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.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Goose Pen

A goose pen with a circumference of 38 feet
can hold a lot of geese or sleep several loggers.

If you have seen one redwood you have NOT seen them all.

This old veteran was hidden in the brush and almost escaped our notice.

Standing 20 feet high, with a dbh (diameter at breast height) of 12 feet, it was one impressive stump and deserved thorough exploration.

I climbed down through a rent into the cavity 4 feet below the ground.

Several passages of differing size led to the outside through the charred walls, and internal recesses reached deeply into the roots.

This was one helluva place for a camera trap; so we climbed through the slash back to the truck and returned with the gear.

Then it started to rain.

The stump was not much of an umbrella; the camera case was soon wet, and the camera lens fogged immediately.

I tried drying it, but it was too dark to see what I was doing. I gave up and hoped for the best.

Before continuing our rounds, we interred some pieces of road killed squirrel into and under the old stump's walls.

Later that afternoon I told Lowell about the magnificent stump.

"You know what they call them up here?", he asked.

"Goose pens. The old timers used to pen up their geese in those stumps." 

The goose pen rewarded us with 107 photos of 9 species, and a success rate of 95%, which means there were few false triggers.

The deer mouse and wood rat of course were the first to show, but a hermit thrush appeared shortly after the alders dropped their leaves into the stump.

A Trowbridge shrew almost escaped my notice, but there it was, the voracious and fearsome midget mammal.

The brush rabbit's venture is a mystery. What was the attraction? It seemed a risky place considering the other visitors.

Of all the visitors, however, Fang the opossum spent the most time there (7 visits, 37 photos).

A bobcat paid three visits and left 11 images,

while a curious gray fox and a wet bear paused to examine the camera.

Though I like other images better, the shrew and the bear gave me the biggest thrill.

When I got home I realized I was missing my side cutting pliers.

You can see their blue handles under the bobcat's foot.

The blue plastic grips were all but missing when I recovered them.

There were rat nibble marks on the remaining traces of plastic, but the pliers still work.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A fisher stopped by the other day

Fisher on an ancient stump in the redwoods of Humbolt County

Long ago when the Earth was wintry and game was scarce,  fisher summoned his friends to break into Skyland. 
Only wolverine had the brawn to tear the sky open, and through the hole warmth and birds swept down on the frozen earth below. 

The intrusion so displeased the Sky People that they shot fisher with bow and arrow. 

But as fisher was dying they realized the great hunter from Earth, fisher, was a good guy looking out for his friends. 

So the Great Spirit took pity, nursed fisher's wounds, and hung him in the sky. 

The next time you gaze at the Big Dipper, remember that you are also looking at fisher.

* * * * *

I was blithely basking in January's seductive weather, occupying myself with dog-outings and garage projects, when my thoughts drifted to Humbolt's redwoods and a sobering vision assaulted my reverie.

I saw my stoic sentinels, the clear-eyed cameras of November past, listing on their posts, draped in soggy spider webs, and speckled with splash-dirt.

I saw a prostrate camera -- disemboweled and filled with water.

This worrisome vision ignited a burning flame under the codger's skinny butt.

The cams had been there for over two months, and soon the long-overdue storm would dump its Pacific payload and close Rt 299 through the Trinity Alps.

The cams could be stranded for another month or two, or an impatient codger could get marooned in Sasquatch country.

I emailed Lowell and Terry, got the green light for a visit, and a few days later did the 5-hour drive.

The next day we checked and serviced the cams which were indeed draped with spider webs, and at the end of the day we viewed the pixeled fisher -- ah, the sweet thrill of camera trap victory.

Upon checking the EXIF data, we found the road-killed squirrel had cured for a month before fisher scented the delicacy just before noon on a sunny December day.

It groomed a bit before digging in,

Revealing a spotted throat and a bit of a white tush. 

then ate at a leisurely pace.

It finished in 10 minutes, and the cam captured 31 photos.

There were enough images to see that this fisher has a white spot on the underside of its right wrist, which means we may be able to recognize it in the future.

I have now cam-trapped all but two of California's slinky mustelids -- northern otter, mink, short-tailed and long-tailed weasels, badger, American marten, and fisher.

Wolverine and sea otter remain.

I'm not after the sea otter, nor the state of California's only wolverine.

If I camtrapped the wolverine, however, I could boast a Grand Slam of the golden state's terrestrial mustelids.

Does anyone know the whereabouts of Buddy the bachelor wolverine this winter?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A hard-to-get tree vole

Arborimus pomo, the Sonoma tree vole

At last the hard-to-get Sonoma tree vole, the secret of the Douglas fir forest, the mainstay of Northern spotted owls was captured in pixels.

I hope you are sitting there in wonderment as you view the seldom-seen rodent at work in its nest 35 feet above ground.

And if you want to fill in the picture conjure the feel of the damp coastal air, the woodsy scent of conifers, and the murmur of the Mad River.

The cams had been in the field for 70 days, but the batteries in this one called it quits on November 20th, only 18 days after we made the set.

But 267 images is still a good haul, so we uploaded to my laptop on the tailgate of Terry's pickup, and as we flipped through the images we found that the vole's nest had a life of its own.

Indeed it expanded and deflated like a slumbering mini poodle, and several shots showed a centipede and a millipede grubbing about in the midden of resin ducts and twigs.

The tree vole on the other hand exposed itself in only 10 pictures, and of those only two were full body shots.

She revealed her tail and slender hips,

A full frame view of the nest of Douglas fir needles with the vole hauling a Douglas fir sprig.

but most of the time she was hauling and hidden behind twigs of Douglas fir.

A cropped view of the vole from the photo above. 

Back home I retrieved my Arborimus file and found that our modest success was a far cry from that of Eric Forsman and his colleagues at Oregon State University who studied the related red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus).

Using a commercial video camera system they captured and analyzed over 300 days of videos totaling 6700 hours, and refuted the belief that tree voles are "slow, docile and somewhat clumsy climbers".

That dubious reputation was based on observations of sleepy and confused tree voles that had been rousted from their nests during the day.

On the contrary, they found that foraging voles "were often so rapid it was hard to follow them as they scurried in and out of the nest."

That speed explained why over 95% of our pictures were blank; the rodent activated the camera trap's sensor but was usually gone when the shutter released.

As for the changing size of the nest, successive photos show resin ducts accumulating at the top of the nest and then sliding down.

It seems the vole's favorite feeding perch might have been just above the camera's view.

One of these days we'll take on the tree vole with a video camera, but I make no promises as to when.

I have two DXG 125s on the work bench, but hacking an HD video camera is far more intimidating than a point and shoot camera.


Forsman, E.D., J.K. Swingle, and N.R. Hatch. 2009. Behavior of red tree voles (Arborimus longicaudus) based on continuous video monitoring of nests. Northwest Science, 83(3):262-272.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Spooky cameras and squirrelly neophobia

The spooky camera on the fence post
 with the ominous blinking red eye. 

We visited my daughter's family in northern Virginia over Thanksgiving, and there was so much squirrel traffic on the neighbor's rail fence that I decided to get some video clips.

The fence was a high speed overpass to the neighbor's bird feeders.

Squirrels raced to and fro along the top rail and hurdled the tops of the fence posts.

This definitely had possibilities for camera trapping, so I set a camera against one of the posts and waited a few hours for eye-level videos of on-coming Olympians leaping over the camera.

The squirrels regarded the camera as a scary intruder.

Maybe it was just the camera as a novel object, but I also got the impression that the blinking red eye (the passive infrared status light) made it even more spooky.

I set a second camera to see exactly what was going on, and this little video tells the story.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A snack in Amlekhganj

The remains of the narrow gauge railway
north of Birgunj, Nepal.
"Nepal was not only unwelcoming, it was virtually inaccessible . . . The most common entry route, apart from that taken by the Sherpas . . . was at the Indian border railhead at Raxaul. From there, rail passengers transferred to the narrow gauge Nepal State Railway. This little toylike train took four hours to cover the twenty-five or so miles across the southern Nepalese plain to Amlekanj, where passengers transferred to car or bus . . ." Fallen Giants, a history of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes.


"What do you want for your birthday, dad?" 

"Chas Clifton mentioned a good book  the other day",  I responded, and so I acquired my copy of Isserman and Weaver's fat volume, Fallen Giants.  

It gathered dust on the nightstand for several months, but in need of reading material for a flight over Thanksgiving, I stuffed it into my carry-on and was soon swept away from the here and now.  

Fallen Giants is a great chronicle of human endeavor seasoned with political agendas, the clash of cultures, and the madness that motivates some mountaineers.  

And since I had visited Nepal many times in the 70s and 80s, the Nepalese place names rang a few bells.

One of them was dusty little Amlekhganj at the foot of the fossil-rich Sivalik Range (or Churias).

We stopped there on December 18, 1982 during a long return trip from West Bengal, India.

Butt sore, famished, and seriously needing a break, we took a stiff-legged stroll looking for food.

The "little toylike train" was already gone; villagers had long since appropriated the sleepers for fire wood, and the rails were sinking into the ground.

But the railway station, absent the hustle and bustle was still there.

I think a Brahmin businessman had taken possession and was storing bags of rice in a locked room.

The abandoned railway station in Amlekhganj, December 18, 1982

Our noses led us across the road through the huts and lean-tos to the inviting pall of wood smoke wafting from Laxman Ghale's food stall. 

The huts and lean-tos

Straight-backed and cross-legged, the young man resembled a lean Lord Buddha, but I was disabused of this notion when he smartly rapped the noggin of one of his boy helpers. 

The boys fetched us little stools, and the cook resumed kneading something in a chipped enamel bowl.  

And what were those bile-colored chunks he so lovingly massaged?

"Khasi", smiled Hemanta, "castrated goat." ( He honored the two vowels and pronounced it "gowut".)  

"Very tasty", he added. "We'll have a snack of khasi shekwa, my friend -- what you Americans call barbecue."

Laxman Ghale in his stall preparing hhasi shehwa.

Laxman earned 150 Rupees a day, paid and fed the two boy helpers, and supported his parents who lived in a shack behind his stand.

And he was a Ghale, a tribal group I'd never heard of, which appealed to my inner anthropologist.

"How about these boys?" I asked my friend, "are they Ghales too?"

More banter followed, and my friend laughed lustily in a Nepali version of the wicked Francophone.

To this the feisty lad who was fanning the coals frowned ominously and fanned ashes toward my friend.

"The little bugger's name is Sambhu Thapa, but he doesn't look Chhetri to me. I told him his mother tricked his father."

Ah yes, I'd heard that one before.

In Hemanta's encyclopedia of amusing Nepaliana were some gems, and questioning a son's paternity -- "Look you little bastard, only I know who your real father is." -- was the maternal response to the last straw of mother-son conflict.

The feisty Sambhu was not amused, though we had little doubt that his mother had numerous occasions to cast doubt on his paternity before.

Hemanta was still waxing eloquent on the virtues of Nepali child-rearing methods when the goat kabobs were served and we were treated to a visit by the local pie dogs.

Two were scruffy skulking runts, the other a robust impeccably groomed black and white dog with an air of confidence.

The handsome dog had been an incurable fighter, explained Laxman Ghale, until the town's folk grew tired of it all. The price had been castration.

A shame, I thought. Such a fine specimen of canine machismo.

I wondered if he had had a chance to sow his wild oats.

Hemanta translated.

"How could he", laughed Laxman Ghale, 'he's castrated!"

The joke was on me.

And how do they castrate a dog in a Nepali village? I asked.

Hemanta didn't have to ask our cook.

"They brick them", was Hemanta's quick reply, and once again my crafty host was obliged to explain the obvious.

"Some villagers hold the dogs legs apart, and . . . " his motions told the rest.

And that, my friends, is what I recorded in my notes about a memorable snack in Amlekhganj.