We are conducting surveys, monitoring, and research on cougars (puma, mountain lion) on the Ladder Ranch in south-central New Mexico. Here, cougars are of particular interest given their effects on state-endangered desert bighorn sheep and other valuable big game. These projects are also resources for training and education, most notably through the Cougar Field Workshop.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Once back at our starting point we were further confounded by the continued absence of any signal from #21. Either the collar had stopped transmitting, perhaps due to battery failure, or our dead sheep had left the canyon. Another possibility, we thought unlikely, was that the cougar in its normal kill caching behavior, had buried the collar in such a way as to dampen the signal transmission. We decided the best option at this late time of day, was to drive to the top of the range, and from this high vantage point (see photo above) attempt to locate the signal. We drove the very bumpy miles to the top of the range to be met with silence on our radio receiver once again. We hiked and searched these canyon rims until sunset, but to no avail. Number 21 was simply gone.

After the rams discovered us and trotted away we resumed our search for the supposedly dead ewe. We climbed to the top of the smaller hill - no signal. We climbed to the top of the taller hill and were again perplexed by the silence on the receiver. We should have had the signal from #21 loud and clear from this vantage point if she were anywhere in a 1/2 to 1 mile radius. But what you think you should find and what you actually find in field work are often two very different things. We had no choice now but to return to the spot where we first heard the signal and determine if the collar was still transmitting. Along the way we worked out various explanations for the lost signal. As we hiked down the steep rocky slope we were careful not to step on any rattlesnakes such as the one we met on the way up the hill (shown above). This is pehaps the largest black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) that we have seen this year.

Eventually, these three approached to within 10 meters of us as we peered over the top of the rocks and tried to photograph as quitely as possible. These are the same three that were observed yesterday in a canyon a few miles to the south. Then, they were slamming thier massive horns together as they vied for access to a female. All three were observed breeding, usually one breeding the ewe while the other two fought. The two on each end of this lineup bear scars, tears, and sores on thier faces where the skin has been lacerated in these monumental conflicts. The ram in the center actually has large sections of horn broken off the boney core. Note especially the left side horn.

After a few moments of nervous vigilance, these 3 began walking off the hill. We were sure they had detected us as they kept their ears pointed in our direction. We waited to see where they would go as they filed off the hill. Imagine our surprise when they came towards us.

After gathering our gear and data sheets and making the appropriate phone calls, we began our hike. From where the trail forks, in the photo below, we saw a group of 7 ewes and 2 rams on the hill in front of us. We checked the radio receiver and again we heard a loud clear mortality signal coming from the collar of ewe #21. We decided to climb to the top of the hills in the middle of the fork (our trail along their ridge can be seen below) to get a more accurate bearing on the signal. As we crested the top of the first hill we saw three large rams on the hillside in front of us. We immediately crouched low behind a rock out crop to observe these magnificant animals. The three rams can be seen in the photo above, looking much like rock outcrops themselves.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Yesterday was one of our more exciting and frustrating days on the mountain. At 7:00 we detected a normal signal from one of our radio collared ewes, #21. At 9:00 Michelle Schireman and I began our hike into sweatshirt canyon to collect visual data on some of the bighorns. At 9:15 we received a mortality signal from #21. These radio collars are set to send a mortality signal after the collar has been stationary for 6 hours. In many cases, this mortality signal is the result of a cougar predation event. We immediately returned to the trucks and began preparation for what we anticipated would possibly be a very long hike and a longer day. Above is a view of Sweatshirt Canyon from the top of the Fra Cristobals with our hiking route outlined in red.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The yellowing of cottonwood, willows, and salt cedar along the Rio Grande signals the advance of fall here on the Armendaris ranch. We have recently been joined by Michelle Schireman, the AZA (American Association of Zoos and Aquariums) puma population manager and full time zoo keeper at the Oregon Zoo. Michelle and I co-authored a successful grant proposal to the Oregon Zoo Future for Wildlife Fund. The resulting funding has purchased a GPS collar for the project as well as provided time for Michelle to assist in the work here on the Armendaris. In the photo above Michelle is looking for one of our radio collared ewes. A link to the Oregon Zoo has been added to the sidebar.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Cougar tracks were found in two locations yesterday. The first set, seen in the photo above the map, were found in the road near the northern tip of the Fra Cristobal range. Note the three lobes in the heel of the forepaw and the asymmetrical arrangement of the toes which distinguish cougar tracks from those of similarly sized canids (dogs and wolves). This cougar was headed north. As we received rain on Saturday and Sunday nights the damp soil provided an excellent substrate for some deep clear tracks. The second set of tracks, top photo, also indicated a cougar moving northward. In the top photo I have drawn arrows in the sand to indicate the location of the tracks.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Our Cuddeback remote camera photographed several species as they passed along this trail near the Rio Grande. Here we see a bobcat (Lynx rufus) as it walks down the path in the late afternoon, a striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) passing by just after dark, and the south end of a north bound javelina (Tayassu tajacu).

Friday, October 13, 2006

This desert bighorn (Ovis canadensis) ram was photographed with one of our remote cameras in March of this year at a water catchment. Bighorn sheep seem to cope well with low water availability but desert bighorns are especially well adapted. They may go 15 days or more without access to water and may loose up to 30% of their total body water. Since 1900 most desert bighorn populations have been extirpated. However, in the last few decades several of these populations have been reestablished through the efforts of state wildlife agencies.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

From Friday to Monday of this week I was in the state of Sonora, Mexico, near the town of Nicori Chico (see map above) looking for jaguar tracks. In this diverse area, which includes Sinaloan thorn scrub as well as madrean oak woodland (see photo) an association of ranches has incorporated to protect one of the, if not THE, northern-most population of jaguar. They have agreed to stop the persecution of jaguar in the hopes that they can recover the financial losses in cattle depredation from researchers, ecotourists, and educational programs. (Check out David Quammen's "Monster of God" for a good introduction to the difficulties many people face living in close proximity to large carnivores.) I was scouting this area for its potential as a future research location as well as a unique area to bring Furman students for a field course. Unfortunately, rain prevented us from finding any tracks; but, local vaqueros told us that jaguar tracks had been seen recently. A recent camera survey of this area revealed 5 individual jaguar.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There were a number of good sightings today. The morning excitement started with a 5ft western diamondback crossing the road, followed by the tarantula (above) in a wash where I was looking for tracks. A short while later I saw two Prairie Falcons, a juvenile Peregrine and an American Kestrel in the same area; perhaps they were migrating. Shortly before lunch I saw this texas horned lizard (above) on the road.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Here are a few maps to put recent events into perspective. The bottom map shows the location of the remote camera that took the photos of the cougar (see new header and previous posts) as well as the location of the recently discovered tracks (again see previous posts). The top map shows the location of bighorns observed from July 1 to September 30. The take home message here is that this cougar is in the heart of bighorn territory. This is not to say that the cougar will definitely kill a bighorn by any means; however, we are listening for a mortality signal from our bighorn radio collars with heightened anticipation these days. Speaking of the propensity of cougar to take bighorn, Sarah Galloway, a Furman senior, recently analyzed the data from a male cougar fitted with a GPS collar from the Fra Cristobal mountain range. The cougar hunted in the heart of bighorn country for about 180 days before killing a bighorn ewe. This male cougar fed mostly on mule deer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

No cougar sign today. Our recent visitor has vanished as suddenly as he/she appeared. The remote cameras are still producing interesting photos from time to time, such as the two mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) fawns and this striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis). We are using three types of remote digital camera: Cuddeback and Vigil (both purchased with Furman University Research and Professional Growth Grants) and Trail Mac (purchased by TESF). Finally, a quick thanks to Jesse Perry who assisted with the search for cougar sign this last week.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

There has been no sign of the cougar since the 28th of September. In addition to rechecking the remote camera that produced the photos below and rechecking the waterhole where the tracks were seen, two long hikes were taken in Hellion and Chrysoclora canyons at the south and north ends of the range respectively. Something triggered one of the remote cameras in Release Canyon, but the resulting image shows only water, rocks, and plants. Perhaps this was our cat.

Although we haven't seen sign of the cougar, life at Lava Camp has not been without excitement. At the risk of turning this into a "Furman Snake Blog" here's a picture of an evening visitor to the front door that created a lot of excitement.