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 28, 2008

Cutting love

Thwack! A stick leaps into the air, and the redhead covers her head.

“You’re going to hurt someone with that thing.”

I’m in a serious eye-hand-coordination-feedback-loop and on a good roll, so I turn away, center a length of the limb on the stump, take aim, and thwack. Another oak stick shoots into the blue.

How satisfying, but I can take only part of the credit.

It’s the tool. The curved blade of this axe cuts cleanly, and the haft -- made of manzanita by the way, is a bit on the long side, giving it a lever arm of added force.

Woodworking tools, especially primitive ones give me great pleasure. I like the way they look. I like to see them at work in skilled hands, and I like to use them.

I was 11 years old when I got my first serious cutting tool, a hunting knife from Sears Roebuck. The details of that gift were buried in my memory until the day my mother called to tell me my father had died.

We had a houseguest that day, and I was stoic.

But that night the memory came back in a dream. My father had overridden my mother’s veto and bought the knife for me on the sly. He needed time to talk her into it, and when that was done he would show me how to handle it.

Meanwhile it would be in the top drawer of his bureau.

“You can look at it, but don’t play with it. It’s sharp.”

Naturally, I took the knife out of the case one afternoon and drew my finger across the blade. In my dream I felt the cutting bite, and with it came the full force of his death. The memory was vivid and complete, a father’s kindness to his son. I cried like a baby.

Eight years later in Mexico I watched the chips fly as woodcutters chopped pine on the slopes of Mt. Orizaba. I was smitten with their full-sized asymmetrical axes. Hecho en Mexico. Collins. I bought one with my meager cash.

A decade later I met a blacksmith in Nepal, an untouchable who lived in a dirt-floored lean-to. He was a man with impressive skills and knowledge of metallurgy, but he was trapped by a barren birthright.

He made the axe I was swinging today.

Man Bahadur Chankar was a gifted craftsman, but you wouldn’t know it from his tools. Western blacksmiths use a large assortment of tongs, fullers, flatters, swages, punches, files, and chisels.

This blacksmith’s anvil was a mushroomed length of truck axel driven into the ground. Yet with a few tongs and hammers he could make beautiful things from scrap metal and leaf springs.

If he needed a punch or a hot chisel, he made it from scrap, but they weren't permanent parts of his kit. That disabused me of the notion that a craftsman is only as good as his tools.

When most terai dwellers napped in the blast furnace heat of the pre-monsoon afternoon, I would walk to his hut and watch him work. He was dumbstruck.

No one in the village cared about his skills. His services were good only for barter. A perfect little tweezers for plucking chin hairs earned him a couple of beedies – local cigarettes. If someone cheated him, he accepted it as a blacksmith’s fate.

One day his 10-year-old daughter dropped the hacked parts of a mynah on a piece of corrugated iron by the fire. When it sizzled she put it into a small metal bowl of water, and her father set it over the forge with his tongs.

I watched with a certain apprehension when she added a grimy mixture of peppers and later turmeric.

The meat was obviously hers. I wondered if she found it dead, but hoped she killed it with a slingshot.

I guess it didn’t matter -- even to me the questionable meat soon smelled good enough to eat.

I visited the blacksmith for several years, bought him a set of files, and paid cash for adzes, axes, and kukris. I gave him clothes for his family.

The project ended, and I never saw him again.

But when I use his axe I remember the smell of sal flowers, dust, and wood smoke and honor the gift of his acquaintance.

[N.B.: For more on axes, see Chas Clifton’s blogpiece, Where did the axes go?]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bulked-out bear digs for treasure

Rich just sent me the latest pics from the mountain, where the bulked-out individual seen above or one of his kin, dug a sizable hole in the woods searching for Emperor Norton's Treasure.

(To appreciate Emperor Norton it helps to be a San Franciscan or perhaps a Brit. The city was riddled with fox holes in the '50s when one of the newspapers sponsored a contest called . . . you got it! "Emperor Norton's treasure." )

This might have been Bruin's last aerobic exercise. He looks rather hangdog, obviously ready to retire for his winter's nap.

Other treasure seekers stopped to muse over his handiwork.

But the flicker couldn't care less about the bear's hole.

(Hey, remember the one about how to catch a polar bear? My daughters won't let me tell it to the g'kids. Unfortunately, by the time they're old enough to hear it, I'll be too damn old to remember it. )

Monday, November 24, 2008

On waking sleeping bears

Three bears are sleeping in a den. Your camera trap is 10 feet from the entrance. How do you check it without waking them up? That's what Reverend Dick was wondering. I answered that bears sleep soundly.

But not as soundly as true hibernators like ground squirrels whose core body temperatures drop to a few degrees above freezing.

Winter-sleeping bears are rousable, though usually not instantly.

According to bear specialist Lynn Rogers, "black bears in the North hibernate so deeply that they may be jostled and prodded for several minutes in mid-winter before they awaken.”

This fact emboldened biologists to crawl into dens with sleeping bears in order to record their rectal temperatures. This is one of those punctuated achievements in field biology that begs the question, who tried it first, and was he sober?

Bears apparently don't roll over and look affectionately at the guy with the thermometer. Dr. Raymond Hock, a pioneering bear researcher in the 1950s observed, “When a hibernating bear is awakened, he tends to be cross as a bear.''

Hock however seduced slumbering black bears to cooperate with a bucket of maraschino cherries. When the sleeping bear smelled the cherries it briefly became wakeful and rose to its feet. Hock deftly inserted the probe and removed the cherries, and the bear went back to sleep.

This brings me to a mountain man and "grizz" story.

If bears didn't sleep soundly in the winter, I wonder if mountain man Joseph L. Meek would have lived to kill three denning grizzly bears in the 1830s. This is one of those mountain man stories that I suspect improved with re-telling. Writer Stanley Vestal did not annotate his references in his book about Joe Meek, as he did in other accounts of mountain men, so I can't go to the original sources.

Here's the story and my interpretation of it.

Meek found bear tracks in the snow leading into a cave in the Snake River country.

Meek, Claymore, and Hawkins entered the cave while a fourth mountain man, Doughty waited with loaded rifle at the entrance.

The cave "was about twenty feet square and high enough to stand up in." Sounds feasible.

"There the three men found three bears standing up to receive them." It seems unlikely the bears were standing, which would mean they were wakeful.

If so, they would have attacked the men. More likely the bears were sleeping or perhaps awakening in response to the disturbance, like dreamy bears smelling maraschino cherries. This is born out by the following statement.

"As soon as Meek was near enough, he whipped out his wiping stick and hit the big bear a smart blow over its sensitive nose."

There is no mention of the use of torches, and the description suggests it was not a particularly shallow cave. Unless the den was a rock fissure admitting some light, they must have used fire to see what they were doing.

"At once the big bear rushed out of the cave." . . . where it was shot by Doughty. The wounded bear "teared back into the cave growling and snarling" where the three men shot and killed it.

At this point Hawkins "started to sing and jump around and joined the others in striking the middle sized bear to make it run out".

Doughty despatched this one at the den opening.

"It did not take long to drive out the little bear", which was shot by three of the men.

Vestal refers to the bear as "he", but it was probably a female with cubs of the same litter, perhaps of differing size. It's less likely they were subadults of two different litters, separated in age by two or more years.

A great story, and one I would like to believe was based largely on fact.


Vestal, S. 1963. Joe Meek, the merry mountain man. University of Nebraska Press.


NY Times article on bear research

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crossing paths

May 8, 2004, Saturday morning

Location: the tail of the Himalayas (just a place you pass over while watching the inflight movie)

The trail straddled a ridge covered with pines and rhododendrons. In burned clearings were thickets of Himalayan blackberries and brackens. To the south a vast canyon, in the distance slash and burn.

A light-footed stranger came down the trail.

He was armed -- spear, long bow, a bamboo quiver of arrows, and a dah (machete). No shoes. He wore an oversized suit jacket.

There were no villages nearby.

I had to talk with him. Shein translated to Homang, Homang translated to the stranger.

His name was Boomenai, and he was 76 years old. He had two wives and ten children. Two are still living.

He was on his way to Kanpetlet, a two-day march from his village. He had slept in the forest, and roasted a bird for dinner last night.

I would like to know him better, but have to be satisfied with his picture.

Anyone who carries a spear, hunts with a bow, and sleeps in his suit jacket is my kind of guy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Don’t look out the window, you might learn something

It was an early morning flight to Washington DC. The redhead was reading her book, while the codger gazed down at the great basin in wonderment.

“What a sight!” Long morning shadows painted the basin and range country in sharp relief.

“Look at this, cutey! You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this scenery. We’ve got to drive across Nevada again. We still haven’t seen the Ruby Mountains.”

The redhead didn’t want to crane her stiff neck.

Then the PA system. The flight attendant asked us to be courteous and pull down our shades.

It’s a thoughtful gesture to pull that shade down. To deny yourself a space odyssey so your fellow passengers can watch crappy movies, TV reruns, and vacuous interviews with vacuous celebrities.

I don’t care how cute the flight attendant is: I don’t feel cooperative.

My fellow passengers may not give a damn, but this land is my land . . . and I want to feast my eyes on her heaving curves and the tattoos on her flat belly.

I pulled my shade halfway down. 

Is it any surprise that Americans are geographic dummies? Remember Sam Cooke’s song about being young, dumb, and in love? (“Don’t know much about geography . . . “.

It seems to me that there is an educational opportunity here for a venture capitalist with educational leanings.

My airplane fantasy is a real-time electronic toy with the memory of an Ipod, the tracking abilities of a GPS, and the zooming and scanning ability of Google Earth. The Hungry Eye.

Have your Bloody Mary mix and cruise like a condor. Zoom in on that mountain range and query the landscape with menus.

You could start with geological history, hydrology, natural resources, and flora and fauna. Can you dig it?

What? That kind of stuff puts you to sleep?

Okay, how about human topics? Native peoples, westward expansion, changing land use?

That’s boring too, huh?

Then let's navigate to the nearest town or city, and wade through the urban menu – population, local heroes, industry, recreation, sightseeing, shopping, restaurants, nightclubs, etc.

Well, maybe, you say?

Why hasn’t someone in Silicon valley thought of this?

Is it the cost, or the problems for Homeland Security?

Or are we like the guy in Sam Cooke's song -- we don’t know much about geography and we’re not embarrassed to say so.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Training a small primate

The redhead and I flew to northern Virginia last week to visit our daughter and family.

I wanted to expose my grandson (7 months) to camera trapping. Okay, I confess. It was just a photo op.

He posed well and looked interested, but all he really wanted was to eat the camera.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The rimrock path

THIS is the place, I thought.

A sandstone arcade where ringtails, foxes, bears, and pumas stroll. And maybe an occasional hog-nosed skunk. Perhaps even a coyote now and then.

The kind of place where local wildlife might surprise an edible neighbor.

A long low recess at the foot of the rimrock, clear of rubble, protected from above, but only a few leaps from escape in the boulders and thickets below.

An intimate place and a camera trapper's haven.

I sprinkled a few drops of fermented fish oil on the rock, and it worked.

But not on bears or pumas.

Providence rewarded me my usual allotment of wood rats and gray fox. Wherever I go they are waiting to give me their pictures.

I'm not complaining, because sooner or later something unusal happens, like the monogamous pair in the same picture.

Or a meeting of fox and skunk, both drawn to that delightfully smelly smudge of fish oil.

Though the skunk is partially hidden, its flag is up, ready to about-face and lay the fox low with a blast of hideous gas.

Br'er fox is not about to be skunked. His flag is also raised, but for the moment he's avoiding eye contact with the little bully. Or maybe his gaze is on the camera.

Either way, I suspect he's been skunked before.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New bears move in

A new mama bear and two cubs showed up at the bear den, and it looks like they intend to stay. Brian just checked the cam and emailed me this selection of pictures.

Mom gathered grass and shrubs and pulled them into the burrow.

The two cubs are bigger than the last two, which means they are yearlings.

They earned their upkeep by helping mom.

Whether mom is pregnant or not, this will be the cubs' last winter's sleep with her.

I think we are witnessing the beginning of a long winters' nap. Damn, these camera traps are fun!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Having a drink together

Maybe they were buddies when this picture was taken in October, but now the rut is getting underway.

No more are the friendly meetings at the water hole to size up each other's antlers. Now it's all about the quest for carnal knowledge, each buck for himself.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Camera Trapping 101- continued

I ran this post by Cliff Wheeler, a seasoned woodsman and one of the best camera trappers around, and I am happy to say that he shares my views. If you haven't been checking his blog, well, you've been missing a lot of great wildlife images and tips on camera trapping.

So getting back to the lecture, here’s how we see it.

Point 1) Despite our best efforts to hide them, our cameras don't go unnoticed.

  • Birds and mammals detect trail cameras by sight and scent.
  • Hiding a camera delays discovery and increases the chance of getting a candid picture. Cliff says, " disguising the camera with vegetation is much more effective than the camo on the camera case”. When he places a camera on a tree he covers it with moss, "but only for deer or coyotes, since most other animals seem to care less".
  • The sound of the extending lens seems less noticeable than the sight of it, at least in daylight. Digital cameras don't make shutter noise, and camera trappers usually deactivate the cute electronic noises that come with the camera.
  • Most people can't hear the lens murmur inside the case, and it's doubtful many animals can hear it when there is wind, rain or nearby streams. However, some of the latest commercial trail cameras have a tone designed to alert the passing deer, so it pauses for its photo looking like a taxidermic mount.
  • Most mammals can probably detect the camera by scent, at least when downwind.
  • Most mammals and birds seem indifferent to the flash. Like people they sometimes anticipate it and blink, or avert the eyes.

  • Looking at the flash at close range temporarily affects vision by causing image bleaching. That's how it affects people, and it's probably the same for many mammals. The effect is minimal in daylight, but intense in darkness when the pupils are open. The undesirable photographic result is red-eye and disturbance of the subject.
  • You can reduce the effect by using an external flash. If the subject looks at the camera, it won't get a head-on blast of light. If you set the camera for automatic exposure, flash intensity adjusts to the proximity of the subject. If you also set the camera for red-eye reduction a volley of low intensity flashes precedes the flash. This stimulates pupil closure and reduces reflection from the retina.
  • There is no behavioral evidence that the flash affects vision of animals more than it does humans.

Point 2) The response to the flash differs among species, but not all individuals react in the same way.

  • Rodents rarely show any reaction to the camera or flash. They feed, gather seeds, and return to a feeding site despite the flash. Occasionally a wood rat or squirrel will climb on the camera.

  • Birds have wide angle vision, so it is difficult to tell if they are looking at the camera or are viewing a much larger area. They often carry on despite the flash.
  • Deer occasionally show curiosity to a camera, but elk often sniff, lick, or rub antlers on the camera.
  • Coyotes are usually camera shy. You are lucky to get more than one exposure. Yet they may be bold in areas where there are a lot of people who don't harm them, or when scavenging at a carcass in winter. Cliff notes that sound is an important consideration when setting cameras for close-ups. "By setting the camera low to the ground, say under 12 inches and next to some brush, I have been able to get multiple pics of coyotes easily at night or during the day."
  • Bears differ in their response to cameras. In some regions they are indifferent, but in all areas there are curious and destructive bears. We believe the flash stimulates their curiosity. A bear can't play with a mouse without killing it, and can't examine your camera without making permanent adjustments to its workings.

The evidence tells us that camera traps do not hurt wildlife or disrupt the lives of wild animals in any harmful way.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Two more den shoppers

There were other visitors to the bear den. The desert cottontail lingered in front of the den, and the white-throated wood rat was seen coming and going. This picture makes me wonder if the rat has a stick nest deep inside.

And I was wrong; at least one of the cubs went into the den, though we can't be sure it did any work to prepare it for the winter sleep.

The camera didn't go unnoticed either. The claws look short enough to be those of a cub. Knock on wood. We were lucky it was restrained in its examination of the camera.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rain doesn't stop us

Last Saturday was a cold wet day.

But that didn't stop up from setting camera traps in Marin County.

We even gathered soggy coyote turds for this particular set.

We're tough.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Camera Trapping 101

"I got two pictures of Br'er Coyote at a spring in Gillis Canyon.

"The animal above left after the flash. Below, it was trucking before the flash.

"The high-speed exit was an immediate response to the red-eye adjustment flashes - you know, the rapid volley of flashes the precedes the flash synchronized with the shutter. That picture was taken less than a second from the moment the coyote noticed the camera.

(Throat-clearing sounds) Student: "Sir: Do you feel bad that you were responsible for frightening the coyote?"

Codger: "Hell no! The camera tested that yote's survival instinct, and it passed with flying colors. I admire that coyote, and though it's a crappy photo, it gives me a chuckle.

Student: "But Sir, don't you feel a little guilty that you deprived it of a drink?"

Codger: "Pshawww! Guilty? You gotta be kidding. Here's how I see it, Laddybuck. 

"If that kind of thing hurt them, there wouldn't be many coyotes left. Natural selection is the school of tough love. There are places where coyotes are skittish, and there are places where they're bold. It depends on circumstances . . . . and we're gonna talk about that too, but let's get on with today's lecture -- the reactions of animals to cameras traps.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Problem-solving beavers

Terry Schulz at River's Wind has been camera trapping a problem-solving beaver in southern Washington state. It cut a log, but the log won't fall. The beaver won't give up. Check it out here.

Cliff Wheeler also recently posted photos of another beaver solving the problem of the "intruding stick".

If you dig beavers, check Cliff's posts on his own clever beaver. Follow the story in his September postings.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Skinny guys can surprise you

We were listening to the radio on our way to the Bay area the day after Halloween, when we heard our Governator’s voice.

“At the next Ahnold classic I vant to invite Obama, so we can do something about those skinny legs.”

Classic foot-in-mouth Ahnold. I had to chuckle. This was as good as the "girly men" comment.

I guess the Governator thinks that looking corn-fed improves your chances of winning the race.

Well, when I was in high school there were two really skinny kids in PE. One could do about three times more pull-ups than the most muscle bound dude on the football team. Skinny butt just kept on going. The first time he saw it, the coach was practically speechless. So were we.

The other guy was the class nerd. For some reason he went out for cross-country, and everyone on the team snickered. He took first place in the first meet, and it kept on happening. None of us could keep up with him. Suddenly he had a lot of friends, and girls wanted to talk with him.

We never thought the skinny guys had a chance. We were wrong.

I think the Governator is about to learn the same thing. (Or will he?)