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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, April 16, 2008

Splendid abandoned farms

There's an old study skin of a shrew mole at the California Academy of Sciences that was collected on the Greenly farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the summer of 1960 I discovered that specimen in the academy's mammal collection and wrote to Mr Greenly for permission to snap trap shrew moles on his farm. Permission was granted in a letter signed by "Pops Greenly".

Pops was a lonely widower and the farm was a wreck, a wonderful wreck of collapsing barns, broken equipment, and a forgotten orchard. Consequently, it was seething with wildlife.

Pops gave us a tour. The bloated woodrat floating in the springhouse didn't bother him a bit. Wrens and swallows nested in the outbuildings, honey comb spilled from half-opened oak filing cabinets in the tool shed, and the attic's colony of fringe-tailed Myotis gave the house an alluring batty bouquet. One evening on the porch the old man told us a mountain lion passed through the property every few weeks. He pointed to its usual path, and his imitation of it raised the hair on our necks. The place was being reclaimed by wildlife, and it was a naturalist's paradise. It didn't take long to make a nice collection of shrew moles and other mammals there.

About 3 years later I visited the Cleary Reserve in Napa County with fellow undergraduates in a class called "Natural History of the Vertebrates". The reserve was also an old farm, and we spent a memorable weekend collecting and identifying wildlife, but it didn't compare with Greenly's derelict farm.

Forty plus years have passed since then, but a few weeks ago when my old friend Rich Tenaza invited me to join him at the Cleary Reserve I was ready to go. Last weekend was a codger fest of old Asia hands, Rich, Steve Anderson, Rod Jackson and yours truly.

The reserve didn't look quite the same. The trees seemed bigger, and a lot of dead wood had fallen. The dirt road was choked with sticks, limbs, and canes. Gone was the pond with its nesting redwing blackbirds. If it was still there, it was hidden in towering vegetation.

When Rich unlocked the old stone house it was plain to see that wildlife had reclaimed it. Carpenter bees were jousting under the eaves. They made sorties at us whenever we passed, and were irksome buzzing against the windows in the house, but that was remedied with an insect net.

The walls and plastic covers on the furniture were peppered with bat poop, and when we found the perpetrators in the hall we hurried to our cameras and photographed them.

The amount of rodent crap on the floors was simply amazing-- a tribute to high fiber diets and a population explosion.

Rich knew the place well, and within minutes was checking the old septic tank for rattlesnakes. Sure enough, there they were. The pit was evidently a splendid predation trap, an irresistable attraction to rodents where the snakes lie in wait.

The old Cleary house had come of age. Barely liveable for most humans, it was a paradise for wildlife and old biologists.


Owlman said...

Sounds like I missed another great experience and looking forward to hearing more about it. It's been a long since I was there with Rich and a class we helped Joe Hall teach. I was suprised to hear that the pond was no longer there.
Did you get down to the creek and find any Pacific Giant Salamanders?

Hugh Griffith said...

What a neat place! It's like a wildlife tree you can walk around inside.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Yes, guys, it's a neat place, and there were Pacific giant salamander larvae in the creek, not to mention yellow-legged frogs and newts. We called in a pair of screech owls, and a pair of horned owls called through the night. The checklist mentioned porcupines, which is a surprise to me, but we'll see if we get any on the cams.

The Meijers said...

What type of rattlesnake is that in the septic tank? (I haven't taken the time to check out where you live, which would help me id....perhaps a W Dback?)

Camera Trap Codger said...

You got it. This is northern California, and that's all we have in the rattlesnake dept.

Unknown said...

Glad to see that the old 'Ranch" is still attracting interest, as the oldest surviving Cleary grandson, I recall many summers as a kid wondering around the place, hiking to the waterfalls and the redwood canyon, swimming in the ponds, both upper and lower, and yes there were porcupines as my older brother killed one for no particular reason. Also a wood duck at the upper pond the he finally regretted. What we called the 'Olive Tree Cabin' is where I stayed most of the time, and I recall the carpenter bees drilling constantly as well as the packrats scampering across the ceiling. The place influenced my life for the greater good and I ended up living in a small cabin on the south coast of Big Sur for 43 years until I got to old to cut it. BTW I spent 25 years as a volunteer fire fighter and first responder and saw many rescues some by helicopter and we didn't charge for any of them. Donations accepted however.