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Follow the Pack, December 29, 2011

San Mateo Tracks and Middle Fork Serenades

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Follow the Pack returned to the home range of the San Mateo pack of Mexican gray wolves just after the autumnal equinox. We camped in the same little valley where we had camped in August, but we weren’t sure we would find any sign of the San Mateo lobo family this time. By early fall, wolf pups are getting bigger and packs are starting to move around, so we weren’t sure the pack would still be nearby. Rainy weather had left the ground soft and muddy, however. If the wolves were in the area, we hoped to find their tracks.

The next morning we hiked up the forest road that leads up the valley to the southwest. Not far from our camp we found our first tracks in the muddy road. Can you identify the animal that made this track? It’s a large animal that is omnivorous. That means it eats both animal and plant foods. (Answer at the end of this story.)

A little farther along we found this track. Can you tell what animal made it? It is an ungulate, an animal with hooves. It’s the favorite food of Mexican gray wolves. (Answer at the end of the story.)


As we continued hiking up the valley, we found more and more evidence of recent heavy rains. The road was so washed out that it began to look more like a creek bed than a road!


In a little while we came to a place where a small stream crosses the road. In the muddy creek bed we found dozens of Mexican gray wolf tracks, both adult and puppy size.


We all made casts of lobo tracks.


After the casting material hardened, Pamela and Cynthia washed the mud off their track casts.


Everyone went home with a wolf track cast as a souvenir of our trip.


In early October we returned to the little valley and pitched our tents. This time we got a surprise when we woke up the next morning.


A light snow overnight had turned the San Mateo pack home range into a fairyland.


Soon the warm sun melted most of the snow. We hiked back to the place where we found the stream bed full of lobo tracks ten days earlier. Rain had raised the water level in the stream. The tracks were now under water!


Although many of the tracks were below the surface of the water, we were able to make casts of a few tracks higher on the muddy banks. Lora is pouring the wet mixture into a circular “dam” made of strips cut from a plastic report cover. This prevents the mixture from spreading out too far and gives the cast a nice, round shape.

 

Middle Fork Serenades


After Thanksgiving, Follow the Pack made the first of two short trips to the home range of the Middle Fork pack. This pack is special because both breeding adults have only three legs. Alpha male AM871 lost his leg when he was caught in a leg-hold trap. Alpha female AF861 suffered a gunshot wound to her leg that required amputation. In spite of their lost legs, the pair has produced several litters of pups. This year they had seven! Biologists with the Mexican wolf reintroduction project are keeping a close eye on the pack to see how many of the pups survive until the end-of-year population survey in January 2012.

The Middle Fork home range consists of rolling grasslands, rugged canyons, and forests of ponderosa pine, piñon, juniper, and oak trees.

We pitched our tent in a valley surrounded by low hills. Night comes early in late November. Cold air sinks down into the valleys as soon as it gets dark. We were glad to crawl into our warm sleeping bags right after supper and listen to the sounds of evening in the woods. A gentle breeze made a rustling sound in the pine needles. Raven wings beat a soft “chuff, chuff” as the big, black birds flew low overhead and settled into nearby treetops for the night.

As the evening sky faded to the dark of night, we heard musical notes in a minor key drifting down a small ravine from the hills to the east. We sat up in order to better hear the lobos howling. There was at least one low voice and some higher notes that may have been half-grown pups. The song moved up and down the scale for twenty minutes, sometimes stopping for a minute or two and then starting again. Now and then we thought we heard answering voices from much farther away.

The following morning the Middle Fork lobos howled again as it began to get light. Again, they sang for over twenty minutes, with answering howls from the southeast. As the sun rose, it was a chilly +14°F in the valley. Wisps of smoke from our campfire of the night before hung in the air.

The sun shone through the last colorful leaves of autumn. Can you identify the kind of leaves shown in this photo? Is the tree a pine, juniper, or oak? (Answer at the end of the story.)


Later in the day we took a hike on a ridge east of our camp, in the general direction from which we heard howling. The ground was rocky and covered with fallen tree trunks left from an old forest fire. We found no lobo sign, but enjoyed the warm, fall sunshine.


The next morning, before daylight, we heard wolves briefly howling twice, at about six and seven in the morning. As we drove along the forest road on our way to the highway, we found fresh wolf scat on the road in the direction from which some of the howls seemed to come. The scat was so fresh that it was still very damp and there were drops of liquid on the ground underneath. It was also full of elk hair, giving us a clue about what the wolf had been eating. (Note: the track ruler measures in centimeters, not inches. Three centimeters equals a little less than 1 ¼ inches.)


A week later we returned to camp near where we found the fresh wolf scat. In just a few short days the warm, sunny afternoons of late autumn had turned to blustery, snowy days of early winter.


During the night we heard wolf music to the northwest, not far from where we heard the Middle Fork pack in November. After breakfast and some good, hot coffee, we set off to hike down the snow covered road in the hope of finding lobo tracks.


The snow began to fall harder as we walked, covering the rocks and fallen logs with a blanket of white.


Cooney Point was barely visible through a veil of snow and fog.


By noon the snow was falling heavily and the temperature was dropping. We decided to cut our trip short. We were afraid we might get snowed in, because the road crews don’t plow the roads into the heart of the Gila National Forest. We found no tracks, but we did enjoy the early morning concert by the Middle Fork lobos. We plan to return to their home range early in 2012. We’ll report on what we find.

Answers to questions:

The track of a large, omnivorous animal is a black bear track.
The track of an ungulate that is the lobo’s favorite food is an elk track.
The leaves in the close-up photo of the tree branch are leaves of an oak tree. The acorns of this Gambel oak provide food for wildlife. Native Americans use them in traditional dishes like acorn stew. Deer also browse on the leaves.

This is the latest installment in our Follow the Pack series. To read earlier Follow the Pack adventures, click here!