OUTDOORS - Chasing critters in the McNary Game Reserve

Voles, lizards and the occasional raccoon scat combine to entertain at the Wallula Unit of the McNary Game Reserve.

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A vole peeps from its den.

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Nora the Schnauzer in the Wallula Unit of the McNary Game Reserve.

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Nora sniffs among the weeds.

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A sunbeam brightens the cliffs along the Walla Walla River.

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A sand lizard poses near a quarter to compare sizes.

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A hunter tows equipment up a hill.

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Sand lizards scamper among the dunes.

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Beetles crawl on raccoon scat in the Wallula Unit of the McNary Game Reserve.

I never expected to learn a potentially life-saving detail about raccoon scat on the Wallula Unit of the McNary Game Reserve.

I didn't even recognize the black poop as raccoon scat.

Luckily I had my book about animal signs in my fanny pack (Scats and Tracks of the Pacific Northwest, by James C. Halfpenny and illustrated by Todd Telander).

To quote the important detail, raccoon scat "may carry a parasite that is fatal to humans. Do not smell scat, and wash hands after touching it."

Well, I never!

Of course I didn't kneel on the sand and smell the scat. I didn't touch it either. I did bend down to take a photo of the beetles in it. I would have stirred it with a stick for a better view of the beetles, but no stick lay at hand.

Over the years I have become familiar with the droppings of rabbits, deer, elk, bear and coyotes.

Raccoon poop, however, rarely turns up. Even with numerous raccoons wobbling on the streets of Walla Walla, I don't recall seeing their scat before.

Now I have.

It's good to learn something new, and if I see raccoon scat in front of my house, where I have seen raccoons, I definitely won't touch it or smell it.

I learned this important information when Nora the Schnauzer and I took our Wallula walk on a 60-degree, mid-January day.

She enjoys walking at Wallula because of the voles among the sage, and she has flushed out more of them this year than I've ever seen before.

The tiny rodents make intricate networks of tunnels, trails and nests in grass beneath the bushes.

Nora buries her head in a vole hole, snorts and shovels dirt like crazy.

Meanwhile, voles scatter from escape holes and disappear in the grass or other holes.

Their quickness frustrates the heck out of me as I try for photos. Once, however, a vole poked its head from a hole and posed for a few frames.

Nora doesn't seem frustrated, and she keeps on digging.

The book, by the way, says that voles weigh an ounce and leave tracks smaller that a dime. They don't leave scat in their tunnels. They leave it in "latrines," piled in tennis ball-sized mounds.

Imagine, rodents with latrines. I looked all afternoon for a vole latrine. Unsuccessfully.

Some fun, and I almost missed the lizards.

Huh? In mid-January?

About two miles from the parking area, we walked by a sandy bank. I glimpsed a movement, stopped and scanned the holes 10 feet away.

Sure enough, a tiny sage lizard crept into view.

I spent half an hour there and counted eight lizards.

Nora never saw any. She sat quietly for a while and eventually stretched out on the sand to nap.

I took a ton of photos and managed to slip a quarter near a hole for size comparison. A lizard, still looking tiny, eventually emerged. It ignored the two-bits, which I picked up when we moved on.

At Millet Pond, a pair of successful hunters and a Labrador retriever trudged up the hill. The hunters pulled carts with their gear. One carried ducks around his neck.

We continued to the white cliffs about three miles up the river from the parking area at Sanctuary Pond.

We refreshed there with water and snacks before turning back. On the way, Nora dug, snuffled and scattered another half-million voles that frustrated my photo attempts.

We again passed trails left by raccoons. We also passed the same black, even-diameter cord, blunt-ended scat with beetles in it.

No dummy, I didn't stop to smell it, touch it or stir it with a stick.

Contact Don at dondavis@wwub.com.

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