Greenfire News: Summer, 2002


The large numbers of elk, deer and horses that spent the fall, winter and early spring here at Greenfire are gone.

The elk have moved to higher country. I see yearling deer occasionally, but the does have moved to solitary places to give birth. The bucks have moved up on the ridges.

Wildlife sightings at Greenfire these days consists primarily of birds and predators. For most of winter and all of spring, I watched coyotes take advantage of our previous summer irrigation project. The abundant, ungrazed grasses created tremendous habitat for meadow voles, and they multiplied rapidly. Then came the coyotes, kestrels and northern harriers to capitalize on the exploding rodent populations.

The coyotes would hunt in the fields all day. Through our new spotting scope (generously donated by WWP board secretary-treasurer Gene Bray) I observed their successes. The coyotes would capture a mouse or vole about every 10 minutes, even through a blanket of snow. Once the snow had melted, the captures increased to every 45 seconds.

The act of hunting, capture and consumption was fascinating to observe. When a coyote detected a vole, it suddenly stopped short, cocked its head slowly from side to side, then forward and back, while focusing intently on one point in the snow-covered grass.

I imagined the coyote using some sort of auditory triangulation to pinpoint the precise location of the scurrying noises under the snow Suddenly, the wily predator would leap into the air and come down hard on its forepaws, muzzle close to the ground, frozen at the ready. Then, like a flash of lightning, it would jam its snout into the snow and grass and come up with a little brown ball of fur.

The morsel wasn't consumed right away. Instead the rodent was tossed into the air, plucked from the ground and tossed again. This ritual was repeated several times before the little critter became the coyote's lunch.

I have heard it said that animals such as coyotes and wolves like to play with their prey before they kill it. Patience may look like a game, but it probably has more to do with common sense. Coyotes are probably capable of chomping voles out of their misery rather quickly -- but with an element of risk. A dying vole is probably capable of sinking its teeth into a coyote's lip in one last-ditch effort to escape.

Though it may appear to be a game, I doubt that tossing rodents into the air represents a kind of torture or a case of predator playing with its food. The coyote may simply be trying to avoid unnecessary pain. Wolves probably experience similar situations when they bring down elk or even bovines -- animals that could inflict serious pain and injury to a predator equipped to kill only with its teeth.

In addition to the more common predators observed at Greenfire, we have documented a nesting pair of peregrine falcons. A week before WWP's annual board meeting at the preserve, I spotted a large bird on the fence south of the main house. It was early in the morning -- just before daylight -- and difficult to see well. But the moment I saw the raptor, I thought peregrine.

Before I could train the spotting scope on the bird, it took flight. A couple of days later, I saw three birds that I thought were peregrines. However, they were flying very high and were difficult to see. Two of the birds seemed to be evicting the third from the area, and they seemed to be successful.

On the day of the board meeting, a group of us saw a bird on the cliffs east of the main house. This bird also looked like a peregrine. It perched on a rock ledge to pick apart and eat a rock dove. There was no doubt; it was a peregrine.

Everyone present had several opportunities to observe the bird from many angles, and a positive identification was made. Over the course of the weekend we saw the birds many times, and Gene thought he identified the location of the aerie.

The following week, I contacted Jim Johnston of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He came out to the preserve and confirmed that the birds are indeed peregrines.

He also confirmed the aerie that Gene discovered.

The aerie, one of only about 20 in Idaho, is a promising sign of the ongoing recovery of this once endangered species. (For a good photo of a peregrine falcon go to: http://www.ucalgary.ca/~tull/falcon/ )

Various neotropical migrants have returned to Greenfire to nest. At the main house, the old homestead and along the river, I have observed many species, including western tanagers, yellow warblers, kingbirds and bluebirds. Western wood pewees are back, and along the river I often see blue herons, American dippers and mergansers.