About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Clapper rail

We decided to shoot down the Sacramento valley this week and stop at Point Reyes National Seashore to gather the three camera traps. My permit to camera trap there expires in January, and the redhead, who happens to be the spirit of Christmas in this family, suggested we do it now before things get too hectic.

Before heading down into the gulch, I vowed to pull the cams without pausing to view the pics.

Normally the redhead watches me with binoculars from the road, and radios the whereabouts of elk. This has attracted park visitors who ask, "Any good birds today?" or "Have you seen any elk?" Usually she signals me as they approach, and I duck out of sight like a commando.

There was only one lone bull elk in the area, and when it disappeared into the next gulch, she informed me she was retiring to the car to read.

Finding the first camera was a workout. The GPS told me I was on top of it, but it took me 15 minutes to find it 6 feet away on the other side of the thicket. It took more time to pussy-foot my way to the other camera sets, because the rains have turned the bottom of the gulch into a quagmire, and the elk have churned it up like water buffalo in a rice padi. It took a full hour and a half to collect the cams and posts.

After dinner I downloaded the pictures, and the big surprise was the clapper rail. This is actually the California clapper rail, an endangered subspecies from the San Franciso bay area.

The bird visited this muddy drainage site a week ago at 4:10 in the afternoon. This was a new camera trap set I made during my last visit over 6 weeks ago, and it was also my final desperate attempt to get more pictures of mountain beavers. (The wiley rodents seemed to have disappeared from their haunts where I photographed them back in July. More about them in a few days.)

The location is a waterlogged thicket at the base of a steep hill. I don't think this is the kind of place a birder would look for rails. Nearby in Abbott's lagoon and the backwaters of Drake's Estero there is more typical marshy habitat, but there is plenty of cover here, and the soil is deep and wet.

The only other avian visitor was a hermit thrush.

Rails feed mainly on invertebrates they probe from the mud, but small vertebrates like this shrew are said to be fair game. (See the velvety gray hair and bicolored tail -- it's another Sorex trowbridgeii.)

These were lucky pictures, because the camera is set for night time shots. Dim overcast lighting and shade had fooled the camera into thinking it was night. In five months of camera trapping this gulch, this is the only rail captured by the cameras. I am pleased.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A dead zone?

Are there dead zones in the woods? Lonely places eschewed by mesocarnivores and larger mammals? Is the German concept of Niemandslandstreifen between territorial boundaries real, or just a fanciful notion from feudal Europe?

I wonder about these things when 109 days of camera trapping yields a measly 5 pictures -- and none with animals.

After the first two weeks and one blank picture, I convinced myself that camera trapping is a probability game, that sooner or later something interesting would walk by the camera. So I decided to leave it in place and play the waiting game.

I patiently visited this particular camera set every couple of weeks. The setting seemed good, a deer trail on a north slope, amidst oaks, cedars and firs, not far from fallen timber and beyond the chapparal. What ecologists call patchy habitat.

Back in August I dug a little hole on the trail and filled it with precious used kitty litter. Something scratched at that lure, but that week the controller batteries had failed.

That gave me hope. Then, not far from there I smelled dead meat and encountered the 2-year-old bear. More hope, but still no pictures.

Last week I renewed my efforts, and baited it with the scent patch. When I checked it a week later I found I had left the camera on the view setting. Bad karma. In SE Asia I might blame the forest spirits.

Whatever it was, I had had enough. No mammal or bird had been photographed. No picture had been taken since September 19. I packed it home thinking that bad luck and malfunction were conspiring against me.

Then I tested it, and guess what? It worked like a charm.

I'm not ready to buy into the idea of the dead zone, bad karma, or forest spirits. I think the critters were sidestepping the camera.

It's time to go back, disguise the camera, and use a bait.

The loneliness of the camera trapper is a boring topic, I know. But why should I be bored alone?

Bottled shrews for the taking

Anne-Marie of Pondering Pikaia has posted a fine piece on the shrew's dilemma -- death in a beer bottle. It would be hard to design a simpler and more perfect death trap for small mammals, and shrews seem to be more vulnerable than mice.

Maybe it's the resonating effect of the bottle when a trapped beetle is scratching inside. Maybe it's the tantalizing bouquet of beer-stewed invertebrates. . . . whatever it is, it works.

Of course, its not just beer bottles that attract shrews, coke bottles work too. But like shrews, mammalogists are strongly attracted to beer bottles -- as long as there is beer or shrews inside.

Pondering Pikaia -- check it out.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Scent Patch update

The gray fox visited the patch twice before Thanksgiving. (I discovered that the camera at the other patch is broken.) On both occasions it did its usual neck rubbing thing. I guess I expected it to rub against the patch like a cat, but this didn't happen. It did the usual canid neck sliding behavior with the hindquarters up. We've seen this before.

I suppose it's possible that the scent anointing behavior of the gray fox is less flexible than that of cats, and this raises questions of classical ethology that still fascinate me.

Is the gray fox unable to anoint itself with smelly scents if they are not on the ground?

Obviously this fox took the time to sniff and probably lick the scent patch, but there was no picture of it rubbing against the patch. Instead, it rubbed its neck on the ground where there was no scent.

This is a good example of a fixed action pattern elicited by an appropriate stimulus. Here though, the action is not oriented to the appropriate stimulus because the scent is not in the right place--on the ground.

It reminds me of the textbook example of the greylag goose rolling the displaced egg into its nest. If you remove the egg while the broody goose is retrieving it, she continues the action to completion and to no avail.

I'll have to get more pictures to make sure the fox can't rub against the scent patch. That will convince me that gray foxes are wired to self anoint in a stereotyped fashion only on the ground.

If a bobcat catches wind of the patch, we'll see another and more versatile example of self anointing behavior.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Thanksgiving dog story

I've seen a look in dogs' eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.
John Steinbeck

When you think about it, Steinbeck was probably right. In the dog's world of simple rules and predictable consequences, the unpredictable and inconsistent antics of some pet owners must be confusing. As Terrierman says, "Men fail dogs more often than dogs fail men." But dogs are far more forgiving than people, even when teased, duped or punished.

In the days when five out of ten boxers were named Ginger, we had a boxer named Ginger. Our luck with a string of mixed breed runaways and furniture eaters had not been good, and my father decided to solve the problem by getting "a dog with papers". Ginger's ancestors had multiple phony bourgeois names, and Pa took considerable pangs to cook up an equally phoney name for Ginger's registration papers. He was crestfallen the first time Ginger rolled in doodoo, and thereafter he scoffed that "pedigrees don't mean a damn thing".

But Ginger became a part of the family, and unlike her predecessors, she never ran away the moment you opened the front door.

I was ready for fun that Thanksgiving afternoon. An hour before dinner the men and children were in the living room, and the women were busy in the kitchen. Ginger of course was also in the kitchen, adrool and underfoot and hoping for turkey and dressing. It was only a matter of time before my grandmother and mother would send her back to us, and there on the carpet the surprise would be waiting.

The surprise was a plastic dog turd.

When Ginger sauntered back into the living room we pretended to ignore her. We knew she had seen it when her body language suddenly changed. Every fiber betrayed her guilt. Dog dejavu. She knew she would be blamed. Innocent dogs often take the rap.

She glanced sideways to the couch, and noticed that we hadn't noticed her predicament. That's when she decided to escape the association with this troublesome thing, and cowered in uncertain retreat into the dining room.

The game was up, and we broke into hysterical laughter. Now it was dog redemption, and everything was different. From the gloomy abyss of guilt Ginger's spirit soared to the heights of joy. She bounded back to us and waggle danced like she hadn't seen us for months.

I am still amused, but embarrassed that I trifled with her emotions. In retrospect, she had to know that this plastic smelling thing was not of her making. She also seemed to know she could catch hell for things she didn't do. Her innermost thoughts will forever remain a mystery, but if she thought we were nuts, she accepted us with all our warts. It's a lovable quality.

There was a small price to pay for this cruel caper. After dinner and before we went home, my grandfather had the kindness and perhaps the perversity to feed the dog a modest portion of the turkey and dressing she so craved. The methanogenic properties of that turkey dressing could have fueled a rocket, and as soon as we got home Ginger started to vent a blue methane the likes of which we had never quite experienced before. She meant us no harm, but there was a poetic justice in the way she followed us from room to room and dozed at our feet. The payback lingered and followed us for the next 24 hours, an unspeakable and unlikely reminder of a happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tidak ada, Tuan

"Tidak ada, Tuan." That's Bahasa Indonesia for "There was nothing, Sir". In context, it meant, "No luck today" or "Not a damn thing".

Those were the words of Jaffa, the empty-handed eel fisherman as he passed our riverside camp in northern Sulawesi. He laughed cheerfully about his bad luck. The joke was on him. (May he still ply the waters with good cheer and better luck.)

It was a "Tidak ada" day when I checked the cam at the snag with possibilities. There were 70 pictures, and nearly all of them were dim images of deer mice putzing about in the bottom of the snag. I didn't laugh at my bad luck, but I was grateful that the camera set worked.

The good news was that there were three fuzzy images of what appeared to be a wood rat and a spotted skunk. They were obviously squeezing past the camera when it fired.

The peanut butter had barely been touched. I need to think about another bait, and a better way to secure the camera in place -- like lag bolts and wire. Next time.

I cranked up the flash power, and adjusted the camera's position. I'll let it run another week.

I do have some of Jaffa's patience, but I haven't reached the point where I see the humor in going home empty handed.

Using the patch

First I went to the garage to make the patches.

I cut the carpet into 2 x 2 inch squares, and burned holes in the corners with a hot awl.

Preparing the decoction had to be done in the kitchen. So I idled my time until the redhead announced she was going to shop for groceries, as I knew she would.

As soon as she left I cut three stems of catnip, took them to the kitchen, and diced them finely on the cutting board reserved for fruit an veg.

Next I swabbed a plastic container with alcohol to erase the scent of boullion cubes. Into this I decanted several ounces of glycerin, a tablespoon of gooey black beaver castoreum, and the minced catnip. Then I added a capful of artificial catnip oil.

I didn't spill a drop, and I removed all traces of my activities, which must remain secret. I know you understand. Ever since the redhead found some raccoon body parts in the refrigerator many years ago, she has enforced rather strict rules about my use of the kitchen.

Back to the garage to sniff . . . . aahhhhh! So fine a scent! I jest not. Castoreum has a sweet tarry essence.

After lunch I took my patches, the decoction, and the rest of the kit and headed down the ravine where I made two new camera trap sets. If it works, I should get pictures of slobbering pole dancing bobcats having their way with the patches.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Camera trap trashers and flashers

Camera trappers have three kinds of "bad trips".

Camera trap theft is by far the worst, because it transforms your normally lovable camera trapper into a brooding fiend obsessed with fantasies of revenge. Since most camera trappers don't consider therapy an option, they subject their families and friends to tiresome re-runs of imaginary Stephen King-like scenarios of revenge for months on end. In due course it all comes to pass, but they forever wear a small red button on their foreheads. If you push it, you'll hear the psychodrama all over again.

Vandalism affects our mental health too. Common poachers, thwarted by steel cable and locks, are known to have trashed camera traps when it dawned on them that they were photographed trying to steal them. This is also terribly disturbing for us guys who are just trying to have fun in the woods, and the psychological effects are the same as above.

Some camera trappers find a trashed camera easier to take when the perpetrator is a bear. Salvagable parts may also give some consolation. More often the bear's infraction is seen as a compelling reason to exact reverge when hunting season rolls around. Fortunately these corrective actions have not depressed the curiosity trait in the black bear's gene pool. Whether he takes revenge or not, the wise camera trapper is advised to chalk it up to experience, and in the future protect his camera with a bear guard.

A few camera trappers, clearly a minority, accept such a loss with resignation. They are a rare lot.

A camera trapping colleague in Colorado said losing his Furfindr (a predator sound decoy) was worth it just to get a picture of the cougar in the act.

My friend Brian Miller lost his camera trap when the intended subject, a beaver, cut and dismembered the tree to which the camera was attached. He never found a sign of it afterwards, but thought the beaver might have incorporated it into its lodge. I admired the equanimity with which he accepted this act of nature. It was as if the Great Spirit had sent him a message . . . "Not with my beavers you won't".

Then there are the camera flashers. Dr. Francie Cuthbert, a professor at the University of Minnesota recently took up camera trapping to monitor predator activity around piping plover nests in northern Michigan. Her bevy of grad students (nearly all women) has been studying this population for 25 years.

The students' skewed sex ratio may be part of the problem. This past summer more nude men entered the "closed areas" and sauntered past the cameras than plover predators.

Dr. Cuthbert observes, "The beach has always attracted a few nudists, and they don't think anyone is watching, but our cameras captured quite a record." (Appreciative of the decorum of this blog's virtuous readership, she has kindly spared us the images.)

She continues, "At the end of the summer someone discovered the hidden cameras and, in a rage, pulled out the memory cards and threw most of the cameras in the lake. We need some effective deterrents for the flashers, and the camera vandals, whoever they were."

Any suggestions out there on how to discourage these miscreants? Paint ball guns? Aldrich snares? Let's hear it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Amberrat on my workbench

It's been a year a half since I banished this wood rat from the shed for messing with my tools, and using the workbench as a latrine.

When we dragged the picnic table and chairs to the shed last Sunday, we were again assaulted by the smell of wood rat piss. The workbench was piled with scattered tools, crisscrossed with rodent tracks, littered with rodent turds, and blotched with dried rodent piss. If the dust could tell a story it was an epic of rodentdom.

Conclusion: another rat and several mice have moved in, or they're making nocturnal visits to reestablish the latrine on my workbench.

I scrubbed it all down with disinfectant, and must comment on the super-glue like tenacity of the piss. It had welded the rat turds in place. I removed all but five, which I left as a monument of sorts.

That night I surfed the web and found Chris Clarke's excellent post about Joshua trees, desert woodrats and solidified wood rat urine -- or amberrat -- which is definitely worth a read.

Then I found Joe Eaton's article on the use of amberrat as trail rations.

It's true. Some starving 49's thought they had found an Indian's cache of peanut brittle in Death Valley, and -- you guessed it -- tried eating it. It was a chunk of amberrat the size of a small pumpkin, which means it had some age on it. Needless to say, the dark inclusions didn't taste like raisins, and when the nausea passed, the party decided to seek vittles elsewhere.

They were lucky they never found out what it was.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A snag with possibilities

I'm always on the lookout for good snags. The goal is butt-rotted snags (with hollows at their bases), snags with cavities and nest holes higher up the trunk, or snags with broken tops. It's a old mammalogists' habit. You never know what you're going to find inside a good snag.

In my old collecting days there was always that cheap thrill of anticipation when you fired up the bee smoker and blew smoke in the hole. Back off if bees and wasps start to evacuate. Keep puffing if you hear something stirring inside.

When frass and punk wood start to fall get the net over the hole and brace yourself. Whatever is in there, it's going to come out in a hurry and with a bad attitude. It may also want to eat your face.

If you don't have a bee smoker, a human smoker will do in a pinch, theoretically.

We got smoking Jim Murphy to light up and blow smoke in a hole in a sacred thabye (Eugenia) tree in Burma. Jim's a herpetologist, and he became terribly excited when we told him a big snake had gone in the hole. He really liked the idea, so we passed him lit cigarettes and coaxed him to blow faster as the locals stood by and watched in wonderment. The snake never came out, and Jim almost passed out. He didn't need a cigarette the rest of the day. On second thought, I think it's better to use a bee smoker.

Nowadays you might get an idea of what's inside a snag by sticking your digital camera in the hole and snapping a picture. (There are also some high priced video gadgets for sale that do the same thing and even more.) If you decide to try this, bring a chain saw or a piece of strong nylon line. If you drop the camera, you can saw the tree down, but it's easier to fish the camera out if you've tied the line to it.

I've been looking for snags where I can get an inside view of what creatures come and go. Below you can see the inside of a promising snag not far from my house. It has two openings, one on top, and one on the side. I perched on the ladder to take this picture looking down the hole on top. The pale line you see in the photo is a stick marking the hole on the side.

The tree probably snapped off in a wind storm, and the resulting hole on top is shaped like a rounded triangle -- just big enough to accommodate the triangular arrangement of the camera trap's lens, flash, and sensor. I fastened the camera trap with a bungie cord and adjusted its angle with an aluminum rod strapped to the trunk.

The hole on the side of the snag is big enough for a squirrel or small owl. I smeared peanut butter inside the entrance and on the side walls. As I was doing this the camera snapped a couple of pictures. That's good. I'll wait a week to see if any squirrels go for the bait.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The local seed-eating large mammal is back

This morning at 4:08 the local seed-eating large mammal showed up at the "bird rock". It's Scruffy -- the bear that crawled through the tunnel last summer -- the only yearling bear I've camera trapped in the neighborhood.

I'm trying to photograph birds, not bears. The bird seed is on the ground, and the birds perch on the rock, where the camera is aimed, about 18 inches away.

Scruffy probably sucked up some seeds and dirt, and then explored the bird rock. She pulled the camera forward, but didn't try to eat it. (Knock on wood).

My season's supply of scent lures just arrived in the mail, so I'm making scent pads out of old carpet tomorrow (compliments of neighbor Richard). I'll be going for cats, but won't be surprised if this bear tries to get in on the action again. I don't mind.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A wildlife refuge recce

There were good reasons to get out of the house yesterday. First, if there's too much work at home don't hang around. Then the time change: we were up earlier than usual. Third, promising weather: the coast range was crisp against the morning sky. Somewhere on the shimmering expanses of the pale valley the wild geese were beckoning. And finally, as you know from the recent absense of camera trapping posts, I am still looking for new localities to stake cameras. Sunday was to be a recce of national wildlife refuges.

Down the ridge the aging Honda wheels, past my favorite fig browsing tree (now barren) and Rt 70's aggravating road work where the new overpass collapsed on a truck this summer. Then around the ugliest reservoir in the valley, and beyond to Route 162 which cuts westward across the valley.

I glance to my side and the Redhead is as pleased as a pooch in a pickup, so I discretely click into autocruise. (No objection, she didn't notice). I honk at numerous small flocks of road shoulder habitues -- blackbirds (Brewers and redwings) and nondecript sparrows, as well as occasional meadowlarks. Damn -- I stupidly whiz past a flooded field filled with white-faced ibises. When we reach the first stop the roadkill count is 2 possums, 2 raccoons.

First stop: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. A quick chat with the two women in the empty visitor center. A few birders are doing the walkabout, but it's too early for the Sunday riders. We opt for the driving tour. Because we're alone we can creep along and stop where there are breaks in the rushes. The wetlands are packed with northern pintails and shovelers, gadwalls, American wigeons, mallards, teal, tons of coots, and white-fronted geese. We tick off the IDs in the checklist. Northern harriers, redtails, kestrels, Cooper's hawks, and white-tailed kites are reminders that there is vertebrate prey aplenty.

Further on the snow geese. After many attempts I fail to take even one decent picture of them. So I post the pic above with humble discomfiture. I really must study Brdpics blog for advice on digiscoping. (Why didn't I check it out last night?) Holding the point and shoot Sony against the eyepiece doesn't cut it. I need a jury rigged connector to hold the camera in place . Better yet, I need to buy a decent birding camera with a tele lens. Anyway, I thought they were snow geese, but now I think they may be Ross's geese with their shorter necks. Anyone know?

When it comes to birding, federal and state wildlife refuges are hard to beat. The agencies know this and have posted a nice Birding Trail Hotspot Map (it's a pdf at this site). This refuge provides a free telescope at one of the viewing decks, and there are two photo blinds.

The wetlands also support a healthy population of otters, coyotes, and muskrats, in addition to the usual species I have posted here before, like mountain lions, raccoons, skunks, and gray foxes. We see only a black-tailed deer.

Oh yes, polistine wasps add to the excitement by casually flying into the car, but there are no mishaps. It's the end of the life cycle and they're desperately provioning their nests. (These are the paper wasps that make nests under your eaves.)

We head south toward the burning fields, and soon we are skirting another refuge.


Second stop: Delevan Wildlife Refuge. I knew this refuge lacked visitor facilities, but the west boundary fence is so heavily posted you get the feeling its a poachers' paradise. The best habitat shot I can get is this view of the channel bordering the road. Back in the car the redhead tells me I could have been shot. (The shotguns were barely audible).

Thinking the sights may be better on the east side, we drive through the town of Colusa and turn north on River Road, but an enormous levee blocks the refuge and the Sacramento river from sight.

We keep going, and encounter some remnants of bygone days.

Next, I take a wrong turn, and we end up on a poorly maintained road bordering abandoned farmhouses and newly plowed fields where turkey vultures are foraging like barnyard chickens. (The attraction has to be disked wildlife). Then a treat. Around a corner and down into a woody swatch we startle a large covey of quail. The road just keeps going, abruptly turning right and then left.

Somehow we manage to cross Rt 162 without even knowing it, and find ourselves unexpectedly at

Stop 3: Llano Seco. Now here is a place to come back to. No channels, culverts or flood gates here. Just a meandering stream with sandhill cranes and dowitchers in the distance. I don't know what the Sacramento Valley looked like 100 years ago, but I imagine this comes closest to it. The sign, marred with a few bullet holes, tells us that Rancho Llano Seco...was the last Mexican land grant in California to remain under single ownership."

It's late, but it feels good to know what the valley has to offer. We'll be coming back.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Wild gooseberry jam

As you can see the codger isn't getting much camera trap material these days, but as I was removing spines from my palate the other day, I thought I would share with you my secret for making wild gooseberry jam.

As you may know, wild gooseberries are usually rather prickly fruits. The local canyon gooseberries are among the spiniest, but some plants have tremendous loads of fruit.

Well, I'm an incurable wild food gatherer, and back in August when the gooseberries started to blush, I couldn't resist the temptation. The redhead agreed to cook them down according to a recipe I had found on the net.

Now that recipe makes no mention of disarming the berries, so we assumed that boiling the fruit would suffice to do the trick.

Not true, the jam was a beautiful deep cooked-gooseberry-color, but the berries looked a little bristly, and imparted an interesting textural quality to the otherwise delectable preserve. Unfortunately, no one in the extended family was interested in sharing in this culinary experience. The redhead concluded that it wasn't worth the effort, and advised me that if I had to have gooseberry preserves I would have to cook them myself.

Well, the next batch sat on the kitchen counter for several days, and I discovered that with dessication the spines actually become a little limp. They don't completely disappear, and the cooked fruit still looks a little bristly, but this was definitely an improvement.

Then I got a brilliant idea, which I want to share with the two or three other readers out there who might actually be deranged enough to try this. The solution to the problem of gooseberry spines is the blow torch.

I spread this last batch of berries on the table saw's cast iron surface, but you could use a cookie pan. Then just fire up your propane torch and singe off the prickles. When you boil down the torched fruit the spines will barely be noticeable to those with good vision, and older folks won't even see them. If you like slightly tart flavors, you will find the finished jam quite agreeable. The blackened seeds add an interesting visual quality, and the fascinating texture is still there.

Good luck, and be sure to wear gloves when you are picking next year.