Named for their large ears (especially compared to the much smaller ears of the White-tailed Deer), Mule Deer can be found in this area year-round. Although they are primarily crepuscular (feeding at dawn and dusk), we still see small family groups of doe or 2 with youngsters throughout the day or even into the evening (photo below). The open water available in the birdbaths is a year-round draw for them, especially during dry spells. When food is scarce, such as late winter, they’ll also eat the bird seed that spills on the ground under the feeders.
Only males have antlers, which they drop in January or early February to regrow a new set each year. In winter, you may see strange scraping on smaller trees, removing the bark at times. These marks are likely from males scraping the blood-rich “velvet” off their new antlers. Rutting season begins in November, when dominant males round up the females; by December, the groups break up. Fawns are born in late May or June. For the first 2 – 3 weeks of life, the fawns stay by themselves during the day; their almost complete lack of scent and their speckled coloring allow them to hide from predators. The mother returns several times during the day for feeding.
We had an experience with this situation one summer. I heard the dogs barking like crazy out in the dog run. After about 10 minutes, I went out to see what the problem was. A young fawn was standing along the north fence line, staring at the dogs and looking a bit confused and wary. I brought the dogs inside, to give the youngster a break, and walked them on leashes the rest of the day. We saw no sign of it after that, so Mom probably moved it elsewhere. So—the moral of the story is that should you stumble on a lone fawn, leave it alone. Odds are very good that the mother isn’t far and will be back for it—and will probably move it—in good time. After 2 or 3 weeks, the fawn is strong enough and can move with the female throughout the day. The young stay with the mother until the following year’s breeding season (photo above, right). Click on any photo to see a larger version of it.
Elk tend to be around during the winter months, primarily when the snows in the high country are deep. They can be identified even from afar by their dark brown heads, necks, and legs contrasting with lighter colored bodies and light fur covering their rumps. We typically see them in a small herd in the field below our property (photo below), grazing early in the morning or in the evening.
Gray Foxes tend to be more nocturnal than Red Foxes are and hence are seen less often than are Red Foxes. Gray Foxes look a bit like Swift Foxes; however, Swift Foxes are grassland-obligates, so they reside primarily on the eastern plains. Grays can be differentiated from Red Foxes by their tail tips: A Gray Fox has a black-tipped tail and a Red Fox, a white-tipped one. Unlike a Red Fox, which has a vertical pupil (similar to a cat’s eye), a Gray has a oval pupil. Gray Foxes are the only fox species that commonly climbs trees and the ones in our area eat bird seed (although we’ve only seen them eating it on the ground—see the video below). Young are born in April and stay in the family group for five months, before leaving to find their own territories and mates.
For us, the local Gray Foxes appear as shadows at dusk. But one afternoon, one showed up to eat birdseed in broad daylight.
Red Foxes tend to be more common down by the river and along the creeks. However, Julia on Lot 3 sees 1 or 2 now and then. (The photo on the right was taken by her.) We have only caught a glimpse of one a few times. Red Foxes have a number of color “morphs” (e.g., black, silver, cross), but the red coat is the one we see around here. All Red Foxes, regardless of their morph, have white-tipped tails. Red Foxes share a number of characteristics with felines, unlike any other member of the dog family: For example, Reds have elliptical pupils, as cats do; their claws are semi-retractible.
A medium-sized bear, the Black Bear is Colorado’s largest surviving carnivore. (No reputable reports of grizzlies in the state since 1979 or 1980.) Their color can vary widely, from black to pale brown or even blond. In Colorado, researchers estimate that 83 percent of bears of both sexes are brown. Black bears are omnivorous, with a diet that depends on what kinds of food are seasonally available, although their mainstay is vegetation. In late summer and early fall, they enter a state of hypherphagia, where they can spend 20 hours a day looking for food in order to bulk up for hibernation.
We don’t see bears often, at least most summers (although the summer of 2014 was an exception to this generalization). The scrubby pinyon/juniper habitat doesn’t offer much in the way of decent food for bears, especially since the riparian area around Hamilton Creek, just a short ways from here is so much better for them. However, once they enter hyperphagia, anything can happen. When we get even the slightest hint of a bear in the area (for instance, large piles of scat near the house or on the trails—see left photo, with a 6-inch ruler for scale), we bring in all bird feeders at least at the end of the day.
In early June, 2014, we spotted this young bear ambling across the patio at about 8 a.m. one Sunday morning. (Except during hyperphagia, black bears are primarily—emphasis, primarily—nocturnal. So seeing this bear in broad daylight just added to the surprise.) It stopped briefly by one of the feeders; but Zell fired some warning shots in its direction and it—eventually—ambled back down the hill toward the creek. Early in June, we had a night-time visit from a bear, snuffling around under where the feeders had been. When Zell fired a warning shot in that bear’s direction, it took off post-haste down the hill. The non-reaction of young bear made me think that perhaps it was a 2nd-year bear that had just been kicked out by its mother. (Cubs stay with their mothers throughout their first year.) Since it was getting to be mating season for bears, the mom probably sent the kid on its way and it was wandering around, looking for a new place to be.
When we first owned the property, Coyotes were common. (Julia, on lot #3 took the photo to the left in late December, 2014.) You could often hear their howls and yips in the evening, from across the river, in the valley below, or to the west on BLM land. We’d see their scat on and around the trails. In past years, though, we had seen and heard few signs of them. Perhaps the recent additions of houses in the area moved them further onto BLM land. But in the past 3 months, we’ve started seeing at least one. We spotted a beauty loping across the road as we drove in on Christmas Eve day, 2014. And Julia on Lot 3 took this photo (from her house in Jan.—the same day that we spotted Coyote tracks in the fresh snow on our driveway. We’ve also been seeing scat much more frequently around the trails. The scat looks like that of a medium-sized dog but often nearly black with hair in it. The photo above contrasts coyote scat (on the right) with scat from the local Gray Fox (on the left). In winter, the foxes often eat a lot of berries (here, juniper berries, which you can see in this photo). But the Coyote is continuing to catch and eat mammals.
Just a bit larger than a big house cat, the eponymous bobbed tail is surprisingly easy to see as one runs away from you in your car’s headlights (which is our most common sighting). (The photo to the left is from Wikimedia Commons.) However, since we rarely see domestic house cats wandering around our area (loose cats become someone’s dinner, no doubt), any mammal that makes you think you’re seeing a house cat is probably a Bobcat. We have only spotted a Bobcat twice in our 20+ years of owning this property. One summer evening we heard one on the hill north of Trail Ridge Road, probably communicating with a youngster, given the time of year and the back-and-forth of the yowls. However, they are likely around most of the time, just very furtive and nocturnal.
Only once has either of us seen a Mountain Lion—Zell was working out on the property, rounded a corner on his ATV, and spotted a cat moving away from him. (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons.) We don’t even see much sign of them, although wild cats tend to bury their scat so it’s not as obvious as fox or coyote scat. However, they are always likely to be around. The best clue to this is the number of deer bones—some very fresh with fur still attached—that our dog finds as he moves around the property. So one should be especially cautious when outside at dusk and dawn although few reports of any attacks in our area have surfaced. Goodness knows that the area has enough mule deer to keep a resident big cat satisfied. In past years, reports have circulated about a rare black mountain lion down in the valley, but no photos have emerged.
Fox Squirrels aren’t native to Colorado, although they are expanding their range from the East with great ease. Their name derives from their reddish-brown fur. They are more heavy-bodied that Colorado’s native tree squirrels (Abert’s Squirrel, Pine Squirrel), so they tend to spend more time on the ground than these other species do. We see them on occasion at our bird feeders and bird baths during the winter. However, they typically move back down to the more deciduous areas by the creek for breeding.
These black, tassel-eared squirrels generally stick to ponderosa woodlands, since they depend on their cones, inner bark, buds, and fungi growing in and around these trees. However, every now and then one wanders up to our bird feeders.
Rock Squirrels are in the ground squirrel family, along with prairie dogs, marmots, and pikas. In fact, Rock Squirrels are the largest ground squirrel in Colorado. They can be differentiated from Fox Squirrels by their short tails and very bushy tails that are almost as long as their bodies. Although they are technically ground squirrels, they can climb trees nearly as well as some tree squirrels (e.g., Fox Squirrel). Rocky pinyon/juniper habitats are one of their favorite habitats. They don’t hibernate (or at least hibernate only for short periods), since they may appear on warm winter days. We begin to see them again in March, although they seem to lie low (estivate) during the very hot weeks of late summer.
Chipmunk species can be hard to differentiate, even in the hand. Given what is written about habitat, though, I think we have Colorado Chipmunks in our area. We see them drinking at the bird bath, eating bird seed under the feeders, and running up and down the stucco house. They also nest in the nest boxes throughout the property (right) and occasionally depredate the bird nests for the eggs or young nestlings. Although such acts can be disquieting for the box monitor (me!), I also figure that everyone deserves to eat. Some adult birds are very good at protecting their young from chipmunks, snakes, and mice; some, not so good. So those with terrific parents live to become the next generation. Beware of exposed wires—these critters love to chew through them. We had to replace the satellite ISP wires one year. They chewed through the plastic guard on the outlet of the exhaust fan in the upstairs bedroom and were running around in the vent. We ended up having to take the guard off, hold smoking rags to the fan in the bathroom, and watch to make sure they left. Once they were gone, Zell installed a metal guard.
I rarely see Deer Mice (thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the great photo below) except in the nest boxes, in large part because they are primarily nocturnal. One time, I opened a nest box and saw a strange strand stretched along the edge of the nest there. I’m always interested in what birds use to build their nests, so I touched it without really thinking, trying to figure out what it might be. Suddenly, it twitched and a Deer Mouse bolted out of the box, with one of her young clamped on her teat. Yikes! I quickly closed the box and moved on, hoping she’d return to her young. I’m not all that fond of Deer Mice, but I am very fond of all of the creatures that eat them.
Deer Mice are mostly harmless—and an important part of the ecosystem, since many animals eat them. However, they may carry Hantavirus (although as of this date, no cases have been documented in Frémont County), so one should always be careful when cleaning out areas that might have housed mice.
This mouse can easily be differentiated from the Deer Mouse by its slightly larger size and its very large ears—almost as large as their heads. Primarily nocturnal and agile tree climbers, Pinyon Mice are active throughout the year. A female Pinyon Mouse is sexually mature and can reproduce 50 days after being born. (Wow!) They reproduce from mid-February through mid-November, giving birth to litters of 3 – 6 blind, hairless young. The young have fur by the time they are 2 weeks old. They nurse for 3 – 4 weeks; sometimes a female becomes pregnant while she is still nursing a litter. (Wow!) In our area, females produce 3 or 4 litters per year. I have only spotted them in nest boxes (as in the photo here).
We don’t see the local woodrats often these days, but we used to come across their middens in various corners. Also referred to as “packrats,” these moderate-sized rodents (body, ~8″ from nose to base of the tail; tail, 5 – 7″) tend to collect sticks, leaves, and all sorts of other debris to form their nests. Their large ears and eyes aid in moving through the nighttime world. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)