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Reporter's notebook: Late night with LA's coyote trackers

Scientists have begun a first-of-its-kind project to monitor the population of Los Angeles' urban coyotes using GPS collars. Little is known about how the animals avoid the perils of city life and survive in areas crowded with humans. 

KPCC's Jed Kim went out with National Park Services workers during the early days of the project. Read the first part of his story here

Below are entries from the notebook he kept during that time.

Our first all-night attempt to capture and collar one of the coyotes roaming downtown L.A. ended without success. I decided to head home. 

It was 6 a.m., I needed a few hours of sleep before heading into work. I decided not  join National Parks ecologist Justin Brown again later. The process could take weeks, and I can't justify sleeping in my car for an indeterminate amount of time. 

I should've toughed it out.

May 5: The first city coyote collared

The next morning, my phone buzzes with an unexpected message from the Park Service. 

Brown captured and collared a female coyote the previous night. He gave her the designation C-144. She's the 144th coyote collared by the park service in California, but the first coyote to be tracked who makes her home primarily in urban territory. Studying her movements will give them new insight into how coyotes have been able to thrive in an area so devoid of natural resources.

The next day, I ask Brown if the earlier-than-expected catch meant he got a decent night of sleep. No, he said. There were other cages at other sites he had to check. 

May 30: A second successful capture

This time, it's a male (C-145). He was found in Silver Lake. Again, I'm not there.

Shortly after, Brown stops more capture attempts, even though he had hoped to have three subjects to study. The season when pups emerge to hunt with their mother is at hand, and there's no point in stressing them out by accidentally capturing one. They're too small for collars.

He will go for the third coyote in September. In the meantime, he'll begin tracking the two he's tagged.

(Caption: A generalized map of the collared coyotes' home ranges. GPS data shows that C-144 has crossed the 101 Freeway several times.)

June 3 - 4: Tracking the coyotes

The collar data has already given Brown and the other researchers a trove of information about when and where the coyotes are moving. Preliminary data shows that both spend more than half their time in heavily-developed areas, far more than coyotes who live in more natural settings. 

The collar data is somewhat limited in that it provides location information only every few hours. Also, it doesn't include much information about behavior.

For that, Brown must get eyewitness accounts by following the radio signals emitted by their collars and seeing what they're up to.

He's already gone out tracking once before I and a photographer join him. Here's a rundown of our night:

June 3rd: Seeking C-144

(Caption: NPS Ecologist Justin Brown uses a handheld antenna and scanner to listen for signals from radio-collared coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday night, June 3rd. Photo: Stuart Palley)

We meet at Vista Hermosa Park at 10 p.m. Brown says he had been picking up signals from C-144's collar — the female living in L.A.'s gritty Westlake neighborhood — as he was driving in on the 101 Freeway.

The collars emit unique frequencies that Brown can track using a receiver and directional antenna. The beeps get louder as we home in on the animals' locations. 

For now, Brown has to hold the antenna up high enough to get reception. He says the park services is waiting for equipment to come in that will allow him to mount the antenna on the roof and change its direction from inside the vehicle. In the meantime, he has to drive with his arm out the window. 

Collar Beeps

Tracking in this area is a little difficult; the signals can bounce off of buildings, making it difficult to get a response. As we search, Brown frequently has to get out of the car to hunt for vantage points that will give him better readings. 

(CaptionEcologist Justin Brown tracks coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday night June 3 and early Thursday morning June 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, CA. Some of the coyotes are fitted with radio collars. Photo: Stuart Palley)

The number of places in the area for coyotes to hide is minimal, but Brown says it appears to be enough to allow them to survive. At one point, we scan a house lot with a lot of cover. It measures about 50 x 50 yards.  

“Living in downtown, they have to kind of live with what’s available," Brown says. "Obviously, down here you don’t get a lot of brushy areas. This is probably one of the thicker patches around, so it makes sense that she would be hunkered down in there, especially with the amount of human activity around here.”

On his previous monitoring trip, Brown saw how the coyotes stealthily avoid humans, weaving around them, and leaving most unaware they were sharing the street with the wild animals. 

"One of the biggest things is just realizing how often they’re running into people," says Brown. "They would jump out in the street to avoid people that were on the sidewalk. And then all of a sudden, you would see them cut back into the sidewalk and run the sidewalks again.” 

Collar data and his own visual observations are already giving him information about the coyotes and the areas they choose to travel. 

"They’re having to run all these residential areas and staying on the very smaller roads to get to them," he said, adding that they "seem to be avoiding a lot of the major roads, I mean the ones that have constant traffic during the night.” 

11:15 p.m.: C-145 has a date

C-144 doesn't appear to be moving, which makes it harder to pinpoint her location. Brown thinks she may get more active later. Instead of waiting around,  we decide to head over towards Silver Lake to see if we can find the male, C-145. 

That also proves to be difficult. We drive along several winding streets, Brown straining to pick out the direction of the signal. He says he's having a little more trouble tracking this coyote, because the area is less familiar to him. 

But at least the coyote appears to be moving. At one point, we head north along Riverside Drive. Then, we head into what appears to be a newer housing development. 

Around midnight, Brown spots the coyote heading down the sidewalk. C-145 is hanging out with another coyote — a bonus since only the one is collared. Brown says that behavior is a little surprising.

"Generally we don’t see that a lot of times with coyotes. They don’t always travel together like this, he says. "I’m not exactly sure why they’d be traveling together so much, because it’s unlikely they’re finding any sort of big prey source. It’s a little on the odd side, but it might just be a seasonality type thing.” 

We do our best to follow the pair, but they're aware of us almost immediately and try to avoid us. Still, they're not so skittish that they don't pass within 10-15 feet of the car. 

(CaptionCoyote C-145 walks near a construction site in the Silver Lake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles late Wednesday evening June 3rd. Photo: Stuart Palley)

The pair heads down Glendale Boulevard. Without knowing they're there, it's easy to miss them. One pauses in the shadow of a small tree and becomes a patch of brush.

Though they seem at ease in the area, the hazards are clear. At one point, one jogs out across the intersection and narrowly misses a collision with a car.

They head up into a hillside neighborhood and lose us. We head to the Silver Lake Reservoir to see if they'll appear there, but they don't. Even so, Brown is glad to have gotten eyes on C-145.

“It’s good to see him, especially since this is the first time I’ve seen him since I got the radio collar on him," Brown says. “It was really cool to see him with his mate, too.“ 

1:30 a.m.: Back in C-144's territory

We head back towards Vista Hermosa to see if we can find C-144. 

The coyote has proved to be quite mobile in the past. Collar data they've collected on her show that she's crossed the 101 Freeway at least five times since they began monitoring her. Brown says he's hopeful he'll be able to figure out how and where she's crossing. 

(CaptionNPS Ecologist Justin Brown uses a handheld antenna and scanner near the 101 Freeway to listen for signals from radio-collared coyotes living near downtown Los Angeles early Thursday morning, June 4th. Photo: Stuart Palley)

As we drive, I ask Brown what it would take to get a good idea of how many coyotes are roaming L.A. He says genetic work and scat surveys would give a good estimate. Scat surveys would also allow the scientists to analyze what makes up the coyotes' diets. Unfortunately, finding coyote scat is difficult in a city. 

Brown says this study will help researchers improve their estimates of population size, by seeing how far the animals typically travel. 

“This will give us an idea of their home range size, which then you can use that to try to estimate their numbers," Brown says. "Because they are territorial, you know that there will only be a certain number of animals in that home range. And so you then you can estimate that out by saying there’s x number of home ranges in this area.” 

2:30 a.m.: C-144 spotted

We see what appear to be a number of coyotes in the streets around Vista Hermosa Natural Park, though without the collar, it's difficult to know if what we're seeing are multiple animals, or just the same individual roaming here and there. They all look so similar. 

Finally, as Brown's standing outside the car, he spots C-144 loping down the street before turning down an alley. We look for her for the next half hour or so, but though we see more coyotes, it's not clear if any of them are her. 

At 3 a.m., we decide to call it a night. The tracking has been successful. Brown will be able to verify the coyotes' collar data with GPS points he's taken. He's also seen some interesting behaviors. But he says it's still too soon to determine anything for sure.

“We’re still really early in obtaining all of the location information and all that," Brown says. "We’re just hoping we can collect enough that we can actually say something. If you just have one or two animals, you can make big assumptions, but that’s not always what’s going on."

Still, he says it's been a successful night.

"Just watching them the occasions we get to come out and do this, it’s amazing. I mean, I didn’t think they’d be able to move the way they’re moving through some of these residential areas,” he says.

Brown lets us out of the Vista Hermosa parking lot and then closes up behind us. I go home and go to bed. 

But before I can fall asleep, I get another text. It's Brown: