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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of four. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Three bears and a bobcat

Brian checked the cams at Wind River Ranch and emailed a few jpgs.

Good dens are like prime real estate. Several den shoppers examined the burrow under the rimrock.

The bobcat sniffed at the entrance. If it entered the camera missed it.

Bear biologist Tom Beck saw this den last year and thought it was the work of a bear. The pictures seem to support the idea.

Mama bear came with two cubs, and plunged right in to start renovations. It looks to me like she’s digging, but the kids haven’t learned to pitch in.

The pale cub is a pastel color phase that is not particularly common. At this latitude cinnamon colored bears are seen more often.

These cubs are small enough to have been born this year. They may still be suckling, but are taking as much solid food as possible.

We can expect the three bears to den together. Black bears breed every other year when times are good. Lactation inhibits estrus in the summer following birth. That means mama is into motherhood, and doesn’t put up with amorous males.

It isn’t till the second year that the family breaks up. When mama seeks carnal liaisons with strangers the youngsters get a rude awakening.

The problem for these little guys is the mast failure. There was nary an acorn to be seen when I was schlepping around the rimrock, but there were plenty of rosehips. Under these conditions the little guys might make it through the winter but could starve in the spring.

It boils down to the ability to put on fat. A trim bear can survive the winter because in dormancy the metabolism gears down to a low idle. But survival is iffy come spring, especially when it comes late. Fat bears still have energy to burn; skinny bears don't. 

So let us leave our bears for now, and hope all works well. The camera will be waiting for their next appearance.


Bridges, A. S., J. A. Fox, C. Olfenbuttel, and J. R. Vaughan. 2004. American black bear denning behavior: observations and applications using remote photography. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 32(1):188-193

Doan-Crider, D. and E.C. Hellgren. 1996. Population characteristics and winter ecology of black bears in Coahuila, Mexicp. Journal of Wildlife Management, 60(2):398-407

Rogers, L.L. 1987. Effects of food supply and kinship on social behavior, movements, and population growth of black bears in northeastern Minnesota. Wildlife Monographs No. 97, 72 pp.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

No cannibal jokes today, please

Today someone sent me a joke about cannibalism. The timing wasn't good.

I just finished Ordeal by Hunger, the late George Stewart’s gripping account of the Donner party. The year was 1846, and the tragedy was one of the most spectacular of frontier history.

Murder, abandonment, old age, and disease had already accounted for 5 deaths when the party reached Truckee (now Donner) Lake at the end of October. There, just east of the pass a snowstorm trapped the remaining party of 84. One remarkable member though made it to the Sacramento Valley and brought the news to the local community and beyond, where a heroic rescue was organized.

The rescuers were dogged by horrific storms and 12-foot snow drifts, and the snow-bound emigrants ran out of food.  It was impossible to rescue everyone at the same time. Some families didn't want to be separated; others were too weak to travel.

So the rescue had to be staged as weather allowed, emigrants started to die of starvation, and the ordeal by hunger led to the inevitable. 

Before I could finish the book I was searching Google maps to find the three cabin sites, and trying to figure out the rescue route to the Sacramento Valley. 

And I found that there’s still a great deal of interest in the story, not to mention several dedicated websites, here and here, and a blog by a librarian's librarian. (There's a lot more than this, so check the links if you are interested.)

Recent archeological work has also unearthed a few denialists. That cannibalism took place is undeniable, even among the Donner's themselves.

I can understand the sense of stigma such a family's descendants might feel, but Stewart’s words took me beyond that.

“For though despair is often close at hand, it never triumphs, and through all the story runs, a sustaining bond, the primal force which humanity shares with all earthly creatures, the sheer will to live.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

At least the lizard likes it

It's a stone wall made of local rocks. We built it ourselves last Sunday, trying to find rocks that fit together. They don't make rocks like that around here. So it's nothing to brag about.

But the lizard was there the next day, and I am happy to say it finds our sorry looking wall quite acceptable.

If anyone asks what it is, we're telling them it's an LHRP -- lizard habitat restoration project.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Return to the rimrock

The caves and recesses in the rimrock were too intriguing. I decided to leave three cameras at Wind River Ranch, and Brian assured me he would check them, change batteries, or pull them, as desired.

I made a hurried hike to the bluffs with Luna the day before we left.

I left one camera at a large burrow dug at the foot of a bluff. This wasn’t a gopher burrow. It was big enough for a small bear or a coyote.

I left another at the fissure cave that Luna refused to enter.

And the third camera I left at a long overhang where I imagined ringtails playing in the moonlight.

Whatever pokes its nose in there, settles done for a long winter's sleep, or eats the camera -- you'll hear about it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Well turned legs

A picture of a pair of well turned legs was not my goal.

Experience has taught me that when time is limited your chances are slim of getting camera trap photos of most large mammals, and especially predators.

So I set one cam on the prairie, hoping for kangaroos rats and pocket mice, which visit bare dirt to luxuriate in a nightly dust bath and dine on wind-blown seeds.

I laced the soil with sunflower seeds, and thought it was a done deal.

Instead of rodents I got elk.

Sometimes you're predictions come true, and sometimes you get a surprise. Either way, the results are usually welcome.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rimrock rambles

I have a powerful attraction to rimrock. For recreational land-based exploration it's the best.

That’s why the Millers’ dog Luna and I rambled the rimrock for the better part of two days.

The bluffs hold many secrets, and the alluvium guards the bluffs. So you don’t get there without a workout.

Of course that doesn't apply to dogs. Luna raced up the hill effortlessly, zipped here and there through the thickets, then raced back to me, as if to ask what’s taking so long?

I trudged around the boulders, and squeezed through the scrub oak which had an annoying way of whipping off my hat and snatching at my glasses.

“You little #@*& . . . (puff puff) . . . you thought you were going to put out my eye, but not this time . . . ”. (Yes, I attribute motives to vegetation and curse it. It's a good coping mechanism.) 

The rock wall was my reward. There was grass, and thin trails skirted it here and there.

I dropped my pack, felt cool air on my wet back, and took a long draft of water. The pant-smiling Luna watched me for a few moments and then took off again.

Then I explored and realized that the rimrock feeds the soil at its feet. Pellet middens of woodrats may mummify, but a lot of it washes out of the fissures. The same must hold true for bat guano in caves and cracks. All these little guys eat a lot of roughage, you know, and are highly regular.

Cliff swallows make their own contributions, and then there are the bones -- rodent skulls and rabbit bones dropped from raptor eyries above and washed into rows of storm flotsam. (The better specimens now decorate the fireplace mantle in Brian's office).

There were the overhangs with smoked ceilings and charcoal.

Most intriguing though were the slab caves, fissure caves, and recesses. Was Luna's caution due to some lingering bearish scent?

As I GPS'd one of the sites, I remembered the amusing tale of some South Indian colleagues who tracked a radio-collared leopard to a similar bluff cave in Mudamalai National Park. They were peering into the dark hole when the cat exploded from the opening like a snarling cannon ball.

It was getting late when Luna refused to heed my call. Then there she was above me, telling me there was another way back. I followed her up to the plateau through a deceptive cut in the rimrock, and we made our way to Falcon Canyon's bluffs. We climbed down the side canyon and followed it to the Mora River and home.

There's something to be said for canine company.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A comely bobcat

A comely bobcat paused to look at the camera and then was gone. From Rich's recent dispatch from the Cleary Reserve cams.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

One cooperative beaver

I staked the camera at the end of the dam where the water rushed through the gap. This is where I expected the action, but it was impossible to set the camera there. So I pointed it at the dam itself, thinking Bucky would waddle over the sticks to reach its construction site.

It was late afternoon, the mossies were thick, and Brian waited patiently as I went through the usual self-torment. Would the rodent amble across the dam, or would it swim to the gap? Would it incorporate the camera into the dam, as it apparently did with Brian's camera a couple years ago? And how often did it visit the dam? (I had only 4 days to get the picture). Or was it even here? Maybe it was working one of the less accessible dams on the Mora River.

I took a small bottle of birch oil from my pack -- this minty-smelling stuff IS improving the smell of that nasty sack -- and dipped two thin twigs into the bottle. I laid them on the dam at two points in front of the camera. Then I took a deep snort of the oil. Aroma therapy.

Well, at the end of the week I found that it worked. Bucky stopped long enough to sniff the first twig.

And then the second one.

All but one of the other photos were false triggers. That one picture made it clear that the engineer was busy at the other end of the dam.

That made for one cooperative beaver and one happy codger.

Postscript: Brian informs me that since our visit the beaver(s) have constructed a new dam, downstream from this one. Check out the benefits of beaver dams in Laura Klappenbach's Wildlife Blog.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The grave watcher

When Geronimo dictated his life story to S.M. Barrett he described the burial of a warrior. The body was laid to rest in a cave and hidden by piles of stones.

There are countless piles of stones in the rimrock. Most fell from the cliffs above and make sense geologically.

Other rock piles don't fit in. There's no indication they fell from the ceiling above. They are weathered differently and out of place.

This was one of those rock piles. It was made from rocks down the hill. Plus there are stone hammers and pottery shards nearby.

Who visits this place?

I propped the camera on a ledge above the grave.

The grave keeper was a white-throated wood rat (Neotoma albigula).

It looks like it's recovering from a gunshot wound, but that hole was made by a botfly larva.

The Apaches know about wood rats. When Geronimo surrendered in southern Arizona and signed the peace treaty near Skeleton Canyon his band entrusted $150 in Mexican currency to a wood rat's nest.

They knew the money was safe with the rats, that the nests last practically forever. No doubt they intended to come back.

A year later cavalrymen found the money and cowboys destroyed the stone monument that marked the site.

But there's a good chance the descendents of that woodrat are still there.


Barrett, S.M. (editor) 1983. Geronimo's story of his life. S.M. Barrett. Irvington Publisher, New York (originally published in 1906 by Duffield and Company)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A week at Wind River Ranch

Hdq at the ranch.

Last month buddy Dave and I flew to New Mexico for a week on the range.

And wouldn’t you know it? Orbitz doesn’t list Southwest flights. How come? Too much competition for the big guys? So we went online and got a senior’s deal on Southwest. This is an airline that doesn’t charge $15 for your suitcase, and what's more, they feed you peanuts.

My old friend Brian Miller (remember robobadger?) was reading the paper when we found him at the Albuquerque airport. After endearing ourselves to the parking lot lady trying to find the ticket (I was sitting on it), we hit the road and rolled northeast toward blue skies and billowing thunderheads.

Riparian habitat restoration area.

There was a road-side stop to tank up and gobble tamales, and three-hours later we arrived at the Wind River Ranch -- a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the ecological heritage of the southwest.

What a place. The ranch straddles some stunning landscapes against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range, and the Mora River runs through it. The Santa Fe Trail and Fort Union are a stone’s throw away, and the short grass prairie, pinon-juniper and oak woodland probably look much as they did a couple hundred years ago.

A most lovable lizard.

Philanthropist and art collector Eugene Thaw created the ranch. A man who appreciates fine things, he also knows that under normal circumstances such things don’t self-maintain. His goal is to preserve this 4500-acre landscape as a window into the past, so future generations can make the connection between human welfare and nature.

The land was used by the Jicarilla Apache and Picuris Pueblo when Mexico issued the Mora Land Grant, and it was also used by Navajo, Ute, and Comanche.

But a lot has changed since then. Bison and prairie dogs are missing, and prairie invaders like snakeweed and pinon/juniper are edging out blue grama and buffalo grass. Cheat grass has also made an appearance, having already taken over large areas of the west.

Prairie pinon-juniper interface.

To make it ecologically whole again, Thaw hired Brian as executive director. For having the right instincts, knowledge and temperament he couldn’t have picked a better person. And to underwrite the staff and operations he created the Wind River Ranch Foundation.

Brian forged a partnership with the Jicarilla Apache and Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative to establish a free-ranging herd of bison, and several private groups have helped to re-establish black-tailed prairie dogs. This year he is expanding riparian habitat along the flood plain of the Mora River – critical habitat for the endangered willow flycatcher.

Education is a major theme. School children and young scientists use the ranch as a laboratory to document baselines of flora and fauna, measure change, and understand the dynamics of the ecosystem. WRRF also tries to fund grad student projects from money raised for ecological restoration projects.

Our mission, and you won’t believe this – was to establish a reference collection of grasshoppers. Don’t laugh. There are more than 160 species in New Mexico, they’re big in the food chain, important in nutrient cycling, and they have major economic importance. (Not to mention the eggs from Brian's grasshopper-foraging chickens.)

As buddy Dave can tell you, entomologists take a lot of crap, because the man on the street is biologically challenged. Recently Dave had to remind some snickering birders that if it wasn’t for grasshoppers their life lists would be a bit shorter.

I wasn’t far from fellow bloggers Beverly, Steve Bodio, Chas Clifton, and Smokin Bill Schmoker, all of whom I would enjoy meeting, but grasshoppers and rimrock beckoned.

Besides we had assignments. More on that soon.

Dave instructs the Miller girls on prepping hoppers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pumas--more of the same

Let me know if you are tired of puma pictures. Though pictures of charismatic rodents like showtls send me into falsetto exclamatory rapture, I still get a thrill from pumas.

Rich found these two shots on one of the Cleary Reserve cams this weekend. And speaking of thrill, one of the photos was taken only three hours before he arrived on the scene. Not to worry. He had a class of students with him, which usually disperses wildlife for miles around. (One of these days I'll tell the story of a hike with a group of Brazilians.)

It looks like a young adult female. The spots on the inside of the hind leg could be remnants of the spotted coat of juveniles. If they don't disappear with the next moult they'll help us identify this cat in the future.

Oh yes -- a confession. These pictures sure helped me get the lead out today. I shifted into overdrive trying to finish my winterizing projects. Once the firewood is cut, the brush shredded, gutters cleaned, and the new skylight is in place, I plan to meet Rich in Marin county to begin a new camera trapping survey.

Meanwhile, just sign me, Harry Homeowner.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Zen lizard moments

Have you ever had a Zen moment with a lizard?

It happens like this. The lizard is at the center of its universe, say on a rock with a commanding view. Its scales are coruscating in slanting light. It fixes you in its reptilian eye, and then does several push-ups. That's a Zen lizard moment.

Simple things like Zen lizard moments are good for the spirit, especially when things like the economy are going to hell in a handbag.

So neighbor Richard and I hauled a new lizard rock to the garden. We already had one such rock there, but the lizards don't share it. Now two lizards can mount their respective rocks and do competitive push-ups.

This new rock wasn't what you would find at a garden center, but it was on my property and free. So we raised it with Richard's chain hoist, and lowered it into my pickup. Then we rolled it onto a dolly, and with much grunting planted it at its destination.

The Redhead however commented on the two-tone color -- reddish and gray.

"It's oxidation", I said. "It tells an interesting story of uneven aging, don't you think?

No response. (I knew what she was thinking.)

"Okay, I can power wash it and see if the red stuff comes off."

She said it wasn't necessary.

When I found her scrubbing the rock the next day, I rushed for the camera. But she made it perfectly clear -- there was no way she was going to illustrate this blog post.

The only evidence is this picture of her tools -- a scrub brush and a very large screwdriver.

And with the cool weather here, I'll have to wait till next year for more Zen lizard moments.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Br'er fox nails another rat

It's hard to believe, but it happened. Rich got another camera trap photo of a gray fox with prey.

It not only walked past a camera carrying the half eaten rat, but paused to give us a second picture.