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, December 31, 2010

Inside the lodge

Thanks to Carl in VA for this BBC link to the secret lives of beavers inside the lodge.

Check it out.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Curiosity kills the Cam

Thought I'd better check my blogroll before posting this one, and sure enough ornithologist John Carlson had just posted on BBC's latest polar bear film.

John knows a lot about ice and cold so be sure to check out Prairie Ice for links to this very nifty camera trapping footage.

(And thanks, Nik, for the heads-up.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A good camera trapping story

Cougar Magic recommended "Ambushed on the Jaguar Trail" to me last summer, and my daughter gave me a copy for Christmas.

It is subtitled "Hidden cameras on the Mexican Border", so of course I read it in two nights.

The authors, Jack and Anna Mary Childs are a retired land surveyor and school teacher whose pastime of tracking mountain lions with mules and lion dogs led to the chance discovery of a jaguar on a hot August day in 1996.

At the time jags in the American southwest were thought to be a memory of the past, but this and another sighting kick-started a joint venture by Arizona and New Mexico Fish and Game authorities to investigate the status of the big cat.

The Childs got involved and became committed camera trappers.

This book is a good read about using camera traps to learn about jaguars, and contains lots of good natural history about southwestern wildlife.

It also captures the fascination and thrills of camera trapping, and is a testimony to what we can learn from a harmless but mentally and physically invigorating hobby.

My hat is off to the Childs for their commitment to nature and their contribution to wildlife education and conservation.

There aren't many books about camera trapping, so you won't go broke collecting them.

Add this one to your collection.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Decoying acorn woodpeckers

Can you fool acorn woodpeckers to use a fakey-looking granary?

If you don't know about woodpecker granaries  -- they are the pinnacle of the acorn woodpeckers craft -- live or dead trees and limbs riddled with holes stuffed with acorns.

They are such curiosities that outdoorsy Californians snatch up fallen chunks to decorate their gardens and homes.

When there's a shortage of granaries the woodpeckers get in trouble.

I have plenty of oaks around my house, but no woodpecker granary.

Noisy peckers visit, but fly off with their booty.

I sometimes awake in the dead of night wondering -- would the local peckers adopt a man-made granary?

How picky are they about the age and density of the wood?

How high would I have to hang the thing?

In November I finally got the lead out and built a fake woodpecker granary.

For a pilot test I drilled holes of 4 sizes in a 4-foot length of dead canyon live oak.

Then I put the granddaughters to work collecting acorns -- tanbark oak, Canyon live oak, and black oak.

Stuffed the holes.

Hung it near the house on a black oak.

The camera trap took 44 photos in 8 days and then the batteries died.

Ignorant of the power failure and with hopes periodically kindled by the endearing rukka-rukka of calling peckers, I waited another 20 days.

Only one woodpecker was photographed, and only barely as you can see.

There may have been others triggering the camera, but if so, they stuck to the other side of the log.

I'll keep that in mind the next time I set the camera.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Friendly face flies of fall

The face flies of summer -- black-tailed deer at Chimineas in September

A warm spell recently summoned overwintering flies from the woodwork, and for several days the redhead wielded the fly swatter with deadly vengeance.  

The autumnal house fly is often found to be the face fly (Musca autumnalis), that nemesis of cattle whose exquisitely designed mouthparts sponge up secretions of eyes, noses, mouths, and wounds, and then stimulate further secretion with rasping prestomal teeth.  

The face fly evolved with the herding ungulates of Eurasia, but not until 1952 did it make its appearance in North America.

Somehow they missed the boat several hundred years ago when the Spaniards brought livestock to the New World. 

But they found everything they needed, multiplied, went west, and reached the golden state in the 1960s.

Face flies have an intimate relationship with eyeworms.

Eurasian and African face flies of several species are hosts of at least a dozen species of these parasitic nematodes of the genus Thelazia.

Adult eyeworms live under the eyelids and in the tear ducts of ungulates.

They lay their eggs in the lachrymal secretions, and the flies lap them up as they feed. 

After hatching the worms develop in the flies' fat bodies, and when about half grown they transfer back to eyeballs, where they cause anything from mild inflammation to conjunctavitus, and even blindness.  

Though the newly arrived face flies were not carrying eyeworms, there happens to be one species of eyeworm native to North America.

Guess where it lives?

Hint: The scientific name is Thelazia californiensis.

Our native eyeworm infects deer, jackrabbits, and coyotes, and sometimes livestock, dogs, and cats.

There are even a few cases of human infection.

Entomologists had long believed that the canyon fly (Fannia benjamini) was the California eyeworm's host, but it really didn't matter because our state eyeworm was economically inconsequential.

That quickly changed when word got out that the face fly was headed west, where wet noses, rolling eyeballs, and drooling lips abound.

If the face fly and our native eyeworm were compatible California's livestock could be in trouble.

Cattlemen started to worry and the state's economic entomologists began looking into the likelhood of an eyeworm epidemic. 

The entomologists examined seventy species of arthropods associated with native mammals, but only a small fraction of canyon flies harbored eyeworm.

Then it was discovered that canyon flies were actually three separate species, only one of which -- an uncommon and apparently undescribed species was the true host of the eyeworm. 

There was a flurry of fly collecting to start a laboratory colony.

"Some dexterity with a net is needed to catch any of these flies . . . , but the vector species seems to be particularly elusive, judging from its behavior in the laboratory."

So noted the investigators, but they prevailed and the elusive new species of fly was bred in the laboratory where it consistently infected domestic rabbits.

With a ready supply of eyeworms and their eggs, the entomologists fed the parasites to face flies with deft and caring tenderness.

The infections didn't take.

Our native eyeworm is highly host specific. In other words, face flies and domestic livestock are not suitable hosts of the California eyeworm. 

Neither are people, most of the time.

But take note dear friends.  Eyeworms will scare away a date faster than any amount of spinach in your smile. 

The take home message is this: "Don't joke about flies or make fun of entomologists."

Note: In the absence of voucher specimens I am not sure of the identity of these flies, and for now I will assume they are the common face fly (Musca autumnalis), which winters in homes and buildings.


Olroyd, H. 1964. The natural history of flies. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.

Weinmann, C.J. et al., 1974. Eyeworms and face flies in California. California Agriculture, November, pp. 4-5.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Drowning in beer

It's no secret that I pick up trail trash, and beer and power drink cans are the items most commonly discarded on my regular beat -- the flume trail. 

It seems an increasing number of flume walkers quench their thirst with pricey beverages instead of  water. 

Yesterday I found a 16-ounce can of MGD tucked into the duff next to the trail.

It was half full and as I drained the foul-smelling liquor -- no, not into my mouth -- something soggy blocked the opening.

A mass of black fur, a tiny foot and a shrew-like tail. 

I carefully stuffed my stinky can with its treasure into the outside pocket of my rucksack and continued my late afternoon hike.

Back at my workbench I opened the can and found the marinating contents to be three shrews, a carabid beetle, and a millipede.   

The strolling beer-drinker had set the perfect shrew trap, a smooth-sided pitfall that attracts arthropods.

The shrews stunk, but they were still intact. 

So I doused them with alcohol, inspected their teeth with my dissecting scope, and keyed them out as Trowbridge shrews (Sorex trowbridgii).

This western species eats Douglas fir seeds, in addition to usual earthworms and insects, and few live long enough to grow the brown summer coat of their second year.  

Pleased with my finding, I retired to the house.

As I passed through the kitchen I smelled the rotten shrews.

"I'll wash up in a minute . . . those shrews had a powerful stench."

"That's not what you're smelling", said the redhead -- "We're having sauerkraut with pork chops tonight".

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Outlaw no more

You get road-respect when you drive a 28-year-old junker that roars, lurches, and looks like an accident waiting to happen.

I bought the green machine from an old friend for $500.

"What's the little pillow for", I asked.

"Don't throw it away", he warned.

"You'll need it unless you want the seat spring to tear you a new you-know-what."

He also gave me a long list of maintenance notes, jotted on a used envelope from the Model T Ford Club of America.

 "High beam mostly does not work -- probably switch.
"Automatic choke does not work.
"Horn needs new pigtail or shim or part from Jeff's
"Heater fan does not work -- probably motor -- remove -- check -- have another from Jeff's truck.
"Running down road with relaxed throttle then giving gas usually makes truck buck. Has always done that -- probably carburetor.
"Sometimes comes to stop sign then doesn't want to idle -- has always self fixed soon after.

Okay, it wasn't perfect, but let's face it, heaters are for wusses.

Yes, the windshield fogs up in cold weather, but you know what? Crank down the window and the problem is gone.

The roof leaked too, but a little caulking fixed that.

Now it looks like the great speckled bird once perched there.

But who cares, it's served me well, and the neighbors always know when I'm coming and going.

I've dragged logs with it, and hauled tons of supplies, rock, lumber and firewood in it.

When I lob a flitch of manzanita into the bed, I don't worry about the paint job.

And Fred loves it. Drop the tail gate and he comes running for a ride.  Recently he's taken to napping in the cab.

"Drive a car that looks like a wreck and feller drivers give you respect."

Did Johnny Cash write those words?

Well, that's what I've learned.

Old folks give me a wide berth, yield the right-of-way even when it's theirs, and show grace and forbearance when I'm straining up a hill at 35 mph.

And if some punk passes me in a hurry,  I rock in the seat like I can't make it to the top without human momentum.

But my friends, there's trouble in River City.

The green machine didn't pass smog inspection.

"I'm sorry", apologized the inspector, " but your car's now classified as a Gross Polluter".

The green machine was declared an outlaw, which means I had to get the mechanical deficiencies corrected and have it reinspected at a Gold Shield Smog Inspection station.

If it didn't pass reinspection. . . . well . . . .  you know what that means. (Damn, I'm choking up.)

I felt like a criminal when I broke the news to the redhead.

"You're a gross polluter!?", she gasped with revulsion and rolled her eyes.  

The needful was done, I paid the mechanic, and with that the green machine's value doubled.

He handed me the keys and I noticed that old greenie had a certain soft glow, like a ripe Granny Smith apple.

"You know, I haven't driven it yet, but it even looks better on the outside."

"That's because it feels better", my mechanic sympathized.

I haven't yet adjusted to the loss of the roar, and the new sound isn't exactly a purr.

In fact it sounds more like a geckering binturong.

But I'm feeling good. The green machine is an outlaw no more.

Nota bene: If you really want to know about geckering binturongs see: Wemmer, C. and J. Murtaugh. 1981. Copulatory behavior and reproduction in the binturong, Arctictis binturong. J. Mamm, 62:342-352.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ring around the collar

You can't fully appreciate it from the photo, but Stinkarella has a ring around the collar.

I pulled a couple of cameras today, and this spotted skunk made a couple of appearances on an overgrown logging road.

In all of the photos its nose is in the ground and its neck is stained.

I've seen the dirty neck before in these little Butte County stinkers.

Rubbing the neck on smelly substances, or self-anointing is a common trait among carnivores and a familiar and distressing habit of dogs.

That's how stinky got the ring around the collar, I believe.

There are more theories than data about the function of self-anointing.

One prevalent idea is that it disguises the owner's scent.

Somehow I find this hard to believe in skunks.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Commuting in civilized nature

If your ancestral breeding ground is the engineering wonder known as the Butte Creek Flume, reaching the pool of conjugal bliss can be a dangerous odyssey.

I'm speaking of Sierra newts (Taricha torosa sierrae), which my observations indicate are not content to just drop into the flume when they find it.

Instead they follow the path ridden and trodden by bikers, hikers, dog walkers, and galloping dogs -- most of whom pay no regard to pedestrians like banana slugs and newts.

At some point of course the survivors find the pool of choice.

I stumbled into this newt today shortly after it ascended the on-ramp to the catwalk, and I watched as it newt-walked unerringly to the far side -- a span of 20 feet.

One of many catwalks on the flume.

Nonetheless I found it worrisome.

The path wasn't straight and the spaces in the expanded metal were big enough for the newt to fall through.

If it fell off the catwalk it wouldn't be the first time.

A few months ago I stumbled into a bloody gentleman here.

He was about my age, and had stepped off while adjusting his wrist watch.

Just stepped into space, lost his grip on the handrail, and slid down the gunnite wall below, de-barking elbows and fingertips along the way.

"I'm okay", he insisted when I offered to get the truck, "but I'll feel it tomorrow morning."

I haven't seen him since, which can mean only one thing: his wife grounded him.

The gunnite wall below the catwalk.
It could happen to me.

My camera trapping ventures would be restricted thereafter to a 50 foot radius of the house.

I studied Sally again, who was still on course with 15 feet to go.

The fall wouldn't be fatal for a salamander either, but . . . .

I picked it up anyway, crossed the bridge, and released it on the other side.

Sally didn't miss a beat, and just kept going in the same direction.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Awesome athletes

The air-born phase of the broad jump.
Taut-muscled athletes -- yes, we have them at the Chimineas Ranch.

Sometimes we see them in training late at night.

It's all track and field events -- no team sports.

It was our good fortune to capture a few images of one of these athletes practicing the broad jump.

Scope out this athlete's form -- the extended whiskers, erect ears, flexed forepaws and symmetrically poised hind feet.

The straight back and gracefully arched tail show the ballistic perfection of the bullet--shaped body.

This Olympian demonstrates gold metal form.

The launching or propulsive phase of the broad jump (feet still on the ground).