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.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Beautiful diggers

Gardening season has ended, but take note, good gardeners: the pocket gophers are gearing up for next year. That's right, the breeding season of our most abundant gopher -- Botta's pocket gopher -- is beginning right now.

Gopher is an emotionally charged word. In turf wars between man and gopher the reviled rodent always wins. The gardener may remove a few trespassers now and then, but victory is shortlived. What it boils down to is that gophers are far better at making a living than most gardeners are at circumventing gophers.

There are at least 3 dozen species of gophers (family Geomyidae) in North and Central America. They vary in size and coat characteristics from silky coated 5-inchers to burly bristle-coated bruisers the size of guinea pigs (like the one I trapped on Mt. Orizaba, Mexico, above). But all share the bauplan of subterranean root grazers, a thick-necked meaty forebody with powerful digging claws and beautifully enamaled orange incisors that can grow a millimeter a day. All of this makes them beautiful diggers. They dig with teeth and claws, and they don't gag on the dirt, because they can close their lips behind their incisors. If they were bigger, they could literally "eat corn through a picket fence".

As male gophers seek brief cohabitation rights the normally quarrelsome females become more approachable. Three weeks hence the mated females bring forth litters of 4 or 5 altricial young, which they nurse and later provide with fresh plant clippings. When five weeks have passed the mothers banish their offspring from their burrows.

Above ground and under cover of night the little beggars strike out for unoccupied turf. That's when aerial night vision predators get them. In the California foothills gophers have been calculated to account for 70% of barn owl prey by weight. The survivors settle on average about 240 meters from their mothers' burrows, but have been known to move as far as a kilometer. A gopher-free garden is a perfect place for a homeless gopher to settle.

There are a lot of gopher control products on the market, and if they reward the gardener with an occasional trapped gopher, the more consistent benefit is the workout in digging burrows. After setting a trap you normally wait several days before discovering the burrow is inactive, or you are lured to set another trap when a new mound materializes.

It goes without saying that if you want to catch gophers you had better understand how they think.

When the late raconteur naturalist Loye Miller, met Gumicindo Romero in Baja California in 1896 he had found such a man.

Romero, who owned one pair of clothes and a single shot Sharps rifle, was in Miller's words, "a really remarkable specimen, tall, rawhide tough, with a chest on him like a greyhound's."

Miller continues . . . .
"He had an interesting method of catching gophers. Coolidge offered him ten cents each for them since the trapping was slow. At the end of the first day he came back with a dollars worth of live gophers, each tied by a string around the middle and dangling from a long pole at an interval sufficient to keep it away from its neighbors. He spoke no English, but my Spanish, along with pantomime, worked out the story. The first animal had to be dug out live and tied around the waist. The next gopher hole was opened up and the captive was allowed to start down the tunnel. Then its tail was pinched to make it squeak. The rightful occupant would rush up to do battle. When their large front teeth were locked together in combat, both animals were yanked out by a jerk of the string."

With a little business training, Gumicindo would have been a rich man in Alta California.


Bandoli, J. 1987. Activity and plural occupancy of burrows in Botta's pocket gophers, Thomomys bottae. American Midland Naturalist, 118(1):10-14.

Fitch, H. 1947. Predation by owls in the Sierran foothills of California. Condor, 49(4):137-151.

Jones, C.A. and C.N. Baxter. 2004 Thomomys bottae. Mammalian Species, 742:1-14

Miller, L. 1950. Lifelong boyhood, recollections of a naturalist afield. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Patton, J.L. 1999. Botta's pocket gopher, Thomomys bottae. Pp 466-468 in The Smithsonian book of North American mammals (D.E. Wilson and S. Ruff, eds). Smithsonian Press, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hail the Valley Quail

These are the four survivors of the clutch of twelve quail chicks we saw back in the summer. Looks like they might all be little hens, but maybe the one on the left is getting a macho face mask. Not sure.

I got a few chick pics back in the summer by putting the camera under foothill whitethorn next to the driveway. It was hit and miss, and none of the pictures were very good, so I started to bait with mixed bird seed.

Now they are as big as adults and filling in their adult plumage.

The parents are always nearby, and the male stands guard while they feed.

Normally the mother bird leads them about, but I haven't seen her lately, so she might have been picked off too.

California quail (the Valley quail is one of 7 subspecies) were a lot more common when I was a kid. Starker Leopold tells us that the species peaked between 1860 and 1895 in response to land use associated with settlement and crude agriculture. Grain farming and overgrazing by cattle and sheep actually improved quail habitat. In the decade after the gold rush, cattle are believed to have reached a million head, and by 1876 sheep numbered nearly 8 million. Heavy grazing fragmented the native bunch grasses, and made way for seedbearing Mediterranean forbs like filaree and clovers. Quail were better off then ever before.

The decline of quail (1895 - 1925) is blamed on intensive agriculture, habitat degradation, market hunting, and associated practices such as broadcast poisoning of ground squirrels. Hunters could bag 25-30 quail a day using dogs, a quail caller, and shotguns, and the selling price was $1 - $1.75 a dozen. In the San Joaquin valley poachers took as many as several hundred at a time using large nets at water holes. The poachers faked legal killing by hanging the dead birds in trees in bunches of 6, and shooting them with a shotgun at 30 yards.

Leopold's book is a labor of love worth having. I really must heed his advice about improving habitat so I can hear the mighty assembly call, a sound from old California. It sure beats the roar of the Harley Davidsons these days.


Leopold, A. Starker. 1977. The California Quail. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Is Ricky for real?

What about that Subaru Outback commercial? Featuring nature boy Ricky.

The Outback is designed to answer "the call of the wild". Ricky is NOT one of those nature-trashing SUV or pickup guys. He drives a little fast, but he doesn't splash through quagmires or drive up talus slopes. He's a wuss-boy faker who wears a leather jacket in the woods, and doesn't own binoculars. He's there to dupe you into buying the anti-SUV with a crappy gas mileage of 23/28 mph. (How come they never mention gas mileage?)

This commerical gets a 3.5. It's so dumb its funny.

(Scoring criteria)

1 -- immediate repulsion; you see it once and never want to see it again
(reaction: abusive verbalization directed to the TV),

2 -- delayed repulsion; you have to see it several times before rejection sets in
(reaction: sneering and irritating thoughts)

3 -- tolerance to mild amusement
(reaction: silent neutrality to mild pleasure)

4 -- amusement to genuine enjoyment
(reaction: you'll stop doing almost anything to watch it).

Commercial viewers who post comments on the web are divided in their reactions.

Those who like the ad seem to be all hung up about who Ricky is, and can't tell moose from caribou from elk. (Not sure you need to read these, but it's doubtful many of these folks ever peed in the woods.)

For entertaining comments and theories howevere, check out what the cynics say on commercialsihate.com.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Vile epithets and the dangers of learning foreign language

"The men of mixed blood jabbered in French, Cree, and Chipewyan mainly, but when they wanted to swear, they felt the inadequacy of these mellifluous or lisping tongues, and fell back on virile Saxon, whose tang, projectivity, and vile epithet evidently supplied a long felt want in the Great Lone Land of the Dog and Canoe."
The Arctic Prairies, 1911, Ernest Thompson Seton

The need to use virile Saxon comes at a young age. We were highly amused when a friend's son, wrought with angst over a childhood vexation told his parents he wished he could swear. He made it quite clear that his limited English was simply unequal to the task of expressing his frustration. I always thought that Zachary might have already known of a few tangy words, and was discretely asking permission to use them.

My first awareness of virile Saxon came when I was in Kindergarten. My grandfather and father had a fascinating language of their own. They used special words whenever they worked together. I thought I was entitled to use "the man's language". I never knew my mother was capable of such swift and decisive movement until the morning I exclaimed, "You dumb bastard!" It was probably one of the rare instances of single trial learning in my youth.

Somewhere I heard that biologists, the earthiest variety of scientist-- are more prone to use expletives than say, physicists or geologists. Among biologists, they say zoologists use racier language than botanists.

I am not sure any of this is true, but I always assumed that Steinbeck sanitized his portrayal of Ed Ricketts as Doc in Cannery Row. If Ricketts was as "concupiscent as a rabbit" he must have seasoned his speech.

Now the flashbacks:

ca 1979: Yenching Palace (a Chinese restaurant), Connecticut Avenue, Washington DC
We are zoo staffers prepared to celebrate the kind of personnel change that makes you sing, "Ding dong the witch is dead". The management knows us and seats us on one side of the room among a few other diners. We order steamed dumplings and beer while our mentor, who opts for Wild Turkey begins his catharsis -- a one-man passion play of sweeping erudation, surreal outbursts, and brooding pathos -- richly seasoned with expletives. An hour passes before we order food. Three hours later we are burned out, and it's time to go. That's when we notice that all the other customers are dining at the farthest corner of the room.

And now the faux pas of learning a language.

August, 1965: a hut on the banks of Rio Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico
I am learning vernacular Spanish from the natives (mainly a working guy named Ruben), and am much taken with slang words, like cabron (billy goat). We refer to each other as cabrones. I know it means more than billy goat, but I'm clueless to its nuanced and vile usage. Reno, and Dave and I are dining at the home of a humble family of campesinos, when Ruben announces that I have taught myself Spanish. This is a cue to perform. I do my little routine (all in present tense) and then lightly refer to Ruben as "un cabron". I am on a roll, and fail to notice the family's mortified body language. Ruben apologizes and explains that I don't know what I am saying.
"No, no, no, no no!" I insist. "Es verdad. Ruben esta un cabron muy grande."
When I realize how furiously Ruben is backpeddling, the damage has been done, and the rest of the meal is as solemn as a wake. I now know that cabron is not a word of mixed company.

1980s: an airport following the annual conference of the American Society of Mammalogists
Recognizing two gals from the meetings, I buy them coffee as we wait for our flights.They are grad students from Louisiana State University, with field experience in Brazil. "What about language problems?", I ask. They tell of a fellow student studying bats who approached a young woman at an airport to practice his Portuguese. (Yeah, right). The turning point was when he told her, "There's a fly in your hair." The lady politely replied he was mistaken, and the conversation quickly fizzled. Later he learned there are two words for hair: pele (fur) and cabelo (hair). The young man understandably used the word for fur and pelt -- pele. It was just bad luck. It also means pubic hair.

December 1, 1982: Delhi Airport, Security Check line (RNAC flight to Kathmandu)
I strike up a conversation with a couple of young Indian architects boarding the same flight. At the body frisking stop, one of them has an altercation with the security officer. "What happened?", I ask afterwards. "He is a silly old bum." He explains that the customs inspector was obviously from Haryana, so he addressed him in Haryani as "friend". The customs inspector correctly identified the architect from the Punjab, and assumed the architect was being a smart ass by using the Punjabi word that sounds the same. "What does that word mean?" I innocently ask. "It means the '(mammary) glands of a prostitute'!"

January, 1990. Casino Hotel, Trichur, Kerala
"Can you tell me what he's saying?" the redhead (my wife) asks with an embarrassed look. Our Keralite friend smiles and patiently repeats "How was the bed wetching?" (His accent is Malayalam, not the Hindi we hear mimicked so often.) I translate. "He wants to know, 'How was the bird watching?'" Later she tells me she thought he was asking, "How was the bed wetting" I admit it sounded a lot like that.

April, 1998. Chatthin Wildlife Sactuary, Burma
The premonsoon heat is terrible, and the redhead is not having fun. When the boyish Aung Moe delivers the cool drinks and notices her forlorn look, he timidly asks. "Scuse me, are you boring"?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mammoth stirs Stockton

[Image from Penn State's Eberly College of Science]

Something neat happened last week. Construction workers in downtown Stockton drilled up a pile of mammoth bones. They were 80 feet down. In case you don't know where Stockton is, it's 80 miles east of San Francisco -- a Central Valley town on the deep fertile silt of the California delta.

Here's the fun part. The construction workers thought they had found human bones and called the coroner's office. Since the femur was as tall as the coroner, it could only have been a murdered NFL player. This is what happens when you watch CSI and its ilk instead of NOVA. But to their credit the workmen reported it, and for that they deserve a few "attaboys".

The news even fired up a few people who were sufficiently moved to comment. "Pissed off", for example, averred that "It's awesome to know that such huge beasts roamed locally." I agree.

My mammalogist friend Frank Iwen used to assist paleontologist John Dallman in prospecting for mammoth bones. When farmers called the University of Wisconsin's Zoological Museum about giant bones, these two packed their gear and headed for the field.

The best time of year for prospecting mammoth bones is in the spring when Wisconsin's deep glacial loess is moist and loose from freezing and thawing. But you need the right tool -- a smooth spring steel rod about an eight inch thick and 8 - 10 feet long. This you bore into the ground with the attached T-handle.

The chance of locating bones is slim at best, so you have to look for fragments in likely places like drainage ditches and cut banks. Then you start to plumb with the rod. The sound of the rod tapping the object tells you whether it is bone, rock or wood. They all sound different. You need patience and a discriminating ear.

One of my treasued belongings is a large shard of mammoth leg bone from a cobble bar on the Lawrence river, Kansas. All kinds of wonderful bones from ground sloth to giant beaver tumble from the eroded banks in the river's spring floods, and often settle on cobble bars. One blistering August day back in the 80s the family scoured that island like beagles, and I was the only one who couldn't find any bones. Embarrassing, but the girls let me curate the collection.

It was sheer luck that the foundation of the $110 million San Joaquin County administration office was over the old elephant. Wouldn't it be awesome to have a full size bronze mammoth before the entrance. We need reminders like that for folks who think the world started 6000 years ago.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Human shields

You've heard me say it here before. When the puma's image appears in my local camera traps the local black-tailed deer seem to spend more time lingering in the neighborhood gardens and driveways. The observations could be a coincidence, but maybe something else is going on. The puma, for example, could be following the deer, or the deer could be using the proximity of people and large dogs as a "human shield", a place where human disturbance is more likely to discourage most predators.

Well, Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society recently published a interesting example of how human activity affects wildlife ecology in wilderness areas. During the ten-year study, Joel showed that the moose in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons adjust their use of space in relation to human infrastructure and activity.

Specifically, he found that over the years radiotracked moose have moved closer to roads at calving time. During the birth season, deer in general become secretive and restrict their movement to a very small portion of their home range. Since grizzlies feed on moose calves, but avoid roads in places like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, they are less likely to encounter this brief but nourishing windfall. The evidence suggests that moose and other prey species find humans more benign and at certain times gravitate to human-modified lanscapes for safety. People just don't tolerate predators as well as they do prey, and thus they create safe havens in the vicinity of buildings, roads, and campgrounds.

Good work, Joel (and send me a reprint, please!)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cud chewers and crows

Tomales Point was swarming last week -- with starlings, crows, and ravens. The starlings' aerial synchronicity did justice to the blue angels. As we drove by the last dairy yards I stopped for a picture of the ravens and crows. The clever birds were uncooperative. The sorry image you see was a one-hand-out-the-window shot.

Why all the birds? I wondered.

Are they still looking for Tippy Hedren? Remember the toothsome and totally freaked-out blond in "The Birds"? Alfred Hitchcock filmed it in Bodega Bay, just up the coast from Tomales Point, and across the San Andreas fault.

[Photo from Wikipedia's Tippy Hedren]

More likely they're seeking bucolic company. Great flocks of crows, and a good number of ravens are always loafing around the dairy cows. Placentas and new born calves are easy pickings for carnivores and omnivorus birds like ravens and crows, and indeed there were a few new born calves on the ground. The highly synchronous calving season of some ruminants like caribou and wildebeest, attracts predators and scavengers ( the functional response), but the predators are swamped with the surplus. (This is a version of the safety-in-numbers hypothesis.)

The association of corvids with cud chewers (and for that matter other ungulates) must be ancient. Ungulate herds attract scores of blood-, sweat-, and dung-craving insects, and as they wade through the grass the cud-chewers expose other insects, like grasshoppers to waiting birds.

The next time you find yourself in a cow pasture take a few minutes to meditate on a cow pie. (It's best to do this when alone.) Pick a fresh one, preferably steamy. The bombardment of beetles is really quite a spectacle. They dive into the poop with the abandon of kids at a crowded swimming pool. But that's where the allusion ends, because they don't come up for air. Why? Because there's a sex orgy going on in there.

The crows and ravens of Point Reyes aren't just after meat, that I am sure. I suspect that insects are the real attraction. The concentration of manure must seethe with spent dung beetles and their larvae.

Dung beetles can be as large as golf balls and as iridescent as gems. Who would have thought that a diet of shit could produce such beauty, or that coprophagous beetles could move beetle collectors to florid and passionate verbalization. The point is this: the next time you see a person or crow picking through a cow pie, you'll know they are after the same thing -- dung beetles.

I once made a bizarre observation related to this theme. I was watching Indian house crows (Corvus splendens) at the zoo in Trichur, India. The gray-mantled birds were loafing in an enclosure of sambar. About a dozen spectator crows perched on the fence watching one of their brethren. This bird was more of an inspector than a good shepherd. It hopped among the cud chewers, perched on a back or antler, and paused now and then to cock its head and inspect one of its charges .

Clearly something was going on, and I decided to hang around to find out.

Finally one of the sambar stood up, stretched, and raised its jolly roger. The deer was obviously getting ready to evacuate its bowel. Sure enough, the curious crow flew up to its back, and hopped to its rump, where it craned precariously to examine the bulging sphincter. As the bolus of pellets appeared the crow meticulously plucked one pellet from the mass, and flew off with its prize.

I was dumbfounded, but knowing that other deer would soon become active, I waited in anxious expectation. Finally another cow lazily gained its feet, and the whole scene was repeated again.

I realized I was on the threshold of scientific discovery, and in desperation looked for a way to follow the extraordinary bird or birds. Alas, there were no routes whence it went -- beyond the zoo's walls.

I envisioned the paper's title -- "Proctology in the Indian house crow" --which I would submit to the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.

But there were hitches. Was the proctologist a single depraved crow, or a flock of innovators? To write my paper I also had to find out what the crows did with the pellets. The mind boggles at the possibilities.

Blast! It wasn't to be. I was with others; we had a full agenda, and it was time for our next appointment. As far as I know, the proctologist crows of Trichur remain an ornithological secret.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Memorable possums

You can say what you want about possums, but any animal that still resembles its Cretaceous ancestors is okay in my book.

Several possums have passed the cameras at Point Reyes National Seashore, and I finally got an acceptable picture (above). Most pictures have been partial views, and one possum actually reached up to examine the camera.

You expect curiosity from mammals with higher encephalization quotients, like bears and raccoons. But possums? Normally they show interest only food and other possums, and sometimes they get them confused. As possums go, this might have been a savant.

Since I am in a hurry, I'll devote this post to a few firsthand experiences, and save the wonders of possum biology for another time.

My first possum (many years ago) was a possum-in-the-headlights victim. It escaped the Firestone press with a severed spine, and looked intact on the outside, so a well-meaning zoology student delivered her to my lab at the University of Maryland (where I kept a large research collection of viverrids on the third floor of Sylvester Hall -- then the Zoology Building). I thought she might recover the use of her hindlegs, and welcomed the chance to learn about possums.

I learned that she had an insatiable appetite for dry dogfood, had an anal gland that produced a vile smelling green paste, and took occasional prolonged saliva baths with anything that didn't smell like food (which for a possum leaves a rather narrow spectrum of chemical stimuli). After licking an object into a lather, she shampooed her sides with the mixture. It was gross but fascinating.

The adaptive value of her other trick clearly had something to do with surplus killing. When offered several mice in succession she would dispatch them instantly, and stuff them into the back of her jaws with her delicate possum paws. Then she would take a long break, as if waiting for the next command. No doubt in nature she would trundle off and eat her prey. (I've never heard of possums caching food.)

A few years later when I was gainfully employed as a curator at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, the switchboard operator regularly transferred queries from the curious public. One of the more common queries was about possum reproduction. I remember one call in particular that went something like this:

Me: "Hello?"

Caller: "Yeah, me and dis guy are having an argument about how possums do it, and I stand to make some money on it."

Me: "Okay, tell me about it." (they were obviously in a bar.)

Caller: "He says that possums mate through the female's nose, and I says they do it the other way, like all animals. I say he's full of BLEEP."

Me: "Aha! Your friend is referring to the opossum's two-pronged penis and southern folklore . . .

So I told him that they "do it the other way", and explained that the female opossum has a duplex reproductive tract with two vaginas.

Caller: "Okay, now I want you to tell him exactly what you told me."

Several years later when we lived in rural Virginia, a rat sized possum ambled down the driveway in the headlights. I jumped out of the car and caught it by the tail. It had a certain charm, and our daughters were highly gruntled at the prospect of keeping it for a pet. But the redhead wasn't. I appealed to her sensitivity and promised that we'd let it go as soon as it got big enough to escape the big possums that are known to eat little possums.

Depending on the company, "Possie" was either a great conversation piece or the quickest way to send the neighbors home. With biologists, its appearance was an occasion for another drink, and reflective to bawdy commentary on the evolutionary success of such a homely creature. "You gotta love 'em, man!"

"Possie's" effect on nonbiologists was equally amusing. Furtive glances were followed by a brief period of polite indulgence, with perhaps a question about fleas and disease, and then the neighbors would thank you for the lovely evening.

A possum in the living room was a little trying for the redhead, who believed that her friends in town shouldn't know that we kept a possum in the house.

"Hey babe, this is VIRGINIA --the state animal is the VIRGINIA Opossum!" (Actually, the Commonwealth of Virginia has never owned up to this, though it has a state bat, a state dog, and a state fish! Disgraceful!)

More recently, a large male possum met his demise on the highway not far from our present house. It was just before Christmas and we were on our way home after eating out. I wanted to pull over to get it, but the family protested. I returned secretly in the night to rescue it from highway desecration.

The next day I placed it in a small opening in the chaparral. For three weeks it lay in peaceful repose before the camera trap. Skunks, gray foxes, and a bear visited, but no one touched it.

Apparently he didn't smell good enough for a mammal to eat. Finally the vultures came and finished him off.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A very small mammal

We spent a few days in San Francisco this week before visiting the camera traps at Point Reyes National Seashore.

I touched base with my old friend Ray Bandar, aka Mr. Bones, a reliable and colorful source of bay area natural history.

Ray said there are no new reports of coyotes in Golden Gate Park, but a ripe young gray whale carcass had beached south of the city and made the evening news. High tides have been scouring the beaches, so the marine mammal veterinarians moored the carcass with a rope the day before the necropsy. After they left, someone, or perhaps a group cut it loose and performed a memorial service for the deceased whale. Only in San Francisco. Then the vets did the needful, and found that the organs were in a semi-liquid state. Not long after they finished a high tide swept the scattered and stinking mess back into the sea.

Okay. Yesterday morning we headed across the Golden Gate for Point Reyes National Seashore. The weather was excellent in the bay area, but there were high winds up on Tomales Point. Rutting tule elk are one of Point Reyes's attractions these days. The elk are in hard antler, but as far as I can tell, the hard rut hasn't yet begun. The bulls seem rather laid back, and I didn't hear a single bugle call in two hours. One couple took their pictures standing beside a park service sign warning visitors that the rutting elk are dangerous: "do not approach".

My camera trapping area is a favorite loafing area for the elk, and the picture above is actually one of their trails. A month ago I set one camera nearby at an elk wallow, and the next morning a young bull thrashed it with his antlers. When I found the camera two weeks later it was intact but buried in muddy vegetation. I reassigned it to mountain beaver duty.

Down into the tangled thicket to change batteries and memory sticks. Even with a GPS it takes more time to find cameras there than you'd expect. I sat in the brush and scoped 2-weeks of pictures in each of the 3 cameras.

Drat! There was no image that faintly resembled a mountain beaver, so I moved two of the cameras to wetter areas. Then a dense fog rolled in and I backtracked to the road using the GPS.

Next day (home again).

Surprise! I just viewed the pictures on the computer, and was pleased to find a very small mammal in three pictures. I couldn't see it in the LCD yesterday. It was a shrew, the mightiest of the mini-mammalian predators! (gleeful chuckling in the background).

They were taken over a period of 18 seconds (8:53PM, August 30). You can just make out the shrew in the uncropped photo above, but I've cropped them for a better view below.

It could be any of three species (Sorex trowbridgei, S. vagrans, or S. pacificus). I am guessing it's a Trowbridge shrew. It looks large, and the tail looks bicolored.

Plus, the tail seems almost as long as head and body.

And do you see that faint line across the back? That, I would bet a bott'l o' Guinness--is a molt line.

If any of you mammalogists have an opinion about the identity of this shrew, feel free to send me a comment.

[Note: There'll be at least one more post from this outing, and then I'll be talking about animal espionage agents, and a crow that practiced proctology. Stay tuned.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Firestone press

It's that time of year again folks. The weather is cooling off, the oaks are a'droppin' acorns, and the annual squirrel Wanderung has begun.

The little troopers are not only looking for nuts, but young squirrels are starting to disperse, and along the way they encounter highways and American commuters. That's where some of them get the Firestone press.

It's fatal, but it's one of the realities of squirreldom.

If you find this a little sad, listen to this masterpiece by Ray Stevens, and you'll feel better.