Friday, May 23, 2008
A trip to McMillan country
In June 1965 a small group of graduate students from SF State College drove to Long Beach. Surfing and Disneyland were not our destinations. We went to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists.
Among the many presentations listed in the program was one about "the moods of the bobcat". I ticked it off as a "must see".
The speaker, Eben McMillan, was a gray-haired rancher from the grassy hills of San Luis Obispo county, and I still remember his charm and down home manner. His presentation was a splendid slide show about a bobcat that had taken up residence next to his house.
McMillan's lawn was an oasis for cottontails. There the cat had found paradise. McMillan watched the life and death drama from his living room and made a photographic catalogue of the cat's many moods.
The commentary was a bit out of character for a technical meeting -- "Now any fool can tell that this cat isn't hungry." But he captivated the scientists and graduate students. We knew that this weathered gentleman had probably logged more hours in the field than most everyone there. He knew what he was talking about.
I approached him during coffee break to share my enthusiasm and ask questions. Were there any badgers on the ranch? Indeed there were; he told me how to tell a maternal den from just the diggings. And were there enough to do a field study? Well, come up and see for yourself, he said.
Last week, and forty-three years later I paid the McMillan Ranch a visit.
How it happened was a strange coincidence and just plain good fortune. It started when my friend Dave Rentz sent me an email from Australia. He had just met an interesting California couple by the name of McMillan.
I told Dave my McMillan story and added, "It must be one of the McMillan sons. I wonder if he still ranches? That would be a great place to camera trap."
Three days later Eben McMillan's son Greg, responded . . .
"Just got an email from Dave in Oz with your email. Yes, we (my wife and I) still live on the ranch. I do remember fondly the childhood days of spending time with the steady stream of biological luminaries that often stumbled into the place. When we got up in the morning, we never knew whether or not somebody would have come in the middle of the night and taken over the guest cabin . . . . If you would like to come down, you are always welcome. We have a guest house and you might get some good night photos here."
No way was the codger going to pass up that opportunity, so last week I headed south to McMillan country with the redhead and 6 camera traps in tow. It was 400+ miles from home, but well worth it.
Read about California natural history and the McMillan name crops up repeatedly. Brothers Ian and Eben were free-thinking naturalist ranchers. They had a strong land ethic, and when something bothered them environmentally they didn't hold back.
California's zoologists gravitated to their ranches -- Alden Miller, Starker Leopold, Karl Koford, Robert T. Orr, and Wm. J. Hamilton, among others.
Scientists weren't drawn to the area just because the McMillans managed their land for wildlife. The brothers were intellectually stimulating and informed sources of first hand information about ecology. And they were generous hosts. As John Taft observed in David Darlington's book "In Condor Country", "Eben would take them on trips around the countryside. Everyone was treated like somebody special -- everything was dropped and the visitor became the focus."
There were "no trespassing" signs on the dirt road, but the first house I found was empty -- or the residents were hiding. The redhead was leary. "In a place like this you can get shot driving up to a house."
"I'm gonna keep looking. It's got to be somewhere around here." I turned off onto another road and followed it down into a fold in the hills. In a few hundred yards we were approaching a beautiful strawbale house, a wooden guest house, and solar arrays -- this had to be it.
A smiling man in a western hat and boots approached.
I responded, "Don't shoot, I'm not armed."
Greg gave us a tour of the grounds, and we chatted the rest of the afternoon like old friends as the nesting kingbirds chased avian intruders and quail drank from a pool beyond the living room window.
That evening he called his cousin and neighbors to ask if his guest could camera trap on the neighboring ranches. All were agreeable. We spent the next day setting cameras at a series of springs spread over 15 miles. The McMillan family tradition lives on.
And what visits those water holes? Well, you'll just have to wait until July when we check the cams again.
Darlington, D. 1987. In condor country. A portrait of the landscape, its denizens, and its defenders. Henry Holt and Company, New York. [an excellent account of Eben McMillan and his work]
Koford, C. 1954. The California condor. Dover Publications, New York. [Koford carried out the first scientific survey of California condors and became a close friend of the McMillans.]
Leopold, A. Starker. 1977. The California Quail. University of Californian Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. [Leopold acknowledged that Ian McMillan's keen and perceptive observations greatly enriched the quail book, but McMillan disagreed with Leopold about the role of fire in managing habitat, and as a consequence decided not be Leopold's co-author.]
McMillan, I.I. 1968. Man and the California condor. Dutton, New York.
Miller, A.H., I.I. McMillan, and E. McMillan. 1965. The current status and welfare of the California condor. National Audubon Society, Research Report No. 6. New York. [Miller commissioned the McMillan brothers to survey the California condor population in the early 1960s]
Orr, R.T. 1954. Natural history of the pallid bat, Antrozous pallidus (LeConte). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. XXVIII (4):165-246. [Orr, who was curator of birds and mammals at the California Academy of Sciences, carried out much of his work on the McMillan ranches, and Eben assisted him in gathering data.]
Snyder, N and H. Snyder. 2000. The California condor: a saga of natural history and conservation. Academic Press, San Diego. [A synthesis of previous works and recent findings on the California condor, including a summary of the McMillan surveys]