Friday, November 25, 2011

Stumbling Onto A Coyote Den - the incidental merits of fighting yellow starthistle

Three juvenile coyotes travel past the wildlife camera on The Coyote Brush Highway.
I noticed something unusual in late June as I was mapping yellow starthistle in the upper pastures.  Mapping is an important early step to controlling noxious weeds, but I was annoyed to be walking through so much of this prickly pest.  In hopes of finding the waning edge of the infestation, I looked up towards the fence line and was relieved to see soft grass ahead.  And something else.  A small black flag was twitching above the seed heads.  It was the impatient tip of a brushy tail.  In a few seconds, a pair of paws came shooting out of the grass followed by a sharp nose and then a body and tail forming a furry parabolic curve.  A diving coyote pup.

Coyote pup hunting in the summer grass
I froze and watched the pup spring in and out of the grass several more times before another head popped out of the thistles within a few yards of me.  We startled each other and the pup tumbled back with a yip which sent three coyote pups racing for the nearest brush line.  The last pup stopped on a cow trail and turned to look at me.  Its nose and legs were shorter and ears less pointed than on adult coyotes.  Then it disappeared with its siblings into the brush, coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), actually.

Coyote pup pausing to check out the strange new sight
When I was sure the pups weren't coming back out, I walked over to examine the brush line.  I couldn't penetrate or see much inside the dense brush, but there were clues left in the strip of bare soil at the grass-brush edge.  Oblong tracks with claw marks - canine.  More intriguing were the two spots that were littered with pointed and hair-packed scats.  Some of the scats were medium length (approximately 3" long) and others were of similar shape but smaller and with more twists.  This was likely a communal latrine where the coyotes regularly emerged and took care of their business at a sanitary distance from a den, either a hole or a hollow in the dense brush.  Or it could be an important edge of their territory or the junction of a major pathway that they advertised with their sign.  At the base of the bushes adjacent to the scat pile there were low, dark tunnels leading into the tangled hedge at the top of a steep slope above Alpine Road.  I reexamined the brush edge and found a few bones and even stubby branches that looked like they had been chewed.

Coyote pup using the open gate to head for the bushes
Suddenly, mapping yellow starthistle got much more interesting.  I returned to the pasture repeatedly in the next few days trying to catch another view of the coyotes.  I thought I had seen a total of three pups, but I wasn't sure.  I never saw them all at once because they were shorter than the tall summer grass and I could only see a pup when one leaped or stepped into a clearing.  The head of an adult coyote would have cleared the grass, but I hadn't seen one with the frolicking pups.  I, on the other hand, was much taller than the grass.  The only way to approach the den area was across an open pasture, so I tried sneaking just below the tops of the rolling hills and slowly walking with the line of telephone poles or one of the few solitary bushes as a screen between me and the pup meadow.  At every barrier, I crouched down and glassed the slopes with my binoculars looking for waving tails or leaping pups.

Grasshopper heads in coyote scat
A few days later, I was lucky enough to watch the pups for nearly 20 minutes as they repeatedly made clumsy but determined pounces in the grass.  What were they doing?  Later, while examining a fresh coyote scat, I realized it was loaded with grasshopper heads.  Coyotes are omnivores and I'm not sure how much of a coyote's diet is made up of insects, but I did find grasshopper heads in both small and large scat.  Nutrition quality aside, the grasshoppers provided the coyote pups with plenty of stalking practice.
Coyote pup walking the line
I borrowed a longer lens for my camera from one of my charitable Nikon neighbors, and one morning got up well before sunrise.  In the dark, I took a circuitous route to an outcropping of brush on a hillside that had a screened view but was not too close to one of the coyote latrine piles.  I set my camera on a tripod, focused on the latrine pile and waited.  And waited.  As the sun popped over Monte Bello Ridge, I was treated to the morning chorus of  birds.  Then the birds quieted down and my binoculars were getting heavy, so I sat down to wait.

Showing up one at a time, I couldn't tell how many coyote pups I was seeing.
Awhile later, I heard a scratching noise in the brush to my side.  I peered through the screen of branches I was squatted behind.  There was a coyote pup with a stubbed branch in its mouth slowly traveling in my direction through the tangled brush.  I didn't dare reach for my camera or even move.  The pup didn't seem focused on anything specific, but I could hear it chomping on the branch as it meandered closer. Within about three feet of my crouched and breathless position, the pup stopped, looked up and sniffed.  It scanned the bushes but never fixed eyes on me, however, I think my scent was strange enough that it turned around and ambled back through the brush.  In a few minutes, I saw it walking along the far coyote brush edge still clutching its branch toy.  Over the next hour, I saw and photographed a pup coming out of the brush several times but the distance from my shrubby blind was too far and I couldn't tell whether it was same or different pups.

Over the next few weeks, I frequently saw the coyote pups carrying branches.
Elated, I returned to the house to view my fuzzy photos.  Within a few hours, the safari queen was itching and getting welts all along my arms and legs, even behind my ears.  While hiding in the bushes, I had picked up some type of biting insect.  I would have to devise another way to observe the coyotes pups - wildlife cameras.

To be continued - this is the first of three parts in The Coyote Brush Highway series.  Part Two coming up soon.


  1. My apologies to those readers who subscribe to the Dipper Ranch and got an earlier version of this post this morning. Ooops, gotta talk to that Quality Control Department. My goals with the Dipper Ranch blog are to share observations and info about the natural history of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I am also developing my skills as a writer and spend a lot of time researching and editing the content. That's why I don't post that often. So consider that oops as a glance into a writer's mind while she was still editing. I can promise that the rest of the posts in The Coyote Brush Highway series will be edited and have photos.

  2. My morning was supposed to be spent catching up on an assortment of electronic admin: accounts, minutes, reports etc. Fortunately, I found your latest post before I lost the will to live! You've rather cheered up my day, many thanks. I will now meditate on the art of patience as we all eagerly await CBH2.

  3. Wonderful to see these photos and read your commentary. Sorry you had to suffer so much for the photos. I used to live in the Santa Cruz mountains and reading your posts is a real treat. Thank you!

  4. Ack sooo cute and interesting! Can't wait to read the next chapter!

  5. Callie: how do you deal with coyotes in your part of California? Are they trouble to your chickens? I would love to have chickens but first I am figuring out how to garden and deal with deer. Maybe coyote-proof chickens later.


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