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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kids and camera traps

Question: How do you make it fun for kids to learn about ecology and  modern technology, and develop respect for nature?

Answer: Give them lessons in camera trapping.

That's what’s happening at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School near Minnesota's twin cities.

Dawn Tanner is developing a trail camera curriculum there for school kids.

Dawn is a University of Minnesota PhD candidate. Her baptism in wildlife research was in the Galapagos Islands and Malaysian Borneo.

She loved fieldwork, but decided that she wanted to get elementary school kids turned on to science, biodiversity, and conservation.

And how did that happen?

Well, she got an NSF fellowship that sent graduate students in ecology and conservation biology to Minnesota's metropolitan schools. Their mission there was to work with the teachers to improve science lessons and incorporate science more broadly into the school curriculum.

[Coyote at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve]

Many Minnesota kids have formed positive attitudes about the environment by the time they reach the fifth grade.

"The kids' attitudes and their receptivity to environmentally responsible behavior is right on track. They score very high with respect to their attitudes about the environment, but they don't know what to do with it yet.”

"The problem is that city kids in particular are short on environmental experiences. The temptation to play with high tech toys in front of a TV screen is powerful. Enter trail cameras!"

Unlike many computer games that cultivate couch potatoes, trail cameras are an alternative "techie gadget" that is fun to use outdoors.

Trail cams can lure kids into the field, teach them how to monitor wildlife, and give them an exhilarating outdoor learning experience. They can even imbue them with a love of nature.

[Fisher at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve]

At the moment, Dawn is testing the curriculum.

She and the kids have been using 8 trail cams at Afton State Park and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

The word is out and teachers are interested.

“Quite a number of teachers have contacted me already because they've heard about the testing we're doing at Afton-Lakeland Elementary. They want to get involved right now." 

"I wish I could have the curriculum ready sooner. There’s a strong desire to teach with remote cameras and get kids out there doing biodiversity science.”

To date Dawn and the kids have photographed 12 species of mammals and birds.

"I'll monitor these two sites again this spring and add 2-3 new sites over the summer. We are aiming for about 140 trapnights per site".

"The folks at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve have been so supportive to have me doing cameras there that they have volunteered to host a teacher training workshop in May, 2009."

"By summer we hope to have a web presence through the MN Project WILD website, so teachers can access data collected in protected areas around the state. This way they can compare monitoring results from their schoolyard with other areas."

The project has support from MN Project WILD, Gander Mountain, Stillwater Area School District, the Conservation Biology Program and the Bell Museum of Natural History (University of MN), MN DNR, and the MN Trappers Association.

If you are interested in the curriculum you can email Dawn at tann0042@umn.edu.

[Opossum at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School] 

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Little Brown Book

As far as I know, most camera trappers don't keep notes.

You don't need to keep notes if you camera trap on a small scale or occasionally, if you know your trapping area intimately, or if you have a photographic memory.

None of these apply to me.

I keep notes in a little brown moleskin book, because I'm a compulsive notetaker. It saves me time trying to remember details.

I try to keep the notes basic.

CAMERA SET: This is a GPS location number.

CAMERA: This is the camera's ID (I use an alphabetic letter, A - Z for each cam).

DATE SET: The day I set the camera.

LOCATION: This includes details (e.g., deer trail, log crossing stream, boulder) and general information (Gillis Canyon, 3 miles E of windmill on county road 631, San Luis Obispo County, CA).

GPS: Latitude and longitude calculated by the GPS, usually after it has taken an average from 100 - 200 readings).

ALTITUDE: As estimated by the GPS.

LURE: If I use a scent lure, like castoreum, here's where I record it.

DATE CHECKED: The date I check the cam, change the memory stick and replace batteries. Several dates may be recorded consecutively, if I leave the camera at the set.

DATE CLOSED: The date I pull the camera or move it to a new location.

If there are other details I want to remember, I jot them down.

When I check the camera and find pictures, I replace the memory stick and upload the photos on my computer.

Then I look at each photo on full screen, and record the photo number, animal IDs, and date and time of every picture on a large tablet. Each sheet is identified with the number of the camera trap set and the cam ID.

After I summarize the information in an Excel spreadsheet I file the sheet in a folder .

I only keep the best or most interesting photos. The rest go to the computer's trash can and are erased.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Black-tailed jackrabbit

This jackrabbit hopped down the deer trail the day before Christmas.

I also found pictures of gray fox, turkeys, a black-tailed deer, and squirrels on the camera.

Thirteen pictures after 34 days in the woods. Traffic is slow.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rutting buck

This fellow passed a camera in Marin County.

If you want to read the sprig of willow as a festive indicator of the holidays, it's okay.

To me it shows that he was thrashing vegetation, and advertising his fitness to other bucks and does.

The peak of the rut was back in November. He'll be slowing down and dropping his antlers soon.

Sexy does won't distract him again for many months.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rats and Christmas cookies

Your daughter drops off the kids and their rats,

So she can go shopping for Christmas at last.

The kids are lively and thrilled to be here,

With their pets on their shoulders and their grandmother near.

But the rats become boring, and finally pee,

Then helping their grandma is greeted with glee.

Baking Christmas cookies is oh so much fun,

and they are edible too, even before they are done.

But be sure to insist that the kids wash their hands,

before rolling the dough to go on the pan.

For when they are baked and ready to eat,

Who wants cookies that taste like rat feet?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another time, another place

[Photo credit: Biological Survey Unit, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center]

I wrote to Al Gardner of the USGS when I was fishing for wolf trapping photos last week for the most recent post on animal psychology for camera trappers.

He sent scans of these archival USGS photos of a government trapper’s camp. 

On the back of the photo is the following information:

"Mrs. Frank (Ada) Tingly, predatory animal huntress, for Biological Survey (1919)--now Fish and Wildlife Service--which directs the work of a large number of hunters engaged in destroying predatory wild animals in the west, such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. Several huntresses have been engaged in this work and have been as successful in it as the men employed for this purpose. (Idaho)"  

[Photo credit: Biological Survey Unit, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center]

Women like Ada of course traveled with their husbands. 

The US Biological Survey photographer who took these photos was Luther Goldman.

Luther was taken with Ada Tingly, noting that not only was she attractive, but she was also a hunter and trapper who did all of the "women's work" as well.

That included looking after the Tingly's son, seen here with his father fondling wolf pups.  

Women with these virtues are still hard to find.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

More plank walkers

A raccoon and her family started to cross the plank, but changed their minds and retreated. Another raccoon preferred the creekbed.

Gray foxes were undaunted by the camera. They were in fourteen out of 38 photos at the site.

A pair of them explored the creek bed.

Only one possum was seen scuttling up the trail, barely visible in the distance. I suspect it arrived via the creekbed rather than the plank.

Almost all of the deer pictures were of creek crossers.

Only this buck might have walked the plank.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Walking the plank

When we set the cams in Marin County it was raining and I was wet. I would have preferred a more natural crossing over the creek, but the animals didn't mind.

Five species crossed the creek here, but not all of them walked the plank.

The first animal to do so was an immature-looking bobcat. It might have crouched when the red-eye flashes starting to blink. That was at 5:47 AM.

Thirteen days later a larger bobcat crossed shortly after midnight, and shut its eyes when the camera flashed.

I believe this was the same animal sitting on the plank at 3AM three days later. It was probably waiting for something edible to come trundling down the creek bed, which was dry.

We got 6 pictures of bobcats on the bridge or the trail leading to it.

Newtsville, CA

Rich and I collected memory sticks and changed batteries on Sunday at our Marin County site.

It was threatening to rain.

The newts were out and about, and you really have to watch your step.

Not only is it cruel to step on a newt, it is very unpopular to do so in Marin County.

Some were moving across the trails, others were poised like bird dogs.

They were all looking for action, even when there was no need to look any further.

This is, like, very Californian.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Animal psychology for camera trappers – Part 3

The late Stanley Young (1889-1969) trapped predators for the Bureau of Biological Survey and documented the demise of Colorado’s loner wolves.

The loners were habitual cattle killers, often trap-maimed and sometimes idiosyncratic animals with monikers like Old Two Toes and Club Foot.

The Custer wolf kept company with coyotes. Killer was coyotecidal, and Whitey had a penchant for bobbing the tails of cattle.

They were notorious at eluding federal trappers and postponing the fateful grip of the Newhouse No. 4 ½ -- a forged steel double long-spring, smooth-jaw trap with drag chain and grapple.

But eventually they erred, and the traps got them.

The longevity and killing rate of individual loners has recently been called into question.

The estimated ages of those loners whose skulls reside in museum collections are too young to account for the lifetime kills attributed to them. It’s more likely that several animals including dogs and wolf-dog hybrids contributed to the record.

But no one can deny the loners’ uncanny ability to detect the trappers’ painstaking efforts at disguise and deception. They could scent danger from minute traces and sidestepped hidden traps.

But if a trapped wolf twisted off part of its foot and escaped it wasn’t an experience it forgot. It was a powerfully painful learning experience, and relevant to discussions about the hurtful effects of camera traps.

So first let's talk about learning associated with pain.

It seems likely that, unlike children, loner wolves got the message after a single close call with fate. This is called single-trial learning

No matter how attractive the bait or lure, trap-wise loners fled trapping sites as soon as human scent was detected.

This type of operant conditioning is known simply as punishment.

Surviving a strychnine-laced bait had the same effect. We have all experienced conditioned food aversion – that long lasting food-specific loathing from food poisoning.

Conditioning can be specific to a given context. A trap-shy wolf might respond to human scent with conditioned avoidance when encountering a hidden trap, but not when encountering a flock of corralled sheep.

If the animal encounters the stimulus in a different context and doesn’t give the conditioned response, it is said to discriminate between situations.

The loners seemed to recognize the danger-laden stimulus of human scent in different contexts, and thus showed stimulus generalization. You can call this survival instinct.

Let’s compare these forms of punishment with the alleged “hurt” caused by camera traps.

Encountering a camera trap for the first time can be a surprising or unexpected experience for an animal. It may also be an alarming experience, but most of the time cameras do not evoke strong fearful responses, and initial vigilance quickly wanes.

Animals habituate to trail cameras because fear is not reinforced with painful stimuli. A repeating electronic flash may be ignored or investigated, but isn’t shunned.

All circumstantial evidence indicates that habituation is the prevailing response of wildlife to cameras left in the woods.

Gipson, P. S., W. B. Ballard, and R. M. Nowak. 1998. Famous North American wolves and the credibility of early wildlife literature. Widllife Society Bulletin, 26(4):808-816.

Young, S.P. 1970. The last of the loners. The MacMillan Company, New York.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Animal psychology for camera trappers – Part 2

Mammals and birds quickly learn to associate related stimuli or events.  Associative learning includes classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning and operant conditioning, as well as simpler forms of learning, such as habituation.

Camera-trap an area over time and there is a good chance your subjects will make an association between the camera and the olfactory and visual stimuli you leave behind.  

If you thought your camera trapping shenanigans in the woods were unnoticed, guess again. Chances are local wildlife knows the camera is there, and they are not afraid of it.

You will fool them more often if you set your cams in new areas where the residents have never encountered you and your equipment.  

The regulars who appear in your pictures may not know who or what you are, but in their universe or Umwelt you are a distinct blend of stimuli.

Why? Because you smell, and so does your camera, which also flashes and makes sounds.  

Whenever you venture into the field, you inadvertently scent mark your path and equipment.  

Unless you take extreme measures. Then you can reduce your scent by washing with unscented soap, wearing clean clothes, and masking your scent.

The best way to mask scent is to thrash your body like a Finlander in the sauna. No need to strip down or surround yourself with svelte blonds, just beat yourself with aromatic plants like bay or sage until you smell like trampled plants.  

The new carbon-impregnated clothes on the market may help to absorb some of your smells before they give you away.

Or you can spray yourself with Stumpy’s root juice.

But generally speaking, odor prophylaxis can be rather tedious, and scent-cleansing rituals will not render you smell-anonymous.

If you use scent lures or bait, like road kill, you reward the animal to tolerate the proximity of the camera.

Everything about the scent lure reaction -- from intensive sniffing, to slobbering, rubbing  and rolling in the scent, as well as evacuating the bladder and bowel -- indicates they find it highly compelling and meaningful.

The camera becomes an accessory to pleasure. 

I have a hunch – let’s call it a hypothesis -- that when resident animals cross your scent trail they may search for your camera, because food and scent have repeatedly reinforced tracking your scent trail.

Your scent is a cue to seek the reward of “good smells and eats”.

I believe this is more likely in species have relatively small home ranges, because the probability of camera encounters is relatively high.  We’re talking here about wood rats, gray foxes, skunks, opossums, and racooons.

On the other hand, baits and scents may be less habit forming in far-ranging species like mountain lions, wolverines, fishers, bobcats, and coyotes.

It takes more time for them to make their rounds in their larger home ranges. Positive reinforcement will not occur until the animals have been repeatedly rewarded. 

In support of this idea I would point to the tigers in Nepal’s Chitawan National Park. 

Though they killed tethered buffaloes at a bait site near Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, radio-tracking showed that they ranged as far and wide as other tigers in adjacent home ranges. In other words, they maintained their usual beat in search of prey. Some cats however became habitual bait visitors.

Okay, I've slipped from animal psychology to arm chair theorizing. Now someone needs to collect the data.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Citizen camera trappers make the news

Citizen wildlife monitors in Washington state were busy this summer camera trapping in Washington’s Central and North Cascades.

Conservation Northwest, the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, and the Wilderness Awareness School sponsor the Cascades Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project.

The project’s goal is “to engage and educate citizens” as wildlife investigators along a 15-mile-segment of the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass highway.

They set their 43 camera traps in the woods, and were rewarded with thousands of images, including some rarities like gray wolf and Canada lynx.

Lynx were previously more widespread in Washington, but it seems that breeding wolves were completely unexpected.


Read about it here, and be sure to check out the links.

Among the commenters are farsighted individuals who don't want taxpayer money wasted on wildlife corridors because elk-wildlife collisions don't affect them. (Aren't they the ones who holler the loudest when an elk totals their car?)

Thanks to Professor Tenaza for the link. (Hey, Rich when are we gonna check the cams in Marin?)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Animal Psychology for Camera Trappers-Part 1

[A raised forefoot while immobile and staring often indicates uncertainty. This full-frame photo shows an alert young squirrel fixating the camera with hesitation. In the next frame it resumed eating sunflower seeds.]

Many animals are cautious or fearful of unfamiliar objects or situations. This healthy response to the unknown is called neophobia or “fear of the new”.  

I believe that neophobia was the reason my first camera trap pictures of gray fox were in the distance or half out of the frame. After a few weeks the animal(s) approached more closely, and finally became bold enough to examine the camera at close range. 

[A jackrabbit assumes a startled stance in reaction to the camera trap. The widely spaced rear feet indicates it is prepared to bolt.]

If there is bait near the camera you might read ambivalence in a neophobic animal’s body language. 

The attraction to the food is strong, but so is the hesitation to approach the strange object near by. The animal may stare at the camera, or stretch its body and creep forward as though it wants to approach and back off at the same time.
Or it may approach and sniff toward the camera, then circle and test the air from a different direction. These are manifestations of approach-avoidance conflict.

Caution wanes quickly when repeated exposure to a strange object proves harmless. Since there are neither positive nor negative consequences, the animal habituates to the stimulus.  

Habituation is why we don’t often see neophobic or avoidance–conflict reactions in camera trap photos. 

Also, habituation usually defeats the clever tinkerer who cooks up various repellents for garbage-can bears and bird-feeder squirrels. Fearful reactions wane, unless the repellent is painful or extremely disturbing . The animals habituate. 

[A jackrabbit in a normal resting stance in its form (nest).  The animal habituated to the camera which was staked closer to the nest on three successive nights while the animal was absent. The camera recorded its daily cycle of rest, grooming, and defecation for a week without apparent disturbance.]

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Denning bears revisited (in more detail)

[red momma pulling grass toward den entrance]

Brian sent me a CD of all 213 photos taken of Red Momma and the two cubs (black and pale cinnamon), and I just compiled the data.

The three bears were active at the den for three days (Nov 4 – 6), and then retired inside (Nov 7), where I presume they are napping now.

November 4th and 6th were workdays.

On the 4th they first appeared at 2:54 in the afternoon. They went in and out of the den several times until 3:06. Then the black cub and mother pulled bundles of grass into the den for 6 minutes, and disappeared.

They were back 5 hours later. Black cub went into the den, and mother resumed dragging grass to the den. After getting it down the hole she rested in the entrance for an hour.

Shortly after midnight, the pale cub -- who had contributed nothing to building the nest -- left the den.

[the slacker, after its nap]

Mom periodically lounged in the entrance looking out into the starlit night until 5:00AM.

[starry eyes and bear thoughts]

She wasn’t photographed again until 11 o’clock the next night. There was no action during the day.

The next night was the same – mom lounged on and off in the entrance, and all three were absent most of the day.

They started nest building again on the 6th around 3:15PM, and work ended just before 6 o’clock.

[the pale slacker tries to back down into the den with mother in the way -- she didn't yield]

The camera recorded an ear or a paw moving in the den entrance 12 times during the next 24 hours.

[one leg up in the den]

Then Brian pulled the memory stick, and replaced it with a new one. We're not expecting much activity at the site for a few months.

In summary, the bears started nest building shortly after they arrived at the den, worked late in the afternoon, and were not seen in daylight before that. At night the mother seems to have alternated between dozing and star-gazed in the den entrance.

The pale cub seems to be a slacker. Not a single frame showed it pulling grass.

Any opinions as to what sex it might be?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cutting love

Thwack! A stick leaps into the air, and the redhead covers her head.

“You’re going to hurt someone with that thing.”

I’m in a serious eye-hand-coordination-feedback-loop and on a good roll, so I turn away, center a length of the limb on the stump, take aim, and thwack. Another oak stick shoots into the blue.

How satisfying, but I can take only part of the credit.

It’s the tool. The curved blade of this axe cuts cleanly, and the haft -- made of manzanita by the way, is a bit on the long side, giving it a lever arm of added force.

Woodworking tools, especially primitive ones give me great pleasure. I like the way they look. I like to see them at work in skilled hands, and I like to use them.

I was 11 years old when I got my first serious cutting tool, a hunting knife from Sears Roebuck. The details of that gift were buried in my memory until the day my mother called to tell me my father had died.

We had a houseguest that day, and I was stoic.

But that night the memory came back in a dream. My father had overridden my mother’s veto and bought the knife for me on the sly. He needed time to talk her into it, and when that was done he would show me how to handle it.

Meanwhile it would be in the top drawer of his bureau.

“You can look at it, but don’t play with it. It’s sharp.”

Naturally, I took the knife out of the case one afternoon and drew my finger across the blade. In my dream I felt the cutting bite, and with it came the full force of his death. The memory was vivid and complete, a father’s kindness to his son. I cried like a baby.

Eight years later in Mexico I watched the chips fly as woodcutters chopped pine on the slopes of Mt. Orizaba. I was smitten with their full-sized asymmetrical axes. Hecho en Mexico. Collins. I bought one with my meager cash.

A decade later I met a blacksmith in Nepal, an untouchable who lived in a dirt-floored lean-to. He was a man with impressive skills and knowledge of metallurgy, but he was trapped by a barren birthright.

He made the axe I was swinging today.

Man Bahadur Chankar was a gifted craftsman, but you wouldn’t know it from his tools. Western blacksmiths use a large assortment of tongs, fullers, flatters, swages, punches, files, and chisels.

This blacksmith’s anvil was a mushroomed length of truck axel driven into the ground. Yet with a few tongs and hammers he could make beautiful things from scrap metal and leaf springs.

If he needed a punch or a hot chisel, he made it from scrap, but they weren't permanent parts of his kit. That disabused me of the notion that a craftsman is only as good as his tools.

When most terai dwellers napped in the blast furnace heat of the pre-monsoon afternoon, I would walk to his hut and watch him work. He was dumbstruck.

No one in the village cared about his skills. His services were good only for barter. A perfect little tweezers for plucking chin hairs earned him a couple of beedies – local cigarettes. If someone cheated him, he accepted it as a blacksmith’s fate.

One day his 10-year-old daughter dropped the hacked parts of a mynah on a piece of corrugated iron by the fire. When it sizzled she put it into a small metal bowl of water, and her father set it over the forge with his tongs.

I watched with a certain apprehension when she added a grimy mixture of peppers and later turmeric.

The meat was obviously hers. I wondered if she found it dead, but hoped she killed it with a slingshot.

I guess it didn’t matter -- even to me the questionable meat soon smelled good enough to eat.

I visited the blacksmith for several years, bought him a set of files, and paid cash for adzes, axes, and kukris. I gave him clothes for his family.

The project ended, and I never saw him again.

But when I use his axe I remember the smell of sal flowers, dust, and wood smoke and honor the gift of his acquaintance.

[N.B.: For more on axes, see Chas Clifton’s blogpiece, Where did the axes go?]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bulked-out bear digs for treasure

Rich just sent me the latest pics from the mountain, where the bulked-out individual seen above or one of his kin, dug a sizable hole in the woods searching for Emperor Norton's Treasure.

(To appreciate Emperor Norton it helps to be a San Franciscan or perhaps a Brit. The city was riddled with fox holes in the '50s when one of the newspapers sponsored a contest called . . . you got it! "Emperor Norton's treasure." )

This might have been Bruin's last aerobic exercise. He looks rather hangdog, obviously ready to retire for his winter's nap.

Other treasure seekers stopped to muse over his handiwork.

But the flicker couldn't care less about the bear's hole.

(Hey, remember the one about how to catch a polar bear? My daughters won't let me tell it to the g'kids. Unfortunately, by the time they're old enough to hear it, I'll be too damn old to remember it. )

Monday, November 24, 2008

On waking sleeping bears

Three bears are sleeping in a den. Your camera trap is 10 feet from the entrance. How do you check it without waking them up? That's what Reverend Dick was wondering. I answered that bears sleep soundly.

But not as soundly as true hibernators like ground squirrels whose core body temperatures drop to a few degrees above freezing.

Winter-sleeping bears are rousable, though usually not instantly.

According to bear specialist Lynn Rogers, "black bears in the North hibernate so deeply that they may be jostled and prodded for several minutes in mid-winter before they awaken.”

This fact emboldened biologists to crawl into dens with sleeping bears in order to record their rectal temperatures. This is one of those punctuated achievements in field biology that begs the question, who tried it first, and was he sober?

Bears apparently don't roll over and look affectionately at the guy with the thermometer. Dr. Raymond Hock, a pioneering bear researcher in the 1950s observed, “When a hibernating bear is awakened, he tends to be cross as a bear.''

Hock however seduced slumbering black bears to cooperate with a bucket of maraschino cherries. When the sleeping bear smelled the cherries it briefly became wakeful and rose to its feet. Hock deftly inserted the probe and removed the cherries, and the bear went back to sleep.

This brings me to a mountain man and "grizz" story.

If bears didn't sleep soundly in the winter, I wonder if mountain man Joseph L. Meek would have lived to kill three denning grizzly bears in the 1830s. This is one of those mountain man stories that I suspect improved with re-telling. Writer Stanley Vestal did not annotate his references in his book about Joe Meek, as he did in other accounts of mountain men, so I can't go to the original sources.

Here's the story and my interpretation of it.

Meek found bear tracks in the snow leading into a cave in the Snake River country.

Meek, Claymore, and Hawkins entered the cave while a fourth mountain man, Doughty waited with loaded rifle at the entrance.

The cave "was about twenty feet square and high enough to stand up in." Sounds feasible.

"There the three men found three bears standing up to receive them." It seems unlikely the bears were standing, which would mean they were wakeful.

If so, they would have attacked the men. More likely the bears were sleeping or perhaps awakening in response to the disturbance, like dreamy bears smelling maraschino cherries. This is born out by the following statement.

"As soon as Meek was near enough, he whipped out his wiping stick and hit the big bear a smart blow over its sensitive nose."

There is no mention of the use of torches, and the description suggests it was not a particularly shallow cave. Unless the den was a rock fissure admitting some light, they must have used fire to see what they were doing.

"At once the big bear rushed out of the cave." . . . where it was shot by Doughty. The wounded bear "teared back into the cave growling and snarling" where the three men shot and killed it.

At this point Hawkins "started to sing and jump around and joined the others in striking the middle sized bear to make it run out".

Doughty despatched this one at the den opening.

"It did not take long to drive out the little bear", which was shot by three of the men.

Vestal refers to the bear as "he", but it was probably a female with cubs of the same litter, perhaps of differing size. It's less likely they were subadults of two different litters, separated in age by two or more years.

A great story, and one I would like to believe was based largely on fact.


Vestal, S. 1963. Joe Meek, the merry mountain man. University of Nebraska Press.


NY Times article on bear research

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crossing paths

May 8, 2004, Saturday morning

Location: the tail of the Himalayas (just a place you pass over while watching the inflight movie)

The trail straddled a ridge covered with pines and rhododendrons. In burned clearings were thickets of Himalayan blackberries and brackens. To the south a vast canyon, in the distance slash and burn.

A light-footed stranger came down the trail.

He was armed -- spear, long bow, a bamboo quiver of arrows, and a dah (machete). No shoes. He wore an oversized suit jacket.

There were no villages nearby.

I had to talk with him. Shein translated to Homang, Homang translated to the stranger.

His name was Boomenai, and he was 76 years old. He had two wives and ten children. Two are still living.

He was on his way to Kanpetlet, a two-day march from his village. He had slept in the forest, and roasted a bird for dinner last night.

I would like to know him better, but have to be satisfied with his picture.

Anyone who carries a spear, hunts with a bow, and sleeps in his suit jacket is my kind of guy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Don’t look out the window, you might learn something

It was an early morning flight to Washington DC. The redhead was reading her book, while the codger gazed down at the great basin in wonderment.

“What a sight!” Long morning shadows painted the basin and range country in sharp relief.

“Look at this, cutey! You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this scenery. We’ve got to drive across Nevada again. We still haven’t seen the Ruby Mountains.”

The redhead didn’t want to crane her stiff neck.

Then the PA system. The flight attendant asked us to be courteous and pull down our shades.

It’s a thoughtful gesture to pull that shade down. To deny yourself a space odyssey so your fellow passengers can watch crappy movies, TV reruns, and vacuous interviews with vacuous celebrities.

I don’t care how cute the flight attendant is: I don’t feel cooperative.

My fellow passengers may not give a damn, but this land is my land . . . and I want to feast my eyes on her heaving curves and the tattoos on her flat belly.

I pulled my shade halfway down. 

Is it any surprise that Americans are geographic dummies? Remember Sam Cooke’s song about being young, dumb, and in love? (“Don’t know much about geography . . . “.

It seems to me that there is an educational opportunity here for a venture capitalist with educational leanings.

My airplane fantasy is a real-time electronic toy with the memory of an Ipod, the tracking abilities of a GPS, and the zooming and scanning ability of Google Earth. The Hungry Eye.

Have your Bloody Mary mix and cruise like a condor. Zoom in on that mountain range and query the landscape with menus.

You could start with geological history, hydrology, natural resources, and flora and fauna. Can you dig it?

What? That kind of stuff puts you to sleep?

Okay, how about human topics? Native peoples, westward expansion, changing land use?

That’s boring too, huh?

Then let's navigate to the nearest town or city, and wade through the urban menu – population, local heroes, industry, recreation, sightseeing, shopping, restaurants, nightclubs, etc.

Well, maybe, you say?

Why hasn’t someone in Silicon valley thought of this?

Is it the cost, or the problems for Homeland Security?

Or are we like the guy in Sam Cooke's song -- we don’t know much about geography and we’re not embarrassed to say so.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Training a small primate

The redhead and I flew to northern Virginia last week to visit our daughter and family.

I wanted to expose my grandson (7 months) to camera trapping. Okay, I confess. It was just a photo op.

He posed well and looked interested, but all he really wanted was to eat the camera.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The rimrock path

THIS is the place, I thought.

A sandstone arcade where ringtails, foxes, bears, and pumas stroll. And maybe an occasional hog-nosed skunk. Perhaps even a coyote now and then.

The kind of place where local wildlife might surprise an edible neighbor.

A long low recess at the foot of the rimrock, clear of rubble, protected from above, but only a few leaps from escape in the boulders and thickets below.

An intimate place and a camera trapper's haven.

I sprinkled a few drops of fermented fish oil on the rock, and it worked.

But not on bears or pumas.

Providence rewarded me my usual allotment of wood rats and gray fox. Wherever I go they are waiting to give me their pictures.

I'm not complaining, because sooner or later something unusal happens, like the monogamous pair in the same picture.

Or a meeting of fox and skunk, both drawn to that delightfully smelly smudge of fish oil.

Though the skunk is partially hidden, its flag is up, ready to about-face and lay the fox low with a blast of hideous gas.

Br'er fox is not about to be skunked. His flag is also raised, but for the moment he's avoiding eye contact with the little bully. Or maybe his gaze is on the camera.

Either way, I suspect he's been skunked before.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New bears move in

A new mama bear and two cubs showed up at the bear den, and it looks like they intend to stay. Brian just checked the cam and emailed me this selection of pictures.

Mom gathered grass and shrubs and pulled them into the burrow.

The two cubs are bigger than the last two, which means they are yearlings.

They earned their upkeep by helping mom.

Whether mom is pregnant or not, this will be the cubs' last winter's sleep with her.

I think we are witnessing the beginning of a long winters' nap. Damn, these camera traps are fun!