About Me

My photo
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.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Screech done gone and went

Periodically Screech took her midnight constitutional under the eaves.

Gone are the little surprises on the patio.

The redhead won't miss them, but they always gave me a thrill.

Pellets and earthworms on the patio.

Yes, it finally happened.

The screech owl flew the coop. She moved out the night of April 18th.

We grew accustomed to her routine.

In the early evening Screech groomed in the privacy of her nest box; then she would pop up into the nest hole and doze for an hour or so.

She became wakeful a few minutes before takeoff and would then imitate a birdwatcher, jerking her head here and there as if the place was swarming with new life-listers.

As of last week her departure time was around 8:00PM, a little earlier if overcast.

One evening the redhead heard her mate trilling tenderly overhead in the live oak.

My only complaint was that the little bugger hadn't laid any eggs.

So I wrote to Hans Peeters. the owl expert, to ask what was up.

Hans responded:
" . . . normally Western Screech-owl eggs should make their appearance by early April, but we have to be generous and allow an extra week or so. 
There's also the distinct possibility that your box is being used by a non-breeding individual of either sex as a roost site. 
I had such a bird in our yard for several years. 
This owl, however, eventually used another box nearby for raising young while retaining the first chamber for roosting. 
So there are all sorts of possible scenarios. I'm envious, though, of your nest cam."
I'll pull the camera and lengthen the box for better viewing next year.

The other two boxes are a bit far further from the house, and though I'd love to monitor them too, it's a lot of work wiring them for video, and I've heard that remote transmission isn't reliable.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wolverines in Oregon

Many thanks to Patrick Burns for the heads up on the recent camera trap photos of wolverines in Oregon.

More can be seen here.

The news and Patrick's advice to "Hang the meat high and see what you get" certainly fired me up.

Nope, didn't need the coffee this morning.

Seems those wolverines may be serious about coming back.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lobita the red wolf

"I have your interesting letter of October 20, with picture of your 6 months old red wolf; I am very appreciative of the picture as it is a beauty."  Letter of Stanley P. Young to Bob Housholder, Oct. 24, 1958 (Smithsonian Archives).

Lobita looked a lot like a coyote, except that her muzzle was a bit thick.

It's quite likely that coyote blood ran through her veins, but her ancestors also included wolves, in particular the small enigmatic canids of the southeastern US known as red wolves.

Young wrote of the photo, "after viewing this young animal I was of the opinion that you have obtained a true red wolf - my opinion being based on coloration, size of the animal, and geographical grounds, bearing in mind the area in Oklahoma where you captured this animal."

Lobita was a 6-month-old pup when an Arizona hunter named Bob Housholder caught her in eastern Oklahoma, and took her home as a pet.

I wish I  knew how Housholder caught the pup, but Young's correspondence is the only remaining information, so we'll never know.

Lobita looked quite at home in the picture, but Housholder had failed to make the animal into a suitable pet, and that's why he wrote to the Fish and Wiildlife Service.

He had already decided to get rid of the animal.

Young responded, "It has been my experience that the female of the wolf tribe is generally the hardest to tame, even when taken before the eyes are open; so what you are experiencing with your animal runs true to form as far as my experience goes.

In a subsequent letter (October 24, 1958) Young suggested that Housholder consider donating the animal to the National Zoo, where the only specimen in the collection was an aged female.

As a retired employee of the National Zoo I wrote to my contacts there to find if Lobita ever became part of the collection.

Apparently she didn't.

Hoping to contact one of Houshoulder's children, I wrote to the The Grand Slam Club/Ovis founded by Housholder in 1956.

No response.

Lobita remains a snapshot from a time when a few red wolves still roamed the thickets and woodlands of the southeastern US.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The otter paused

You should recognize the setting -- el paradiso de los mapaches -- and as you can see there were more than raccoons that presented themselves for portraits. 

An otter passed the camera on the 8th and 14th day leaving only single photos each time.

This was the only full body shot. 

The camera was set for red-eye reduction.

In the Sony s600 the camera fires three short flashes before the shutter is opened for the final flash.

The pre-flashes seem to have gotten the animal's attention and put its eyes on "low beam".

I rather like the picture, but wish the it was about 3 feet closer. 

I also wonder if the thief who stole my other camera enjoyed the otter pictures it had taken. 

I'd be surprised if otters didn't pass that camera too.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Free coyote lure

Fred makes a donation
Coyotes are attracted to dog scent and vice versa.

If you want to spice up your local coyote latrine for camera trapping a little anal scent from the pooch works nicely as a lure.   
Your vet will evacuate your dog's glands using a paper towel, or you can just ask him to save a few samples for you from his patients. 

Dog anal scent is a complex mixture of compounds of differing volatility, so don't leave the paper towel on the workbench or under the car seat. 

Better to store it in a way that preserves the compounds. 

Discard the unstained portion of the towel and save the smudged portion in ethyl alcohol. 

You may also freeze it out of doors, for example in a zip lock bag in  the garden shed.    

For the sake of marital harmony I do not recommend storing it in the freezer. 

Your wife will find it no matter how well you hide it, and even after you recover you may never be fit for camera trapping again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A raccoon paradise

There was nothing that stood out about set 443. It was just an opening in the marsh, a soggy mat of cattail roots that channeled water to a creek. 

There are thousands of acres like it in the Sacramento Valley, and it is a veritable raccoon paradise.  

There were little wet raccoons looking somewhat forlorn,

and a rather rotund raccoon that looked like an attraction at a road-side zoo.

They came alone and in groups.

Often they were snapped while gazing into space and grubbing in the water. 

Only a few approached and inspected the camera.

The flash might have triggered a premature exit in one coon, but maybe it was just in a hurry or had an altercation. 

Others attended to matters of personal hygiene.

High water didn't keep them away. 

Soggy coons just shake it off. 

The camera recorded 214 raccoon pictures in 21 days of operation, and by my reckoning there were about 80 visits -- a visit being a group of photos separated by short intervals of time.  

The assumption is that such groups of photos are usually made by the same animal(s).

One usually finds high frequencies of visitation at food sources, and my conclusion is 

that the marsh, and maybe this spot in particular -- seething with fish, amphibians, birds, and invertebrates is a smorgasbord for hungry coons.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An ill-begotten set

The ill-begotten set 447

I drove the Chevy to the levee -- actually it was a Subaru, and no the levee wasn't dry.

Not by any means.

It was covered with a great flotilla of cackling waterfowl, and before us on the road was a black skid, as if someone had dragged a muddy corpse from the wooded swamp on one side to a marshy set from Hitchcock's "Birds" on the other.

This was the last of my four camera trap sets in the Sacramento Valley wetlands of last December, and it certainly looked the most promising, at least for aquatic mammals.

The mudslide that led to the wooded swamp had all the signs of a busy thoroughfare, and the road on the levee was littered with scat.

And it was promising photographically.

I hid the camera in a hummock of grass and made sure the sensor would activate at the maximum distance, where the animals emerged from the water.

The critters had to climb up the mud slide past the camera to reach the marsh.

If going in the opposite direction they had to slide down the muddy track.

Either way meant interesting pictures.

So the attraction of the site outweighed any reservations I had about the camera being discovered.

It was well hidden in the grass, and the thief would have to climb down the mud slide to see it.

Not likely, I reasoned, because the slide didn't go anywhere of interest to most people, unless you were a trapper or a poacher.

So I took a chance, and it was a mistake.

There was no sign of the it the other day when we collected the cameras.

The site was still above the high water mark; the camera didn't wash away in winter floods.

Someone had found it and taken it.

But all loses aren't equal.

I can adjust to the drowned cam U. At least I can see the pictures it took, and I can salvage a few parts for future home brews.

But a stolen camera is a very bothersome thing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

That smell of dead meat again

For those of you who don't recall "The smell of dead meat", here's another story on the theme.

It's about what can happen when (a) a cougar  (the four-legged variety) crawls under your deck and dies, (b) your guests notice the smell over a glass of wine, and (c) you discover that you are anosmic.

Talk about good luck -- how many folks can brag about a cougar dying under the deck?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Camera U's final gift

For the camera trapper who has forgotten that creeks flood and that dirt roads can turn into quagmires, or believes that engineered wetlands maintain a constant water level, or thinks he walks under a lucky star . . . well folks, this is what can happen.

Welcome to the Sacramento Valley in December -- December 2, to be exact.

That's when the story began, when yours truly and Random Truth staked Camera U at the edge of a riparian wetland.

I had great expectations. The place was crawling with wildlife.

And sure enough, otters and raccoons left 12 images the very first night.

That's right, river otters -- my first camera-trapped otters on the first night!

The place was hot.

During the next four days Cam U snapped another 19 images.

The raccoons kept coming, and there was the tail-end of an egret and black-tailed deer.

On December 6 the water started to rise, and the promise of set 444 faded rapidly.

In three minutes the water level rose another 4 inches, and at 45 minutes past noon Cam U went under.

Under water it shorted and snapped 50 blurry photos in 3 minutes.

And that was it.

Camera U was finito. 

A couple days ago I removed the precious memory stick and cleaned the sludge from the contacts. 

It still worked, and that's why there is more to this story than the two photos at the beginning and end.

At the moment Camera U is lying in state on my work bench.

When dry it will join other casualties in the camera trap catacombs, which is just a box in the closet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rainy day ringtail

It was raining after the clock struck one on March 6th.

That's when the ringtail came grubbing around the base of the outcrop.

In three and half minutes the camera snapped it only three times.

This location is about three quarters of a mile from the previous ringtail set, but with a home range as large of 1500 acres this ringtail could be the same animal -- though I doubt it.

It's going to take some work to get a decent portrait of this critter, but I'd settle for a mediocre picture of mother ringtail and the kids.

Soon the kids will be in tow, hopping about, exploring, and playing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Yesin observed

Sketch of a yesin balanced on a tumbler

[Continued from "The elusive Yesin"]

"Is there such a thing as a 'Yesin' or not? "

That was how Colonel Hla Aung, Director of the Rangoon Zoo  launched his dissertation on the cryptic mini-beast in the Sunday Working People's Daily of Rangoon on August 30, 1970.

A lot had happened since Hopwood sent the fake yesin to Bombay for indentification.

The Japanese invaded Burma weeks after Pearl Harbor, thousands fled through the Naga Hills to safety in India and thousands died along the way.

Claire Chennault, the Flying Tigers, General Slim, Vinegar Joe Stilwell -- they all came and went, and 4 years after the war ended Burma won independence.

Rumors of the yesin hadn't gone away, and Hla Aung did a service to crytozoologists by summarizing reports in obscure periodicals (though I should note that you won't find the Working People's Daily on the internet).

The yesin apparently was not an uncommon subject in the news at the time, but the reports and photos were usually about the talismanic dried remains in the possession of elephant oozies or mahouts.

Burmese dacoits and mahouts shared in their belief in the power of protective talismans.

Dacoits trusted that carved talismans in the image of spiritual nats conferred invincibility against bullets.

Like so many cloves of garlic the talismans were inserted into cuts in the skin and bolstered the bandits' confidence to undertake remarkable feats of daring.

Once captured by the colonial police however, the dacoits' truculence was easily undone when the talismans were extracted with razor blade.

Similarly, mahouts believed that a dried yesin or its tusk was a magical goad capable of making a bad elephant good or spurring a lazy timber elephant to obedience.

When U Ba Myaing published his yezin investigations Hla Aung summarized the results.

U Ba Myaing was a retired Veterinary Inspector of the colonial government stationed in Sandoway, now Rakhine State.

He started interviewing coastal fishermen in 1925, but ten years passed before he managed to lay hands on male and female specimens caught by fishermen.

The female yesin was captured in Ngamaukchaung, an estuarine creek on Padin Kyun (kyun = island)
He gave a meticulous description.

The skin was gray and smooth (no mention of hair), and the stomach, which was apparently single chambered and the size of a gooseberry, contained plant matter and algae.

There were 4 toes on the front and hind feet, the tusks were 1.5 inches long, and the reproductive organs were elephant-like. The male had a quarter inch long penis.

The inspector was well aware of the elephant's alleged fear of the yesin and the belief of elephant men that a dried yesin, mini-tusk, or even a scrap of skin could be used to control even the most recalcitrant man killer.

He reported his experiment of hiding a yesin tusk in a stream -- it struck such fear into several working elephants that their mahouts were unable to drive them into the water.

In another instance, the prxomity of the yesin caused a cow to abort its fetus.

Then there is the report of Thakin Khin Maung Oo (aka Bo Taya) of Thirty Comrades fame, who saw a pair of yesin disporting themselves in a rocky pool in the Pegu Range near the Shan Plateau.

He organized the mahouts to trap one using a bamboo fish trap, and kept the captive in a kerosene can filled with water.

When it died three days later he measured and dissected it.

It was 6 inches long, and the tusks in this animal grew from the upper jaw (unlike the faked yesin jaws made from rodent mandibles).

Col Hla Aung also wrote of his own experiment to test the alleged fear of yesin shown by zoo elephants.

The elephants showed no reaction to sniffing a box containing a dried yesin.

He concluded his article,

"Although only faked specimens of the 'Yesin' had come to light so far, there is every reason to believe from the evidence collected by field observers, that a real 'Yesin' belonging to a separate genus of mammal does exist, and when fresh specimens of a "Yesin' are obtained in the future, it will be possible to verify the true nature of the animal."

The question is this: is the yesin an undescribed species of water rat?

[N.B.: coming soon -- a modern yesin hunter].


Evans, G.H. 1910. Elephants and their diseases. A treatise on elephants. Rangoon, Superintendent, Government Printing, Burma.

Hla Aung, Col. 1970. The water elephant or Yesin.  The Sunday Working People's Daily, August 30, 1970.

U Ba Myaing. 1970. 'Yesin'. Loketha Pyithu Nezin, August 13, 1970 (not seen, reference mentioned in Hla Aung's article.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Elephant offs cam

"Here are the photos of naughty elephant. Destroyed a trap-camera."

That was UMA's terse message received last night with photo attachements from the Rakhine Yoma.

The trainees from the camera trapping course just completed their first elephant survey.

The elephant appears to be a young adult makna (pronounced muck-na) or tuskless male.

He almost walked past the cam, but must have seen the infrared flash, which isn't a flash at all -- just a dim and momentary red light.

I'm assuming that's what caught its attention.

He did a double take and reached out to the camera.

The infrared flash doesn't freeze action, thus the blurry image.  

He started to move on, but changed his mind.

And the last clear photo was up close and personal. After that he "offed" the camera. 

UMA confided that our jungle man, Ye Myint had staked the camera to a sapling. 

That's a "no-no", especially in elephant country.

Lesson learned. 

When in elephant county lash your camera to "a beeeg tree" and make sure the spiked camera protector is clamped on tight.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Camera trapping can be emotional

Camera trappers soon learn the agony of defeat, but sooner or later they celebrate the thrill of victory.

It can be a heady experience, as you will see in this footage when famous wildlife photographer Gordon Buchanan  views his camera trap results in the field in Bhutan.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Defiance in black and white

Nov 17, 2010, 6:12PM

If not trigger happy skunks certainly are quick on the draw.

The majority of my countless skunk photos are of peaceful citizens mindlessly ambling about in the darkness while sniffing and scratching for grubs.

Occasionally however they notice the camera trap's lens movement.

Then they raise the white flag of warning.

That's as far as it goes.

It usually takes a clear and present danger to set off a skunk, and as far as I know no skunk has found a camera trap sufficiently threatening to drop the bomb.

Gun fighters shouldn't waste ammo.

I didn't give much thought to the portrait of the defiant Stinkerella below -- the handstand, hind feet ajar, and all that --  I'd seen it before,

Dec 30, 12:30 AM

but then I saw Randon Truth's excellent photo of another hand-standing Stinkerella.

Its warning flag was fully flared. My Stinkerella's tail was as tight as a shaving brush.

The difference made me wonder.

Was it just a chance difference, or is there more to it than that?

Can you predict the spotted skunk's readiness to cut loose by the flare of the hair of its tail?

Does the spotted skunk furl its flag before dropping the bomb?

Why not? Wouldn't pissing your tail be like shooting yourself in the foot?

I decided to ask my colleague Galen Rathbun, who once had a pet spotted skunk about the tail business. 

Here's what he said . . .

"I had a Spilogale and kept it in a large rabbit hutch behind the house.
I could take it out but since it wasn't de-scented I never took it into the house.
My mom was very tolerant of my various and numerous critters, but she wasn't that tolerant.
I was going to College of San Mateo at the time, on the old Coyote Point campus, and on several occasions I put the skunk in the cab of my Chevy pickup for the drive from Woodside to Coyote Point.
It was in its nest box, but was able to run about in the cab while I was in class.
It only happened once.
It let loose in the truck while I was in class.
I don't know why it happened, but suspect some student saw the skunk and harrassed it from outside.
Anyway, I had to drive my pickup with all the windows open for quite a while.
If this had happened in the house, I might have become homeless when such a lifestyle was pretty rare."

So Stinkerella's furled flag of defiance remains a mystery.

And if any of you are wondering why anyone in their right mind would take an intact skunk to school in their pickup truck, well, you just haven't known many zoologists.