About Me

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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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Camera Trapping Workshop

[near the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, photo by Lisa Ware, '08 workshop]

My camera trapping workshop is being offered again at SF State University's Sierra Nevada Field Campus. You can get registration and other details here.

If you are interested, you might want to check out the posts from last year's workshop here and here. And here is a list of the mammals in the area.

I'm looking forward to instructing the workshop again.

It is a chance for camera trappers of all stripes to share experiences and learn new tricks.

[Allen's chipmunk (Tamias senex), the common species on campus, 
workshop of '08, taken with a homebrew camera]

You'll meet interesting people, get a lot of exercise, enjoy tasty food, and learn a lot while having fun.

The Sierra Nevada had a magical effect on John Muir, and it'll affect you the same way. The field campus is located only a few miles from the crest of the Sierra at Yuba Pass. And it's beautiful in July.

[camera trap photo by Kim Hastings, '08 workshop]

I'll be updating and expanding the manual, and we'll have a list of camera trapping sites where various species can be expected.

I'll also have a few extra camera traps for experimental sets, and I'll be challenging myself to get a picture of an Aplodon climbing and pruning alders.

I'll set a few cams out a few weeks ahead of time, so we can hit the ground running.

If you are interested, go to the Sierra Nevada Field campus web page and sign up now!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Proof of the Camera Trap Fairy

There's always a chance that a branch will fall in front of your trail camera and botch the pictures.

Snow can bury your camera for months. Then you won't get any pictures to botch.

In the summer I've had vegetation grow up in front of cameras.

It doesn't take long, but if you wait 4-6 weeks to check your cam, you might find it perfectly camouflaged but still clicking away.

The lens focusses on the plants so you never know what triggered the pictures.

At this set I cleared the foreground of fallen limbs, but twigs dropped over the camera a couple weeks after I left and gave me pictures like the one above.

This was the first time a someone other than yours truly walked by and trimmed the twigs out of view.

Which proves there IS a camera trap fairy.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Coast live oak with raccoon

The old coast live oak in Marin County had possibilities. It was picturesque and had low lying limbs.

I hid the camera in a toyon, and aimed it along a low limb that even a three-legged critter could climb. A few dabs of castoreum a drop of civetone. Then some toyon leaves on the camera, and it was ready.

I got only 5 pictures over 43 days, and all were of raccoons. The first appearance was 2 weeks after I made the set.

Nineteen days later (March 9) there were two visits. A pair showed up earlier in the evening, and a few hours later a singleton climbed the limb to check the scent.

I had expected a ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) . A few years ago, one had been sighted not far from here.

I guess I can't complain. I got a "ringtail", just the wrong species.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cone middens and wascally squirrels

Where there are pine cone middens there are squirrels. Figuratively speaking, squirrels and pine trees have been engaged in an evolutionary tango for a very long time. (Read a bit more here.)

The successful pine tree fends off chisel-toothed rodents that attack and eat its seeds before they even germinate. That doesn't mean it bars the wascally squirrels from eating its entire genetic investment. 

It's more of a numbers game.

The tree makes the squirrel work harder for a smaller meal by putting fewer seeds in its cones and arming the cone's scales with painful spines and hooks.  

Have you ever tried to remove the nuts from a pine cone using only your hands and teeth? 

You might succeed with some of the smaller cones like those of Ponderosa pines, but it wouldn't be much fun and it certainly wouldn't be very rewarding, because the seeds are small. 

So tear into a cone with large seeds, like those hooked bombs from our gray (or ghost) pines.

Your lips and cheeks would look like taco meat in no time. If you think that handsome beard would protect you, try removing the pitch without the benefit of solvents. 

Squirrels have responded to the challenge by evolving larger heads and powerful jaws as well as effective ways or munching around those hooks and spines. 
The Western gray squirrels here in the Sierra Nevada foothills are hefty bruisers. In addition to acorns they successfully tackle the nasty hooked cones of our gray pines. I doubt that a smaller squirrel could handle them very well.

But these big squirrels are built to take on big cones.


Steele, M.A. Evolutionary interactions between tree squirrels and trees: a review and synthesis. Special Section: Arboreal Squirrels (pdf)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Scat of the week

Fred alerted me to this little goody today.

My friend Badger and I were hiking one of the local flume trails with the dogs, and I saw my dog sniffing at it intently.

Puma scat. It was just off the trail next to a ponderosa pine.

Of course, I'm not positive about the ID, but I'm pretty sure from size, shape, volume, and contents (hair and bones).

Since I was in company I skipped the sniff test.

As the crow flies, this is 2.7 miles from and 950 ft above my camera trap at el Paso de las Pumas. Close enough for this cat to visit my cam there.

You gotta know camera trapping is slow when I resort to this kind of subject matter.

By the way, I could have called this post "turd of the week", but I didn't want anyone to think I was blogging about politics.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

El Paso de las Pumas

[Whatever they are, they pass under this log]

Okay, I'm stretching the facts.  At this point in time, El Paso de las Pumas is a fanciful fabrication. 

But when I found the area I got a very good feeling.

Not because it leads to a creek, but because it's kind of a trunk road that receives trails from an adjacent catchment and ridge and leads to numerous trails beyond the creek. 

It's actually a pass between a cliff and a steep slope choked with timber and windfalls.

[The cam in a Pelican 1060 case with bear guard.]

I didn't have a camera mount that would work on that horizontal log.

I needed an adjustable mount that would allow me to point the camera down and to the side -- looking down the trail.

Greystoke on Homebrew Trail Camera Chat provided the design and my neighbor Richard provided parts and welding skills.

[We made mounts for 3 cameras -- 
each adjustable in vertical and horizontal planes, 
with a lag bolt for attachment]

I set a camera there last weekend, and in a few weeks I'll know if el Paso has been stamped by pumas and bears, or just heavy-footed gray foxes.

[A view down the trail -- not picturesque, 
but hopefully a well-used beat of large carnivores.]

A bushy-tailed wood rat's tale

[Pretty damn cute for a rat, wouldn't you say?]

As I am sure you all know, I have a fondness for our native wood rats.

And for the last year have been on a dogged if desultory quest to camera trap the Prince of Wood Rats -- Neotoma cinerea -- the bushy-tailed one.

To date I have failed, which is more than a little embarrassing.

As a reasonably fit though aging mammalogist I should be able to nail this species with my cams -- and with little effort. 

Well, Saturday night I got a call from the daughter of a childhood friend.

She lives in Utah at 6000', near a reservoir, and something was making a nest in her garage.

The animal control officer told her the intruder was probably a muskrat. 

[Okay, it's not bushy by squirrel standards, but it's a lovely tail for a rat.]


I begged to differ, predicted the identity of the intruder, and advised her on baits.

They caught the little bugger and here's the story and photos, which I am grateful for permission to use and quote. 

"Dear Dad, Mom, and Dr. Wemmer,
Thank you so much for your advice. Our Bushy Tailed Wood Rat ( if that is indeed what he is) was trapped a few minutes before midnight last night using your suggestion, Dr Wemmer, of oatmeal and peanut butter.  Unfortunately, we didn't have any sunflower seeds, but the rat didn't seem to mind.  What a cute creature. He looks very much like a humongous hamster with a fluffy tail.  I didn't think to hold a ruler up to the cage, but the body length was a good 6 inches or so, and the tail about the same length. I have attached the photographs we took that turned out.  Unfortunately we have none without the cage, since this animal was just amazingly fast.  Much faster than my camera.

The kids named it Bob in honor of one of Sandra Boyton's songs. Turns out they were right about him being a male.  He certainly has boy parts.

Since we also weren't up to traipsing around a strange wood in the dark in order to release him, Bob camped out in the cage in the garage overnight.  He was a well cared for rat, with the cat's water bottle from their traveling kennel hooked to the cage and the lid full of peanut butter and oatmeal.  Wayne even wrapped the cage in old towels since the kids were concerned Bob would get too cold in the garage overnight. They didn't want to find a body in the morning instead of a healthy rodent.  However, Bob survived his night of captivity just fine. And while he didn't like us picking up the cage to transport him, he was quite content with his oatmeal peanut butter.      

Once we had the ok from the Sheriff's office today, Wayne took Bob down to the nature preserve suggested by our local animal control officer and released him. Apparently bushy tailed wood rats are considered a protected species in this area, so we had absolutely no trouble getting the approval to release him back into the wild.  He took off like a rocket once he realized the cage was open. The preserve is almost 9 miles away, so we are hoping that we took Bob far enough for him to be unable to find his way back to our garage.  Thankfully, he didn't do any damage to anything in the garage, and while it wasn't fun to clean up after him it was a pretty easy task.  We just have our fingers crossed that the wildlife stays down at the reservoir from now on, where we can watch them in their own habitat.

Thank you again Mom and Dad for suggesting Dr. Wemmer as a source of information.  And thank you so very much, Dr Wemmer, for helping us catch our visitor in as humane a fashion as possible.  We greatly appreciate your advice and willingness to coach us.  Thank you again.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mallards and my clueless bird dog

[The hen is incubating a clutch of ten eggs under the fallen pine.
Her head is right under the branch.]

The mallards have split from the flock on De Sabla Reservoir to nest along the flumes.

We encounter two nesting pairs every day when Fred gets his "walkie" along the flume trail.

The ducks were skittish when they were looking for nest sites, and always flushed at our approach.

The commotion usually flustered Fred. 

But I have to credit him for giving chase the one time he seemed to actually see them.

[She covers them with leaves and down when she leaves the nest.]

Now they are setting on eggs, and lie low. 

So we just walk on by. 

I see one hen on the water every day now, and Fred doesn't even notice.

So, what I want to know is this: if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and smells like a duck, why is my half-breed Labrador so clueless about ducks?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Poison oak and a gray fox

Smoke was rising from Badger's stovepipe, so I walked up to the cabin, and my friend came to the door.

"I'm going to check some camera traps. Do you want to come along?"

I met Badger shoveling snow a few months ago, when his playful cocker Mac could overwhelm the pint-sized Fred.

Now Fred is bigger than Mac and goes border collie on him -- nipping and herding relentlessly and making a nuisance of himself until the cocker lays into him.

This morning they had their first real dog fight while my neighbor was putting on his boots.

Badger is a Maidu Indian from the Enterprise Rancheria.

That's not his real name, but he chuckles that like a badger he's "a good digger".

He got the name for his feats in excavation when he was in construction work. Later he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and after that he did contract work with many tribes across the country.

Of the Maidu, he says, "They killed most of us, but they put the rest of us on the Rancheria. When they made Lake Oroville we lost some of the land, and they didn't give us enough money to buy another piece."

I felt guilty for not warning my friend about the poison oak, which is leafing out in profusion.

He wore cutoff pants and had to pussy-foot through the shiny red leaves, which he did quite well.

"How did the Maidu keep from getting poision oak?" I asked.

"They didn't touch it," he answered.

"We were known as Digger Indians", he continued, "because we dug and ate a lot of roots."

Did he find "digger" an insulting term?

"No. . . that's how we survived. There were lots of foods to take and my people were good at it."

I had a clear image of the camera set, but I was slightly off course. We were trudging through dead manzanita and blowdowns, and my friend must have thought we were on a wild goose chase.

Finally I used the GPS to backtrack and found it.

The camera had been on that ridge for a month, and I expected at least a picture of an early season bear, and maybe even a mountain lion.

That would hardly compensate for the case of poison oak my friend would get, but my expectations were dashed as I flipped through the images.

The only pictures that camera had taken were of me and Fred a month ago, and Badger and Mac this morning.

I grumbled my disappointment as we retraced our steps to the ridge shoulder.

"I promise the next one is easier to reach, and the poison oak isn't as thick."

Badger didn't complain.

The second camera had the usual gray squirrel, and the gray fox seen above.

Badger thought the gray fox was a good result.

That afternoon, I drove back to his cabin and gave him a bottle of Technu.