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, May 30, 2008

Wine country mountain lion caught

Last week a young adult female mountain lion was found in a backyard redwood tree in the community of Agua Caliente, Sonoma county.

Thanks to snow leopard conservationist Rod Jackson for sending me the newsclippings. For the full story and a picture of the trussed-up puss click here.

The cat was tranquillized by California Fish & Game officials about 2.3 miles from the camera trap site where Rod captured the image of a similar looking puma last month.

It could even be the same cat. If so, it had crossed State Highway 12 and moved west.

Public reactions to the event differed. The gentleman who discovered the mountain lion wanted to shoot it, and one letter writer viewed the event as an ominous reminder that mountain lions are out to get us.

It seems the prevailing sentiment was relief and gratitude that Fish & Game captured it alive and intends to release in a state wildlife reserve. (Hopefully the cat is roaming free by now.)

Rods' comment was that "There's a continuing need for public education. If the Ladakhi's are willing to co-exist with snow leopards, surely Californians can live beside their 'phantom cat'".

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Javan rhino offs camera trap

Losing a camera trap to a grumpy subject is a little more tolerable when the footage is of something (a) dangerous, (b) rare, or (c) both of the above.

Check out the story and Javan rhino footage here.

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]

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Found in the stacks (in flagrante)

Periodically I have to visit the library annex in my garage. It isn't easy getting into the stacks because camping equipment, wood, and tools have to be moved.

Yesterday, I found this couple ensconced in the stacks. For those of you who listen to Prairie Home Companion, let me just say that the quintessential Reference Librarian, Ruth Harrison, would NOT be amused.

On the other hand, I found it quite amusing. The shop steward was taking a break, or as Mark Twain would have said, he was refreshing himself. Where his pert little friend came from, I can't say. I've never seen her in the stacks before.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back on the mountain -- part 4

All travelers have to cross the log. There's no easy way around it. The camera trap captured each step as the bear surmounted the obstacle. It was 1:00 in the morning, April 17th.

Suddenly the camera's flash seemed to register. He reared up on his hind legs with a slack-jawed look of surprise. Maybe it was a threat. Maybe he was just trying to see what it was that flashed in the dark. I would guess he had never seen such a thing before.

The next few pictures show the bear ambling about between the log and the camera. Then he approached and tried to fathom the thing with his senses. The flashing continued.

Good bear! He left only his breath on the lens.

Several days later a gray fox and bobcat climbed over the log, and six days later the bear came back at 2:00 AM.

He must have noticed the flash again, and maybe something just snapped. The good bear turned bad. It was a clear case of assault and battery. He tore off the bear guard, opened the camera case and tore out the camera. He bit the camera just hard enough to jam the menu panel and the lens, which is now permanently extended at an unnatural angle.

My camera trap is finished. This is the down side of camera trapping.

The bear is recognizable by a small notch in the right ear, and over the three week period he encountered three out of five camera traps.

His first encounter was on a sunny morning, and he only approached the camera to examine it. When he found the camera two days later in the middle of the night he pushed it down, but didn't damage it.

Seven days after that he came upon the second and third cameras. He walked on by. I suppose he just wasn't in a mood for tinkering that day.

But when he met up with the second camera 6 days later he decided to examine it thoroughly.

I don't really think he snapped or that he's a bad bear. But he taught me a recurrent lesson of life. You always get a surprise when you think you have it all figured out.

The spiked bear guards are not the final solution to curious bears.

Maybe I need a constant reminder, an anti-trophy to hang on the wall.

How about this? I could mount the camera on a walnut plaque, frame it with the defeated bear guard, and include a picture of the great brown tinkerer wearing that slack jawed look of surprise.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Back on the mountain -- part 3

This is NOT where I had aimed the third camera.

This camera was attached to a short length of steel fence post, aimed at a gap in a large fir that had fallen across the trail. I'm afraid I had set the camera a little too low. I was trying to cover as much foreground as possible.

Something had pulled it down. It was undamaged and pointed at the ground. Since then the camera had taken 31 pictures of hot air puffs on the ground.

We checked the pictures.

The first travelers were a skunk and a wood rat, but . . .

on the third day a bear ambled by at 9:20 in the morning. It was about to pass through the gap when it noticed the camera.

It turned around, approached it, and then went away.

Two nights later the bear was back, and the camera took three closeups.

Then the bear pulled the camera over.

I told Rich we were lucky. It only pushed the camera down. The bear guard had worked.

(2 cameras to go. Coming soon: "Back on the mountain -- part 4")

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Back on the mountain -- part 2

The second camera trap set had nothing to offer in the way of scenery. It was just a pile of hairy turds on a trail, signaling that a large carnivore had passed this way. Carnivores keep tabs on one another by sniffing each other's scat. It's a hell of a way to manage one's social affairs, but it works.

So, 3 weeks ago we all agreed that the scat pile would make a good camera trap set.

As to the species of carnivore, we were uncertain. No one in our group was game enough to take the analysis farther than the sniff test. It was either a small bore mountain lion or a large bore coyote. Now, a young buck mammalogist with a six pack -- you know, a graduate student -- might have settled this question for us, and I would have had a better story to tell. But that wasn't the case.

Those weathered old turds, however, had lost their tang. So I doctored their bouquet with a few drops of aged crab stinkum, and a twig dipped in artificial civetone.

So much for background.

We disarmed the cam and called up the data. 137 photos! Not bad.

The bobcat was the first visitor. The scent cocktail had worked. The cat came back 3 nights in a row, and most of the 14 pictures were of it sniffing the scat or grimacing with the "flehmen face".

A gray fox appeared only thirteen minutes after the cat's last visit. It left only two partial images of its arched tail bristling like a bottlebrush: a sure sign that it was pumping adrenalin. It must have smelled the cat's recent presence, pranced about with that air of defensive bravado, and then got the hell out of Dodge City.

Next was a long string of blank daytime pictures caused by convection or 'hot air puffs'. A steller's jay and a junco were the only daytime visitors.

A more confident fox returned six nights later. After scent rolling in the turds, it cocked its leg and spritzed. We got 21 photos of foxes, and one photo of a pair together. They visited the set 15 times.

We also got two partial pictures of a striped skunk, but what really got our attention was the bear. It showed up on the 4th night, 2 hours past midnight, fresh from its bath.

Whether it had noticed the turds, I can't say, but it definitely noticed the camera and approached it boldly. This is not an image I want to see while in my sleeping bag.

Over a period of 3 minutes the camera had snapped 4 pictures of the bear, and the camera hadn't been touched.

Rich was thrilled with the pictures, especially the bear. It was the first time he'd checked a camera trap-line, and I'm sure he is pleased with his recent purchase of parts for 7 home brew camera traps.

In high spirits we headed for the next cameras.

Rich: "Two cameras and seven species!"

"This is quite a place", I reflected, "and these Napa county bears are kinder and gentler than those rowdies up in Butte county."

(There are three more cameras to go, so stay tuned for the next installment -- part 3).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Back on the mountain

Rich disappeared as soon as he unpacked, but I knew where to find him. He was sprawled in the weeds next to the snake pit eyeing a western diamondback through the zoom lens of his Nikon. (Yes, that's his picture.) He crawled a little closer for another shot and the reptile lurched over the edge and bellyflopped on the bottom of the septic tank. It sounded like a deflated tire hitting a cement floor.


"A flying snake!"

We were back at the Cleary Reserve, supplied for an overnight with carne asada, beans, tortillas and tequila. And oatmeal. It was 3 weeks since our last visit.

The "camera trapline" was waiting. So we put on our boots, grabbed our gear, and headed for the nearest cam at the bottom of a gulch.

Such a promising set -- a giant fir across a stream bed. The old veteran had lain there for several decades. I knew when I saw it that it was an occasional game crossing. It was made for camera trapping. A bay tree was growing at a suitable distance to anchor the camera. If a bear or puma crossed the log, I'd still get a full body shot.

There was a promising sign, too. Something had dug out the area where I had prepared the scent cocktail-- crab juice stinkum (aged for 7 months) and castoreum.

I disarmed the camera of its bear guard, and noted the number of exposures -- 20. One a day. Not bad.

Oh no. The first picture was a self portrait of two sorry looking codgers. It was taken as we were "walk testing" the camera 3 weeks ago. We looked a little like trophy hunters posing beside a fallen giant.

We clicked through the rest of the pictures.

Bear and puma hadn't found the tempting cocktail, but a juvenile gray fox had. Notice the blocky puppy look. It still has some growing to do.

This fox decided to give the scent cocktail a thorough butt-scrubbing, known in the technical literature as an anal drag. Dogs are good at this sort of thing, and it probably explains the dug out section of the log.

Oh yes. A couple of squirrels visited, and one dashed across the log.

Hmmm. Gray foxes and western gray squirrels. No surprises here.

We shouldered our packs and moved on to the next camera beyond the mouth of the gulch.

(Continued in "Back on the mountain-part 2")