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, July 29, 2009

A nice touch for wild berry pies

Chrysodeixis sp., one of many little green caterpillars suitable for berry pies. 
Photo by Dave Rentz

As a postscript to the previous blackberry post, I should mention the little green caterpillar. 

"Be sure to find that little green caterpillar when you wash them", I reminded the redhead.

The pie was cooling the next day when I asked if she found it.

She hadn't, and she didn't bat an eye. 

Oh, my. . . we had shared the pie with guests on Sunday.

Her composure reminded me of my first crush, a willowy blond 15-year-old named Jonika.

She was the daughter of a writer, 15 going on 17.

I was the skinny kid next door, 14 going on 12.

I was also the oldest boy in the neighborhood. 

She used to invite me over and would play "Drink to me only with thine eyes" on the cello. 

I think you get the picture.

One afternoon she boldly quaffed the gnats floating in her lemonade and didn't bat an eye. 

"Hey! You just drank gnats . . . ha ha ha etc.", I carried on.

"So what?", and she took another sip looking at me the whole time. 

It was a dare. I started to feel a little uncomfortable. 

So, when it comes to berry pies, why not make the dining experience a little more interesting?

Add one smallish green caterpillar to the top of the berry filling. Then roll the crust over it. 

The caterpillar certifies that the contents are wild and organic, like the pink larva in tequila signifies it's the real thing.

When you dish up, just announce, "whoever gets the slice with the green caterpillar, gets a second serving".

Your guests won't know whether to believe you, but it won't stop them from eating the pie.

They'll just take a little more time.

If your pie is exceptional they may even argue about who ate the little green caterpillar. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On picking wild berries

Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), most probably.

Berry picking season is here.

I made my second haul on Saturday -- 6 cups of plump juicy blackberries a mile from the house, enough for one and half pies.

The harvest with improvised cane-hook. 

Many years ago I inducted my family into the joys of berry picking and its sequelae. That was back in Northern Virginia.

In spring we always had an eye out for swarms of white blossums -- prospective berry patches -- and when summer came we gave the bears and catbirds a run for their money.

Blossums first appear in spring and continue into summer.

The girls were good berry-pickers, but even better pie-eaters.

When we could enlist house guests, graduate students, and volunteers we could forage truly respectable amounts.

By August, plastic bags of sugar-packed berries filled the freezer, but the redhead guarded the larder like a commissary officer.

She preferred to bake the pies when we had overnight house guests, but in good years there would often be a surplus of frozen berries in late spring.

If we were good she'd bake a pie or crisp before picking season.

A few words on berry brambles as wildlife habitat.

With or without berries, briar patches are wildlife waystations and hotbeds of trophic ecology.

In other words a lot of animals eat and get eaten there.

First you've got your berry browsers -- birds, rodents, raccoons, possums, and bears.

And then there are the consumers of the berry browsers -- deer flies, mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers (not to mention bees and wasps).

The black raspberry strip up on Dickey Ridge always gave me a case of chigger bites, but that didn't stop me.

Out here the only snakes to fear are the rattlesnakes, but you don't have to worry (much) if you poke and tap with a stick before you step into the brambles.

Which brings me to a few tips.

Dress for the occasion.

Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and boots, and anoint exposed skin with insect repellent.

Tucking cuffs in your socks is a good measure to delay the ticks' arrival at the promised land in your knickers.

Wear old clothes. They'll get snagged, torn, and stained.

Have good containers.

In a pinch any non-breakable container will do, but the ideal one is a pail with a handle and a tight-fitting lid.

Drop the berries in a small opening cut in the lid. If you drop the container -- and that happens, you won't lose your payload.

I've tried to fashion containers to attach to my belt or hang from my neck. This would give me two free hands, but nothing of my invention works very well.

Carry a stick..

You need it to fight off the bears and other berry pickers, and to expose berries, move thorny canes out of your path, or pull berry-laden canes within reach.

Also use it to test unseen ground under the brambles before stepping and to brace yourself when a thorny bramble pulls you off balance.

Bring an old pair of gloves.

The stick never substitutes for a hand with an opposable thumb, which you need to expose berries for the picking hand. A gloved bramble-hand will save you scratches and pricked fingers.

First aid kit

It won't hurt to bring anti-itch creme and band-aids for the "owies", especially if kids are helping.

And a cooler with soft drinks and ice is a nice way to end the venture before your drive home.

If you treat the chef with great consideration during the outing you just might get a heavenly treat after dinner.

Now get your buns out there and start picking. 

Monday, July 27, 2009

Aplodon's watery subway

Aplodon's watery subway in a small lush grassy area 
with an abundance of lupine, Sierra County, CA.

As far as I can tell, mountain beavers don't mind watery tunnels.

Most of their burrows are in relatively moist soil, and on slopes where soil drainage is good.

A relatively dry Aplodon burrow 
between roots of white alder. Sierra County, CA

But in some burrows water trickles freely.

The green vegetation inside indicates an active burrow.

A new acquaintance in Sierra County showed me this tunnel system, where at least some sections of the burrow rest right on the water table and just a few inches below the surface.

These little charmers do some serious root grazing to clear a passage right under the sod, and I imagine the remaining root mass gives them a good coat brushing every time they scoot down the tube.
My friend discovered this colony in an unusual way. 

He was driving up the highway when he saw a bush making its way across the asphalt.

It wasn't on fire, but it was a strange vision all the same and it led him to a small Aplodon colony just above the road shoulder.

The rodent was removing bush lupines across the road and hauling them to its burrow on the other side.

This bush hauling business isn't unusual. You commonly find alder branches curing near their burrows.

Earlier this month I asked a Plumas County resident if he had ever seen mountain beaver. 

He paused a moment and said, "Yeah, and I shot it".


It was cutting his bean plants and hauling them away. 

Since then the colony on his property hasn't gotten into trouble. 

But back to watery subways. 

When I was camera trapping for these fellows in Point Reyes National Seashore (check here) I got the impression that the most active burrows were near wet lush places. 

In early summer the active burrows were widespread at the bottom of the ravine.

They riddled moist soil and boggy areas beside springs, and above ground the vegetation was green and rank.

When the vegetation had dried up and much of the ground was drier in August and September there were fewer active burrows to be found.

Curing haystacks (in this case lupine) 
are a sure sign that Aplodon is working the area.  

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bear defeats engineers

The New York TImes has a very interesting article this morning on a shy middle-aged black bear (a female of course) that has consistently defeated a state-of-the-art bear proof canister.

Zoo bears couldn't crack it, but this one could.

Now other bears are catching on.

Read about it here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Deportation of another little visitor

He was minding his own business and so was I.

He was a baby, barely 14 inches long, waiting for the lizards to become active.

I was searching for Fred's dog logs around the garden for proper disposal further away.

I saw him just as I stepped over him. Whoa!

I got my camera.

As I took these pictures, I remembered Professor Joe Hall's legendary bare-handed rattlesnake capture.

He was leading a group of undergraduates on a field trip to Marin County (or maybe it was Napa County), when the class stumbled on a very peaceful rattlesnake on the trail.

It was completely motionless and stretched out like a crooked stick, and its tongue wasn't to be seen.

It was sleeping

The professor studied it for a few moments, and then slowly reached down.

No one knew what he was doing until he pinned the snake by the neck.

He impressed the hell out of us.

This little guy also looked asleep, but his tongue was working. He was peaceful, but he wasn't asleep.

I got a gallon plastic bottle and prodded him into it with a stick.

Then I released him in the woods half a mile away.

I picked the place carefully because I like rattlesnakes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ken Stager, 1915-2009

Stager during WWII. 
Photo probably taken in Myitkyina District, Upper Burma.

Kenneth E. Stager died a few weeks ago at the age of 94.

I treasure the opportunity I had to meet him.

Tracking him down wasn't easy. In retirement he was too busy to answer letters. I can't blame him.

When I wrote to him in 1998, I was intensively researching biological exploration of pre-independence Burma.

Stager had been a soldier in the China-Burma-India theater during WWII. His job was to collect birds and mammals, screen them for trombiculid mites, and prepare them as voucher specimens for the United States Typhus Commission.

What does that have to do with war?

Well, there was a race going on to crack the epidemiology of tsutsugamushi (Japanese: dangerous bug) disease, or scrub typhus.

The disease took more lives than combat, and sore-covered typhus survivors were in for a long recovery.

Solving the epidemiological riddle would give a leg up to either the Japanese or the allies.

Japanese regimental picture from Upper Burma, WWII. 
Photo probably taken after the British and Indian evacuation of Burma.
(Author's collection)

I knew little about the Typhus Commission back in '98, but Stager's specimens in the Smithsonian's National Museum stirred my imagination.

Each was a piece of history and part of a story that I wanted to know.

I found that Stager was living in retirement in Los Angeles, but my telephone messages were never answered.

So I wrote him a letter.

Months passed, and I had pretty much given up hope when a young colleague at the National Zoo told me Ken Stager had called about my letter.

Talk about a small world. My colleague Jesus Maldonado knew Stager very well.

The old curator apologized for failing to respond, and promised to tell me about his Burma days.

A few months later I had business in San Diego, and made an appointment to spend a day with him at the Los Angeles County Museum.

It was 1999. Stager was 83 years old and Emeritus Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy.

Kachin regimental manao (festival) in 1950. 
Photographer unknown. (Author's collection)

We spent a great day together, and I tape recorded an oral history of his days as a soldier-mammalogist.

He had an amazing memory and clarity of diction, and listening to him was like reading a great book.

So how did his orders change from foot soldier to mammal skinner?

Here's his story.

There was a company of Kachin levies attached to the battalion in Myitkyina (pronounced Micheena) District, under the command of an Anglo-Burman named Jack Girsham.

Girsham had been raised in the jungle and grew up hunting. Before the war he had worked for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation as a shooter of tigers and rogue elephants.

Jack Girsham, Stager's friend from Typhus Commission days. 
(Photographer unknown)

The Kachins didn’t care for k-rations, so they supplemented their table with jungle fowl and pheasants snared in the surrounding hills.

One morning Stager found them returning to camp with "a beautiful adult male silver pheasant".

He saw only one thing -- a precious zoological specimen about to be plucked.

The Kachins saw breakfast.

As any zoologist can understand, unceremoniously plucking that specimen was a disturbing thought.

Stager requested Girsham, who spoke Kachin, to negotiate a deal. The result was that Stager could skin the bird if the Kachins got the carcass.

When the Japanese started shelling he jumped into a trench with the half-skinned bird.

And when the skirmish ended he requested cotton from the medical sergeant.

"Why?" asked the sergeant.

Stager convinced him that skinning birds was a legitimate war-related cause.

Not long afterward, Colonel Thomas Mackey, head of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in N.C. arrived from the States to establish the US Typhus Commission, recently decreed by Executive Order.

Mackey summoned Stager, the word of whose strange habits had spread through the battalion.

He explained to the young soldier that he had brought a whole staff of specialists from the States, but had failed to get the mammalogist or ornithologist needed to survey bird and mammals for vectors of scrub typhus.

"I'm going to have you transferred."

Stager soon received his new orders, and made a case for having Girsham transferred too.

He and Girsham spent the rest of the war collecting mammals and birds for typhus research with a shot gun appropriated from the Chinese army. And they potted birds for mess whenever time permitted.

They made extensive collections of the fauna in the mountain rain forests north of Myitkyina using outboard motor boat and jeep transport. The unit moved to Yunnan for two months during a typhus outbreak in Kunming.

Typhus work ended several months after the Japanese surrender, and the Commission's results were published in various journals.

Most of the specimens went to the United States National Museum in Washington D.C., but some reside in the Los Angeles County Museum.

I asked Stager what became of the silver pheasant, and he said it was there in the museum.

That's when I took this picture.

Stager at the LA County Museum in 1998 holding the silver pheasant he finished skinning despite Japanese shelling.
(Photo by Chris Wemmer)

As I said, I treasure the opportunity I had to meet him.

There's a lot to learn from old guys who work in museums.


Audy, J.R. 1968. Red mites and typhus. University of London, The Athlone Press.
[a scholarly review of research on typhus and the accelerated investigations during WWII]

Girsham, J. with Lowell Thomas. 1971. Burma Jack. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York
[a good read, with a chapter devoted to Girsham's role in Merrill's Marauders.]

Mackie, T.T. et alia. 1946. Observations on Tsutsugamushi diesease (scrub typhus) in Assam and Burma. American Journal of Hygiene 43(3):195-218

Philip, C.B. 1948. Tsutsugamushi disease (scrub typhus) in World War II. Journal of Parasitology, 34(3):169-191.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Another telling tail

Only 23% of the 77 pictures at this night set had animal images. The rest were blanks.

That's a rather crappy success rate.

Something was triggering the cam.

Was Bigfoot toying with me again? I think not.

More likely small cryptic critters were triggering the sensor and vanishing like Tinkerbell.

They can be hard to see. You have to click back and forth between images on a computer screen.

Then your eyes can see changes in the scene. Often the change is in vegetation caused by a gentle breeze, but sometimes you can see a disturbed path in fallen leaves, the footfalls of a phantom passerby.

I zoomed in on the edge of this picture and there was a long rodent's tail.

There's only one rodent in the upper Yuba River area with a long tail like this, the Western jumping mouse (Zapus princeps). All the other species have tails shorter than the head and body length.

Plus, the coloration seems right -- "pelage on sides usually washed with lemon yellow" (Verts and Carraway, Land Mammals of Oregon).

I can't really prove it to the satisfaction of all, so you call me a bluffer, BS artist, or worse.

(Thanks to Don E. Wilson (aka Batfinger) for confirming my hunch.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A fleeting glimpse of tail

A fleeting glimpse of tail is sometimes enough to identify a faceless subject.

In this case it was Herman the Ermine, also known as the short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea).

It's a new species for my camera trapping life-list.

The location was the bank of a steep falling creek that feeds the Yuba River's north branch.

Weasels work creek bottoms on their foraging rounds, but I attribute this picture to serendipity.

Here's a full-frame camera trap view of the site on June 21 when I set the camera.

And here's what it looked like 24 days later.

Yes, growing vegetation can be a problem when you leave your cameras out for even three weeks.

It took me an hour and a half to find one of my other 5 cameras in the area.

My GPS told me I was on top of it, but it wasn't there until I pushed through a patch of Delphinium that had grown up around it.

The other cameras operated for a total of 96 camera trap days.

I got lots of pictures of deer mice and chipmunks, but no mountain beavers climbed the alders to reach the apple and birch scent lures I had painstakingly attached.

Herman the ermine was the only picture that stirred me, but only a little.

I'm too old to attempt a back-flip for a fleeting glimpse of weasel tail.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A beaver dam bipass

The Sierra Nevada beavers are now using PVC. It's a labor-saving innovation.

Okay, I'm pulling your leg.

I took this photo yesterday in Plumas County, where a homesteading beaver tempted fate by damming the creek next to the local landowner's house.

The "environmental logger" who lives across the road learned of his neighbor's resentment, and advised him to use PVC to trick the beaver.

The PVC device is a called the Clemson beaver pond leveler, but its really just a bipass of sorts.

According to the beaver specialists, "Beavers repair dams in response to the sight, sound, and feel of running water. The Clemson leveler transports water through a dam in such a way that beavers cannot sense it and as a result, beavers don't attempt to plug the leveler."

It doesn't work all the time, but so far it has given this beaver a stay of execution.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Skinny cat nails plump bunny

The young bobcat caught the brush rabbit on the evening of June 11.

I couldn't see the rabbit when I scoped the pictures on the camera's LCD the other day, but there was no mistaking it as a rare event when I saw it on the computer screen this evening.

I think the dead rabbit is the same one the cameras photographed between May 31 and the morning of June 9. (I have three cameras on this trail.)

No bunny however was photographed after June 11 and until I checked the cameras on June 30.

The rabbit had the habit of loafing on the trail. I got multiple images of it.

This trail seems to be on the cat's regular beat.

Between June 10 and June 23 the cameras photographed the same cat on 5 occasions.

Look at the it's right foreleg and you will recognize a distinctive broken band of dark fur.

It's the same in all photos, except the one with the dangling rabbit.

My guess is that the hunter is the same skinny bobcat seen in the other pictures -- a young adult probably from last year's litter.