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, December 29, 2009

Crumple-eared bobcat

The holiday festivities are over, the cookies are gone, and our 18-year-old car passed the smog test.

It's time to get back to camera trapping and blogging.

Though December rains rendered the back roads of the Chimineas Ranch to quagmires, Craig managed to check a few cams, and sent a few images from the cameras we set in November.

The cat above examined the camera at close range.

Note the crumpled left ear in this full (uncropped) photo -- a good identification mark.

The same cat showed up at another camera about a kilometer away.

That camera is located on a hilltop near a dense thicket of manzanita and oak.

Here's a cropped image for a closer look.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Flat Top was a no go

"Can we get to that hill on the left?"

Craig said there was a jeep trail to the north side, so we headed for it.

"That'd make a good story", I mused. "Who goes to the top of the mountain?"

I envisioned a coyote or puma looking across the landscape.

It was an easy climb to the top. We scared up a few cottontails and noted numerous kangaroo rat and pocket mouse burrows.

Then we set a camera and paused to take in the scenery.

Some interesting features will be worth exploring in the future. 

Toward Soda Lake was kit fox habitat.

There were game trails, gullies, large burrows, and springs.

Back at the ranch, we told Bob, the Director, about the hill.

"Yeah, that's Flat Top, one of the the elk hunters' favorite lookouts."

"Better pull the cam", he advised. "I can't guarantee someone won't see it and walk off with it."

No one had found it when Craig pulled it a week later.

It hadn't taken a single picture.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My first home brew trail cam

My first home-brewed camera trap was inspired by reading the trail camera forum in Jesse's Hunting and Outdoors Website.

It was bulky, and even when camouflaged in the woods it still stood out like a sore thumb.

The solenoid was touchy, and fine tuning it could waste half a roll of film.

But it was cheap to make.

I already had the camera, a point and shoot Yashica E-Zoom 70, and neighbor Richard generously donated a photoelectric sensor -- a Maxi-Beam Power Block which required a 6 volt battery.

It worked beautifully.

I pulled the requisite 6 volt battery from a spot light. No added expense there, as long as I was willing to switch the battery back and forth.

The only thing I had to buy was the housing -- an army surplus ammunition case.

The resulting contraption was my own creation,  and I was pretty happy with it.

Then I web-surfed my way to a new discovery -- that one can also hack digital point and shoot cameras.

Digital cams were a lot more expensive than film cams, but have many advantages.

The scariest thing was taking a brand new camera apart, drilling holes in the case, and soldering wires to tiny internal contacts.

Now I am a hopelessly hooked hacker and have lost count of my hack-jobs -- at least 50.

Today I dusted off my first home brew and studied the photoelectric sensor.

It has much to commend it as an alternative to the passive infrared (PIR) and active infra-red (AIR) sensors most remote cameras rely upon to trigger pictures.

If I can adapt it to another camera, you'll hear about it here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dog walking adventure

We had finished another half mile of pundit walking, and were starting to retrace our steps.

That's when Fred went crazy.

Whatever the scent, it stirred his passion, and he bolted ahead pulling the snout loop of his Gentle Leader up to his eyes.

He didn't even sniff the ground -- he was trailing air-born particles like a bloodhound, pausing only to box his muzzle like a punch drunk pugilist -- he hates the Gentle Leader.

"Bleep bleep, what the hell is it?!"

Fred only tugged fiendishly.

Had a cougar been tracking us?

I know a couple of dog walkers who have seen them here, and one of them said the cat was clearly after his Akita.

In my mind's eye I saw us naively strolling with a cougar slinking in tow.

And sure enough there it was -- a large track in the soft ground -- no claws -- but no pad with the diagnostic 3-lobes was visible either.

"Dammit, slow down" . . .

We rounded a bend and saw 5 dogs -- medium-sized mixed breeds trotting toward us.

Immediately they reversed direction.

Fred fought the leash and yodeled to commence the chase.

They were gone.

I was tracking them here and there along the trail when I heard the plaintive whining of a dog.

A minute later we found a short-haired yellow pup floundering in the flume.

Without collar and perhaps 7 months old.

It  was struggling to claw its way up the bank and join its buddies who had disappeared in the woods.

"Come here, pup. It's okay."

It wanted no part of us. It was feral.

Thinking "blog post!", I pulled out my camera.

Fred jerked and the camera's batteries fell to the ground.

As I cursed Fred and loaded the batteries the pup got its footing and disappeared into the brush.

Who said walking the dog is boring?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Walking like a Pundit

Toward Lapche, Nepal -- photo by Rod Jackson of the Snow Leopard Conservancy

That's right -- walking. Not talking like a pundit.

Today I counted my paces like the pundits of British colonial yore.

I failed the last time I tried.

I  broke stride and forgot my count when my wet dog took his place between an elderly couple sitting on a bench.

Should never have taught Fred to jump up on park benches.

But today there were no distractions -- it was too cold for the usual flume walkers.

My mantra was a soto voce count -- 23... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 24 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... each four steps being two strides, and an average distance of 9.8 ft.

You won't believe it, but the chanting calmed Fred.

He didn't tug on his gentle leader, and he waited patiently when I jotted down the paces. It was a little weird.

The reason for the exercise?

I wanted to measure the distance of my daily dog walk.

The straight-line distance is 1.566 miles on my topo map, but I know it is longer because the path is as crooked as a water snake.

To get a better measure I had to do some serious pundit walking, which means counting paces.

The clandestine mapping of Central Asia by colonial British was a riveting chapter of what Kipling called the Great Game, the British and Russian struggle for imperial hegemony.

The British were masters at this sort of thing, systematic and thorough.

And when it came to the players of the Great Game, there was no shortage of clever, eccentric, and obsessed characters to draw upon from the rank and file of the military and civil service.

The pundits though weren't Brits.

They were mostly young Muslim and Hindu hill men who were willing to masquerade as devout Buddhists on pilgrimage to some remote holy mountain.

Politically it was a lot safer to use a native than an Englishman.

So the Survey of India trained the pundits as secret agents.

They disappeared into the rarefied air of the Himalaya and Karakoram looking pious, spinning their prayer wheels, and counting their paces on a string of prayer beads.

Hidden in the prayer wheel was a compass and notes, and in their staff was a thermometer.

They shot the sun with a sextant secreted in a chest with a false bottom, and in their begging bowl they took the temperature of boiling water to determine altitude.

Some of them were gone for years, one was captured and sold into slavery, and others never came back.

My task was easier and probably more gratifying.

When I got home I calculated the distance of my daily dog walk.

As I said, my computer software calculated the straight line distance as 1.566 miles.

Calculations from my pundit walking yielded 1.846 miles.

Not even 4 miles round trip, I'm embarrassed to say.

Time to push the end point to 2.5 miles.

Looks like I'm in for more pundit walking.

If you like to read well written history that you just can't put down, I strongly recommend Peter Hopkirk's books. The pundits are covered  to a varying extent in each of the three books below.] 

Hopkirk, P. 1982. Trespassers on the roof of the world, the secret exploration of Tibet. J.P. Tracher, Inc, Los Angeles

Hopkirk, P. 1992. The Great Game, the struggle for Empire in Central Asia. Kodansha International, New York

Hopkirk, P. 1996. Quest for Kim, in search of Kipling's Great Game. John Murray, London

Waller, D. 1990. The Pundits, British exploration of Tibet and Central Asia. The University Press of Kentucky [This is a thorough and detailed historical account of the pundits, apparently based on the author's Ph D dissertation at Vandernbilt University.]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lame excuses

Outdoor Pressroom got me off to a jolly start this morning.

A story about trailcam thievery and comeuppance -- I'm still chuckling.

Check it out here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Messy nest builders

This may be evidence that some birds are wasteful builders of nests.

When Craig and I found the big pile of sticks on the ground, we thought it was just another wood rat's nest.

Then we changed our minds.

It was not against the wall of the cliff, and directly above it was a raven or raptor's nest.

This was a pile of construction waste, probably accumulated over several years.

Whoever it was, they were not very efficient.

We will check up in a couple months to see who the current builder is.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bobcat by night

The cat must have gone to modeling school.

We got several pictures of it, and this was the most refined pose.

The eye reflection was minimized by using the camera's red-eye reduction feature.

Other predator(s) left sign at the site, but false daytime triggers had filled the memory before their visits.

We repeated the set with the controller set for night time pictures only.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Sandstone Amphitheater

Unusual or uncommon landscape features attract predators and curious naturalists.

A cut bank on an otherwise uniform prairie, a pile of flotsam on a river floodplain, a bluff feeding boulders, scree, and sand to an alluvial plain -- they all speak to the forces of  nature and allure the likes of us.

Here was a sandstone amphitheater in a bend of a dry wash.

When we saw it we knew it was the place for a camera trap. 

Bats had been using the overhang as a night roost,  owls had paused there long enough to litter the sand with fur-packed pellets, and a cougar had left a few tracks in the sand.

Since the rainy season was upon us, we found the high water mark and set the camera trap above it.

The only visitor, a coyote came 11 days later at 8:48AM.

After the picture above was taken, the animal approached the camera to check it out.

The smell of people didn't alarm it -- it was probably a transient.

No resident territory holder would be so bold or foolhardy.

It returned to investigate the rock that covered the can of rotten mackerel.

Then it scented the air and was gone.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kit fox memories of Harold Egoscue


We camera trapped our first kit fox (Vulpes macrotis).

It happened at 3:12 in the morning, one day after the first coyote's passage down the gully.

The visit was brief though -- we got only one picture.

There were few burrows in the area, and resident kit foxes usually forage within 3 km of their burrows.

Little canids like kit foxes need to steer clear of bigger ones like coyotes, and the best way to do it is not to stray too far from your burrows.

If not, coyotes will render a rambling kit fox into dead meat.

Suzie, Harold Egoscue's pet coyote used to scare the bejeebers out of his captive kit foxes.

Egoscue's study of kit foxes at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah was the first definitive study of the species.

I was lucky to work with him at the National Zoo.

Harold Egoscue in 1984 at the age of 67.

We were hired at the same time -- he was nearing the end of his career, and I was starting mine.

The zoo's young zoologists soon realized that the soft spoken ex-Marine Basque-American mammalogist had a great deal more than a technical knowledge of mammals.

He was an all-round naturalist who had logged years of field research.

He knew a great deal of botany and was a master gardener with a special knack for espalier. He knew soils and geology, archeology, and was a student of Native American crafts. He was also a flea systematist, a gifted artist, and had remarkable penmanship.

Ask him about ringtails, and he told you about the pet one he kept for a year; then he would segue into field observations and their habitat associations in Utah.

Ask him about badgers or long-tail weasels, and he had more personal experiences.

His accounts were glimpses into the past, with curious twists, often laced with Native American lore.

It was like listening to Ernest Thompson Seton.

None of us was happy when he announced that he was going to retire.

I wasn't willing to let our relationship end there.

So a couple years later, on our annual pilgrimage to the national parks we made our way to his retirement home in Grantsville, Utah.

In two fine days I learned why Harold became a naturalist.

He grew up pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

At the age of 16 his father, Jean Peter immigrated from France, and from Ellis Island went directly to Winnemucca, Nevada where Basque friends of the family set him up with a wagon and collies tending sheep.

If you haven't seen a Basque sheepherders camp, let me just say it is a pretty basic form of living -- or at least it used to be.

As was common at the time, he requested payment in sheep rather than greenback dollars, and he grazed his own animals with the company's stock.

In due course he became his own sheepman and a landowner, and married Laura Luce, a schoolteacher in eastern Oregon.

Harold was the first of 4 children.

He and his brother Peter spent summers with their father tending sheep, exploring,  observing and sketching wildlife, and collecting arrowheads.

"I would fill a 2 pound coffee can with arrow heads during the summer, and I traded and gave them all away by the time school let out the next year. Then I'd fill another coffee can."

Harold was 9 years old when his father died, and his mother took over the management of the ranches.

Without a father he gravitated to the Sue family, descendents of Chief Winnemucca.

His peer, Owen Sue taught him how to kill Townsend ground squirrels with slingshot and bow and arrow, but Harold found that he could earn more money by drowning squirrels out of their burrows with irrigation water.

"We sold them to the Indian families for 25 cents a piece.

"The women would roll the whole squirrel in clayey mud and toss it in the fire, which was an open hearth on the middle of the house.

"In 15 minutes the squirrel was cooked.

"The hair and skin came off with the clay, and they flicked the viscera into the fire. Then it was ready to eat.

Harold was proof that you can learn a lot in the middle of nowhere.

After 4 years in the Marines, and a bachelors degree at the Utah State University he returned to the basin and range country.

His education about things natural was self driven.

I only wish he was still around.

I still have a lot of questions for him.

Harold's publications on Kit Fox 

Egoscue, H.J. 1956. Preliminary studies of the kit fox in Utah. Journal of Mammalogy, 37:351-357

Egoscue, H.J. 1962. Ecology and life history of the kit fox in Tooele County, Utah. Ecology, 43(3):481-497

Egoscue, H.J. 1966. Description of a newborn kit fox. The Southwestern Naturalist, 11(4):501-502

Egoscue, H.J. 1975. Population dynamics of the kit fox in western Utah. Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, 74(3):122-127

He also wrote the Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists) account of the Swift Fox based on a review of the literature:

Egoscue, H.J. 1979. Vulpes velox. Mammalian Species, No 122:1-5.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Irresistable can in the ditch

Once you punch a few holes in the can, the aging process begins.

After a few warm days the mackerel becomes an even more powerful attraction to carnivores.

The first yodel dog (above) appeared 5 days after Craig staked the can, and there were 8 more visits over the next 23 days.

A pair of coyotes, perhaps the residents, passed by without approaching the sample closely.

The others were apparently singletons/transients who sniffed deeply of the brewing fish,

and scratched at the soil.

And at least one clever coyote tried to lift the can off of the rebar stake.

There's no telling how many different yotes we photographed, but it is clear that the gully is used by more than the pair.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fred's First Birthday

We celebrated Fred's birthday the day before Thanksgiving.

The g'kids made him a hat, which he tolerated for the photo op.

Then we lit a candle in his dog food and sang Happy Birthday.

The only thing he enjoyed was the dog food -- a junk food treat rather than his usual dried chow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Burrowing owl at the badger dig

On November 1st at 6:43 AM the burrowing owl made its only appearance -- ten days after we set the camera.

It immediately crept down into the burrow entrance where the camera captured images of its speckled interscapular and wing feathers.

Perhaps this assured the bird that nothing predacious was lurking below, because it spent the next 10 minutes above ground posing for pictures.

In my undergrad years I  was quite taken with burrowing owls.

Their table scraps -- pellets, kangaroo rat legs,  and rodent skulls -- decorated the dashboard of my car,  mementos of good trips to the charming desolation of San Benito County.

According to Hans Peeter's book, Field Guide to Owls of California and the West (UC Press) burrowing owls decorate their nests and burrow entrances with chunks of cow flops and road apples.

Another endearing trait.

We'll be on the lookout for breeding burrowing owls in the spring.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Brawl at the badger dig

Set 305: a badger dig in the grassland.

There are several possibilities of course, but when you set a cam at a badger dig you are hoping for a badger.

Badger diggings are common in grassland at Chimineas, because California ground squirrels are abundant.

Set 305 was a ground squirrel burrow that seemed to have been enlarged by a badger.

Craig notes that big clods of dirt indicate that the digger is a badger, rather than a ground squirrel, whose excavation equipment is much smaller.

So we staked a camera next to the burrow, and knowing that diurnal ground squirrels could fill a card in a few days, we set it for night pictures only.

As we viewed the pictures last week, it was apparent that mice outnumbered badgers.

In fact there were no badgers, and less than one out of 3 pictures had an animal in it.

California pocket mice (Chaetodipus californicus) were the most common visitors, and had no doubt caused the false triggers.

Most of the pictures were presumably of one mouse puttering around the burrow tailings and entrance.

One expects small mice to live in small burrows, so my assumption is that this one lived nearby and was foraging for seeds in the exposed soil of the ground squirrel nest.

But it could have had a sub-burrow somewhere within the ground squirrel tunnel.

A few frames later revealed that an intruder had brazenly entered the resident's territory.

For its cheekiness it was paying the price.

The brawlers were locked in mortal combat.

They broke apart and faced off.

At that point the resident retreated to the burrow, and it seemed to be over.

But a few moments later they were at it again, this time boxing.

In the final frame the apparent winner watched the vanquished preparing to retreat into the forest of grass.

The brawl had lasted a little more than a minute.

Victory is sweet.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chimineas in November

View from set 319

Just back last night from the Chimineas Ranch, and at the moment am downloading the latest photos.

View from set 318

An excellent though brief trip.

We were joined by Randomtruth, and talked camera trapping and wildlife practically nonstop.

RT also brought a camera trappers toy -- a plumber's cam, which we used to peer down a few burrows.

The LED encountered something you don't often find in pipes and drains -- dust.

Scoping a burrow with the plumber's cam.

And thus we found another project, how to make the plumber's cam more burrow-friendly.

On finding that a few cameras filled their memory cards with false triggers ... well, we sang the camera trapper's blues.

Nonetheless we got some interesting photos and added another species to the list, which you'll see in a few days, if not sooner.

At the end of two full days we managed to set 12 cams, with four more to go this week when Craig returns to the ranch.

And oh yes, Fred proved that he has a powerful nose for antlers, even if they are hanging on a wall and attached to a skull.

Many thanks to RT for help and good company, and to Kim and the Redhead for cooking the apple/berry pie and beef stew. We ate well!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Leaping coyote

Camera traps occasionally get pictures of coyotes in flight, but usually not like this.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gully bear

The bear came up the gully.

And paused to sniff.

It didn't take him (or her) long to realize the smell was coming from under the log or rock.

So he pulled it away, and found it wasn't edible.

When he encountered the camera, he sniffed but didn't bother it.

Then he continued up the gully and was gone.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Coyote beautiful

Whoever came up with "coyote ugly" never saw this aristocratic face.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Message from Tigerland

"The mango tree in which I sat and photographed this tiger in 1978 was in the Ministerguthi nallah about 2 km from Bandipur village, where I had established my base camp."
AJT Johnsingh

Drudgery makes the mind fly.

Tedious homeowner rituals send my thoughts sailing, and often they settle somewhere East of Suez to dwell on old friends and places, once so familiar, now far away and changed by time.

A recent message from A.J.T. Johnsingh, who has been traipsing through Indian jungles since boyhood -- reassured me that this old friend still lives an adventurous life.

AJT Johnsingh in Eravikulum National Park, Kerala, India

He shared these photos and wrote, "On 4th November early in the morning I was walking in Sigur Range (east of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary) with four colleagues along a path that parallels the Moyar river.

"Lying and facing away, as we found her."

"We saw a tigress resting on the path about 20 m away, and stopped to observe and photograph."

"She became suspicious of our presence and was about to stand up."

"She had two cubs about the size of domestic cats that were playing behind a bush."

"Standing and growling at us before bounding away"

"When the tigress growled at us, the cubs in confusion almost ran towards us."

Seems we both still get our jollies getting surprises in the woods.

Johnsingh has logged years in the jungle studying large Indian mammals, has encountered elephants, gaur and tigers at close range, and owes his survival to keen senses, quick reflexes, and good jungle lore.

The young post-doctoral fellow who studied radio-telemetry at the National Zoo's Conservation & Research Center in the late 1970s grew into a senior wildlifer and an icon of jungle savvy admired by the younger generation.

We were both devotees of Jim Corbett's books about life in the Indian jungles, and when Johnsingh finished his postdoc I confessed that someday I wanted to see Corbett's old haunts -- and trek the Rudraprayag pilgrim trail together, where the famous man-eating leopard snatched sleepers from a crowded waystation without detection.

Johnsingh welcomed the prospect, but I never found the time to break free.

The good news is that my friend did go to see Corbett's haunts, and wrote a book about his adventures -- On Jim Corbett's Trail and Other Tales from Tree Tops.

Readers of Corbett can't help but wonder what if anything remains of the intimate places he described so well.

Read Johnsingh's book and you'll find out.