by Christine Wren, Teaching Naturalist

Recently, I spent a memorable day tracking at MPG Ranch, southeast of Lolo in the Sapphire Mountains. We were a group of seven, five of us the lucky raffle chosen winners, and two knowledgeable folks at MPG who both work as part of a larger team on an ongoing mountain lion research project. Naturally, we were hoping to find cougar tracks (and the outside chance of the cats themselves) in a part of this large 40,000-acre study area. We didn’t find either of those, which was not disappointing given the huge area and the cats’ secretive nature. However, I learned a LOT about the art of tracking.  

We found an amazing presence of red fox tracks everywhere in the fresh snow, along with the tracks of rabbits, mice, shrew, squirrel, and coyote. Other signs of scat, deer and elk rubbings, and bedded-down areas were easier to discover once our eyes got used to noticing these details. I learned that red fox leave scent mark “posts” for territorial messages—like most other mammals in the wild—but the urine of these scent markings has a distinct smell for each species. So, I now know firsthand that red fox urine smells exceptionally STRONG and clearly reminiscent of skunk! And, if fairly fresh, it carries far in the wind.

By far, the most intriguing find of the day was the imprint of a fresh owl kill in the snow.

owl predation print in the snow

Photo by Christine Wren.

Inside and next to the dark hole where the mouse met its demise were several vivid red blood drops. Gathering all the evidence and surrounding clues, we hypothesized, after a night to think further about the evidence, that the large, oval shape of the kill site shows the bulk of the owl’s body and head as it made a downward face plant into the snow. The leading edges of the wings clearly show themselves along the sides of the body as the owl quickly landed, thrusting its talons at full force into the mouse. All of this story outlined in great detail in the snow, like a textbook description! Pretty fun to be detectives at work all day figuring out who had been where, how recently, and doing what!