a couple of times it seems to look right at me. It’s dark eyes are haunting. It’s paws are as large as my face. It turns around once and I’m able to identify it as a male, although I had suspected it already based on size alone.
As a wildlife photographer, a wild mountain lion is like making it to the super bowl. Thank you to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, my understanding co-workers, and to ProPhoto Rental of Boulder. I’m really thankful to have had this opportunity and to be able to launch into my project with such an amazing animal. Even though this could have been a once in a lifetime event, I hope that it is not.
In my last post I introduced my new project in which I am setting out to photograph the mammals of Colorado in the wild. I would now like to share with you my official list of the 70 species of mammals I hope to photograph:
Order Didelphimorphia: Opossums and Kin
- Virginia Opossum – Dihelphis virginiana
Order Cingulata: Armadillos
- Nine-banded Armadillo – Dasypus novemcinctus
Order Primates: Monkeys, Apse and Kin
- Humankind – Homo sapiens
Order Rodentia: Rodents
- Cliff Chipmunk – Neotamias dorsalis
- Least Chipmunk – Neotamias minimus
- Colorado Chipmunk – Neotamias quadrivittatus
- Hopi Chipmunk – Neotamias rufus
- Uinta Chipmunk – Neotamias umbrinus
- Yellow-bellied Marmot – Marmota flaviventris
- White-tailed Antelope Squirrel – Ammospermophilus leucurus
- Rock Squirrel – Otospermophilus variegatus
- Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel – Callospermophilus lateralis
- Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel – Ictidomys tridecemlineatus
- Franklin’s Ground Squirrel – Poliocitellus franklinii
- Spotted Ground Squirrel – Xerospermophilus spilosoma
- Wyoming Ground Squirrel – Urocitellus elegans
- Gunnison’s Prairie Dog – Cynomys gunnisoni
- White-tailed Prairie Dog – Cynomys leucurus
- Black-tailed Prairie Dog – Cynomys ludovicianus
- Abert’s Squirrel – Sciurus aberti
- Fox Squirrel- Sciurus niger
- Pine Squirrel – Tamiasciurus hudsonicus
- Northern Flying Squirrel – Glaucomys sabrinus
- American Beaver – Castor canadensis
- Common Muskrat – Ondatra zibethicus
- North American Porcupine – Erethizon dorsatum
Order Lagomorpha: Pikas, Rabbits, and Hares
- American Pika – Ochotoma princeps
- Desert Cottontail – Sylvilagus audubonii
- Eastern Cottontail – Sylvillagus floridanus
- Mountain Cottontail – Sylvilagus nuttallii
- Snowshoe Hare – Lepus americanus
- Black-tailed Jackrabbit – Lepus californicus
- White-tailed Jackrabbit – Lepus townsendii
Order Carnivora: Carnivores
- Mountain Lion – Puma Concolor
- Canada Lynx – Lynx canadensis
- Bobcat – Lynx rufus
- Coyote – Canis latrans
- Gray Wolf – Canis lupus
- Kit Fox – Vulpes macrotis
- Swift Fox – Vulpes velox
- Red Fox – Vulpes vulpes
- Common Gray Fox – Urocyon cinereoargenteus
- American Black Bear – Ursus americanus
- Grizzly Bear – Ursus arctos
- American Marten – Martes americana
- Fisher – Martes pennanti
- Short-tailed Weasel – Mustela erminea
- Long-tailed Weasel – Mustela frenata
- Black-footed Ferret – Mustela nigripes
- Least Weasel – Mustela nivalis
- American Mink – Neovison vison
- Wolverine – Gulo gulo
- American Badger – Taxidea taxus
- Northern River Otter – Lontra canadensis
- Western Spotted Skunk – Spilogale gracilis
- Eastern Spotted Skunk – Spilogale putorius
- Striped Skunk – Mephitis mephitis
- White-backed Hog-nosed Skunk – Conepatus leuconotus
- Ringtail – Bassariscus astutus
- Northern Raccoon – Procyon lotor
Order Perissodactyla: Odd-toed Hoofed Mammals
- Feral Horse – Equus caballus
Order Artiodactyla: Even-toed Hoofed Mammals
- American Elk – Cervus canadensis
- Mule Deer – Odocoileus hemionus
- White-tailed Deer – Odocoileus virginianus
- Moose – Alces alces
- Pronghorn – Antilocapra americanus
- Bison – Bison Bison
- Mountain Goat – Oreamnos americanus
- Bighorn Sheep – Ovis canadensis
- Feral Pig – Sus scrofa
Source: Armstrong, D., J. Fitzgerald, C. Meaney. Mammals of Colorado. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2011.
I would like to make a somewhat formal announcement of my latest photography project. I’m nicknaming it the Colorado Critter Challenge. I wanted to do something to share the diversity of wildlife found in our state and that also to challenge and expand my skills as a wildlife photographer.
I am endeavoring to observe and photograph every species of mammal native to Colorado – in the wild and on Colorado soil. That’s the basic idea, anyway.
I am going to lay down a couple of caveats:
First, I’m skipping over the mice, rats, and bats. I don’t want to get hantavirus or rabies and even the expects can’t decide what delineates a distinct species (Preble’s Jumping Mouse, anyone?).
Second, some of these critters are going to be nearly impossible to photograph in the wild in the state of Colorado. Species such as the grizzly bear, wolverine, and wolf, long ago considered extirpated (locally extinct). Odds are that I will not find them but this is about the journey just as much as the destination. We’ll go looking for them and learn what we can along the way.
I’ve taken my list from the book Mammals of Colorado by David M. Armstrong, James P. Fitzgerald, and Carron A. Meaney, the definitive text of it’s kind. In total my list contains 70 species.
I hope you’ll join me on my quest and follow me here on my blog. In my next post I’ll be introducing the official species list for my project.