10 Pack, a bear sighting, and a wolf sighting!
It was January 2017, so if you’ve seen the rest of my blog, it’s quite clear I like to spend my winters in Slovakia. This winter I joined the White Wilderness Project from the Slovak Wildlife Society again. Maybe it was going to be my last year, maybe not. One thing was for sure, I was going to enjoy some more winter snow tracking in the Slovak mountains and make some good friends and create some nice stories to join me for the rest of my life. I couldn’t wish for more, it was a great year. As the title already suggests, we found a large wolf pack, probably 10 wolves. As far as I know, it’s the biggest pack known for Slovakia. We managed to follow them for a bit in the snow. Besides this, I was lucky to encounter a mother bear and a cub on another transect, which caused a bit of stress. And to make it even more complete, I was lucky to get a glimpse of a wolf.
Wolf Track Heaven: The 10-Pack
It was a wonderful morning in Slovakia during the white wilderness project of the Slovak Wildlife Society (SWS). We were scheduled to do a transect where I had found a lot of stuff in previous years.
This year was no different, although it was… after just 132m on the transect, only recorded 1 set of tracks (a hare), we came across a track that looked wolfish. As the snow was deep, it was one line of tracks, so we were not sure exactly how many, but we started to be convinced it was wolf. A hairy scat finding was our clue to make it a high probability wolf finding. As I had the feeling we were on to something big, we abandoned our transect and started investigating the tracks, trying to figure out how many there were. The wolf tracks were all over the place, splitting up, joining together, and splitting up again…
After following the tracks for a bit, the wolf tracks crossed a cross-country ski trail, the perfect place for some detailed investigation. To our luck, the wolves all crossed this track separately. So it was time to start counting… The first 2 were more jumping over the trail and joining number 3 and 4 on the other side of the cross-country ski track. A couple of meters further, 3 separate sets of wolf tracks crosses the trail, joining together to concur the deeper snow of the trail. And there were still more tracks to come, one more single track and 2 more going in the same direction. This makes a total of 10 wolves passing over the cross-country ski trail, and they all looked from the same age. All these separated tracks joined together, going from 10 separated tracks to 6 tracks a couple of meters away from the trail, a couple more are disappearing into each other, ending up with all these 10 wolves going into one set of tracks to the point where we first found them.
Following the tracks
At this point, we decided to first backtrack the wolf tracks and try to find some more samples for DNA-analysis later. Backtracking is following the tracks in opposite direction, to figure out where they were coming from. A large pack makes it difficult to follow all the different tracks, but the general direction of the pack was quite easy to figure out. Although most of the times at least a couple of wolves were walking in each other’s’ footprints, after that first point of 10 wolves, we only got up to 8 at one spot where the wolves were investigating and some were marking. Following the wolf pack tracks through the forest, we could get some insights into the behaviour of the wolves. A lot of tracks, sometimes zig-zagging through the forest, might indicate the wolves were hungry and searching for prey. Suddenly the wolf tracks came to a river where tracks were going up and down along the riverside, and no tracks leaving the riverside. We could spot a place on the other side of the river were a lot of animals got out of the river and on our side we spotted a place where wolf tracks were disappearing into the water. Obviously, we came across a point where the wolves crossed the river. The river was too wide and too deep to cross, so we took a GPS point and abandoned the backtracking.
We went back to the spot where we first found the wolves and prepared ourselves for some forward tracking. The tracks were not super fresh and we first backtracked the tracks, so we could now follow the tracks forward with almost no chance of disturbing the wolves.
The first part of the forward tracking led us through some meadows. Although the wolves were crossing this little valley with some open meadows, whenever it was possible, they searched for shelter and moved closer to bushy and more forested fragments. Some individuals were moving inside to forest edge, where others were just moving on the path in between the forest and the meadow. Here, it was clear the wolves were searching for a route which makes them less visible in combination with the most energy efficient way. While the wolves were still stopping once in a while to mark, in general in the open area, the wolf trail was going in a more or less straight line to the next forested area.
As we were already walking and investigating for a while, we took a nice lunch break in the middle of the meadow, next to wolf tracks, and with a blue sky and some sunshine to enjoy. Full of energy, and curious where this wolf track following adventure will lead us, we continued into the forest. Soon we came across a lot of tracks, not only wolf tracks, and we started losing the tracks… But something wasn’t right, we started circling the area where we last saw the wolf prints and we started stumbling on various weird signs. First, we came across a small bunch of fur, a bit later followed by some red blood marked in the white snow. We kept searching and in the end, we found an underjaw. It was a pretty small one. So most likely this pack of 10 wolves preyed on a roe deer, probably not even an adult, so as you could imagine this was just a very small snack and almost nothing was left of the poor roe deer. Finally, we also found the spot where the wolves left this messy area, but other than the fur, blood drops, and the underjaw, nothing additional was found. Also, wolf tracks started to disappear in different directions. We were quite good in trying to follow the main stream of wolf tracks, but it started to get really difficult, as some wild boar passed by after the wolves, making most of the wolf tracks invisible… Soon it was getting very confusing and it started to get late and we had to think about our way back. At the spot where we decided to turn back, we also found signs of a vole… but it disappeared and at that particular spot there were wing marks in the snow, so obviously a bird of prey took this little vole…
Another day at the “office”. We were scheduled for an easy up and down transect in a valley. We started off with a sighting of a dog near a village, but soon enough we found some real wolf tracks and a scat, excitement among the volunteers, but the best had yet to come…
We were walking in a V-shaped valley with a river and a road on the bottom of it. Open deciduous forest on the left, a small open spot and some dense pine forest on the right. Suddenly I hear some movement on the left slope and it took me some time, but I got a glimpse of an animal. It was something really roundish, no deer, no wolf or lynx… We just heard and saw a bear! After some discussion we were not sure of the size of it, but I thought it was a small bear. We didn’t had too much time to realise what we just saw… While we were discussing our sighting, we heard something else, much louder, moving in the dense pine forest on the right slope of the valley, suddenly a larger bear ran down the hill and made it to this open spot on the slope, at that point, the bear was about 70m away from us, and Jay (one of our volunteers) reached to the bear spray. The bear looked at us, but it was probably as scared as we were. Soon enough it continued in the direction of the place we saw the cub the last time. Mixed feelings overwhelmed the group of volunteers including me, are they gone? We paid attention to every sound we could here, but no possible bear sound. They were long gone… When we investigated with caution the tracks, we soon spotted the reason way the bears were there. There was a killed red deer in the riverbed. I could clearly see some wolf prints as well, so I quickly investigated the carcass, I found some wolf prints, bear prints etc. … while some others were looking for more bear sounds. At that point, we decided to go back as it wasn’t safe to continue. The combination of mother with cub, food source (kill site from wolves) and the more or less hidden spot of the kill site would have made us vulnerable as we only could see the kill site area when we get about 20m from it, which is not a safe distance to watch wildlife anymore…
We decided to call it a day and go for a drink to celebrate this memorable day!
On the last day of week 2 of the White Wilderness project from the Slovak Wildlife Society, we went to the east of the study area, in the direction of Ruzomberok. Luckily, my companion for the day was paying attention in the car and suddenly shouted ‘Wolf!’, and yes, I also got a glimpse of something that looked really wolf-like. A bit further I pulled over and try to find it again. The wolf was somewhere between 300-500m from us on a field. We were lucky to see this creature again and I had a very quick look with my binoculars, it really looked like a wolf… So I was quite confident, but to be entirely sure we were going to look for the tracks, as that’s part of what we are doing there anyway.
And off into the field we went, in search for the spot we saw the wolf. It’s not always that easy to go straight to the spot you saw the animal, so we were paying attention to different tracks and finally we got to the spot where I thought the wolf entered the forest. And I was lucky, about 30 meters from the spot I thought the wolf entered the forest I found tracks, and yes, they looked very wolfish. Soon we were confident it was a wolf, according to track sizes, behaviour etc. … We followed the wolf track the whole day. At one point it was crossing older wolf tracks of at least 2 individuals. The strange thing was that this forest patch was quite small compared to the surrounding forest areas, there were signs of logging activity, and villages nearby. Once again some evidence wolves can adjust quite good to human settlements and activities, as long it’s not killing them directly.
And before you know, another field season is over with lot’s of activity.