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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The bunkhouse

Did I mention that the Chimineas Ranch has a bunkhouse?

With a swimming pool?

It has a pleasing Spanish colonial flavor, and the view from the arcade is superb in the morning as you sip your coffee.

Actually (chuckle), I'm pulling your leg.

This is the guest house. The bunks are in adjacent buildings.

The orginal adobe ranch house was built sometime before 1888, burned out in in 1941, and was rebuilt and enlarged a year later.

The pool was added in 1947, and serves its purpose quite well after a day on the range.

The Nature Conservancy and California's Department of Fish & Game showed great insight when they partnered to secure the two ranch parcels between 2000 and 2004.

Their actions insured that the land would remain in the public trust as a corridor linking the rugged Los Padres National Forest to the west (the outer coast range) with the Carrizo Plain National Monument to the east.

Chimineas Ranch, named for the old chimneys of the original adobe buildings is now owned and managed by Cal Fish & Game for wildlife conservation and research, hunting, and a sustainable approach to cattle grazing.

You can see why I like it.


Bernard, Lorna. 2007. Open range, hidden oasis. Outdoor California, Sept-October, 38(5).

Monday, September 28, 2009

A varied landscape

Juniper woodland with La Panza range in the background (part of the coast range).

A plume of pale dust had tailgated us ever since we turned off the asphalt.

It overtook us everytime I stopped to open another gate or waited for cattle to cross the road.

Not a problem.

We were off the beaten track, and wild country always lifts my spirits.

Annual grassland habitat with blue oak woodland in the distance.

Finally we arrived at the gate with the lock etched with the word ELK.

We had arrived at the Chimineas Ranch.

That was back in early June, our inaugural visit at the invitation of Bob Stafford, who directs the 31,000 acre spread for the California Department of Fish & Game.

I had written to Bob at the suggestion of Craig Fiehler, an enthusiastic young wildlife biologist who took my camera trapping workshop last year requesting permission

Bob responded favorably to my request to camera trap on the ranch and suggested that his staff biologist Craig and I do a comprehensive and scientific camera trap survey covering all habitats.

"Send me your CV, and we'll get you on board as a volunteer", which I did.

The ranch lies between the lower San Joaquin Valley and the inner coast range, spitting distance from the San Andreas Fault.

So yes, the area is geologically active.

It's been tossing and turning since the Miocene when tectonic compression started to crumple the landscape.

Biogeographically speaking its a borderland between the San Joaquin valley, the Mohave Desert, and the Coast Range.

An alluvial bench with annual grassland and juniper woodland.

In the background the Sierra Madres, part of Los Padres National Forest.

The flora and fauna is a mixture of species from each region, but they sort out by habitat.

Atriplex scrub, a combination of desert and fourwing saltbush.

The Sierra Madre in the background.

Since June we have been developing methodology, drafting proposals for additional camera traps, and gathering preliminary data.

Annual grassland with sparse juniper, and clumps of buckwheat.

Our work is cut out for us, and it is going to be fun.

Soda Lake in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

The Temblor range in the background.

The San Andreas Fault runs through the area.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

K-Rat Flats

Grassy alluvial benches with an occasional juniper and clumps of wild buckwheat.

Curious collections of grass seed -- a phenomenom of microclimate or a rodent's granary?

Burrows with aprons of fine soil and dust basins where rodents groom and clean their lax pelage.

This is giant kangaroo rat country.

Dipodomys ingens -- whether you accent the first or second syllable you gotta love the poetic name.

They are the largest of k-rats, and make a hearty meal for medium-sized owls like the long ear.

Their furry toes float on sand, and their hindlegs can catapult them as far as 6-feet.

If you ever chase a k-rat as it richochets in moonlight or the headlights of your car, you'll marvel at their nimble footwork and changes in direction.

Giant k-rats were the main food item in the long-eared owl pellets we examined a few hours earlier in the day.

And speaking of food . . . in my gangly youth the late Robert T. Orr, Curator of Birds and Mammals at the California Academy of Sciences related how he and mammalogist E. Raymond Hall once made a fine collection of k-rats in the Nevada desert.

"One afternoon we set 100 snap traps and the next morning 98 of them had rodents."

They decided to cook up those meaty veal-colored k-rats haunches.

Instead of hardwood sawdust they used cornmeal to skin the rats (either product eases the skinning and removes fat), and they saved the plump hindquarters in a coffee can which they stashed under the front seat of the car.

They forgot about it, but only temporarily.

As they were cruising the dirt roads a couple days later there was a dull thud under the car seat and they were overtaken by a powerful stench.

No one dined on k-rat haunches that trip.

Here the giant k-rat shares it habitat with kit foxes, which together with burrowing owls usually eat the rats fresh.

The prospect of photographing a kit fox lifted my spirits, but Craig warned me that it isn't ideal kit fox habitat.

So we set one camera under a juniper in the middle of the grassy plain.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Long-eared owl country

It was getting a bit toasty when we took our lunch in the shade of a juniper.

That's when we noticed the bunny tail, a gopher skull and a weathered owl pellet.

Craig's comment: this is a winter roost for long-eared owls.

When we walked up the draw a large bird flushed from one of the junipers.

The flushed bird was a loner, but according to Craig these junipers were the winter roosting area.

We caught a better glimpse of the owl a few minutes later.

It was a straggler that decided to hang around, and it might have nested in the area.

Judging from the number of rodent skulls on the ground long-ears must be thick here in the winter, and I recalled Bill Schmoker's fascinating documentation of a similar roost in Colorado.

We set our camera under a juniper in the heart of the owl roost.

Seeing the active roost this winter will be a special treat.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A couple new sets

Set 294, an arroyo in Carrizo Canyon, San Luis Obispo County

Chimineas Ranch, San Luis Obispo County

Checking and re-setting cameras took a full day.

The next day, August 19, we plied the back country roads by pickup to find areas for new sets. 

The arroyo (set 294) was bordered by a dense thicket on one side and a cliff on the other. 

A deep channel upstream dumps seasonal precipitation into the creek from time to time, but it may also serve as a travel route for wildlife.

This is a project of California Department of Fish & Game, and the department was the beneficiary of a large supply of canned mackerel that was contaminated with sand and deemed unsuitable for human consumption. 

The Department is making good use of the mackerel as bait to trap problem bears for relocation and also gave us a supply for our camera trapping survey at Chimineas. 

We punctured a can for this set and wired it to a limb over the arroyo, and we also used apple and almond scent lures. 

The set below is another shallow sandstone cave.

Fred took shelter there; the heat was really getting to the poor guy. 

When we got back to the car I had to restrain him from running up the hill to the cave again.

This cave was on a bluff near the top of a steep sandhill, and off the main chamber were a couple of narrow offshoots.

Okay, it doesn't look promising compared to the other cave and rock recess, but maybe something visits the place now and then for the view if offers of the countryside. 

We left a little castoreum there as a scent lure.

Maybe we'll get some surprises on the next go around.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Last camera trap, last hope for ringtail

The recess -- a predators lair with cattle bones.

Three of the four camera traps we had set at Chimineas had no sign of ringtail.

I've talked about two of the sets already, and I won't bore you with the deermice and woodrats that visited the third set -- a low hillside of weathered boulders.

Of more interest was the secret petroglyph, but like the ringtail, it couldn't be found. 

Our fading hope was the final location -- a v-shaped outcrop with a horizontal recess.  

It was near a dry wash at the convergence of several routes including a dirt road and something had dragged cattle and deer bones into the recess. 

Topographically it was one of those places that makes you want to climb around and explore. 

Two months ago we decided the recess was the place to set the camera. 

The problem had been anchoring the mounting post between the floor and ceiling.

I had jammed it here and there with a vague sense of self-loathing for failing to make an expandable post required by this situation. 

After wedging some rocks under the post I was satisfied it would hold as long as nothing bumped into it.

So here we were two months later.

We looked into the recess and . . .  "Noooo, tell me its not true" --  the camera was lying face down on the bedrock. 

That might not be a bad thing.

We opened the cam and looked at the pictures -- there were 138 of them taken over five days.

Not bad.

As you might have guessed ringtail was missing, but . . . .

there were several pictures of a ringtail imitator.

A wood rat had chimney-stemmed the crevice at the back of the recess. 

A male bobcat had also visited to explore the scents we had planted. 

He didn't show his face, but he made a departing gesture 11 seconds after this photo.

He sprayed urine on the left side of the wall. 

A fence lizard passed through, and one morning Lincoln's sparrow scratched about. 

Correct my id if I am wrong.   

One evening a kangaroo rat (probably Dipodomys heermanni) showed up. 

A nice surprise.

A wood rat in the background and a kangaroo rat up front. 

We weren't ready to quit this place, so we piled rocks around another camera (the one at the top of the page). 

Craig checked it last week.

There was plenty of animal sign, and maybe ringtail had been there. 

But I had set it for 24 hr pictures, a mistake.

Hot air movement triggered the camera continuously.

The card was filled with pictures of hot rocks.  

Monday, September 14, 2009

Taking a chance at Poison Water

The finished camera trap set at Poison Water

It looks like a flooded mine shaft dug by Lilliputians.

Ranchers around here excavated many of the springs, perhaps to increase flow or to make a pool.   

That's what they did at Poison Water Spring, and then they boarded it up.

The story has it that a disgruntled cattleman poisoned the spring to even the score with a competitor.

Boards truss the ceiling and keep the cattle from using it as a toilet, but perhaps the original reason was to make it off limits. 

Craig had already camera trapped here, and found the usual cast of characters.


This time we decided to put the camera inside the spring to get a bartender's view of the drinkers. 

Since daytime visitors, like lots of quail filled his camera's memory, we set the cam for night pictures only. 

It took some time to find a crack in the bedrock, but we finally managed to drive in a cut off t-post.

We were taking a chance, but it didn't look like anything as dumb as a camera trapper would venture into the deeper water. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Roadrunner in ringtail land

It's an illusion. 

Roadrunner isn't in a sandy wash, but in a wind-eroded cave in a cliff over a seasonal creek. 

A narrow and precarious path led to it. 

It looked like perfectly respectable ringtail habitat.

The cave is under the lower overhang. 

But no ringtail visited the place in 2 months. 

What did visit were a wood rat, Merriam's chipmunk,  California ground squirrel, a cottontail rabbit of all things, and the usual deer mice. 

And there were brown towhees, scrub jays, and perhaps a mockingbird that perched on the camera. 

If this isn't a mockingbird, tell me what it is.

We decided not to give up.

So we changed the batteries and memory stick to give it one more chance.

Still hopeful, we drove on to the next locations. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

Searching for Ringtail

If you see a ground squirrel here you have good eyes.

Chimineas Ranch, Carrizo Ecological Reserve

We were looking for ringtails.

There are no records of ringtails on the ranch, so we set four cameras in rocky areas over a 5 mile area.

This was the last and admittedly a hastily chosen location. 

The memory stick had filled in 6 days -- 332 photos with a success rate (# animal images/total # images) of 38%.

That's what happens when you program your controller for 24-hour shooting and you get dappled light during the day. 

False triggers from hot air. 

We got lots of  ground squirrels, pickup trucks and cattle, wood rat, valley quail and morning dove.

This one is cropped so you can see it.

The set looked a lot better at night, and I'll bet you can't see the wood rat either.

It just proves what hunters sometimes say, "What you're looking for isn't what you'll necessarily get."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A bag of bones

Three weeks of maggots, carrion beetles, vultures and coyotes have reduced the cow to a shell of skin and scattered bones.

The Carrion Cafe has passed its heyday, but it's still open for business. 

Thanks to Craig Fiehler for snapping these pictures today.

The cast of coyotes

White-tailed pup has a big head and a long tail.

The coyote photos were far from ideal for identifying individuals.

At first all the animals look alike, but soon you recognize the immature coyotes with their big-ears and puppy-like build.

After pouring over the photos  I think I can distinguish two or three adults.

I suspect these coyotes are territory holders, a breeding pair and their offspring that hang around the cattle penned near the ranch house -- the same ones that serenade us at night.   

There were two big pups, perhaps 6 months old, that differed in tail coloration.

The one above ("big-head") has a white-tipped tail, and the black-tailed pup below seems to have a shorter tail (though it could be an illusion due to posture).

Three coyotes were lankier in build, and had adult body proportions. 

One has more black markings on the tail than two other adults. 

Its the one that was photographed attacking one of the pups.

This one has a marking on the back of the right front leg, and may be same unkempt-looking animal as the one below.

But this one looks more full-bodied and may be different. 

If we get another chance to photograph at cow carrion, I'll make sure the cameras are closer to the action. 

I don't think the IR cams (=no flash) will be necessary under such conditions. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An old bold coyote

I've been revisiting the cow carcass in Photoshop -- cropping coyote images to figure out how many animals were in that family.

This coyote -- look carefully at the left side of the picture -- was bold enough to walk up to the camera and check it out. 

The camera took two photos of it 3 seconds apart.

Here it is a minute later having a snack of marinated beef jerky.  

Its body proportions tell me it's an adult, and if you look at that hind foot at the top of the page you'll see that it has a few battle scars. 

This is the first time I've had a coyote check a camera up close. 

It happens all the time with bears, which are naturally curious, but the legendary coyote usually doesn't take chances like this. 

But all coyotes aren't alike.

Eveline Sequin Larrucea and her co-workers studied the reaction of marked and radio-collared coyotes to camera traps, and found interesting differences between breeding territorial coyotes (alphas), nonbreeding resident adults (betas), and dispersing transients.

Her photos revealed leery coyotes making haste, but the fast Trailmaster film cameras and active infra-red sensors captured full body images good enough for individual identification. 

First finding of note: coyotes didn't rush in as soon as the cameras were set. 

On average the first coyote photo was taken 14 days into the 6-week trapping sessions.

Camera trap success (total # of coyotes divided by # of active camera traps) was highest for adult coyotes during March and April, and for juveniles during July and August.

Photo-captures of adults peaked at midnight, while juveniles showed more or less equal peaks   at dusk, dawn, and midnight. 

Photos of adults peaked 2-weeks after the cameras were deployed, while photos of juveniles peaked during weeks three and four.  

Social status also had its effect. 

Only three territory-holding coyotes, the resident breeders, were photographed and all between midnight and 2:30AM. 

Resident nonbreeding adults (the betas) were photographed throughout the night, while the transients were photographed most often at dawn and dusk.   

There were other differences too, but what it all boils down to is this: population estimates based on photo-capture and recapture of identifiable animals can vary two-fold depending on the time of year.

Spring estimates overestimate coyote density because transient coyotes, the ones just passing through, are vulnerable to photo-ops. 


Larrucea, E.S., P.F. Brussard, M.M. Jaeger, and R.H. Barrett. 2007. Cameras, coyotes, and the assumption of equal detectability. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(5):1682-1689.