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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.

Monday, August 31, 2009

On the way to Chimineas

Fred meets an attractive but unreceptive lady.

There's something to be said for early morning road travel. 

I was showered and with a clear head when we hit the road at 4:30AM.

Fred soon nodded off in the back seat while I listened to BBC's World News. 

I was on my way to the Chimineas Ranch in San Luis Obispo County, where Cal Fish & Game's Craig Fiehler and I had set four camera traps in early June. 

We beat the rush hour traffic in Sacramento and swung onto I5.

That's when Fred climbed into the front seat. 

I decided to let him stay.

When the sun rose we were listening to mariachi music. 

At the rest stop weary travelers were asleep in their cars.

Then it got hot.  

At 11:30 we arrived at Craig's house in Bakersfield, where Fred discovered that there were two black labs.

He was ready to play with the long-legged Macy, but the feeling wasn't mutual.

By the time she had eased up, we had packed the pickup.

It was time to head for the ranch.  

[Stay tuned for more about camera trapping and the Chimineas Ranch in the next few posts.]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shameless Fig Foraging

Adriatic figs ready for picking on the shoulder of the road. 

Ever pay $4 for a teeny weeny basket of fresh figs? 

Not the codger. Not anymore, anyway.  

He shamelessly forages figs from roadside volunteers in the land of fruit and nuts, and has no qualms about scrounging grounded fruit.  

You see, volunteer fig trees grow wild in the Sacramento Valley. 

You find them next to highways, country roads, and fence lines, and along seepages, creeks, and rivers. 

An Adriatic fig growing along a frontage road in Butte County. 

The story has it that Junipero Serra's followers planted black figs around the missions of Alta California.

I once read that the descendants of these Mission or Franciscan figs can still be found, but far from adobe walls. 

I live in a time warp so to speak, and browsing wild mission figs always gave me a vague but gratifying sense of connection to the state's past.  

Well, googling California figs disabused me of my romantic notion. 

My volunteer figs look more like the green Adriatic figs brought to California by American settlers after the gold rush. 

They are thick-skinned and pale green on the outside and a deep reddish color inside. 

Adriatic figs were planted as a cash crop in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, and  in 1889 ranchers shipped their first dried figs to markets in the east. 

I imagine they were pretty chewy when they arrived in New York. 

In my experience, drying Adriatic figs pass through the gooey candy stage only briefly.

When fully dry they're as leathery as snake eggs, which doesn't stop me from gnawing them.

You can still boil them into a wonderful jam.

But the dried Adriatic figs didn't win over eastern palates.

So Smyrna figs were introduced as a substitute in the 1880s. 

Last Sunday we picked figs. 

A few years ago the tree was a glorious specimen, fermenting figs carpeted the ground, and a dusky-footed wood rat had stacked sticks and dried figs among the multiple trunks.    

Then PG&E had its annual power pole ritual and chain sawed the biggest trunks.  

This year the old fig set fruit again.

The rat nest was gone, but a rodent had been dining there.

 The leftovers of a rodent's feast -- 
possibly a squirrel, but more likely a rat. 


We carried our booty home and the redhead made fig bars.

The best part of foraging is always on the plate.

I'd love to camera trap the visitors of a fig tree, but I just don't trust the two-legged visitors. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Camera trapping bats accidentally and on purpose

Sonoma County bat and striped skunk meet at the water hole.
Photo by Sharon Ponsford.

It's a thrill to get a camera trap picture of a bat in flight, but it's usually accidental. 

Camera trappers usually don't set their cams in bat flyways, but when they do insectivorous bats trigger camera traps easily. 

Here's the rub. The bat is usually gone by the time the shutter is released.

Sometimes though an image is captured like the one above.
The likelihood of camera trapping bats is much greater when they are in a feeding frenzy over a mosquito-covered deer.  

The bat here was no doubt taking flying insects around the water, and the skunk was probably grubbing for insects in the mud.  

Rod Jackson and Sharon Ponsford set the camera, a Sony s600 with a YetiCam controller board at a water trough in Glen Ellen, California. 

Bat specialist William Rainy tentatively identified the bat as Lasiurus cinereus, the hoary bat, which happens to have a wingspan of 15-17 inches (second largest of North American bats).  

Rainy also put us onto some interesting references on the use of camera traps to survey bats. 

Hirofumi Hirakawa, a wildlife biologist from Sapporo, Japan, had often camera-trapped bats, but was frustrated with out-of-focus and poorly exposed images. 

So he designed a PIR-activated camera trap that uses a film camera and a pencil easer.

Yes, a pencil eraser. That's the bat lure. 

The eraser is attached to a piano wire in front of the PIR sensor.

The bats take their own pictures when they swoop in to check out the eraser. 

Some bats even bit the eraser in flight.

The methodology holds promise, but Hirakawa cautions that "we must be aware that different bat species might have different reactions to the luring device". 

Now, if the manufacturers ever make an inexpensive but really fast digital camera, I could be tempted to make some camera traps for bats.   


Hirakawa, H. 2005. Luring bats to the camera -- a new technique for bat surveys. Mammal Stusy, 30:69-71.

Hirakawa, H. and K. Maeda. 2006. A technique to estimate the approximate size of photographed bats.  Wildlife Society Bulletin 34:2, 413-418. 

[Many thanks for Rod Jackson and Sharon Ponsford for sharing the photo and their observations, and to Bill Rainey for his help.]


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wussified Montanans play it safe

The lovable but not huggable American badger. 
Photo courtesy of Chuck Gackstetter.

The police in Billings blasted a badger that was hiding under a loading dock in a shopping center.

The game commission and animal control agents --those who normally solve such problems and usually by non-lethal means, didn't want to be bothered.

So Barney and his fellow police took care of this public menace with buckshot. 

I suspect the animal found itself in the wrong place, took cover, and was waiting to make tracks.

But this is Montana. Out West.

Where, as folksinger U. Utah Philips used to say, "the states are square, the men and are men, and the sheep are all worried".

Well, that's how it used to be. They say the demographics of the west are changing.

What the hell happened to the Montanans who weren't afraid of badgers?

My friend Brian Miller with whom I had to commiserate, had this to say:

"What a bunch of wimps.

When I started school at Wyoming, a badger fell into a 8 foot by 3 foot window well of a University building. The window well was about 5 feet deep.

They called Hank Harlow and me to come and catch it.

We dropped down into the well, put a #10 corn scoop in front of our feet for protection, caught the badger with a rabid dog noose and released it onto the prairie."

That reminds me of the time my childhood friend Tom Briggs found a sleeping badger.

We were on a field trip to Tesla Road near the town of Livermore, California.

Back in the late 50s it was good badger country, all grassland and valley oaks.  

Not heeding the adage about sleeping dogs, Tom took off his belt and slipped it over the animal's head.

The badger woke up in a foul mood and started to snap and twirl like a whirling Dervish.

Maybe leading it back to the truck to show his friends wasn't such a good idea.

Tom decided to let it go.

The snarling badger took off and Tom went home without his belt.

Which brings me back to the law-and-order cops of Billings.

I think they could have done better.

A fire extinguisher or bear spray would have sent that scary badger packing.

Or they could have zapped it with their taser, thrown it in the trunk and headed for the prairie with flashing lights and wailing siren.

Now that's the kind of story I'd prefer to read about cops and badgers in Big Sky Country.

[Thanks again to the Outdoor Pressroom for posting goofy news and other good outdoors stuff, and to Chuck Gackstetter who seems to have the camera trapping record for great badger pictures.]

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mystery mammal

This was set # 254, a promising site in Marin County where fog blows in from Bolinas Lagoon. 

I know bobcat kittens padded this trail, and I know a coyote dropped a few dog logs right where the mystery creature hunkered. 

But the cam always had a problem.

This time the flash went out. 

24 images were black.

Three looked like this, and only this one showed an animal. 

It was 6:18 in the morning when the mystery mammal paused to sniff.

Anyone want to guess what it it? 

Coyote . . . raccoon . . . wolverine . . .  German shepherd . . . or just a large squirrel? 

Camera trap pictures can be puzzling -- read on . . . here.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fred trees imaginary bear

You have to wonder what's going on when your dog does the unexpected.

Like circle the tree with nose to ground, bay, and try to climb it. 

I craned my neck to see what it was. 


Or did a bear shimmy up that tree last night?

It makes you wonder about your dog's miraculous nose, and all you are missing out on during a walk in the woods.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bob kittens on the trail

We're back in Marin County, where this bobcat family walked past the cameras on July 15th, 17th, 18th, and 24th. 

I got 15 other pictures of single bobcats, mostly the usual butt shots. 

Study the pictures above and below and you can see that the larger kitten is behind, and the little one is beside its mother. 

I'd wager the bigger one is a male, and the runt, a female.

I was about to conclude that there were two kittens in this litter, but then I examined the picture below.

It looks like the baby-faced cat in the foreground may also be a kitten. 

Two other kittens are farther up the trail. 

If I am right, there are three in this litter.

By the way, this particular set had two cameras. 

One was mounted on a Douglas fir right next to the trail, and the other was mounted on a metal post beside it and slightly higher.    

The cams took different pictures of the family, which strikes me as a little odd. 

During walk tests, their sensors detected me 30-40 feet away.

So I expected both cameras to take pictures of the same events, which is what usually happens.

Instead, one camera would miss the family, and the other one got the picture. 

In one case the second camera had two blank pictures while its mate had a cat picture.

It makes you wonder about camera placement, but all the same, I'm glad I had two cameras there. 

Friday, August 14, 2009

A red letter day

Fred crossed the Rubicon. He pees almost exclusively with "the leg-lift". 

I saw the new move months ago, but until this week he peed mainly while squatting.

Now the leg-lift reigns supreme, and a macho version at that. 

Look at how nicely he cocks his foot aiming the stream away from his body. 

Only a two weeks ago he was peeing on his front leg whenever he tried. 

"This is the son we never had", I beamed to the redhead.

"Yes, I'm tired already, and it's time to get his nudicles removed."

The thought of it made me feel faint. 

I mean, castrating our son?

I threw a stick into the flume and Fred did a flying Wallenda into the water.

I'll worry about our son's nudicle-ectomy later.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bobcat catches snake

Just back from checking the cameras in Marin County, and was pleased to get some images that showed more than bobcats walking away from the camera.  

I'm getting a little tired of bobcat butt shots. 

This photo was taken on July 2 during the heat of day -- 2:34 PM -- when snakes are up and about.  

Unfortunately, the shutter speed was 1/30th of a second, so the gopher snake and the cat's head are slightly blurred. 

The snake looks limp, which means it is dead, and the cat is no doubt looking for a place to settle down and feed.   

This is the same trail where the bobcat was seen carrying the dead brush rabbit. 

It cuts through coastal scrub and mixed conifer/oak woodland -- so it is good edge habitat, and bobcats frequently pass through. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Finding Little Chief Hare

Little Chief Hare, monarch of the mountains 

I found them in Sierra County.

That's the best I could do with my point-and-shoot camera -- the same one (Sony s600) I use in the camera traps. 

To see how cute they really are check out Bill Schmoker's images here. 

Little Chief's rugged domain

My plan was to search for Little Chief Hare by skirting a large talus slide just visible through the red firs on Scenic Route 49. 

The women, and especially the g'daughters  were keen to see the Little Chiefs, but not if it meant climbing a talus slope. 

They had their own plan, so they sent me on my way with a pack lunch and Fred.  

Alder thickets -- potential mountain beaver habitat -- threw me off course before I reached the rocks. 

I took off my glasses and waded into the tangled sticks looking for Aplodontia's nipped twigs and burrows.  

Snow pack had laid the alder stems low, 
and newer shoots tried to correct the course to the sky.

The plant community, slope, and soil moisture seemed adequate to support mountain beavers, but there was no sign of them. 

I headed up the hill wondering if talus under the soil prevented their burrowing. 

We were in the middle of the rock slide when I heard the penetrating announcement . . . 

Pip-squeak . . . . pip-squeak . . . . 

Little Chief had us in his sights, and bolted his head forward with each couplet. 

A second Chief protested lustily and disappeared into the rubble as we approached.  

We listened to it sounding its alarm deep beneath our feet.  

Onward and upward.

Fred proved himself a surefooted talus climber, but he was the only black body on the white reflective granite, and the length of his hanging tongue started to worry me. 

He didn't want to drink from my hand. He wanted water as it poured from the bottle's spout. 

My GPS showed Deadman Lake and Peak somewhere above us, and I decided to go for it.

Deadman Lake -- one of the northern Sierra Nevada's glaciated lakes. 

Reaching the lake was kind of a Lewis and Clark moment. 

Fred cooled off, we ate lunch, and I studied my GPS topo to plan the return trip.  

Fred cooling off with bear bell in full view.

So we found Little Chief Hare, navigated to Deadman Lake, and made the return trip down a steep ravine at the east end of the talus. 

The round trip was only 2 miles and a climb of about 800 ft. 

It was a good hike, but I think camera trapping Little Chief will be hard. 

Heat and updrafts will trigger the sensor as soon as the sun hits the rock. I can expect hundreds of pictures of rocks. 

But it's still worth a try -- next year. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fred's first swim

Fred avoided water until he was 6 months old. 

Then he started to run and play in shallow water. 

At 8 months he took his first swim.

Now he's a water dog. 

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Still looking for bushy-tail

Set 270 in the granite recess 

 It looked like a good place for a bushy-tailed wood rat -- a pile of lodgepole pine cones in a sheltered recess under granite boulders at the top of a 60 foot outcrop. 

I was in red fir forest at an elevation of 6000 feet. They should be around.

Plus, there were rat pellets in there too. At least that's what they looked like.

So even though I had camera trapped the site last year, I wasn't convinced I'd seen everything it might offer -- like bushy-tail.

So I squeezed into the space one more time and made set # 270 in mid-June.

There was fresh bear scat only about 30 feet away.

Maybe the bear would poke its nose into the recess as happened a couple years ago.

But neither bears nor wood rats made a showing.

All I got were pictures of deer mice and shadow chipmunks

The search must continue.