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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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rodent rendezvous, cont'd

Pigeon holing your wood rats isn't as easy as it used to be.

We can thank molecular biology for that.

As a result of recent investigations using traditional morphometric and molecular methods there are more species of wood rats than there were a couple decades ago, which is a good thing.

So here is Bryant's wood rat, which rendezvous'd with the other rodents at Badger Head Gulch.

It used to be called the desert wood rat (Neotoma lepida), which is the smallish and generally fair-haired wood rat of the greater southwest.

Professor Patton and his colleagues at UC's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley painstakingly revised the desert wood rats, and showed that the California populations deserve recognition as a separate species.

This is the first time we've photographed the species at Chimineas.

The mouse below,  however is in all probability the Tulare grasshopper mouse (Onychomys torridus tularensis).

It's hard to confuse this little snub-nosed predator with anything else in the area.

Onychomys torridus 

And for those of you who prefer birds to rodents we have the California towhee, which seemed to be drawn to the burrow.

California towhee


Patton, J. L.,  D. G. Huckaby, and S. T. Álvarez-Castañeda. 2008. The Evolutionary History and a Systematic Revision of Woodrats of the Neotoma lepida Group, UC Publications in Zoology, Volume 135. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rodent rendezvous

The large burrow at the mouth of Badger Head Gulch

The mouth of Badger Head Gulch was a broad dry-wash with a sandstone bank, and in that bank we found a burrow large enough to be a carnivore den.

Since Fred kept coming back to sniff the burrow, it became camera trap set 393.

The camera snapped 155 pictures during the next 42 days of August and September, and the site was bustling with rodent activity.

Four species.

I am not sure what the attraction of the site was to these rodents, but not a single carnivore made an appearance.

Heermann's kangaroos rats were the most common visitors.

Adult Heermann's kangaroo rat (Dipodomys heermanni)

Some of them were juveniles.

Juvenile k-rat before filling the external check pouches

You can tell them from adults by their fetching, sleek, big-eyed looks. Very cute.

after filling the cheek pouches

The California pocket mouse was the other heteromyid rodent that visited the site, and though it is widespread at Chinineas, it was infrequently seen at this site.

The California pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The hoax makes the news

The photoshop hoax that used my camera trapped photo just became a story in the Yakima Herald.

Thanks to Scott Sandsberry for hunting me down and producing the article.

My blog hits are waning a bit, down to the high hundreds now, but I definitely picked up some new readers.

Thank you, artful photoshopper, wherever you are. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Lone Ranger in the gulch

The night flier and a grounded rodent.

A chance photo of a bat is always icing on the cake.

Identifying bats from photos like this one is a guessing game, but sometimes you get a hunch from some diagnostic feature like those teeny weenie bat feet.

The night flier with the Lone Ranger mask was possibly the Western small-footed myotis, Myotis ciliolabrum, which we have previously camera trapped at the Chimineas.

Whatever it is, the image brings to mind a staccato hi-frequency voice amidst the nocturnal buzz and chirps of crickets, a piping poorwill, and the imagined footfalls of predators in the arroyo.

And there were other stunt fliers.

Night life in Badger Head Gulch is a contrast to the hushed stillness of the summer afternoon when we set our camera.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The big cat cometh

August 12, 2010, 3:46:10AM
The big cat came 3 nights after we set the camera trap.

That was the same night that Studly unearthed the can of cat food.

The trail was hopping with activity before the cat's appearance, but white-footed mice, wood rats, and even cottontails make a meager meal.

The cat walked on by, and after its brief appearance activity on the trail was nil.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coyote takes a sniff

August 18, 2010,  21:44:45
"Big ol' head, big ol' ears, skinny body," said the cowman, "must be a young dog coyote".

Meaning "male".

It was day 9 when the yote took a passing sniff at the bait rock, and neither he nor his kin were seen there again. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lil Red moves through

Twenty-eight days passed before a young Bobcat came down the gulch

It didn't stop to smell the cat food -- if it did, the camera missed it.

It was still on the move the next night,

and 26 minutes later it was back, retracing its tracks up the gulch.

A wood rat and this kangaroo rat were the only other mammals photographed.

These were quiet nights at an otherwise active camera trap set where we found rodents, cottontails, and Studly making numerous appearances.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

One studly skunk

The Man-skunk of Badger Head Gulch is a fit welterweight, well-groomed, and in the prime of life.

His equipment is in good working order, he carries his banner high, and he deports himself with confidence.

He's a regular stud-muffin.

With 15 appearances totaling 44 images over a 40-day period Studly was seen anytime between 7 PM and 3:30 AM, and was the most photographed carnivore at set 392.

When Studly discovered the bait on the 3rd night several woodrats, cottontails, and deer mice had already passed or examined it.

There's a can of cat food under those rocks.

Studly tackled it with determination.

Heave! (1:23:17)
Ho! (1:23:37)

Voila! (1:23:58)

In 41 seconds he defeated the rocks and carried the can to the saltbush.

He was only a skunk, but we hadn't seen a skunk in 15 months of camera trapping.

August and September were good to us -- we got Stinkarella and Studly-- the skunk slam.

There are only two carnivores to go -- ringtail and long-tailed weasel. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Badger Head Gulch

In a few days we'll look at the comings and goings in Badger Head Gulch, but first some background.

To begin with, there is no Badger Head Gulch.

We named it for poor Yorick, above, who met his untimely demise here last spring.

The gulch is actually the headwaters of Saltos Canyon, which at this point is just a steep-walled erosion gully of compacted sand, sandstone and shale rubble.

Most of the year it's a dry dusty gash in the Caliente Range with a narrow game trail tracing it length through occasional thickets of saltbush, mulefat, and alkali goldenbush.

In the winter it drains a brown slurry of outwash into the much larger Saltos Canyon.

There are many places like it on the ranch, and we explored it on August 10th for camera trapping.

We started at the jeep track (lower left) and ended at the fork "set 392" (upper right).

The banks were riddled with burrows of all sizes ---  a good sign -- and as we ascended the gulch we noticed that the steepening walls were closing in on us.

Not a place to find yourself in a flash flood.

Right off we encountered mementos mori --

a tarantula being eaten by Lilliputians

a raven who will never again quork nevermore

a half-finished meal of McRattlesnake

and the severed and sun-cured head of Yorick -- the brain case and its nutritious contents munched away.

As the walls of the gulch boxed us in I realized this was the perfect place for predatory ambuscade.

A puma could leap down from the rim in one or two bounds and a coyote could surprise prey on a bend in the trail.

And while a fleeing jackrabbit might be able to scale the walls of that gulch, it would be a risky move for a black-tailed deer fleeing a puma.

The soil was too loose . . . better to run like hell down the arroyo, if the cat didn't get you first.

It was late afternoon when our hot and weary team arrived at a fork in the gulch -- a natural funnel and a good place for the camera.

There we made set 392.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Some fakery and a laugh.

What excites the internet like tossing a rubber snake into a cage of monkeys?

Photoshop fakery of course.

Viewers were debating the authenticity of the photo when I became aware of it about a week ago.

I was also getting an unusually high number of blog hits, so I checked my blog's stats, and found new viewers from hook and bullet forums, snopes.comphotobomb and comedycentral.

I still didn't recognize the puma picture until someone traced the cat to yours truly.

The link took me to puma on the prowl, camera trapped about a hundred yards from my house.

Had some good chuckles reading the comments.

The rubber snake doesn't fool all the monkeys, but in many of them it stirs deep fears.

They're the ones that give you the best laughs.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chimineas Stinkarella found at last

Finding Stinkarella the spotted skunk was one of the surprises from the last Chimineas trip.

It took 15 months to find the pert skunk on a rocky promontory east of San Juan Creek in a thicket of chamise and manzanita.

I know where to find these little charmers up here in the foothills, but we had to scour the literature to get a better idea of their habitat associations in more arid regions.

The secret is to look for them in dense cover.

They are not habitat generalists like striped skunks, and tend to stick to thickets.

The little guy showed up for single photo ops 3 times the first week, and once on the 5th and 6th weeks.

It was one of two carnivores photographed at this set.

A striped skunk also showed.

These are classy little predators and I never get tired of them.


Neiswenter, S. A.  and R. C. Dowler. 2007. Habitat Use of Western Spotted Skunks and Striped Skunks in Texas. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 71(2):583-586.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pot-bellied green-eyed West Virginian

My old Smithsonian buddy and fellow traveler Carl Hansen sent me this photo of a pot-bellied green-eyed dog, which he camera-trapped in West Virginia.

This ain't no good-old boy's hound, and if I met it in the woods you wouldn't catch me calling "Nice puppy, c'mon boy".

There's a good chance this is a dog-coyote cross, or a coydog.

It's an unusual find considering that only one of 24 West Virginia coyotes (4.2%) were found to have dog ancestry as indicated by the la24 haplotype.

A haplotype is a genetic sequence of DNA that is inherited as a unit, and is thus easily identified as a genetic marker.

A few pioneers of the American West mentioned Indian dogs that resembled coyotes, but commingling of coyotes and dogs was probably rare during the first 15,000 years of their coexistence in North America.

Coydogs don't pop up in the literature until the 1930s, when the great northwoodsman-naturalist Olaus Murie bred a tame female coyote with a dog.

The coyote aborted the fetus which raised a question about the viability of dog-coyote crosses.

In the 1940s academic naturalists started to notice strange looking coyotes.

In 1941 for example the late mammalogist E. Raymond Hall and his wife saw a strange looking canid at the zoo in Custer State Park.

It had a reddish ruff on its chest and lower neck.

As Hall was pondering the animal a 10-year old boy pedaled up on a bike.

Evidently with no small measure of pride he announced that it was a cross between his wire-haired fox terrier and a captive female coyote.

When Hall got back to UC Berkeley he wrote to the zoo's director and requested the hybrid animal's skull, and 9 months later it arrived in the mail.

He compared the zoo specimen with skulls of a coyote and a dog and concluded that "the resemblance to the coyote are about twice as pronounced as to the dog".

Hall questioned the viability of the crosses, and noted that red wolves were also intermediate between the wolf and coyote "in morphological characters and in geographic range..."

Actually, the ecologist-geneticist Lee R. Dice had already hybridized domestic mongrels and hounds with coyotes at the University of Michigan's George Reserve.

His male coyote halfheartedly mounted estrous dogs, and Dice conceded that bears in a nearby pen might have dampened his coyote's ardor.

The dogs however showed no such inhibitions to a coyote bitch in heat, and 3 pups issued from the union.

They grew into big-footed, lop-eared and short-haired animals that resembled dog or coyote to varying degrees.

Two of them yipped like coyotes and the other barked like a dog, but all three lacked the "quick, agile movements of the coyote. . . , and were rather quarrelsome".

The premature death of two of the pups and the abnormal development of the male's testes nurtured the notion that dog-coyote hybrids were sterile.

In December 1948, however, Mr Edward Revey shot three wild canids on the Graybill pasture in Franklin County, Kansas.

Since they were big and had reddish coats, Revey thought they were hybrids.

Mrs Iva Hunzicker, who lived down the road thought her "red dog" was their daddy.

Old Red, a German shepherd-black and tan coon hound cross, was prone to cavort with coyotes.

Revey delivered the bodies of red dog's presumptive progeny to the University of Kansas's Museum of Natural History, where they were processed for the mammal collection.

In due course Professors James Bee and E. Raymond Hall examined the skulls and skeletons, and compared them with domestic dogs, coyote, gray wolf, and red wolf.

They sorted the canids on a continuum based on the average of 4 measures -- three skull indices and the angle of the eye socket.

The domestic dog and coyote were at opposite ends of the continuum, while Old Red's presumptive offspring and the red and gray wolves were intermediate.

They concluded that the three red dogs "were indeed hybrids between the domestic dog and the coyote", but they bowed to Dice's surmise that male hybrids are infertile, noting as supportive evidence that F2 offspring of coyote-dog crosses were unknown.

It took another 12 years for someone to look into the F2 question.

That's when Robert Mengel started a coyote and dog breeding project at the University of Kansas.

The progeny of a mongrel terrier bitch and a hand-reared coyote named Jose produced offspring that looked like "short-haired, short-legged melanistic coyotes with white-trimmed chins, feet, tail tips, and a white blaze on the chest".

The outlier was a longer-haired bitch that had a vizor of hair over its eyes like the mother.

Brother-sister matings produced an even more variable-looking F2 generation. They were aggressive and killed a visiting pet coyote.

The hybrids acquired the seasonal breeding pattern of coyotes but oddly they were 3 months out of phase -- coming into season from October to December rather than January-March as in coyotes.

This has a serious consequence for perpetuating further crosses between coyotes and coydogs.

It simply isn't possible unless the odd coydog inherits the normal coyote reproductive cycle.

Coydogs face another obstacle to survival -- they aren't as tough as coyotes when it comes to weathering subfreezing temperatures.

Despite the ominous odds, reports and specimens of suspected coydogs continued to accumulate over the next two decades.

In Nebraska for example, they emanated mainly from centers of human and domestic dog populations.

Awareness of strange looking wild canids continued to spread to the eastern US.

The most recent generation of investigators have tackled the problem with more decisive tools -- DNA analysis.

The crossing of coyotes, wolves and domestic dogs is an evolutionary work in progress, and the pot-bellied green-eyed West Virginian is part of the story.

Carol Kaesuk Yoon covers the rest of the hybridization story in Mysteries that Howl and Hunt.

Be sure to read it.


Adams, J.R., J.A. Leonard, and L.P.Waits. 2003. Widespread occurrence of a domestic dog mitochondrial DNA haplotype in southeastern coyotes. Molecular Ecology, 12, 541-546.

Bee, J.W. and E.R. Hall. An instance of coyote-dog hybridization. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Sciences, 54(1):73-77.

Dice, L.R. 1942. A family of Dog-Coyote hybrids. Journal of Mammalogy, 23(2):186-182.

Hall, E.R. 1943. Cranial characteristics of a Dog-Coyote hybrid. American Midland Naturalist, 29(2):371-374.

Kays, R., A. Curtis, and J.J. Kirchman. 2010. Rapid adaptive evolution of northeastern coyotes via hybridization with wolves. Biology Letters, 6:89-93.

Mahan, B.R., P.S. Gipson, and R.M. Case. Characteristics and distrIbution of Coyote X Dog Hybrids collected in Nebraska. American Midland Naturalist, 100(2):408-415.

Mengel, R.M. 1971. A study of dog coyote hybrids and implications concerning hybridization in Canis. Journal of Mammalogy, 52:316-336.

Murie, O.J. 1936. Dog skulls from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Misc. Publ. Univ. Alaska, 2:347-357.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Invasion of the pigs

Old Tattered Ear showed up at two ponds.

The heat wave of August decided us to concentrate camera trapping around Chimineas's waterholes.

Until then we were unaware of the pig invasion.

Feral pigs are known on the ranch, but as pigs go they seemed well-mannered and their imprint on the landscape could only be described as a soft touch.

In 15 months of camera trapping we saw only one hog in hasty retreat, and we never recorded a pig on one of the cameras.

Until August they had left little sign around the waterholes, but the cameras captured their insouciant expressions as they imitated rototillers through the night.

In no time they converted to quagmires the grassy floodplains of three ponds.

Old Tattered Ear even demonstrated how he fertilizes his freshly worked areas.

In the wake of the invasion came the pig hunters.

Our photos show them shortly before 5:00AM stoically pussy-footing through the mud-works.

But they moved on and waited for porky elsewhere.

And wherever that was, porky didn't show.

California Fish & Game wants to limit the number of pigs on the ranch, because an outbreak of pigs can have devastating effects.

Pigs are just too good at competing with native species like bears, elk and deer, and they can wipe out pockets of rare species, like metamorphosing spadefoot toads.

A new hunt will soon be scheduled and the hunters will be informed of the pigs' latest haunts -- based of course on camera trapping records.

Even more on road kill

Photo: Kirsten Aguilar, The Chronicle (SF)

Yet another article on the roadkill network, thanks to Jake K., my news-reading and roak-kill monitoring friend.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The lesson of an anonymous camera bumper and 3 hooters

When something jars your camera trap it usually ruins the set that you so painstakingly composed.

Consider set # 394 at the Chimineas ranch last month.

My colleagues made the set to capture thirsty carnivores at one end of the pond, and they did a commendable job.

Besides the pleasing image of the buck and doe, the camera also captured one frame of this great horned owl, which I have cropped.

On day 19 of the set something bumped into the camera, and the frame changed from this:

to this:

The camera was then viewing a completely different and limited part of the pond.

This kind of thing has been known to evoke some rather colorful language.

In this case however we discovered that two other species of hooters were visiting the pool in the area less trafficked by deer and coyotes.

There was a single image of the barn owl,

and a western screech owl buzzed about and left 6 images.

It stands to reason that not all species use the same area of the pond.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Singles scene at the waterhole

Taylor Spring, August 17, 10:27 PM. 

There's something in the air. The scent of a woman.

On and off he has been tracking her, but he is easily distracted by thirst and good fodder, not to mention other bucks who pause to admire his antlers and spar.

When the acorns drop he'll start to bulk up, and by November he'll reach his fighting weight.

Then the rut will begin.

The annual orgiastic sex-fest is a short-lived phenomenon, and if bucky is lucky he'll only be limping when it's over.

Meanwhile he'll just follow the does, spar with his neighbors, and sample urine spots on the ground.

All for a few moments of carnal knowledge.

A minute later, savoring a urine spot. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Not a fat cat

September 10, 4:45 AM.

This week Bob at True Value Hardware filled me in on the local kerfuffle.

He was talking about large tawny cats like this one.

Their serenades and visits have not exactly been appreciated up here on the ridge, but even so, our lawful citizens were rather scornful of one neighbor's proposal to permanently silence the offender(s).

Two days after learning of the issue I was pleased to find these photos on the camera-trap line.

September 16, 10:21 PM.

The cat is a bit on the thin side and has undoubtedly moved on by now to some other corner of its home range.

I'd be surprised if the serenading cat hasn't moved on too, and I sure hope it shows up in my neighborhood.