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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tanking up

There's not much water around, and the forage is dry.

So the deer have been tanking up at the bird bath. Last night Split Ear arrived first. I saw the camera flash from my desk. He ran when I put the spotlight on him. Broken Antler came a couple hours later.

I top off the bird bath before dark, and it's dry in the morning. These two guys emptied it -- 2 gallons.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fernandez Spring

Fernandez Spring was a clear shallow pool in the shade of a spreading valley oak. It was the only spring where I could set the camera for 24 hr shooting while I was in San Luis Obispo County. The reason is that passive infra-red sensors are easily tricked by puffs of warm air, moving vegetation, and dappled sunlight. The resulting false triggers can rapidly fill a memory stick with an exhaustive record of passing shadows. I didn't have to worry about that here at this shady spring.

The spring was about 50 yards from the water trough mentioned in the previous post, but it was a far more popular stop for thirsty animals. Here the camera's batteries lasted for 24 days, and 231 of 310 photos were of animals (a success rate of 75%). I could identify 16 species, but 2 additional birds remain a mystery.

A bobcat visited the site twice and both times it lingered. On this visit I got 6 pictures of it looking rather bored. It stayed for 34 minutes, probably waiting for birds.

It was too late. A covey of 22 half grown valley quail (and a flash-lit moth) had passed through 40 minutes earlier.

The spring was probably a productive hunting ground for the cat. Twelve species of birds visited to drink and bathe, including a Cooper's hawk.

One night a screech owl flew in for a bath a half hour before midnight.

The raccoon dabbled in the spring for a minute and half before going to the water trough.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Who drinks from the trough?

The answer to the question is not many. Of course I only caught part of the action, because the camera was set for night time photos only.

The pigs came and went. I am sure they could learn to stand up at the trough, but they were drinking from the spring about 50 yards away.

The most active user was this raccoon.

It fished there on several nights, and was quite thorough about it.

The menu was limited -- dragonfly nymphs, smaller insect larvae for sure, together with tadpoles and perhaps a few frogs, though we didn't see any.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pleasant surprise at the rubbing post

The camera trapper's lament is that feral pigs like to rub against posts, including the one with your camera on it.

That's what happened at the spring in North Portuguese Canyon. The camera angle changed daily, and finally it pointed at the ground.

The good part is getting a picture of a kangaroo rat -- specifically the 4-toed Heermann's Kangaroo Rat. (The only other species in the vicinity is the Graceful Kangaroo Rat, which has 5-toes.

The rat came two nights in a row.

I owe it to the pigs.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Emergence of the bot flies

The grisly subject of botflies revisits me at this time of year, because August and September is when I find them floating in the swimming pool.

My earlier unconfirmed discovery of a bot on a western tree squirrel elicited quite a few comments, including this one by bot fly expert Frank Slansky at the University of Florida. His webpage on the topic is worth a visit.

"Can you clarify-- was that pic of the sq on your website from California? It looked like a western gray squirrel, but I'm not certain.

[CW: Yes, it was a western gray squirrrel.]

"The issue is that there is only one known species of Cuterebra (C. emasculator, the "emasculating" bot fly, which actually doesn't emasculate its hosts!) that normally infests tree squirrels, and it only occurs east of the Mississippi. So there are three possibilities about the squirrel you photographed:

1. There is a western spp of Cuterebra that typically infests sqs which has not yet been 'discovered' and identified by entomologists;

2. The eastern species of Cuterebra that infests squirrels has somehow spread to the west coast, perhaps because some of the eastern gray squirrels that were introduced on the west coast were infested with Cuterebra;

3. The squirrel you photographed was 'accidently' infested by a species of Cuterebra that typically doesn't infest squirrels. Each species of Cuterebra is fairly specialized in its 'typical' hosts-- one species of Cuterebra may typically infest only wild mice, another only wild rats, another only rabbits, etc. But sometiumes an 'odd' host gets infested, such as a raccoon or house mouse-- sometimes even cats, dogs and people, although there are no species of Cuterebra that typically infest these animals. They just 'accidently' get infested when they encounter some bot fly eggs laid in the habitat of the 'typical' hosts.

"I think #3 would be the most likely explanation for that squirrel-- when running on the ground it may have encountered some eggs of a mouse-infesting or rabbit-infesting Cuterebra and became infested that way. Larvae of the mouse-infesting species often settle in the groin area of mice.

"Anyway, it's probably a very rare occurrence, but if you see other western tree squirrels with these bot fly lumps ('warbles), please let me know. And if you know any folks out your way who are wildlife rehabilitators, please ask them to keep an eye out for Cuterebra-infested sqs that they get in for rehab. Larvae should be removed (they can be carefully pulled out using forceps from a live squirrel through the hole they normally make in an animal's hide, and preserved in alcohol (isopropyl or ethanol). If I could get some photomicrographs of such larvae from western tree squirrels, we should be able to publish a paper about this since it would be a very unique situation.

So readers there you have it. Keep your eyes peeled and contact Frank if you see warbles on Western tree squirrels. (Don't bother him with eastern tree squirrels -- he already has plenty of bots from them.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

A tin can romance

On a Student Section field trip around 1957 my adolescent friends and I climbed a rocky peak near Indian Wells Canyon in Kern County. It was a super cool experience. We could see for miles and miles, and we were feeling our oats. As proof of the feat I took a picture of my boot, another peak, and the wild blue yonder.

There was a small cairn on the peak where we found a note in a tin can. We could barely make out two “female names” penciled on a flattened Kodak film box, but there was an address in the town of Inyokern. Wow. They were trying to make contact on a mountain top. It was like finding a bottled message on a beach.

We were curious about these mountaineering “females”, but we were geeky and shy. We considered the “what ifs”. Then someone pointed out that since we had taken the note we had an obligation to write. We decided to go for it. If they weren’t too old, there was no telling where this could lead us.

I drafted a letter introducing the members of our group, and showed it to my climbing partners at the next Student Section meeting. We painted ourselves as adventuresome, somewhat athletic, and interesting young men. It definitely stretched the truth about our athleticism. Conveniently we also failed to divulge our ages, and of course we didn’t bother them with details about our favorite activities, like pressing plants, pinning insects, and making study skins of road killed rodents. Nothing scares off a romantic prospect faster than revealing too much too soon. (These intuitions served us well in future romances. Science nerds learned this at a young age.)

A few weeks later I received a reply and took it to the next Student Section meeting. The mountain climbers were high school girls and a year older than us. They wanted to know more about us and asked for our pictures. We felt this was going a little fast, so we ignored the request, but kept on writing.

Our pen pal kept telling us more about her girl friend’s problems, divorcing parents, smoking, wanting to drop out, dating older military guys. Clearly, she wanted to escape and grow up fast. Our pen pal was bearing witness with a kind of horrified fascination, but was powerless to help.

Her letters got longer and ours got shorter. Aside from the effects of pubescent testosterone surges, our lives were relatively simple. We were ready to bail out.

My friend Tony hadn’t climbed the mountain, but had a vicarious interest in what he called the "tin can romance". I told him that I had done my service as pen pal, and now it was his turn.

“What about it, man?” Tony reluctantly agreed to take over. I handed him the letters, but he was no one's fool. I believe he wrote once, but the tin can romance ended. Once again we were free men.

Au contraire, Neil Sadaka, breaking up wasn’t hard to do.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sod-busting water-sucking pigs

In case you don't remember, back in May I set 6 camera traps in "McMillan country". Greg and Irv McMillan and a good-hearted adjacent property owner allowed me to set 6 cameras on their ranches in San Luis Obispo County. I set them all at springs where cattle weren’t being pastured.

Greg and I had trouble aligning our schedules for camera pickup, so he kindly collected and sent me the cams in August. They contained 724 photos taken over 263 camera trap days (# cams x # days active). There were 515 animal images, and the success rate (# animal pics/total # pics) was 71%.

Of the 20 species of birds and mammals photographed, feral pigs were the most common subjects. They accounted for 23% to 94% of the photos at each spring. The porkers arrived in sounders with as many as 11 members.

A particularly favored hangout was a spring in North Portuguese Canyon. Nights there were busy, and the rooting and wallowing habitues seemed to discourage other wildlife like snockered rowdies in a pub. A coyote and a bobcat appeared on nights when the pigs were away, or arrived before the pigs appeared.

Spanish missionaries brought pigs to California in the late 1700s, and gave them free rein to wander and fatten on the land. More pigs came with settlers from the eastern US and from Russia. The traditional free-ranging form of management led to very independent hogs. They picked their own mates and interbred, which made for a nice genetic hodgepodge. Californians can boast red and pink pigs, white pigs, mottled and spotty pigs, and black ones too.

In 1925 a rancher from Monterey County introduced descendants of Eurasian wild boar from the eastern US. The free-wheeling mongrels and wild boars found each other and multiplied. The phenotypic expression of the "wild type" genes can be seen in black-haired ridge-backed boars and the wee stripers.

The pigs colonized new areas in the state, and between 1992 and 2004 added another 7000 square miles to their range. In 1956 the state’s Department of Fish & Game listed feral pigs as big game, but sport hunting hasn’t dampened the pigs’ expansion or hold on the land. They are more prolific than deer, and when deer are scarce they tide over the mountain lions.

But they not considered desirable aliens. They’re just as good at trashing landscapes as careless bikers and ATV riders. They are also disease vectors and crop raiders, and were named as one source of E coli that infected crops a few years ago. And when it comes to springs and creeks, they don’t mind going doodoo in the water supply. They are not as good as deer at thermoregulating physiologically, so they wallow in mud and water to shed heat.

Biologically though, pigs are cool animals. They're bold and intelligent. The porcine snout is a remarkable endowment, a union card to the elite clique of soil-tilling and root-grazing omnivores that includes the hog-nosed skunk, the hog-badger, and to a lesser extent, the European badger.

The porkers’ rototilling omnivory raises a question: do they partly fill the niche of our defunct state mammal, the grizzly bear, and if so, should we learn to live with them?

The answer is that we’ll have to learn to live with them. Like a lot of other problems, the biological solution is not that hard, it’s just that people and economics make it next to impossible.

(Pig) "Goodnight Mr. Firefly". . . . . (Mr Firefly) "Gooooodnight."


A pdf of Dr Barrett's feral pig article

Wisconsin DNR on feral pigs

Eradicating pigs on Santa Cruz Island

A defense of pigs as ecological equivalents of grizzly bears

Some history of California's feral pigs

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Salmon on Butte Creek

Took my old friend Dave Rentz to Butte Creek yesterday, to check up on the salmon.

Three vultures flapped away from a cobble bar as we climbed down the bank. The first Chinooks of the fall run have apparently arrived.

We found no dead fish on the banks, but another vulture glided in under the bridge and landed on the cobbles. It waddled over to the head and backbone of a Chinook and tugged at the dried bones. Pickings will be slim for a few more weeks.

Dave took this picture with his Canon S3IS.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rattler at the back door

Last night my old friend Dave Rentz of Bunyipco heard a buzzer when he stepped out the back door. He's an incurable insect collector and was checking the black light for microleps. The snake was behind a crock in the corner.

We carefully escorted the visitor down the path, and measured it as it rib-walked against the wall -- 30 inches.

It was as willing to go, and we were just as willing to see it go (especially the Redhead, who watched at a safe distance).

Rentz and I are just back from New Mexico, and I have plenty of material for the blog, including the photos from the McMillan Ranch. You'll be hearing more from me soon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cam C's final days

Greg McMillan kindly sent me the cams from San Luis Obispo county. They arrived as he had found them, covered with mud.

Greg wrote (a few weeks ago): "I brought back the cameras today. They have had a hard life. The Gillis Canyon camera and the Portuguese Canyon camera are totally muddied up although intact. The critters at the Fernandez Spring set seem to be a bit more civilized as there was no damage there."

"The camera we set up on my place was attacked. You drove a square tube post into the ground and there is a cross piece on the bottom 3rd. That post has a 45 degree bend at that crosspiece and another 22.5 degree bend about 8" from the top. It appears that something, probably a pissed off hog, hit it at high speed. Angered by the flash I assume. The camera box was opened and the camera was about 25 feet north of the scene of the accident and the box was 35. I will send the mount spike up for your perusal."

Look at the post on the right, good readers, and you will see how it is supposed to look.

Cam C was the casualty, and it looked like this when Greg put it back in the case.

It's hard to imagine how a hog removed it from the case. Perhaps a ninja pig charged the cam in response to the flash, and then rooted it, stepped on it, and gnawed at the case until it opened. Maybe it carried off the camera in its mouth, or snouted it forward like a hockey puck.

Maybe hogs dislodged it while rubbing against the post. Maybe that's how they bent the post. Pigs or even raccoons, which are attracted to shiny objects, could have pushed the camera around.

Or maybe it was the work of a vandal?

I know I drove the pipe into solid ground, but the mystery is how it or they bent the upper section. A person would have to wedge it in order to bend it.

And how did the case open? It wouldn't be hard for a bear, but it would be quite a feat for a hoofed animal. Perhaps stepping on it was enough to snap the catches.

Okay, I'll cut to the chase. The pictures on the memory stick didn't identify the attacker, but that's valuable clue.

In the first 2 weeks the camera didn't take a single picture. On the third week it took 4 pictures.

Something must have bumped the post, which redirected the camera to the ground where only a mouse could trigger a picture.

Because the camera was set for night time pictures we can only conclude that the attack took place in daylight and wasn't a response to the flash.

The attacker remains unidentified.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A rocky recess

Camera set # 157: near Yuba Pass, Sierra County, California.

At the top of a large granite outcrop was a recess with a little pile of seed shells. That's where I set the camera.

Five weeks later there were 233 photos. The main visitor was a shadow chipmunk (68% of 84 photos). It paused there to eat fungi, gooseberries, and smaller seeds as early as 5:44 in the morning, and as late as 7:00PM. Its feeding station was well chosen, close to cover and protected from the eyes of predators.

Such a small patch of ground seems an unlikely path of travel, but there were other occasional passersby. Maybe the food scraps were the attraction.

A young golden-mantled ground squirrel made a few day visits, and a deer mouse made nocturnal visits.

On two nights a Trowbridge shrew passed by. One night the camera caught it examining the seed pile.

The place wasn't unknown to birds. A dark-eyed junco made two appearances.

But a blue grouse. perhaps a young hen was my favorite visitor. She stayed for 2 minutes scratching about for scraps from the chipmunk's table.

It's surprising how many small creatures visit such a small plot of ground.

Thanks to Craig Fiehler for bringing the seed pile to my attention at the end of the camera trapping workshop. It was too good to pass up.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Night squirrel

The night squirrel is volant, which means it can glide.

On velvety flaps that hang from its side.

With spatulate tail it dodges the trees,

And lands with a thud that no one can see,

A propeller it needs to gain height, alas.

For skin flaps alone are not up to the task.

So shimmying trunks is all it can do,

To get elevation to volplane anew.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Labor day with air heads

There wasn't much wiggle room for our three generations in the car, but there were blue skies and we were in high spirits. We were off to spend the Labor Day weekend in the Sierra.

About half way up the Feather River canyon, the redhead, ever-attentive to details, called out from the back seat, "Did you pack the camp stove?"

"Oh no!" my daughter moaned. " I knew I forgot something."

There were a few moments of silence.

(me) "Do we have matches?"

(the redhead) "What does that have to do with it?"

(me) "Hey, we can cook over burning sticks. We're camping, remember?"

(the redhead) "Let's stop in Quincy. If there's a K-Mart we can buy a cheap camp stove."

My oldest daughter and I share this kind of absentmindednessness, and she also uses my excuse. "I'm not 'a detail person'. I'm a big picture person". It's a family joke.

My father was a 'detail person'. He became quite blustery when bills from Pacific Gas & Electric or Sears came with a surprise. My mother gauged his anxiety and responded accordingly.

If she consoled him, we knew it was serious. If she launched into a flurry of house cleaning with a tolerant smile we just waited for the storm to pass. But sometimes she defused his angst with a comment -- usually a humorous reference to a similar issue from the past that proved his views were not always incorrect.

Like reminding him about the morning the toy poodle showed up on the front steps wearing a sweater. It was a dog from nowhere, and my father was so taken with it that he lured it into the living room.

"Connie, come here! You have to see this. You won't believe it!"

I should mention here that my mother was in the bathroom at the moment, and that my father and grandfather had just finished sanding the hardwood floor in the living room. The dog quickly sized-up the place, crapped on the floor, and left. It had 'the trots', as we used to call diarrhea.

When my mother came out of the bathroom the only sign of the dog was the dogpile.

"Is this what you wanted me to see?"

Well, the thought of camping without a stove soon had us telling similar stories and laughing our butts off.

Lauren recalled the time she worked for The Nature Conservancy, and packed her lunch one morning while half asleep. "I was eating my sandwich and thought, "Gees, you really went light on the peanut butter". Then I opened the sandwich and there was nothing there. It was an 'air sandwich'.

Or the time she and a friend went to Grand Marais to band plovers, and ran out of Coleman fuel before the water boiled. "The pasta was really 'al dente'".

This is the good thing about being an airhead, or as we prefer to call it -- a 'big-picture person'. Goofing up doesn't necessarily get you down.

And you know what? We bought a new stove in Quincy and didn't have to cook over burning sticks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Visitors of the great pool-Part 2

Surely there are dickey birds that bathe and drink from the big pool, but Rich's cam photographed only the big birds, like the band-tailed pigeon and a raven that was a little too blurry to post.

The red-shouldered hawk was there to bathe.

And so was the great-horned owl. Rich says, "The owl looks like it could be young or a molting adult. There were two shots of it, one up higher on the rocks, then a couple minutes later this one at pool level. It was last Friday at 2:30 PM, which was a hot day all over the area."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Visitors of the great pool-Part 1

We're back on the mountain in Napa county where a couple weeks ago Rich set a cam at "the great pool".

The pool is a year-round source of water. Back in the spring we had a camera there, but it was set for night photos only, and yielded only a gray fox and dusk shot of a Steller's jay. We concluded that other sources of water, unknown to us, were supplying the animals' needs, and pulled the camera.

By August, the water supply to the old lodge had all but dried up. Rich surmised that the springs had also gone dry, so he set a cam at the big pool again. This time he set it for round-the-clock photography.

It paid off with photos of four species of birds, all new camera trapping records, and 3 mammals. (We'll talk birds tomorrow).

The Bruin above is the first black black bear we have seen here. Black bears (Ursus americanus) come in two basic color phases -- melanistic or black bears and brown bears. Bears of the brown color phase actually come in a variety of tones, from blondish to dark brown. There is also a curious record of a bicolored bear, brown above and black below.

Adaptive coloration of mammals has been of interest to me for a long time, so allow me a brief digression. The relative abundance of black- and brown-colored bears differs between areas, as most North American readers probably know. There are east-west and north-south gradients in the relative frequencies of these two color phases.

The assumption is that both coat colors are adaptive, and each color gives its bearers advantages under given ecological conditions. In general, black black bears are found in more humid areas, while brown ones occur in drier habitats. The same holds true for melanism in a fairly large number of mammals. It could be a matter of protective coloration (an older interpretation) or it may be related to a number of linked physiological traits. At any rate, this is what geneticists call balancing polymorphism, and there are examples of it in many species of vertebrates and invertebrates.

Oh yes, the other pool visitors were a squirrel and an opossum.

Tomorrow we'll look at some of the birds.