Like Being in a Nature Film

An Abundance of Wildlife Encounters during a Mountain Run on July 29, 2019

Conall was on edge during our forest hike yesterday (Good Sense, posted 7-29-19, a day later). This morning I took him running on trails we visit frequently at a nearby skiing and mountain biking resort. Finn stayed home because I wanted to cover more miles than his aging joints would appreciate. Mostly, though, I wanted to see if Conall showed any hesitation. If not, then I would chalk yesterday’s behaviors up to a scary aura in that vicinity on that particular trail. Which is okay, because given all the grass seeds and burrs covering me and the boys from that short jaunt, I have no desire to go back anyway.

When I’m running trails, I usually keep my cell phone/camera tucked into my lightweight running pack. To take a photo, I must stop, shrug the pack off my shoulders, unzip the pocket and pull out the phone, unlock it, and open the camera function. Time consuming and a pain. When I know I’m going to run through an area with lots of photo ops, I’ll carry it in my hand for quick access.

Typical trail running terrain, here an early morning on the same mountain with both dogs on July 30, 2019.

Hoping to get to my camera faster during runs, I purchased a SPIbelt running belt, designed specifically to carry “special personal items” such as cell phones around the waist while running, without any bounce. I found it annoying, however, riding too high (I have an actual waist, go figure). The SPIbelt works fine for walks and hikes when I can wear it looser, on my hips, so not a total loss.

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!

Dr. Seuss

Oh, how I wish I had been carrying my camera in my hand throughout this morning’s run, or had easier access than my pack. So many interesting and unusual wildlife encounters! Most of them without photographic proof, alas.

A Grouse Does Her Best Mama Bear Impersonation

Early on, as Conall and I are heading up a steep stretch of service road near the base of the mountain, I hear the unusual call of some sort of raptor. My initial thought is eagle, based on the sound and volume, but I’m no bird expert. A few steps farther up the hill, I look up to see a huge bird alight from a tree on the uphill side, fly across our path with a smaller bird in pursuit, and land near the top of tall tree on the downhill side. It’s all brown – no white head or tail – but without the distinctive wingtips of a turkey vulture. I wonder if it’s a golden eagle. Doing a little google searching later at home, my best guess is that it was a juvenile bald eagle, based on its call, which is very different than the call of a golden eagle. Whatever it was, it was cool to see, and I was duly impressed. Conall wasn’t, although I bet he would have been had the bird swooped close overhead.

Continuing our climb, Conall and I begin running a long uphill stretch of nice single-track trail as it meanders gently up and across the face of the mountain. This trail is designated “easy” for mountain bikers going downhill. It’s one of my favorites – runable, taking one through alternating forested and open sections with expansive views to the west, and tons of wildflowers in June and July. Conall trots happily just a few yards ahead of me, his normal, unworried self.

Suddenly, first one, then a second grouse flushes out of the copse of trees to the left of the trail, flying between me and Conall, across the trail toward more trees. My brain registers that the first bird is smaller than the second. I lose track of the first bird but watch the second one fly low to the ground across the trail, landing in the lower branches of a tree just a couple of feet to the right of the trail.

Catching up to Conall, who’s still standing on the trail but now facing toward the grouse in the trees, I look for and find the grouse perching on a tree branch. She’s so close, just a couple feet away, at eye-level. And mad! So mad. She swoops from her perch back across the trail, landing on the ground at the edge of the trail just three feet from me. I turn to look at her. She holds her wings out at her sides and glares at me, looking large and furious, flapping her wings menacingly. She’s beautiful, her feathers dark brown with dark and light markings. A spruce grouse. I’m intimidated, wondering if she’ll actually charge me, but I’m also struggling to remove my pack and get my camera so I can photograph her.

A grouse near Stanly, Idaho. Photo: Katja Schulz, CC2.0

She’s so impressive. Impatient with me as I’m wrestling my pack and not leaving, the grouse takes a couple steps towards me, wings flaring, head poking, as if she’s going to attack. That’s when Conall decides to protect me. From behind, he jumps toward the grouse. She quickly flies up and into the safety a nearby tree. Conall stays next to me.

Nice to know Conall’s got my back.

Leaving my camera in my pack – the grouse’s new perch is too far into the trees for a decent photo – I put it back on. I realize now that the first bird I saw was a fledgling, and mama grouse is protecting it. I tell Conall we need to leave mama grouse alone, and we continue up the trail.

Wow. An eagle (I think), and now a close encounter with an angry grouse doing a hell of an impression of a mama bear protecting her cub. Quite the morning. I’m smiling as Conall and I continue climbing up the trail. What else is in store?

The Hits Keep Coming

Two minutes of running later, past an open area and under more trees, another grouse encounter! This time, two fledglings, with high-pitched squawking alarms – baby voices – fly across the trail directly in front of Conall toward the trees on the right-hand side. I don’t know if Conall’s heart races at the suddenness of their flight, but mine does. I hear a larger bird rouse in the trees to our left, wings flapping, but this mama doesn’t follow the two smaller birds across the trail, instead landing somewhere in the thick trees where I can’t see her. Nor do I know where the fledglings landed.

It’s definitely a grouse morning.

I think to myself it’s a good thing Finn stayed home. Conall’s intrigued by the grouse but doesn’t chase them through the trees. Finn does. Both dogs can smell them, and following their noses, often flush them.

Onward and upward Conall and I go. We’re getting above most of the forested sections so I figure things will calm down.

Everything is calm for several minutes. I admire the views and the wildflowers while also being careful where I plant my feet on the trail. We’re running along a section of trail that’s mostly flat, crossing the face of the mountain a little above mid-level.

The Hunt is On

Running at a steady pace, Conall just a few feet ahead of me, we’re both startled when a whole bunch of birds – between 5-10 small grouse, as well as a few different, smaller birds above them – flush and fly downhill across the trail several yards ahead of us, making quite a racket on an otherwise peacefully quiet mountain. Puzzled, Conall and I both stop. A half-second later I see a canine in hot pursuit of the birds, running fast behind them, crossing the trail and continuing several yards down-slope. Trying to understand what I’m seeing, my initial thought is, Fluffy tail high over hips; is that someone’s husky? But it’s early in the morning and though I never see anyone else up here this time of day, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities. The canine stops chasing the birds, turns back uphill, takes a few loping steps, then stops to stare at us: Oh!

Coyote? I wonder. It’s grayish coat is not unlike a coyote’s, and based on size, it could be, although a small one. It’s still a fair distance away, so I’m guessing. But definitely canid.

Same image as the cover photo, zoomed, showing the canine observing us while hunting between the tall tree in the middle of the line of trees and the large shrub in the middle foreground.

As the dust literally settles, I lunge for Conall’s bright orange vest and grab hold before he can take off chasing. With the animal staring at us, almost challenging us, I can tell Conall wants to chase it. I quickly unzip a small pocket on the front of my running vest where I keep a leash and attach it to Conall. As I’m doing so, I’m also looking toward the unidentified canine. It seems quite bold, aware of us yet not running away.

“Git!” I yell, hoping to scare it away. As soon as I say the word, Conall lunges at the end of the leash, wanting to go after it. The animal seems completely unconcerned and won’t leave. Instead, it moves uphill and closer to the trail, into a clump of rocks and shrubs. I wonder if it has a den there. This presents a problem. I have a strong dog who wants to go after the animal that is close to the trail we need to traverse to continue along our route.

My subconscious takes note that Conall is not afraid of this animal.

A few seconds after the canine disappears into the clump of shrubs, it re-emerges and dashes quickly downslope a few yards, then leaps and pounces, stirring up some dust. It has a gopher in its mouth! Wow. Quite the hunter, making it look easy. I watch the gopher struggling in the canine’s mouth until it shakes its head, hard. The gopher stops moving. The canine drops its catch on the ground, then moves off, a bit down-slope but also in the direction I want to go.

Conall is fascinated. He hasn’t made a sound, but he strains at the end of the leash and never takes his eyes off the animal.

Getting this second chance to see it, I notice its coat is grayish and brown and mottled, almost like a merle Australian shepherd.

With Conall on leash I feel emboldened to take off my running pack and dig out my camera. I take a couple of photos before the canine disappears behind the shrubs down-slope. I hope it shows up clearly when I edit the photos at home.

In this brief minute or two I have time to combine what I’ve seen with what I know from experience. I deduce we’re observing a fox. I’m used to seeing red fox that are truly red or even gold in color. This one is more black/gray/brown, all mottled together, but the incredibly fluffy tail in relation to the rest of its body is what gives it away. Coyotes don’t have such fluffy tails. And coyotes tend to be shyer. Fox, so fleet of foot, aren’t intimidated by people or dogs; they know they can easily run away if necessary.

Black and red fox carrying a squirrel. Photo: National Park Service.

Conall’s reaction is the final factor that allows me to decide we’ve been treated to a fox, hunting. All spring, a fox has taunted the boys at home, sauntering down our driveway and through our field while the boys bark and lunge in outrage from inside the fenced yard. Conall knew this was a fox. He wanted revenge.

I feel like we’re part of a nature film. Sir David Attenborough narrates. See how the mother grouse protects her young by distracting predators, making herself appear large and fierce, giving the fledglings a chance to get away and hide. Now, watch the fox flush a covey of grouse but fail to catch one as they fly away. Not to be discouraged, however, she quickly finds a gopher and killing it, leaves it behind as she continues hunting, retrieving it later for her kits to eat in their den.

Wary of the fox coming back our way, I keep Conall on leash as we continue along the trail. Conall stops frequently, looking where the fox went. I have to tug on the leash to keep him moving. Finally, he relaxes and stops looking behind us for the fox, so I let him off leash and we continue our run.

Conall off leash again, but still curious about every sound he hears as we make our way across the mountain.

Calm Restored

We still have more than half of our route to complete, yet we’ve already seen more wildlife up close than we would in ten typical trail runs. As we make our way toward the mountain’s summit, Conall seems more eager than usual to chase gophers. Maybe, after seeing the fox catch one, he wanted to prove he could, too. If so, he failed miserably, but I won’t tell.

Eventually we top out and begin our descent by following some long switchbacks in and out of forested areas on a different trail. No more grouse encounters. We often startle deer through here, but this year, we haven’t seen any. This is also a place for huckleberries, but at this elevation we’re too early.

Making our way along one of the forested switchbacks, Conall abruptly detours several yards up a steep hillside. He’s following his nose. Huckleberries? He stops and sniffs near the base of a tree surrounded by dense foliage. I can’t see what has caught his attention, but he’s not grazing huckleberries. Not wanting him to eat anything disgusting (animal scat), I ask him to come join me on the trail. He starts to, then stops and looks at me as if to say, But, there’s something cool up here. I tell him okay, and he returns to the base of the tree. He picks up something in his mouth and heads back toward me. Animal bones. Or as I refer to them, forest treasure. He’s found two bones still connected at the joint – likely a deer leg – each bone cracked at the far end by some animal in order to access the marrow.

Conall posing with his forest treasure, found at the base of a tree several yards directly uphill from where he’s sitting.

Conall is proud of himself. That’s why he wanted to return to the tree, to make sure I knew what he’d found. I praise him, as I’ve always done since he was a puppy. His nose never ceases to amaze me. I ask him to pose for a photo.

Duly praised and photographed, Conall drops the bones in the shrubs and rejoins me on the trail.

The rest of our run is anticlimactic but fun. The weather has been perfect, the wildflowers beautiful. The dust on the trail is thick – it’s been dry for weeks – but that’s a small price to pay for an otherwise amazing morning on the trails. Two and one-half hours after starting, we reach the car and I tally our wildlife encounters. Eagle: one, being strafed by a smaller bird. Grouse: two + three + a terrified covey mixed with other terrified small birds. Fox: one, a bit haughty, chasing a covey of grouse and hunting (successfully) a gopher.

Wildflowers near a creek.

Best of all, Conall is his usual, confident self. The strangeness of his behavior the day before – the wariness – is gone. Over the course of these past two forays into the forest I’ve learned so much about Conall’s body language, including his signals that there’s something dangerous nearby. I’ll be quicker to listen to him in the future. I can better contrast alarm with alertness. I’ve also learned that he will protect me from an angry grouse. That Conall easily distinguishes between a fox and a coyote, and he really doesn’t like fox. I don’t blame him. They’re shameless taunts and teases. But so beautiful. Those fluffy tails!

I still can’t believe how lucky I was to have a front-row seat as a fox hunted birds and gophers in a natural setting on the side of a mountain on a gorgeous summer morning.

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