What’s the difference between a possum and an opossum? In the United States, the two words are used interchangeably to refer to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), even though, technically speaking, a possum is an Australian marsupial of no close relation. Whatever you prefer, this is is a fascinating creature that often carries an undeserved bad reputation.
I grew up in rural Michigan where we called them ‘possums, and if you said “opossum”, people would look at you weird. Often, you’d see them crossing the road at night, and during the day you could see even more as road kill.
Photographing an opossum in Colorado turned out to be more of a challenge than you might expect. The species is mostly found in the far eastern parts of the state along the Platte, Arikaree, and Republican Rivers in agricultural and riparian areas. There may also be a small introduced population in Grand Junction. Here in Boulder County, there is just one record – a suspected captive escapee that was found in Green Mountain Cemetery in 1919.
My first attempt to photograph opossums was a total disaster. My wife and I drove down to the Republican River near Hale with spotlights and the “frankenflash” (a hacked together combination of spotlight and strobe that I tried to use to photograph nocturnal animals before I wised up and started using camera traps). Not only did we fail to see a single opossum, but we both wound up with miserable cases of poison ivy from stumbling around in the dark.
I knew there were opossums around Julesburg, because I had seen them dead on the road just over the Nebraska border, but finding places to camera trap in the area was a roadblock. Finally, I stumbled upon nature photographer Mack Hitch of Sterling, who helped me with access to a site that was a bit closer to home.
It took me about five site visits to get the shot below. That’s roughly 1,300 miles of driving, and roughly 40 hours of effort spread out across two months. Not too bad compared to my search for hog-nosed skunks, but probably a laughable amount to folks who live in places where opossums are plentiful.
Not only are they so ugly it makes them kind of cute, there are some reasons to appreciate the opossum. First, opossums are the only native marsupial to the USA, which is kind of cool. Like their more glamorous relatives down under, they do have a pouch and their babies are called joeys. The joeys will hang out in their mother’s pouch for about 10 weeks before they grow large enough to climb onto their mothers back to hitch a ride.
Second, they eat ticks by the thousands. There aren’t many things in nature that I can’t find some way to appreciate, but ticks are an exception. Opossums are also resistant to pit viper venom which gives them the mutant power to fearlessly take on rattlesnakes.
Finally, just like a world cup soccer player, they have the not-so-super power of “playing possum” (aka dead) in the face of danger. This might work to deter a predator who would rather have a fresh meal, but is a quick way to become roadkill in our modern world. Combined with their average life span of under two years, opossums have a pretty rough gig.
This species is a milestone in my Colorado mammals project. It is actually the last species for me to photograph that is currently known to inhabit the State of Colorado, and not part of the mythical “X-Files” group (extirpated from Colorado, or potentially expanding their range into the state from elsewhere). Everything from here on out is a mystery waiting to be solved. In case you were wondering, those X-File species include grizzly bear, gray wolf, nine-banded armadillo, eastern spotted skunk, and of course, the wolverine!
Tofino, on Vancouver Island, is one of those places that the minute I heard about it, I knew I had to go. Vancouver Island is just a quick hop from the mainland, and has one of the most amazing landscapes imaginable. Mountains and coastline, what more could you ask for? How about great coffee? Abundant wildlife? Surfing? Yes, that and more. Let’s make this our little secret, eh?
Our journey began in Seattle where we boarded the Victoria Clipper and motored though the heart of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We spent most of the voyage above deck keeping a sharp eye out for wildlife, and in Lana’s case, fending off sea sickness. It didn’t take long before the first of many harbor porpoises made an appearance.
The smoke from wildfires burning in British Columbia began to thicken the air as we worked out way to open water. Just about 30 minutes before reaching Victoria, we spotted some large black dorsal fins off the stern. Orca! We didn’t get a good look, nor any good photos, so we left rubbing our eyes wondering if it had been a trick of smoke and waves. I still haven’t had a good look at an orca, so I’m not ready to tick this species off the list yet.
After making land and picking up our rental car in Victoria, we met a friend for lunch before beginning the trip to Tofino. Lana was pretty much out from taking a dose of Dramamine on the boat, so we only made a couple of stops on the four hour drive. Little Qualicum Falls was a nice place to stretch the legs, but the real show was sunset over Kennedy Lake, just before reaching Tofino. The haze from the forest fires combined with the reflections on the lake created one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen.
We enjoyed three days of beach combing, hiking, and exploring around Tofino. Sea lions were far from shore, but unmistakable on the eponymous named Sea Lion Rock off Combers Beach. One of the highlights of the trip was a bear watching tour from a Zodiac boat with Remote Passages Marine Excursions. I was really impressed by our guides knowledge, and in particular his respect for the wildlife. We saw six black bears in the course of the afternoon, as well as harbor seals, more harbor porpoise, and some great bald eagle photo opportunities. It was incredible watching the bears foraging at low tide, rolling over massive rocks with no effort whatsoever. Just as we were coming back to port, we had a really special treat: six river otters at close range! Of course, most people were there for the bears, but if you are a mustelid nerd like me, you know I got my money’s worth!
We saw another black bear on the side of the highway later that night, for a total of seven bears in one day. That is a record for me! Bear scat and tracks were everywhere you look, and it wasn’t hard to see why with the twice a day crab buffet at low tide and abundant berries.
On our return voyage to Seattle, Lana spotted the spout of a whale shortly after leaving Victoria. It fluked a few hundred yards off the stern of the boat. I wasn’t able to get any clear photos for an identification, but I’m going with humpback whale based on the dorsal fin. Gray whale and minke whale are also present around Vancouver Island and Puget Sound, and there are numerous options for whale watching tours in the area, even though we weren’t able to fit one in this trip.
One creature that we didn’t get to see was the gray wolf, but Tofino is still as good as place as any to look for them. Maybe a little too good, based on the increasing number of human-wolf conflicts at places like Long Beach and the abundance of warnings at trail heads. I think with a couple of weeks to work with, we would have gotten a shot. Maybe next spring during gray whale season!
Madera Canyon, Arizona, is one of my favorite places to unwind, explore, and photograph nature. Just a few miles from the mouth of the canyon, Bill Forbes has a backyard pond that provides a unique opportunity to photograph bats in flight using a camera trap system called the Phototrap, which Bill builds and sells. With my sights set on capturing photos of Colorado’s rare flying squirrels, I thought trying my hand at bats would be a great way to learn the ropes of photographing flying mammals in the dark.
Bill’s backyard is well known by birders as a go to spot for photographing Sonoran species like Gambel’s quail and roadrunners from the convenience of his many blinds. Indeed, upon arrival I immediately spotted a lifer bird, a striking male pyrrhuloxia, but the mammal geek in me was even more exited by the enormous antelope jackrabbits grazing on the mesquite bushes.
We set up and I got acquainted with the equipment. The bats would leave their roosts at dusk and predictably visit the pond for a drink, skimming the surface of the water with mouth open. With an infrared beam break sensor connected to the Phototrap controller, the bats would break the beam when they hit the sweet spot. In a normal camera trapping scenario, you would typically connect the sensor to the camera which would then open the shutter and fire the flashes. For bats in flight, though, this configuration is too slow. In the split second it takes for the mechanical shutter on the camera to open, the bat has already moved out of the frame. The way around this is to keep the shutter on the camera continuously open, and connect the Phototrap controller directly to the flashes. In darkness, the flash creates the exposure in one burst of light equivalent of a shutter speed of 1/4000th, or even faster.
I set up two cameras – one with a 600mm lens at the far end of the pond, and another with a 300mm positioned a bit closer. Before it became too dark to see, I prefocused both cameras on the point where the bats would break the beam and then set the shutter for continuous 15″ exposures. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a remote cable that can be locked into bulb mode, but the downside is that Nikon cameras are hard coded to shut off after 100 continuous shots. I think the intention is to keep the camera from filling your memory card with photos of the inside of your camera bag, but unfortunately there is no way around it for situations where you want to take more. If you can’t restart the camera every 25 minutes, using an intervalometer works almost as well.
Once everything was set, all we had to do was wait for the bats for arrive. Bill has a closed circuit television watching the pond with infrared lighting, so we could watch the action without disturbing the set. Like clockwork, the bats arrived and began swooping across the surface of the pond. Sometimes they would come in at the wrong angle, or swoop back up before breaking the beam, but it wasn’t long before a burst of flash signaled that the beam had been broken.
Although it was unseasonably cool and windy during my visit, there was still plenty of action and I brought back some exciting photos. I also lots of great ideas and practice that I hope will help me towards my goal of photographing flying squirrels in Colorado.
When you think of wildlife in Colorado you might think of a bull elk bugling amidst the aspen, bighorn sheep tip toing up a canyon wall, or maybe pronghorn grazing on the prairie. Regardless, I’m willing to bet that one critter you haven’t considered is the turtle!
There are five species of turtles native to Colorado. Four of them are aquatic; the western painted turtle, snapping turtle, yellow mud turtle, and the spiny softshell turtle. The sole terrestrial turtle is the ornate box turtle.
Western Painted Turtle
The western painted turtle is the most common of the Colorado turtles and happens to be the Colorado State Reptile. They are easy to identify and can frequently be seen on logs or rocks in wetland areas.
The snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can be up to 20″ in shell diameter and is equipped with a pair of sharp and very strong jaws. It has a rough, jagged shell and a long tail that looks a bit like an alligator tail. They can be seen swimming in ponds or lakes and also crossing roads in the springtime when they may travel several hundred yards from water to nest. It should be pretty obvious that this turtle is capable of inflicting a nasty bite so don’t try to pick one up unless you know what you are doing. Watch for the tail cutting through the water as the snapping turtle swims just beneath the surface.
Yellow Mud Turtle
Ornate Box Turtle
The ornate box turtle is Colorado’s sole terrestrial turtle species and can be found across the Great Plains, including in the short grass prairie of eastern Colorado. Loss of habitat and collection for the pet trade have threatened the ornate box turtle in recent years.
Spiny Softshell Turtle
I haven’t yet seen this species in the wild, or had a chance to photograph one. They are found mostly along the eastern margin of Colorado.
If you are interested in learning more about these species, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife Nautural Diversity Information Source page about turtles.
This article was first published at www.jamesbeissel.com on May 12, 2012. I’ve reposted it here in celebration of World Turtle Day 2016.
Blue light fills the cab of my pickup as lightning crashes into the ground all around me. In the midst of a fierce desert thunderstorm, I am watching an animal that hasn’t been documented in Colorado for nearly 20 years – Vulpes macrotis, commonly known as the kit fox.
The kit fox is an arid land fox inhabiting the sagebrush and shrubland west of the Rocky Mountains. It has a slim body with a grizzled yellow-gray coat, long slender legs, and a bushy tail. Its exceptionally large ears are the biggest of any North American canine relative to its size. The kit fox is well adapted to life in the desert. It needs to drink little or no water, utilizing liquid from prey to stay hydrated. The pads of its feet are insulated with tufts of course hair for protection from scorching sands. During the day, the kit fox rests in its multi-entrance den to stay cool and conserve water. By night, it forages for prey, which primarily consists of jackrabbits, cottontails, and rodents, including prairie dogs and kangaroo rats.
The kit fox is listed as a State Endangered Species in Colorado. The eastern margin of its range just barely extends into the state in Mesa, Garfield, Delta, and Montrose counties. Although it was probably never common in Colorado, historical records suggest that populations have declined since the mid-20th century. The reasons for this decline are not well understood, but likely factors include climate variability, use of poisons for predator control, and competition with coyotes and red foxes. The last kit fox recorded in Colorado was in 1996 during a study by J.P. Fitzgerald.
Beginning in 2008, ecologist Melissa Reed-Eckert began an extensive search for kit foxes in western Colorado as a master’s student at the University of Colorado. Baited stations consisting of track plates and wire brushes to snag hair samples were strategically placed at 136 sites throughout the kit foxes historical Colorado range. As part of her thesis, she sought to demonstrate how variations in climate affect species like the kit fox at the margins of suitable habitat. The effort of surveys such as this are commonly measured in trap-nights. That is to say, the number of traps deployed times the number of nights the trap is left out in the field. Reed-Eckert’s study resulted in a total of over 3,800 trap nights in Colorado. The stations detected red foxes, dogs, raccoons, and skunks, but no confirmed kit foxes. Only a questionable, but probable, track at one station hinted at the possibility of a kit fox existing in the study area.
After reading Reed-Eckert’s thesis, I felt the odds of photographing a kit fox in Colorado were abysmal. It appeared that the kit fox may be gone for good from the state. Nevertheless, I wanted to roll the dice myself and spend some time exploring Colorado kit fox habitat. I’ve had success finding swift foxes on the eastern plains by driving the backroads at dawn and dusk and watching for the tell-tale glint of golden fur on the prairie. I knew I couldn’t top previous efforts by the likes of Fitzgerald and Reed-Eckert, but I decided to spend a few days using this approach on my way to and from photographing known kit fox sites in Utah.
I was astonished when my tactics worked in short order. Was my sighting a one in a million occurrence? If not, how many more kit foxes might be living in Colorado? Perhaps climatic conditions have been favorable in the years since Reed-Eckert’s survey, promoting the survival of both prey and predator.
In 2005, 12 man-made dens and 42 quick escape tunnels were installed by Rocky Mountain Wild and the Bureau of Land Management. With openings that are large enough for a kit fox, but too small for a coyote to pass, these dens help protect future kit foxes against predation. To avoid extirpation in Colorado, kit foxes need suitable contiguous habitat, away from human build up and the associated red foxes, coyotes, and domestic dogs that follow. Additionally, they need an abundant prey base of rodents, rabbits, and hares. Finally, they need suitable den sites with the proper soil for digging, undisturbed by development and recreation. Additional measures are currently needed to identify and protect critical habitat to promote the kit foxes future in Colorado.
The storm barrels east and a rainbow appears. At its end is a kit fox, and for me, that is better than a pot of gold. The fox stretches, yawns, and then disappears into its den for good. I return several more times over the coming days, but never see it again.
This spring, we returned to the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Tucked away on the western side of the range, about halfway between Tucson and the Mexico border is the quaint oasis of Madera Canyon.
The Santa Rita Mountains are known as “Sky Islands”. Rising abruptly from the Sonoran desert floor, these mountains reach heights of nearly 9,453’ at their highest point, the summit of Mount Wrightson. This dramatic topography creates a climate that provides habitat for a rich array of wildlife.
On our previous trip, we had hoped to see a white-nosed coati. The coati (co-AH-tee) is a member of the Procyonid (raccoon) family. Their range extends from Columbia through Central America and just barely reaches the United States in southern Arizona and New Mexico.
Although we struck out on the coati in 2014, we had a wonderful time and decided to return for another chance.
Madera Canyon is probably best known as a birdwatching destination. Every spring, birdwatchers travel from around the globe for a chance to see the elegant trogon when it visits southern Arizona to nest. The trogon is a beautiful and exotic bird. It is also rare, with less than 50 nesting pairs estimated in the United States.
My trogon sighting came one evening while I was photographing a stretch of Madera Creek flowing over some rocks. Off in the trees, I kept hearing a noise that sounded a bit like a barking dog. There had been no cars at the trailhead when I left, so I knew it was unlikely to be a dog. Not knowing exactly what it was, I set off to investigate. It didn’t take long to locate the source of the noise – a brilliant male elegant trogon was perched high in a juniper tree. I would have been content just to see this sought after bird under any circumstances, but after ten minutes or so, he caught a caterpillar and landed about 20’ away, granting me a wonderful photo opportunity.
Coatis are one of my favorite animals. Between their long tails and flexible snouts, there is an animated characteristic about them. Since they are diurnal and I had seen some photos on the internet taken in Madera Canyon, I felt like my odds of seeing one were pretty good.
Between my two visits, I’ve hiked over 50 miles of trails in Madera Canyon, culminating in a hike to the summit of Mount Wrightson. I really enjoyed the trails and the views, and saw lots of neat things, but no coatis. Ironically, on the last day of our trip this spring I spotted my first coati out the back window of our cabin as we were packing up to leave. It was the same cabin we stayed in on our first visit and I remember on our first day commenting on how cool it would be to see a coati right out our back window.
The coati eventually found his way to the bird feeding area where he rooted around for a bit and then took a nice long nap in a nearby tree. It was a great ending to a great trip.
Coues’ white-tailed deer are commonly seen in Madera Canyon, particularly around the Bog Springs Campground and near the White House Picnic Area. The Coues’ is a subspecies of white-tail adapted for desert survival and are much smaller than their corn-fed Midwest cousins.
Antelope jackrabbits, one of the largest hares in North America, can be seen along the road between the mouth of the canyon and Continental. The best time to see them is at dusk – keep an eye out for their enormous ears.
The pig-like collared peccary, also known as javelina, can also be seen through this area. Both times I have seen them, they have been crossing the road within an hour or two after dark. They tend to sleep off the hottest part of the day somewhere in the shade.
Madera Canyon is home to a multitude of other mammal species, especially the nocturnal variety. Ringtails are known to patrol outside the cabins during the night. Four species of skunk – western spotted, striped, hooded, and hog-nosed, are all known to occur in the Santa Rita Mountains and sixteen species of bats have been recorded in Madera Canyon.
Elegant trogons and white-nosed coatis aren’t the only tropical inhabitants of the Sky Islands. The jaguar, native to Arizona, was believed to be extirpated until being rediscovered in 1996. Since then, up to six male jaguars have been documented in southern Arizona, including in the Santa Rita Mountains.
Ocelots also roam the Santa Rita mountains. The ocelot is a small tropical cat with a beautiful spotted coat. Like the jaguar, it is native in Arizona, which makes up the northernmost extent of it’s range.
Both jaguars and ocelots are federally endangered species. Looking down from the summit of Mount Wrightson and pondering the thought that I may be sharing its slopes with an ocelot or even a jaguar is a thrill. These species require large tracts of unbroken habitat to thrive and face increasing pressure from development, mining, and other forms of fragmentation. Hopefully, they will continue to find their home in the Sky Islands of southern Arizona.
With spring around the corner, it will soon be peak season for visiting Pawnee National Grassland. The Pawnee is one of Colorado’s best destinations for wildlife and nature photography. The vast tracts of seemingly endless shortgrass prairie are a glimpse of days past, before much of the Great Plains was converted to agriculture and center pivot irrigation.
Pawnee may be best known as a bird watching destination, and if it is your first visit, the self-guided birding tour is a great place to start. Driving the 21 mile loop, you will have a chance to get oriented while passing through some prime habitat. The Colorado State Bird, the lark bunting, is commonly seen here, as are horned larks, burrowing owls, and Swainson’s hawks. The complete checklist tops 300 species, and includes the mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, and many more.
The prairie also supports many species of mammals, including the swift fox, American badger, coyote, black-tailed prairie dog, black-tailed jackrabbit, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, mule deer, and pronghorn. Most grassland species depend on underground burrows for shelter. You will need a bit of patience and some luck to spot them above ground, but with persistence they can all be seen on the Pawnee.
I highly recommend a visit to Pawnee National Grassland. It can seem a little overwhelming at first, but just as likely as not, you will find yourself returning year after year. Here are some tips to make your visit a little smoother.
Get the Map
A good map is essential for navigating the hundreds of miles of dirt roads on the grassland, as well as for steering clear of private property. Cellular reception is spotty, so don’t count on using your phone. The DeLorme Colorado Atlas is a good start. Additional maps are available from the United States Forest Service website, or visit the Pawnee National Grassland office in Greeley.
Use a Beanbag
Driving the grid roads is a great way to cover a lot of ground, but it means you’ll be shooting from your vehicle much of the time. Pronghorns, jackrabbits, raptors, and many other animals will bolt the instant you step out of the car, so keep your camera ready and use a beanbag over the door for stabilization. My favorite is the NatureScapes SkimmerSack. You can fill these with birdseed, rice, buckwheat hulls, or whatever else you’ve got.
Take a Siesta at Crow Valley
The best times to view wildlife at Pawnee are at dawn and dusk. Escape the heat of the day and save your gas by taking a siesta at the Crow Valley Park. This little oasis features a nice picnic area to escape the sun and the only bathrooms for miles. If it’s especially hot, run up to the AgLand Gas Station in Briggsdale for a cold drink.
A short, shady birding trail follows the river behind the picnic shelter. This riparian zone in the middle of the prairie attracts some of the more sought after bird species. I’ve seen white-tailed fawns nestled in the grass here, and it is also a good spot for cottontails.
Mind the Gates
There are a number of public access roads on the Pawnee where ranchers lease adjacent land to graze their cows. You may encounter closed gates, and in cattle country, the rule is if you open a gate, close it behind you.
Give the Pronghorn Room
The pronghorn is the fastest mammal in North America, and one of the fastest animals in the world. Even though their speed can rival the cheetah, they have no jumping ability. On a western landscape partitioned by miles of four strand barbwire fence, this is a significant impediment. With no “hops”, the pronghorn are forced to crawl under the lowest strand of barbed wire, often incurring injury. You can help by driving slowly when you approach pronghorn near the road and allow them to find a comfortable place to duck under the fence.
Watch your Step
Last year while hiking near the Buttes, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake crossing the trail. Luckily, the prairie rattlesnakes found at Pawnee are not particularly aggressive, but it is either a very long drive or an expensive helicopter ride to the nearest hospital, so take care where you place your hands and feet.
While you are unlikely to encounter a rattler, the instant you step off the trail at Pawnee you will realize your true foe: the prickly pear cactus. Pawnee is carpeted with them, and their spines will go right through street shoes and leave you hobbling for days.
Any way you look at it, a good pair of boots are a must at Pawnee.
Stay Out of the Crossfire
Unfortunately, irresponsible gun use is far too common at Pawnee. The newly built range on County Road 96 gives responsible shooters a safe venue, but be wary of those shooting at the many roadside pullouts littered with “trigger trash”. Once, while photographing a swift fox den, I heard the distinct buzz of a ricochet bullet zipping past me. While I was preoccupied with photographing the foxes, some knucklehead had arrived and was firing a rifle at a buried steel pipe from point blank range. Watch your back and don’t assume that others have bothered to check what is behind their target.
Keep an Eye on the Sky
Pawnee National Grassland lies in Weld County, Colorado, which claims the title “Tornado Capital of the World”. From 1950-2011, Weld County has recorded 252 tornados, more than any other single county. Severe thunderstorms with lightning and damaging hail are common throughout spring and summer.
There is virtually no shelter on the prairie, so it is best to monitor incoming weather before it arrives. One of my favorite tools is an iPhone app called RadarScope, but again cell phone reception is poor out there.
Bring a Spare Tire
The Pawnee is to blame for a disproportionate number of the flat tires I have had in my lifetime. I swear, those prickly pear spines can go right through a sidewall. Even off road tires are not immune to the sharp rocks and metal debris that you will inevitably drive over. Be prepared, help may be a long way away.
Enjoy and Respect
Every year I see bad behavior ranging from swarming (i.e. spotting someone photographing an animal and joining them uninvited; often this is a chain reaction involving multiple parties), trespassing on private land, feeding wildlife, and stressing nesting birds or nursing mammals. Enjoy the Pawnee and protect it. Enough said!
Somebody pinch me. Did this really happen? I just returned from visiting Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and photographing not one, but two, Canada lynx in the wild.
The Canada lynx is a Colorado state endangered species. For the protection of these animals, details regarding whereabouts have been omitted.
You may wonder, how does one go about photographing a Canada lynx in the wild? When I set out on this project three years ago, I had no clue. “It’s nearly impossible”, people insisted. Even researchers dedicated to studying lynx rarely, if ever, encountered one outside of a trap.
Search the web and you can count the number of wild lynx photos from Colorado on one hand. One of the most recent photos, taken in 2013 by retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife employee Steve Chaney, went viral and was picked up by the Huffington Post.
The Canada lynx was reintroduced to Colorado beginning in 1999 after being wiped out by predator poisoning, over hunting, and loss of habitat. Prior to the reintroduction, the last verified sighting of a lynx was in 1973 near Vail. Between 1999 and 2006, just over 200 lynx were released into the Colorado high country. Since then, the reintroduction has been declared a success and researchers are working to monitor the size and potential expansion of the lynx population in Colorado.
“Oh, I saw a lynx once”, people often tell me. “Lynx, or bobcat?” I reply. Nine times out of ten, after paging through fuzzy iPhone photos, we will determine that their lynx was, in fact, a bobcat. Bobcats are constantly misidentified as lynx. Although secretive, bobcats are common on the Front Range, and if you spend enough time here, you have decent odds of seeing one. Lynx are rare, elusive, and typically live in remote stands of high altitude forest.
Lynx and bobcat can be difficult to tell apart because they are closely related. Last year, a photo of a bobcat made the rounds in the media under the headline “Rare Mountain Lynx Spotted, Photographed near Wild Basin Lodge in Estes Park Area.” Everything about a lynx is larger than a bobcat, but especially its massive feet. If you are unsure, a foolproof way to tell a lynx from a bobcat is to get a good look at its tail. The black tip on a bobcat’s tail only goes halfway around; the underside is white. A lynx’s tail is black all around, like it’s been dipped in paint.
But back to the question at hand – how does one go about photographing a Canada lynx in the wild? I’m still not sure I can answer, but my story begins on a wintry morning in the San Juan Mountains.
We woke up to heavy snowfall and the kind of avalanche danger that sends normal people fleeing to the patrolled boundaries of the ski resorts. I was glad to be with experienced friends who know the local terrain. On our way to the trailhead, we decided to make a detour to check a nearby site for lynx activity. “Nearby” in the San Juans is a relative term. As the crow flies, it was just a few miles, but it would mean an extra hour and a half in the car. As the snow continued to fall, the risk of an avalanche burying the road and leaving us stuck loomed in our minds.
It’s funny how the subconscious works. During the drive, my friends told me about their encounter with a pine marten last summer. In the predawn twilight, their brains had picked up on the shape of the marten as it clung motionless to the trunk of a tree, even before they knew exactly what they were looking at. Buried deep inside, we still possess those abilities that meant the difference between a meal and starvation to our ancestors ages ago.
“Stop!” I called out as a set of tracks whizzed by the passenger window. A buzzer was going off in my subconscious cave man brain. We had seen hundreds of tracks crisscrossing the fresh snow all morning, but there was something subtly different about these. Jumping out to investigate without bothering to lace up my boots, I struggled to identify the tracks as they filled in with snow beneath my nose. I knew they were something I had never seen before – a short list of possibilities.
I couldn’t follow the tracks. The hillside was too steep, the snow too deep, and the brush too thick. My feet were getting soaked and my friends were ready to move on before the roads worsened. I crawled back into the truck and we drove off, exhilarated and a more than a little befuddled.
The story just as easily could have ended here. But it didn’t. Just up the road was a trail heading into the woods, and with some luck, the trail might intersect the tracks. Perhaps, sheltered beneath a canopy of pine boughs, I might be able make out more details in the tracks.
We put on our skis and started up the trail. About a hundred yards in, a snowshoe hare played hide and seek with us in the undergrowth. As we stopped to watch it, I saw the mysterious tracks crossing the path just ahead. This time, I was able to follow them, and under a spruce tree, I could see the prints clearly in the snow. Cat tracks.
My friends remained to watch the snowshoe hare as I followed the tracks down the hillside. They were fresh and looping right back towards our truck. The animal must have been sneaking down as we were headed up. We had missed it by a matter of minutes.
This could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Today was a lucky day.
As I lingered, trying to piece together what had happened, not one, but two Canada lynx appeared out of the forest and casually traversed the road. With my camera handy, I snapped off a few dozen shots before they disappeared into cover again. I had just had my first look at a Canada lynx in the wild!
I felt a little guilt. My friends were still up the trail. When they caught up, they were trying to tell me something about the snowshoe hare. “C’mon!” I prompted and we huffed and puffed in the thin air back to the location where the tracks disappeared into the woods. I told them about the lynx and showed them the photos on the back of my camera.
Once again, the story could have ended here. But once again, it did not. Today was a very lucky day.
We decided to stick around a bit longer. We knew what direction the lynx were headed, and there were some nice clearings that might offer another chance to see them. As it often does, the persistence paid off. After perhaps fifteen minutes, my friends got their first glimpses of the lynx between the trees. We could hear them calling to each other in short growls. It was something I had only heard in zoos until now.
Then, the grand finale. The first lynx emerged from the woods halfway between me and my friends. We stood dead still and held our breaths as it crept to the shoulder of the road. It cautiously looked both ways and stepped out. The second lynx followed behind and together they crossed before disappearing once again. Two ghosts of the boreal forest had just granted us a front row seat.
Honestly, this is never how I thought the story would go. In my mind’s eye, I pictured cold, lonesome days in a blind. Winters of couch surfing in the San Juans, missing my wife and questioning my sanity. Just waiting for a chance at a grainy, distant photo of a lynx through the pine trunks.
Maybe it was a very lucky day. Maybe it was providence. Or maybe I’m still dreaming.
The short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea) is Colorado’s smallest native carnivore. In summer, this diminutive weasel sports a chocolate brown coat with a light underbelly. In winter, it transforms to pure white except for a black tipped tail. In this white phase, the short-tailed weasel is often referred to as an ermine.
I have now photographed 56 species of the 70 species in my Colorado Mammals Project. Of the 14 species that remain, ten are incredibly rare, if they even exist in Colorado at all. The other four include the recently reintroduced Canada lynx, the Virginia opossum (our only marsupial), the invasive feral pig, and the short-tailed weasel (a.k.a. ermine). It is the winter white ermine that I have set my sights on this winter and hope to photograph next.
Despite its tiny size, the short-tailed weasel is a formidable hunter and its slender body allows it pursue small mammals into their burrows. The majority of its diet consists of mice, and voles, but it is capable of taking larger prey including cottontail rabbits when given an opportunity. Like other mustelids, the short-tailed weasel hunts daily to fuel its high metabolism. Contrary to popular belief, weasels do not kill for fun and in the wild surplus food is cached for later consumption.
The short-tailed weasel ranges across the northern latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia in a Holarctic distribution. In the late 1800s short-tailed weasels were introduced to New Zealand by European settlers in an attempt to control the rabbit population (also introduced). The impact on New Zealand’s native ground nesting bird populations has been disastrous.
In Colorado, the short-tailed weasel can be found throughout much of the state, particularly in mountainous regions. Data from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Natural Diversity Information Source (NDIS) suggests that the short-tailed weasel is most abundant in Douglas, Teller, Gilpin, Summit, Lake, and Routt counties.
Colorado is home of two species of weasels: the short-tailed weasel and the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). Short-tailed weasels have short tails, and long-tailed weasels have, well, you know. Technically, the length of a short-tailed weasel’s tail is 44% or less of the length of its head and body. Anything longer than 44% and you are looking at a long-tailed weasel. Long-tailed weasels are also about 50% larger, but both species can vary greatly in size and males are significantly larger than females.
I have encountered and photographed several long-tailed weasels in the wild. They are most easily seen in the summer months hunting pikas and rodents amongst the talus in locations such as Rocky Mountain National Park. When I have encountered them, I have always been impressed and amused by their boldness and curiosity. I have yet to lay eyes on a short-tailed weasel in Colorado or elsewhere but I have recently observed tracks at several locations that give me hope.
Because of their slender body and high surface to weight ratio, weasels easily lose heat to the elements. During the cold and windy Rocky Mountain winter, the ermine spends much of its time tunneling in and under the snow hunting rodents beneath the snowpack. This allows the ermine to save energy, but makes them even harder to observe.
Still, they can be seen ducking and diving in and out of the snow, and with time and patience I believe that I will be able to photograph one. A promising number of skiers I have talked to have seen an ermine while on the slopes or from chairlifts. Arapaho Basin Ski Area even has a run called “Weasel Way”, although I didn’t see any sign of weasels when I was there in December. Nevertheless, I plan to continue my ski based ermine search until I succeed or the snow melts.